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Date: 6 May, 2005

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' Whether the end result is profound or up its own mathematics-of-infinity is a question that will divide opinions.'

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

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Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
I ♥ Huckabees
The Manchurian Candidate
The Simpsons: The Complete Fifth Season
Apollo 13 special edition

I ♥ HuckabeesDVD Cover
(20th Century Fox) certificate 15

Do you yearn for the days when Woody Allen was asking the big philosophical questions while still banging out a steady quota of laughs? If you do I ♥ Huckabees could be right up your street.

Whatever your perspective on the philosophical musings of David O. Russell’s film, there are still plenty of laughs to be had in this tale of a young environmental activist and performance poet who wonders whether he is wasting his life and avails himself of the services of a pair of existential detectives.

Stop right there. If your response the previous paragraph was a sense of intrigue, then carry on. However, if the very concept of an existential detective leaves you cold, you should approach this film with extreme caution. I ♥ Huckabees is a film in the mould of Being John Malkovic and early Terry Gilliam, which will delight some and leave others decrying the Emperors lack of clothing.

The style is deliciously light and playful, with occasional special effect trickery thrown in to good effect. The ensemble cast is excellent, with both Jason Schwartzman (as the young-Woody-alike troubled activist) and Jude Law (as his corporate nemesis) in good form. Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Naomi Watts, Isabelle Huppert and Mark Wahlberg do much more than make up the numbers, and Hoffman deserves a particular mention for delivering a performance so good that – against all the odds – it succeeds in upstaging his haircut, the finest moptop this side of 1966.

The film treads a fine line, interweaving genuinely soul-searching questions about life, the universe and nothingness with scenes played unashamedly for laughs, with the occasional barrage of industrial-strength swearing along the way. Whether the end result is profound or up its own mathematics-of-infinity is a question that will divide opinions. For what it’s worth, I think director Russell pulls it off, but even if you have little time for the philosophy, there are still laughs to be had here.

The extras are as fascinating as the film, providing evidence for both sides of the ‘profound truth or pretentious tosh’ debate. High flying real-life academics (including Uma Thurman’s dad, no less) from the worlds of physics and religion are brought in to debate the issues, but do so on a spoof infomercial for Hoffman and Tomlin’s existential detectives (‘We’re going to be talking about neat, fun ways you can rip your soul open’). Elsewhere there is the usual mixture of deleted scenes etc, along with two commentary tracks: director Russell flying solo and getting serious, and then joined by members of his cast in lighter mood. The adverts for the spurious Open Spaces environmental coalition are also worth a look, particularly the one with the flower. All this and Jude Law lactating, what more could you ask of a quiet night in?

Click here for the Damaris study guide to I ♥ Huckabees

The Manchurian CandidateDVD cover
(Paramount) certificate 15

Jonathan Demme’s remake of the Sinatra tale of Cold War paranoia transforms the source material into a post 9/11 tale of Gulf War paranoia. Rather than communists, this time it’s big business that’s out to rule the world.

Denzel Washington brings his customarily safe pair of hands to the Sinatra role of Major Ben Marco, the veteran who begins to suspect that his war memories may not be as reliable as he once thought. The film follows his journey, as begins to doubt, and to face distant memories that have been suppressed for years. We see much of the film through his eyes, witnessing different versions of the half-remembered events, and joining in the process of filtering the wheat from the chaff. However, the main acting honours go to Meryl Streep, in scene-stealing form as the manipulative mother of Marco’s one time comrade in arms and now Vice-Presidential candidate Raymond Shaw.

At the heart of the film are questions. How can we be sure what we know? Who do we trust? How can we ever trust anything, when our minds are so vulnerable to manipulation? Although the events of the conspiracy are tied up, these bigger questions are left unanswered. An unsettling film marked by great performances, yet somehow failing to deliver the emotional resolution that the performances deserve.

The extras are goodish without being great. The usual array of talking heads enthusing about each other’s work, although there are some shafts of insight that will add to your appreciation of how Demme, Streep and co. approach their craft. If you enjoy the film, these are worth seeing, although probably not more than once.

Click here for the Damaris Study guide for The Manchurian Candidate.

The Simpsons: The Complete Fifth SeasonDVD Cover
(20th Century Fox) certificate 12
Region 1 NTSC

American television’s most consistent run of brilliance was well into its stride by the time Season 5 rolled around, and this DVD package continues to reflect that quality. While many TV shows load the season 1 DVD with extras and then let the later seasons stand unadorned, The Simpsons continue to deliver in both quality and quantity. There are commentary tracks here for every one of the 22 episodes, as well as a decent smattering of sketch galleries, deleted scenes and featurettes. The animated menus are fun too, and if you’ve got the time to spend a few minutes letting a menu run through all its permutations, it’s a lot more enjoyable than you might think (or maybe I should just get out more.)

And then there are the episodes. This is the season that brought Cape Feare, hailed by many Simpsons aficionados as containing the best sight gag in the history of the show. If you long to play and replay the clip of Sideshow Bob treading repeatedly on rakes, now is your chance! But that’s just one episode of 22, and to be honest, each one represents the creative team at the very top of their game. There are more laughs to be had with every repeat viewing of every episode. This may well be the best cartoon DVD that money can buy. At least, until season six rolls around…

Apollo 13 special editionDVD Cover
(Universal) certificate PG
Region 1 NTSC

Re-released with a clutch of new extras to celebrate the tenth anniversary of director Ron Howard’s finest hour (Richie Cunningham’s standing up to the Fonz notwithstanding). I have always loved this film, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to review it here. Even though you know exactly how the story ends, the film still has the power to move and to bring you to the edge of your seat. To do this on a first viewing is impressive enough, but Apollo 13 retains its gripping suspense over many repeat viewings. Howard’s interest is in the human angle of the story, with a heady mixture of fear, disappointment, invention and sheer bloody-minded refusal to throw in the towel. Heart warming stuff - if the events of April 1970 hadn’t really happened, someone would have had to make them up.

The extras consist of two commentary tracks (one with Howard, one with real life Commander of the Apollo 13 mission Jim Lovell and his wife Marilyn), the original theatrical trailer and three solid featurettes, covering the making of the film, the true story of the mission and a history of American space exploration, from Kennedy’s declaration of the Space Race to the current day. There is a certain degree of repetition, but with contributions from just about all the main players in the film, plus their real life counterparts (both archive and new footage), this covers all the bases.

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