Blu-ray Review: Like Father, Like Son

like father like son

Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Rating: 8/10

In this modern take on the age-old theme of nature versus nurture, yuppie couple Ryota and Midori get the shock of their lives when they discover that their son, six-year-old Keita, whom they’ve been painstakingly grooming to be a high-achiever like his dad, isn’t actually their son after all, thanks a mix-up at the hospital where he was born. As baby-switches go, it might not be quite as bad as the one in The Omen, but the consequences are still pretty devastating.

It’s a dilemma which, in less subtle hands, would make for meaty melodrama and tearful histrionics. Like Father, Like Son, by contrast, unfolds through gentle character studies and dry comedy of manners, but it exerts no less of a powerful hold for that.

The potential corrosiveness of the revelation on their privileged little family unit is immediately apparent. For driven, workaholic Ryota, the vague dissatisfaction he has had with his son all these years suddenly makes sense, while Midori is appalled at her own lack of insight as a mother – how could she not tell that the child was not her own?

And then there’s the awkward meeting with the other victims of the mix-up, a scruffy, cash-strapped small town husband and wife who have been unwittingly raising Ryota and Midori’s son in the back of a seedy hardware shop. Complications ensue as they attempt to work out how best to handle the situation. Should they swap back? What’s more important – blood, or the connection they’ve developed with Keita? Or maybe, Ryota wonders, he and Midori should raise both boys? Yudai, the other dad, is eagerly anticipating a big payout in damages from the hospital, and Ryota looks down his nose at him, certain he’s the better role model. But as the two families start seeing more of each other, Ryota is disconcerted to find everyone getting on well with Yudai, who may not have made much of his life but certainly has a magic touch with kids.

Hirokazu Kore-eda teases out these various wrinkles with sensitivity and warmth, and – no Kramer Vs Kramer moments here  – with a complete absence of sentimentality or mawkishness. There are beautifully natural performances all round, even from the (extremely cute and unannoying) littluns, and Machito Ono exudes understated pathos as the quiet, timid wife who realizes, perhaps too late, that she feels a profound kinship with this little boy who has come by mistake into her life.

If you wanted to pick holes, you could argue that the movie relies upon a consoling and untrue stereotype – namely, that the rich lead boring, anal-repressive lives and the poor might have holes in their shoes but they know how to have fun. But aside from this sneaky balancing of the scales, Like Father, Like Son is an impressively thoughtful, even-handed and well-crafted piece of cinema and one well worth making a permanent home for on your Blu-ray shelf.

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DVD Review: Mammon

Starring: Jon Oigarden, Terje Stromdahl, Lena Kisten Ellingsen
Director: Cecilie Mosli
Rating: 8/10

This offering from Norway (as shown on More 4 and available on DVD as part of Arrow’s Nordic Noir label) is a grandiose conspiracy thriller of a kind that we haven’t seen on these shores since the hallowed days of Edge of Darkness and Between the Lines. Things kick off with Peter (Jon Oigarden), a crusading journalist, investigating financial wrongdoings at a defence firm run by his own brother, who takes the fall and kills himself, but the mystery deepens when it turns out that the dead man was the source of the original tip-off. With the aid of ex-policewoman Vibeke (Lena Kisten Ellingsen), Peter sets out to learn more, and he unearths secrets than take in political corruption, a dodgy business school, the credit crunch and a new wrinkle upon the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. At the same time, counterbalancing this larger story, is a more intimate family drama as the mounting crisis brings into focus Peter’s own troubled relationship with his father, Tore (Terje Stromdahl).

Mammon does nothing to dispel the notion that Norwegians are a grumpy lot. The performances tend towards the quiet and understated, and of the characters, only Vibeke and Tore really break out of the dour, Scandinavian mould to grab your attention – one being a tightly wound, short-haired computer geek with more than a whiff of the heroine in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the other a wonderfully scary vicar forever fulminating upon Peter’s failings.

But the series makes up for what it lacks in banter and small talk with a remorseless dramatic grip. The plot demonstrates a real sense of scale and flair, invoking weighty themes to do with the responsibility of the press, the stultifying nature of privilege in Norwegian society and the forces of repression and guilt in the home. And with the stakes ramped up episode by episode, the show has a healthy dollop of action too and more than its fair share of tense, creepy and scary situations, including several bloody murders, a nail-biting sequence in a snowbound cabin and a good old-fashioned manhunt, all steeped by director Cecilie Mosli in an appropriately brooding, ominous atmosphere. Just occasionally things teeter into the far-fetched, and you might not warm to many of the cast, but overall Mammon is a peppery, bracingly Nordic pleasure.

Blu-ray Review: Gregory’s Girl

Starring: John Gordon-Sinclair, Clare Grogan
Director: Bill Forsyth
Rating: 9/10

Hailed as pitch-perfect when it was first released in 1981, Bill Forsyth’s cosily charming comedy now makes its appearance on Blu-ray. But can Gregory’s Girl still put it in the back of the net all these years on?

His school soccer team having lost eight matches in a row, gangly Gregory finds himself demoted to goalie while the coach starts looking for fresh talent. When the new recruit turns out to be a girl, Gregory is instantly smitten. “Sweep her off her feet,” one of his friends recommends, “Oh, I forgot, you’re the goalkeeper, she’s the sweeper.” But he has his work cut out as she becomes an instant sensation: “I want to interview you and that girl in 2A who had the triplets,” says an excited reporter from the school newspaper. Time to take some advice from his ten-year-old sister: “So I should think less about love and more about colours?”

Watching it now, it’s a film that leaves you with mixed feelings. On the one hand, its virtues are self-evident. Not only are there some great lines and whimsical, near-surreal vignettes, but this is also one of those exceptionally rare films where even the smallest of roles comes effortlessly to life (for another movie where this is true in something like the same degree I find myself casting my mind back to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps). On top of that, it has the perfect leading man in the form of the endearingly shambolic John Gordon-Sinclair, who does the shy, sensitive and awkward bit very well but also makes Gregory funny, sarcastic and self-aware in a thoroughly believable way.

On the other hand, though, its depiction of teenage girls as mature, level-headed and warmly supportive of one another (the movie is, among other things, an unpretentious celebration of feminism) now seems well meaning but over-gallant and a touch condescending. (Nor do they get a great deal of screen time, not even the very engaging Clare Grogan, who went from actress to pop star when she became the lead singer of indie band Altered Images.) You also can’t help wondering what modern youngsters make of it in these post-Skins days of designer drugs and sexting. But then again, were things ever as innocent as they appear in Gregory’s Girl? After all, the ’80s were an era of glue-sniffing and unemployment, but neither of these spectres trouble the rather spruce new town through which Forsyth’s school kids wander. Yet maybe, now as then, its very sweetness of outlook is what makes it so refreshing.

Even the biggest fans of the movie must be wondering whether this a film they need to own on Blu-ray, so you’ll be delighted to hear than this HD restoration by Pinewood Studios is an absolute corker. What always used to seem like rather a dowdy and scrubby film now looks fresh, clean and crisp. Fleshtones have wonderful fidelity, the quilting on all those ’80s puffa jackets is plump and glossy and there’s a rich, deep sheen to Clare Grogan’s bob. It’s the kind of transformation we’ve been led to expect from Blu-ray but rarely get.

As well as an audio commentary with the director and film critic Mark Kermode, the extras include a catch-up with Clare Grogan, who explains what it was like to go on a huge promotional tour for the film, and a 20-minute interview with Forsyth, who talks in an extremely articulate way about the filmmaking process and describes his early attempts to get Gregory’s Girl off the ground and his work with the Glasgow Youth Theatre from which many of the actors in the movie came.

Gregory’s Girl on Blu-ray? Score!

Blu-ray Review: Hobson’s Choice 60th Anniversary Edition

Starring: Charles Laughton, John Mills, Brenda de Banzie
Directed by: David Lean
Rating: 7/10

This genial comedy of folk up North came at a transitional point in David Lean’s illustrious career. The intimate but enduring masterpieces of his early period – Brief Encounter, the Dickens adaptations – were behind him, and he had yet to blossom into the director of those elegant Cinemascope epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia for which he is still best known to the general public.

Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) owns a thriving shoe shop in Salford, but its success is largely due to the business sense of his eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda de Banzie) and the superior handicraft of his bootmaker, Willie Mossop (John Mills,) which leaves Henry plenty of time to do what he does best, holding court with a bunch of cronies in the local pub. When Maggie takes it into her head to marry Willie, Henry sees it as a threat to this comfortable way of life and goes all-out to put a stop to the impending nuptials. Willie is terrified out of his skin, but the indomitable Maggie sets about foiling the would-be tyrant.

The source material, a play by Harold Brighouse, must have been showing its age even at the time, largely because Brighouse delineates his characters, and their comic entanglements, with brushstrokes so broad you could paint a barn door with them. Lean attempts to manage this problem in two seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand, he tries various means to ground the drama. The undoubted highlights of the film are the beautiful, near-documentary exterior scenes shot in a pre-slum clearance Salford by ace cinematographer Jack Hildyard, in particular a glorious vista of the River Irwell with down blowing across it and smoking chimney stacks beyond. Then there are the meticulous, if rather tight-looking, costumes by John Armstrong which single-handedly seem to haul the actors back into an earlier, more restrictive age.

On the other hand, Lean also goes big. Presumably with the director’s blessing, the central performances are all teeter over the top. In the case of Mills, with his rabbit-in-the-headlights gaze, jutting elbows and bandy-legged walk, the result is a patronizing caricature. But Laughton is highly watchable, shambling and tottering across the screen, his rubbery features twisted by greed and sagging with indolence. Laughton’s performance, in particular, seems to prompt Lean into several one-off cinematic experiments – the mixing of live action and animation in a scene where a badly tripping Henry believes he’s being assailed by giant insects, and the famous sequence where Henry drunkenly tracks the moon’s reflection through a series of puddles.

Given what was to happen to Lean later in his career – an approach to his craft that was perhaps too deliberate and cerebral for his own good, resulting in the tepid Doctor Zhivago and the still-born Ryan’s Daughter – it’s interesting to see the director playing around and trying new things. There are hints here, perhaps, of paths not taken. For that reason, Hobson’s Choice holds a special place in Lean’s distinguished filmography.

In this HD restoration by the BFI, Jack Hildyard’s extraordinary cinematography comes up very nicely indeed, just slightly granular but crisp and brimming with atmosphere. You can see the various textures of the costumes, the sheen of satin and leather and the roughness of tweed, and count the curls in the actress’ pretty updos. Extras include a brief chat with Prunella Scales, who had a small supporting role in the movie, and an informative 13-minute interview with the charming Norman Spencer, Lean’s, Associate Producer and co-writer on this film and Lean’s long-time collaborator.

Blu-ray Review: An Inspector Calls 60th Anniversary Edition

Starring: Alastair Sim, Bryan Forbes, Jane Wenham
Director: Guy Hamilton
Rating: 6/10

J.B. Priestley’s stage play, a thriller cum morality tale about social responsibility, is so famous it needs no introduction. What we have here is a workmanlike adaptation helmed by future Bond director Guy Hamilton and starring Alastair Sim as the eponymous inspector who gatecrashes an Edwardian dinner party with news of a grisly death.

With the writer having visited the set on at least one occasion, it’s a pretty faithful version. It’s only a shame that it’s not more faithful still – the attempt to open out the story with flashbacks, while understandable and done sparingly, inevitably dissipates some of the pressure cooker tension that the piece has in the theatre. Chances are you’ll also wince a bit at Francis Chagrin’s heavy-handed score, which underlines the tiniest plot beats with thunderous orchestral stingers.

But set and costume designs are both lavish, steeped in Edwardian opulence, and it’s all stunningly mounted by cinematographer Ted Scaife (who also worked on Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon). With his the death’s-head grin and his air of languid menace, Sim is predictably in his element, and there are also good performances from Olga Lindo as unrepentant, battleaxey Old Mother Birling and a young Bryan Forbes as the squiffy younger sibling Eric.

The HD transfer is sleek and gorgeous, without a trace of grain. Extras include a brief interview with Jane Wenham, who plays (too poshly, for my taste) the unfortunate Eva Smith.

Blu-ray Review: The Belles of St Trinian’s 60th Anniversary Edition

Starring: Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, George Cole
Director: Frank Launder
Rating: 6/10

Quite why Ronald Searle’s cartoons of delinquent, half-savage schoolgirls were so hugely popular in the late ’40s and 1950s now seems a bit mystifying – although one suspects that maybe it had something to do with public unease about the increasing assertiveness and independence of women during World War II. Writer/directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (who penned the screenplay of Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes) cashed in on the craze with this energetic comedy, which spawned many sequels.

There’s a busy plot to do with a stolen racehorse (played, very nicely, by a steed belonging to Launder himself) and a policewoman (Joyce Grenfell), prompted by a crime wave in the vicinity, going undercover in the school posing as a games mistress, but what’s peculiar is how uninterested the film seems in the girls themselves. Screeching around en masse, the formidable Fourth Form remain strangely unindividualized, while the Sixth Formers, all tiny shorts, perky sweaters, tousled hair and bedroom eyes, seem to have escaped from a contemporary under-the-counter cheesecake magazine.

Nonetheless, there’s still plenty to enjoy – the theatrically tatty and tarty costumes, the seedily Gothic sets, a manic third act that finds the school turned into a battleground on parents’ day, and the sight of various national treasures of yore doing their thing. In particular, there’s the fun of seeing Alastair Sim sashaying around in drag as Miss Fritton, the headmistress, an Edwardian grand dame who has been reduced to steeling the girls’ pocket money to keep St Trinian’s afloat (he also plays her horseflesh-fancying brother, Clarence). But he in turn is upstaged by the wonderful George Cole as Flash Harry, a black market spiv who becomes Miss Fritton’s unlikely helper.

The HD transfer is just slightly grainy, but it packs plenty of detail and is free of artefacts. The extras include a bunch of illuminating talking head-style interviews. The very nice ladies who played the horrid schoolgirls chat about how lovely everyone was to them on set, and we also learn about their later careers (one of them ended up being Diana Rigg’s body double on The Avengers). Film historian Geoff Brown talks about the career of Launder and Gilliat and their long-standing collaboration with Sim, and about Sim’s close relationship with Cole, who was almost like a son to him. And professor of cinema Steve Chibnall describes Sim’s deteriorating relationship with Gilliat, who thought that Sim’s lengthy pauses were slowing down the pace of his films. All in all, extremely educational.

Blu-ray Review: Hustlers

Starring: Paul Walker, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Elijah Wood
Director: Wayne Kramer
Rating: 7/10

Otherwise known as Pawn Shop Chronicles, Hustlers has a portmanteau structure that immediately invites comparison with the mighty Pulp Fiction and Sin City, but it manages to disarm criticism with monster servings of deep-fried Southern whimsy.

In the first of its three loosely related yarns, a trio of white trash crackheads plan to rob a meth lab run by Stanley (Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead, unrecognizable behind a fetish gas mask), but first they have to beg, borrow or steal a weapon. The late Paul Walker shows what a good sport he was by playing against type and taking the role, not of the leader of the trio, but of the hapless comic sidekick, a scrawny runt named Raw Dog, twitchy, scratchy, eyes permanently dilated. Meanwhile, Thomas Jane puts in a cameo as an angelic Marlboro Man who gives one of the gang salvation in the form of a chrome-plated pump-action shotgun.

The second segment is the most Rodriguez-like of the three and also the most action-packed. It sees Matt Dillon as a cheery honeymooner who comes across a clue to the disappearance of his first wife some six years before and goes on a bloody revenge spree, culminating in a Hellraiser-style gross-out moment involving some fish hooks and Elijah Wood’s face (Wood’s casting as a predatory creep is the closest the film gets to a direct nod to Sin City). By contrast, the third and final segment, featuring a pasty-faced Brendan Fraser as Ricky, a gormless slob of an Elvis impersonator who hits rock bottom and then decides to sell his soul to the devil, is the tallest and slightest of the tales.

There’s not a great deal linking the segments, except for a little dovetailing and the seedy pawn shop where each tale begins, but the movie keeps you engaged with a stream of fanboy-pleasing touches, such as the angry phone-rant Ricky receives from his exasperated mum, of which the only intelligible words are “peanut butter and banana sandwich”, or the bravura moment when his concert is gatecrashed by a bunch of naked zombie girls. Wayne Kramer directs with a Sam Raimi-ish brio and sense of colour, and the jokey script, with its leisurely skits about southern bigotry and ignorance, while not exactly subtle, at least offers the all-star cast plenty of scope to let their hair down and have some fun.

More comic booky than Pulp Fiction and less violent than Sin City, Hustlers isn’t very deep, but its broad, breezy, loose-limbed, devil-may-care, shoot first, ask questions later aesthetic should make it of interest to admirers of things Tarantinoesque, and all of the actors are on good form, especially the ever-reliable Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) as the blearily laconic pawn shop owner who sees all sorts of coming and goings in a single day. A nice swan song for Walker, and well worth a spin while you’re waiting for the Sin City sequel due in cinemas this summer.