Love, whales and naked women
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Date: 20 February, 2004

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'Although the film isn't afraid to explore the obvious comic potential of its subject matter, it doesn't descend into a latter day Carry On film.'

Steve Couch reviews his choice of the best film releases on DVD. To buy a DVD, and raise money for Christian Aid projects, simply click on its title or picture.

Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
Down with Love
Whale Rider

Calendar Girls

A feast of British acting talent on display, in more ways than one. Julie Walters and Helen Mirren are joined by a number of familiar faces in a movie that doesn't just provide good parts for women, it shows those parts off too.

The story, for anyone who doesn't already know, is that of the real life Yorkshire Women's Institute who decided to raise money by selling a nude calendar.

Although the film isn't afraid to explore the obvious comic potential of its subject matter, it doesn't descend into a latter day Carry On film. The acting is, as you would expect, uniformly excellent. Mirren is the driving force, goading the other WI members into action, and the relationship between Walters and on-screen husband John Alderton is genuinely moving.

The sentiment that inspired the calendar is perhaps what makes the first half of the film work so well. For the ladies, the calendar is more than just a bit of a giggle, it has a serious purpose too. Where the film doesn't hold up quite as well is the second half, where the explosion of publicity brings conflict between the ladies and within their families.

Because these conflicts don't emerge until late in the film, there isn't really enough time to properly resolve them. This may (or may not) reflect the true story of the ladies, but it doesn't give the film as satisfying a finish as it deserves.

The extras are good as far as they go, but don't amount to the most generous selection you will ever see. The deleted scenes are enjoyable enough to make you wish for a slightly longer running time so that they need not have been cut in the first place.

The documentary on the real life Calendar girls reveals that many of the details in the film were based on real life rather than a writer's imagination. What you get is high quality, but I was left wanting more.

Despite the reservations about unresolved conflicts and the miserly array of extras, this is well worth watching - by turns funny, intelligent and moving. The biggest downside to this thoroughly enjoyable film is that it will probably further delay the return of fully clothed charity calendars. But maybe some would see that as a good thing.

Down With Love

A brave attempt to revive the 50s and 60s comedies that kept Doris Day and Rock Hudson gainfully employed in the battle of the sexes.

Renee Zellweger is Barbara Novak, best-selling author of proto-feminist best-seller 'Down With Love'. Ewan McGregor is Catcher Block, a 'ladies man, man's man, man about town' journalist who is trying to disprove Novak's radical theories by seducing her.

Sarah Paulson and David Hyde-Pierce provide strong support for the principals, with Hyde-Pierce stealing several scenes and much of the comic momentum with a performance not a million miles away from his role in Frasier. For the most part the acting revels in shallowness, but deliberately and effectively so.

The pace is snappy and the film sparkles for most of its hour and forty minutes. From start to finish, the film oozes 1960's - the music, design and style all work so well that you could be forgiven for thinking that JFK was in the White House rather than George W.

The only times when the modern day breaks through is when the double entendres seem blunter than those traded by Day and Hudson. Having said that though, these are no more shocking today than the equivalent lines were 40 years ago.

The film amuses and entertains for most of its duration, but loses its way in the final act. Arguably, the battle-of-the-sexes comedies that work best dramatically are the ones that end up with one gender or the other getting their comeuppance. In the 60s women were 'put in their place', and in the 80s men had to take their medicine like, well, men.

Down With Love takes the reasonable 21st century step of trying to meet somewhere in the middle. A sound move socio-politically, but one which leaves denies the film the climax it deserves. Nevertheless, this is a fun movie which is worth an evening of your time.

The extras are nothing special. If you watch all of them, some clips from cast and crew interviews crop up more than once, and you will get tired of hearing one crew member after another claim that they were 'born to make this film'. The blooper reel is genuinely entertaining (an accolade seldom given by this reviewer).

Perhaps the highlight of the package is Ewan and Renee performing a song and dance number, during which I noticed for the first time what remarkably large feet Ewan McGregor has. There's nothing at all wrong with his dancing, which is more than up to the task, but somehow he managed to look like a sharp-suited Casanova in clown's shoes. I don't know if it was intentional, but it made me laugh.

Whale Rider

Like Down With Love, Whale Rider presents the age-old battle of the sexes, but with more resolve and less playing for laughs.

Maori girl Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the daughter of the chief's eldest son. Her twin brother died in childbirth, taking their mother with him, and her father rejects the traditional ways of the tribe for a career as an artist in Europe.

Paikea is devoted to the traditions of her people, but her grandfather can only imagine the tribe being led by a male chief. So the tale of female empowerment and the struggle between tradition and revision is played out in this slow burning independent film.

By now you have probably heard about the compelling, Oscar nominated, performance from 12 year-old Castle-Hughes. Although praise for the film is perhaps slightly overplayed, she deserves all the individual plaudits coming her way. She stands out, even when surrounded by other well judged performances, and undeniably carries the movie.

There is a wide range of emotions on show throughout, but Castle-Hughes' performance is so natural that you are never taken out of the film itself to notice that she is 'acting'. There is more to this than just a little girl playing her own personality on screen, and although there are other great female performances this year, Keisha Castle-Hughes deserves her Oscar nomination on merit, not just by virtue of being a precocious child star.

This is a film that has been described as beautiful and enchanting as well as harrowing and even as propaganda. The last claim is a little harsh, but I can understand where it comes from. In a film of such serious intent as this, it's a shame that only one side of the coin is presented.

Koro, Paikea's grandfather, is shown as a die-hard traditionalist whose inflexibility has driven his son away and is threatening to crush his granddaughter's spirit. This may be fair, but we don't see anything to help us understand why Koro holds so steadfastly to the old ways, why he is unable to be flexible. In this regard, the film has the air of a lecture rather than a dialogue between old and new, a more even-handed approach would have made the argument of the film all the stronger.

Nevertheless, there is much to warm the heart here, and there is a ring of truth not only to the performances of the principal actors, but also to the community of Maori's that provide the backdrop to the action.

The film portrays the impact that the modern world has had on an ancient, traditional community, and (from my uninformed English point of view, at least) does so very well. There are some who say that Whale Rider has been over-praised in recent months, but it deserves the wider audience that has now found it.

The extras contain a lot of filler material - I never thought I would sit and listen to radio adverts when I bought my DVD player, particularly ones with virtually identical sound bites as the TV ad that precede them on the disc. But there is some good material as well - a commentary track, a couple of documentaries, deleted scenes (with, happily, the option of directors commentary) as well as Keisha Castle-Hughes' tearstained screen test.

One glaring omission is any detailed background on the myths and traditions of the Maori people. One solitary comment from a real life tribal chief hints at the rich, ancient culture that spawned this movie, but all we are offered is another retelling of the story of the first Whale Rider, which we already knew from the film. The hint that there is so much more to discover about the Maoris simply underlines what a missed opportunity the documentaries are.


More a psychological thriller than a straight out horror movie. The premise is the stock one of a group of strangers stranded together in a remote location, only to realise that they are gradually being killed one by one.

Director James Mangold keeps the plot nicely twisting and turning, with the next shock always arriving before you have time to get too settled after the last one.

The cast, led by the always excellent John Cusack, and with Ray Liotta prominent, give a fine ensemble performance as the disparate group of strangers who discover they do have something in common with each other after all. There isn't a bad performance here, and the conviction of the cast helps to crank up the tension as the body count rises.

The major plot revelation (which I won't spoil) is an inventive one, and there is plenty of life (and death) in the film even after it has been delivered. The hints and clues as to the killers identity serve both to enlighten and to throw you off course. In terms of fright, what you don't see is more important than what is actually shown.

Sadly, Identity completes a disappointing month for extras in this column. The commentaries offer some insight but are nothing special. There are deleted scenes, interview footage and the other usual suspects, but there is nothing here to get too excited about.

Is it a good film? That depends what you are looking for. This isn't for those who like their horror slasher-style with buckets of blood, and it isn't for those who need a film to present a great message. But if you enjoy the tension that comes from a filmmaker first engaging your imagination then playing with it, this is worth a look.

Ultimately it is nothing more or less than a well-told story that might make you think twice about driving in the pouring rain at night. Stay in and watch a DVD instead!