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Date: 11 July, 2005

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'The series started strongly and is just getting better and better as it goes on.'

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
Doctor Who
National Treasure
House of Flying Daggers
West Wing

SidewaysDVD Cover
(20 th Century Fox) certificate 15

The bittersweet comedy that sent sales of Pinot Noir soaring, but did nothing to help producers of Merlot.

Miles (Paul Giametti) is a wine enthusiast, an unpublished novelist and a depressed divorcee. His old college buddy Jack ( Thomas Haden Church) is an over the hill actor preparing for his forthcoming marriage. Together they set off on a week long road trip, with plans to drink wine and play golf. Complications begin to creep in when it becomes clear that Jack’s agenda also has plenty of room for finding female companionship for Miles – and, for that matter, for himself.

So, it’s an odd-couple road movie with a wine-buff spin. What marks it out is director Alexander Payne’s warmth for his characters, damaged as they are. Miles and Jack are displayed in all their brokenness, but somehow still standing. Payne shows again that he is fascinated with people, and the characters in Sideways – not just Miles and Jack, but others they meet on the way – are convincingly real.

Virginia Madsen brings satisfying depth to the supporting role as wine-loving waitress Maya, and her relationship with the hesitant, wounded Miles is a high point. This is filmmaking of the highest quality for an intelligent adult audience. At the same time, fans of non-titillating nudity will enjoy a couple of scenes in particular (and those who dislike the same will discover some ‘look away now’ moments).

The extras are reasonable, although more from Payne would have been very welcome. Giametti and Church’s commentary track is matey and anecdotal, and none the worse for that.

At its heart, this is a male mid-life crisis movie with a ‘seize the day’ message to get busy living before you get busy dying. But the skilled playing from the principles – particularly the excellent Giametti – lifts this above most of the competition and makes a more than enjoyable way of spending an evening, whatever you are drinking with it.

Click here for the Damaris Study Guide to Sideways.

Doctor Who: Series 1 volume 1 (2005)DVD Cover
Doctor Who: Series 1 volume 2 (2005)
(BBC) certificate 12

As anyone who hasn’t been away travelling in time and space must have noticed, the most imaginative and enduring franchise in TV history is back, and this time the BBC isn’t hanging around with the merchandising. These two discs represent the first two instalments in a four part program to release the whole of the 13 part series currently airing on primetime Saturday nights.

If you’ve been following the show, you’ll know precisely what you are getting (partly because these discs are completely free from any extras – they are coming later in the whole series box set). Executive Producer Russell T. Davies has said that he wanted the new series to be ‘everything the old series was, with a great big wodge of 2005 shoved into it’ and that’s as good a description of these episodes as I’ve heard yet.

Gone are the four, six and even ten part adventures of yesteryear. The new series offers a mixture of standalone 45 minute episodes and two parters with the obligatory cliff-hanger endings. Episode One, ‘Rose’, has less time for plot twists than later episodes, mainly because of the need to introduce so much to new viewers, but the other episodes across the two discs cram in enough plot complexity to justify Davies’ view that modern audiences process information so quickly that you can achieve in 45 minutes what the old Doctor Who needed several episodes to convey. ‘The End of the World’ features an ensemble of aliens, proving that the bad old days of unconvincing costume design are long gone, while ‘The Unquiet Dead’ revives another staple of the old Doctor Who, creepy tales in historical costume – in this case, featuring Simon Callow as Charles Dickens.

The second disc, released on 13 June, contains the only two-part adventure on either of these releases ‘Aliens of London’ and ‘World War Three’ is set in modern Britain and puts the Doctor in the heart of 10 Downing Street, along with the Slitheen, aliens renowned for neither their philanthropy nor their personal hygiene. Good stuff, but paling into insignificance alongside the pick of these six, the long awaited return of the Doctor’s greatest enemy in ‘Dalek’.

The series seems intent on exploring more of the Doctor’s back story, slowly uncovering a mysterious secret that haunts him episode by episode, and building a more complex relationship with Rose than most Tardis-travelling companions of the past ever enjoyed. Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper are utterly convincing in the central roles, and the end result is something that can stand proudly alongside the high points of the show’s illustrious history.

There will be two more releases to cover the rest of the series in August and September. For those who can wait and who have deep pockets, a series box set, likely to be riddled with extras, is due for release sometime in the autumn (in a cheesily Tardis-shaped box). The box set is likely to retail at £70, whereas judicial internet shopping will probably find these extra-free discs for a tenner each.

Never mind ‘it’s good for a kids show’. This is drama of the highest quality, with cheeky social comment, mature emotional weight and some genuinely scares along the way. The series started strongly and is just getting better and better as it goes on. View from behind the couch.

Click here for the Damaris Study Guide to the new series of Doctor Who.

Click here for the BBC’s official Doctor Who website

Click here for a spoof website about the Doctor, by the BBC’s Doctor Who web team

National TreasureDVD Cover
(Walt Disney) certificate PG

Sort of Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci Code. Nicolas Cage stars in a family adventure romp with a remarkably low body count and an enjoyable combination of edge-of-the-seat action and problem-solving academic protagonists.

It would be easy to dismiss this as Disney’s cynical attempt to spike the guns of Columbia’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel, currently in production with Tom Hanks as leading man. That may even be true, but either way this is a thoroughly enjoyable treasure hunt of a movie in its own right.

Cage is Benjamin Franklin Gates, a man on a mission to solve the clues that lead to the great hidden treasure of the Knights Templar – a secret passed on in turn to the Masons, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America and finally the Gates family. Gates’ search ultimately leads him to the realisation that the only responsible course of action open to him is to steal the Declaration of Independence.

I’ve never been Cage’s biggest fan, particularly when in undemanding populist fare like this (Gone In 60 Seconds would have been better if it really was only 60 seconds; City of Angels made me lose the will to live), but he does a good job here, imbuing the central role of Gates with convincing integrity and charm. The supporting players also deliver the goods: Diane Kruger is much better here than in Troy, Justin Bartha is winningly nerdy as tech-boy Riley, and Sean Bean is convincing in the English, so therefore the bad guy role of Ian. Throw in Jon Voight as Cage’s Dad and a cameo from Harvey Keitel and there is plenty of quality on show.

Plenty of thrills and spills, yet the good guys consistently think, rather than fight, their way out of trouble. Don’t be surprised to see this cropping up on Bank Holiday TV schedules for many years to come.

The extras aren’t nearly as good as the film. The featurettes are very brief, running to a length of a few minutes each, but they all contain clues for some problem-solving puzzles that tie in nicely with the theme of movie and which younger viewers will enjoy. Sadly, the trivia track that the clues finally unlock is likely to disappoint.

Click here for the Damaris Study Guide to National Treasure.

House of Flying Daggers DVD Cover
(Pathe Distribution Ltd) certificate 15

Zhang Yimou and the team behind Hero return with another instalment of wire work, emotional angst, breathtaking visuals and graceful fight scenes – and this time it’s personal.

Two police officers attempt to trick a blind dancer cum assassin into leading them to the eponymous terrorist organisation which she belongs to, but nothing is as it seems in a film which embarks on more twists and turns than a crateful of Rubik’s cubes.

As with Hero, there is plenty of fate-of-the-nation stuff, with characters torn between their own desires and the good of the cause. But this time there seems more of an emphasis on the personal over the political, with a compelling love story at the heart of the drama which makes for a stronger emotional connection than in the earlier film.

The cinematography and action scenes are all that Zhang Yimou’s previous work has led us to expect. A melee in a bamboo forest and the climactic snowbound encounter are particular highlights – never has blood dripped, sprayed and squirted to such poetic effect. A haemoglobinic haiku to Kill Bill’s bloody limerick.

But if you strip away the trademark visual stylistics, The House of Flying Daggers is a great story, told in an engrossingly captivating way. The audience is kept on the edge of its collective seat, as our expectations are toyed with and disarmed like so many on-screen warriors before us.

West Wing Season Five DVD Cover
(Warner Bros) certificate 12

Long time readers of View from the Couch will know the high regard I have always had for The West Wing, and may appreciate the sense of trepidation as I approached the DVD of Season Five. Being a viewer of restricted access (terrestrial only in the Couch household) I hadn’t had the chance to see this, the first series since writer/creator/all round genius Aaron Sorkin departed the show, a casualty of his inability to meet his script deadlines. Would The West Wing survive the Sorkin-shaped hole in its middle, or would it come crashing down to earth, the greatest sudden drop in quality since the final, lamentable series of Ally McBeal?

Relax. It’s still great. There is a change in the feel of the show, with the new writers dialling down some of Sorkin’s light touch with comedy, but they compensate by maintaining the show’s ability to invest an episode with emotional weight – a quality which is helped enormously by the impeccable cast, with Alison Janney winning a thoroughly deserved Emmy as press secretary C.J.Cregg. The series starts with the cliff-hanger that ended season four – President Bartlett’s daughter Ellie has been kidnapped, and the President has temporarily abdicated his powers until the situation is resolved. Up and running with an emotionally charged start to the series, the new writers maintain a high level of tension for longer than I remember in previous series, before letting us relax for a while before it all gets cranked up again for yet another season climax cliff-hanger.

Another new and welcome development is an increasing sense of fault-lines developing within Bartlett’s team of advisors. Season five is marked by several pairings within the administration falling out, and it looks like the writers have left themselves plenty of room to continue this approach in season six.

As ever, no extras, but hail to the chief of shows anyway.

Click here for Steve Couch’s Damaris Study Guide to The West Wing.


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