DVD Review: Three Wishes for Cinderella

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Enchanting reinvention of a classic fairy tale

A yuletide TV tradition in several European countries, Václav Vorlíček’s adaptation of Božena Němcová’s fairy tale is a radical alternative to the better-known Brothers Grimm and Disney versions.

Aside from a solitary screening on BBC 2 in the 1980s, the film has been unavailable in the UK until now. Relatively unknown outside of mainland Europe, in several countries it is a firm fixture in the festive TV schedules. Since 1975 one million Norwegians gather round their TVs each year on Christmas Eve to watch the film.

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A Czechoslovakian-East German co-production, the film is one of the most significant examples of Czech fairy tale films. Credited with reviving the genre and ensuring its longevity Three Wishes for Cinderella is a classic for all ages.

Variants of the Cinderella fairy-tale have appeared in several countries. Folk historians have traced versions dating back to 7BC. Charles Perrault’s tale is the best-known version in Western Europe. Introducing the magic pumpkin, fairy godmother, and glass slippers, it has inspired countless screen adaptations and stage pantomimes. The Brothers Grimm tale is the most widely-known version in Germanic countries. In this version, instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella is aided by a gift-giving hazel tree. Božena Němcová’s tale is the best-known version in Czechoslovakia. A Czech equivalent of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christan Anderson, Němcová recorded fairy tales for future posterity. Read by Franz Kafka, her image has been used on Czechoslovakian stamps and currency. Němcová’s version of the Cinderella fairy tale also dispenses with the fairy godmother and has the heroine receive a gift from a farmhand of a magical twig with three hazelnuts.

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Made with a budget far exceeding the amount normally allotted to fairy tale films, Three Wishes for Cinderella was produced for two markets. The film features Czech and German actors. During shooting dialogue was recorded in the actors native tongues. The completed film was dubbed into German and Czech before releasing prints to specific territories.

Regarded by critics as a proto-feminist reinterpretation, the film is set in eighteenth-century Czechoslovakia. The realistic setting is a stark contrast to other films based on Cinderella that have accentuated the fairy tale’s magical elements. A last minute decision to shoot the film in winter instead of Spring proved to be a shrewd move, the shots of snow covered forests adds to the film’s intrinsically captivating qualities.

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Stronger than most other screen Cinderellas, Libuše Šafránková’s title character is a defiant downtrodden stepdaughter who has been defrauded and is forced to endure routine abuse. Adored by the estate workers and her animals she is a sympathetic young adult with a strong appreciation of nature.

When news breaks that the king and his son are to visit the area, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother plots to ensure the bachelor prince picks her daughter as his bride.

Posing as a male hunter Cinderella wins a hunting contest and tames the prince’s horse. The prince and Cinderella are free spirits trapped by circumstance. In Three Wishes for Cinderella the title character does not see the prospect of marriage as an opportunity to escape from a life of humiliation and servitude. Subverting the traditional fairy-tale, it is the prince who must win over Cinderella’s heart and prove he is a worthy suitor.

Charming and delightful, the film has been extensively restored by the Czech National Film Archive in Prague and the National Library of Norway. The definitive Czech Christmas DVD.

Three Wishes For Cinderella is available to order from Amazon.


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DVD Review: The Physician

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Faith and science clash in medieval Europe and Persia.

In 11th century England Rob Cole (Tom Payne) is orphaned when his mother dies of complications caused by appendicitis. It is an age when comparatively little was known about human physiognomy. Church law emphasised the primacy of God’s will and imposed strict limits on medical research and practice. In an era when people were routinely executed for suspicion of practising witchcraft Rob’s belief that he has a natural ability to detect when people are going to die places him at odds with the church.

Apprenticed to a travelling barber-surgeon (Stellan Skarsgård) Rob is taught the rudiments of what medical knowledge is available and considered permissible by the church. His mentor tutors him in bloodletting and dental extraction.

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Mindful that his medical experience is limited he seeks the aid of a Jewish healer when the barber-surgeon is blinded by cataracts. Enthused after witnessing a more knowledgeable medical practitioner restore his mentor’s sight Rob decides to travel to Isfahan, Persia and study under the noted healer Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley).

Former pop video director Philipp Stölzl brings Noah Gordon’s bestselling historical novel to the screen in an ambitious adaptation that condenses Gordon’s 600 page opus into an intelligent and expansive cinematic epic. Previously a stage designer in a Munich theatre, Stölzl began his directing career with a promo for Rammstein’s Du riechst so gut. Honing his craft helming commercials and videos for Madonna and Garbage he is best known for the visually rich ode to German Romanticism Young Goethe in Love. For his fourth feature film Stölzl has crafted an epic that pays homage to Lawrence of Arabia.

A success in Germany and Spain, The Physician soared to top of the box-office charts on its opening weekend pummeling The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug into second place. To meet high demand to see The Physician the number of German cinemas showing the film had to be increased for its second week in theaters

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Commenting on the dangers of religious extremism the film uses its Dark Ages setting to mirror contemporary debates about faith based groups attempts to restrict scientific research. Critical of the role religion has played in suppressing knowledge, enforcing unjust social conditions, and perpetuating a false sense of ideological supremacy the film highlights the absurdity of an unquestioning adherence to a belief system.

Skeptical without overtly politicized explicit condemnation The Physician explores cultural and religious tensions, paralleling and contrasting historical developments with contemporary society.

The juxtaposition of western Europe’s Dark Ages with the Islamic Golden Age reminds viewers that the Orient was at the forefront of scientific development during the middle ages.

Visually splendid. Authentic period costuming, effective cinematography and judicious use of CGI convincingly recreate 11th century London and Persia. The Physician is a period drama rich in detail that tackles weighty subject matter and carries a strong emotional core.

The Physician can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Physician-DVD-Tom-Payne/dp/B01411M2AY

Blu-ray Review: The Voices

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A purr-fect black comedy

Ryan Reynolds plays a schizophrenic who takes orders from his cat and dog in a dark psychological comedic horror film from director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis).

Satrapi’s off-kilter take on the serial killer genre plays against expectations and delivers a uniquely twisted view of midwest America that ventures into the realms of Lynchian weirdness via a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Paying homage to her influences, the director blends Hitchcock motifs with Amelie style visuals alongside nods to Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Soon to be seen playing the lead in Marvel’s X-Men spin-off Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds delivers a career defining performance as a factory worker who believes his pets are talking to him. A socially inept employee in an industrial town. Too eager to please his colleagues Jerry works on the floor assembling bathroom fixtures and is effusive when offered the opportunity to help organise the company’s annual barbecue.

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An acute schizophrenic Jerry sees a court appointed psychiatrist on a regular basis and is required to take medication. Living alone he neglects to follow his care plan and has relapsed. At the end of each shift he returns to a low-rent apartment above a bowling alley and chats about the day’s events with his pets.

Without his daily medication Jerry starts to hear voices and is  convinced that his cat Mr. Whiskers and dog Bosco are talking to him. A morality play occurs each night in the front room as the two animals represent the fractured sides of his conscience. Scottish accented feline and a dim-witted canine appear to be influencing Jerry’s behaviour.

Attending a planning meeting for his workplace’s annual barbecue he meets Fiona (Gemma Arterton – Quantum of Solace) and is instantly smitten. Blissfully unaware that she is not interested Jerry invites her for a meal at his favourite Chinese restaurant.

A carefully planned evening turns sour when Fiona decides to join colleagues from the accounts department at a local karaoke bar. Jerry is left alone staring at congealing Oriental cuisine while Elvis and Bruce Lee impersonators perform for disinterested diners.

The night takes a darker turn when Jerry spots a rain-soaked Fiona. Offering her a lift they decide to visit an out of town burger bar. A collision with a wild animal sets in motion a chain of events that tears down Jerry’s tenuous grip on reality.

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Filmed in Berlin, Director Marjane Satrapi’s first English language feature is a genre defying movie destined for immediate cult status. ,Absurd and provocative it delicately balances artifice with flashes of chilling realism. Occasionally taboo breaking, the film acknowledges preconceptions and then pulls the rug out from beneath the viewer’s feet.

The Voices is an ingenious tragi-comedy. Disturbing and hilarious, it’s uniqueness is rammed home in a musical sequence featuring Jesus driving a fork-lift truck.

An impressive collection of extras has been assembled for this disc including interviews, featurettes, and a prank  that has to be seen to be believed.

The Voices can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Voices-Blu-ray-Ryan-Reynolds/dp/B00TZ0K7WC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1436763156&sr=8-1&keywords=the+voices

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Voices-DVD-Ryan-Reynolds/dp/B00TZ0K8WG/ref=sr_1_1_twi_2_vid_twi_2_dvd?ie=UTF8&qid=1436763156&sr=8-1&keywords=the+voices

A limited edition Steelbook is available exclusively from Zavvi.com:

http://www.zavvi.com/blu-ray/the-voices-zavvi-exclusive-limited-edition-steelbook-limited-to-2000/11123359.html

DVD Review: Shadow of the Sword

After spending several years honing his craft in the advertising industry Swiss director Simon Aeby made his feature film début with the effective small scale film Three Below Zero. A European film shot on location in New York, it was, as most first features are, an economical production. Aeby’s script demonstrated that he had an instinctive understanding of how to put characters at the heart of drama and bring the audience .along for the journey. His second feature film, The Rebel, whilst visually bigger in scale retained the level of intimacy which had made his first movie an intriguing viewing experience. With his third film, Shadow of the Sword, Aeby presented audiences with his most expansive cinematic canvas to date whilst retaining a focus on well rounded characters with all too recognisable and identifiable desires and foibles.

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Released in 2006 Shadow of the Sword (also known in certain territories as The Headsman) is a story about friendship, love, betrayal, and religious extremism. Set in the 16th century, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Headhunters, Game of Thrones) and Peter McDonald (Moone Boy) play lifelong friends who must decide which side they are on in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Austrian state Tyrol.

In the first half of 16th century Catholicism was the dominant ideological force in mainland western Europe. The new world had just been discovered, mass illiteracy was widespread across the continent, and spiritual salvation was only accorded to those who were rich enough to pay tithes. With an unshakeable belief in its self defined and imposed status as the only legitimate religious creed the Catholic church waged war against nation states that were governed by a different belief system and punished those who dared to openly express differing interpretations of the gospels.

Against a background of transformation Shadow of the Sword takes place three years after Martin Luther began the reformation movement with a letter to his bishop. Known as The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgence, the invention of the printing press enabled this letter to be copied and circulated. Recognising that widespread support for Luther’s teachings represented a threat to the Vatican’s supremacy and a loss of political power (and accompanying revenue) it authorised The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (popularly known as the Spanish Inquisition) to tyrannize the emerging protestant movement.

Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and George (Peter McDonald) are a pair of orphans who have grown up under the protection of the local monastery. As adults they have taken very different paths. Reuniting after several years, Martin is a soldier returning home after spending a tour of duty abroad fighting battles on behalf of the emperor and George is a prelate at the very same monastery in which they were both raised.

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In Martin’s absence the township has begun to feel the impact of Luther’s rebellion against the existing orthodoxy. Martin has come home to find a society living under a fragile peace. Anabaptists live within the vicinity preaching an alternative interpretation of the gospel. A radical and left leaning group, its adherents were deemed by the Catholic church to be guilty of heresy. George’s tolerance of this group places him in direct conflict with his superiors and invites the possibility that the Spanish Inquisition may descend upon the town at any moment to sterilise the area.

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Judicial process is overseen by an institutionally corrupt town council under the watchful eye of the church. The chief punishment metered out to miscreants suspected of being in league with Satan is public execution. As agent of faith and administers of retribution the incumbent executioner has a fractured relationship with the town’s citizens. Forced to live beyond the town’s boundaries, unwelcome in local hostelries and market places the executioner is a social pariah feared by the very same populace who congregate in large numbers to witness him decapitating whatever person who have been convicted of spurious charges by a dishonest legislative framework.

Martin falls in love with the executioner’s daughter, Anna (Anastasia Griffith), despite knowing that association with her will turn him into a persona non grata. His illustrious military career will carry no further weight amongst Tyrol’s townsfolk if he enters into marital union with Anna and for the rest of his days he will be robbed of all social standing.

Having resigned his army commission Martin’s subsequent marriage to Anna renderes him unemployable within Tyrol but at this point fate intervenes and he is presented him with an unexpected opportunity. The death of Anna’s creates a vacancy for the post of town executioner, Martin applies for the post and is successful. Skills acquired during several military campaigns are put to good use in his new position and he rapidly impresses the ever watchful eye of the region’s archbishop.

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Disapproving of his friend’s relationship, George refuses to bless the union and undeterred Martin asks an Anabaptist priest to perform the marriage ceremony. With the church’s resident executioner consorting with Anabaptists George is fearful that control is slipping in Tyrol and when word spreads that a rival religious group is gaining momentum everybody starts to expect an imminent visit from the Spanish Inquisition.

Director Simon Aeby was attracted to this project feeling that despite being a historical drama Shadow of the Sword’s core storyline had parallels with things happening in contemporary society, most notably the rise of religious fundamentalism and governmental attempts to restrict the access to information available on the internet. Aeby’s awareness of how to ensure that characters are central to the plot prevents the film from becoming a polemical piece. Shadow of the Sword is first and foremost a story about friendship, love, betrayal, corruption, greed, and courage in an age of religious intolerance and state sponsored oppression.

Believing the film’s subject matter to be universal and relevant to the modern age the producers shot the film in English knowing that this would increase opportunities for international distribution. The cast is filled with a number of very fine British character actors. Playing the Spanish Inquisition’s leader Steepen Berkoff (Octopussy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) comes very close to stealing the entire movie. Eddie Marson (Sherlock Holmes) is suitably grotesque as Fabio the executioner’s assistant who feels slighted at being passed over for the post and denied Anna’s hand in marriage

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Steven Berkoff - The Headsman

Thought provoking, emotionally engaging, and viscerally exciting Shadow of the Sword is an arresting European film. The first rate acting and sympathetic cinematography are complemented by suitably authentic costuming and a visually impressive recreation of an entire medieval town.

 Shadow of the Sword is available to buy  from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B0072HTWQ2/ref=s9_simh_gw_p74_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=0WG9R26YFA3FTH719B44&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=358549767&pf_rd_i=468294