Special Edition # 37
Is the end of February already. It only feels like five minutes ago when the tinsel was all around and the Xmas decorations were up. Actually, it was, but that’s because Laurence Boyce has been dead busy watching a new batch of DVDs for you to all enjoy. Let Special Edition # 37 take you on its usual journey through some of the best shiny discs for you to enjoy from brand new feature films to the latest collections of classic TV series.
OK, I will have to say that I am not exactly what you would call the target audience for The Time Traveller’s Wife (Entertainment in Video) a fantasy drama based on the chick-lit novel from Audrey Niffenegger. I didn’t melt and/or weep at the predicament of Eric Bana who, thanks to a rare genetic disorder, finds himself time travelling throughout his own lifetime (I’m sorry, but I must have missed that as being something to watch out for and the doctor’s must have been great at his birth: “Fingers and toes, normal. Breathing, fine. Ability to live linearly in the time and space continuum. Bugger.”). And I was slightly cynical when he attempts to build a normal life with the love of his life despite continually vanishing into a different time zone (wouldn’t his beloved be the slightest bit suspicious? “Um, yes darling. You know when I disappear for ages. I’m time-travelling. Honestly.”) I didn’t cry buckets as love tried to conquer all across the dimensional divide. But I am cynical bloke. Despite the fact that I am seemingly cold and emotionless, this is all very well done with Bana being both charming and angst-ridden whilst the love of his life is ably played by Rachel McAdams, and it’s a glossy slice of genre and romantic cinema if you’re into that sort of thing.
And the very same could be said for Halloween II (Entertainment in Video), in which Rob Zombie makes another stab at the horror genre (well, what do you think he was going to do with a name like that: Care Bears III?). His follow-up to his remake of the John Carpenter attempts to delve into more into psyche of Michael Myers so we can discover why the masked killer is, well, seemingly annoyed at the world (especially nubile young teens who enjoy babysitting). Of course, all this psychological insight is mere background to lots of gruesome murders which Zombie can definitely stage with gory aplomb. In the face of all the current crop of remakes, it all feels rather redundant. But it’s all competently done, Malcolm McDowell is really good as the grave Dr Loomis and it will provide bloody thrills for horror enthusiasts. After all that I now can’t get the idea out of my head that Rob Zombie should direct Care Bears III. C’mon Rob, you know want to! Horror fans would also be wise to check out Chaw (Optimum Home Entertainment) a Korean film about a killer wild boar. Blood, violence and – presumably – revenge for the abominable treatment that boars suffered at the hands of Asterix and Obelix ensue. Nothing new, but again, this should keep the horror freaks more than happy.
Goodness, there’s even more genre action in Pandorum (Icon Home Entertainment) which sees the continually underrated Dennis Quaid plays one of two astronauts who wake up drifting in deep space, with no clue as to their identities or mission. As they begin to explore the ship, the truth about their situation becomes apparent and soon they’re finding themselves in a struggle for life and death. Well, if they found themselves simply running out of tea and biscuits, then the film wouldn’t be that interesting would it? This is an interesting mish-mash of other films (there’s a little bit of Alien, some Event Horizon and a smattering of Sunshine amongst other things) and – much like the previosuly mentioned Halloween II – its derivativeness makes it slightly redundant. But also like Halloween II, it’s competently done with a nice sense of menace in the air and genre fans should find it a entertaining slice of sci-fi/horror. And Dennis Quaid is always great. More silly is Gamer (Entertainment in Video) in which Gerald Butler plays the participant of an online game whose actions are controlled by someone else. This is just one action sequence after another and it all looks very nice (especially in this, the Blu Ray edition). Those who like nice explosions and Gerald Butler may find this mildly diverting. The rest would be advised to play a real computer game instead. You might be also be advised to check out Interceptor (Optimum Home Entertainment) from some of the team that brought you the lauded Russian sci-fi film Nightwatch. It’s about a special agent whose missions are given to him by time travelling Angels. If you’re reading past that sentence, then you already know that this film is going to be for you as it’s big, dumb fun. And if you didn’t, then you’re hopefully already deciding whether the new Satyajit Ray film releases are for you and I could really say what I wanted to you. But I’m not, as I’m nice like that
When the work of the legendary director Stayajit Ray is discussed, it is often in terms of The Apu Trilogy, that begun with the sublime Pather Panchali. Whilst these films are rightly lauded for their brilliance, it’s a shame that some of his other work seems to be squeezed out outside of specialist retrospectives and works dedicated to the oeuvre of the Bengali director. Company Limited [Seemabaddha] (Mr Bongo Films) is an interesting dissection of 70s Bengali society, as a manager begins to sacrifice his morals in order to make material gains. Looking at a society that is slowly losing traditional values, Ray’s film is bittersweet: both hopeful for a new future but longing for a time that has past. Lighter is Ray’s final film (made in 1991) The Stranger [Agantuk] (Mr Bongo Films) in which a woman receives a letter from a man claiming to be her long lost Uncle. He arrives to find a suspicious family who wonder about his motives leading to a series of exchanges that bring both gentle comedy and a sharp insight into a society obsessed with wealth. Ray showed that he had lost none of his ability to focus upon a situation that not only comments upon the country he loved but to make salient and universal points about the human condition. His reputation as one of the greatest film director’s to have ever lived is deserved and these releases represent a chance to discover some of his lesser known, but equally compelling, works.
The Studio Canal Collection is an interesting – and diverse – selection of films from the studio newly arrived on Blu Ray. First up is The Ladykillers (Optimum Home Entertainment), arguably the best of the Ealing Comedies. It scrubs up beautifully for Blu Ray and – whilst the film is chiefly remembered for the genius of its ensemble cast – this Blu Ray really reminds you how innovative director Alexander Mackendrick was despite limited locations. With introductions and interviews with the likes of Terry Gilliam and Terence Davis, this certainly justifies a new purchase for fans who want to upgrade. The same goes for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (Optimum Home Entertainment). With a script written by Harold Pinter, the film stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates whose love transcends barriers of class. Again, whilst the performances and script are great, it’s watching on Blu Ray that you appreciate the evocation of British summer (yes to international readers, we do sometimes have a summer) that the film provides and the lush look crafted by Losey. Finally, there’s Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Pierrot Le Fou (Optimum Home Entertainment) in which Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina escape from the stifling constraints of bourgeois society. Another excellent transfer which – whilst it lacks the new extras that come with the other films – is a worthy re-purchase for those that already have it in their collections.
Also re-released on Blu Ray (and standard disc, which this review is based on) is Fritz Lang’s classic M (Eureka). Peter Lorre’s portrayal of a child killer has echoed throughout the annals of cinema history, as he manages to hold our interest whilst remaining utterly repellent. Lang’s astonishing eye for the surreal and creepy still feels fresh and startling and this is still one of the best thrillers ever made. The extras are a must as well, with two commentaries (with one that features contributions from Peter Bogdanovich and his 60s audio interviews with Lang) and a completely new version film that has recently been re-discovered. As with the Studio Canal films, it’s so good that it’s worth replacing your old version. There are some people who are going to be out of pocket for a while. Especially if you continue adding German film director’s to your collection and the exquisite Lubitsch In Berlin (Eureka!) box set. Collecting some of the work that Ernst Lubitsch created in Germany before his arrival in Hollywood, this collection of films shows that Lubitsch’s flare for both comedy and style was apparent from his very early works. We also have There’s Always Tomorrow (Eureka), a typical Douglas Sirk melodrama in which Fred Macmurray falls in love with Barbara Stanwyck only to find his children suspicious of the new relationship. Whilst this is not on the level of such greats as Written On The Wind, this is still an wonderfully performed drama with some excellent cinematography. Finally, on the re-release front, Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Edward II (Second Sight) makes its way on to DVD. A free-wheeling interpretation of Christopher Marlowe’s play, this is a passionate work that is both an eveocation of the 16th century text and a powerful response to modern day homophobia. With strong turns from Steven Waddington and frequent Jarman muse Tilda Swinton, this is one of Jarman’s typically polemic and astounding works.
After the superlative documentary Dig! Ondi Timoner keeps her interest for unusual individuals with the grimly fascinating We Live In Public (Dogwoof Pictures). After the dot-com bubble first burst in the mid 90s, Josh Harris – who helped set up one of the very first internet TV sites – became increasingly convinced that individual human identity would be lost and technology would become king. He soon set up and experiment in which 100 people lived together with cameras consistently on them whilst he also subjected himself to 24 hour surveillance with devastating results. As you watch, knowing there’s a good chance you’ll come out to check your Twitter and latest Facebook updates, you'll have more than an uneasy feeling here as you can’t help but feel that Harris may have a point. But this is as much a portrait of obsession as it is modern technology and is a powerful cautionary tale about the rights we will give up and the lengths we will go to protect them. Indeed, Afterschool (Network Releasing) seems to take some of the arguments presented in the film to their logical conclusion as a class engage in a video memorial for one of the deceased classmates. Despite the honourable intentions, the classmates begin to drown in a sea of paranoia leading to a shocking turn of events. This is fresh and bold filmmaking, showing a society that has trouble interacting without a screen between them.
Birdwatchers [La Terra Degli Uomini Rossi] (Artificial Eye) is another indictment of modern society, as rich farmers spend their days inviting tourists to come to the Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil to enjoy the birdwatching. Meanwhile, the indigenous population work as semi-slaves on the land that once belonged to their forefathers. After the death of one of their young people, a rebellion begins and two cultures head for a showdown. This remarkable film explores is a surprisingly even handed exploration of modern morality and ideology, with some shades of Romeo and Juliet thrown in for good measure. Profoundly intense and enormously moving, this is an intense and important film. Also look out for Kippur (Optimum Home Entertainment), an intense account of the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Director Amos Gitai draws on his experiences to bring us a film in which the absurdity of way is brought to the forefront with some stunning sequences of combat that concentrate upon the messiness of death and industry. Often disturbing but – with films such as The Hurt Locker – it represents an increasing number of films that are attempting to ‘de-glamorise’ the nature of war and combat.
Yes people, Special Edition shed a little tear when David Tennant declared “I don’t wanna’ go,” before he regenerated into the frighteningly young Matt Smith. Luckily we could watch Doctor Who: Dreamland (BBC DVD) to remind ourselves of his antics. This animated adventure, originally premiered on the web, has The Doctor embroiled in an alien plot as he stumbles across Area 51 in 50s America. To be honest, the animation feels a bit ropy and the story is tissue thin: it may have been fun watching it instalments, but watching it together exposes the fact that it seems a bit of a cash-in. In fact The Doctor Who Greatest Moments – three clip shows doing what they say on the tin – which are extras on the set give more value. Old clips they may be, but with new interviews from cast and crew, they remain a good watch as we prepare for Mr Smith. Of course, you could go old school with Doctor Who: The Mark of Mandragora (BBC DVD) in which Tom Baker messes around in Italy during the renaissance. Some great (for the era) set design, and an intriguing story make this one of the more classic adventures for the Doctor with Baker and Elisabeth Sladen – as Sarah-Jane Smith – at the height of their powers, being both fun and srious when need be. As usual, there are some amazing extras including a history of the TARDIS. And yes, it’s called “Bigger on the Inside”. And you can go even earlier with Doctor Who: The Space Museum / The Chase (BBC DVD) in which William Hartnell finds a space museum and then finds himself chased across time by the Daleks. 60s Doctor Who = truth in story titles. Both stories seem a bit clunky nowadays, as The Doctor and his companions visit key moments in history that seem sometimes dreadfully padded out (the stories that is, not the moments in history), but these forgotten stories are worth checking out again thanks in part to the usual raft of extras. They include the original designer of the Daleks visiting the set of the new series and new series writer Rob Shearman defending these less well-known episodes in the Doctor’s canon.
More 60s adventure goodness with The Avengers: The Complete Series 3 (Optimum Home Entertainment) as Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman teamed up to create an iconic partnership that revels in sexual tension and – of course – the obligatory kinky boots. By now Macnee was extremely comfortable in the role of the suave English spy John Steed and Blackman was a perfect foil bringing a feistiness that was a refreshing change from the bimbo girls that were often placed into genre series of the time. Needless to say, the episodes are glorious fun and revel in being over-the-top without dissolving into – too much – silliness. There were some extremely stylish touches, from the ultra cool opening credits to the aforementioned predilection for leather that Cathy Gale seemed to harbour, and it still stands up (and indeed, often trounces) against many modern shows of its ilk. Lots and lots of worthwhile extras, including interviews with Blackman and Macnee, commentaries on selected episodes from the cast and crew and a ton of archive footage and stills. This is a lovingly put together box set that has restored every episode of Series 3. Fans of top notch entertainment should buy this immediately.
OK, Special Edition is off for the next few weeks. Let’s hope the sun comes out soon. Oh, who cares. I’ll be stuck indoors writing reviews for the next column, due near the end of March. Who needs Vitamin D?