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Date: 26 May, 2004
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'For now the best bet is to sit back
and enjoy the blood-spattered ride, if that's your cup of
Steve Couch reviews his selection of films out this month 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
Wing series 3
Bill Vol 1
Viewers of a nervous disposition, look away now.
If you are expecting the typically Tarantino
triple whammy of cool music, distinctive dialogue and graphic violence,
Kill Bill will satisfy on two counts out of three.
The decision to make two films rather than one has left volume one
light on Quentin's trademark wordplay (volume two, apparently, restores
the patter to its rightful place).
Volume One also has the feel of half a story - the kill list is
only half ticked off, and it's hard to know what Tarantino is trying
to say about revenge (revenge is good? Revenge is bad? Revenge is
best served in a yellow jump suit?) because he hasn't finished saying
For now the best bet is to sit back and enjoy the blood-spattered
ride, if that's your cup of tea.
There is much to enjoy. Uma Thurman is at the
very top of her game as central character 'The Bride', conveying
an intense sense of vulnerability even as her specially commissioned
Samurai sword leaves severed limbs flailing in its wake.
It would be easy to dismiss Kill Bill as a self-indulgent
gore-fest (and Quentin has enjoyed himself with the squirting and
squelching, along with the lopping of limbs - more on that later)
but it has a genuinely great performance at its blood pumping heart.
With a lesser actress, this film could have collapsed under the
weight of its own action scenes, but Thurman shines so brightly
that she transcends the violence.
Tarantino the director shows that he's lost none
of his distinctive flair, mastering several different genres within
the movie. This is a homage to the cable TV shows of his youth,
particularly the martial arts movies, Yakuza gangster flicks and
anime cartoons that were imported from Japan.
Tarantino shifts from genre to genre, weaving references together
and producing a technically impressive display, complete with animated
sections, flashback scenes and a non-linear time-scale that puts
the emphasis on story rather than chronology.
The low-culture aspirations of the film (and
I don't mean that as a bad thing) are flagged from the word go -
the pre-credits sequence screams 1970s, and when a lofty quote is
displayed on a caption ('Revenge is a dish best served cold') it
turns out to be an 'Old Klingon proverb' from Star Trek. This film
is Tarantino having fun and returning to his roots.
But then there's the violence. This, more than
anything, is the fault line to divide opinion. Some will argue that
graphic violence is always a harmful and dangerous indulgence on
the part of irresponsible filmmakers.
Others will claim that the context in which the violence is placed
can make a difference, that graphic violence is sometimes used to
illustrate the horrors of war (as in Saving Private Ryan)
or the poverty and despair of the modern human condition (as in
Kill Bill volume one falls into neither camp. Tarantino's
is the violence of the comic book. In places, it is exhilaratingly
entertaining; in others horrific to the point where I had to turn
But Tarantino doesn't use the violence for any end other then its
own: it's there because it's cool, and the point of the film is
to show cool fights with Samurai swords.
If you aren't happy to see blood spurting from orifices, heads slammed
in doors (or, for that matter, removed unceremoniously from shoulders)
then this isn't for you. If you enjoy that kind of thing, there
is plenty of it here to enjoy.
The extras collection is both wonderful and woeful.
Tarantino is fascinating but the documentary where he enthuses about
his influences is all too brief.
The rest is the stuff of filler, despite the welcome presence of
the 5678s (the all-female Japanese surf-guitar band who feature
in the film, also known to British audiences for the soundtrack
to that beer advert with the spontaneous game of shirts vs skins
War seemed so glorious, but now a man seeks to
find redemption from the horrific excesses of his past. But enough
of Tom 'Top Gun' Cruise; what about his latest movie?!
This is a perfectly entertaining film that holds
the attention for all of it's two hours and twenty minutes. The
action scenes work well, and slowly change throughout the film:
initially everything underlines the disillusion of American civil
war veteran Nathan Algren (Cruise).
But he comes to discover a difference between the western soldiers
and the glories of the Samurai warriors, and by the end of the film
the action scenes are meant to elevate the art of war, depicting
a brave and noble warrior culture that embodies war at its most
It's a well told story of a culture at the crossroads,
deciding how to adapt to the challenges of new ways. The film suggests
(fairly, according to friend of mine who lived in Japan for several
years) that modern Japan retains something of the Samurai ethic.
But in among all the fighting, empire building and breaking down
cultural barriers, there isn't time for much humour (despite the
presence of Billy Connolly in a supporting role). The Last Samurai
could have done with taking itself a little less seriously.
Nevertheless, as Quentin Tarantino realised when making Kill
Bill, there are few sights as breathtaking in modern cinema
than expertly wielded Samurai swords in full flow, and while this
is less bloody than Kill Bill, there are still plenty of
thrills along the way.
A generous serving of extras still manages to
disappoint - a mixed bag, with some excellent features and some
very poor. Cruise and director Edward Zwick crop up a lot, always
serious and always quick to praise each other.
There is a documentary on how history compares to Hollywood, which
all but silences the historians and bizarrely leaves most of the
talking to Zwick and Cruise.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but when it ended
I was left with a feeling that it hadn't added up to nearly as much
as it was meant to. Great fun though - it's just a shame that the
director didn't notice.
West Wing season 3
First of all, the 'there are no extras' moan.
In fact three moans: 1. There are no extras. 2. The American release
has extras. 3. For some reason, the packaging on the UK release
refers to these extras - episodes with commentary, making of documentaries.
For a few precious minutes, I thought that finally Warners had seen
sense and shared the bounty with us all. When realisation dawned,
the disappointment was all the more crushing and I felt like Charlie
Brown after another doomed attempt at kicking the football.
It takes a great show to get me over that kind of disappointment;
fortunately, this show is as good as it gets, and the 22 episodes
here more than make up for the shoddy packaging.
9/11's shadow can be seen in several episodes.
It was inevitable that a show focused on the President and his political
staff would have to acknowledge the impact of those events.
Bartlett's team face the challenge of increased terrorist activity
(though not from Al Qa'eda, Iraq or Afghanistan), and the series
culminates with action against a foreign defence minister discovered
to be plotting the death of President Bartlett.
All this, and the beginning of Bartlett's campaign for re-election.
Season 2 finished with the revelation of the President's multiple
sclerosis, and much of season 3 explores the cracks in the West
Wing team that this exposes.
There is more falling out among Bartlett and his staff, and the
characters that have been lovingly developed over the previous two
series find new layers to reveal to us.
In short, the best TV show in recent years (by
which I mean going back to, say, the invention of television) just
got better. One of the show's strengths is the weight it gives to
different sides of political argument.
Every show raises serious issues without necessarily telling you
what you should think about them. The writing is sharp, intelligent
and witty and the acting and directing is impeccable. If you have
seen The West Wing before, you will already know how good
If you have never seen it, this is well worth the investment of
time and money. And if you don't already have them, the DVDs for
seasons 1 and 2 are now available on Amazon for under £34
the pair. Bargain.
Stephen Fry's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Vile
Bodies puts a cast of unknowns front and centre, with a motley
crew of big names (Dan Ackroyd, Peter O'Toole, Stockard Channing,
Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent) in supporting roles.
As well as writing the screenplay, Fry takes the directorial reigns
for the first time, and there is much here that is enjoyable and
Stephen Campbell-Moore and Emily Mortimer as the lovers at the heart
of the film are natural and likeable, and their gang of good-time
aristo chums effortlessly evoke the carefree privilege that characterised
the party set.
That isn't to say that this is as good as it
could have been. The film is, perhaps, a little long, with the final
act starting just too late to head off the suspicion that it isn't
There is a final turn that puts the feckless indulgence of the characters
into context, but I was getting worried that it would never come.
Fry the director has a sure touch with the camera, but more discipline
in the editing suite would have made a decent film much better.
A reasonable batch of extras too including
a (very short) documentary about Stephen Fry's new role as a director,
and a longer (and enjoyable) making of, as seen by the production
It's a nice touch, viewing a film about privileged aristocratic
types from the lowliest perspective on the film set. Apart from
this there is a bunch of trailers (file under 'filler') and a commentary
track from Stephen Fry (file under 'insightful').