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Date: 7 July, 2005

DVD Cover

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'The sex scenes owes more to Carry On… than to Nine and a Half Weeks.'

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
Million Dollar Baby
The Aviator
Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Million Dollar Baby DVD Cover
(Warner Brothers) certificate 12

Clint Eastwood has been enjoying a rich vein of form recently – he began work on Million Dollar Baby almost immediately after finishing Mystic River, and the parallels between the two films are not hard to see. Both focus on the bleak lives of broken men, and both were generously (but not undeservingly) rewarded at the Oscars.

Hilary Swank is Maggie, a hopeful boxer in search of a trainer. Frank (Eastwood) is a grizzled gym owner and boxing trainer. You can probably work out what happens next, but the relationship between the wide-eyed idealist and her cynical closed-book mentor is subtly developed. Similarly, Frank’s old friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman), now working at Frank’s gym, adds important depth to the complicated relationships on show here.

As in The Shawshank Redemption, the film is held together by Freeman’s voiceover narration, and this allows the film to offer some insights into the philosophy of boxing. Even those of us with no great love for the sport can see something of its appeal for the characters. The portrayal of the sport is sympathetic without ever becoming sentimental.

But this isn’t really a boxing movie. As the film moves into the third reel, dramatic developments reveal the true heart of the movie and once again focus the film on Eastwood’s recurring theme: how can we manage life in a desperate, fallen world. At times excruciating, at times emotionally draining, but always compelling and unflinching. This is a powerful and impressive film.

A brief selection of extras, including a post-Oscar mutual back-slapping session with Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman. No commentary tracks (customarily for an Eastwood film) and no deleted scenes (likewise), but the film is more than good enough to stand on its own.

Click here to see the Damaris Study Guide for Million Dollar Baby.

The AviatorDVD Cover
(Miramax) certificate 12

It seems to be obligatory to start a review of any Martin Scorsese film with an Oscar reference – either referring to his chances of finally getting his hands on the golden statuette, or commiserating with him for being overlooked again, depending on whether you are reviewing the cinema or DVD release of the film. Earlier this year, everybody was tipping The Aviator as the film that would finally break Scorsese’s duck, but then along came Clint.

This is a good film (although my personal view is that it isn’t as good as the similarly shunned Gangs of New York). Scorsese’s depiction of the early life of movie-mogul, flying aficionado and well-known basket-case Howard Hughes manages to leave the audience with something of a feel-good factor, even though our last sight of the central character makes it clear that his mental problems are in no way behind him. What Scorsese delivers is a succession of cracking scenes, and an unblinking look at Hughes (Leonardo Di Caprio) as he deteriorates into germ-obsessed reclusive disarray. Even though the audience is lifted by his final reel rallying, it is hard to completely put away the sense of a man made great by his obsessions, and then destroyed by them.

Di Caprio is excellent, convincingly showing Hughes’ social discomfort and the onset of his illness without overplaying or resorting to cliché. Cate Blanchett’s Katherine Hepburn deserved all the plaudits – and the Oscar – that she has already received, and a host of other notables (Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin) turn in the kind of detailed performances we have come to expect of them.

Copious extras which are enjoyable enough without ever becoming essential. Somehow the extras, like the film, fall short of the glory that the early hype suggested. A very good film, but with a flawed greatness – much like Howard Hughes himself.

Click here to see the Damaris Study guide on The Aviator.

CasanovaDVD Cover
(BBC) certificate 15

The first chance to see the creative partnership at the hub of the next series of Doctor Who. TARDIS newboy David Tennant stars as the young Casanova (with Peter O’Toole as his wrinklier self, looking back on his legendary life), in this three part comedy drama from the pen of Who supreme Russell T. Davies.

Appropriately enough for a show so intimately connected with the BBC’s time travelling do-gooder, this is packed with deliciously knowing anachronisms. Rather than attempting a serious historical recreation, Casanova is a light-hearted romp which trades heavily on the fresh-faced charm of its younger leading man. The sex scenes owes more to Carry On… than to Nine and a Half Weeks, and the editing and background music keep the lengthy flashback scenes moving at a briskly entertaining pace.

The intercutting between O’Toole’s elderly, world-weary Casanova and Tennant’s exuberant youthful model works very well, both in terms of varying the pace of the drama and in developing our understanding of the central character. O’Toole and Tennant work well as different versions of the same man, distinguished not only by age, but also by the emotional baggage that a life less ordinary has created. For all the playfulness, there are serious issues to be explored here, as we have come to expect from a writer as intelligent as Davies.

For much of the time, the tone of Tennant’s scenes is flippant and played with a mischievous glint of the eye, but that isn’t to say that all the emotional weight lies with O’Toole’s version. Both actors provide a sense of depth to the character, and succeed in enabling the audience to understand Casanova and identify with him in ways other than wishing for half his action with the ladies.

The DVD extras are paltry – just a gallery of stills from the show.

Lemony Snicket: A Series of Unfortunate Events DVD Cover
(Dreamworks) certificate PG

This has a welcome sense of darkness, providing an alternative to the glossy (though excellent) offerings of Pixar. Although this is live action rather than animated, there is a sense of the cartoonish throughout the proceedings, which is aided and abetted by both the stylised design and the performance of Jim Carrey at his caricatured best as the evil Count Olaf.

For those who are new to the whole Lemony Snicket phenomena, the stories centre on three exceptional children – Violet, Klaus, and the infant Sunny – whose parents are killed in a house fire, leaving them with both an inherited family fortune and a mysterious secret (the details of which are not revealed in this film – franchise ahoy!) Unfortunately, they also attract the attentions of the wicked Olaf, who would much rather have the children’s wealth than have them still alive.

The episodic plot takes off from there – the children are shifted from one new guardian to another, all the time with Olaf scheming to kill them off and gain the wealth for himself. This film is a compression of three novels (try doing that with Harry Potter!), and manages the trick of bringing the audience in on the conspiracy even though we don’t get to find out what it actually is. This should ensure that you are keen to see the next instalment, out of curiosity if nothing else.

A generous selection of extras, including deleted scenes, examples of Carrey’s improvised character creation and a multitude of technical featurettes, along with two commentary tracks – one with director Brad Silberling alone, and another with Silberling and Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler. But somehow two discs and more than seven and half hours of material still fails to provide enough quality to shift gears from good to great – and that goes for the film as well as the extras.

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