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DVD Round Up: 2005


The arthouse cinema is in fabulous shape, and is especially attracting a mid-afternoon following of retired and semi-retired people who prefer to sit in small clutches of the like-minded where there is only a slim likelihood of rustling, whispering and worse. What's more, a "shush!" still works in such places.

Still, for various reasons, we can't or won't all see movies in public. So here's a roundup of recent or fairly recent movies which would serve your DVD player well.

Kids, don't you love 'em?
The Choir (2004, Fr) has just the right mixture of sentimentality and toughness to make it a classic. As in Sidney Poitier's To Sir, With Love (1967, GB), a group of sub-hoodlums is brought to something like cheerfulness by a teacher who can see their goodness and is none-too-keen on the cynicism of their more case-hardened teachers. The star really is the teacher, and it is his dogged dreariness - his acceptance of loneliness and drudgery - which allows him to do so much good. Something similar is at work in the documentary Être et Avoir (2002, Fr), which touchingly chronicled yet another social castaway - a man of culture who abandons himself to French rural life - who seeks no reward as he pours love and talent into the hayseeds who barely notice (or need to) that they have a secular saint in their midst. Both films feature a mite capable of wringing hardened withers (the bits of the body which taughten with age). Both films are now the centre of rows about sharing their surprise profits, in one case led by the embittered teacher in question.

Rampling, and other holiday from hell
Embrassez Qui Vous Voudrez (2002, Fr) was a marvellous vehicle for this valuable francophile. A chic and successful couple are snagged-up with another family, one which hovers much more obviously on the brink of despair. Nobody but the French can really film the interior workings of complicated people, and especially not with a pastry-maker's art, at once both light and filling. In this movie, we see these miracles running alongside a beach holiday: sin, sea and sand. And withal, we have Rampling cast in a young man's mind as Mrs Robinson, a role which looked as though it will suit her, though she turns it down.

In The Swimming Pool (2003, Fr), another offering which draws on an English book, we have Rampling as a buttoned-up English thriller writer who decides, to her publisher's horror, to write a serious tome. It may or may not be a depiction of events which did or did not take place at the publisher's French retreat, where Rampling has gone to nurse grievances and fantasies. Very satisfactory, and not without its Mrs Robinson moments.

Red Lights (2004, Fr) has the unfolding of a good old existential tale, updated from a Georges Simenon story. A quietly desperate Parisian salaryman is several drinks up when he finally hooks up with his preoccupied wife and they begin their August trek south. Things go from bad to worse: misplaced machismo at the wheel, more drink and a murder all complicate things for the man, as he has to work out what to do with his wife (who has ended up in hospital along the way). This is a road movie which becomes a psychological thriller of some power. Its hypnotic meanderings pack a deal of menace.

More on Mrs Robinson
For a while, film-makers have obsessed on the sexiness of the middle-aged. Calendar Girls (2003, GB) is only the most obvious (rather too obvious) of these. A better class of thing is The Mother (2003, GB) the slightly improbable tale of a northern mum who treks to London to bury the memory of her oppressive husband and finds a handsome, civilised builder who shows her a good time, on his time-out from pleasuring her daughter. (Shades of As Good As It Gets, see below.) No-one gets quite what they want out of mum's visit, or really deserves to, but all the characters are fairly involving. One does mildly care what happens to everyone.

One draws up a William Trevor story as people used to open a Somerset Maugham, but expecting a hint of the bizarre. In line with this clutch of stripping non-striplings, My House In Umbria (2003, GB) has more of Maggie Smith on display than one expects as she plays a romantic novelist whose drink-fuelled fantasies and lusts take her to the heart of things. Like at least half the occupants of the imagined world of modern fiction, she was abused as a child, and we see her doing much more good than harm as she puts the experience haphazardly to work. Smith is convincing as she teeters on the brink of her dotage in her fabulous house and its intriguing solution to the servant problem. This is a valuable addition to her long-standing commitment to the Italian tourist board.

Troubled Writers (and more Mrs Robinson)
Finding Neverland (2004, GB) is one of the few films which merits a health warning: commentators mostly missed how bad it is. Pretty-boy Johnny Depp wrongly thought pouty would do it as he impersonated J M Barrie. Getting Kate Winslet to attempt sick and wan (as the children's mother) was like asking Emma Thompson to do existential angst. These jolly hockey sticks girls are not built for it. The inner world of a writer and of bohemianism in general was much better done in I Capture the Castle (2003, GB), in which Bill Nighy played a self-obsessed (blocked) novelist, too caught up in his mid-life crisis and its sexual shenanigans to be alert to the passage into maturity of his two very different daughters. This is a sharp account of the collision of the worlds of art and money, and especially of the commercial self-interestedness of good girls. Being Julia (2004,GB) does much the same work (though the self-interest comes from a boy working on a Mrs Robinson), and does it not half badly. (For those whose cup or tea she is, Annette Bening's appearance here is an obvious delight.) This version of Maugham's Theatre is hardly deeply-felt, or even that well-observed, but it is a hundred times better than Finding Neverland at taking one backstage. While we're at the world of pre-war glamour, it's worth noting that Stephen Fry can't quite engage us with Bright Young Things (2003, GB), his take on Waugh's Vile Bodies. Still, it's a close run thing, and this will while away a wet afternoon on many a TV re-run, even if one wouldn't quite send away to Amazon rental DVD for it.

Look At Me (2004, Fr) is another fabulous portrait of bad parenting (see I Capture the Castle). A bored and graceless writer cannot be bothered to consider that his plump daughter might be quite a good singer, or a good anything else. It takes a music teacher (herself on the make, and interested only because of the celebrity of the girl's father) to spot the talent. (Ah, how singing is used by movie-makers to tell us of inner expressiveness.) The father is wholly believable, as his friends hang on to him out of habit, greed and amusement. We are also at the heart of the most liked location of French film-makers: the upmarket family weekend retreat. It was, for instance, featured in Le Divorce (2003, US), which would have made a good entrant in either our troubled thirty-somethings or the bright and brittle Hollywood comedy sections. This one has the advantage of featuring "The American Abroad", but this time as giving rather better than they got. Dragging in the French is a common trick when you want to pitch Yankee honesty against interesting, cultured, sophisticated duplicity. (You lob in the Italians when you want to see Americans become sensualists: classically in Avanti, 1972, GB , and the heavenly Only You, 1994, US.)

Saintly and randy
Holy Girl (2005, Argentina) takes us to a second-rate provincial Argentinian hotel which is hosting a medical conference. One of the most serious of the visiting doctors rubs himself very gently against a girl he later realises is the daughter of the house, whose mother is hot for him. The daughter is having a go-round with religious mania of the conventional kind, but we find ourselves liking her even as she brings about the doctor's downfall. The piece is nicely non-judgemental: the touch-up is not figured as doing anyone much harm, for all that it ends in catastrophe. Did I say languorous? It says something for the quality of observation that we barely notice that several coats of paint have dried whilst we watched (none of them deployed on the hotel, where they would have been useful).

The Latin American middle class is a ripe subject. People battle to acquire and hang on to respectability in the heat, the ruins of European colonialism, and thuggery which attends Mafia Capitalism. See: the brilliant Nine Queens (2000, Argentina), the heart-breaking Central Station (Brazil, 1998), the touching Y Tu Mamá También (2001, Mexico) and the very decent Tango (1998, Argentina).

Troubled thirty-somethings
Francois Ozon has given us a fabulous run of movies. As well Swimming Pool (see above), there's 8 Women (2002, Fr), starring Catherine Deneuve and seven others, which was an absurdly good-looking romp whose eye for colour matches Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Fr), one of Deneuve's earliest outings, or Ma Vie En Rose (1997, Fr). His latest-but-one, 5X2 (2004, Fr), is more serious than the others, but it's quite light on its feet for all that. We are sleep-walking backwards through the failed marriage of two thirty-somethings. We meet them first during a sort of rape, and realise straight away that the woman is strong, unconventional and undecided. Played Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, she is in a sort of flux. One of the very remarkable things about Ozon's filming of her, and not least in the forced-sex scene, is the sheer womanliness of the performance. Oddly, it's tenderness and not violence or vampishness one remembers. The husband is also drawn well, though: curiously null, but comprehensible.

This movie would sit well with The Secretary (2002, US) or with Confidences Trop Intimes (2004, Fr) as accounts of female waywardness and sexuality.

So would Closer (2004, UK). One always feels that films based on plays kind of don't count. That's until one remembers the blissful ease of cinema-going compared with the disappointment of attending theatres (people not understanding how to behave matters much more in the latter case). Any way, in Mike Nichols' hands, Patrick Marber's play about love-tangled, rather bleak, moderns transfers well. The material is strong but not great (not in the same league as Stoppard's The Real Thing, about an earlier and less-troubled generation). But it has passages, instances and moments which make one's heart stop in appalled recognition. "I did that, once", "I had that done to me once", ouch. It is something of a showcase for tough and tender Clive Owen, and though it's patronising to say so, Julia Roberts is much better than one expects.

Wine-making and troubled thirty-somethings
Sideways (2004, US) is, like The Opposite of Sex (1998, US), one of those medium-scale American movies which show that the home of blockbusters is capable of producing work which is closely-observed and subtle but not aimed at the arthouse ghetto. You may say that Jack Nicholson's As Good As It Gets (1997, US) or the much-abused Town and Country (2000, US) show that American comedy is capable of being sophisticated. But these are both high-tone in the bright and brittle Broadway mode. (Town and Country has one of cinema's funniest slapstick moments, involving a wheelchair with a mind of its own.) Besides, they involve the middle-aged. The Opposite Of Sex and Sideways are brilliant in a different way: they are about youngish people who are provincial and almost humdrum as well as cultured, pained, and funny.

Sideways showcases the struggle of a plain and depressive man to cheer himself up, and instil some decency in his flashy and shallow actor chum who's about to get married. The thespian returns the compliment by aiming to get his ugly duckling friend laid. Can wine, Europe's values in a Californian valley, redeem all? Can snobbery prove itself usefully infectious?

Sideways makes a perfect complement to Mondovino (2004, Fr), a documentary about wine one-upmanship in France and the US. The latter's message is presumably that France's wine ought to part of the "Slow Food" blah-blah movement, and its traditions certainly epitomise it. Hilariously, the film makes a rather better argument by mistake: that aspiration and quality are found in curious places, including the awful New Age sales-speak of the New World's wine-makers, and the French had better get with the programme or lose their markets.

Oriental hi-jinks
Chinese military high-jinks and computer graphics become wearisome. However, one of the most recent examples makes a better pitch as an interesting thriller, a romance and an experience which is as much about frocks as fights. House of Flying Daggers (2005, HK) makes you like its young lovers and their travails. But should interest in the story wane (it does, sometimes), one can simply be ravished by the forests of bamboo and the snowy dells. Above all, the filming of fabric has never come close to this: and the appeal is not so much out-and-out gorgeousness as synapse-tingling harmony of shades. Matisse would have been beside himself.

In The Mood for Love (2001, HK) was the opposite of martial: it was marital and extra-marital. It wasn't even ordinarily oriental, since it addressed the subliminal Westernisation of a pair of star-crossed Hong Kongers. It left the testing question open: were these Chinese corrupted or liberated by their love of American crooners and more? It was a triumph of a paint-drying movie, and again it would a toss-up whether one could least afford to lose the frocks or the script.

For modern far eastern low-life, Souzhou River (2000, HK) is well worthwhile: weird, and bit freaky, it swirls and fidgets under a sweaty fluorescent light. But there's mystery as well as a thriller here.

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