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Date: 24 August, 2004

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'Berry is excellent as Miranda Grey, a doctor working on the psychiatric wing of a woman’s prison, who one day wakes up to find that she is now being held and treated alongside her former patients.'

Steve Couch reviews his choice of the best film releases on DVD.

To buy one of the featured DVDs, and raise money for Christian Aid projects, click on its title or picture.

Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
Beyond Borders
The Simpsons Season 4
School of Rock
Cold Mountain
Gothika

Beyond Borders

A romance/drama in the world of humanitarian relief in the 80s and 90s. It seems an unlikely combination, and it is to director Martin Campbell’s (Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro) credit that the disparate parts of this film find a degree of cohesion.

Campbell shows us the Relief camps in 1984’s Ethiopia, 1989’s Cambodia and 1995’s Chechnya, with the Ethiopian scenes particularly affecting. The importance of the work and the personal cost to those who carry it out comes across strongly in the film, but the Relief workers are presented as real, flawed, people rather than plaster saints. As several contributors point out on the accompanying extras, this isn’t the type of film that Hollywood usually jumps at.

With as much worthiness as this on display, it is all the more important that the story isn’t overshadowed by the issues. As the film goes on, the focus shifts towards the romance between Clive Owen’s gruff doctor and Angelina Jolie’s well-heeled convert to the Humanitarian cause. I’m not sure that the chemistry between the two quite sparks, and I didn’t find the relationship to be one that I had a great deal invested it. Ultimately, I’m not sure that I cared whether they ended up together or apart, and I think I was meant to. But maybe that was just me – certainly, I know of others who found the romance to be moving and compelling. In any case, my lack of engagement with the central romance didn’t result in the film failing to keep my attention in any way.

An above average collection of extras, with plenty of contributions from director Campbell and Angelina Jolie. Scriptwriter Caspian Tredwell-Owen offers thoughtful and well informed comment, and the issues of Humanitarian Aid which underpin the film are given a good airing.

Is this a great film? No. Does it raise important issues? Yes. Is it worth watching for the story alone? Yes. And will it change anything? That’s the hardest question. The film recognises that Aid workers can’t change the world, they can only do something to help a few people in any given small corner.

While researching for her part, Angelina Jolie began the journey that has led to her becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, adopting a refugee child, and going to live in Cambodia. This is a film that has already changed at least one life, and if it goes on to change a few more, that’s surely more important than all the film criticism in the world.

Click to buyThe Simpsons Season 4

All of the 22 episodes here are now twelve years old, and have been repeated so many times that it’s unlikely that anyone interested in buying this collection hasn’t seen them already. But that’s not a problem. By the time season 4 arrived, The Simpsons had come of age. The sophisticated, reference-filled comic style had been well and truly established, and several of these episodes are widely regarded as classics.

The writers were really starting to flex their muscles, with homages to The Great Escape and Hitchcock’s The Birds as well as a reference to philosopher Ayn Rand all cropping up in a single episode (A Streetcar Named Marge). There are guest appearances aplenty (Barry White, Leonard Nimoy, Bob Hope, and Adam ‘Batman’ West to name just a few) and a surety of touch that comes from central characters who have been thoroughly developed over the three previous series.

Unlike many TV shows, the package includes a reasonable selection of extras. There is a commentary track for each one of the 22 episodes here, as well as a couple of featurettes, each focusing on occasions when the show has made enemies for itself (with George Bush senior and the good people of New Orleans, respectively). But it’s the episodes themselves that make this worth adding to your collection. The sheer number and subtlety of some of the gags means that The Simpsons has always rewarded repeat viewings, and even episodes that you think you know well will continue to produce something new.

The Simpsons is now the longest running animated comedy in television history. Buy this collection to remind yourself why.

Click to buySchool of Rock

Dead Poets’ Society meets Spinal Tap, with the emphasis more on spandex and power chords than on inspirational educators. This won’t overly tax anyone’s intellect, but as a succession of set pieces for Jack Black (cast very much according to type) to strut his good-rockin’ stuff to, this is a thoroughly enjoyable night in. Black plays a wannabe rock star, who somehow wangles his way into a supply teacher job at a prestigious private school. Once there, he realises that his students could become his backing group as he enters a battle of the bands contest. It really is as hare-brained as that sounds, but none the worse for it.

Although there are good supporting turns from Joan Cusack and writer Mike White (not to mention the host of child actors and musicians) the film stands or falls on Black’s demented charm. If his previous outings in the likes of High Fidelity, Shallow Hal and Orange County have left you cold, this might be better avoided. But for anyone else, particularly anyone with any affection for rock music in all it’s glorious stereotypes, there is much here that will raise more than a smile.

Like the film itself, the extras lean heavily on the portly star of the show and are a cut above the normal standard for a film as light and frothy as this one. Black’s impassioned pleading to camera, begging the surviving members of Led Zeppelin to allow the use of Imigrant Song in the film is a good example of what to expect – funny enough to make you laugh, while also reflecting the rock-obsessive mindset celebrated by the film. There is a hint of a ‘hey kids, don’t let the system repress your natural identity’ message here, but nothing of any weight or significance. Who cares? Turn the dials to 11 and surrender to the Rock.

Click to buyCold Mountain

Two and a half hours of moody, epic adventure set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Written and directed by Anthony (English Patient) Minghella, this tale of loss and redemption examines the impact that war has, not only on the central characters Inman (Jude Law) and Ada (Nicole Kidman), but also on communities and individuals across the fractured South.

The film follows Inman’s long, hard journey back to his home on Cold Mountain, with only the thought of being reunited with his sweetheart to keep him going. There something of a morality tale about his odyssey: at every stage, he encounters people who have either bravely held on to their humanity and decency in the face of suffering, or who have degenerated into selfish wickedness – and it isn’t always immediately apparent which is which. The fact that some stand while others fall is explored, but there are few answers offered as to what makes the difference one way or the other. The film shows us a world saturated with evil deeds, where good people struggle to find even a degree of normality and peace.

The film isn’t as unremittingly grim as that may make it sound. Admittedly, this is no feel-good movie, but it is absorbing and intelligent, and deserves a better press than it got in many quarters. Renee Zellweger’s Ruby bristles with character from her first appearance, lighting up the screen in a distinctively unglamourous role.

The cast has plenty of strength in depth, with good supporting performances from the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Kathy Baker, Ray Winstone and even Jack ‘White Stripes’ White. Add a soundtrack from the peerless T-Bone Burnett, and there is much to hold the attention.

The extras offer a little more than many blockbuster releases from Hollywood, including footage of a gala evening of music from the film, readings from Charles Frazier’s original novel, and discussion with Minghella concerning the making of the film.

War. What is it good for? Epic yet thoughtful movies, apparently. Say it again.

Click to buyGothika

Halle Berry stars in this dark and eerily-shot psychological-thriller-cum-ghost-story. The film walks a line between these two sides of its horror, keeping the audience guessing as to which will ultimately explain the unfolding mystery. Berry is excellent as Miranda Grey, a doctor working on the psychiatric wing of a woman’s prison, who one day wakes up to find that she is now being held and treated alongside her former patients. Did she commit the crimes she is accused of? Has she really lost her grip on sanity? Is it all in her mind, or are supernatural powers at work as well?

I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would after the opening few minutes. I’m not a fan of this particular genre, and initially I found it to be darker than my taste runs to. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn in to the character-driven story, and wanted to discover what was really going on. The film shows it’s hand on the psychological or supernatural issue a little earlier than it might have done (but I’m not saying which way), but still holds something back as a final revelation. The script is taut and edgy, and the action scenes provide enough variety of pace to keep things moving nicely.

A decent collection of extras, including a directors commentary, three featurettes and even recordings of interviews with fictitious patients from the penitentiary will satisfy horror fans who want to dig a little deeper at the making and meaning of the film, There is also the music video to Limp Bizkit’s cover of The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes (which is featured over the closing credits), if you’re interested.

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