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3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Real lives, and deaths, as never before, 5 April 2007

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This HBO series was ground-breaking from the start, giving the lie to the old gibe that the US is incapable of producing quality, radical television. Not just the subject matter - death and how we deal with loss - but the family of funeral directors and their relationships, has stretched the boundaries of what is acceptable on the small screen. In 63 episodes, recently watched on videotape and DVD, we are drawn into the lives, loves and sexuality of what becomes less like a dysfunctional family and more like real people, real relationships: the realities of an affluent post-industrial secular society.

I have never seen, and sadly don't think I will again see, such an intimate dissection of family life, explored in such depth and at such length, but always with affection and spade-loads of black humour. It is said that once drama series start to focus more on character than story and situation, they tend to drift towards cosiness. (Remember MASH, which veered from its original hard edge to a sentimental exploration of wartime relationships.) Instead, Six Feet Under's relentless swings and roundabouts, sometimes shocking (David's abduction), often cruel (we just knew, didn't we, that Nate would once more wreck his relationship with Brenda, even with a baby on the way and a child to care for), always believable (Billy & Brenda and their boundary-free mother), often jaw-dropping (Claire and the purloined foot, the stiff with a stiffy, Rico casually replacing the back of a corpse's scull), never let up on the realism.

The performances were almost all excellent, the two main leads (Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall) only relatively poor in such company. I particularly liked Claire (Lauren Ambrose) and Rico (Freddy Rodriguez), but to single them out seems hard on the others, specially Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and her faultless American accent. But what stands out for me were the characterisations. What a gift to Frances Conroy to have her inhabit a perfectly realised late-middle-aged woman (Ruth) with so much to reveal behind the domesticity. It's a role that most actresses of her age would die for (!), and she gave it everything and then some. And the final series once more allowed the actors full reign to their musical talents (perhaps an original casting requirement), returning to the lip-synch breakout performances which were a feature of the first episodes. Lauren Ambrose, in particular, revels.

And that was while they were still alive; the final act was to allow Nate's brain condition to return, sending the family into a tailspin of tragedy (but final uplift, a magical last five minutes) from which they, just like their professional clients, have to recover. Even without so many hours in the company of these troubled but fully realised characters, the ending would sear its way into memory; but having watched the whole five sets, it is in my view the finest conclusion of a television drama series. It's possible that Alan Ball and his creative team viewed these as a potential, rather than actual, set of future lives; after all, knowing what we do about them, is it likely that these people would still be with the partners we last saw them with, twenty or thirty years hence ? But the last few minutes seems more like an affectionate coda to the present, allowing them finally to find some contentment (but with one exception: SFU could never be *that* optimistic) in the future.

There are some minor quibbles. Sometimes the fantasy-wish-fulfilment-dream sequences were overdone, so that when the characters really did lose temper or break control the impact was lessened because we'd seen that 'not' happen so many times before. Some of the relationship breakups and recoveries seemed overly rapid, so that what looked irrevocable was healed in the next one or two episodes. And given the subject matter, it must have been tempting for the writers to rely on shock and awe yet again (the lift, the cougar, the mixing machine) rather than explore the more mundane realities of death. Middle America, if not Middle England, must have been several times provoked, sometimes deliberately.

So, get the DVDs and allow yourself to be drawn in; forget the contrivances (the opening sequences usually have little to do with the rest of the episodes), and spend 63 or so hours of your life with these annoying, funny, disappointing, sexy, talented, and wonderfully real people. You'll never forget them.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Not a masterpiece, but very good nevertheless, 16 February 2005

Good to see that so many people rate this film highly, in spite of the depressingly familiar reaction from others to what is a deliberately slowly paced study of displacement in an alien environment. Are those who found it boring really so used to fast editing and special effects that they cannot just sit still for ninety minutes ? The irony is that the two central characters find themselves at sea in a culture - modern Japan and Tokyo - which epitomises the very empty garishness that is typical of so much modern film.

My problem with Sofia Coppola's film is not that it is boring, or racist (though those with a social-political axe to grind may find it so). It is that the nature of the relationship between Charlotte and Bob is formed mainly out of shared awkwardness and alienation rather than affection, and that Bob's character intimates sexual desire rather than emotional affinity. Apart from in the final sequence, which, tellingly, was improvised rather than scripted, the characters are not allowed to just be with each other; rather, we see them dance around each other's need for connection, without actually connecting. For example, when Bob carries Charlotte to her hotel room, he does not need to look disappointed when she goes to sleep, simply accepting of their age difference. It's not that a physical relationship between them would be offensive, it's just not necessary. (In the strip bar scene they leave after only a few minutes.)

The contrast between Charlotte and the blonde movie star, and between Bob's one nighter with the hotel singer and the Bob-Charlotte relationship, is well made and sufficient to tell this tale. Sure, Bob's family and domestic trivia await his return, and Charlotte has been left to her own devices; but that's no reason for a full-blown affair, and the understated - until the last scene - affection between them is what carries the film.

My other problem with the film is Bill Murray himself. Perhaps it's that I never have liked him much, but I think it's more that he is, simply, being himself - or, rather, Bill Murray playing Bill Murray. So we get his typical facial grimaces and expressions, put to good use in the ironical and comic whisky commercial sequence. We see only the Bill Murray that we know, rather than a Bob that the actor might have been allowed to create.

So, a sensitively and beautifully shot portrayal of a putative relationship in a foreign culture. Scarlett Johansson is clearly destined for very great things, still and self-aware beyond her years, and Bill Murray will have done himself no harm by this self-portrayal. Ms Coppola has created a controlled and individual work with talent compounded of experience (instigated by her father ?) and observational skill. A pity that the surface of the film, typified in the title shot of Ms Johansson's prone behind, is at variance with its centre.

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
You'll feel like a zombie by the end, 11 February 2005

What a shame that a the first British film for a long time to make substantial use of central London (and which must have been difficult and costly to set up) should fall so far flat after the first few minutes. The film's premise is that a virus with a very (and I mean very) short incubation period has broken out of a research laboratory and has rampaged across the country in just 28 days, killing most of the population and leaving the rest as zombies (sorry, it's not a zombie film, it's a parable about epidemiology) who rage and scream and just want to infect the survivors.

Well, in even trying to describe the premise you can see where it begins to collapse. Why do the (non-)zoms want to infect the healthy, when there's nothing in it for them and they're going to die ? (If they don't die, the country's population would still all be running and jumping around, and there wouldn't have been the Omega Man scenario at the start, would there ?) How long does it take for the Infected (for that's what they are called, friends turning to fiends in seconds) to snuff it ? If the infected only come out to play after nightfall (or so it seems from the opening sequence), why do they later chase about in the daytime ?

I do like zombie films, really I do, and Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. But Danny Boyle's grasp of pacing, dialogue and character development seems to have deserted him this time. We get a series of unconnected lurches from good guy to bad guy, healthy to infected, alive to dead, with nary a consistent theme or underlying thread to hold our attention or suspend disbelief. And in any kind of post-apocalypse scenario, zom-fest (sorry there I go again) or just plain horror film, that is precisely what we need to do. The attempts to portray group bonding among the fugitive survivors are so bad that we just don't care what happens to them. Even Christopher Eccleston is uncertain how to play his role (as well he might be), coming over as neither sane nor demented (he's supposed to have gone mad, what with all the killing) but directionless. And as for the rest of the squaddies in his bunch of military survivors, the least said the better.

There is just one memorable scene, after the man-wakes-up-in-deserted-London opener. A taxi drives along an empty motorway with a burning city (Manchester) in the distance, to Fauré's Requiem. And Cillian Murphy is clearly a lot better than this nonsensical ragbag of a film suggests.

Fast editing, blood vomiting and over-used profanities do not a lasting impression make, and I've forgotten most of it already. If your attention span's more than 28 minutes, you will too.

Tess (1979)
3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Stunningly beautiful evocation of Hardy's world (DVD release 2004), 10 February 2005

Not having seen this film since its release in 1979, I was interested to discover how my memory of it - good but long and languorous, young and beautiful heroine, depressing story - would compare with my impression in 2005 (on a 2004 DVD release*). Languorous but depressing story, beautiful lighting and camera work, stunning heroine (Nastassja Kinski), uncertain accents, and clearly shot in France rather than Dorset. Perhaps it's that I never do get on with Hardy's pessimistic view of fate and human nature, perhaps it was the cruel double standards of Tess's treatment at the hands of men (no doubt true to the time, but no less upsetting), perhaps I kept noticing the very French buildings and even fences and gates (the film was shot in Normandy and Brittany). What does come over triumphantly, particularly on the newly restored DVD print, was the loving attention to detail, costume, setting, landscape, and lighting which Polanski and his Oscar-winning crew (cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, art direction by Jack Stephens, costumes by Anthony Powell) brought to it. The DVD extras include a three-part 'making of' documentary, from which it is clear that the film was a labour of love by Polanski with full support from his crew and cast. In particular, Kinski herself (of course still beautiful in her 40s, but strangely non-reminiscent of her youthful appearance), in tears at the memory of Geoffrey Unsworth's death during filming, after an interval of more than 25 years.

Every shot in this film is framed and lit to perfection. The crew spent eight months in principal shooting with little opportunity for post-production, and their and our journey covers three seasons. We see the very young Tess (Kinski was just 15 when Polanski first encountered her, and turned 18 during filming) progress from reluctant visitor of 'cousin' Alec d'Urberville (Leigh Lawson, also on the DVD extra) to eager wife of Angel Clare (a young Peter Firth), to resigned and embittered 'kept woman' of d'Urberville after being spurned on her wedding night. We sit with her while she milks cows, rides in carriages and trains. We feel and taste the sunlight, snow and mud of the rural landscape. It is true, as others have said, that this film draws you in and holds you to its heart. While it is not the best film of its type (see Anna Karenina and Gone With the Wind for better stories of strong heroines impailed on destiny), it is certainly the most beautiful, and the cinematography alone is worth the two and three quarter hours it takes to unfold. I too would like to see a director's cut with the missing 20 minutes restored - Francis Coppola seems to have his finger in too many pies in that regard (watch the documentary). It stands with Lawrence of Arabia as one of the most perfectly realised evocations of landscape. Which is not to say that it looks sufficiently like Dorset to convince us that it is taking place in Hardy's Wessex - the buildings are too clearly French for that - so best to watch it with less of a critical eye for geography than one for lighting and composition.

There are some awkwardnesses - the deer visiting Tess in the woods as she wakes from sleep, the inconsistent accents of some of the cast (Kinski's is better than often credited), the Dickensian switches in fortune between happiness and hard times, the missing steps in the narrative (no doubt lost in the edit from the original three hours). Kinski herself is spookily reminiscent of a young Ingrid Bergman, hard to take one's eyes from even to drink in the luminescent surroundings. When she and her three dairymaid companions awake in their barn, Polanski's camera turns full circle before settling on the three at a window, while Tess sleeps. You'll remember it forever.

* DVD ratio 2:35, documentary includes French speaking (subtitles available).

The Mother (2003)
5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
An honest and non-exploitative family affair, 8 February 2005

This is an excellent film dealing with a potentially exploitative subject with great sensitivity. Anne Reid, previously best known in the UK for her TV roles including 'Dinnerladies' (a Victoria Wood scripted series on in-company catering workers, if you're wondering), gives a performance of finely judged understatement as May, a late-60s bereaved mother of two chattering class adults in an inner-London borough. Her husband Toots (Peter Vaughan) dies on their visit to the male of the latter species (Bobby), and we see the pair being rather casually greeted by Bobby and his family. May's teacher daughter Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw) lives nearby, however, and the relationship between May and Paula initially appears closer. Thus when May decides she cannot live in her own home and comes back to London, she is able to stay in Paula's house and do some child-minding of Paula's more appreciative offspring.

It is on May's visits to Bobby's house that she embarks on an affair with Darren, a mid-30s friend of Bobby who is working on a house extension. In what may be the first mainstream British film to so portray it, it is May and not Darren (Daniel Craig*) who initiates the encounter, and, at least to begin with, it seems that the relationship is founded on mutual respect. There is no explicit sexual content (at least in the DVD I saw: differences in the IMDb cast list suggests the existence of other versions), and the physical basis of the affair is handled directly but not exploitatively. More strongly portrayed is the relationship between May and daughter Paula, a recent convert to 'therapy and self-exploration', who announces that mummy has never been supportive of her. Paula is also Darren's lover, and when she finds May's explicit but rather poor drawings of Darren and May together, things go downhill in dramatic but controlled fashion. Only in an English film, perhaps, could a daughter announce that she is going to hit her mother, politely ask her to stand up, and duly wallop her.

In the mean time, May is being drawn into a putative relationship with a decent but older (of her own generation) member of Paula's writing group. The contrast between the ensuing unwanted intercourse and her affair with Darren is clearly made; it is at that point that May starts to acquiesce to Paula, and Darren's worm begins to turn (he reveals on cocaine that he may have been after her money, if not all along, but for some of the ride). So May finds herself superfluous to both of her children's needs, and finally does return home (but later leaves on a jet plane for pastures new).

The film's strength is that it portrays with unflinching but sympathetic truth the nature of contemporary adult parent-sibling relationships, where bereavement may leave the surviving parent feeling more alone than if they had no-one to care for them. This is not new, but the openness of the portrayal of sexual need in the over-60s may well be. The darkness of the film's content, from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, stands in contrast to the way in which it is lit (it seems to be perpetual summer), and the overall mood is uplifting - it could so easily have been yet another piece set in a dour and rainy England. The ending is perhaps under-written, as we don't know where May is going or for how long - perhaps she's Shirley Valentine with a pension, she's certainly no Picasso. Anne Reid is, however, revealed as a fine actor whose professional life will surely have changed forever. Like Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain (said by Paul Newman), "There goes your Mary Poppins {read Dinnerladies} image for good".

* Yes, he: announced Oct 2005 as the new James Bond.

16 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
Modern film-making started here, 4 February 2005

I first saw this film in the late 80s at the NFT (UK National Film Theatre) with a piano accompaniment. The print was scratchy and the inter-titles longer than several of the scenes. I was expecting it to be interesting as an example of Eisenstein's use of montage and cross-cutting (and indeed the audience seemed to be composed mainly of film students), thus worthy and perhaps a little dull. Instead, I was stunned. Now released on DVD with a Shostakovitch score and sparse sound effects, the film is revealed as masterpiece which surpasses both Battleship Potyomkin (1925) and Alexander Nevsky (1938) in its use of these two, and many more, filmic devices.

It's a young man's film and completely of its time and place, that is to say it gives a romanticised and idealised view of the Bolshevic revolution and its origins. The Tsar is directly compared to a horse's arse, Lenin harangues from the front of a steam engine, the proletariat are the true beneficiaries of the revolution. Statues fall apart and are re-formed in reverse motion, the people re-enact the storming of the winter palace (and climb its real gates), the battles cross-cut from faces and hands to carefully staged set pieces. In the second most famous sequence in early film history (the other being the Odessa steps from Potyomkin), a young woman's hair flops over the edge of a rising bridge while a cart and dead horse drop into the water.

The film is politically naive but decades ahead of its time in every other respect. The young people who inhabit these pages might like to compare its editing and pacing with that of the average music video and CGI-driven special effects film. I contend there is essentially nothing in these which they will not find in Eisenstein, and in October (Oktyabr) in particular. Yes, it's black and white, and silent but for the lately added score, and yes, it's from the early 20th century (by no means the earliest history of film), but it still stuns after repeated viewing. This is where modern film-making started, and everything we think we know about it (slow motion, montage, cross-cuts, reverses, you name it) had its origins in Eisenstein. The inter-titles (not sub-titles) still go on too long, though.

Closer (2004/I)
Not quite up to the script, 3 February 2005

It's so rare that we get to see a film made by adults for adults, that it's a pity to report that Mike Nichols's Closer doesn't quite come up to the very high standards that Patrick Marber sets for it. Marber's screenplay, adapted from his own stage version, is full of verbal sparrings which invite over-playing, and I think Nichols's deliberate attempt to under-emphasise the carnality of what takes place, letting the words work for the actors, so to speak, is what lets the film down. For once, I think that the script could do with more opening up from its theatrical origins, taking the action out of rooms, apartments, studios. The music is also spartan (which I would normally welcome), leaving the dialogue with much to do. The camera work is mostly static and head and shoulder, allowing for the very remorseless examination of the characters' reactions and motives which the script demands, but making for a one-dimensional experience.

For such a distraction-free approach to work to succeed in the cinema (the closeups may be softened by smaller screens), performances need to be of the highest order. In this case, though none of the A-list actors by any means let themselves down, their characters' duplicity and self-deception does not transfer from dialogue to action. The only clear motive that we see expressed is for Natalie Portman's character to leave (having had an unambiguous slap from Clive Owen); but earlier, we are asked to believe that Clive will have the hots for Natalie (because he suddenly strokes her face), and that the Julia Roberts character will deceive Clive for Jude Law because they stop talking and start kissing during a photographic session. Oh, and Julia and Clive will get married, but their initial meeting (contrived by Jude, or accidental ?) intimated no such thing.

The result, as many people have commented, is that we find it hard to care very much about these four people and their love and sex lives, to the point where the one (love) and the other (sex) become inter-changeable. Tellingly, though the characters repeatedly ask each other to be truthful, demanding not so much faithfulness as full reporting, it's hardly surprising that neither they nor we understand what has happened. Rather than the intended dissection of relationships, we get an intimate but unrewarding closeup of four characters doing things that come of as much a surprise to them as it is to us.

It's a pity that four such able actors have been reined in to such an extent. For what might be tantrums and breakdowns we get a series of tautly scripted two- and three-handers, with never so much a spilt glass of wine to break the rhythm. Julia Roberts's performance is better than she usually is allowed to be (how she must long for parts such as this), and Natalie Portman shows just how much potential she has for the more fully developed roles to come. Jude Law is good in a bookish sort of way, but is once more not allowed to (or maybe can't) work over much against his looks. He also needs to stop walking like that (the first time I have noticed how ungainly he is). Clive Owen is a bit of a disappointment, perhaps because his anger and spite, not to mention lust, bangs so hard against the other three.

I was not shocked or disgusted by what these fickle four get up to, or say to each other. But I was disappointed that so worthy an attempt to give us a truthful depiction of adult relationships falls into the chasm between exposition and character. For example, did the stage play make use of the Alice/Jane name device, or was this tacked on for the screen ? If so, what was it meant to explain about the Natalie Portman character ? It added nothing that I could see, but maybe I just didn't care enough.

16 out of 30 people found the following review useful:
Moore shoots himself in the foot, 28 January 2005

Having not seen this film till now, I was surprised at how poor it is, given the praise heaped on it (not least at the Cannes festival). Moore has some very good points to make, and the daily evidence from post-war Iraq only serves to reinforce the main thrust of the anti-invasion argument, but much of them are lost in a welter of trivia and scatter-gun diatribe.

Yes, Bush is a fool, but it's all too easy to make a fool look foolish. Yes, the connection made between Saddam and Osama was and is false, but jump-cut editing from one to the other is not the same as a counter-argument. Yes, the election was fraudulent, but presidents should be judged on their actions after taking office, and the stable door is now firmly bolted. By mixing serious points on these issues with frivolous ones, such as the allowing of matches and lighters on planes, Moore dilutes his main points and provides his detractors with ammunition. And by his unforgivable manipulation of the relatives of 9/11 and Iraq fatalities (whose permission he may not have sought), his distorted references to pre-invasion Iraq (which didn't invade or threaten America, but most certainly invaded Kuwait), his selection (and manipulation without permission of the victims ?) of tragic war footage, he, like his very target, turns truth into propaganda. What is comedy footage of national stereotypes (e.g. Iceland, and omitting Britain) doing in a serious stance on one-sided war alliances ?

Way, way better (and refused by the American networks - what a surprise) is Adam Curtis's documentary series The Power of Nightmares, which ran on BBC Channel 2 in late 2004 and early 2005 but is due on DVD - see IMDb pages and (last amended January 2005). This is everything Moore's film should have been, a coherent and evidence-based argument against a myth of global terrorism which is responsible for everything post-9/11. Curtis's view is that there is a threat from Islamic and other terrorist cells and groups, but that there is no network of organised anti-western interests (from al-Qaeda or elsewhere), and that Bush has used this 'politically driven fantasy' to justify Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and all the rest. This series is, I believe, is worth ten of Mr Moore's piece, and should be seen by everyone in the US and UK administrations. BAFTA awards surely will follow*, hopefully igniting fresh interest from non-UK media.

Michael Moore now has everything to do to make up for his lapse. Perhaps the reason for his film's success is that anything critical of Bush and the new fundamentalism is viewed as more subversive and anti-US than it is. The tragedy is that while Moore has been fully vindicated by events since this film was made, (so we are told) 50% of Americans still believe that Saddam, and not the Saudis and Pakistan, were behind 9/11. For Moore see Curtis, and soon, please.

* BAFTA for Best Factual Series, April 2005.

306 out of 380 people found the following review useful:
Still my personal favourite, 26 January 2005

I first saw this film on its release, aged 13, and it forms an important part of my transition towards adulthood. I am pleased to see that it consistently rates 20something in the IMDb listings, even from others (whom I envy, for I can't see it with fresh eyes) who are seeing it for the first time. Pleasing too is that some of those are also teenagers, for whom a forty-three year old film must itself seem part of the past. As for the minority who are bored by intentionally slow pacing (and for whom punctuation, paragraphing and grammar are a lost art), I suggest they learn a little about the history of film-making (from which it may become apparent that much of today's fast editing techniques were invented in the 1920s: try Eisenstein's October, for example).

From the universally admired cinematography of Freddie Young, the long shot of Omar Sharif's floating mirage entry, the pre-CGI battles and pan-up scene changes, to O'Toole's florid but career-defining performance and the (then) novel time-shift narrative, this film set standards not matched even by Lean himself, and, as many reviewers have commented, financially and practically unlikely to be attempted today. I too have rarely seen such clarity of image outside of Imax, and in my view the script by Robert Bolt (and I now have learnt, an uncredited Michael Wilson) is the finest in cinema. Maurice Jarre's music and some of the acting style now seem a little excessive, but repeated viewing (around 35 times in my case) does not diminish the impact and quality, and the restoration and now DVD release still, after all these years, approaches the effect of that first 1962 viewing.

It is rare that repeated watching of a film (as opposed to a live performance) does this, and the reasons go beyond the photography, performances and editing. In my opinion, it is because the characterisation and storytelling encourage an appreciation of the ambiguity and inconsistency behind our motives and behaviour, and, in a wartime scenario, in the contrast between political expedience and personal morality. For a 13-year old, this opened a window into the adult world, and it explains why the story has resonance far beyond its setting. The film doesn't require an understanding of middle-east politics (though it does have some very current relevance), but it does require an ability to look, listen and understand. The fact that so many people rate it so highly says everything about its wider impact. When The Matrix and even Lord of the Rings have slipped out of the ratings (and the adolescents who inhabit these pages have grown up), I believe this film will still be in the 20s or 30s, perhaps enabling young people to once again see the world through adult eyes.

Like Ali, I fear Lawrence. I fear the power of art to change us, to challenge our preconceptions. Every time I see this film I learn a little more, discover something new. When I was 13 I didn't understand much, but this film helped me to see that I wanted more, knew more, than my peers. I can't rate it more highly than that.