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Date: 26 January, 2006

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'While our heroes are still discovering the truth about themselves, we are treated to impassioned set pieces about wanting more from life, about challenging received wisdom and about eating bacon for breakfast.'

 

 

Steve Couch starts the year by reviewing The Island, A Very Long Engagement, The Longest Yard and the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series. Buy the DVDs through our links to amazon.co.uk to raise money for Christian Aid.

Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
The Island
A Very Long Engagement
The Longest Yard
Shakespeare Retold

The IslandCover
(Warner Brothers, certificate 12)

There were two ways this film could have gone. A thoughtful, intelligent examination of classic science fiction themes concerning what it means to be human, or a high octane orgy of guns, car chases, and beautiful people in tight white jump suits. To some extent, The Island starts off as one and ends up as the other, but that isn’t to say that it fails by falling between the two stools.

Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are two clones who escape from the secret medical facility where they have been created as a source of custom grown spare parts for wealthy customers.

While our heroes are still discovering the truth about themselves, we are treated to impassioned set pieces about wanting more from life, about challenging received wisdom and about eating bacon for breakfast.

We hear explanations as to why the clones are ‘products’ rather than ‘people’, hear how living forever is ‘the new American dream’, and see the side of that dream that is closer to nightmare.

All the ingredients are here for a detailed and provocative exploration of the ethics of reproductive technology, of what ‘soul’ really means, of whether there are limits to how far science should push the boundaries, but once the beautiful two reach the outside world the emphasis shifts to cars and guns, to running and firing, and, bizarrely, to regular changes of costume.

Not to say that the action isn’t excellently handled – it is. Director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Bad Boys) is no stranger to the all-guns-blazing school of film, and he delivers here with aplomb.

If the action distracts from the bigger issues at the heart of the film, it is also well paced and keeps the plot moving without an ounce of spare flab. It’s true that The Island could have offered more food for thought, but not without losing the tightly coiled impact of its explosive second half. You can certainly argue that Bay got the best of this particular Faustian pact.

Apart from the two lead, whose performances provide a dependable anchor for the movie, there are plenty of other acting plaudits to throw around. Steve Buscemi threatens to steal the film as McGregor’s nervy (and uncloned) friend.

Djimon Hounsou makes for an impassively credible bounty hunter, and brings a satisfying degree of depth to what could have been a cardboard cut-out of a character, and Sean Bean as the doctor behind the cloning process gets to play – just for a change – a baddy. We know he’s a baddy, because he’s got an English accent.

Sometimes when a science fiction film gets mixed reviews and disappointing box office returns, as this did, it’s because it’s a more intelligent ride than the marketing people let on. This could have been one of those films, but isn’t.

This is an intelligent film which marks out some fascinating territory to explore, but then hides it under a barrage of fast moving hardware. Disappointingly, the all too brief selection of extras misses the opportunity to redress the balance, giving us instead a perfunctory ‘Making Of’ featurette that seems more concerned with – you’ve guessed it – how Michael Bay shoots action footage.

But this is a good film, whether you are looking for thought, action or a compromise between the two.

Click here to read the Damaris Study Guide to The Island

A Very Long EngagementCover
(Warner Brothers, certificate 15)

For those who missed out on this first time around (it was released in two disc format in the summer), a single disc version of Jean Pierre Jeunet’s beautiful tale of love, loss, hope and despair has just been released.

For some reason, I failed to review the film back then, but this is a wonderful, engrossing delight, and a worthy follow up to the director’s worldwide success with Amelie.

Set against the backdrop of the First World War, five French soldiers are court-martialled and sent unarmed into no-man’s land. The film focuses on Mathilda (Audrey Tautou), her refusal to accept that her condemned fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is actually dead, and her extraordinary search for the truth.

What follows has all the twists and turns of an old-style detective mystery, combined with all the emotional weight of a classic tragic romance.

A fine cast (including Jodie Foster popping up for a scene or two) and an engrossing story make this a very short two hours, well worth a risk even for those who find the prospect of subtitles off-putting. I was captivated throughout.

This one-disc edition is ideal for anyone who wants to save a few pennies, or who is willing to miss out on the previous decent collection of extras. But whichever version you buy, this is a wonderful film for anyone whose idea of romance reaches beyond standard Hollywood romcom froth.

Click here for Damaris’ study guide for A Very Long Engagement

The Longest YardCover
(Paramount, certificate 12)

By way of contrast to the previous film, The Longest Yard is far from being the most sophisticated film I’ve ever offered up to you, but it is an entertaining piece of throwaway slapstick fun.

Adam Sandler plays Paul ‘Wrecking’ Crewe, a disgraced American footballer who is sent to prison and given the task of organising a team of inmates to play against a team of guards.

Yes, it’s a remake of the 1970s Burt Reynolds movie The Mean Machine. Burt himself turns up in a supporting role, joining Sandler and wisecracking sidekick Chris Rock to assemble a ramshackle collection of thugs, crooks and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Initial mistrust and factionalism among the convicts is soon overcome, as the criminals are united by their burning desire for a chance to beat up on their guards.

So far, so formulaic, but . . . actually there is no but – it gets even more formulaic. None of the characters really stray into a third dimension (most of them probably don’t even make it to two) and any pretensions of depth that the plot has in terms of theme or substance are flimsy to say the least.

And yet, if you have any kind of a soft spot for slapstick and broad comedy, this is a blast. The footage of the grudge match itself ticks all the classic sports movie boxes, combining a genuinely tense finale with some joyfully gratuitous cartoon-style violence.

Despite what I’ve said about two dimensional characters, Sandler and the main supporting cast all deliver precisely what is required, as do the wider pool of bit part players.

It may be from the low IQ end of the genre gene pool, but it does precisely what it sets out to do. Sandler’s eye for the absurd and his winning rapport with the other principle players help to lift this above the rank and file of the genre, and I can’t think of another film with so many eye-watering body blows which are also as warm hearted as this.

The Longest Yard won’t be to everybody’s taste. But for those of us who enjoy a low maintenance evening of undemanding entertainment from time to time, it has much to commend it.

Shakespeare RetoldCover
(BBC certificate 12)

The BBC’s most recent attempt at ‘re-imagining’ classic literature (see also 2004’s Canterbury Tales) led to these four feature length modern day versions of the Bard’s finest.

Here you will find Much Ado About Nothing set in a regional TV news studio; Macbeth recast with celebrity chefs; The Taming of the Shrew cast into the world of career politicians and A Midsummer Night’s Dream relocated to a holiday park.

The box describes the four programmes as being ‘inspired by the spirit of’ the originals, and it’s best to approach them as such. Purists (or A level students hoping to avoid actually reading set plays) would do well to look elsewhere, but the marriage of centuries old tales and modern storytelling finesse is a successful one on its own terms.

And anyway, I seem to recall that borrowing old source material and reshaping it for a contemporary audience was a favourite trick of a certain playwright from Stratford all those years ago.

The end result is a fine collection of top quality modern drama, with some of British TV’s top writing, directing and acting talent all at the top of their respective games.

There are nice touches throughout: Peter Moffatt’s version of Macbeth sees a junior chef berated for mentioning Gordon Ramsey’s name in the kitchen (it’s bad luck to refer to him as anything other than ‘the Scottish chef’).

Personally, I’ve always preferred Shakespeare in tragic or historical mode, so it’s a shame that three of the four chosen plays are comedies. But all four productions hold their own, and if they inspire just a few to seek out the original material then so much the better.

As for the extras, ‘much ado about nothing’ is as good a summary as any. They aren’t much to write about, so I won’t write much about them. Nevertheless, as someone once said, the play’s the thing – and all four of these are very good indeed.

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