Who would believe it but its mid-life crisis time as its Special Edition #40. But, before it grows its hair long, buys a motorcycle and searches for a girlfriend of an inappropriate age, it will find enough time to go through some of the latest and most exciting DVDs available. Laurence Boyce picks some new releases (including a ton of brand new animation), TV shows and classic film that will hopefully hold your attention. Hey, both ‘Lost’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ have finished. What else are you going to do?
As adaptations go it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for Astroboy (E1 Entertainment) to make it to the big screen. Seen as one of the greatest works of Manga in the history of the genre (it was originally published in 1952) it’s had TV adaptations in its native Japan and the US but – aside from a compilation made of some episodes from the 60s Japanese live action TV show – it’s never been given the cinema treatment. Given that Hollywood is now looking at adapting, well, everything (coming soon: Michael Bay’s Laundry List IN 3D!) it’s been given the computer animation treatment. The film follows the origins of the titular character who is born in the futuristic Metro City after Dr Tenma (Nicolas Cage, who seems to be have embracing his inner geek as of late with this and Kick Ass) builds a robot boy to replace his lost son. But when the mechanical boy can’t live up to the expectations of his father, he runs away and finds himself finding that the future world is not as equal as it should be. And soon a threat to the world sees Astro Boy stand up for him and his friends. This is basically ‘Pinocchio’ with robots and guns and it certainly tries to have an emotional heart that seems at odds with the colourful and shiny animation. It’s often a little too uneven and sometimes feels forced and contrived (well, as contrived as any films about a robot boy in the future can be) but there’s a strong voice cast (Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland and the aforementioned Cage) and should prove most entertaining for Manga fans and older kids. Also includes two new animated sequences and a look into the making of the film.
Whilst it’s fun, Astro Boy can’t hold a candle to the simply wonderful Ponyo (Optimum Releasing). The latest film from Hideo Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle) and Studio Ghibli it basically tells the story of 'The Little Mermaid' as a boy falls in love with a fish (as often happens), the fish becomes a girl (again, a common happening) and girl and boy help save the world from environmental disaster (simple really). The animation is typically superb, rich with detail and ablaze with colour, whilst the story is consistently engaging and attempts to intelligently deal with some big ideas about the nature of human impact on the environment. It also manages (just about) to stay on the right side of sentimental. This comes with both the original Japanese and the dubbed version. The dubbed version includes voice work from the likes of Matt Damon and Liam Neeson, who do an admirable job but sometimes distract in the occasional “Oh I recognise that voice,” moment. The DVD also includes a whole load of extras including a conversation between Miyazaki and John Toy Story Lasseter (who produced the film), storyboards and an exploration into how Ponyo was created. Another highlight for one of the greatest animators in the world.
And there’s even more animation with Wizards (Eureka) a classic – and slightly insane – film from the late 70s. Directed by Ralph Bakshi, best known for his animated versions of Lord Of The Rings and Fritz The Cat, the film now seems oddly prescient dealing as it does with a post-apocalyptic Earth after a nuclear war is triggered by a terrorist attack on New York. Technology is outlawed giving rise to a land of magic, elves and fairies. But, war breaks out again, and the old technology and weapons are re-discovered threatening to lay waste to the planet once again. Whilst the film has dated somewhat, it’s certainly has something of a curiosity value as traditional cel-animaton becomes rarer and rarer. Some of the battle sequences still manage to impress whilst its parallels with Nazi atrocities pack something of a punch. The disc comes with a commentary by Bakshi and a featurette about the making of the film
Denzil Washington joins in the post-apocalyptic action in The Book of Eli (Entertainment in Video), playing a man roaming a nuclear ravaged land in possession of the last Bible whilst bad guys led by Gary Oldman pursue him to gain possession of his prized tome and the power held within. This is very much a mash-up of such films as Mad Max, I Am Legend and Children Of Men with an underlying religious subtext creating an impressive action movie (there are some great set pieces, including a slow paced opening that kicks into high gear) that isn’t afraid to deal with some weighty themes. If you add in an interesting aesthetic – all desaturated hues that gives a strange bleakness to an ostensibly sun drenched world – the movie should be lauded for trying something different and does mange to hold the attention. Yet it lacks the spark that goes towards to making a truly great movie and never manages to totally live up to its lofty ideals as Eli’s burgeoning powers becoming silly and the vagueness surrounding the apocalyptic society annoying at points . An entertaining, but flawed, slice of sci-fi cinema.
Those who saw Precious (Icon Home Entertainment) at the cinema would often, when recommending the film to others, would often seem to say “It’s a really difficult watch, but it’s worth it if you can put up with the relentness misery.” Those who have been put off by the difficult subject matter would do well to re-think their stance now that the film is available on DVD. Yes, the film is harrowing – sometimes unbearably so - but this is passionate and brave filmmaking that everyone would be well advised to experience. Our protagonist is Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones whose life would seem suited to crass morning ITV shows: she’s black, obese, illiterate and – as the film starts – carrying her father’s child. Yet, despite the weight of these injustices, Precious still has hope. Dreams and fantasies see her carried away by knights in shining armour whilst – amongst the horror of her reality – there are still glimmers of decency and humanity. Director Lee Daniels deals with these tonal shifts with authority, never making them glib and instead offering possibilities of redemption in the most awful of circumstances. Gabby Sidibe is jaw-dropping in the central role whilst Mo’Nique sheds her comedic persona in her portrayal as Claireece’s foul mother. Even Mariah Carey manages to impress in her brief role as a councillor. This is a primal and raw film displaying a soul and heart so often lacking in modern filmmaking: even if you find yourself shying away from the subject matter, you should force yourself to re-consider. You will be richly rewarded.
Argentina's nominee for the Palme D'Or Lion’s Den (Axiom Films) takes the typical masculine genre of the prison movie and refocuses attention upon the female. After a set of circumstances she doesn’t quite understand, the pregnant Julia finds herself in prison. She begins to comes to terms with not only impending motherhood but with the revelation that her previous life has been predicated on going with the flow. Now, in a situation where she is forced to act, just how will she take control of her life? This (mainly) eschews the melodramatic for a more focused intensity: we follow Julia (Martina Gusmán, giving an excellent performance) intently throughout film, feeling each moment, both big and small, that changes her life. Pablo Trapero's and cinematographer Guillermo Nieto give the film a vibrancy and life that marks it out as different from the usual oppressive nature of prison movie. This is less about the nature of prison itself (though not to say that it any point trivialises the harsh realities of such a life) and instead concentrates on individual and group dynamics and emotional truth.
The Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani is fast becoming one of the most interesting directors working in America today. From the minimalist Man Push Cart and the brilliant short film Plastic Bag he’s a filmmaker with a delicate and poignant sensibility. Chop Shop (Axiom Home Entertainment) focuses upon a young boy who ekes a living working at one of the many car repair shops that are dotted around New York. With a remarkable performance from the non-professional Alejandro Polanco, this is a film about people living on the edges of society and another piece of work that manages to offer hope despite the bleakness of the situations that the characters face. Bahrani’s direction is assured and commanding, with a breathless and dusty air that permeates proceedings. With echoes of Ken Loach, Bahrani is a talent that should be watched over the coming years as Chop Shop is indicative of a remarkable director.
Speaking of Ken Loach, one of the last things that you would expect for him is to direct a children’s film. But that’s exactly what he did in 1979 with Black Jack (BFI). Based on the novel by Leon Garfield, the film tells the story of a French rapscallion who kidnaps a young boy and takes him on a series of adventures. Whilst this is a gentle children’s adventure (though, truth be told, children nowadays would probably find it as interesting as watching paint dry) many of Loach’s preoccupations seep through with concerns about the treatment of the mentally ill (a girl is saved from the horrors of institutions) and an eye for social realism despite the early 19th century setting. It’s certainly an interesting curio from the work of the director, and fascinating to see him cater for a younger audience. And, as always, this BFI release has been lovingly restored and contains lots of worthwhile extras including a commentary by Loach.
On to more commercial fare with Spiral (indiVISION) which focuses upon Mason an awkward young artist and social outcast, who may have done something very terrible indeed. Working by day by telesales, Mason meets Amber who decides to befriend him and open him up to the rest of society. As the audience is already uncomfortably well aware, this is quite a bad idea. With allusions to Hitchcock, thriller films of the 70s and others you could be forgiven that this is the typical modern horror film that is a muddle of references and homages. But directors Adam Green and Joel Moore keep everything razor sharp and this is a film of slow intensity that keeps you glued to the screen throughout out. The constant twists and turns are always satisfying (and often quite scary) whilst Moore also plays the central character convincingly. A taut and well made slice of indie horror that is worthy of discover on DVD.
More horror, of a much less subtle kind, in the brilliantly titled Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (Optimum Classic) which, surprisingly, isn’t really set in Manchester (all indications look as if the film was filmed in the Peak District). This is a slice of 70s Euro Gore that blatantly rips-off the likes of Romero, as a holidaying antique dealer (no, not David Dickinson...) finds that Government experiments are bringing the dead back to life. Cue lots of (effective and nasty) set-pieces in which entrails are devoured and women run around with nothing on whilst screaming. Whilst this is mostly exploitation, there is a neat undercurrent of political commentary with a blatant distrust of authority figures and the struggle between authority and radicalism. Director Jorge Grau has an eye for the striking (such as a memorable sequence in a graveyard) marking this as something that will prove genuinely fascinating for those gorehounds who love their Italian/Spanish/Manchester bloodfests.
Even as someone who finds themselves quite laid back when it comes to national pride, I must admit The Dam Busters – Special Edition (Optimum Classic) manages to make my heart swell with English passion. Maybe it’s the rousing music, or perhaps it’s the stirring performances from the likes of Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. Either way, as a war film, it’s always had a special place in cinema history. It’s partly to do with the fact that it manages to give the scientists a look-in at the start, with Dr Barnes Wallis attempts to perfect the bouncing bombs that will be able to breach the German dam. Soon, Wing Commander Guy Gibson is heading up a special squadron that train to handle the new look bombers. Will their ultimate mission be successful? It’s a fine celebration of brains and bravery and, like many good war films, manages to make you tense about the how everything will turn out (as, I hope, we’re all aware how World War II ended) by making you care about the individual characters. The film has been lovingly restored and also comes with a very good documentary The Dam Busters – 617 Squadron Remembers featuring interviews with the last remaining survivors of the raid.
Morse may have gone to solve that great crossword puzzle in the sky, but his protégé Robbie Lewis is still continuing to solve crimes in the strangely murder ridden city of Oxford (it must be all that studying and listening to Radiohead). Lewis – Series 4 (ITV Home Entertainment) shows that series has hit its stride, with complex and contrived plots and plenty of guest stars. ‘Dark Matter’ for example includes astronomy, blackmail and Warren Clarke whilst Your Sudden Death Question sees Alan Davies (yes, Jonathon Creek invades!) turn up to match wits with the best of Oxford’s police force. This is gentle and perfect and Sunday night television that – whilst predictable – offers some entertaining plots, nice central performances from Kevin Whatley and Laurence Fox and lots of pretty vies of Oxford. The British may not make crime dramas with the gravitas of, say, ‘The Wire’ but we’ll always reassure the world that the upper middle-classes are consistently bumping each other off.
The Office: An American Workplace - Series 4 (Universal Home Entertainment) has done a rare thing for an American sitcom: it’s managed to outlive it’s British parent and – in some cases – outshine it as well. Those who have yet to see the US version of Ricky Gervais’ breakthrough show would see Steve Carrell as the boss of the Dunder Mifflin. Whilst he can be as insufferable as David Brent, there is also a vulnerable side (which we really only got to see of Brent during the final of the UK episodes) that sees him and his staff working side by side (even though they are often at odds) in front of the ever present cameras. By this series, relationships had been established and new ones forged not making this the best for the newcomer. But even if it will take you a while to get into the story, you’ll be rewarded with some great acting, sharp writing and a fine balance between the uncomfortably embarrassing and the laugh out loud funny. There are some flaws – this season was hit by the US writers strike and it seems to have taken the wind out some of the episodes whilst the mockumentary format is becomingly increasingly stretched. But this is literate and clever US comedy that comes with commentaries and bloopers to keep you extra entertained.
Think of all the great Doctor Who companions. Sarah Jane-Smith. Rose. Kamelion. Wait a second. Kamelion? Who the heck’s he when he’s at home (or in the TARDIS). Well, let Doctor Who – The Kamelion Tales (2Entertain) enlighten you. Basically, he was an android companion introduced in the first tale of this collection ‘The King’s Demons’. In it, The Doctor (Peter Davidson) and co travel back to 13th Century and finds himself embroiled in a plot involving the King, the Magna Carta, a man called Sir Giles Estram (hmm, what a suspicious name...) and the shape changing android who joins him to travel in the TARDIS> Unfortunately it was found out that the animatronics to make Kamelion were, to put it in technical parlance, a bit pony and he’s not wheeled out agin until ‘Planet of Fire’ where The Doctor ends up on the planet Sarn – and where he may lose some companions, there’s a new girl called Peri with at least a couple of points of interest to keep The Doctor happy. These are minor Doctor Who stories that are entertaining but hardly vintage. As always, the extras are brilliant with commentaries fro Davidson and other cast and crew, a touching look at Anthony Ainley (best known for his portrayal of The Master) and – of course – a piece dedicated to Kamelion.
And, finally, a quick shout out for Robin B-Hood (Cine Asia) in which Jackie Chan plays one of a trio of burglars who become embroiled in a mysterious kidnap plot. Soon it transpires that their victim is a cute baby who quickly melts their hearts. This is a lightweight film that is full of funny moments and lots of incredibly impressive fight sequences with Chan showing that he can still move despite how much his body has been knocked about over the years. Just an enormously fun hour and a half of people kicking each other. No, I’m not talking about an England game....