After a few columns in which Hollywood has been heavily featured, Special Edition # 39 focuses upon some great cinema from across the world (though with one or two releases from the US studios). Laurence Boyce will check out new releases and classics from Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Russia and Sweden whilst also dwelling upon remakes of classic TV shows and the usual mention of Doctor Who.
For those who grew up with Maurice Sendak’s classic book for children, the thought of the film version of Where The Wild Things Are (Warner Home Video) filled many with trepidation. Just how could you transfer the simple tale it to the big screen and do it justice - even when directed by someone as talented as Spike Jonze? The answer is with some great CGI, a respectful but not slavish adherence to the source material, an assured central performance from youngster Max Records and a fine soundtrack from Karen O. Young Max lives the life of a typical 9-year-old, with an older sister who seems more interested in boys and a mother who just doesn’t understand the importance of letting him play. After a fraught night in which he argues with his mother, Max runs away to find a mysterious island full of monsters who let him be their king. But is a life free of responsibility really what Max wants? This is an emotionally resonant film that is unafraid to be talky and literate. Jonze really captures the spirit of Sendak’s book with both a sense of anarchy and a melancholic edge that laments the end of childhood. Records is excellent in the lead role whilst the likes of James Gandolfini and Forest Whitaker provide fine voice support as the titular wild things (who are brilliantly realised thanks to the CGI). A clever and intelligent film for all ages.
Of course, if there was merely trepidation about Where The Wild Things Are adaptation then it was downright fear when Guy Ritchie announced that he was going to tackle Sherlock Holmes (Warner Home Video). Unsurprisingly, he’s approached everything with the subtlety of a sledgehammer making the World’s Greatest Detective into an action-hero who’s as apt to smash you in the face as deduce your dastardly intentions and added plenty of explosions and silliness. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, as Holmes and Watson respectively, are clearly enjoying themselves and there is a tongue and cheek nature here which means that there is a lot of fun to be had. This is complete and utter bollocks, but vaguely entertaining complete and utter bollocks. Just those who are looking for an authentic recreation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books would be advised to stay away or their heads may explode.
Given that 8 ½ is one of my favourite movies of all time, I must admit that Nine (Entertainment In Video) had me a bit worried. I mean, a musical based on Fellini’s classic film? Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman? Admittedly, I had no idea that the musical had originally been a Broadway hit in 1982 and then revived years later (whereas nowadays they’ll make a musical out of any old film – I’m personally looking forward to ‘My Dinner With Andre: The Musical!’), but this still seems completely and utterly mad. Indeed, some parts of it are. Day-Lewis plays Italian director Guido Contini, a man attempting to finish his latest movies whilst dealing with the tangled web of women in his life. Catholic guilt, visions of his deceased mother and lots of lots of singing all come together to form a unique aesthetic experience. Whilst Day-Lewis is excellent as always (and a damn good singer and dancer) the film feels very artificial (much like director Rob Marshall’s take on Chicago). Unlike the film that inspired it, this distance and theatricality give the film a cold and uninvolving sheen that makes it tremendously hard to enjoy. The technical achievements and set pieces are indeed something wonderful – but ultimately, it feels tremendously limp and lifeless.
Just what went wrong with Richard Kelly since Donnie Darko? Whilst I enjoyed its audaciousness, the majority of people dismissed Southland Tales as a load of indulgent nonsense whilst his latest film The Box (Icon Home Entertainment) seems to have been received with the same amount of enthusiasm as a new Uwe Boll film. Adapted from an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’, the film stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a couple who are visited by mysterious stranger Frank Langella. He presents them with a mysterious box – if they press the button, they will instantly get $1 million. The only catch being that someone in the world, who they don’t know, will die. Are there going to be horrible consequences if they decide to press the button? Well, it wouldn’t be much of a film if there not. Kelly certainly manages to evoke a world of old sci-fi shows and mysterious happenings, as he’s obviously tremendously enamoured to the source material. But that’s also the trouble here – it really feel stretched out and, rather than get engrossed in the story, you just want them to get on with it. The performances are fine, with Langella in particular doing a grand job as the evil (?) antagonist, and there’s a nice air of 70s paranoia, but it doesn’t really manage to sustain itself. Comes with a nice smattering of extras, including a nice interview with the writer Richard Matheson.
Another remake turns up in the form of Newsmakers (Showbox Home Entertainment), a Russian makeover of Johnnie To’s action movie Breaking News. The conceit is intriguing, as a notorious criminal gang find themselves trapped just outside of Moscow as the nation’s media trains an eye upon them. The police decide that it’s the perfect time to remove then thorn in their side, whilst the eyes of the city and the country can see them take decisive action. Director Anders Banke – who was also responsible for the underrated Swedish horror film Frostbite – certainly has an eye for action, with many accomplished set pieces (especially the violent opening sequence). But, despite the interesting idea behind the film, it’s not much more than the sum of its parts with the story muddled and the acting merely adequate. Those who like a good dose of action will find some enjoyable sequences but it never really hangs together as a whole.
An astonishing and uplifting movie from Japan, Departures (Arrow Films) was the deserved winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. After finding himself out of work, Diago Kobayashi becomes a Nokanshi – a man who prepares bodies for burial and entry into the next life. Whilst others recoil at the thought of his profession, Kobayashi becomes enamoured with his task as he begins to discover that the meaning of life is also found in the ways in which we deal with death. This is a wonderfully still and nuanced film, with some measured performances and a tone that is both life-affirming and moving. It continually demands close attention, but even at more than 3 hours, it goes by incredibly quickly and is one of the most resonant movies of 2009. Also from Japan is Still Walking (New Wave Films), another measured work in which Hirokazu Kore-eda(known for such films as After Life) creates an intimate family drama that’s reminiscent of some of Ozu’s classic examination of Japanese culture. And if the stillness begins to make you restless then Takeshis’ (Artificial Eye) will jump start you as it is a kaleidoscopic and consistently interesting fantasy in which celebrity Beat Takeshi meets an unknown actor called Kitano. A clever deconstruction of identity from a master of Japanese cinema.
We move on to Sweden now with the winner of the 1992 Palme D’Or The Best Intentions (Park Circus), written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Bille August. It’s yet another example of slow and deliberate cinema, in a 3 hour film that was cut down from a 6 hour TV movie. Based on the life of Bergman’s parents, it tells the story of a poor student who falls in love with a woman from a rich family. Despite the objections of family, the two are determined to live a life together. The story may initially seemed clichéd, but the origins in reality give Bergman’s s script gives everything a touching authenticity whilst commanding performances from Samuel Froler, Pernilla August – whose performance netted her the Best Actress at Cannes – and Max Von Sydow make this a compelling drama that is rife with tender moments and powerful ruminations about the path of true love.
Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (Mr Bongo Films) is a often lauded as one of the greatest silent films of all time, so it’s welcome news that this Russian masterpiece finds its way on to DVD.The film follows the struggle of peasants to collectivise their land, despite the opposition of their landlord. At first it seems that a victory for the working class is assured, but soon the bitter sting of defeat blights the lives of everyone. This is as much an essay on the indomitable nature of humans in the face of adversity as political allegory and, much like the legdendary Soy Cuba, the film transcends its origin as a work of propaganda (it was originally meant to encourage the establishment of collective farms) as Dovzhenko’s command of imagery and drama make for a rich, emotional and poetic experience. A true delight of world cinema which should be discovered as soon as possible.
Czech filmmaker Frantisek Vlácil’s wonderful The Valley of the Bees (Second Run) also makes its way on to DVD: the perfect opportunity to unearth (or re-discover) the work of a director who made some of the great films of the 60s. Interestingly, for a director whose work is usually typified by a dense nature and a strong sense of introspection, The Valley of the Bees is perhaps his most simple and accessible work (though this does not make it any less stunning). After being shunned by his family, young Ondrej finds himself in the Order of Teutonic Knights. As he grows older, his desire to return to the family home sees him desert those who raised him and he’s soon finds himself pursued by one of his closest friends. This is a powerful examination of morality and religion, but is never simple or clichéd: this is a world in which there are no absolutes and the essence of life is defined by its fluidity. This is created not only by strong central performances but also by how Vlácil has a way of making the grotesque beautiful, giving the most brutal scenarios a strangely romantic tinge. For those who have yet to discover the work of Frantisek Vlácil, this would be a perfect starting point, with the DVD also providing a brilliant transfer of the film, a restored soundtrack and a convincing and thorough essay about the film from critic Peter Hames. Also released is Diamonds of the Night (Second Run), the debut feature of Czech New Wave director Jan Němec. It’s a thrillingly urgent film that eschews dialogue for an intensely visual and visceral story of two boys escaping from a train which (one assumes) is heading to a Nazi concentration camp. Pursued by a group of old men, the boys find themselves fighting for their lives in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Both a study of the resiliency of human nature, and a delve into the realm of absurdism, this is a breathless and powerful piece of work. And, as you would expect, the DVD itself does the film justice. You would also be well advised to discover another excellent Czechslovakian film in Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Second Run). Jaromil Jireš' 1970 film is a surreal and gothic masterpiece of the Czech New Wave, based on the classic novel about the sexual awakening of a young girl. Another excellent DVD from Second Run.
The bizarre continues in Institute Benjamenta (BFI), the eerie and unsettling debut live-action feature of The Quay Brothers. Mark Rylance plays Jakob, a man he becomes a student of the Institute Benjamenta a school for potential servants. Whilst there he meets the imposing Johannes and his sister Lisa and soon discovers the many secrets that lie behind the Institute’s facade. Unsurprisingly, this is a visually stunning – and often obtuse - affair with an energy created by the juxtaposition between the disturbing and the serene and some fractured and delicate performances. This dual format release – which includes the film on standard and Blu-ray – includes a host of extras include a documentary looking at the making of the film, and numerous Quay Brothers shorts. Indeed, the extras would almost work as a release by themselves, but combined with this remarkably inventive fairy tale (based on the novel by Swiss writer Robert Walser) this is an essential purchase for fans of leftfield British cinema.
Fans of that kind of cinema will also find themselves drawn to the latest BFI Flipside release with the Blu-ray release of Peter Watkins extraordinary Privilege (BFI), a biting satire in which a the most popular rock star of the day is in fact a puppet of the government used to control the masses. Watkins – who, with films such as Culloden and The War Game, is one of the most brilliant British filmmakers ever – uses both documentary and sci-fi trappings to create a provocative dystopia that is both a call to arms for a young generation and a warning against the nature of apathy. The film looks great on Blu-ray and comes with a number of extras, including some of Watkins early shorts and new essays on Watkins work. Also interesting are The Pleasure Girls (BFI) and The Party’s Over (BFI). The former is a breezy slice of ‘Swinging London’ cinema in which a model comes to London to discover the joys of being a young girl free to enjoy liasions with the likes of Klaus Kinski and Ian Macshane. The latter is a darker work (indeed, it was originally censored and director Guy Hamilton removed his name from the credits) in which a girl falls in with a gang of beatniks with tragic consequences. Both these dual format releases are interesting curios and, whilst dated, are still excellent examples of a crucial part of British cinema history. And if you you’re still a little bit confused by the Flipside series then Kim Newman’s Guide to the Flipside of British Cinema (BFI) is exactly what you need. The respected film critic provides an alternative history to British cinema and – alongside trailers and shorts – gives you everything you should need to know to enjoy neglected UK gems.
Ironically, it was a British filmmaker who was responsible for a savage exposure of the seedy side of Hollywood, as Bernard Rose’s IvansXTC updated Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ to tell the story of the last day in the life of an LA agent. Rose returns to Tolstoy, with The Kreutzer Sonata (Axiom Films) forming the second film of his planned trilogy. Danny Huston and Elizabeth Rohm play Edgar and Abby, a couple passionately in love but, in the case of Abby, unhappy with the lack of career. So when Abby meets a young pianist, she sees the chance to reclaim her life as a musician. But Edgar’s jealousy threatens to bring everything to an unfortunate conclusion. There’s certainly passion and fire in this story, with Huston and Rohm not holding back in their performances. But it sometimes falls under the weight of its own theatricality and portentous nature and the seriousness sometimes gives ways to suppressed giggles. It’s a brave, if not entirely successful , attempt to explore the nature of obsession and love.
More successful is Voy A Explotar [I’m Gonna Explode] (Aritificial Eye), an impressive Mexican drama that has echoes of Bonnie & Clyde. Two teenagers – one a loner and the other the son of a politician – are determined to rebel against the entire world. They do this by faking kidnappings, hiding away and generally trying to cause as much trouble as possible. This is an intense and sexy affair but it also feels a very raw and real examination of teenage life. There’s an interesting dichotomy here as the urgency that can typify young rebellion is compared with the more apathetic nature of the modern teenager. Thus, whilst our protagonists want to rally against the world, they would prefer to be hidden away (with a plentiful supply of booze). When they’re forced out into the open, things take a more sombre tone as there’s a terrible sense of inevitability to their actions, making this a compelling watch.
Mugabe and the White African (Dogwoof Pictures) is a superlative documentary about the plight of one of the White Zimbabwean farmers left after President Robert Mugabe’s land reform scheme, which saw thousands left in poverty and acres of farmland left derelict. 74-year-old Mike Campbell is determined to take Mugabe to a tribunal for racism and human rights violations, despite the fact that this will prove a danger to both himself and to his family. This is an often harrowing and infuriating experience, with the sheer injustices wrought upon the ordinary citizens of Zimbabwe almost impossible to believe and it’s a testament to both the stubborn nature of Campbell (who refuses to back down) and to directors Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey who filmed much of the documentary covertly to avoid media restrictions in the country. This is crusading filmmaking at its very best.
Not content with being one of the most versatile actresses in Britain today, Samantha Morton turns her hand to directing in The Unloved (ICA Films). This is a downbeat affair about Lucy, a girl dealing with the realities of the current care system in the UK. With parents who are basically loving, but totally ineffectual, Lucy is moved into care and becomes friends with older girl Lauren. It soon becomes apparent that the system that is meant to help them lead a ‘normal’ life will do nothing of the sort. Morton (who spent many years in foster care) creates a film of slow burning anger at a failed system but with deep empathy for the resilience of those trapped within it. Whilst its origins as a TV drama are apparent, and Morton’s direction sometimes a little overwrought (the signalling of religion as a possible redemptive force seems a little forced at points), this is an often harrowing but well-intentioned drama in the vein of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Peter Mullan.
If you’re going to do a re-make of a classic cult TV show, don’t start moaning when people inevitably compare it to the original. The updated version of The Prisoner (ITV Studios Home Entertainment) sees Jesus, erm I mean Jim Caviezel, plays a man who wakes up in a mysterious village. ‘2’ (Ian McKellen, intoning every single line with such gravity it could likely cause a black hole) informs him that he is known as ‘6’ and should be become a productive member of the Village. Given that he’s the rebellious sort – and the fact that the mini-series would be quite short if he wasn’t – 6 is determined to get to escape the Village and discover its mysteries. Simply put, it can’t compare to Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant series of the 1960s. Whilst it tries hard not to re-make it (elements, such as ROVER, remain but it tries to have both a different aesthetic and narrative) you can’t help miss McGoohan’s intense charisma and the sheer originality that the original displays. Even when looked at on its merits, the show is simply an adequate exploration on the themes of surveillance and individuality in the 21st Century that mistakes the convoluted for complexity – shows such as ‘Battlestar Galactica’ have done it so much better. Those who enjoy some decent genre fare will most likely enjoy this, thanks to some decent direction and good acting, but don’t expect to blown away. This 3-disc set is absolutely packed with extras, including deleted scenes and on-set reports.
Now, on to some original cult TV with Doctor Who – The Creature From The Pit (BBC DVD). Tom Baker is all teeth and curls as the Fourth Doctor, travelling with Time Lady Romana (played by Lalla Ward, who is currently the wife of God botherer – due to the fact that he’s not that bothered about God – Richard Dawkins). Here they find themselves on the planet of Adastra in which metals are desperately needed – all of a sudden, K9 finds himself in a bit of trouble. This is not from a high-point of the Baker era, with some moments feeling rather forced whilst the muddled story about a battle between the plant life of the planet and the human rulers is, well, just a bit silly. One for the completists who, as always, are well catered for with commentaries and – curiously – a section from classic BBC kids show ‘Animal Magic’.
If you only think of Bernard Cribbins as a companion to the aforementioned timelord, then you really should get the bona fide children’s classic The Railway Children (Optimum Classic) on DVD. Digitally restored to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the film is old-fashioned yet timeless as a group of children spend an idyllic summer playing on the railways (OK, you couldn’t do that now) whilst waiting for the return of their father who has mysteriously disappeared to 'help' the police. Under the watchful eye of the station porter Mr Perks (Cribbins, ace as always) the children learn how to be responsible in the face of great adversity. In an age when many films for young people require a veneer of cynicism, it’s amazing how earnest yet enjoyable the film is today. Rather than seeming naive, the innocence in the film is absolutely charming with Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett (who was 19 when the movie was made – just a tad older than the character she was playing) and Gary Warren playing the titular children with such an earthy delight that they never become annoying. Comes with a retrospective documentary and new interviews with some of the cast. A true British classic and much better for the youngsters than Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel (decides to cut himself before fervent mutterings of “Kids nowadays,” “...don’t know they’ve been born...” and “Bring back National Service,” emerge....)