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24 September 2014
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BBC Radio Merseyside: Ramsey reviews...
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BBC Radio Merseyside 'Artwaves' show hosts Ramsey's regular reviews.
Award winning horror writer Ramsey Campbell recommends the pick of videos and dvds every week.
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The greatest film about conjuring and illusion is Orson Welles' F FOR FAKE, itself a cinematic conjuring trick. Christopher Nolan's THE PRESTIGE, however, offers it real competition. It's based on a novel by Christopher Priest, one of our leading writers of science fiction as a literature of ideas. Two Victorian magicians Angier and Borden (Hugh Jackman and a cockney Christian Bale) become professional rivals to a lethal extent after Angier's wife dies during a stage act as a result of his colleague's preparations. As well as sabotaging each other's performances they attempt to top them, and when one is unable to reproduce the illusion of the Transported Man to his satisfaction he approaches scientist Niklos Tesla (David Bowie) to build a device that will achieve the effect in reality. Much more goes on - an assistant (Scarlett Johansson) is used as another kind of device for acquiring secrets, for instance - but the greatest complexity is both thematic and narrative, with layers of narration that remind us how Nolan proved his deftness in building elaborate structures with no loss of clarity in MEMENTO. Like Priest's fiction, the film keeps science-fictional technology to an absolute minimum, and concentrates on the beleaguered psychology of its characters (as Nolan did in MEMENTO and indeed INSOMINA and BATMAN BEGINS, of course). It's certainly a film to see more than once, and reaffirms Nolan's status as a director of considerable intelligence.

At the end of Paul Wieland's SIXTY SIX the young hero Bernie, having survived a disastrous bar mitzvah attended by no-one except family, finds fulfilment in supporting England in the World Cup final that coincides with his would-be celebration. The point seems to be that it's all right to be as Jewish as you like so long as you support the England football team. In current terms, you might very well read it as offering one notion of integration to minorities, in which case I'm certainly a member of one, since I had to remind myself what happened in the 1966 World Cup, not having cared at the time or now. The idea seems symptomatic of the film itself, which is a Jewish comedy of an especially lugubrious kind that tries to merge with a more traditional kind of British film. Ben is a lonely asthmatic with not much of a relationship with his obsessive-compulsive disastrously unlucky tax-dodging father. The events might be funnier if they were told as a stand-up; as it is, too many details just seem sordid - the scene where our hero hides in a wardrobe while the wife of his doctor (Stephen Rea) carries on an affair, or the bar mitzvah itself, where someone tracks in droppings from the garden. Even if the writer-director is Jewish, does that excuse the stereotypes? They seem part of the determination to woo the British mainstream at its lowest level with caricature Welsh, for instance, and gags about generous cleavage. As Bernie, Gregg Sulkin does well in terms of what's required of him (mostly one mournful note). His father is played by the excellent Eddie Marsan, who came to my notice as the understanding boyfriend in VERA DRAKE, where he's seen to better advantage. The real moments of feeling all involve Helena Bonham Carter as Ben's mother. She doesn't need the relentlessly wistful score that nudges the audience in scene after scene, and neither does the film. I must say I preferred Paul Wieland when he was writing and directing Mr Bean, and I wonder if this is another case of the comic writer growing too serious.

MISCHIEF NIGHT chronicles a week in the tangled relationships of two families on a Leeds estate, one Pakistani and one white. To begin with its notion of racial equality or rather the way it avoids imbalance is to have each family include a thief and a drug dealer. The surprise is that writer-director Penny Woolcock packs in so much plot and observation - enough for a film much longer than its ninety-three minutes. This is a mixed blessing. It's certainly ambitious in its scope, and sketches a decidedly bleak portrait of contemporary Leeds outside the tourist areas (which of course can be applied to many British towns). Gradually it becomes clear that most of the characters have aspirations outside their current state - a Pakistani girl threatened with an arranged marriage, the elder son of the white family who becomes an initially unwilling baby-minder for a junkie neighbour - even if the aspirations aren't always realised. There are moments of moral ambiguity, as where the local fundamentalist imam is ejected from the mosque by a Pakistani drug dealer. If anything, the film contains too much material to resolve, and has to send a bunch of its criminal characters off in a balloon to omit them from the Mischief Night finale. Some of the resolutions are altogether too pat, not least the imam's change of heart. Still, the film is served by generally good performances, not least Kelli Hollis as the narrator. The film's real centre may be seen as the relationship between the younger children of the families - fine performances by Holly Kenny and Qasim Akhtar. If the film invests most of its hope in them, it's a touching notion, and equally it doesn't pretend that everything has changed for the better. A flawed film but often a rewarding one.

Anthony Mingella's BREAKING AND ENTERING is something of a companion piece too. Jude Law is an architect working on a Kings Cross project while growing apart from his wife (Robin Wright Penn) and her autistic daughter (Poppy Rogers). The office he shares with his partner (Martin Freeman) is robbed by a young cat burglar (Rafi Gavron), whom Law eventually tracks home, only to become involved with the boy's Bosnian mother (Juliette Binoche). This film also attempts an overview of how we live now in Britain, more in terms of moral relativity than integration. It's sensitively played by the two principals, and Binoche is especially moving, but other cast members are sidelined to the extent that they're almost simple thematic statements (Ray Winstone's policeman) or metaphors (Vera Farmiga as a loquacious East European prostitute, whose integration - I use the term differently here - into the plot is rather more convenient than plausible). The final shot slips out of focus and stays that way for the duration of the end credits, and that is a kind of metaphor for one method of the film (ironic, you might think, given that the Law character explicitly accuses himself of using metaphors as a means of distancing himself from his life, unless you take this as a confession of self-knowledge on the part of the writer-director). Still, it's clear-eyed enough about its characters and their behaviour, not least the architect's tendency to take on incomplete families for his own emotional reasons. Fans of Minghella's tendency to find wistful romance in social and political observation - as in THE ENGLISH PATIENT - should be won over, and I intermittently was.

On the whole, however, LITTLE CHILDREN is the more considerable film along surprisingly similar thematic and structural lines. The actor Todd Field gained plaudits as a director for IN THE BEDROOM, and this new work is equally sensitive with difficult material. The title clearly doesn't refer merely to the children at the playground where parents Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) meet, as a result of which they eventually have an affair. It can certainly be seen as relating in more than one way to the local paedophile, a remarkable performance by Jackie Earle Haley, but like the central couple he's viewed with great clarity but no overt judgement. The film is narrated by an omniscient authorial voice, presumably taken over from the original novel, but occasionally this seems redundant - for instance, when it announces Brad's wife Kath's realisation that he and Sarah are involved in their affair, perfectly well conveyed by the editing and Jennifer Connelly's understated acting. As a portrait of the secret life of Middle America it's gently persuasive and ultimately redemptive, not to say moving.

On DVD, WARRIOR KING is the new showcase for Tony Jaa, the extraordinary Thai martial artist who previously stunned us with ONG-BAK. This time travels to Sydney in search of elephants stolen from his village. They prove to have ended up in a Thai restaurant run by the Chinese mafia and serving endangered species for the uncaring gourmet. As well as this he's up against corrupt policemen, drug dealers and giant murderous opponents. The early scenes offer James Bond-style chases and hand-to-hand combats too often edited in MTV style, even if some of the stunts are wonderful but from around the midpoint onward - a single take as elaborate as any by Scorsese or De Palma, as our hero fights his way up four floors of the secret section of the restaurant - the film becomes breathtaking and also astoundingly violent (no surprise that it's rated 18). Jaa may not be as much fun as Jackie Chan, but he's certainly as agile and inventive. The excellent two-disc set from Premier Asia offers numerous interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes (not least a multi-angle analysis of some of the fights) but would be worth the price for the fine anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film alone, with solid optional DTS.

Ramsey's website is: www.herebedragons.co.uk/campbell

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