AT A LOSS for something to watch? Sick of formulaic clap-trap with a “plot” you know ends heroically — no matter the title? Stuck at home dodging “festive” crowds, or taking a break away somewhere and looking for something to fill in a rainy day or a bit of solitude in which to catch your breath? They may not be the most recent releases, but here are five viewing choices that may add an “accidental discovery” to your DVD library, and a little lustre to your time off.
If you’re like me (and I say this from a southern hemispheric perspective), the Christmas period is the very worst time of the year to take time off work. People in their thousands, sky-high prices and searing summer heat are, in my view, a recipe that is not conducive to personal enjoyment in any way — no matter how much “Christmas cheer” is consumed to soften the blow.
I have never been much of a fan of what emanates from the Hollywood firmament and the predictable, formulaic methodology that seems to underpin virtually everything it produces, and all of what it produces when it comes to non-fiction material; having said that, and somewhat perversely, my favourite movie of all time is an American production, and for anyone who hasn’t ever seen it I can thoroughly recommend it.
But really, who could be seriously captivated with a formula consisting of:
- Everything is just fine and dandy;
- A really big, “evil” problem suddenly appears out of nowhere;
- A hero (often just some glorified meathead) similarly emerges out of thin air to deal with it;
- There is a colossal struggle to overcome the “evil” problem…
- (…and a gratuitous sex scene — because that’s just what happens…);
- Good triumphs over “evil,” of course — it’s “The American Way;” and
- Everything is just fine and dandy once again. Hallelujah!
This kind of idiot simplicity might reap the big bucks at the box office, but it is hardly stimulating or mentally challenging.
When it comes to viewing preferences, mine are distinctly British and European; I know a lot of people who think of subtitled content and say “eewww, I couldn’t watch something like that:” these would be people who opt to miss out on some of the best content available, and it’s a shame.
But these unfortunates aside, today I’m sharing five easily-acquired options for watching something far, far better than the standard drivel from Hollywood these holidays; all can be bought from JB HiFi or online from amazon.co.uk, and — happily — all of this stuff is eminently binge-worthy, so you will be able to shut yourself away for hours if you really want to.
Is there sex and violence? Of course there is. Is there bad language? Certainly. But credible storylines count for an awful lot too, and in any case, the intemperate language and scantily-clad characters in some of these actually sit naturally in those plot lines — rather than the gratuitous inclusion of the “interesting bits” in American material so shallow it’d be impossible to drown in it if it were a wading pool.
Today’s recommendations aren’t necessarily recent, but I am certain most readers will never have heard of them, let alone seen them, so we are on safe ground in this regard.
So here we go. In no particular order, starting with
1. House of Cards (the proper version)
It is hard to believe the first instalment of this was released in 1990, and even harder to believe that its first screening coincided with the day of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; the material has stood the test of time surprisingly well, and while there are a few pointers to its vintage — big 80s/90s hairstyles, landline telephones with dials rather than buttons, and an appearance by “Princess Diana” — this is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.
What is even harder to believe is that so few people (in Australia at least) have ever heard of this, let alone seen it: if you mix in political circles as I sometimes do, “everyone” has long known and loved House of Cards, which is actually a trilogy of miniseries (House of Cards, To Play the King, The Final Cut), but that’s a comparatively small group when you consider the millions who don’t even know it exists.
Yet “everyone” in the broader sense knows all about the American remake featuring the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey and his co-star, Robyn Wright; for something that was supposed to be a sympathetic remake that kept fidelity with its British forebear, the US “version” of House of Cards ran off the rails somewhere in the middle of its third season, and lost all credibility completely within another season or so of that, with its silly storylines of talking to the President of Russia (the quaintly-named Victor Petrov — now there’s a not-so-bright allusion to a real person) through a drain in the bathroom, or the imbecilic notion of a husband-wife team of President and Vice-President of the United States.
“Proper” House of Cards features the devilish, love-to-hate-him, hate-to-love-him Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart — “FU” — at the top of a stellar British cast including Diane Fletcher, Susannah Harker, Colin Jeavons and Nick Brimble, and unlike its unfortunate US counterpart, the storylines remain credible from start to finish. The investment of $20 for a copy of the whole thing at JB HiFi will be money well spent, and an experience that you will revisit again, and again, and again…
2. Maison Close
If it’s sex you want, this thrilling period drama certainly delivers; set in a brothel in post-revolutionary France, this multi-layered story examines themes of the exploitation of women set against a backdrop of the wider struggle for control of French society during a turbulent period in France’s history that is authentically represented in painstaking detail in the execution of this production.
Remarkably, only two seasons of Maison Close were ever made: the first — released in late 2010 — was warmly received to critical acclaim, triggering a rapid commitment by producer StudioCanal to a second series; by the time the second aired three years later, much of the following garnered by the first had predictably dissipated, as people moved onto other things, and despite better dramatic values than the original, the ratings did not warrant a third.
Forget about the sexual content — this is some seriously compelling viewing, and features masterful performances from French actresses including Catherine Hosmalin, the underrated Blandine Bellavoir, and French-British star Jemima West. The grimy splendour, the suspense and power plays and carefully-constructed characters, well portrayed by a capable cast, make Maison Close an experience that is very difficult to stop watching. Look for this one online at Amazon.
3. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Based on the true story of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany, this film — starring Julia Jentsch in the title role — is a chilling reminder of the paranoia of Germany’s Third Reich and its heavy-handed readiness to smash a nut into oblivion with a sledgehammer.
It is impossible to watch this film without feeling a deep empathy for and affinity with Sophie (or Sophia) Scholl, the anti-Nazi heroine whose words struck terror into the very heart of the Nazi firmament; convicted of high treason for publishing a leaflet, the show trial depicted in this grimly realistic production would almost be laughable were it not for its factual basis. The penalties it doled out were completely out of proportion.
This should be a depressing, almost unwatchable piece; in truth, I am prepared to admit to being haunted by it. But it is also something which warrants repeat viewing: at least once to fully absorb the sheer lunacy of the regime that terrorised Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and then to marvel in horrified revulsion at just how barbaric and monstrous human nature is capable of being. This film is part documentary, part eminently watchable drama, and part warning: for those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat them.
4. The Closet (La Placard)
For something a whole lot lighter, this delightful comedy — featuring Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Michelle Laroque — is a quintessentially French take on workplace relations, office politics, and a politically incorrect use of minority status (being a gay man) to get what you want.
For once in his career, Depardieu plays very much a secondary role to the primary hero of The Closet — Francois, played by Auteuil — whose character, set to be run out of his job after a broken marriage exacts its inevitable toll on his performance at work, is the bumbling, awkward star of the show.
This is a movie during which it is difficult to stop laughing, and it’s a testament to the calibre of this French production that the subtitles are barely noticeable. And with an eye to the timeless Laroque, an actress who embodies the stereotype that France has more beautiful women who remain beautiful for much longer, it’s impossible to argue that Francois doesn’t come out on top in this brilliant little tale of how to play the game and win.
5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (again, the proper version)
Anyone who thinks it’s impossible to get it right the first time should think again — and anyone who believes Hollywood does it better even after someone else gets it right will quickly think twice after watching the original Swedish adaptation of this electrifying piece of crime fiction and its sequels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked A Hornet’s Nest.
This movie was remade in Hollywood some years after the original, and was quite deservedly a flop; forget the formula: if there is one thing the Swedes (and Scandinavians generally) do well, it’s crime drama. Brutal, confronting and dark, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo offers the refreshing take on a whodunnit investigated not by a policeman, but a journalist (played by Michael Nyqvist); its unlikely heroine — Lisbeth, portrayed by Noomi Rapace — is, with her tattoos and piercings and bad skin, about as far removed from some vacuous bimbette Hollywood stereotype as you could ever find.
If you are looking for a seriously well-spent day in front of the TV, all three of these movies can be purchased instore at JB for about $35 in total and — like the other selections I am showcasing here today — represent money that will be very well spent indeed.
Just to be clear, there are plenty of other options we could be talking about today: even just in keeping with the Scandinavian theme I could as easily highlight any or all of The Killing, The Bridge, the Department Q Trilogy, Kurt Wallander or Borgen (and if anyone is of a mind to go looking for those, they will quickly see that the roster of Scandinavian talent appears on high rotation through these different productions).
What are you watching these holidays? I’d love to know. And if there are other options in a similar vein that people may find truly riveting — feel free to let us know.