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Date: 24 November, 2005

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'Watching the squirming of die-hard Star Wars fans attempting to defend the indefensible has been a particular pleasure for me over the last five or six years.'


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
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Christmas round-up

Star Wars Episode III:
Revenge of the Sith
(20th Century Fox, certificate 12

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… a humble science fiction movie changed the world. Then it begat two more box-office behemoths, and the public saw that they were good. Then several years after that, along came some more films that were like the originals, only not very good.

The new trilogy (prequels, if you will) of Star Wars movies have presented something of a quandary to die-hard fans. There are some – you know who you are – who can’t bring themselves to admit it when Star Wars fails to live up to expectations. A former colleague of mine swore blind that The Phantom Menace was great, right up until the release of Attack of the Clones, whereupon he admitted that while Phantom was, in fact, bobbins, Clones was a triumphant return to form. We no longer work together, but if we did I’m sure that back in May he would have been conceding that Attack of the Clones was to good cinema what George Bush is to peaceful diplomacy, and placing all his faith in the third and final instalment of the new vision.

Watching the squirming of die-hard Star Wars fans attempting to defend the indefensible has been a particular pleasure for me over the last five or six years, and so I approached Revenge of the Sith with low expectations in anything other than the prospect of further sport. But now I stand before you with all the zeal of a new convert – finally, at the last gasp, George Lucas has delivered the goods. I’ll say it again to ensure there is no misunderstanding. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is a good movie.

We already know much of what has to happen (Anakin becomes Vader; Padme has twins who are separated and hidden from Darth Vader; the Jedi are betrayed and all-but wiped out; the Republic becomes the Empire – so far, so 1983). Despite this, Lucas maintains both intrigue and suspense as his plot unfolds, and even throws in – for possibly the first time in the new trilogy – some genuine emotional weight. The action scenes keep on coming, with a heady mixture of Wookies and androids, creatures and machines, blasters and – of course – light sabres. All in all, it adds up to the most exciting and attention-grabbing entry into the Star Wars universe for over twenty years.

So, if you shared my sense of disappointment with the previous two Star Wars offerings and had been ready to give up on the saga, this is a glorious missing piece in the jigsaw of the fall and rise of Anakin Skywalker. If you enjoyed Episodes I and II, you’ll love this – possibly so much that you’ll finally be ready to admit the truth about them. If you haven’t ever seen the original films (where have you been for all these years?), then at last Revenge of the Sith gives you a reason to bother with the prequels rather than just skipping straight to the originals. The extras are jolly good too.

Click here to read the Damaris Study Guide to Revenge of the Sith.

(Universal, certificate 15)

Extras may not have attracted the same fuss that The Office did, but it’s another fine addition to the comedy of squirm. Ricky Gervais plays Andy Millman, an extra in the world of TV and movies who is desperate to climb out of the background and make it as a proper actor. Andy is less of a social inadequate than The Office’s David Brent, but his greater sense of self-knowledge brings with it a disenchantment with the life he finds himself in.

As with The Office, Extras is built around the comedy of squirm, with the audience cringing in empathy as Millman and his friend Maggie commit ever increasing degrees of social suicide, becoming more offensive as they try harder and harder to dig their way out of trouble.

Tapping the popularity of The Office, each episode features a guest star who plays a caricatured version of themselves, and while Samuel L. Jackson comes across as cool as you would expect, all of the other big names portray themselves in a far from flattering light. While all the media attention at the time went to Kate Winslet’s foul-mouthed nun and Les Dennis’ bare-bottomed soul searching, a particular highlight for me was Patrick Stewart sustaining his gravitas and dignity while describing the appallingly sub-Carry On screenplay he is supposedly writing. But Gervais seems at his happiest when forensically analysing the minutiae of broken dreams.

Extras is, as it’s title suggests, not really about the big names, it’s about Andy and Maggie and their futile attempts to construct satisfying lives. Most of the guest stars are largely superfluous to the plot, and it’s telling that it’s the home grown B or C listers (Les Dennis, Ross Kemp) whose storylines are more central than their A list Hollywood counterparts.

Extras’ extras (this could get confusing) are enjoyable, with Gervais and writing/directing partner Stephen Merchant giggling their way through the introductions. The deleted scenes and outtakes are pretty standard, the latter almost entirely dependent on Ricky Gervais laughing like a hyena, but the three featurettes are full of laughs (and, for that matter, full of obscene cartoons drawn by Gervais).

So not exactly son of The Office, but perhaps a second cousin once removed. If The Office was too vulgar for your taste, you are unlikely to enjoy this (although it does receive a lower certificate rating). If you liked The Office and missed Extras on TV, it’s worth checking out.

Christmas round-up

With Christmas fast approaching, here’s a round up of some of the box sets and reissues for you to either give or receive. Don’t forget, to use the links to Amazon on this page to buy your DVDs. Not only will you get your purchases delivered to the door, you will also help to fund Christian Aid’s work in delivering justice and ending poverty across the world.

Recent American TV shows are out in force, with recent series box sets of Desperate Housewives (certificate 15 and reviewed in last month’s column); West Wing (certificate 12 and always reliable); and Lost (certificate 15 and you only get the first half of the first series) all currently available, as well as some wallet-knackering complete multi-series boxes for shows that are no longer with us: Sex and the City (six seasons, certificate 18); Ally McBeal (five seasons, certificate 15), Friends (a mighty ten seasons, certificate 12) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (seven series, certificate 15).

Recent British comedy success is also celebrated with the release of series one of Ricky Gervais’s Extras (certificate 15 – reviewed above), as well as the first two series of Little Britain (certificate 15) released together in a single package.

If science fiction is more your thing, there are plenty of titles to choose from. George Lucas completes his grand design for Star Wars with Revenge of the Sith (certificate 12, reviewed above), and Steven Spielberg lets Tom Cruise do his urgent running towards the camera thing once more in War of the Worlds (certificate 12). Spielberg stays reasonably faithful to H.G. Wells’ original book (changes of century and continent not withstanding), and keeps the focus on how the Martian invasion affects a single family, rather than dwelling on the fate of nations. Special mention should be made for young Dakota Fanning, who gives a great display as Cruise’s daughter, increasingly traumatised by the horrors going on around her.

Great news: the BBC have finally released the complete first series of their excellent Doctor Who revamp (certificate 12), this time replete with more extras than you can fit into a TARDIS. Not so great news: at £70 for thirteen episodes, it isn’t the best value, even if you take advantage of Amazon’s sizeable discount.

More family sci-fi fun in the Back to the Future trilogy (certificate PG). Three films and four discs – which means a whole disc of extras, unless something has gone badly wrong with my maths. There are less extras on the 3 disc Red Dwarf Series 7 (certificate 12), which also came out at the beginning of the month, but also the sublime perfection of the Arnold Rimmer song (more reliable than a garden strimmer, indeed). If you’re new to Red Dwarf, don’t start with series 7, but this is well worth considering for the already committed.

Younger viewers may be interested in the 21st November two disc release of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (certificate PG), starring Johnny Depp as the enigmatic Willy Wonka, or the animated Christmas movie Polar Express (Certificate U, available in one or two disc versions) which features the vocal talents of Tom Hanks.

If you haven’t got around to getting any of the Harry Potter saga on DVD, the first three films have been combined in a six disc box set Harry Potter: Years 1-3 (certificate PG). For more traditional fantasy fare, the BBC are capitalising on the wait for next year’s Hollywood version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by releasing a four disc collectors edition of The Chronicles of Narnia (certificate U). This features their own Sunday teatime adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s best known novel, along with Prince Caspian, Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair. Slightly dated with wonky BBC special effects from back in the day, but this still has a certain retro charm. Older Lewis fans may be interested to know that Anthony Hopkins’ excellent Lewis biopic Shadowlands (certificate 12) is finally coming out on DVD, a mere twelve years after its theatrical release. Another old favourite getting a Christmas release is the first series of The Muppet Show (certificate U).

Spy fans have the choice of taking things slightly tongue in cheek with a full 20 film James Bond box set (certificate 15), or tongue so far in cheek that it has burst through and led to the dispatching of a team of paramedics, with a three film Austin Powers set (certificate 15).

Other films re-released for your yuletide attention include a Tarantino box set (his three non Kill Bill films, certificate 18); an exploration of the law of diminishing returns with all five Rocky films gathered together in Rocky Anthology (certificate 12); and a four disc special edition of Titanic (certificate 12), which those of you who already know and love the film will doubtless enjoy, but please don’t do so if I’m anywhere near your television set. The one that I’m hoping to find in my stocking is a new edition of The Sting (certificate PG), which is much more my cup of tea – a welcome re-release for one of the most satisfyingly crafted con capers ever committed to celluloid.

Next month, my year-end review of 2005’s best new films on DVD.

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