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Date: 4 August, 2005

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'This is harsh, uncompromising and powerful filmmaking.'

Now with links to resources from christian publisher Damaris, Steve Couch reviews films recently released on DVD.

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Hotel Rwanda
Doctor Who Series 1 (2005) volume 3
Melinda and Melinda

Hotel Rwanda DVD Cover
(United Artists) certificate 12

Don Cheadle delivers a career-best performance as Paul Rusesabagina in this true story set against the Rwandan atrocities of 1994. This is powerful, emotive drama which leaves little room for light heartedness, and doesn’t offer many answers to the question ‘Why are people so cruel’ (as a supporting character pointedly asks at one point). What it does do is to remind us of the terrible acts that human beings can commit, and dares us to look it in the eye when we stand by without doing anything about them.

We first meet Paul as a bribe-making House Manager at a plush European-owned hotel, intent on building up influence while keeping his nose clean and looking after his own. By the end of the film he has repeatedly risked his own life, and in the process saved a thousand others from the genocidal uprising.

Despite the happy ending – and I use the term tentatively, given what has gone before – this is still harsh, uncompromising and powerful filmmaking. If you’re looking for a fun night in or a date movie, this isn’t one that you are going to linger over at your local Blockbuster. But if you want to be moved; to feel sorrow and anger, terror and shame; and to remind yourself of how easy it is to look away and do nothing, then this is unmissable.

The extras include two commentary tracks – one for the complete film and one of selected scenes – and a ‘Making Of’ documentary. These are as affecting as the film itself, and include contributions from the real Paul Rusesabagina. Watch this film.

Doctor Who Series 1 (2005) volume 3 DVD Cover
(BBC) certificate PG

I reviewed the first two volumes of Doctor Who a couple of months ago, but if you are going to buy just one volume of the recent series, this is the one to go for. There are four episodes here, three of which are arguably the very best of the entire series. In ‘Father’s Day’, the Doctor takes Rose back to see her father on the day that he dies. When she takes matters into her own hands, the consequences are enormous. Possibly the most emotionally charged and moving episode in the 42 year history of Doctor Who. That is followed by a two part story (‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’) which sees the introduction of a new TARDIS crew member, Captain Jack Harkness, and the most chilling monster of the 2005 run, the zombie-like gasmask people.

Russell T. Davies’ revision of the old Doctor Who format was the must watch TV show of 2005, with Christmas specials for 2005 and 2006, as well as two more series already commissioned by the BBC. The old show was much loved by millions of people, and while the wobbly sets and dodgy monster costumes have been consigned to history, the new version is lovingly built on the foundations of the old. There is one more volume of three episodes to come in September, and a boxed set of all thirteen episodes due out in time for Christmas, but if you dismissed the show without watching it, or after the first episode, then this DVD is the one that might change your mind. Excellent.

And if you will excuse a blatant plug, Back In Time: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who by Steve Couch, Tony Watkins and Peter S. Williams is due for publication by Damaris Book in October 2005.

Click here to read the Damaris study guide on Doctor Who

Click here to go to the official BBC Doctor Who site

Melinda and MelindaDVD Cover
(Fox Searchlight) certificate 12

It’s all in the telling. Two writers debate whether comedy or tragedy is the true essence of life, and decide to settle the matter by presenting different treatments of the same dinner party anecdote. The film slips effortlessly between the two stories, with many echoes between the two unrelated plots, but with only the central character (the eponymous Melindas) common to each.

Woody Allen has long suffered with people complaining that they prefer his ‘early, funny films’ to his later, more serious work (or vice versa). Melinda and Melinda offers the chance to combine both in a single sitting, and to consider the relative merits of each along the way. But this is much more than Woody simply casting a critical eye over his own back catalogue. Anchored by a strong performance (indeed, two strong performances) by former Neighbours actress Radha Mitchell, this is a sure-footed and entertaining film. Melinda and Melinda could easily have become a bewildering mess, with the audience constantly unsure of which version of the story they were watching at any given moment. Instead Allen steers us easily through the intertwined strands of story.

The ‘tragedy’ strand is suitably harsh, with several characters revealed as deeply unsympathetic by the end, while the comedy throws up some typical Allen gags, although perhaps more of the wry smile variety than the belly laugh. It should also be noted that Will Farrell now joins the long list of surrogate Woody’s – at one point he even utters the utterly Woody-esque line ‘I’m consumed by guilt’.

No extras at all, but a fine movie which will delight long-time Woody Allen fans, and may even win him a few new converts.

Alexander (theatrical cut and directors cut) DVD Cover
(Warner Brothers) certificate 15

Director’s cuts of movies are usually a second chance for the director to tell the story his way, a purer realisation of his vision after being forced to make cuts and compromises for the sake of commercially acceptability in the cinemas. Alexander reverses all that. The theatrical cut, which never lived up to the pre-release hype, represents Oliver Stone’s ideal version of this movie. This time the director’s cut is the compromise; a less indulgent, more disciplined attempt at pleasing the masses. The new version is slightly shorter, and reshapes the structure of the film into a more accessible form, evening out the flashback sequences and letting us get to the first great battle scene a whole twenty minutes sooner.

In either version, the battles are bloody and chaotic, serving to illuminate Alexander’s character as much as to spatter blood across our screens. Throughout we are left wondering which Alexander is real – the idealist who wants to unite the world and bring harmony or the megalomaniac bent on conquering yet another city, yet another land, yet another people.

The theatrical version boasts the better extras. Director Stone is joined in commentary duties by historical advisor Robin Lane Fox (in the director’s cut, Stone flies solo). That’s it for the director’s cut, but the theatrical cut also includes three featurettes shot by Stone’s son Sean, whose willingness to portray his father in all his anger goes a long way to dismissing claims of sycophantic nepotism. These shorts are a cut above the typical studio puff pieces that often find their way into the public.

The theatrical version probably got an unfair press, and is worth revisiting and reassessing now that can be done in the comfort of your own home, with judicious use of the pause button and as many comfort breaks as you need. Whichever version you go for, this may not be Alexander the Great, but it’s certainly Alexander the not nearly as bad as they said.

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