Initially The Dark (Momentum Pictures) originally seems to have been created so the film can have a great tag line ("Are you afraid of The Dark") and, well, not much else. But it turns out to be a tightly plotted frightener that - whilst it was never going to trouble the pantheon of great horror films - remains great entertainment. Maria Bello takes her daughter to Wales (you see, there's her first mistake) to see her estranged husband Sean Bean (and marrying Sean Bean: there's your second mistake). After the little girl is lost in an accident the couple search for her body whilst experiencing horrific visions. It soon transpires that a mythical underworld may help get their daughter back. What's the betting they're on track to make a third mistake? A good ‘Friday night' picture for when there's nothing on TV. Which, let's face it, is every Friday night at this moment.
The garish, gory and other words beginning with ‘g' Countess Dracula: Special Edition (Network Releasing). The ‘Queen of Horror' (now there's a coronation ceremony I would have liked to have gone to) Ingrid Pitt plays a deranged countess who finds that bathing in the blood of young virgins keeps her young but, unfortunately, means she can never work for Avon again. If you wanted to distil the essence of Hammer Horror then Countess Dracula is a perfect start: gaudy Technicolor, a dash of kinkiness and a raft of stalwart British actors from TV and you have a film that should be really bad but isn't. Lots of extras including a commentary from Pitt and horror experts Stephen Jones and Kim Newman and lots of archive clips.
No matter how fun Countess Dracula is it will never reach the height of what many consider the quintessential horror film of the 70s. The Wicker Man: Collector's Edition (Optimum Classic) is a superb disc that gives the full treatment to one of the most frightening films ever made. If you haven't seen it before then, firstly, what the hell have you been doing and, secondly, go and buy this now. For the rest of us this is an essential purchase no matter how many times you have seen it. There's the original cut of the film, a new cut with 15 minutes of extra footage that was thought to be missing, a great documentary with Mark Kermode and a commentary with Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Robin Hardy. There's also the soundtrack of the movie that makes folk music sound like it should be: very scary indeed. Perhaps the only horror movie in the world in which not having sex is a bad thing (and if that's spoiled it for you, I thought I told people who hadn't seen the film to go buy it now?) The Wicker Man remains terrifying today as it was when it was released and is far superior to the current rubbishy remake that is doing the rounds.
Away from the frightening now as we turn to independent British film Chicken Tikka Masala (Peccadillo Pictures). Jimi's family surprise him with an arranged marriage. This would be fine apart from the fact that Jimi is perfectly happy with his boyfriend. A comedy of the clash between sexual and cultural politics, the film scores has a witty script and is competently directed by Harmage Singh Kalirai. Yet it still feels too similar to East Is East for its own good and often feels rather contrived. Still, it's a British film that's worth supporting and should provide ample entertainment for those who like their comedies with a little bit of spice.
Seized by the US Customs and banned for almost 25 years the Swedish 60s movie I Am Curious Yellow / Blue (Second Sight) has garnered an infamous reputation in cinema history. So much so that it has the ultimate accolade: namely, there's been an episode of ‘The Simpsons' named after it. Unsurprisingly, this the tale of a young woman exploring her sexual identity seems pretty tame by today's standards (indeed, if it's that sort of thing that your after then there are plenty of other Swedish movies that you'd like). Utilising various forms, including the use of documentary combined with fiction, it's an interesting if rather dated affair as is the follow up I Am Curious Blue.
Equally as controversial is Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (Anchor Bay Entertainment UK). Max (played with frightening reality by Dirk Bogarde) is a diligent night porter at a luxurious hotel. But when Lucia (Rampling who's astonishing) his past catches up with him. She was a teenage concentration camp inmate, he was a Nazi office. Their bizarre sado-masochistic affair has stayed with them both and they find themselves inexorably drawn together. A tale of desire, decadence and the thirst for power this is a confrontational but absorbing film that linger in the memory. Includes an interview with Rampling.
A Better Tomorrow II (Hong Kong Legends) presented a bit of a problem for director John Woo. He killed his main character in the first film so what do you do? Easy, you invent a twin brother! This lazy type of plotting is indicative of this film in general. Whilst there are some great moments in this movie (that sees Chow Yun Fat helping out the Triad) it all feels as if Woo is making it because of fan demand as opposed to him really wanting to do it. Enjoyable for fans of the work of Woo but those who are discovering him for the first time should check out the original, Hard Boiled and The Killer.
Timothy Spall gives the emotional heart and intensity to Pierrepoint (Lionsgate Films), the story of the man who was known as the most accomplished hangman in Britain. For his choice of job he - obviously - courted controversy and the film examines how a man attempting to do what he saw as a job whilst being caught in the middle of debates about morality and duty. Very much a movie in which the acting carries it along (props also go to Juliet Stevenson) this sometimes veers into the realm of TV drama but remains a bold yet sympathetic of a complex man.
If you're a fan of French Cinema then 2006 has been rather good to you what with the release of the oeuvre of Louis Malle on to DVD alongside numerous contemporary gems. Well prepared to get excited again thanks to the release of a number of Francois Truffaut's greatest films. Alongside lesser known works such as La Femme D'a Cote, Les Deux Anglaises and Finally, Suddenly (all 2 Entertain / Cinema Club) are some of the greatest films ever made. First up is Jules Et Jim (Cinema Club) a movie which details two poets who fall for the same woman. Tinged with melancholia and touching upon life, love, war and tragedy this contains blow away performances from the likes of Jeanne Moreau as the beautiful object of desire. Next is Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot The Pianist) (Cinema Club) a joyous pastiche of film noir, the gangster movie and anything else Truffaut wanted to put in there. In it Charles Aznavour plays a pianist with a secret past and his wounded hero holds the film together. A triumph of spot on casting and an impeccably created atmosphere. Finally there's - in my humble opinion - on of the greatest French films ever made in Le Quartre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) (Cinema Club). 13 year old Antoine Doinel (a superb performance for Jean Pierre Leaud) goes from family life to reform school in a film that exudes a paradoxical air of freedom and sadness. Some of the scenes - such as those set in the fairground where, if you look closely enough, you should be able to see Truffaut himself - are an ode to the innocence of the young whilst the ambiguous final shot is still one of the most famous in cinema history. A truly remarkable film more than 40 years after its release. And it was Truffaut's debut as well. All the discs come with a lot of extras that are actually very interesting. There are too many to list here but Le Quartre Cents Coups includes short film Les Mistons, a commentary by by Robert Lachenay a childhood friend of Truffaut’s and the trailer for the film. All of these Truffaut discs should make their way into any self respecting film fan's collection.
As good as Truffaut was, he was once quoted as saying "For some of us, Max Ophuls was the best French filmmaker." You can now see what the fuss was all about with a newly released collection of the director's work. Firstly, La Plaisir (Second Sight) adapts three short stories by Guy De Maupassant all of which deal with the notion of pleasure. It includes an introduction fro Todd Haynes who is hugely influenced by Ophuls. Next up is The Reckless Moment (Second Sight) which sees Joan Bennett blackmailed by James Mason in an elegant film noir that marked Ophuls effortlessly work within the Hollywood studio system. Madame De... (Second Sight) is cited by numerous filmmakers (Terry Gilliam amongst them) as one of the most exquisite films ever made. After a countess sells her earrings to settle a debt and the charade that lies at the heart of the rich socialites is soon revealed. An absolutely gorgeous film that will dazzle you from one moment to the next. Finally Letter From An Unknown Woman (Second Sight) the greatest story of unrequited love ever committed to celluloid. The suave Stefan (Louis Jordan in one of his greatest roles) arrives home to find a letter from a girl from his past. What for him was a brief fling was to her, her entire life and the past collides with the present. An achingly sad and beautiful story that remains a great of world cinema. All in all, all the Max Ophuls are a must buy for those who are serious about cinema: which does, unfortunately, mean that - if you add in the Truffaut films - you're going to be slightly out of pocket.
More recent French cinema also gets an airing with a host of releases showcasing some of the brightest stars of Gallic movies. Vanessa Paradis (currently pursuing a career as the ‘Mrs. Johnny Depp) stars as a lolitaesque student who embarks on a passionate relationship with her 50-year-old teacher in Noce Blance (Second Sight). Rather theatrical and obvious it still has some powerful acting that holds the attention. Venus Beauty (M&J Film) is a French comedy featuring an early appearance from Audrey Tatou as one of a group of beauty salon workers who learn about life and love. Again, quite theatrical, but a well scripted slice of entertainment. Finally Les Apprentis (M&J Films) sees two slackers who attempt to avoid losing their house via numerous eccentric schemes. A well put together comedy that sometimes feels a bit forced but remains entertaining.
Onto a French/Czech co-production now in Fantastic Planet (Eureka) a remarkable addition to the Masters Of Cinema range. A race of tiny humans attempt to overthrow the blue aliens that rule them. As you do. This trippy animation is a neglected gem of the early 70s from the animation style itself (Imagine is Terry Gilliam and Bosch were spliced together in some kind of strange accident) to the astoundingly great score this is a truly surreal film that could be best enjoyed under the influences of other substances. Such as a good strong cup of tea, obviously. The disc also comes with two shorts from director Rene Laloux (both are excellent) and a chance to hear the groovy score all by itself. Another excellent DVD from the Masters Of Cinema which are fast garnering a reputation on a par with Criterion in the US.
On to TV now as the Due South: The Complete Third Season (Network Releasing) sees the adventures of our favourite Mountie come to an end. There's a bit of a change in this season as regular cast member David Marciano is largely missing, replaced with Cronenberg favourite Callum Keith Rennie. The scripts manage to weather the storm and there's a good blend of wit, irreverence and heart and - unlike many shows - it actually ends with a satisfactory finale. There's also a documentary about the history of the show that's illuminating with the majority of the cast and crew though creator Paul Haggis is sadly missing. One feels he's too busy with the Oscar he won for directing Crash and some Brasso.
One of the most powerful TV dramas of recent times, Sex Traffic (inD DVD) is the affecting and shocking story of women being sold into sexual slavery in cities around Europe. John Simm (giving a typically intense performance) plays an investigator who uncovers a scandal as he discovers that girls looking for a better life are in fact being led into a life of misery. Never drifting into sensationalism, this is a profound and disturbing piece of work that should be commended for its crusading nature.
For those of you who felt ‘Time Trumpet' was a slight disappointment (very funny at points but sadly lacking at others) then remind yourself of the genius of one the greatest comedians over the past few years in The Armando Iannucci Shows (Fremantle Home Entertainment). 8 episodes of surreal and biting comedy that viciously skewer the banality of modern life, it was criminally ignored when first aired due to it's transmission date of September 2001 which, as Iannucci admits in his great commentary, was a time when comedy shows were not exactly high on the world agenda. I've also got to point out the spot on choice of classic musical used throughout the show alongside the cinematic visuals meaning the show likes quite unlike anything before or since. Fans of great comedy will not regret buying this. The same goes for A Bit Of Fry and Laurie Series 3 (2 Entertain / Cinema Club) in which the duo continue with their finely tuned brand of wordplay with a glorious disregard for the standard rules of sketch comedy. Whilst the third series lacks a certain something (there are too many studio sketches and ‘Control' is sorely missed) there's the compensation of the first appearance of the end of credit Cocktail recipe. Soupy twist (cue non Fry and Laurie fans going "What the hell is he talking about?")
If you want your TV a little bit more sedate then Johnny And The Bomb (Warner Vision) will be right up your street. Based on the novel by Terry Pratchett, this sees the titular Johnny gain a unique reward after helping an old lady with her bags. It turns out that she can send him through time and soon Johnny ends up in 1941 vat the height of the Blitz. This is perfect family entertainment with some snazzy special effects, funny moments and the occasional bit of sadness. Should keep everyone happy as the nights draw in. Extras include an interview with Pratchett. Speaking of time travelling ...
Now, if you've only watched the modern incarnation of ‘Doctor Who' then you might get a bit of a shock when you watch Doctor Who: Mark Of The Rani (BBC DVD). This Colin Baker (the 6th Doctor fact fans) episode was made at a time when the BBC were doing everything they could to get rid of the Time Lord. With little money, the special effects could be rather cheesy (oh look it's an evil tree! Oh, wait it's a man in a bad tree like suit) and the locations seem contrived, far from the lavish budget it has now. Despite all this, this episode - which sees Kate O Mara as fellow Time Lord The Rani - works through sheer exuberance from the cast (O Mara chews the scenery with aplomb) and an implausible storyline that revels in its silliness. Not one to convert the non-fan but those who follow the good doctor should fine themselves well satisfied, especially because of the host of extras the delve into the making of the story.
All these DVDs should be available now or in the next couple of weeks. Unless you're a time traveller, then release dates would be relative. That said, if you were a time traveller you'd probably be out having adventures rather than buying DVDs.