We've Been Watching...

Here at the Digital Fix we don’t simply watch the films that we write about. Of course, the review discs take priority so as to keep our readership informed of the latest releases, but still we find the time to satisfy our various tastes and predilections. As such we’ve come up with a new fortnightly feature in which to share some of our off-duty viewing. Every other Wednesday we’ll be asking the reviewing team to highlight some of the films they’ve been watching, whether it’s on a big screen or small, an ancient title or brand new…

ANTHONY: I didn’t catch Peter Jackson’s first instalment of The Hobbit during its theatrical showing. I know he would have preferred viewers to see An Unexpected Journey on the biggest screen imaginable, in 3D and at a frame-rate of 48fps. But such things felt like distractions from the film itself, especially since these were the aspects coming under the sternest review. And so I patiently waited for the Blu-ray and popped the disc into the player last night…

As it turns out, An Unexpected Journey is, itself, all about the distractions. A once simple tale spread across 310 pages will now be spread across three movies each with a runtime somewhere in the district of three hours. Tolkien’s children book has been elevated to a similar status as Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and that prompts a baggier, ill-disciplined experience: more action, but somehow less urgency. Songs and set-pieces that you would usually expect to see reserved for a fans-only ‘extended edition’ are all present and correct, as is the sensation that surely Jackson won’t need two more epic instalments before reaching a conclusion.

It’s a strangely unsatisfying experience, then, although that’s not to say An Unexpected Journey is without its highpoints. Ken Stott makes an excellent dwarf, for example, and the grand moments – such as the reveal of the stone giants – are suitably massive. Andy Serkis, once again, deserves a special mention, too: the extended scene with Gollum showcases a nuanced performance that transcends the much-vaunted motion-capture technology. But ultimately the film is mostly a three-hour warm-up for a journey that is barely begun and, as such, can’t help but feel a touch lacking.

DAVE: This past week or so I delved into my unwatched Blu-ray collection to revisit Park Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance trilogy’. The first is a delicious tale of vengeance brought about through an act of desperation that goes horribly wrong and leads to a domino effect, while the subsequent films are more about high concept, carefully planned acts of vengeance that take years to enact.

Oldboy is probably the most lauded of the trio and I can see why, but for me Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the most balanced of the films, mixing unique characters with great drama and a brooding sense of inevitability to how the story plays out. Lady Vengeance always seemed like the forgotten child of the series, though I see it’s rated very highly on IMDb so maybe that was just my reading the wrong forums at the time it was released. Much like Oldboy it features a high concept plan for vengeance at its core, but this time we follow the architect rather than the subject. That it focuses on a female protagonist is obviously a big change, and the casting here is nigh on perfect with Lee Young Ae ably handling the various faces of her character.

Although a little slow in the opening hour, when all the pieces start to fall into place and the tone of the film changes along with the colour on your screen (if you’re watching the Fade-to-Black version, that is) Lady Vengeance is gripping viewing. Special mention, too, for the soundtrack, which is quite beautiful and graced my iTunes playlist for months after first watching the film all those years ago.

Shifting focus to Japan I also caught up with Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, his second reimagining of an earlier classic in as many years. Less enticing a prospect than 13 Assassins, Miike’s version of Harakiri is an accomplished piece of filmmaking which does the broad strokes of the source justice, but on the whole it just felt too safe. Where it does shine, however, is in the visual design, both in terms of production and more specifically the use of camera. This was Miike’s first 3D film and while I only saw the 2D version, you can see a careful use of depth and some neat camera moves which work just as well in 2D.

JOHN: Films have taken a backseat in the last few weeks, as the glorious Hell on Wheels has come into my goggle box life. For those of you that thought Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead were the jewels in American Movie Channel’s crown, take another look. Nuanced performances, a western anti-hero and even proper comment on race, religion and gender in the Wild West of the American railroad. I have consumed seasons one and two and advise you to do the same.

And of AMC’s undead series, The Walking Dead came to a great end putting to bed a great irritation for many fans. I do hope season four is anywhere near as good as David Morrissey’s Governor and Michael Rooker’s return made this one. Speaking of whom, I caught Welcome to the Punch which had a great cast, a great score and brilliant cinematography but was ropey, plot-less bobbins written by the tinniest of ears for dialogue.

I have caught Subspecies III, the entertaining ‘spagwest’ Killer Caliber .32 and revisited Event Horizon on the bigger screen. Yet, the beginning of Hannibal and the return of Game of Thrones and Doctor Who on the smaller screen pleased me far more

CLYDEFRO: As someone typically against any kind of reality or competition show on television, it’s with some weakness that I admit to having now fallen (hard!) for a very popular program that is unscripted, steeped in celebrity, and revolves around singing other people’s songs. I am, of course, talking about The Voice, which has recently returned for a new season here in the United States.

My newfound addiction is, I stress, not a result of guilty pleasure, which I still adamantly question even as a concept. No, I’ve started to come to terms with just why The Voice works and to what degree its success can be attributed to the culture in which we’ve somehow found ourselves enmeshed. Its "talent before appearance" conceit is only part of the appeal. We’re also faced with a panel of four extremely successful and charismatic performers as judges/coaches who know exactly what it takes to make it in the ever difficult music business. The song choices, as well as the musical genres, then randomize like we’re listening to an extremely diverse radio station (typically with somewhat good taste).

Then there’s the performance quality, which is probably the single most pivotal aspect. When I witness a singer either putting a successful new spin on an established song or going traditional but doing it so well as to put chills down my spine then the chase for that feeling to happen again makes me keep watching. It’s a completely manipulative cycle, though not one I’m at all ashamed to own up to enjoying. On the whole, I can’t say I’m at all disappointed in my newfound love of The Voice. However possibly fleeting, the fix I get seems healthy and genuine. As long as there’s no gateway effect then I look forward to settling in a couple of times per week without any hint of guilt or unearned excitement.

MATT: This fortnight I’ve gone on my own little microcosmic cinematic journey from black & white to colour, brought on mostly by the fact that I have a bought a new projector. My old projector developed a convergence issue that resulted in a greenish stain covering the screen, which was mostly noticeable when viewing B&W movies, so for about two years I’d been buying old classics on Blu-ray and shelving them for the day I could enjoy them on an unflawed display. Well, that day came about a fortnight ago so I’ve been hitting my backlog of Criterion Collection and Masters of Cinema titles hard.

It’s perhaps best I don’t run through every title I’ve watched as I’ll be waffling for far too long, but highlights have been Island of Lost Souls, Erle C. Kenton’s take on The Island of Dr. Moreau with the macabre elements brought to the fore. It’s a classic that was so far ahead of its time in tone and content that you find yourself wanting to double check the back of case to see if it really was made THAT many years ago, but nope this is a 1932 film with remarkable effects work and a level of brutality that you rarely found in the big Hollywood horrors before the 1950s. You’ve also got Charles Laughton giving one of his greatest performances as the Machiavellian Dr. Moreau; he’s just infinitely watchable in this film.

Other highlights include the early Bergman classics Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika, which both share a theme of an idyllic romance that falls apart, the former because of a tragic accident and the latter because it was predicated on naive romantic notions. Both are rich, emotional films but Monika has this one heartbreaking scene where a character looks through a window and reminisces on this one perfect moment in his life, a moment of serenity too beautiful to last, which is just one of those brilliant cinematic moments that remain with you for long after the film ends.

Moving into colour territory (and an explosion of colour at that), I sat down and watched The Samurai Trilogy; which is the collective term in the west for Hiroshi Inagaki’s three-part saga about the life of Japan’s most famous swordsman: Miyamoto Musashi. It chronicles the life of Musashi starting from his rebellious youth where his violent temperament leads to persecution at the hands of his own neighbours, but after some tough punishment from the local priest he embarks on a journey of self-enlightenment by practising the way of the sword, where he finds himself embroiled in various dramatic affairs on the way to becoming the greatest swordsman of all time. Running adjacent to Miyamoto’s journey is the story of a number of supporting characters whose lives are influenced by their relationship to Miyamoto across a series of fateful encounters.

The Samurai Trilogy is a fantastic cocktail of jidaigeki musings, big sweeping romance & classic chanbara martial arts action - the first film also has the honour of beating Seven Samurai to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film back in 1955 (there’s a random fact for you). All three entries are amongst the most beautifully shot films of their time in Japan - where they were very early colour productions - and boy did Inagaki make full use of that colour in both the costume design and the sweeping vistas of various famous locales across the country (Note to the people behind the artless Karate Kid remake: THIS is how you do a picture postcard martial arts film!). This was the first time I’ve experienced the trilogy in anything resembling decent quality; its previous incarnations on home video were extremely rough to say the least, but the new Blu-ray set from Criterion is nothing short of a revelation in comparison to their very early DVD effort. It’ll cost you the better part of £50 to import from America, but I can’t recommend it enough!

GAVIN: This past week I did a documentary double bill: We Went to War and One Mile Away. The former is the late Michael Grigsby’s follow up to his own I Was A Soldier, catching up with the trio of Vietnam veterans who participated in his 1970 examination of the effects of war on three young Texan men. Over 40 years later and plenty of water may have passed under the bridge, but the spectre of Vietnam continues to hover over them to different degrees. It’s a fascinating but quietly devastating piece, beautifully put together, and should be seen at all costs.

One Mile Away, directed by Penny Woolcock, examines a more contemporary conflict: inner-city gang violence in Birmingham, specifically between two different gangs divided only by their respective postcodes. The director finds herself in the unique position of being able to help broker peace talks between two leading members from either side, and the film follows the fragile and frequently dangerous attempts to negotiate a full-blown truce. While this may sound heavy-going, it is in fact quite the opposite: an inspiring example of ripping through alarmist headlines to get to the truth of the matter, shedding light on what life is like for people growing up in such a troubled environment, and humanising people who have been demonised for too long. Woolcock gave a terrific Q&A after the screening I attended, where she made it clear that the project is still on-going and will need nurturing for some time to come, but offers much cause for optimism. Another must-see and it’s on Channel 4 tomorrow night so you have no excuse.

Finally I caught In the House (Dans la maison), a comedy drama from director François Ozon about a schoolboy’s attempts at writing, which impress his French language teacher (Fabrice Luchini). There’s a lot to like for much of the film’s running time: a playful tone which explores our need for stories and the nature of storytelling, and some great performances. By the end though it all comes crashing down, as though the script had painted itself in to a corner and, with nowhere left to go, grasped at thin air. It’s well worth a look though, particularly if you enjoyed the similarly-themed Adaptation.

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