Special Edition # 31
It’s looking like a pretty quiet summer for blockbusters. Harry Potter has caused a stir but seems somehow slight, Transformers 2 has distinguished itself by being absolutely diabolical and Star Trek seems like ages ago. So, if you’re not fancying your local multiplex then Special Edition # 31 would seem to be the perfect option for all your film watching needs. Laurence Boyce leads you through superhero angst on the big and small screen, a bit of comedy for when the sunshine isn’t lifting your mood and much more in-between.
To describe Watchmen (Paramount Home Entertainment) as being rather anticipated is a bit like calling Michael Bay “slightly unsubtle.” Comic book fans have been waiting for years to see if anyone could do justice to Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel whilst film buffs, especially in the wake of The Dark Knight, were looking forward to another genre film aimed at a more mature audience. With the weight of expectation firmly on the shoulders of director Zack Snyder it would be almost impossible to deliver on all levels. Whilst Watchmen is ultimately flawed, there’s plenty of intelligence and hard hitting sequences on offer. Following Moore’s novel almost to the letter (apart from the ending which, despite the nay Sayers, actually works) the film follows a group of dysfunctional superheroes in an alternate 1980s America. From the godlike Dr Manhattan to the arguably insane Rorscharch (a brilliant performance from Jackie Earle Hayley) the ‘Watchmen’ find themselves embroiled in a plot that threatens to end the entire world. Those who have read the original will be pretty impressed by how Snyder has brought the characters to life, though will wince at one or two of the changes which seem to have been put in there to simply up the brutality. And, even at almost 3 hours, there seems a lot that has been cut out that might prove confusing to newcomers. The trouble is that Watchmen was never meant to be filmed: it’s power lay in its deconstruction of the comic genre and showing exactly how you could use comics to create an amazing narrative. Whilst it can never top it’s source material, the film contains some top special effects, bravura set-pieces (including a great opening credit sequence) and a bunch of committed performances. Flawed perhaps but far from the let down it could have been. The 2 disc DVD includes webisodes and viral videos: but you can’t help wonder if there’ll be a spiffy ‘Director’s Cut’ with commentary out in the next year or so. If you’re a real big fan you might be advised to wait: though you’ll probably buy both.
Let The Right One In (Momentum Pictures) was something of a surprise hit given that the majority of cinema goers avoid foreign language movies. But Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film is a skilful and offbeat combination of coming of age drama and horror that manages to resonate quite beautifully. Oskar is bullied 12-year-old who falls in love with the mysterious Eli. When Eli reveals that there is more to her than meets the eye, Oskar is finally given the chance for revenge: just what will he do to take that chance. With a number of genres at play, it’s to Alfredson’s credit that the film never feels unbalanced. The dark and gory moments play well with the more witty scenes given a something of a shot in the arm to both the horror and teen drama tropes. Whilst it sometimes drags, the film ultimately heads to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion that’s exciting and poignant. The disc comes with a commentary and deleted scenes.
If you think Coffin Joe is some sort of cold medicine then it might be advisable to pick up the Coffin Joe Collection (Anchor Bay Entertainment) and give yourself – a fairly horrific – education. Director Jose Majica Marins, known to his fans as Coffin Joe, appears in front of the camera with two features (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse) in which he plays the gruesome undertaker who looks for a bride to grant him eternal life. With other features including Strange Hostel Of Naked Pleasures and Hellish Flesh, you can be assured of a gruesome mix of Russ Meyer and Mario Bava. Also included is a really good documentary that looks at the The Strange World Of Mojica Marins. If you want to find out what happens to Coffin Joe, then you’ll also have to pick up Embodiment Of Evil (Anchor Bay Entertainment) which seems him return after being locked up for more than four decades. 40 years on, there’s no let up on the violence, nudity and general insanity and fans of Marins will be delighted to know that he hasn’t lost his – long fingernailed – touch.
JT Petty, the director of the underrated horror film Soft For Digging, returns with the powerful and scary The Burrowers (Lionsgate), set in 18th century America. A fine mix of the Western and Horror genres, this sees Fergus Coffey set out to discover what has happened to his beloved who has disappeared – along with the rest of her family – in a mysterious attack. Intitally, it is believed that natives are behind the abduction but – when a posse sets out to search for them – the truth becomes horrifically apparent. Petty has a great knack of building up tension and has the ability to mix some gruesome set pieces with moments of real terror. Far from the usual ‘B’ movie fodder, The Burrowers is a low-key little gem. The same goes for Hush (Optimum Home Entertainment), a taut thriller from director Mark Tonderai. Whilst driving home on the motorway late at night, Zakes and Beth narrowly avoid hitting a white truck. Zakes swears he saw a woman chained up but isn’t sure. When Beth disappears at the next service station, the stakes are raised as he realises that he’s against more than he could have imagined. Tonderai’s debut is a masterclass in creating suspense and is reminiscent of Spielberg’s Duel with extra gruesome bits. The disc includes commentaries and deletd scenes.
‘Torchwood’ has had something of a rough ride, with many labelling the ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off as tonally uneven and unsure of its audience. Despite this, Special Edition has always had a soft spot for the sci-fi show about alien hunters in Cardiff and was looking forward to their latest round of adventures. It’s safe to say that Torchwood: Children of the Earth (BBC DVD) has left most people rather gobsmacked. The five-part adventure, about a group of mysterious aliens determined to deprive the Earth of %10 of their children, is everything that good sci-fi drama should be about. It’s exciting, intelligent and – most importantly – risk taking. Writer Russell T Davis (helped along by many others including the talented writer James Moran) have created a modern day equivalent of ‘Quatermass’, and re-discovered some of his fire and enthusiasm that many thought had been extinguished by too long working on the various ‘Who’ franchises. The cast – including John Barrowman – up their game significantly and guest star Peter Capaldi produces a blinder of a performance as a beleaguered civil servant which, should there be any justice in the world, would net him some awards. A top notch mini-series it seems that ‘Torchwood’ has finally found its feet: let’s hope, with Davis leaving, that the BBC don’t decide to cut it off at the legs. The disc includes scant features including a behind the scenes look at the making of the show. Shame there are no commentaries.
With the imminent release of his Cannes winning The White Ribbon, there is the opportunity to check out a re-release of The Michael Haneke Trilogy (Artificial Eye) which collects the series of films he referred to as ‘the emotional glaciation trilogy’. Haneke’s first theatrical features take in many of the themes that he would follow in the rest of his career: a family slowly disintegrates in The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video comments upon voyeurism and violence after a young boy brings a girl back to his apartment and 77 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance is a savage attack on television. Whilst his early films are flawed, sometimes wearing their ‘intellectual exercise’ nature on their sleeve, these studies of alienation and a society that has lost its way have a unique power. However, it was Funny Games (Artificial Eye) that really established Haneke and his brand of confrontational cinema. A family holiday turns into a nightmare when a family, who are holidaying in a remote mountain house, find their lives invaded by two strangers. A series of psychological games ensues that turn to torture and extreme violence. The cinematic equivalent of being put through a mangle, this utilises every filmic trick in the book to question the nature of violence, human behaviour and the media in general. Resolutely not for the feint of heart
There’s more challenging cinema as the BFI has done it again in releasing three ‘lost’ British films by radical 60s filmmakers Jane Arden and Jack Bond. Separation (BFI), directed by Bond, is a surreal and disturbing portrayal of a woman as her marriage and mental state begins to disintegrate. Set alongside the backdrop of ‘swinging London’ this is a chaotic and staccato work that juxtaposes the desires of the mind with the demands of everyday reality. Themes of femininity and society are continued in Arden’s The Other Side Of The Underneath (BFI), an exploration of a woman who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic. The most striking of the films is the Arden and Bond collaboration Anti-Clock (BFI), a futuristic satire with an almost incomprehensible plot about psychotherapy and identity. With constantly changing aesthetics (including mixing of film and video and manipulated tears in the stock) and a story that relies on atmosphere rather than narrative coherence, this is an unsettling but compelling British movie that defies categorisation. The DVDs contain some well researched extras, including a laid back commentary from Bond on Separation, deleted and extended sequences and illustrated booklets that actually provide some useful background information as opposed to filler. Other new releases from the BFI to look out for include Bill Douglas’ astonishing Comrades (BFI) an epic account of the plight of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six Dorset labourers who were deported to Australia in the 1830s for forming a trade union. Beautifully shot, with a number of stand out performances from an eclectic cast that includes the likes of Phil Davis, Imelda Staunton and Keith Allen, this is a committed document about the battle against inequality and the fight for basic human rights. Extras include a very worthwhile new documentary about Douglas’ career and an archive interview with Douglas. Finally from the BFI we have Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley (BFI), a enlightening historical drama about a group of poverty stricken people who, in the 16th century, attempt to gain the right to share land under the leadership of Gerrard Winstanely. Whilst those not interested in history might find this a trifle hard going, it’s a fascinating and illuminating story for those who are prepared to stick with it.
Comedy now with a long overdue (well, for some) release of Yellowbeard (Optimum Releasing). Something of a cult classic, thanks to the fact that it stars Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Eric Idle, Spike Milligan and James Mason. Oh, and also Cheech & Chong and Peter Boyle. And Michael ‘voice of Paddington Bear’ Hordern. And a cameo by David Bowie. I think the casting director may have been on something. Unsurprisingly, the film is a bit of a mess with Chapman playing a pirate who goes in search of his long lost son to fins the treasure map that has been tattooed to his head. The films tries to lampoon the pirate genre and has its moments of mirth, but Chapman and Cook’s script is devoid of much of the wit that made them famous, and instead dwells upon gutter humour that simply isn’t funny (Cleese himself has stated it’s the worst films his been involved in, and he was in Fierce Creatures) Similarly, director Mel Damski obviously has trouble keeping control of the disparate personalities resulting in an uneven and sluggish piece of work. But, as a curio for those who love Python and classic British comedy, it warrants a cursory examination just for the sheer weirdness of seeing James Mason and Cheech & Chong in the same film.
If a film is judged by the amount of people who want to parody it, then Star Wars must go down as one of the greatest of all time. From the numerous take-offs on You Tube to endless references in the likes of ‘The Simpsons’, I bet that even if you’ve never seen the film you’d know pretty much all of the plot. Now Robot Chicken: Star Wars II (Revolver Entertainment) brings you an entire episode of the animated show that is dedicated to taking the rise out the brainchild of George Lucas. There’s the stromtrooper who has to bring his offspring to ‘Bring you daughter to work day’, the real explanation of how bounty hunters are hired and a chance to get compensation if you’ve been attacked by a Jedi. If you’re a casual fan, many of the jokes will sail over your head but those die-hards will be belly laughing throughout. It’s all done with such joy (and with the full permission of Lucasfilm) that you can’t help but get swept along. It’s rather scant, with the main feature being half an hour only, but there are lots of ‘making ofs’ and some regular edition of Robot Chicken, that delight in satirising popular culture in the rudest and crudest way possible.
Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie return to sooth your soul with their own unique brand of entertainment in Flight of the Conchords: The Complete Second Season (HBO Home Entertainment). The hapless duo are back with the even more hapless manager Murray as they try and break the US, resorting to an increasingly ridiculous array of situations to try and get people to notice them. For those of you who are yet to check out the show, then you really should start seeing what all the fuss is about as their perfectly pitched comedy songs combine with some really funny scenarios combine to make some screamingly funny comedy. This is a really good disc as well, with lots of deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes. If you still need your funny bone tickled you’d be advised to also give Bill Maher: I’m Swiss (Revolver Entertainment) a try as well. Maher, an outspoken critic of religion and George W Bush, provides a pretty storming stand-up set with the highlight being his translation of rap lyrics into ‘white, middle class English’. The only thing it suffers from is the fact it was actually filmed in 2005 meaning that many of his targets and topics now seem rather redundant. The extras are pretty useless, including a ‘behind the scenes’ featurette which is basically the credits to the main feature itself. You know, if there’s nothing worth putting out as an extra, don’t feel the need to try too hard….
Some home grown comedy with Mumbai Calling: Series 1 (ITV DVD) best known for sketch show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’. He plays Kenny Gupta, a man sent from London with the task of turning around a failing Indian call centre. This is gentle comedy, that manages to focus on the differences between nations without ever falling into a trap of being offensive, tremendously unfunny or both. The call centre setting allows for some really great asides and one-liners away from the main plots and, aside from a main cast who are clearly having fun, there are one or two nice cameos tucked away: see if you can spot where Tracey Ullman appears. It’s actually one of the best sitcoms that ITV have done in a while (not that that is saying much at all) and – whilst it is yet to step into the hallowed shoes of the likes of ‘Blackadder – this first series bodes well for future development. A pleasant surprise also applies to Jennifer Saunders’ sitcom Jam And Jerusalem Series 2 (BBC DVD). Set in the small West Country town of Clatterford, it’s a portrayal of village life centred on a women’s guild. Initially, with the shots of rolling hills and numerous actors from other British sitcoms, you can’t help feel that this is going to be all very middle class and sickly. Certainly, whilst there are a few moments like that, Saunders manages to add an acerbic edge to the writing and the performances from the likes of Sue Johnston and Pauline McLynn (absolutely brilliant away form her more known rols as Mrs Doyle in ‘Father Ted’). With a nice series of dramatic storylines accompanying the – well judged – comedy, it’s a show that pleasantly grows on you and is well worth watching all in one go. It’s just a shame that there are no extras as one expects a cast commentary would be an absolute hoot.
We end with The Genius Of Photography (BBC DVD), a six part BBC series that delves into the 170 year history of an art form that has re-shaped the world. Each hour long documentary juxtaposes the technological development with the wider social implications as our entire relationship between history, memory and identity changed in the blink of an eye (or should that be lens). Whilst this sometimes leads to talking heads who sound as if they’ve done nothing more than swallowed a thesaurus (though the show does manage to interview almost every major name working in photography today), this is thought provoking and well researched series that should prove an eye opener to those with a passing interest in ‘capturing the light’ and of equal fascination to those who spend their lives knee deep in developing fluid.