Special Edition # 34

Films, films and more films. And some TV shows. Yes, Special Edition# 34 has plenty of fun things for you this time around. It’s a good job the clocks went back or Laurence Boyce wouldn't know where to find the time….


It seems that all our directors have decided to have a laugh: after Mike Leigh decided to head down the comedy route in Happy-Go-Lucky and some would say that Guy Ritchie has been having a joke for his entire career, Ken Loach raises a smile in Looking For Eric (Icon Home Entertainment). Eric is a postman whose life is drifting out of control: his wife is gone, his stepson is going off the rails and he can’t see to turn for his friends for help. But salvation is at hand, as Eric Cantona – his footballing hero – is around to coach him through life. This is a fine paean to the power of belief, with Paul Laverty’s script providing much mirth and pathos and some top acting from Steve Evets and Cantona. Loach’s films have always had a dry sense of humour and here he amps it up whilst unafraid to dwell on dark moments. Tremendously enjoyable and with a lightness of touch that is absolutely affecting, this is yet another triumph from one of the UK cinema’s most talented directors. Special Edition reviewed the Blu-Ray edition of the film, which also be purchased as a standard disc

There are more people whose lives are coming apart, in Last Chance Harvey (Momentum Pictures) a light romantic comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Hoffman plays a lonely New Yorker who meets Kate and sees a final stab for true happiness. Whilst this is well worn territory, both Hoffman and Thompson being their A-game whilst director Joel Hopkins (responsible for the underrated British feature Jump Tomorrow - [Netribution Interview]) is bold and confident making this a superior slice of rom-com. Another Hollywood heavyweight features in Flick (High Fliers Films), a fun slice of comedy horror. Faye Dunaway plays a one-armed cop determined to bring the ghost of a 50s rock and roller to justice. As insane as it sounds, it – pardon the pun – rocks along nicely and the energy and generally silliness means the film is never dull. And Dunaway is clearly having a whale of a time. Also look out for The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Icon Home Entertainment) which sees Robin Wright-Penn play the eponymous protagonist whose external confidence masks inner turmoil. This sometimes veers into typical ‘romantic drama’ territory but there’s some wit and invention on offer her, with director Rebecca Miller adapting her own novel and the likes of Julianne Moore and Keanu Reeves (who seems to have re-invented himself as a star of romantic dramas) giving some able support.

After huge success at the Sundance Film Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize) Frozen River (Axiom Films) makes its way to DVD. Melissa Leo – in an incredible performance – plays a suburban housewife whose husband runs off leaving her alone with their children and a mountain of debt. When she’s offered a way out – by helping to smuggle immigrants across the frozen Saint Lawrence river. As you’d expect, things don’t work out exactly like they hope they would. Courtney Hunt’s direction and writing is brave and bold – if sometimes a little muddled, with some plot contrivances straining credibility – but this is very much Leo’s film. Her – justifiably – praised performance is full of fire and passion and carries the film along. Indeed, her conviction allows you to gloss over some of the more silly elements of the plot making this a superior American thriller. The disc comes with interviews with Hunt and Leo.

Claire Denis has made her mark in making elegiac and beautiful films and 35 Shots Of Rum (New Wave Films) is no exception. This is an extensively moving tale about a widowed train driver who has been raising his young daughter. As she moves into adulthood he realises that they have both been protecting each other from the outside world and – if there is hope for their independence – then their lives must move on. This is a sensitive portrayal of love and family done with subtlety and restraint that stays long in the mind after the film has finished and remains a remarkable example of Denis’ talent in highlighting the pains and joys of life. Add in a wonderful score from The Tindersticks, and you have one of the most affecting movies of the past year. Also affecting is Cherry Blossoms (Dogwoof Pictures), a German film inspired by Ozu’s Tokyo Story. A long-married couple realise how little they know each other when a terminal illness invades their life in a tale of grief and acceptance. Some strong central performances and excellent direction make this an often sad but ultimately uplifting piece of film.

You can also collect the works of a cult European director as the films of Luc Besson get released on Blu-Ray. Works such as Nikita, Angel-A and Subway (all Optimum Home Entertainment) can now be seen in all their high-def glory. Besson’s grand visions still have the power to astound (even though their 80s aesthetic does date them slightly) with The Big Blue (presented here in both its theatrical and long version) in particular a lush and gorgeous treat. The same also goes for Atlantis, Besson’s foray into documentary (made before ‘Planet Earth’ was a gleam in a BBC Executive’s eye). Also – released for the first time – is Leon: Director’s Cut (Optimum Home Entertainment) which includes extra footage that fleshes out the relationship between the titular hitman and and his twelve year-old charge Mathilde. It’s fascinating to see the role that made Nathalie Portman a star, exuding both naivety and an uncomfortable sexuality whilst Jean Reno makes the central role his own. Add in Gary Oldman’s turn as a corrupt cop and this is a stylish and emotional thriller which is done proud by its Blu-Ray release (though you can also buy it as a standard DVD). It’s a shame that none of the films have new extras, but it’s a small niggle in return for getting the chance to wallow in Besson’s visionary work.

Apart from watching the work of a director you can also watch a documentary about the making of one of his films: Gilliam’s bad luck was shown to all in Lost In La Mancha whilst Troy Duffy managed to get on everyone’s wick in Overnight. In Luck, Trust and Ketchup (Drakes Avenue), the late Robert Altman is observed as he goes about making his lauded film Short Cuts. With interviews with the cast, crew and even Raymond Chandler’s widow (Chandler wrote the stories on which the film was based) this is an intriguing account of one of the most celebrated US films of the 90s. But it’s also a celebration of Altman’s talent (and – by virture of his passing – something of a lament), his unique way of working and the confidence he inspired amongst the actors he worked with. Given that the production  of Short Cuts went well it will never make it to the pantheon of great documentary films about movies – given that people generally seem to prefer it when things go spectacularly wrong – but this remains a comprehensive account of a great filmmaker.

Issac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (BFI) is a powerful drama set at the height of the got London summer of 1977.A group of boys alternate between taking on local skinheads and broadcasting their pirate radio show. But when a local black gay man is found dead, tensions begin to rise. There are comparisons to be made with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (which preceded the film by two years). But whilst Lee’s film was ultimately a expose of the disenfranchisement and disenchantment of the black community, Julien's focus on race, sexuality and gender ultimately seems to believe that love can conquer all prejudice (without ever feeling mawkish). Top performances – including a young Sophie Okonedo – and a strong poltical and social message gives the film much relevance today. It’s is also worth checking out Playing Away (BFI), Horace Ove’s comedy about a village cricket match that sees a West Indian and Brixton team play against each other in a charity game. Off and on the field, they find that stereotypes are just that and they should look deeper. Witty and with a great performance by Norman Beaton, this is an entertaining and sometimes poignant comedy.

Some horror now as The Euro Killer Essential Collection (Palisades Tartan Video) brings you a gruesome trio of nasty pieces of work. There’s Tattoo a nasty German thriller whilst H6 is a tired Spanish re-tread of Hostel. But the collection is saved by the inclusion of Man Bites Dog, the mockumentary about a ‘killer at work’. This is still a bitingly brilliant piece of work, as it throws up questions of voyeurism, responsibility and morality. As horribly uncomfortable as it was when first released, the set is worth getting just for this. There’s more gore in Blood Rain (Palisades Tartan) a detective drama set in 19th century Korea where an evil spirit terrorises a small island. Some frightening set-pieces and a unique concept make this a superior slice of Korean horror cinema. Also look out for Red Cliff: The Special Edition (Entertainment In Video) which sees John Woo return to China to create an epic movie telling the story of Red Cliff, a legendary battle in Chinese history. With his US work being somewhat disappointing, this sees Woo recapture his magic with some spectacular battle scenes and some absolutely breathtaking set-pieces. This is some truly grandiose storytelling. This special edition comes with both parts of the film (it was made as a two-parter for China and released as shorter single version internationally) and is really worth your time. And preferably a really big TV.

As always, there’s a dose of the Time Lord with a bunch of new Doctor Who releases. First up is Doctor Who: The Dalek Collection (BBC DVD). Collecting all the Dalek episodes from the new series, it has some good stuff in it (such as ‘Dalek’ – which sees the re-introduction of the metal meanies – and Christopher Eccleston’s sawn song) but it all seems a bit pointless. After all, they DVDs have been released again and again whilst the episodes themselves are constantly repeated. With no extras (excluding a mildly interesting interview with David Tennant) this is strictly for absolute fanatics. But fans can also enjoy Doctor Who: The Dalek War Box Set (BBC DVD) which contains ‘Frontier in Space’ and ‘Planet Of The Daleks’. With Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning, both shows are nice examples of 70s Who (both good and bad) with some good ideas sometimes stretched out too far (Frontier in Space is particular seems dreadfully padded out). The extras are good (and contain interviews and commentaries with Who producer Barry Letts who sadly passed away recently) looking at both the making of the shows and some ancillary extras looking at the likes of the Doctor Who comic strips. Not a good place to start for newcomers, but fans will find them an important part of their collections.

If you fancy a bit more cult action, then The Avengers: Series 1 & 2 (Optimum Releasing) will provide plenty to keep you amused. Patrick Macnee plays John Steed, a suave secret agent ably assisted by Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman, in a role that was sometimes unfairly overshadowed by Diana Rigg’s later stint in the series), Dr. Martin King and Venus Smith. This contains the surviving 2 ½ episodes of the first series and all of series 2, and it is all great fun. It’s slightly rough and ready – partly thanks to the fact that the show was shot live – but done with enormous gusto (indeed, some of the ideas on offer are gloriously over the top) and Macnee makes for a charismatic leading man. Whilst later series of The Avengers are more fondly remembered by fans, this is a chance to see where it all began. The extras include audio commentaries, interviews with Blackman and lots of production notes. 

Finally, Andrew Marr talks to us about the history of modern Britain in the cunningly titled Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain (BBC DVD). Whilst the formula of celebrity travel / history documentary is getting tiresome (what next I wonder: ‘Dev from ‘Coronation Street’ takes us to Legoland?’ ‘Kermit The Frog explores the History of the Plantagenents?’) Marr is an engaging host, talking with passion and enthusiasm about the state of the UK. From the biggest events to the littlest details the show gives you a new perspective on the happenings that have shaped many of us whilst leaving you slightly worried for what the future holds. And I’m not just talking about more travel shows….

Special Edition will return near the end of November. Presuming no-one has thrown a firework at us…

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