A roundup/recap of the current best and rest in film and DVD. In this installment: Severance, La Vie en Rose, Stephanie Daley, Michael Palin’s New Europe (DVD); Goodbye Bafana, Love in the Time of Cholera, Lady Chatterley, I Served the King of England.

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Severance (Icon/Warner Bros, $39.95)
Team building is never a popular phrase and invokes dread in all who’ve had to endure a weekend away with drones they spend most of their daily lives with. Severance takes it to a new, if not entirely unoriginal level. Sporting the tagline “Another Bloody Office Outing”, the film follows a group of seven defence employees on an exercise somewhere in the vicinity of Hungary. All the office clichés are included: the manager spouting motifs like “there’s no success without you”; the wideboy who drops some drugs to get through the ordeal; the unattainable hot American woman; the silent office crush; and of course, the office nerd. Things take a turn for the worse when their bus is blocked by a tree fall and the driver abandons in protest. Yet to reach their accommodation, the team sees this as their first challenge – well, the office manager does – and upon arriving at their less than sumptuous destination, each regales the other with tall tales of how soldiers ran amuck in the woods, killing villagers and vowing vengeance on anyone working for Pallisades. Only as the night draws on, it becomes clear there really is something out in the woods, and it’s intent on wreaking bloody havoc. Severance could have been another entry into the torture porn genre, prevalent in Hollywood since the likes of Hostel and Saw, but what saves it (and only just as the violence remains graphic and uncomfortable in places) is the level of black humour. One character debates how Marie Antoinette would have been sensorily aware she was beheaded, only to find he befalls the exact same fate – an irony-free demise that gives him the satisfaction of knowing he was right after losing his head, smiling with smug realisation before dying. Chris Smith follows up the extremely disappointing Creep with extremely dark humour; amongst a very receptive audience in 2007, it just managed to win me over. He even throws in tributes to A Clockwork Orange and Rambo – all within 90 minutes, which can’t be bad. New to DVD. (making of featurettes; deleted scenes/outtakes).—Darren Bevan

La Vie en Rose (Warner Bros, $39.95)
Broad sweeping and immaculately presented, La Vie en Rose is an archetype of big screen biopics. Dressed to kill, polished to a sheen, and with production design to die for, it’s a film that also subsides under the weight of its lead performance – a shortcoming of movies about famous people, which tend to be not so much anchored by the transformation, as they are dragged along in its slipstream. Sure enough, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf soars, leaving behind a dust cloud that obscures the picture’s otherwise apparent bores – it schematically maps out the French singer’s trajectory from orphan child, to songbird plucked off the streets (by Gerald Depardieu, in a brief role as Piaf’s discoverer Louis Leplee), to invalid in her forties, with the drab ubiquity of tortured art. Fans of Piaf will care little that the film lacks dimension, and has been flattened out as a stage for Cotillard’s considerable talents, though will find its treatment of Piaf’s music seriously infuriating: rarely does a shot hold to absorb the power of song, while in a pivotal scene, where La Môme is to take flight from her Sparrow moniker and reinvent herself as ‘Edith Piaf’, the turgid score cancels out the singer’s indomitable voice. For all its period lushness, styled as an incumbent Oscar nominee, La Vie en Rose’s director, Olivier Dahan, is relegated to the crowd, another face in the audience locked on Cotillard’s sky bound gaze. In the spotlight, Cotillard’s soulful embodiment is a spiritual possession, even if she doesn’t dare sing the songs. Everyone else, save for the wonderfully androgenous Sylvie Testud (as Simone Bertaud, Edith’s poisonous best friend), is overshadowed and in awe. New to DVD. (optional English subtitles; DTS soundtrack; making of featurettes; deleted scenes; ‘Edith Piaf—That Obscure Object of Desire’ documentary).—Tim Wong

Stephanie Daley (Rialto/Vendetta, $29.95)
If disadvantaged by its murky DV aesthetic, Stephanie Daley finds clarity as a remarkably hushed account of unwanted pregnancy – a plot device that’s all the rage in Hollywood at the moment. Rather than wheedle comedy from the act of procreation, it’s a film under no illusions as to the gravity of the situation, culminating in an agonisingly silent premature labour. Amber Tamblyn plays a knocked up teenager who may or may not have killed her undisclosed foetus; cowering under the disapproval of an omnipresent religion, her burden quietly underscores the need for women to be given the choice. With a gaze that could freeze over hell, the always-intriguing Tilda Swinton tightens the screws on Tamblyn as a psychologist assigned to investigate the potential murder; her weakness, and in turn warmth, is that she desperately wants to give birth to a baby of her own. Attaching anxieties and terrors to this biological ordeal is director Hilary Brougher, whose unsentimental sophomore feature is not the trivialised circus act of Knocked Up or Juno, but a companion piece to the gut wrenching 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Together, they assure us pregnancy is no laughing matter. New to DVD. (no special features).—Tim Wong

Michael Palin’s New Europe (BBC/Roadshow, $59.95)
Michael Palin’s New Europe continues life after Python. Palin is witty, amiable company, his intriguing voyage’s seven episodes include “War and Peace” (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania); “Eastern Delight” (Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey); and “Wild East” (Moldova, Romania). There are plenty of colourful characters, appealing anecdotes and bon mots. Czech this eastern promises! Also of comic note this month, Family Guy’s Blue Harvest, amusingly skewering Star Wars. As Queen put it, “Jaws was never my scene, and I don’t like Star Wars”. New to DVD. (exclusive interview with Michael Palin).—Alexander Bisley

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Goodbye Bafana (Bille August/2007)
There can be no doubt the shadow which Apartheid cast over South Africa. Like many pivotal moments in history, it’s a difficult subject for filmmakers to broach – but like a moth to the light, directors feel obliged to immortalise the good and bad on the silver screen. Goodbye Bafana details the relationship between Nelson Mandela (Dennis Haysbert, played with the kind of dignity he displayed as President Palmer on 24) and his guard James Gregory (Joseph Fiennes) through the 30 long years they were together on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor in Cape Town. Gregory is of course a white racist, doing what he has to do to get by as the oppression tightens. But it’s clear that his heart really isn’t in it, as demonstrated by flashbacks to his childhood friendship with a Xhosa boy in his township. However, his language skills bring him to the attention of the prison management, and it’s quickly realised he’d be a perfect guard for Mandela to stop him passing messages to his wife and supposed terrorist links intent on bringing equality to all of South Africa. Goodbye Bafana is an engaging picture which covers a tumultuous time in South Africa’s history. It is also at times difficult to watch as the reality of the regime has effects on all those caught in its horrendous tentacles. Joseph Fiennes’ character may be a little too quick to turn his original beliefs around and embrace Mandela’s thinking, but the warmth of the relationship between the two principal characters easily overcomes any initial doubts. Haysbert’s performance is masterly but it’s not until later in the film that you actually believe he is Mandela. Director Bille August does a workmanlike job of the screenplay of James Gregory’s memoirs – there’s never any real doubt who is right and wrong. However, the complexities of humanity are well explored, and the real horror of being locked away for 27 years – just because of the colour of your skin – will lead you to admire Nelson Mandela more. In Theatres Now.—Darren Bevan

Love in the Time of Cholera (Mike Newell/2007)
Love in the Time of Cholera is according to my notes, a masterpiece by Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The adaptation of the book - to put it bluntly – is not. Oscar nominee Javier Bardem, who chilled so many in No Country for Old Men, stars as Florentino Ariza, a poet and telegraph clerk who falls deeply in love when he first casts eyes on Fermina Daza (Mezzogiorno). However, Ariza’s quest is not reciprocated by Daza’s father (played with moustache twirling evilness by John Leguizamo). He vows to keep them apart forever. But Ariza bides his time and vows never to lose his beloved Fermina – despite the fact she marries a sophisticated aristocrat Dr Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this goes wrong – the opening scenes are perhaps a pointer showing as they do, a wizened Bardem learning of his great rival’s death. In itself there is nothing wrong with this scene (after what amounts to over 50 years’ worth of stalking by Bardem’s character) but the problem is the makeup looks like it’s come directly from the stage and is little more than a grey wig with some badly applied makeup. Director Mike Newell – who we all know made it with Four Weddings and a Funeral – is capable of much more; and while the scenery of Cuba is stunning, he does little to lift his cast out of stereotyping. Bardem is supposedly a lovestruck Lothario who wiles away the years with countless sexual encounters, but the longer his pining goes on, the more he appears a dirty old man sans raincoat. Leguizamo is perhaps the worst, and has recently been nominated for the worst portrayal of a Latino in a role for this turn. It’s easy to see why – his evil nature would only be topped by a twirling of his handlebar moustache reminiscent of the Buster Keaton/ Chaplinesque baddies. Opens March 20.—Darren Bevan

Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran/2007)
This French/Belgium adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s seminal novel fails to capture much the essence of discovery and release that the book so powerfully conveys. The film’s moments of contemplative nature footage, and a retro outfitting of handheld camerawork, obvious zooming, and amateur holiday footage (the Super 8 camera used here a few decades out of sync with the rest of the film’s setting) work to create moments that are aesthetically pleasurable but ultimately plodding, surface level and without spirit. The adaptation into French language is gorgeous aurally, so that even mundane sentences like “you’re my home now” carry a mystique and allure. Yet something is lost in the translation back into English subtitles; the movement from English to French to English leaks away much of the poeticism and depth of Lawrence’s dialogue and description. Not the fault of the filmmakers then, whose work has been a huge success in France, but consequently the film is of less value to those viewers who don’t speak French... Marina Hands is indeed a sublime looking Lady Chatterley, her naked body depicted as though an Egon Schiele drawing – outlined sensually yet roughly against the hulk of her gamekeeper lover, the ‘striking’ Jean-Louis Coulloc’h. A frightening looking man at first, Coulloc’h’s ragged appearance is striking for perhaps the wrong reasons. However his warm heart and slow opening-up lend him a vital sensitivity, which allows us to empathise to some extent with his character. Certain love scenes between Coulloc’h and Hands have a passion, recklessness and daring that is heart warming and delightful. It is unfortunate that Hands, under Ferran’s direction, plays Lady Chatterley as such a sexy, naïve and innocently alluring girl; rather than as a young, sheltered woman repressed by social roles. In depicting her so the focus of the film shifts from Chatterley’s important, vital emancipation into a study in female beauty; and the contentious, moving and challenging heart of the novel becomes sadly lost amongst a film of bare breasts and meaningless autumn colours. In Theatres Now.—Melody Nixon [Full Review]

I Served the King of England (Francis Lawrence/2007)
Comedies from the Czech Republic come with high expectations nowadays, and the period class-farce I Served the King of England, from Oscar winners Jirí Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal, certainly doesn’t disappoint. The whimsical humour has a charming and timeless appeal to it, and the wistful philosophy provides amusing diversion rather than real distraction. Served celebrates life’s pleasures, and the appreciation of food, women, money and Pilsner is realised gorgeously in a series of staggeringly opulent visual feasts (including a highly imaginative use of a Lazy Susie). The Prague hospo scene in the 30s and 40s yields beautiful Jugendstil sets, unlimited opportunies for mischief, and a rainbow of stunning costumes. Even when pint-sized protagonist Jan Díte was just earning small beer selling hotdogs at the train station, he knew all he ever wanted to be was a millionaire. Ivan Barnev is impossibly likeable as the crafty but clueless young Díte, who manages to turn an unlikely profit even during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Aryan stud farm is probably the most far-fetched of many picaresque set-ups, but the Germans are pilloried so mercilessly that even the stiffest salutes and purest eugenics – particularly from the excellent Julia Jentsch (The Edukators, Sophie Scholl) – are only laughable to the merry, indomitable Czechs. Highly recommended. Opens March 20.—Joe Sheppard [Read More]