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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 tea.'

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
The Last Samurai
West Wing series 3
Bright Young Things

Kill 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).

Kill list

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 it.

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.

Shifts

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 Fight Club).

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 away.

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.

Slammed

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 street football).

The Last Samurai

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 honourable.

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.

Barriers

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.

The 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.

Campaign

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 it is.

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.

Bright Young Things

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 satisfying.

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 going anywhere.

Feckless

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 runner.

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').

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