A fish, a horse, a thief and a lawyer
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Date: 26 March, 2004

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'You could accuse Pixar of simply ticking off the clichés, but the latest offering from the home of computer-animation transcends the check list and thoroughly deserved its Oscar for best animated movie.'

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
Confidence
Intolerable Cruelty
Seabiscuit

Finding Nemo

Let's see now: years in the making? Check. Irrepressible leading characters struggling against the odds? Yep. Tragic loss to provide emotional weight? But of course. Endearing sidekick? Oh yes. How about some kind of disability to really tug at the heartstrings? Yes, yes and yes again: it's all here.

You could accuse Pixar of simply ticking off the clichés, but the latest offering from the home of computer-animation transcends the check list and thoroughly deserved its Oscar for best animated movie.

The tale of a little lost fish and his Daddy's tireless search to bring him home is deftly handled by writer-director Andrew Stanton. The animation is all that you would expect from Pixar, and for all the stock (fish stock?) characters the film has a genuine emotional engagement.

An opening scene that provides the context for Marlin (Nemo's overprotective Dad) ensures that sentiment is never going to be in short supply, but there's still time for reformed sharks, surfer-dude Sea Turtles, and a fart gag (Disney's first?) involving a baby squid.

Balance

The net (ouch) result is that there are more than enough laughs to balance the tear-jerking, and there's plenty here to hold the attention of young and old alike. If Finding Nemo doesn't quite reach Pixar's previous high water mark of the Toy Story movies, there's no disgrace in that.

It's an Eastern Australian Current of a movie - you'll find yourself happily and effortlessly swept along with the tide, with not a jellyfish in sight. This scales (I'm really sorry) the heights, all the way to the fin(ish).

The DVD package is even better than the film - high praise indeed. There's a wide range of extras, deliberately pitched for adults as well as children. This means that there really is something for just about anyone, even if few are likely to enjoy it all.

The Pixar creatives play the fool, hamming up to the cameras as only the terminally nerd-like can. Their merry japery will play particularly well with children, and as long as they produce films this good they deserve their playtime. Just as long as they keep it to the extras and out of the main feature.

Confidence

Heist movies always face a struggle to escape the long shadow of their predecessors. Sooner or later, either The Sting or The Usual Suspects will be thrown back at you.

Although Ocean's Eleven made a fair stab at being The Sting for a new generation, with George Clooney matching Paul Newman twinkle for twinkle, Confidence falls some way short of displacing Kevin Spacey and co for those who prefer a little grit with their grifting.

It's something of an unfair comparison, as there isn't a lot wrong with Confidence. Director James Foley pulls off the essential con of distracting the audience from what's really going on - we realise we've been taken in only when his final flourish is revealed.

Ed Burns heads a fine ensemble cast, and his swagger and poise sums the movie up - lacking the charm of some of it's con-genre rivals, but delivering plenty of style and posture to accompany a well-written, well-handled script.

Supporting

Dustin Hoffman's supporting role is as enjoyable for the audience as it obviously was for him. He features as a bisexual owner of a seedy club, combining a reputation for vindictive violence with a demand that his exotic dancers bring integrity and art to their work in the booths.

We get a full range of Hoffman tics and flourishes, and there are hints that the character has depths that the pace of the film can't explore.

That's a shame, but I suspect that it was a good call: to have indulged our interest in this character would have unbalanced the movie and taken the focus away from the unfolding con, which is the real star.

Confidence won't take a place in the ranks of truly great con movies, but it deserves to be considered a good one. The extras are unexceptional, but the film is worth a look if you enjoy finding out that you're not nearly as clever as you thought you were. Or maybe that's just me.

Intolerable Cruelty

With both George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones on board, the Coen brothers were always going to be accused of selling out with their divorce court romcom.

It's true that this is their most mainstream production yet, but there are still plenty of characteristically quirky supporting characters and Coen moments for long-time fans to enjoy (Clooney, a divorce lawyer, is president of the National Organisation of Matrimonial Attorney's Nationwide: slogan: 'Let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder'!)

This is a film about love, cynicism and what happens when the two come into contact. Like Confidence, the viewer has to recognise when characters are being sincere and when they are playing a role. Ultimately, the success of the final scene depends on how confident the audience is that they have learned to tell the two apart.

Excellent

The cast, led by Clooney and Zeta-Jones is uniformly excellent, with cameos from the likes of Geoffrey Rush and long-time Coen favourite Billy Bob Thornton, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud incidentals. But at the heart of this film is a story that keeps moving forward, taking the audience with it and keeping faith with us.

This is a film with no need of a pre-nup, and no sign of a seven-year itch. This is romantic comedy for people who never bought in to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, and there is satisfying substance at the centre of all the screwball antics.

The only letdown is a disappointing - and at times bizarre - collection of DVD extras, but overall this is still well worth a look. Fans of the Coens will find much to delight them, and rather than a sell-out, this should be seen as a chance to introduce a new audience to two of cinema's most distinctive and creative filmmakers of recent years. Buy this DVD, then start exploring the Coens' back catalogue.

Seabiscuit

I've been wracking my brains trying to think of a sporting story that has the same place in the British psyche as Seabiscuit does in the American one.

If Red Rum had been winning hearts and Grand Nationals during the Blitz, maybe that would come close. Seabiscuit's enduring appeal in the States wasn't so much for races won, but for the way that the horse is credited with giving hope to a nation staring poverty and the Great Depression in the face.

Director Gary Ross handles the social context of the film with a mixture of voice-overed period photos and the use of a few key characters to illustrate the fate of the nation. Some will consider the result cheesy, but it does convey the impact that the economy had - bringing unemployment and mass migration, along with the separation of families facing an unequal struggle to make ends meet.

Triumphs

Cometh the hour, cometh the horse: whether Seabiscuit's triumphs really did give ordinary men and women the fresh hope to rebuild America is beyond my modern limey perspective to say. Nevertheless, this is a powerful story about the redemptive power of sport, and the triumph of will and old fashioned decency over adversity.

And what about the 9/11 factor? This has been accused of being little more than a tub-thumping film to make America feel good about itself. That's a little harsh. Although the American dream looms large, this is a film that at the very least asks what kind of nation Americans ought to be feeling good about.

The values of today's corporate America - represented by the hard headed owner of Seabiscuit's equine rival War Admiral - are given short shrift, and the message of the film (repeated more than once, just in case we missed it) is that 'you don't throw away a life just because he's got a bit banged up.'

I'm told that the DVD extras are very good indeed. Unfortunately the distributors could only send us the video to review, so I can't confirm that. But this excellent film is worth buying so you can find out for yourself. Satisfying performances from a cast led by Tobey Maguire and the always-dependable Jeff Bridges, but a well-told and compelling story is still the mane attraction.

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