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December 28, 2016

Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy


CloseToTheEnemy_DVD.jpg In the days following the end of WWII both the Americans and the British scrambled to obtain help from their former enemies in Germany for what they saw as an upcoming conflict with a new foe, the Soviet Union. In some cases this meant ignoring individuals' war records, up to and including involvement in war crimes. The new mini-series, Close To The Enemy, being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Acorn Media, on December 27 2016 is a beautiful and sad examination of those difficult times.

Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess) has been given the assignment of ensuring a German jet engineer helps the British not only develop their own jet engine, but break the sound barrier before either the Americans or the Russians. He is given carte blanche from the army and the intelligence services as to how he accomplishes this task.

Aside from any patriotic reasons for doing his job, Ferguson is driven by the need to make sure England is prepared for war with the Soviet Union. He had first hand experience of how Britain had been woefully unprepared for WWll and is determined to prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated.

He and his charge are set up in a once grand hotel which had come through the bombing of London almost intact. Intelligence services of all branches have been making use of the hotel as a way station for their clients since the end of the war. With Ferguson having to reside in the hotel until his job is done, it quickly becomes the main setting for the story. In this way we are introduced to the various characters who will impact upon his job and his life.

The three who have the largest effect upon him are his brother Victor (Freddie Highmore), a disillusioned ex-Foreign Office employee named Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina), and a close friend's new American bride Rachel Lombard (Charlotte Riley).

Young Victor Ferguson did not make it through the war with his mental faculties intact. He's severely traumatized and has great difficulty in dealing with the day to day realities of post war life. However, he's also extremely intelligent and cares deeply for his brother. This leads him to find out information crucial to Callum's work, information that many would have probably liked left undiscovered.
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Lindsay-Jones has a secret. His secret concerns the activities of the Foreign Office in the days just before the war and how there were those at the highest level, who while not actively working for the Germans, were at least not working against them. It had tortured him for the entirety of the war and in Callum he sees a chance for redemption.

Finally, Mrs. Lombard, is Callum's chance for a life beyond war and politics. She represents an escape from all that he sees as evil and dirty in the world and his job. Unfortunately she's also married to one of his oldest friends. It's almost as if nothing can come without some kind of moral or ethical cost - even love.

This is a beautifully acted, written, and directed mini-series. Set against the backdrop of an England trying to rebuild from one war and preparing itself for what it thinks will be the next one, we are thrust into a world where nothing is at seems. There are no longer any certainties about what is good and evil which makes everything complicated.

Individuals who should be charged with war crimes are being sheltered by Western intelligence services for the information they can provide about the Soviets, while those trying to bring them to justice are being treated as nuisances at best and dangerous enemies at worst. The lead characters try to navigate through these muddied and dangerous waters as best they can, but it's inevitable they will run aground.

The Blu-ray version of Close to the Enemy comes with bonus features including a 30 minute documentary about the making of the series and interviews with various cast members about their experiences on set. The video and audio are of the usual high quality one would expect from this format, and the show sounds and looks great played through a home entertainment system with 5.1 sound.

Close to the Enemy is another example of the potential for an extended mini-series to produce great drama. Not only are the characters developed to their fullest, but the plot unfolds before us slowly and elegantly. This is a wonderful and intelligent piece of work that shouldn't be missed.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy)

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)

September 29, 2015

Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 7


Police procedural television shows come and go in an endless blur of troubled cops and grisly crimes. However, amidst the dross a few gems shine through for the quality of their scripts and exemplary acting. Watching the Blu-ray of George Gently: Series 7 from Acorn Media, you quickly understand why this show has been consistently a cut above the rest of the field.

First of all there're the actors. Martin Shaw, Chief Inspector George Gently, and Lee Ingleby, Detective Sergeant/Inspector John Bacchus, have worked together through six previous seasons and their relationship on screen is a joy to behold. The rapport between the two is such they are able to bring extra layers of nuance to both their characterizations and interactions. Anyone who has watched the series over the years has seen a gradual evolution in their partnership as the years have passed.
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With the new character of PC (Police Constable)/Sergeant Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis entering the mix the dynamic between the two leads changes. While she had appeared in the previous series, Coles takes on a bigger role in these episodes and forces Bacchus to undergo some more attitude adjustments and growth. Especially when it comes to the way he, and police in general, treat women.

The four feature length episodes in this series are set in the transition from 1969 to 1970. English society, like the rest of the world, is going through major upheavals, and sleepy Northern Durham is no exception. As is usual for the Gently series each of the investigations is played out against a backdrop which reflects these changes. However, there's little or no preaching. Instead we are merely presented with the reality of the times and witness how the three main characters react to the situations.

From the way complaints of rape are treated by the police at the time (Gently Among The Women) to industrial pollution (Breathe in the Air) the show brings into focus the growing awareness that attitudes need to be changed in the way both are treated, Again we see how the elder Gently is far more open to change than his younger colleague. However, Bacchus isn't without a brain or his own sense of personal justice, he just takes a little longer to overcome his ingrained conditioning.

The third and fourth episodes, Gently Among Friends and Son of a Gun deal with issues unique to England. In the former the suspicious death of a local businessman is played out against the beginning of the reconstruction of Newcastle and a garbage strike which crippled the city in 1969. The latter shines a spotlight on the very unique British phenomena of skin heads.
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Nowadays we identify skin heads with neo-nazi movements. However, in 1970, a lack of jobs in major cities gave rise to a huge population of disaffected youth who started comparing themselves to slaves. Instead of being anti-black, they turned to the music of Jamaican immigrants, ska and rocksteady, which spoke of the fight to escape oppression, for inspiration and solace. Of course, it's very easy for a skilled leader to manipulate lost people with a few promises of easy escape and wealth.

In a fore taste of the race riots which would rock England in the late 1970s, we see how Gently and his team have to deal with a group of skinheads who go on a violent rampage of robbing banks under the guidance of one particularly violent individual. Further complicating matters is Gently's discovery of a personal connection to the robberies.

As is usual for this show each episode is a wonderfully crafted piece of television. Not only do they take full advantage of their 90 minute length to fully develop plots, they also add in details about the lead characters' personal lives which allows us to identify with them as people closely. Even better is how these individual problems aren't solved in a episode, or even over the course of the series. Sometimes life isn't neat and tidy and one of this series's strengths has been its ability to depict this without concessions.

George Gently: Series 7 continues the tradition of excellence we've come to expect from this exceptional police procedural. An incredible recurring cast, wonderful guest turns by great actors and fascinating scripts are still the show's hallmarks. This series is still the standard against which all other police procedurals should be judged.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: George Gently Series 7 - A Change is in the air)

July 14, 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1


Ah, the bucolic splendour of rural New Zealand: the rolling hills, the plant and animal life the sparkling waters and the dead bodies. While the surroundings do make for a picturesque backdrop, it's the latter item which is of primary importance in The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1, now available in both Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn Media. On the surface it may sound like it bears a passing resemblance to the British series Midsomer Murders, but once you begin watching you'll realize there're significant differences between the two shows.

Like most police procedural shows "Brokenwood's" action primarily centres around a supervising detective, Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neil Rea and his subordinate Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland). Each of the four episodes contained on the two discs of the Blu-ray set are close to 90 minutes each, which gives us plenty of time to get to know our two leads and for their professional relationship to develop.
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For Shepherd is initially an outsider. Brought in to check into possible police misconduct, a suspiciously botched and mishandled murder inquiry by the current Senior Sergeant in the first episode, Blood and Water, Sims is resentful of the fact he's not only taken over a murder inquiry but seems to be investigating her boss. It doesn't help that Shepherd has a couple of odd idiosyncrasies. The strangest being he talks to murder victims' corpses at the crime scene. After that his habit of playing old country music cassettes in his vintage 1970s car is merely annoying in comparison.

Over the course of the four episodes we see the working relationship between the two gradually develop and strengthen. For once he solves the initial case, Shepherd has himself reassigned to Brokenwood permanently when health forces the previous Sergeant to retire. Sims not only becomes used to his strange habits, but learns to respect and appreciate his skills as a investigator. Shephard has to gradually learn how to work well with others after years of playing the lone wolf. However, he's quick to admit his interpersonal skills aren't the greatest, as he often refers back to his three, or is it four, failed marriages (he never seems quite sure about the last fact).

The next three episodes see Shepherd settling into life in a rural community and solving some unusual murders. New Zealand's wine making community may not be as renowned as Australia's, but Brokenwood has sufficient vineyards, including Shepherd's new home, and winemakers to have their own awards. So it's a small surprise that the second episode, Sour Grapes finds a wine judge floating in a vat of wine; people have been dying in wine since Shakespeare's time after all.

While none of the episodes sound too original, there's also a golf murder, Playing the Lie and a hunting murder Hunting the Stag, what makes them so good is the characterization and the slow pace in which each episode develops. The wonderfully written and acted characters grow with each episode. There are also story lines which carry over from one episode to another, primarily from Shepherd's previous career. A couple of really good continuing support characters provide both comic relief and help to move the stories along. One is a junior detective, Constable Breen, (Nic Sampson) in the Brookenwood force. The other is Jared Morehu (Pana Hema Taylor) who operates on the borders of the law but becomes Shepherd's advisor on all things Brookenwood in the first episode and then his caretaker and vineyard worker.
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Of course they can't go through the season without a nod to New Zealand's favourite son, Peter Jackson. In the fourth episode one character's nick name is Frodo. When he comes into the station to be questioned Constable Breen asks if they should invite him through for second breakfast, only to be put off by the fact Shepherd doesn't know what the heck he's talking about.

The show's soundtrack reflects Shepherd's love of country music. However, this is great stuff performed primarily by New Zealand singer and songwriter Tami Neilson who will knock your socks off. Her voice is such she can handle everything from rocking country blues to slow numbers equally well. Not only do the songs work beautifully to fill in the transitions between scenes in the show, they add an extra dimension of depth and character to the settings incidental music isn't usually able to create.

While the special features on the Blu-ray are limited to five minute interviews with the two leads and the head writer, the show itself is the real special feature. Each episode is a well crafted and finally spun story. Like its rural surroundings "Brookenwood's" pace might be slower than other mystery shows, but it seduces you with its quiet nature and before you notice you'll be caught up in an episode and find yourself wanting more.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1)

April 2, 2015

TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece - Wolf Hall


While you might think you've seen just about as much as you could want of Henry VIII and his court on television or the movies in the last few years with The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, don't let that put you off watching Wolf Hall. Starting April 5 2015 at 10pm EST and running for six consecutive Sundays on PBS Masterpiece (check local listings for times and stations in your region) this mini series brings both the era and the people to life in a way you've never seen on the screen before.

Seen from the point of view of the man usually painted as the villain of the era, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) the series focuses on Henry's (Damian Lewis) efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had failed to produce a male heir after twenty years and he wanted to replace her with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). We also see how this led to England's split with the Pope and the beginning of his dissatisfaction with Boleyn.

Over the course of the series we watch Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, rise from being aid to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) Henry's Lord Chancellor to becoming one of Henry's chief advisors himself. Along the way he survives Wolsey's fall from grace, (he failed to convince the Pope to annul the king's first marriage so he could wed Boleyn) the death of his wife and daughters and the enmity of Thomas Moore (Anton Lesser. However, it's the Cardinal's downfall which brings him into contact with Henry and Boleyn and his rise in station and influence. For in trying to assist Wolsey in regaining the king's favour, he impresses them with his loyalty to his master, his intelligence and his abilities to get things done.
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Based on the Booker Prize Winning books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the series is a beautifully rendered, and historically accurate recounting of one of the most turbulent times in English social/political history. While other productions have been more concerned with the soap opera aspects of the era, here the focus is squarely on the political machinations of the court and the players jockeying for the king's favour.

However, don't be dismayed or put off by what might sound like a dry political drama. The creators have done a masterful job of writing and producing a show which will keep you riveted and glued to your seat. They don't spoon feed you anything, and you have to pay attention, but, in spite of the plot twists and turns and various characters to keep straight, if you let yourself fall into the rhythm of the show you'll find yourself swept up in the story.

Some people might take umbrage with the depiction of Thomas Moore in this production. He's always perviously been shown as "the good guy" who was persecuted by the King and Cromwell. Here he's seen as someone who has no problems torturing individuals he suspects of heresy or ordering them to be burned at the stake for the same crimes. In fact there's very little that's saintly about this particular version of the future St.Thomas Moore.

Of course this type of program is only ever as good as the actors playing the roles. Here, even minor roles are played by actors of quality. Of course where it really counts, the leads, the acting is superlative. You might not have heard of Rylance, he's primarily a stage actor in Great Britain, but his performance as Cromwell is one of the most complex and nuanced pieces of work I've seen in years. Look at his eyes during his conversations with other characters. Watch him watching, you can almost see the wheels turn as he figures out how to best manipulate everybody from the King to the lowliest servant.
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As Henry VIII, Lewis is equally remarkable. In fact he probably has the harder role as he has to overcome all of our preconceived notions of the king. Henry was neither stupid nor the callous philanderer he's often been depicted as. Like all royalty of the time he is firm in the belief of his right to rule, but he's also quick to recognize when someone can be of use to him. Lewis does a fine job of showing us both the arrogance and the humanity of the character. We see the petulant child who has tantrums when he doesn't get what he wants, but we also see the wit and intelligence of a man who could inspire genuine devotion among his followers.

As the axis around which all action revolves in the series, Foy's Boleyn is more than a match for her male counterparts. Not only does her performance capture the ruthlessnesses the character would need to obtain her goal of becoming queen and that she is every bit as politically adroit as the men around her, we also are allowed to see the human being behind the mask of royalty. Using her family connections, niece to one of the most powerful men at Henry's court the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), and her physical charms she creates her own power base which gives her the power to help bring about the fall of both Wolsey and Moore. Unfortunately it's the latter which helps to create the circumstances required to bring about her own downfall.

It's not often one has the opportunity to see a historical drama not only accurate down to the minutest detail, including table etiquette and manners, but brilliantly written and featuring performances by some of the best actors of this generation. Wolf Hall, airing on PBS's Masterpiece for six weeks starting Sunday April 5 2015 (check local listings for exact times) is not only all of the above, its also intelligent and entertaining. History has never looked or sounded this good on television.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece 'Wolf Hall' - Henry VIII as You've Never Seen Him)

August 2, 2014

DVD Review: Secret State


Intrigue, adventure and mystery - it sounds like the promotional line for a new adventure story or action film. However, your average Hollywood big budget extravaganza has nothing on a well told story of back room political manoeuvring for covert action, intrigue and the well placed knife in the back. If you think monsters from space or mysterious creatures from the depths of sea are frightening, they're nothing compared to the political operative who can smile to your face while contemplating your downfall. While American television has recently seen its share of political scheming, very few can compare to the British when it comes to depicting the machinations behind the scenes in government.

Of course it helps they have a few more centuries of experience to draw upon, an Officials Secrets Act which would drive conspiracy theorists on this side of the Atlantic crazy and a Old Boys network based on class which still believes in the right of titled to rule. Stir that pot of ingredients in just the right manner and you come up with something terrifying in its believability. The recently released DVD package of Secret State from Acorn Media combines the above elements with an amazing script and an impeccable cast to create almost two and half hours of spell binding television.

Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) is sent out to give his government's response to an explosion at a petrochemical plant which not only resulted in worker fatalities, but destroyed the surrounding neighbourhood. His job is to assess the damage and reassure the population his government will provide appropriate compensation. With the Prime Minister meeting with the American company who owns the plant in Huston to negotiate compensation, Dawkins is the one taking the heat from press and citizens alike. When reporter Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) lets him know the company who owns the plant had known about the problem which caused the explosion he is livid. He phones the Prime Minister on board his plane returning from America for reassurances about compensation, but during the conversation their call is cut off and then the plane vanishes.
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When the wreckage of the plane is found Dawkins is declared interim Prime Minister until a new party leader can be selected. This is where the first rounds of what will be an ongoing political battle are fought. Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ros Yeland (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Treasury Minister Felix Durrell (Rupert Graves) want the top job. However, party whip (the guy who makes sure all party members toe the line) John Hodder (Charles Dance) thinks their best bet for re-election is Dawkins.

The infighting leading up to the choosing of Dawkins as new leader is fun, but it's nothing compared to what happens after he's chosen leader and leads the party to an unexpected re-election. For while there's no denying Dawkins' appeal to the voters, he has one flaw that alienates the movers and shakers in industry, financial circles, the military and the intelligence community - he speaks his mind. Even worse, he usually tells the truth to people who don't want to hear it. Things start to really become interesting when he not only pushes to find out the truth of what happened to the Prime Minister's plane, but tries to pressure the American Petrochemical company into paying compensation to the victims of the explosion.

When Dawkins attempts to do an end run around the financial and military establishment by reaching a deal with India for financing and firing the head of military intelligence for provoking a war with Iran the moves against him go into overdrive. He is now considered a threat to the established order and in a move spearheaded by Durrell and Yeland his own party seeks to have removed from office. His life is complicated even further when the military leaks confidential information about a mission he was involved with while a peace keeper in the Bosnian conflict to the reporter Kane where half his squad was killed.

This attempt to discredit him personally is a relatively minor incident as we watch the full weight of the spy industry in Great Britain be brought to bear on him. The threads of plot and intrigue twist and turn in ways that might leave you gasping for breath. However, what will really take your breath away is how believable the show manages to make all of them seem. These aren't the rantings of some conspiracy theorist, they are stark realities about how the world works and how a few powerful people can bring down governments and orchestrate events to suit their needs.
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What's wonderful about this show is no matter how convoluted the story might sound most viewers should have no trouble keeping up with its sudden twists and turns. While there's nothing simplistic about the script, nor does it condescend to its audience by leading them around by the nose, it doesn't make make things unnecessarily complicated. It takes sufficient time to not only introduce the various plots, but also the characters involved in each strand. Once we are familiar with which characters are associated with each strand of action we can quickly identify what's going on and why. By keeping everything tightly compartmentalized until the end when everything converges we have no trouble keeping track of the net which is slowly closing around Dawkins.

What helps keeps us riveted to the screen is the cast led by Byrne. As the ex army officer who almost unwillingly steps into the job of Prime Minister, he gives one of the best performances I've seen from him. The supporting cast of Drance, Le Touzell, Graves and everybody else involved, are equally convincing. While the reptilian gaze of Drance's,character as he plots his every move to Le Touzell's and Grave's elegant way of smiling to someone's face while plotting just where to put the knife in their back are frightening, all of the performances are also realistic and believable. What's truly terrifying about most of what you watch is how matter of fact everybody is while going about the business of putting their own interests above those of the people they supposedly represent.

Chris Mullen's novel A Very British Coup was first adapted for television in 1988. In the special features included on the DVD Mullen explains why he and the producer's decided to create a new adaptation now. He's updated the story line to reflect the changing world political climate and the new pressures being brought to bear on politicians. However, as the story makes clear, as far as he's concerned some things about the British political system have never changed.

Whether you're a conspiracy theorist or not, Secret State is a compelling argument that there is always more going on behind the scenes in politics than any of us will ever know. Beautifully acted, elegantly written and seamlessly directed it is probably the best tale of political intrigue you'll ever watch. One warning, allow yourself time to sit down and watch all four episodes at once, you're not going to want to wait to find out how it ends.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Secret State)

July 19, 2014

DVD Review: Case Histories, Series 2


Some detective stories are primarily character driven while others are driven by their plots. While both ways of approaching a story can be interesting and provide satisfactory viewing for an audience, the best shows not only find a balance between the two, but somehow manage to integrate them. The term pathetic fallacy is a literary device wherein the author uses natural events to reflect what's happening in the plot of their story. In detective stories the best marriages of plot and character are those where the former holds a mirror up to the latter, reflecting some aspect of his life back at him. It might not be exactly the same as a thunder storm indicating a world out of joint, but it does help to create the kind of emotional and psychological depth required to make a show all the more realistic and intriguing.

In the second instalment of the mystery stories inspired by the writer Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, Series 2, now available on DVD from Acorn Media we see just how effectively this technique can be utilized to make gripping television. Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) is a former cop turned private investigator. Driven off the Edinburgh police force for turning in crooked colleagues he now makes his living doing everything from finding lost dogs to tracking down missing persons and solving murders. As the lead character in the series we not only follow him as he works his cases we also delve into his emotional and mental state.

He might start out with every intention of being professionally detached when investigating a case but inevitably he not only becomes emotionally involved but is reminded of his own troubled past. He can tell himself all he wants that he won't take a personal interest, but in each of the three episodes in "Series 2" (Started Early, Took My Dog, Nobody's Darling and Jackson and the Women) it doesn't take much for him to cross over the line and open his heart.
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While the first two cases begin innocuously enough, a daughter seeking out her birth mother and a young woman wanting him to check up on her fiancee to make sure he's not having an affair, in each instance his natural empathy leads him to places he doesn't necessarily want to travel. In Started Early, Took My Dog he finds himself once again immersed in uncovering the dirty laundry of the Edinburgh police as the search for the birth mother leads him back to an old case involving a murdered prostitute, the officers involved with the original investigation and the mystery of what happened to the child who was found in the apartment with the dead woman. How this case from the past relates to both his client and the death of another prostitute in the present forces Brodie into making a decision based on what he deems best for the parties involved rather than what the law and his own financial considerations demand.

In Nobody's Darling Brodie's life is complicated by his daughter's return from Australia where she had been living with his ex-wife. With her living with him temporarily we watch as he tries to negotiate both raising a girl entering adolescence and once again finding himself involved in a case which turns out to be far more complicated then he first thought. What starts out as a simple checking up on a possibly unfaithful partner, turns into an investigation of a suspicious death. Along the way Brodie also finds himself becoming the suspect in a murder inquiry when a bookie who hired him to investigate why money was going missing from his shop turns up dead. It doesn't help Brodie any that he won 60,000 pounds from the same bookie the day he was killed by placing a 1500 pound bet on a 40-1 long shot hardly anybody else had backed.

The title of the final episode of the series, Brodie and the Women, refers not only to the case he take on, but to the complicated relationships he has with the women in his own life. While a young man asks him to re-open the investigation into the death of his mother, she was originally thought to have been the victim of a serial killer, he also has to deal with the fact his assistant, Deborah (Zawe Ashton) has finally had enough of not being paid and quit, trying to reconnect romantically with his one friend on the police force Detective Inspector (DI) Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbignton) and his ex-girlfriend, Julia (Natasha Little) turning up very pregnant.
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Playing a character with as many complexities as Brodie requires an actor of singular quality. A person who can not only show subtle shifts of emotion merely with his eyes and face, but who can also wear his heart for all the world to see without descending into melodrama. As Brodie Isaacs not only allows us to witness the character's inner turmoil play out behind his eyes, he also shows us there is more than one dimension to this man. Too many actors will fixate on one aspect of their character and ride it like a wave, but Isaacs understands there is more to a person than simply their past or one emotion. Empathy does not mean just be able to feel people's pain, it also means having the ability to share joy and other positive emotions. When Brodie is happy, his whole face lights up as if he's illuminated from the inside out.

However, while Isaacs performance is enough to make the series worth watching, its more than just a one man show. The scripts work to bring out the many facets of his character through his interactions with both the people in his life and the way he reacts to the situations in his life. From the over protective father learning how to let his child grow up, the man frightened of committing to a relationship, to the person with a sense of justice based on the needs of the individual rather than what others might demand of him, the scripts allow us to see all sides of Brodie while also telling three great stories.

The special features part ot the DVD set include some fascinating interviews with the cast and crew. Of most interest is the one with Isaacs, for not only does he star in the show he is also one its producers. He's able to to give viewers a perspective on the show from both sides of the camera we don't normally hear. He covers everything from the choice of music in the film to how they developed new scripts not based on books by the author while attempting to stay true to the characters and themes she developed.

It's not often you'll find any television show, let alone something as genre specific as a mystery show, where plot and character are as seamlessly integrated as they are in Case Histories, Series 2. Not only are the mysteries Brodie attempts to solve intriguing to watch, they are a reflection of the inner turmoils he's constantly dealing with. Whether it's a case of him deliberately seeking out this type of work as some sort of redemption or whether the universe is just messing with him doesn't really matter. The result is some of the most well acted and beautifully scripted television you'll see this year.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Case Histories Series 2)

June 22, 2014

DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set 2


The troubled Private Investigator (P.I.) or police detective with a dark secret has started showing up in so many television shows and movies the role has come close to being a cliche. Troubled marriages, drinking and drug problems, intimacy issues and the old favourite post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the job seem to abound on both the big and small screens. It's to the point where they play as big a part in the stories as the actual crimes being solved these days. It's as if after years of ignoring the fact cops and P.I.s are humans, scriptwriters and producers are making up for lost time by giving them as many foibles as possible. Unfortunately this means it has now become somewhat difficult to take all these variations on the same theme seriously. They've too obviously become just another plot device.

In fact it takes a very special performance to make this type of character and the show he's featured in believable. Jack Taylor, Set 2, being released by Acorn Media on Tuesday June 24 2014 not only contains just such a performance, the three feature length episodes contained in the set create the perfect context for the character in question. Jack Taylor (Iain Glen) is an alcoholic former Garde (police officer) in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Thrown off the force for drinking and punching a politician, he's now struggling to keep his head above water taking on cases privately.

In "Set 1" we discovered he came by most of his problems because of a dysfunctional home life. His mother was a survivor of Ireland's infamous Magdalene Laundries, work houses for "fallen" young women run by the Catholic Church, and had been badly twisted emotionally by her experiences. This affected not only her own behaviour, but the way she treated her son and husband. In the first episode of "Set 2", The Dramatist, Taylor and his mom are trying to reconcile. She is recovering from a stroke she he's been on the wagon for six months. There's a beautiful scene with the two of them sitting by the water's edge, him eating yogourt for his stomach and her laughing at the idea of him trying to eat healthily.
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However, this one bit of brightness in his life is soon eclipsed by a case he's drawn into involving the apparent overdose/suicide of a young theatre student at the local university. Aside from his friend Garde Kate Noone (Nora-Jane Noone) the local police believe the death was an accident or at worse suicide. The one disconcerting element is a quote from a play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, by Irish playwright John Synge found on the girl's body and the fact she was dressed in a costume and make up. One of the professors at the university isn't convinced it was a suicide and hires Taylor to look into the matter. Along with his assistant Cody Farraher (Killian Scott) Taylor starts to investigate the young girl's life at university and the people she associated with. When a second young woman turns up dead with in a similar fashion - overdosed, dressed in costume and a quote from the same play carved into her back - the police realize the first girl was murdered as well.

While there's nothing straightforward about the case, the almost ritualistic aspects of the girls' murders bears all the indications of a serial killer at large, it takes a bitter twist at the end and dregs up some of Taylor's sordid past. However, while this case might be personally haunting for our PI, the second one in the series rips open the scab on a society wide problem in Ireland, child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The Priest starts with Taylor being asked to investigate when the body of a decapitated priest is found kneeling in front of the alter in a church. He discovers that not only had the dead man abused alter boys, he had also raped a nun. Through investigation he also discovers the horrible truth about child abuse, the crime doesn't usually end when the abuse stops and the victims are scarred for life.

This is quite a disturbing episode and probably shouldn't be watched by those recovering from abuse as it could trigger some nasty responses. However, like the entire series the episode is also handled with intelligence and compassion. It might be difficult to watch, but it makes clear the horrible nature of the crime committed against the children who suffered at the hands of those who were supposedly responsible for keeping them safe. It also shows how when the problem is ignored and the victims not treated, the repercussions can last for generations.
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The final feature in the set, Shot Down, has Taylor on the run from his guilt over something which happened in the previous episode. He's pretty much living rough and taking work where he finds it while travelling across the west of Ireland. Which is how he stumbles onto a young girl running through a forest covered in blood. It turns out she had found the body of her murdered mother and has blocked out most of her memories of the event. Taylor suspects she's also a witness to the events of her mother's death and worries her life might be in danger. He convinces her extended family of Irish travellers (gypsies) that he should hang around and try to figure out what the girl witnessed.

In dealing with helping the girl remember what happened to her Taylor is also forced to confront his what's happened to him recently. The relationship which develops between him and the child helps him overcome his guilt about those events and allows him to achieve a kind of redemption. While it's hard to describe the essence of what Taylor goes through without giving away key details of the stories being told, the arc his character travels over the course of the three episodes describes an emotional and spiritual roller coaster which has to be seen to be believed.

It takes a special kind of actor to bring this life and Glen, with his craggy face and whisky steeped voice, is phenomenal in the role of Taylor. He's not afraid to show us all aspects of the man he plays, his weaknesses and his strengths. While we are able to sympathize with some of the things Taylor goes through, Glen also manages to show us how he has a drunk's penchant for self pity and denial. However, there has to be a reason people like Garde Noonan and his assistant Farraher don't give up on him, and Taylor also manages to show us the heart of the good man who beats beneath the crumpled, slightly degraded exterior.

Jack Taylor, Set 2 might be shy on special features, an interview with one of the directors about the show and some photo galleries, but its compelling and well acted television. The stories are drawn from the gritty realities of Irish life, not from the romantic notions of green hills and folk songs. They might be hard to watch at times yet there is no denying the power of the stories and the strength of the cast. While all the actors involved do a wonderful job in their roles, the reality is they are merely satellites in orbit around Glen's stellar work in the lead role. There aren't many opportunities to see a tour de force performance these days, but Glen as Taylor will have you leaning into the screen watching his every move and listening to his every word.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set Two)

June 4, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2


While some countries are known for exporting raw materials and others for manufactured goods, Australia is rapidly becoming known for the fine crop of actors it produces. With amazing numbers of quality performers at their disposal, it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise they also produce an incredible quantity of great television. Even television studios in the US have started taking noticeby paying them the ultimate compliment of making their own version of one Australia's funniest shows, Rake.

While some of the actors in the various Australian shows are unknown to most North American audiences, Jack Irish Set 2 stars an actor who has been popping up on North American movie screens for quite some time now, Guy Pearce, in the title role. Released by Acorn Media, this second Jack Irish release comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with each disc containing the feature length episode Dead Point.

For those who missed "Set One", Irish is a former barrister who quit practicing the law after his wife was murdered by one of his clients. He now works as a mix of private investigator/fixer who finds peace of mind working in a carpentry shop as an apprentice. While still haunted by images of his wife's murder, he's doing his best to get on with his life and has begun an on again off again relationship with a journalist, Linda Hillier. (Marta Dusseldorp) As Dead Point begins they are in the process of trying to restart their relationship and wondering about making a commitment to each other. However, no matter how much he wants it to, the past just won't leave Irish alone.
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His former father-in-law, Justice Logan, (Barry Humphries) is being blackmailed in an effort to ensure he doesn't release a report on the connections between drug trafficking and the Melbourne shipping yards. Initially Logan had asked Irish to find the person blackmailing him, but when that guy turns up dead, Irish then has to try and track down the incriminating evidence. The trail leads Irish down some very twisted paths into the seamier side of Melbourne society and private clubs catering to the very rich.

At the same time Irish is also trying to solve who tried to rip off his horse racing associates, Henry Strang (Roy Billing) and Cam Delray (Aaron Pederson). Strang and Delray play fast and loose with the racing laws and are a far different breed of people than Justice Logan. Strang is an old school crook, lives and works to a code based on respect, while Delray is his muscle. So when a woman who works for them is robbed and badly beaten, they enlist Irish's aid in tracking down the men who assaulted her and stole money she had been carrying for them.

Strang and Delray not only act as a sort of comic relief, they also serve as a contrast to the sordid nature of the other case Irish is working on. For while they might be crooks, they make no bones about who they are and make for a refreshing change to the filth Irish finds himself swimming in trying to track down Justice Logan's blackmailers. Billing and Pederson manage to strike just the right tone in their portrayals of Strang and Delray respectively to make us both like and enjoy watching them onscreen. You can see why Irish, the former lawyer, appreciates their company in spite of their profession. Not only do they pay well, he knows he can trust them completely and they can be counted on to be there if he needs help. Two commodities that have been in short supply in his life recently.
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As Irish Pearce does some of the best acting of his career. Perhaps it's because he's finally been given a role which allows him to show off his depth and range as a performer. Irish is a multifaceted and complex character dealing with a multitude of issues. Pearce does a great job of managing to bring out all aspects of his personality, allowing us to see both the darkness he's carrying with him from the past and the hope he has for the future. Pearce has gained a certain amount of gravitas as he's aged, and this imbues his performance with an emotional depth that was missing from his work when he was younger. Watching him in this series is to see an actor who is completely comfortable in his own skin delivering an apparently effortless performance that's a joy to watch.

The great thing about these feature length episodes is how it gives the creators of a series plenty of time to develop a show's characters and plot lines. In Dead Point they've done a fine job of balancing and weaving together Irish's personal life and the two separate cases he's working on. None of them are given short shrift, and each make a significant contribution to our understanding of Irish and the world he lives in. It might be dark and seedy in places, but its not without light. The show's plots mirror the contrasts in his life and through solving the crimes he's asked to investigate he also seems to be resolving his personal issues.

The Blu-ray disc of Jack Irish, Set 2 is up to the format's usual high audio and visual standards, so looks and sounds great through a home theatre system. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray contain the same special features, a series of behind the scene clips of various scenes from the show. If you're interested in that sort of thing, watching how scenes are set up and filmed, than you will probably enjoy them, but they don't really give you any information about the making of the show. However you shouldn't let this deter you from buying this disc, as the quality of the show far outweighs anything special features have to offer.

In recent years the world has begun to discover just how much talent resides in the island country of Australia. Their actors have been gracing stages and screens around throughout the rest of the world for the last couple of decades. Now, more and more of them are returning home to take part in movies and television shows being produced in their own country. With great acting, amazing scripts and production quality second to none, some of the best television is being made Down Under. Jack Irish, Set 2 is the latest example of how good television can be when people put their minds to it.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2)

May 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2


At the end of WW l a great deal of the world seemed to decide the time was right for a very large party. The decade that followed, which has since come to be known as the "Roaring 20s", was not just a time of wild abandon and decadence, although there was plenty of that, it was a period of increased liberties both socially and artistically. Having seen the ruling classes push them into a conflict which caused so much death and carnage, the younger generation rebelled against the standards which their parents had lived by. Life was far too precious to be wasted on worrying what others might think of you.

This era is brought to life in all its flamboyant colour in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 from Acorn Media. Another of the great series being produced by Australian television, the show follows the exploits of one of the new breed of women the 1920s threw up, Miss Phyrne Fisher (Essie Davis) Lady Detective. Independently wealthy, all the male heirs to the family fortune were killed during the war and she inherited, she devotes her life almost equally to enjoying herself and solving mysteries. If along the way she also happens to open people's minds to the fact a woman is every bit as capable as a man, well that's just a bonus.

While each episode in the series is nominally about solving a murder, they also manage to address social issues particular to Australia at the time. Whether a veteran suffering from what was then know as shell shock, what we'd call post traumatic stress disorder, post war anti-German sentiment, temperance, or the rights of women, they are each dealt with in a serious and compassionate manner. What's even better is how the show's creators have managed not to impose an early 21st century morality on the issues, but are able to make the character's perspectives and observations realistic to the time and place.
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However, what really distinguishes this show from other detective/mystery shows, are the characters and the continued development of their interrelationships. Not only are the characters well written, each of them continue to evolve as the series progresses. As main the foil for Miss Fisher Inspector Jack Robinson Nathan Page of the Melbourne police not only has to deal with her involvement in the various crimes they wind up investigating together, he also has to come to grips with their developing personal relationship.

In the first series we saw the beginnings of their relationship, and now the writers have taken it a couple of steps further. First of all we meet people out of Robinson's past, his ex-wife and ex-father-in law, who also happens to be his direct superior in the police force. When a couple of cases, including a superb one dealing with the issue of a Melbourne based Madeline Laundry (basically a world wide series of workhouses run by the Catholic Church for "fallen" young women) bring Robinson and Fisher into contact with these people from his former life it creates a different level of tension in their relationship then had previously existed. There relationship is further complicated when Robinson is forced to confront the depth of his feelings for Fisher because of an incident which occurs during the investigation of one crime in particular.

What's wonderful about all of this is how the writers have both characters handle the changing circumstances. Neither of them change their behaviour or their approach to life, but they develop an increased respect for the other's feelings. Watching this progression over the course of the thirteen episodes of Series 2 is an example of the show's quality. It's truly remarkable to see how these changes are incorporated effortlessly into each murder investigation without ever taking away from the action or plot at hand.

Of course both Robinson's and Fisher's able right hands are still around. Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Dorothy (Dot) Williams. (Ashleigh Cummings) Like their bosses both their relationship and their characters undergo a substantial development over the course of the second series. While they are both far more conventional than either of the people they work for, we watch as they both grow as people based on the experiences they've gained.
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It may sound like the actual murders of the title "Murder Mysteries" might be secondary to the drama among the show's lead characters. However, while there may be some truth to that in a couple of the episodes, the writers have managed to create the perfect balance between the sub-plots involving the characters and the actual solving of the various crimes. Even in those episodes where the plots seem a little weaker, the actors' abilities and the force of their character's personalities makes each one a pleasure to watch. Davis and Page in particular give wonderfully multi-layered performances. I think you could watch them recite the phone book with pleasure. You'll definitely find yourself wanting to see more of them in the future.

The three disc Blu-ray edition of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 also includes special features which will delight fans of the show. Of special interest are interviews with most of the cast during which they talk about their characters and what it's like to shoot the show. At one point Davis confesses to being terrified of some of the jewellery she wears as her character as they are genuine pieces worth a small fortune. (Those are real emeralds she's wearing, not fakes made for the show) Being a Blu-ray of course means both the audio and video are wonderful and the show looks and sounds great through a home theatre system.

Everyone knows Australia and New Zealand are capable of making great films (Lord of the Rings, Picnic At Hanging Rock) but we're just beginning to find out the same goes for their television productions. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a great example of how they manage to create shows which are not only technically on par with anyone else, but can also match up artistically with what the rest of the world has to offer. In fact, judging by Miss Fisher and other shows I've seen, they usually outshine most of what we see on our televisions on a regular basis.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2)

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)

March 19, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom


I remember asking my mom as a kid in the 1960s why we didn't ever have Granny Smith apples in the house. She replied that she refused to buy anything from South Africa because of what the government did to its people. As the years passed and I became more aware of the world around me, I began to understand why my parents refused to buy anything which came from South Africa. However it wasn't until the 1980s I first heard the name Nelson Mandela. By the time he had become the rallying point for anti-apartheid activists around the world he had already been in jail more then 20 years. For us living outside South Africa he became more than a man, he was a symbol of all that was wrong with what was a corrupt system.

When he was released and began the slow painful business of trying to rebuild his country he became even more than a symbol, he rose in status to that of almost an icon. While the transition from white majority rule was not without violence, somehow, through force of personality and leadership he was able to make it far more peaceful than anyone could have had a right to expect. After more then fifty years of oppression African anger at their former rulers could have spilled over into horrible acts of vengeance.

Yet, after all his accomplishments and his extraordinary life, few of us know much about Mandela aside from those bare facts listed above. The movie, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, now available on Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, and based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name, attempts to fill in some of the blank in our knowledge and give us a more complete picture of the man.
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Starring Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Haris as Winnie Mandela, the movie traces his life from childhood through to his election as the first African president of South Africa. While there are some noticeable gaps in the story, there's nothing about how he managed to do the next to impossible of gaining a law degree, the movie does the best it can to show us how he went from being a lawyer to becoming one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and one of the most wanted men in South Africa.

We also see how he made a mess of his early personal life. His political activism ended his first marriage when his wife became sick of his never being home and his occasional affairs with other women. However, it also shows us how as he became more committed to the cause of working for the freedom of his people, he also began to mature as a person. So when he met his second wife, Winnie Mandela, the relationship was initially far smoother. It helped that Winnie was just as committed to the cause of African freedom as he was, and supported his efforts.

In fact, one of the things I appreciated most about the movie was its depiction of Winnie Mandela. There were a lot of things said about her and her split from her husband in the early 1990s that weren't exactly pleasant. However, in the movie we see the torments she was subjected to by the South African police while her husband was in jail. We see her being beaten, tossed into solitary confinement for sixteen months and left to wonder what has become of her children. Harris does an amazing job of portraying Winnie's transformation from a loving wife and fun loving woman into an angry and vengeful woman who desires only to fight back against those who took her life away from her. As she says to her husband upon one of her rare visits to the Robben Island Prison, "it's my hate that keeps me going".
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As Mandela Elba, does a magnificent job of capturing both the man's humanity, and his amazing charisma. Even in his early days as a lawyer defending his black clients in the white court rooms we see how he uses a combination of intelligence and humour to fight an unjust system. We also see how he gradually transforms from working towards a peaceful resolution to the problems of his country to taking up arms against the government. While you can see a gradual build up in his anger, the tipping point for him came during the demonstrations against the imposition of the pass laws in 1960 when police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the township of Sharpeville killing 69 unarmed people.

After three years of planting bombs Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership were caught and sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island in 1963. While the movie does bog down a bit during his term in prison, how much can you say about the interminable boredom and misery of hard labour and prison life, it tries its best to give an accurate depiction of the life these men had to endure. Cut off from their families and outside world almost completely they know almost nothing of what's happening in the world beyond their walls. While the movie does try to keep us informed, the clips they use aren't really enough to give us more than a general impression of violence and upheaval. I know the movie is supposed to be a history of the man, not the struggle, but as the two became inseparable in most people's minds it might have been good to show a little bit more of what was happening while he was in jail.

However, in spite of some minor drawbacks, the movie does a remarkable job of depicting Nelson Mandela as a man and not just an icon. I think a lot of the credit for that must go to Elba, who manages to not only imbue Mandela with the indomitable spirit the world came to recognize and admire, but the humanity few of us ever saw. Elba is shows us how Mandela was able to overcome his personal pain and anger to see the need to create a country where all were treated the same no matter the colour of their skin. It is a remarkable performance, and combined with the work of Harris as Winnie, more than compensates for any weakness in the script.

The Blu-ray edition of the movie (the package I was sent includes Blu-ray, DVD and a code to download a digital version) comes with the usual compliment of special features; director's (Justin Chadwick) commentary, a making of featurette, and a tribute video gallery. While the latter doesn't really add much to our knowledge of the Mandela, the featurette has some interesting interviews with Elba, Harris and director Chadwick which tell how they felt about making the movie and the process they each used in its creation.

Nelson Mandela was the face of the fight for freedom in South Africa. Turning that kind of icon into a human being is a nigh on near impossible job. However the movie Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom comes as close as is probably possible. This is a man around whom the whole world rallied, and this movie helps fill in some of the blanks in the picture we have of who he was and how he became the revered figure we remember today.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)

March 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Come Back Africa, The Movies of Lionel Rogosin Volume 2


Documentary movies always seem to get short shrift. For too many people there the things people tell them to watch at school so they will learn something. Growing up on a diet of talking heads sitting around talking about subjects you're not really interested in would turn anybody off watching them. Which is highly unfortunate, as there are documentary movies out with just as much action and excitement as anything the studios could ever come up with. In fact, they are even more intense when you remember what you're watching actually happened.

The rather unfortunate shunning of this genre of film making has led to some of the more innovative directors and producers being ignored or forgotten. One of the most brave and innovative American documentary makers was probably someone most of you have never heard of, Lionel Rogosin. After returning from fighting in Europe in WW ll he was determined to continue the fight against oppression and intolerance in some way. Even though he had never directed or had anything to do with film before, he decided it would be the best way of communicating to the largest number of people at once. His first movie, On The Bowery, a documentary about the down and outs in New York's lower east side, won the Grand Prize for documentary films at the Venice Film Festival and The British Film Academy Award in the same category in 1956.

But injustice was what he wanted to depict, not just cinema verite, and he created two landmark movies which dealt with the circumstances of two groups of people dealing with systemic racism: Africans in South Africa in the late 1950s, Come Back Africa and African Americans in the early 1970s in Black Roots. These two movies have now been restored and packaged together in a special Blu-ray presentation by Milestone Films under the title Come Back Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume ll.
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Come Back Africa was shot on location in South Africa and is a mix of documentary and docu-drama. Due to the fact he had to lie to the government about what he was filming in order to get permission to shoot, Rogosin and his crew had to shoot hundreds of feet of footage they would never use. The rest of the time they had to make sure they were not being observed and shot most of the film on the fly or in locations they knew were secure. They also had to use amateur actors due to the risk of informers. According to the documentary about the making of the movie included as one of the special features, Rogosin and his wife showed up in Johannesburg and were fortunate enough to meet several white members of the African National Congress and Africans who were willing to help them with the script and finding locations.

In order to attempt to tell the world the reality of the indignities of Apartheid they decided to focus on the plight of one man and his struggles to find work and what he and his family had to put up with in order to survive. We follow the one character through a variety of work and living situations, including making a trip down into the gold mines with the workers. While we are now overly familiar with the horrors of the Apartheid system of segregation and the manner in which it dehumanized Africans, in the 1950s this would have been a brutal revelation to the rest of the world. On the other hand it was also the first introduction people outside of South Africa had to the music of the townships. (One of the excuses Rogosin gave to the South African government for making the film was telling them they were documenting the music of the "natives" to show how happy they were in their lives).

The film was shot entirely on location in Sophiatown, the black ghetto which had been home to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela, plus many of the actors and script writers who were involved in the films creation. At the time of the filming it was a centre of Black culture and activism. It was also on the verge of being destroyed by the South African government. Shortly after filming finished all the residents were forcibly evicted and the township razed and replaced with white only housing.

Instead of imposing a script upon his African cast, Rogosin gave them scenarios and let them improvise their own dialogue so they could create as accurate a picture as possible of their lives. The scenarios themselves were based on events the cast had actually lived through and in spite of their lack of experience they were able to impart these scenes with a verisimilitude you'd never find in a scripted movie or regular style of documentary. It might be raw and a bit awkward at times, but there can be no denying the power of what you're watching.
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Of course the irony of this being filmed at the same time the battle against segregation in the US was just starting to really heat up isn't easy to forget. Ten years after making Come Back, Africa Rogosin made the second feature included in this package, Black Roots, which is a kind of oral history of African Americans told in words and music by a couple generations of African American musicians. Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Larry Johnson, Wende Smith, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy and others simply sit around in front of the cameras exchanging stories and singing songs relating ot the horrors of the African American experience in the 20th century.

They tell stories about everything from witnessing lynchings by the Klan to how their sharecropping families would work all season picking cotton and then not be paid a cent for their labour as the dealers would rob them blind. The songs they play range from old Leadbelly country blues numbers to more modern angry songs. Collier singing the lines "If I can't live my life in freedom/ I'll burn the whole place down" is a reflection of the state of African American anger at the time. After hearing their stories you may begin to have an inkling why patience was wearing so thin among their communities. Not only had their best leaders been killed or arrested, they had lived lives of horrible indignity for hundreds of years. I'd be pissed at any white liberal telling me change takes time if I had experienced even a modicum of what they and their families had endured.

Considering these films were both shot on film and the prints have been laying around for ever, both the sound and the visual quality are much better than you'd expect. While it's obviously not going to be up to the standards most people are used to, they were both still of a better quality than any number of movies I've seen put into digital format. However, even more important is how these films are still relevant today. While they are over fifty and forty years old respectively, both are not just important historical documents, they also put current conditions in both North America and South Africa (and any other place where indigenous and other populations have been oppressed by a majority or minority) into their proper context. When you see and hear the stories being told in either of these movies you might begin to understand how much further both societies have to travel before they can even begin to make redress for the past.

These two movies are examples of the power film has to tell stories and impart information in a way no other medium can approach, Watching these two examples of Rogosin's work lets you see the potential there is in cinema for effecting change, and how its power is being wasted by those who see it only as the means for making money. Documentary movies can be every bit as emotional and passionate as any other kind of movie, and what makes them even more frightening is they are telling the truth. No horror movie Hollywood churns out can match the fear and loathing either of these documentaries generate in their audiences.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Come Back Africa: The Movies of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2)

January 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Harder They Come


While it might surprise some people, there was a time when hardly anyone in North America knew what reggae music sounded like. Of course this was back in the dark ages of the early 1970s. For most people in North America their introduction to reggae came via Bob Marley and the Wailers. However, some us discovered its joys from an another source, the soundtrack album from the 1972 movie The Harder They Come. While some of the songs were in mono, and some of the recordings weren't of the highest quality, the music represented a broad cross section of music that had been or was being produced in Kingston Jamaica at the time.

Names like Desmond Decker, Toots and The Maytels and others with equally exotic sounding names, some whose music would never be heard again (according to the liner notes on the LP one of the artists on the album was in jail and one was on death row at the time of its release). However, the man whose career both the LP and movie really helped kickstart was both the movie's star and the singer and writer of the best songs on the soundtrack, Jimmy Cliff. Ironically, while the soundtrack to the movie has been fairly easy to come by since its release, actually seeing the movie has been another matter all together.

Thankfully, its now being made available for audiences through the online digital service VHX and i-Tunes through a distribution deal with Syndctd Entertainment. I say thankfully, because I've been wanting to see this movie for decades and having finally been given the chance, I can say not only wasn't I disappointed, it actually exceeded my expectations.
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The movie follows the life of Jimmy Cliff's character Ivan from the moment he leaves his life in the country to try and begin something new in Kingston, Jamaica. While his eyes are filled with stars and hopes for the future, he gets off to a bad start when all his possessions are stolen almost the minute he gets off the bus. It's not a very promising start for the young man, and it also foreshadows much of what will happen to him in the future. For Ivan discovers, no matter what he tries, the odds are stack against him of ever getting ahead.

While he dreams of becoming a famous musician he discovers that's not going to be the road to fame he thinks it is. When he is able to finally record his song he finds he either has to take the record companies lousy deal of selling it for $20.00, or nobody will ever hear it played. Even when he turns to selling marijuana to make a living he finds things just as stacked against him. The system is tightly controlled by the police and their chosen dealers. When he begins to demand more of a share of the profits for himself and his fellow distributers he's branded a trouble maker. He becomes a genuine outlaw when he shoots the police officers sent to bring him in and teach him a lesson. Ironically, as his outlaw/hero status grows sales of his record increase making him even idol for the poor and oppressed of Kingston's shanty towns.

The movie plays out like a cross between the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the day and an exercise in social realism. Cliff's character is not a likeable person. He's not really interested in anything except getting ahead, or as the song "The Harder They Come" says, "So as sure as the sun will shine/I'm going to get my share now of what's mine/And then the harder they come the harder they fall one and all". While the song's lyrics might sound like a rallying cry for the poor and oppressed to demand their rights, in the context of the movie and the character of Ivan it's not quite so altruistic. Ivan wants his chance at the good life, just like everyone else. The big cars, the flashy clothes and the idolization of the masses. He wants celebrity.

While he might not get celebrity, he gets the next best thing, notoriety. When his name is splashed all over the newspapers as Kingston's most wanted for killing three cops his only comment is, "See I told you I'd become famous". What's frightening about this is how much it foreshadows what's to come in the inner cities of North America. How whole generations of inner city young men, and women to some extent, have been forced to follow the same path of greed and violence by a society which offers them no alternatives. How's a person like Ivan supposed to react to a culture which tells him a man's worth is measured by what he is able to amass materially?
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He has a real talent and the hopes and dreams that come with it. When he discovers his talent only exists for others to exploit, and he won't reap any of its benefits, he naturally becomes bitter and looks for a way to get his own. The system seems to designed to keep him and everyone else like him in their place and make sure the wealth only stays in the hands of the few. Ivan's descent, or ascent, depending on how you look at it, into the role of the outlaw, is almost out of his own hands. As soon as he makes the decision to demand a larger share of the pie, whether from his music or from drug money, his fate is sealed.

One thing anyone who watches this newly remastered version of the movie will quickly become aware of is the inconsistency of its quality. Unfortunately we're talking about a movie which was filmed over forty years ago and under less than ideal conditions as it was made on location in Kingston. I've a feeling this cut was pieced together from various prints of the film in order to try and make it as good as possible. However, the final result appears a little piecemeal. For instance, some of the scenes contain sub-titles while others don't (Most of the characters speak Jamaican patois with thick accents) and there doesn't appear to be any reason for their disappearance from one frame to the next. At other times the image quality changes radically from scene to scene, with the picture being washed out in one frame and clean the next.

However, you shouldn't let these technical anomalies deter you from shelling out the few dollars required to stream and download this movie. In some ways they actually give the film a stamp of authenticity. This is a raw and gritty depiction of life in the shanty towns of Kingston Jamaica where nothing is smooth or polished. There's nothing glamourous or sexy about the life these people lead, or the violence they are forced into. The movie's roughness around the edges ensures there's no chance of forming the wrong impression. You won't find any glorification of violence or the accumulation of wealth here, just an accurate depiction of how lives are ruined by both.

Of course, one of the biggest draws of the movie is still the soundtrack. This isn't the reggae were used to hearing either, it's what some would refer to as roots reggae I guess. It's rawer, and more pop influenced than what Marley and others made popular. However, it was the sound of Kingston in 1972. Some of it we only hear incidentally, over the radio, while some of it is played as part of the soundtrack, but all of it helps build the atmosphere of the desperate life these people were leading in the early 1970s. The slums of Kingston were the crucible which gave reggae its shape and its context, and the music heard in this movie shows its birth pangs and what it had to fight against in order to be heard.

After seeing this movie you'll gain a better understanding of just why Marley is such a cultural icon in Jamaica and why Peter Tosh was assassinated by unknown gunmen for being so outspoken. Reggae was the sound of hope for a better future and reflected the fears and ambitions of the poorest people in Kingston. Watching The Harder They Come gives you a pretty damn good idea of how this came about. Not only is it an interesting and well told story, its just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. For all those who wonder where the disaffected youth willing to turn themselves into walking bombs come from, watching this movie will tell you all you need to know.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Movie Review: The Harder They Come)

January 7, 2014

DVD Review: Broken


There are some books you always remember for the way in which they opened your eyes to the world around you. They might have stripped away your innocence in the process, but they also reassured you that no matter how bad things could get, there were always some people doing their best to bring some balance to the world. The first book I remember providing me with that experience was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Its harsh depiction of the American South in the 1930s of hatred and racism were mitigated by the simple beauty of the coming of age story it told. It's one of those books you can still read today and find it as relevant as when it was first published in 1960.

If anyone had any doubts about the durability of Lee's book and the theme's it expresses, you need look no further than the film Broken which was recently released on DVD from Film Movement. Transferred from the American South to suburban England and from the 1930s setting of the original to the present day, Broken uses much the same form and structure of "Mockingbird". Both feature a single father lawyer raising two children with the help of a live in nanny, and the eleven year old girl, Skunk, (Eloise Laurence) being the main character whose eyes we see the world through.

However, while wrongful accusations of sexual misconduct do play a significant role in propelling the movie's story as it did in the book, the themes the movie explores are quite different from those the book deals with. The movie is also far more complex than the original story and nothing is as cut and dried as we'd like it to be or as first impressions might lead us to believe. As the movie progresses and our understanding of the characters involved increases we begin to understand, as Skunk does, there's a lot more to people than what meets the eye. Actions, which taken out of context might seem senseless, while still not completely rational or normal, are at least explainable.
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Skunk and her family, her father Archie (Tim Roth) brother Jed and au pair Kasia live on a cul de sac in North London with two other families, the Oswalds and the Buckleys. The Buckley's son Rick (Robert Emms) suffers from some undisclosed mental illness. Unlike the other two families, who are obviously professional class, the Oswalds, father Bob (Rory Kinnear) and his three daughters are at first glance, for lack of a better word, white trash.

The movie opens with Skunk witnessing what seems like a completely unprovoked brutal attack on Rick by Bob. Skunk is standing in the middle of the road talking to Rick about washing his father's car, when we see Bob come storming out of his house ripping his shirt and tie off. While completely focused on his target he greets Skunk as he passes her and then proceeds to beat Rick up. The next thing Skunk sees is Rick being taken away by the police. What Skunk doesn't know is what led up to the events.

Bob's fourteen year old middle daughter has been playing with a condemn she'd stolen from her eldest sister's purse. Knowing her father would be furious with her for having a condemn, and not wanting to get her sister in trouble either, when he discovers the wrapper in her room she claims Rick used it when he had sex with her. The recently divorced and overly protective Bob goes ballistic, beats up Rick and then phones the police to charge him with having sex with a minor. When it's discovered the girl is still a virgin the charges against Rick are dropped, but his imprisonment results in him regressing and ending up having to be institutionalized.

Against this background Skunk is also having to negotiate the tricky business of heading into her first year of the British equivalent of secondary school and her first boyfriend, Dillard. She also has to experience watching somebody whose she's come to think of as a permanent fixture in her life walk out as her au pair breaks up with her long standing boy friend Mike (Cillian Murphy). However, the fear and unease she feels about her first day of school is somewhat mitigated when she discovers Mike is one of her teachers. Unfortunately she also runs afoul of an extortion ring run by Osbourne's youngest and eldest daughters, the consequences of which send shockwaves through her entire community.

Like the book it is freely based on Broken is a deceptively simple sounding story. On the surface it can be seen as a coming of age of story in which the scales of innocence begin to fall from the eyes of a young girl. Yet the title itself is also a key to understanding the actions of the film's characters as we gradually realize how most of their behaviour is dictated by how they've been broken by life and circumstances. All the events of the film occur because of a character's fear based on their life experiences which have left them damaged in some way. Those who initially come across as unsympathetic are revealed to be just as damaged as those who we feel sorry for in the beginning.
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What makes this work so well is the universal excellence of the performances. Laurence, who had never acted prior to appearing in this role, is brilliant as Skunk. Her reactions to everything she sees are letter perfect and she comes across as one of the most real children I've ever seen on screen. Gawky, slightly geeky, but excited by life, she does a magnificent job of depicting the child turning into an adult. She manages to bring to life both the anger and fear she feels at the adult world she doesn't understand and her excitement at entering this new world and all the while retaining the enthusiasm and naivety of the child she still is.

As her father Archie, Roth gives one of his most understated and powerful performances. Normally an actor we associate with a variety of twitches and near neurotic behaviour, here he delivers a beautiful and powerful portrait of a devoted father whose life revolves around his children. When his wife abandoned him with two children he obviously poured all his love into them, and shut himself off from feeling anything for anybody else. It comes as a complete surprise to him when he discovers he can actually have feelings for someone other than his kids. However, he doesn't realize the impact beginning a relationship with his children's au pair will have on Skunk. He doesn't realize how much she fears it might end up result in another person leaving her.

One of the best performances in the film comes from Kinnear as Bob Osborne. Over the course of the film our image of him as a violent bully gradually evolves into a man desperate to protect his family from a world he's seen fuck him over totally. Unlike his neighbour Archie who is able to demonstrate his love for his children through affection, Osborne, can only use his anger as a shield to protect them. When they are threatened or hurt he lashes out uncaring of the consequences following his instinct to keep them safe in only way he knows how. Kinnear does an amazing job of bringing all the different facets of this deeply troubled and broken man to life. We might not like his behaviour, but we can't help but be sympathetic to the the depth of his passion and the very real love he feels for his children.

Broken is one of those wonderful movies that come along only once in a while. Not only is it beautifully written and acted it's a multilayered story which works on a number of levels. We see the world from the perspective of children trying to make their way in a strange and sometimes confusing adult world and from that of the adults trying to understand what their children are going through. While there are moments of heartbreak and sporadic violence throughout the film, overall it is also a beautiful story of compassion and love. You might not see a better or more well acted movie this year.

(Article original published at Empty Mirror as Film Review: Broken, starring Tim Roth & Cillian Murphy)

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)

September 19, 2013

Television Review: The Hollow Crown (William Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1&2 and Henry V


Probably the hardest theatre to bring to the screen are the works of William Shakespeare. Due to the material's intrinsic theatrically it's almost impossible to escape the fact they were designed to be seen on stage. However this has not prevented many people from attempting to adapt his work to the screen with varying degrees of success. So I was intrigued to learn about a new British mini series called The Hollow Crown being broadcast on the PBS program Great Performances. Comprised of four of Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V the series is an example for film makers to come on how to adapt Shakespeare for the stage.

Being telecast on four successive Friday nights, September 20, 27, October 4 and 11 2013 at 9:00 pm EST (check local listings for broadcast times and dates in your area) each of the four manages the nearly impossible task of bringing the plays to life as films while still remaining true to the spirit of their original theatricality. Of the four, Henry V, is probably the most well known while both Richard II and Henry IV Part 2 are considered two of Shakespeare's more difficult plays. In fact, the former is so rarely performed even on stage I've only ever heard of it being produced once during my lifetime.
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Of course the key to success in any performance of Shakespeare is the cast, and the directors of this series seemed to have suffered from an embarrassment of riches when it came to the actors at their disposal. When even the supporting and minor roles are played by actors recognizable to most of the viewing audience, people who under other circumstances find themselves in lead roles, you know the cast is talented. The standard for all others to try and match is set right from the start by Ben Whishaw as Richard II. His performance as the doomed king is incredible to watch. What does with his voice, the emotional range, the changes in pitch conveying anything from anger to fear within the same phrase, and his control has to be heard and seen to be believed.

As the man who deposes him Rory Kinnear as Bolingbrook, Duke of Lancaster and the future Henry IV, does his best to match Whishaw, but in reality doesn't have as much to work with. His character is ruled by circumstances and he finds himself caught up in the sweep of events. He does a fine job of depicting a man who all of a sudden finds himself out of his depth and struggling to find his feet. You really have the feeling it was never his intent to usurp Richard, but things just spiral out of his control until it's too late.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare gives hints about what will happen during Henry IV's reign. Various characters say things like the land will be steeped in blood or those who helped you to the throne won't be satisfied with what they receive in return. While you might think these are simply the reactions of soar losers trying to unnerve the new king, you'd be wise to heed their words.

Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 are in equal parts about the latter years of Henry IV's reign and the coming of age of his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddlestion). In Part 1 young Hal is a wastrel and the bane of his father's existence. He spends the majority of his time avoiding any and all responsibility and in the company of the thief, braggart and drunk Sir.John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). The king (Jeremy Irons) is so disappointed in his son, when he hears of the exploits of the son of the Duke of Northumberland - also named Hal but usually referred to as Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) he actually asks God why he gave him the wrong Hal as son.
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However, we discover the reasons for Prince Hal's desolate lifestyle, he's running from the crown. Not because he doesn't care, but because he can see what wearing the crown has done to his father. How the cares and woes of kingship have sickened him and sucked all the joy from his life. Before this happens to Hal he's determined to have some fun, even if its with, and at the expense of, the likes of Falstaff and his nest of crooks and drunkards. Yet when Northumberland and his son Hotspur rise up in revolt, the Prince is quick to return to his father's fold in order to put down the rebellion.

For those who only know Hiddlestion from playing the part of Loki in the movies Thor and The Avengers, you will be in for a big surprise. Not only does he rise to the mark set by Wishaw in terms of his performance, he comes close to surpassing it. He is a central character in both parts of Henry IV and almost singlehandedly has to carry Henry V on his shoulders. He does a magnificent job of portraying the young man desperately looking to cram a lifetime's worth of living into the few years he has before he must assume the burden of the crown, and the ensuing transition from irresponsible wastrel to dedicated King.

In recent years Jeremy Irons has indulged himself with characters like the one he plays in The Borgias, coasting by on his voice and mannerisms, but as Henry IV he reminds you why he is one of the best actors of his generation. You can almost see the weight of his personal history sitting heavier and heavier upon his shoulders - "heavy is the head that bears the crown". Irons does a great job of showing this while still managing to give us hints as to his character's former greatness. The final scenes of Henry IV Part 2 between Irons and Hiddlestion, where the two characters finally come to terms with each other as the prince tells his father of his hatred for the crown having seen what wearing it has done to the king, are simply spellbinding. I could sit and watch those scenes over and over again they are so beautifully acted.

In comparison to the three previous plays Henry V is relatively straightforward, and someways simplistic. In those days England still ruled parts of France. The French, knowing his reputation as the Prince, see Hal's ascension to the throne as the ideal time to try and win back their lands. Rising to the challenge Henry raises an army and departs for France and although severely outnumbered manages to defeat them at Agincourt.
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Hiddlestion's performance again is exemplary as he lets us see the nervousness he feels at the enormity of the gamble he's taking in heading off to war as a newly crowned king that lies beneath his determination to defeat France. England's claim to the disputed territories in France was tenuous at best, and there was no reason save pride for seeking to hold onto them. However, with his country only recently recovered from the divisive rebellions which marked his father's reign Henry V must have felt he needed to prove he was a strong king in order to quell the potential of further unrest.

Throughout the four parts of The Hollow Crown the directors and cinematographers have taken full advantage of their medium to bring the plays to life. They use the camera's ability to capture both wide vistas and intimate close ups to help tell the story and create atmospheres appropriate to a scene. When Richard II returns from his wars in Ireland to be informed the entire country has risen in revolt against him, he is greeted on a desolate stretch of beach by a few aides. Seeing the king against the wide open vista with hardly anyone around him stresses how alone he is in the world. Conversely, in Henry V, when Henry gives his "Once more into the breech good friends" speech, normally staged as some great rallying cry to the troops, he is seen huddled with a few soldiers under the walls of the French castle they are besieging. You can actually feel him willing his men to overcome their fears and find what's necessary to throw themselves back into battle.

Adapting any play to the screen is always a difficult task, and the works of Shakespeare are especially difficult. Too often people either fail to take advantage of the potential the camera has for telling the tale or neglect to find a cast who can properly handle the demands of the text. In the mini series The Hollow Crown not only have they achieved the required balance between performance and media for one play, they have done so over the course of four plays. With top notch performances from every cast member, whether they have two lines or hundreds, and wonderful production values, I have no hesitation in saying these are the best filmed versions of Shakespeare I've ever seen.

(The Hollow Crown will be shown on your local PBS station on consecutive Fridays starting with Richard II on September 20 2013, Henry IV Part 1 September 27 2013, Henry IV Part 2 October 4 2013 and Henry V October 11 2013 starting at 9:00 pm EST - check your local listings for times and dates in your area)

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Television Review: The Hollow Crown)

September 12, 2013

DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8

It wasn't until I sat down to write this review I found out the man whose books the main characters in this DVD were based on, Reginald Hill, had died in January of 2012. I had the good fortune to interview him a couple years prior to his death and naturally we talked about his two most famous characters, Detective Superintendent (Det. Supt.) Andy Dalziel and Detective Inspector (D.I) Peter Pascoe. He talked of them with affection and it seemed to me they had taken on a life of their own outside his books. While the television adaptions of his characters were made during his lifetime, seeing them on the TV screen going about their business after the death of their creator makes it even more certain they will live on.

Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8 first aired in 2004 on British television and is now coming to DVD thanks to BBC Home Entertainment. The four feature length episodes included in this series weren't based on any of the books Hill wrote for his characters. However, the characters he created were so strong, and made such an indelible impression on their followers, the creators of the TV series obviously felt as long as they did a good job with bringing the characters to life they would succeed.

When you consider the fact Hill had had no intention of making either character an ongoing feature in his books, and Dalziel had only been created to act as a foil for Pascoe in the original book, it's quite remarkable the life these two characters have taken on. The challenge facing anybody bringing them to the screen is the fact they are competing with every reader's vision of them. Key to success in this is a combination of casting and what you do with the characters. You can find the perfect actors for each role and still fail by giving them inappropriate material to work with.
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Thankfully in this case the casting and the writing work together wonderfully. Warren Clarke as Dalziel is not only physically appropriate for his character, in size, shape and appearance, he also has the ability to give us glimpses of what goes on emotionally under the craggy exterior. On the surface Dalziel is all old school bluster. The type of cop who looks like he's willing to turn a blind eye to a suspect getting a few bruises during interrogation if it ensures he finds the guilty party in the end. However, what we come to realize through watching the four episodes is the bluster and bullying - which also applies to the way he treats his underlings as well as his suspects - are only because he feels personally responsible if he isn't able to solve a crime.

We see a perfect example of this in the episode entitled "The Price Of Fame" on disc one. For while the duo are tracking down the killer of a young woman who works at a holiday resort who had ambitions of becoming a "star", Dalziel is also trying to figure out who kidnapped a teenage girl. He had been taken off the case because he'd been too rough on a witness. However he'd promised the girl's mother he'd find her, and his failure to do so is eating away at him. We watch as events in the murder case trigger fresh perspectives on the kidnapping and lead him to figuring out who actually committed the first crime.

In all four episodes the writers give Clarke ample opportunity to give us a complete portrait of this complex character. On the surface he might appear to be all bluster but underneath lurks an intelligent and compassionate mind. To the casual observer it might appear odd that this rather oafish and old school copper would inspire loyalty and respect in his younger and more sophisticated junior officer, but the more we learn about Dalziel, the more we understand why Pascoe appreciates working with him so much.
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As Pascoe Colin Buchanan is faced with the difficult job of sharing screen time with a character who could easily overshadow him. Thankfully both the writers and the actor recognize the best way to deal with this situation is to make Pascoe the rock upon which the wave of Dalziel breaks. Pascoe doesn't just meekly stand there and let his boss role all over him, but he isn't stupid enough to try and out bluster him. No his weapons are sly wit and cool intelligence, and he uses both to slow Dalziel down and to challenge his more outrageous suggestions.

However, like his boss, there's more to Pascoe than meets the eye. Although he's not given as many opportunities in these four episodes to show his character's depth, as Dalziel plays a larger role, Buchanan does let us see some cracks appear in the calm facade periodically. What's interesting is most of them are related to his boss. Whether as expressions of concern for his well being or frustration with his behaviour, Dalziel is able to create cracks in his junior's equanimity far more often than the job. Which isn't to suggest Buchanan plays him like some cold fish who doesn't show any disgust or anger over the crimes they have to deal with. However, he's able to show how Pascoe brings a level of detachment to the job which prevents it from becoming personal.

The four episodes on this disc are all well written and interesting murder investigations. However, those responsible for the series know people are watching the shows as much as for the way they bring the two main characters to life on the screen as they are for the actual investigations. In response they have created four investigations which allow the actors playing the lead characters to do just that through the course of carrying out their duties. It's this balancing act of story and characterization which made Hill's books more than just the usual run of the mill police procedurals. While the shows might not be based on actual stories Hill wrote, they definitely capture what made his books so popular.

While the two DVD set doesn't come with any special features, like behind the scenes looks at the making of the show, it shouldn't detract from anybody's pleasure at watching them. These wonderfully acted and well scripted shows are special enough in their own right. Anybody who liked the characters on the pages of the books, will take great pleasure in watching them on the small screen at home.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8)

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)

July 20, 2013

Blu-ra Review: Solomon Kane


In the 1920s a new form of literary entertainment was born. Called pulp fiction for the poor quality of the paper it was printed on, you could literally still see the wood pulp in the pages of the magazines which published them, the stories were high on action and low on any redeeming literary qualities. Whether lurid crime fiction or brutal sword and sorcery fantasy very few of the stories have survived and their authors have been largely forgotten. However, one whose work has lived on long after both he and the magazines have perished is Robert E Howard.

Best known as the creator of the character Conan the Barbarian whose exploits have been seen in films, books and comic books on a regular basis, he also created numerous other characters. While there have been attempts to create films based on the adventures of other heroes aside from Conan in the past, most of them have been about as tawdry as their original publications. Even the adaptations of Conan to the big screen, especially the ones staring a certain Austrian body builder, have been a bit of a joke. However, the adaptation of another of his character's adventures, Solomon Kane, to the big screen, now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, is quite a number of steps up in quality from anything anyone has done previously.

For while the story follows along the same rather simplistic moralistic lines of all Howard's work involving the forces of good fighting the force of evil, casting an actor the quality of James Purefoy in the lead role ensures this movie a depth the others have lacked. For instead of the rather cartoonish figure of a muscle bound lout hacking and slashing his way through a world of armed men and monsters, we are presented with a character of complex emotions, motivations and conflicting desires. Purefoy is able to take what in the hand's of a lessor actor would be a one dimensional character and create a truly troubled soul.
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To give you some indication what Purefoy brought to his performance in an interview with the actor included on the Blu-ray edition he talked about his preperation for the character. Not only did he read all of Howard's stories about Solomon Kane, he also read up on Puritanism in England in the 1600s and the various beliefs in witch craft and other black magic common to the era. From this research he was able to understand the mindset of his character and bring a level of credibility to his actions another actor would not have been able to communicate to the audience.

When we first meet Kane he is corsair in the employ of England. Which meant he had a licence from the crown to commit acts of piracy as long as they were against people considered enemies. Unfortunately while the crown was okay with him letting him rape, murder and pillage his soul has no such dispensation. In the midst of sacking a Turkish palace he and his crew are confronted by demons from hell. While his crew is destroyed Kane barely escapes the Devil's reaver who had come for his soul.

When we next meet him he has taken refuge in a church. Kane believes the only way he can save his soul is by never committing a violent act again and he feels he can only do this is by hiding away from the world. Unfortunately God has other plans for him and the priest in charge of the church he's staying in tells him he must seek redemption out in the world. As he's travelling he meets a family of Puritans on the road. While he initially refuses their offer of a ride, they end up rescuing him after he's set upon by outlaws. Refusing to offer any resistance he is struck over the head and left for dead. When he comes to he finds himself in the back of the Puritan family's wagon being tended to by their daughter.

The head of the family, the wonderful Peter Postelthwaite, tells Kane the family is on the way to Portsmouth where they will catch a ship to the New World. Unfortunately that's not to be. For there's something evil afoot in this part of England. Raiders led by a mysterious masked man with strange powers are rounding up people and taking them into slavery for their mysterious master. Naturally Kane and the family run up against them, and when they kill the family's youngest boy Kane makes the choice to fight back. While he's able to defend himself well enough he's not able to prevent the daughter from being taken captive and the father from receiving a fatal wound. With his dying breath the father tells Kane he can save his soul by rescuing his daughter and there is redemption to be found in fighting evil - in being a warrior for good instead of for selfish purposes.
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So you can see where this is going can't you. Kane begins to cut a swathe through the evil doers in an attempt to rescue the daughter. While the story is fairly predictable, filled with all the usual sword and sorcery violence and blood shed one would expect from pulp fiction in all its gory detail, there are some nice twists and turns to the plot which elevate it above the usual slash and chop movie. However, it's the brooding presence of Purefoy at the centre of the movie which really makes this movie worth watching.

In most of the roles I've seen Purefoy he's either been an uncomplicated heroic type or it's been a case of still waters running deep with a rather placid exterior hiding some mystery. Here though he's gone against type and is playing a character consumed by passions. Whether the violent man we meet as the film opens or the man driven by the desperate need to salvage his soul and find redemption. When he finally allows himself to pick up the sword again, although it costs him a great deal, you see how it almost comes as a relief to him to be able to fight back. When he is given absolution to kill in the name of God it's like he's been returned to normal.

The Blu-ray edition of this disc is a great example of the advantages of the new technology as both the sound and the picture are crystal clear and sharp. What I really appreciate is no matter how loud the sound track is, explosions and such, there's never any problem hearing the dialogue. So those of you who like to feel explosions as well as hear them will enjoy this version as much as those who appreciate being able to hear what the actors are saying.

Aside from the interview with Purefoy, the bonus features also include a commentary track with Purefoy and the director (Michael J Basset), an interview with the director, a making of the movie feature and a couple other bits about the special effects for one scene and the original concept art for the movie.

While the story of Solomon Kane follows along the expected path for a sword and sorcery type movie what raises it above other movies of this ilk is the performance of James Purefoy in the lead role. It's not often a movie of this type is blessed with an actor of this calibre, and its much better for it. While it will still appeal to those who like a good chop and hack movie, if you can stand a little gore, those of you who watch movies for the quality of the performances will appreciate it as well.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Solomon Kane

July 5, 2013

DVD Review: Falcon


The troubled cop with a mysterious past and a serious drinking/drug problem has become so commonplace in television shows and movies the character is now verging on cliche. It takes a script of incredible quality and an exceptionally talented actor to make both the role and the program work. Audiences are no longer going to be satisfied with being shocked by the sight of a cop snorting cocaine, there has to be something more to the character than just his or her addictions or troubles.

For those looking for that little bit extra, they need look no further than Falcon, a new release from Acorn Media. Each of the two DVDs in this set contains a full length, 90 minute, movie set in Seville Spain following Detective Jefe Javier Falcon (Marton Csokas) as he delves into two very delicate murder investigations. While Csokas' character definitely has his problems, he buys mysterious packets of white powder in back alleys and ingests them by mixing their contents into glasses of water and drinking them down, the show doesn't make a big deal out of his drug use. Normally a show will make it furtive and ugly, but here it's all sort of matter of fact. He buys his drugs, goes home, mixes it up and drinks it down.

We don't have any idea when he started doing it, or even any indication as to why. We do know he's had one failed marriage, but he's an obviously well respected and appreciated police officer who seems to get on well with both his co-workers and his superiors. Even his relationship with his sister is perfectly normal and healthy. Then, while investigating the death of a wealthy restaurant owner in The Blind Man of Seville, he comes across a picture of his father among the dead man's possessions.
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It turns out Falcon's father is a famous painter whose works hang in one of the national galleries of Spain. Falcon lives in his father's old house which also contains his father's old studio and paintings never displayed. In his will he had asked Falcon to burn all of the paintings not in galleries. There was no explanation as to why, but Falcon still hasn't carried out his father's wishes even though he's been dead for some time now. However, when the murderer kills the man who used to be his father's agent, Falcon realizes he's going to have start exploring family history to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Complicating matters is the fact Falcon has started an affair with the widow of the first murder victim. Conseulo Jimenez (Hayley Atwell) was the man's second and much younger wife and while a suspect at first she cleared when it became obvious the murders were rooted deeply in the past. Not only is she able to provide Falcon with comfort, but with clues as to what the mystery might be about. When a prostitute her husband frequented turns up dead posed in the same position as the model in Falcon's father's most famous series of paintings there can be no doubt the murders have something to do with Falcon's own family.

When the secret behind the murders is finally revealed it's far more shocking than anything either we or Falcon could have expected. However, not only does it explain the nature of the murders and why the murdere did what he did, the secret also offers some explanation for Falcon's behaviour. His addictions, his inability to form close relationships and his seeming indifference to other people's feelings are all rooted in the events which culminated in the murders.

The second feature, The Silent and the Damned, takes place three months later. Falcon has been off work since the conclusion of the previous case and still might not be fully recovered. This doesn't stop him from throwing himself enthusiastically into the investigation of what looks to be the suicide of a prominent businessman. However, there are those who don't want him looking into it too closely, and pressure is brought on the commissioner of police to have replaced with someone easier to manipulate. His second in command, Jose Luis Ramirez (Charlie Creed-Miles) is put in charge of the investigation, while Falcon is told to look into the death of a vagrant found under a bridge.

Ramirez is considered malleable as his youngest daughter is ill and he can't afford to lose his job as he needs every cent he can make for her treatment. However, this doesn't stop him from realizing something is being covered up, especially when Falcon discovers a connection between the body of the supposed vagrant and the man who committed suicide. As the two men carefully dig deeper into the mess, with Falcon doing his best to shield his junior's involvement in order to protect his career, they discover layers upon layers of corruption designed to cover up the perversions of important members of the business community and government.

The two features included in Falcon are much more than your typical television murder mystery or police procedural. While they contain all the elements common to detective shows as the cops do their best to solve murders, they are also character studies of the finest quality. In particular the character of Falcon is far more complex and interesting than almost any other police detective you'll see on television. As the troubled detective Csokas gives a magnificent and subtle performance. Somehow he's able to convey the emotional turmoil broiling beneath the controlled surface Falcon presents to his co-workers and others only occasionally allowing anything resembling an emotional reaction to show through. Even when something pushes up through the cracks, be it anger or anguish, he suppresses it as quickly as it surfaced.
Marton Csokas & Hayley Atwell - Falcon.jpg
With so much time spent alone with Falcon, or while he's working, we only realize how different he is from others when he is taken out of his usual context. Watching him visit with Ramirez at home and seeing the contrast between Falcon's isolation and Ramirez's bustling family life is out first indication of how much he has cut himself off from the world. However, it's only when he visits with Jimenez at home with her two boys, we see how frightened he is of feeling anything at all. He can't even allow himself to stay and enjoy the glimpse of normalcy sitting down to a family dinner would offer and flees instead of joining them.

He literally staggers as he walks away from her house he's so overwhelmed by the fear of letting down his barriers, the fear of letting anyone in and the fear of someone actually getting to know him. He wears his guilt and self-loathing like a shroud. Consumed by his own demons, he can't for the life of him see anyway out or any hope for salvation. Walking the winding, ancient, streets of Seville at night, Falcon seems to be trying to find his way out of a maze which has no beginning or end. Solving murders seems to be almost a form of atonement for whatever it is he thinks he might have done.

The wonderful thing about modern technology is now even at home we can appreciate the production values of movies in ways we were never able to before. In the case of Falcon having a wide screen television allows the viewer to appreciate the amazing cinematography which turns Seville into more than just the backdrop for the shows. Almost a character in itself the city sometimes appears to have a life of her own separate from those who walk her avenues. Streets dating back to when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, barely wide enough for a donkey cart, and the crumbling facades of buildings whose mortar has been baked by the centuries of sun contrast with modern freeways and apartment blocks.

The 16:9 widescreen presentation of the DVD only makes the visual impact of the two features all the more stunning. Those with home theatres will find this plus the 5.1 surround sound make it easy to forget either of these productions were made for television. Included in the package are three short bonus features. While the first is your basic, behind the scenes type thing, the second and third which look at the characters of Falcon and Seville respectively are definitely worth watching. The nine minute trip through the streets of Seville will make you wish you could find your way over there and wander them yourself, but also helps put Falcon's world into perspective.

The two features contained in the DVD set Falcon are far more sophisticated and accomplished than most police procedurals made for television. At 90 minutes each, The Blind Man of Seville and The Silent and the Damned are able to not only allow their respective stories to unfold at a far slower pace than usual for television detective stories, but give us the opportunity to become for more intimate with the lead characters. In fact, the quality of acting, the artistry of the camera work and the intelligence of the script make both features superior to most of what you'll see in the cinema let alone television.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Falcon

June 23, 2013

DVD Review: Jack Taylor


The ex-cop, private investigator with a drinking problem shows up so many times in television shows, movies and books the characterization has become almost a cliche. It's unfortunate because the traumas and horrors encountered by detectives who deal with violent crimes could be enough to leave them sufficiently emotionally crippled and psychologically scarred there's a good possibility they would turn to alcohol or drugs to deaden their feelings. Like anyone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder they will never be able to forget what they have witnessed and if extremely unlucky, will be cursed with having to relive experiences we can't even begin to imagine on a regular basis. Trying to deaden the pain or reduce the vividness of the memories would be a natural reaction.

Reducing this type of disorder to a cliche, or making light of it in any way, diminishes the suffering these people undergo. There's nothing romantic or funny about drinking to forget or the lives of quiet desperation lived by those attempting to hide from their pasts. So the way in which the lead character in the three DVD set Jack Taylor, Set 1, being released by Acorn Media Tuesday June 25 2013, is depicted not only adds to the realism of the show, but helps make it all the more powerful.

Set in County Galway on the west coast of Ireland, Jack Taylor, Set 1 tells the story of ex Garda (policeman) turned private eye Jack Taylor, played by Iain Glen. Each of the three discs are a separate 90 minute episode and investigation. This not only allows plenty of time for the plot to unfold, but also gives ample opportunity for us to get to know Taylor. The opening instalment, The Guards, begins with Taylor still a police officer. Even then we see his drinking is a problem as he's sipping from a mickey while sitting in his car with his partner waiting to catch speeders. We also see he has a definite self-destructive bent, as he sets off after a speeding car and doesn't break it off even when his partner points out the car they're chasing contains a minister in the Irish government. He not only continues the chase, but forces the car to stop and when the minister gets out of the car to protest, Taylor punches him in the face.
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Needless to say the next shot we see of Taylor he's no longer a member of the Garda. In a quick voice over he informs us he's become a private investigator and how private investigators aren't common in this part of the world. In fact the impression we receive is the idea of someone doing this kind of work is not looked on kindly by the Garda and part of the reason he might be doing the job is because it will piss people off. While he's obviously still bitter about being tossed from his old job, especially as we find out the politician he punched is currently under investigation for corruption, part of him still clings to his old identity as a member of the force.

This is brought home by his walking around in an overcoat which is official Garda issue uniform and the fact an artist friend of his painted a portrait of him titled "Once A Garda". The implication being while he might not be a member of the force any more, he can't shake himself free of the his old life. We even see him try to cross a police line, as if from force of habit, when he walks by a crime scene on the waterfront.

He still has friends on the force and is able to make use of them to find out information when he needs to. So when a woman hires him to investigate the whereabouts of her missing teenage daughter he makes use of those connections to find out details of the mysterious suicides of four young women, each of whom have been found washed up on shore in the same place, the crime scene he tried to get a closer look at down at the waterfront.

Over the course of his investigation we discover some important details of Taylor's personal life. His childhood had been unpleasant, to say the least, as his mother's oppressive view of christianity had driven his father away when he was young and she continues to make no secret of her disdain for him and her son. Taylor is not only an alcoholic, he's also a binge drinker. He can drink himself into blind stupors which result in him not being able to remember what he'd done or where he'd been. His way of dealing with any extreme emotion is to start drinking and not stop until he's passed out and not feeling anything.

Yet, over the course of the three episodes; The Pikemen, where he comes up against a group of vigilantes going around killing people for crimes they believe have gone unpunished, and Magdalen Martyrs, where he investigates cases of abuse which took place at the infamous Magdalen laundries - Catholic homes for so-called wayward girls, we also learn he has a highly developed sense of justice. He's not one of these people who sees the world as black and white, with good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other. However, nothing sets his back up more, or makes him more determined to find out what really happened, when people in positions of power assume they are able to act with impunity.

Whether its a corrupt businessman using his influence and wealth to ensure people turn a blind eye to his activities, The Guards, a father emotionally blackmailing his son, The Pikeman, or the Catholic church trying to cover up abuses carried out by clergy, Magdalen Martyrs, doesn't matter to him. They all have to be called to account no matter what the cost. Unfortunately it usually turns out Taylor is the one who pays most of the cost. His relentless quest for truth doesn't come without casualties, and unfortunately even when he's not directly responsible for what happens he can't help shouldering the guilt.
Iain Glen as Jack Taylor.jpg
Glenn's portrayal of Taylor is a finely crafted depiction of a man whose desire to right the wrongs of the world is constantly in competition with his penchant for self-destructive behaviour. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, the pain caused by what Taylor has witnessed over the years is almost palpable it's so intense. The more we watch Glenn's performance the deeper we are drawn into Taylor's world until we start to see things through his eyes. It makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing at times, but it also ensures the show attains the kind of quality and verisimilitude you don't often experience in television police procedurals.

There's nothing romantic about waking up not knowing what you've done and where you've been. However, some people know no other way of dealing with the emotional pain they carry with them. As a cop, and now as a private investigator, Jack Taylor has witnessed the worst humans inflict upon each other. The helplessness he feels at his inability to prevent them translate into both rage and grief which he can only partially assuage by bringing those responsible to justice. Catching the crooks doesn't undo the murders they've committed or the abuse they inflicted and the only way he has of coping is by doing his best to deaden his own emotions.

Jack Taylor, Set 1 is an unflinching look at one man's valiant effort to combat his own demons and to set right as many of the world's wrongs as he possibly can. Taylor is not your typical private eye and this is not your usual police drama. However, it is one of the best and most intriguing crime shows you're liable to see in a long time.

(Article originally at Blogcritics.org as Jack Taylor, Set 1

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.
Scene from Quartet - Billy Connolly Maggie Smith Tom Courtenay Pauline Collins.jpg
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)