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Date: 27 October, 2005

DVD Cover


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'His criticism seems to be aimed at those who use their beliefs as an excuse to commit all manner of atrocities in the pursuit of victory and power.'

 

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

Click on the orange title or cover image to buy the DVD from amazon.co.uk and Christian Aid receives some money from the sale.

Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
Batman Begins
Kingdom of Heaven
Desperate Housewives, Season One
Mean Creek

Batman BeginsCover
(Warner Brothers, certificate 12)

Ah, origin stories. Where would the world of Superheroes be without them? Christian Bale makes for a broody, driven caped crusader, and we get to see precisely why. The pre-release hype hailed this version as being more closely modelled on the Batman of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comics, and the film certainly succeeds in realising British director Christopher Nolan’s (of Memento fame) stated aim of serving up a more realistic portrayal.

Christian Bale’s Batman is a more convincing three dimensional character than those of Keaton, Kilmer or Clooney, a crime fighter whose persona is forged in grief and fear, and who wrestles with both the morality and the implications of his actions. He may still be a guy in a fast car and a cool suit, but at least we get to see more of what really makes him tick. If there’s a fault to find, it may be that Nolan dwells a little too long on the path that turns Bruce Wayne into Batman, but the ride is far from dull, with plenty of ninja training and slug-fest action before we ever get a glimpse of the famous outfit.

The supporting cast is suitably stellar. Liam Neeson steps up to give his customary mentor role a new direction, Gary Oldman is all but unrecognisable as out and out good cop Jim Gordon, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman shine as they hover in the background with sympathetic supporting roles, Ken Watanabe gives plenty of moody menace, while Tom Wilkinson continues his journey to Hollywood’s heart as a stereotypical Italian-American mobster and Katie Holmes makes a strong showing as Bruce Wayne’s independent minded childhood friend. There are plenty of thrills and spills along the way, but both cast and script are more than strong enough to not be overshadowed by the gadgets and the stunts.

One word of warning. I don’t make a habit of commenting on whether a film has the appropriate certificate, but some of the imagery (particularly when super-villain Scarecrow is doing his thing) may prove disturbing for younger viewers of a sensitive disposition. I’m not sure I would like to recommend this unreservedly for the younger end of the age range allowed by a 12 certificate, and I would encourage parents to watch it themselves before making a decision.

The second disc of extras is good value, with a good couple of hours worth of informative featurettes. Nolan and his production buddies are front and centre, and their enthusiasm for every aspect of the project shines through. Two complaints though: first of all, a commentary track would have been very welcome, particularly with the thoughtful and intelligent Nolan was taking part. Secondly, the interactive comic book menus were a cute idea and look great, but after a while they became annoyingly fiddly (but maybe that’s just me). The discovery, two hours later, than I could have scrolled through the all the pages and reached a more conventional menu of featurettes just rubbed salt into the wound.

The movie’s ending makes it clear that there are sequels ahoy, and that’s no bad thing – let’s hope that Bale and Nolan both stay on for another ride. I still stand by Spider-Man (both films) as Hollywood’s best the best comic book adaptations, but Batman Begins is the first film in a long time to come close enough to make it worth an argument. Terrific.

Click here for a Damaris Study Guide on Batman Begins.

Kingdom of Heaven Cover
(20th Century Fox, certificate 15)

From the Caped Crusader to Crusader capers. Ridley Scott isn’t a man to duck a challenge, as is shown by the number of potentially controversial angles on Kingdom of Heaven, which unscrupulous critics could use to damn the film without ever watching it. First, the political: in the current climate, a film about the medieval crusades could be regarded as more than a little inflammatory? The historical: the age-old balance between historical accuracy and good storytelling is a prime source of brickbats to lob at an unsuspecting director. Artistically: There was always the risk of a ‘not-as-good-as-Gladiator’ backlash, and finally in casting terms: is Orlando Bloom good enough to carry off the lead in a serious movie? (and no, The Calcium Kid doesn’t count).

First of all, despite the obvious parallels with the current political situation, Scott bends over backwards to grind his axes in an even-handed manner. Both Christians and Muslims in the film include extreme fundamentalist as well as moderate factions, and it is the latter – on both sides – who we are meant to root for. More time is spent with the Christian characters, good and bad, but Scott isn’t bashing Christianity or Islam per se. Rather, his criticism seems to be aimed at those who use their beliefs as an excuse to commit all manner of atrocities in the pursuit of victory and power (and you, dear reader, must decide whether or not that description fits anyone active in world politics today). The message of the film is tolerance and co-existence, with a ‘Kingdom of Conscience’ triumphing over zealous factionism.

Historically, Scott dodges another bullet. He follows history as far as suits his purpose, but isn’t afraid to take liberties in order ‘to tell a bigger truth’. Characters and even specific incidents are based on historical record. Scott pays more attention to historical accuracy than many in Hollywood, but he never forgets that he is making a film rather than an academic text, which is fair enough.

But the biggest questions: how does Kingdom of Heaven compare with Gladiator? and how does Orlando compare to Russell Crowe? Ultimately, Kingdom of Heaven falls short of its illustrious predecessor, but it also stands proudly in the company of most other entries in the historical epic genre.

I’ve criticised Orlando Bloom before now for not being as good an actor as he is a pin-up. To be honest, he does all right here. He holds his own against heavyweight acting talent like Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons, even if he doesn’t burn into our memory in the way that Crowe’s Maximus did. If anything Bloom is let down by a narrative structure that quickly loses sight of his character’s backstory. Like Maximus, Balian is a widower mourning the loss of his family. In this case, that doesn’t seem to make much difference after the first forty minutes or so, whereas Maximus’s every moment on screen drew its power and purpose from his harrowing grief.

So, Scott gets to march out of Jerusalem with his head held high. This isn’t as good as Gladiator, but it’s a lot better than most of the competition. The extras, in the two disc version at least, are pretty good too, offering a reasonable introduction to the real history of the Crusades and not being afraid to say where Ridley wandered off the beaten path of historical veracity.

Click here for a Damaris Study Guide on Kingdom of Heaven

Desperate Housewives, Season One Cover
(Touchstone Home Entertainment, certificate 15)

Along with Lost and Doctor Who, this is a contender for the most talked about new TV show of the year. Teri (New Adventures of Superman) Hatcher is the best–known cast member this side of the Atlantic, but this is genuine ensemble playing, with stand out performances from Ms Hatcher and her fellow desperados.

If you’ve never seen Desperate Housewives, you may well have completely misunderstood what kind of show it is. Press coverage in the UK back in January gave the impression that this was America’s answer to Footballer’s Wives, trashy, lowest common denominator fare, when in fact it is a much more intelligent drama. Cheekily clever writing, performances of depth and sensitivity, and outrageous yet believable characters who engage an audience’s sympathies are all combined with a heady cocktail of both the mundane and the mysterious. While never forgetting that it is primarily an exercise in entertainment, Desperate Housewives isn’t afraid to raise issues and ask big questions, rather than just moving us on from one titillating clinch to the next.

The season one DVD package is all that you would expect – generous looking extras which manage to be pretty good while still making you feel that you are getting less than the packaging led you to expect. There are six discs, each of which contains four episodes (except the final disc with three). Each disc also has a commentary from the show’s creator Marc Cherry on one episode, and an extended version of one episode.

Some different voices on the commentaries would have been welcome, but Cherry is amiable enough, if sometimes a little fixated with technical details about the lighting of shots. There are also good featurettes and deleted scenes, making up a moderately enjoyable collection of goodies. But the main attraction is the episodes – over 15 hours of quality TV. Highly recommended.

Click here to see a Damaris Study Guide for Desperate Housewives

Mean CreekCover
(Paramount, certificate 15)

I completely failed to notice this on its theatrical release, but saw the trailer more times than I can remember on other DVDs, and thought it was worth a look. A group of teenagers – some young adults, some still children – go on a boating trip with an ulterior motive: teaching the local bully a lesson he won’t forget. Needless to say, things don’t go smoothly.

The young cast (including Rory Culkin, who hear puts forward more evidence for the view that he is the most talented of the acting Culkin clan) are uniformly excellent. Much credit must go to director Jacob Aaron Estes, particular when you consider how the shifting of authority between the protagonists is often conducted without dialogue. I can’t remember a film where so much is conveyed in nuances, and to do that with such a young cast is doubly impressive. The film is anchored by six very mature performances, giving it some genuine emotional weight and depth.

The extras are unexceptional, but that doesn’t matter when there is so much going on both above and below the surface in the film itself. Not what you would call a feel-good movie, but a compelling examination of guilt, responsibility and coming of age, and perhaps the best low profile movie I’ve seen this year.

Click here for a Damaris Study Guide for Mean Creek.

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