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Date: 28 October, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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'A musical about Hitler may be offensive, but a stage full of auditioning fuehrers is laugh out loud funny.'

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

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Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
Mean Girls
The Producers special edition
Black Books, the complete series 3

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Certificate 15

Nothing about this film suggests that it's going to be conventional. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter who brought us Being John Malkovic and Adaptation has done it again. Jim Carrey is Joel Barish, a man so deserted by love that he discovers his ex has had him surgically removed from her memory. His response is a desperate one, and much of the film takes place inside a brain, allowing a decidedly non-chronological structure to the film, and memorably dream-like scenes. If you are looking for a simple, straightforward romantic comedy, look elsewhere.

But do look here first; director Michel Gondry has constructed a thoughtful and poignant exploration of what it means to love, and what it means to be hurt by life. Carrey turns in an uncharacteristically restrained performance and has never been better. Kate Winslet gives an uncharacteristically unrestrained performance and is just as good as Carrey. It's almost as if they borrowed each other's bodies for the duration of the shoot - although that does sound worrying like a starting point for another Charlie Kaufman script. The supporting cast is impressive (Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo), and the performances live up to the reputations without ever threatening to unbalance the film.

The extra features do the job without quite living up to the high standards that the film itself sets. Technical junkies will enjoy the commentary track, uniting director Gondry with writer Kaufman, while anecdote hunters can turn to the Conversation with Jim and Michel feature.

But it isn't the extras that you are going to watch over and over again, it's the film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind unfolds fascinatingly, and will reveal more of itself each time you plunge in. For such an intelligent film, there is real emotion here, and a far subtler range of feeling than Hollywood is often capable of. This is a bitter-sweet, beguiling treasure of a movie that deserves all the plaudits going. Don't forget to watch it. And don't forget to watch it. Don't forget to…

Mean GirlsMean Girls
Certificate 12A

More than just your average teen flick. This may well have escaped your attention, but is well worth a look - especially, but not only, if you are a teenage girl (I'm not, and I laughed out loud on several occasions).

Lindsey Lohan plays Cady, a 16 year old American girl who is starting school for the very first time, after a lifetime of home-schooling with her parents in Africa. Cady's innocent exposed to the big, bad world persona soon gives way to a scheming world, before the obligatory realisation and mending-her-ways conclusion (oh, stop complaining about plot spoilers, how did you think it was going to end?)

There are a few recurring motifs (buses, teen behaviour compared with jungle animals) which are judiciously used - frequent enough to sustain a theme, seldom enough to avoid annoyance - and a tightly constructed plot focussing on Cady, her misfit friends and 'the Plastics': the A list girls who rule the roost and need bringing down a peg or two.

The film is ably acted, with Lohan proving a thoroughly likeable focus and getting excellent support from the other teenaged principals. There is a host of quirky minor characters, (including, gloriously, Kevin Gnapoor: self styled 'Math enthusiast and Bad-ass MC'). Director Mark S. Waters has fun playing with all the stereotypes of the school food-chain, from nerds to jocks to arty kids and wannabes. The characters are stereotyped enough for recognition, but have enough about them to play as believable characters rather than cardboard cut-outs.

The conclusion offers predictably worthy life-lessons about how we treat other people, but there's enough quality in the film to prevent that from becoming too cloying.

A good selection of extras too - three featurettes, two commentary tracks, a 'word vomit' blooper reel. It's all well judged for the target audience of teens.

This is no Citizen Kane, but it isn't meant to be. It's a teen flick, and when judged by the standards of the genre, it stands head and shoulders above most of its rivals. A great evening in for (most) teenagers, and a thoroughly diverting one for the rest of us.

The ProducersThe Producers special edition
Certificate PG

Your reviewer admits a black hole in his cinematic education. The Producers is one of those films that I had always heard about but never seen. I knew that it was regarded as a comic classic, that it was the film which made Mel Brooks' reputation, but I was never really sure if it was going to be quite my thing. Now that the film about an attempt to put on the worst musical in the history of Broadway has been adapted into, ironically, a Broadway musical - coming soon to the West End - someone had the bright idea of releasing a special edition DVD.

And what a great idea that was. There are parts of the film which show their age and which seem now to be a little hit and miss, but there is still an impressive hit rate. And when The Producers hits, it hits in style. Zero Mostel, and Gene Wilder are the eponymous Broadway producers, scheming to put on the biggest flop in history, and Kenneth Mars is the deranged Nazi-nostalgic writer who pens 'Springtime for Hitler', having no idea that his partners' motives are somewhat different to his own. Nevertheless, all three encounter a range of idiosyncratic caricatures on their way to seeing their dreams go horribly horribly wrong - and not in a good way.

The genius of The Producers is in Brooks' willingness to take bad taste, and push the joke so far beyond the daring of most writers that it comes out clean on the other side. A musical about Hitler may be offensive, but a stage full of auditioning fuehrers ('Dancing Hitler's into the wings, please. We are only auditioning singing Hitlers!') is laugh out loud funny.

The original release of the film horrified the distributors and initially met with a hostile reception from the Jewish community (of which, it should be noted, several of the principles here are a part). Brooks is careful to make plain the disgust that Mostel and Wilder's characters have for their writer's beliefs - although this film makes light of Hitler, it doesn't go so much as a step along the way of wanting to make him acceptable.

The extras are good, but could have been a lot better. There is only one (admittedly lengthy) deleted sequence and no commentary, but there is plenty of access to the main players - including Brooks and Wilder. The best fact to drop into conversation is that Peter Sellars apparently expressed an interest in playing Wilder's role, while Kenneth Mars was a late replacement for Dustin Hoffman, who dropped out just before filming in order to play the lead in something called The Graduate. Just think, if he'd stayed with this one, maybe his career might have gone somewhere. I wonder what happened to Dustin Hoffman?

Black Books
Black Books, the complete series 3
(Video Collection International Ltd.)
Certificate 15

All human life is here. Well, if all human life is a misanthropic, morose, emotionally stunted, alcoholic bookshop owner, his selfish, emotionally stunted, alcoholic friend and his simple, well-meaning and - yes - emotionally stunted and alcoholic employee, then it is fair to say that all human life is indeed here. Dylan Moran's surreal sitcom returns for a third welcome instalment, funnier than ever before.

For those who haven't discovered this minor gem, the action centres around Bernard Black (Moran), his employee Manny (the excellent Bill Bailey) and their friend Fran (Tamsin Greig - currently to be seen in Channel 4's deranged hospital sitcom Green Wing), human debris clinging together for comfort in a cold and lonely world. That may not sound so amusing, but the characters are pushed further and further beyond the edge of reason, leaving us revelling in their ridiculous introspection and mania.

These episodes see well judged guest appearances from a variety of well-known names, including Simon 'Spaced / Shaun of the Dead' Pegg and Lucy 'the Office' Davis. Pegg in particular is in excellently creepy form in the opening episode, with a performance that subtly makes the gradual transition from slightly odd to cultishly manic.

A decidedly above average selection of DVD extras, including numerous deleted scenes that, for the most part, seem to have been cut for reasons of timing rather than quality. If you are a fan of the show, you will enjoy them just as much as the gags that were left in.

It's a British series, rather than American, which means six episodes rather than twenty-plus. A shame, but at least it makes it makes for a more affordable gamble if you've never seen the show. Much stronger than the first series, as the writers and cast have well and truly got into their creative stride. Worth a look - despair has never been this funny.

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