It's a sad fact of multiplex culture that even in excessively large cinemas, certain films still don't get screened. Your local 25-screen Omniplex Cinema will sooner dedicate half of its venues to the latest overlong blockbuster so as to maximise profit than give one auditorium over to a thought-provoking 90 minute independent film. As a result, I can't always bring you reviews of every single great cinema release, equipped as I am with a local cinema that's still showing Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs in 3D, and yet I'd have to travel two miles to the nearest independent cinema if I wanted to see either of the Mesrine films.
With the prevalence of DVDs, it's become the case that a lot of these oversights can be rectified once films arrive on the shiny disc- Fight Club was outshined by the execrable Star Wars Episode I back in 1999, but anyone can tell you which is now the more quoted and enjoyed. And that's thanks to the film's popularity on DVD. And that's why I'm only too pleased to dedicate a blog entry to two rather great films from 2009 that've just made it to DVD. I'm not entirely sure if this problem with multiplexes warrants a regular feature on DVD releases, but I can say for now that this post will cover Good and Is Anybody There? Both are available to rent and buy on DVD right now, and if you read on, I'll tell you why they're worth a look, with the usual minimum of spoilerage.
Good is a film set in Nazi Germany, exploring how the middle class was drawn towards political activism in the tidal wave of oppression and national change that Hitler's election brought about, but it's a character-based drama as opposed to say, a film about a complicit Nazi who likes being read to. Based on a stage-play, the lead roles are taken by Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs. Mortensen plays John Halder, a university professor who juggles his work and his lukewarm marriage and family life with the care of his elderly mother. He's outshone professionally by his friend Maurice- played by Isaacs- a Jewish psychologist for whom things understandably get difficult as the Nazis develop their ideas. Meanwhile, Halder comes to the attention of the leading Nazi officials with the publication of his book about euthanasia, and rapidly finds himself ignoring his conscience entirely to make lavish changes to his lifestyle.
So as you'll grasp from that, it's a morality tale at heart. The title refers to Halder being a fundamentally good man, with the inferred message that evil (the Nazis) will prevail as long as good men (like Halder) do nothing. The representation of evil in films is a can of worms I don't want to open in the middle of this review, but needless to say, we've got the gist when it comes to Nazis being bad. In the wake of Inglourious Basterds and Valkyrie, it isn't the best time for Good to come to DVD, as it may well be lost in the wake of those more bombastic and action-packed "Nazi movies". And all the way through it, I couldn't shake the feeling I was watching the story in the wrong medium. Seeing as how it's adapted from a stage-play, that's arguably true. Director Vicente Amorim certainly makes the affair feel more theatrical than cinematic, and while that's certainly not a bad thing, it drew me out of the film every now and then.
And like a play, it's very performance-driven. Viggo Mortensen underplays Halder rather well, and Jason Isaacs- for whom this was something of a personal project, having spent a lot of time and money trying to get the film going- is excellent in an impressive but relatively smaller role. "Screen Jew" seems to be a credit that the average Oscar-hunting actor is keen to add to their CV, if you take a cynical view of things, but as with all of Isaacs' work, there's something intense and honest about his performance. Isaacs is one of the best and most under-valued British actors in film today, and holds his own against Mortensen very well too. They make good use of a script that moves along at a leisurely pace, with no real sense of momentum at any given point. Good is a drama that's worth watching for its performances alone, but it's also a fairly competent drama that will intrigue anyone who has studied or is interested in Nazi Germany before the war, and how the large part of an entire nation found themselves supporting madmen. I am interested in that era, and so I liked it.
Perhaps the other great film that's just arrived on DVD has a more broad appeal- everyone loves Michael Caine, right? From The Ipcress File to The Dark Knight, via The Muppet Christmas Carol and Without A Clue, I am a huge fan (6'5 at the last measurement) of Michael Caine. And Is Anybody There? might just boast one of his finest performances ever. Caine plays Clarence, a retired magician with a cynical and anarchic outlook on life, who is pressed to move into an old peoples' home. There he finds friendship with the owners' young son, Edward, played by the utterly superb Bill Milner. Edward is obsessed with the customary death rate amongst the infirm population he shares his home with, and more specifically what happens to them after their bodies give up.
I was lucky enough to see this in a cinema- the Arc Cinema in Stockton, two miles from where I live- and was willing to take two buses to see it on my own because I'd heard such good things about the film. However, as I'd neglected to read the listings properly before I set off, I hadn't realised that I was going to what the cinema promoted as a Silver Screen showing. And because of that, I was sat in the middle of a sold-out screening of excited OAPs who'd gained admission for half-price. Some might say that's a slightly immersive viewing experience given the subject and setting of the film, but I'd happily go to another of those screenings- they were the most excited and enjoyable audience I've seen a film with all year. But I'm getting off topic here- the question should be, was it worth it? Yes. Yes, yes, a million times, yes.
The reason I didn't review the film immediately after seeing it was because I knew it would be forgotten if I reviewed it at a time when nowhere close was showing it. I wanted people to actually be able to see the film within a few days of reading the review if I really wanted, because Is Anybody There? is just a marvellous film. Aside from the moving script and well-drawn characters, the performances are just absolutely excellent. Granted, it has a good cast, that includes David Morrissey, Anne-Marie Duff and Liz Spriggs in her final role, all of whom are on excellent form, but what really made the film stand out from the rest were the two central performances- Bill Milner builds on the promise he showed in last year's Son of Rambow to bring another charming character to life. I feel old and wizened for the combination of words that are about to occur, but I'm absolutely sure he will go far in this business. And then there's Michael Caine. Well, it's Michael Caine- his character is obviously funny, spellbinding and brilliant to watch. He's made his name out of performances like that, and here I just thought he was amazing.
I'll address one potentially spoilery element that I suspect I'd be challenged about if anyone saw this film and disagreed with me, so look away if you're planning to watch and don't want to read anything close to plot spoilers. People will say that the ending is predictable. I think that's just a fact of how the film is structured, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say those people are wrong. Yes, you realise what's coming at a certain stage in the film, but we're certainly not talking Marley and Me levels of predictability. I'd say instead that what happens at the end of the film is inevitable, not predictable. And the scenes that precede it don't act as a fanfare, but rather as a sort of poignancy that runs through the second half of the film. And I shed a tear at the very end. No, really, I cried like a giant baby at the end, and I don't cry easily at films. Perhaps a second viewing is needed to tell if that ending is as much of an emotional sucker-punch as it was first time around- perhaps I was just feeling vulnerable, being alone in Stockton and surrounded by gleeful OAPs.
Whether my fragile emotions factor into it or not, Is Anybody There? is a touching, darkly comic and generally marvellous film. I'm planning to get it on DVD as soon as my stunted finances will allow, and I advise anyone else to seek it out and watch it. Caine and Milner make an enjoyable duo to watch, and together with the script, the direction and the rest of the performances, it's one of the best films of the year. It might seem like I'm throwing that out a lot lately, but I'm really not. This was the best film I'd seen all year back in July, and it probably still is. Absolutely definitely see it if you set any stock by my opinion whatsoever. Thank me later.
District 9 is coming at some point, I promise- I still need a second viewing before I review that film and that hasn't yet happened. I'm sure that's getting enough praise elsewhere for you to see it without hearing my verdict first, and without giving too much away, I agree that you should. Possibly pipping that review to the post however, reviews of Adventureland and Gamer shall be appearing online within the next week or so, depending on when I see the latter.
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, make sure you don't watch anything I wouldn't watch. More pressingly, watch Is Anybody There?