Special Edition # 13
Children Of Men (Universal Pictures) sees Alfonso Cuaron continue an eclectic directing career with Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban already behind him. Here he adapts a classic P.D James novel, a story of a decayed future in which humankind is facing extinction as not one new child has been born in 19 years. New mother Kee offers humanity hope for the future but, in a world overrun by lawlessness, she accepts the help of activist Theo (Clive Owen, giving a steely eyed performance) who must help steer her child away from anarchists and political climbers. This low tech sci-fi thriller (redolent of some of the great, downbeat films of the 70s such as Soylent Green) is a unique and gritty piece of work that relies on intelligence as opposed to special effects. Gravitas is added thanks to strong performances from the likes of Owen, Michael Caine and Julianne Moore whilst Cuaron’s direction is bold and assured. A subtle piece of work that will surely start to appear in the pantheon of great science fiction films over the coming years. Extras on the DVD are sparse with just a featurette to satisfy all you ‘extra junkies’.
Recently nominated for a number of Oscars, Little Miss Sunshine (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) is fast becoming known as ‘the little film that could'. The reputation is deserved as the film is a warm and poignant examination of an American family who find themselves in mad dash across the length of the States to get their daughter to a beauty contest. The eclectic cast (Toni Collette, Steve Carrell and newcomer Abigail Breslin are all superb whilst Alan Arkin is a joy to behold as the foul mouthed grandfather) and the sharp script make the film an enjoyable and moving watch as it takes broad swipes at the state of the American whilst still being able to indulge in some pretty damn funny – and rather dark – slapstick. Its unflinching revulsion towards the disturbing phenomenon of beauty contests is also perfectly realised in the uncomfortably brilliant ending. Will it win any of the shiny statues? Given that it’s one of the most intelligent US films of the year, the answer is sadly, most likely no.
Abigail Breslin also makes an appearance in Keane (Soda Pictures), which sees Damian Lewis play a distraught father who cannot keep away from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the site of the abduction of his daughter some six months previously. Whilst keeping only a tentative grip on reality, he befriends Lynn and her daughter Kira who might provide him the outlet for some sort of redemption. This is a strong character piece that is a precise examination of the nature of guilt and loss. This is very much to Lewis who carries the entire movie on his shoulders with aplomb. A sometimes difficult but ultimately worthwhile watch.
After the perceived failure of The Brothers Grimm (which, whilst flawed, was still more interesting than the many movies released during 2005) Tideland (Revolver Entertainment) kind of slipped under the radar with a limited theatrical release. Now you can see what you missed out on as Terry Gilliam’s dark fairytale (a phrase used for, oh, every Gilliam film, ever) about a young girl (played by Jodelle Ferland who, like Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, is absolutely great) wends its way on to DVD. It’s easy to see why audiences didn’t flock to it as, whilst it’s beautifully shot, it’s blend of the fantastical and the painfully real (scenes of drug abuse at the start are difficult to watch) give the film a slightly uneven feeling . But even bad Gilliam ensures a fascinating experience and it’s definitely worth a purchase thanks to the extras including a ‘making of’ which shows Gilliam directing with his typical mixture of enthusiasm and frustration.
The Gilliam connection continues in Brothers Of The Head (Tartan DVD) as Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton (directors of Lost In La Mancha) direct a Tony Grisoni (Gilliam’s frequent collaborator and scriptwriter of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and Tideland) script. Punk band Bang Bang are the big thing of the 1970s. But it is for their music or the fact that lead singers Barry and Tom Howe are conjoined twins? This faux documentary follows the rise and fall of the brothers through interviews with their friends and contemporaries. The central idea is a strong one and performances are worthy but the serious documentary style never really works with the forced ‘reality’ at odds with the off the wall subject matter. An intriguing idea that ultimately isn’t pulled off to it’s best advantage: looks like they’ve learned a lot more off Gilliam than they thought.
The fake documentary style is also utilised in the – appropriately titled – F For Fake (Eureka), the latest release in the Masters Of Cinema season. Orson Welles directs and stars in an almost indescribable blend of fiction and documentary as Welles examines the notions of fakers and reality. Welles is clearly having a whale of a time wrong footing the audience at every turn and you can’t help but be caught up in his playful enthusiasm. However, if you can work out what the bloody hell is actually going on then you’re a better person than I am. But the lack of explanations and the puzzling nature of the narrative (such as it is) will certainly get you thinking about the nature of cinema and reality.
The examination of artifice is also prevalent in the latest film from Christoffer Boe, who first came to prominence with the film Reconstruction. Here he evokes the spirit of Godard’s Alphaville in the curious science fiction film Allegro (Soda Pictures). A concert pianist returns to his home to recover memories lost in a paranormal zone of the city. The plot takes a back seat to the stylish direction as Boe utilises numerous film stocks to muse on the subject of images and surface reality. Perhaps a little too obtuse for its own good, this will certainly appeal to all those who like their science fiction to eschew spaceships in favour of big ideas. Everyone else might be advised to wait for the new Transformers movie.
More weirdness is abound in Antibodies (Tartan DVD) a German thriller about a small time detective who finds himself involved in a psychological battle with a serial killer in his custody. As the interrogation continues the seemingly mismatched pair discover that they may have more in common than they think, Or want. There’s some fine interplay between the main characters in this claustrophobic movie and it’s certainly compelling in places but, in a movie world where serial killer movies are seemingly released every other week, it adds nothing new to the genre.
The Ghost Of Mae Nak (Tartan Asia Extreme) is the latest horror movie from Thailand in which a newly married couple move into their new house and find themselves protected by a ghost. But soon they realise that their spiritual protector might not be as benevolent as they initially believed. The Mae Nak story is massively popular in Thai land and this movie – directed by UK director Mark Duffield – has become one of its biggest movies. But it doesn’t really translate over here and can’t really stand out from the glut of horror films that have come out of Asia recently. Fun for those who like their J-Horror but the rest will be left quite cold.
Man Push Cart (Dogwoof Pictures) is a serene and beautiful work following Ahmad, a Middle Eastern man who lives a simple life selling food from his cart in post 9/11 America. Reflecting on a past that is full of both joy and loss, Ahmad sees life pass him by as day after day remains the same. This is an often sad film, but everything is done with such humanity and feeling that the film becomes something almost magical as it revels in exposing the absurdity of life. Director Ramin Bahrani should be applauded for this quiet gem of cinema and those who missed out on it in the cinema should make the effort to get this on DVD.
On to British filmmaking now as three films from Derek Jarman find their way on to DVD. First up is The Angelic Conversation (BFI), a stunningly beautiful interpretation of Shakespeare’s love sonnets. Judi Dench narrates 14 sonnets as Jarman utilises a technique that sees cinema being used as a painter’s canvas. Bold, beautiful and experimental it encapsulates Jarman’s mastery of image and innate ability to weave it with sound and narrative. Caravaggio (BFI) sees painting at the forefront of the narrative as Jarman explores the life of the titular 17th Century Artist. Eschewing the standard form of biopic, this is a freewheeling and visually exquisite story that touches upon ideas of sexuality, freedom and art. Notable for the debut performance from Tilda Swinton, this cemented Jarman’s uncompromising approach to his subjects. Finally there’s Wittgenstein (BFI) another biopic – this time following the life of the celebrated philosopher – which crackles with the energy and invention that, by this point, had become Jarman’s trademark. Sadly, it would prove to be his penultimate film. Each DVD is fully remastered and provides the closest experience to seeing these films in the cinema. The colours are rich and gorgeous and give full justice to Jarman’s vision. There are also plenty of great extras across the DVDs as well, including short films, special interviews with Jarman’s friends and collaborators and extensive behind the scenes footage. A crucial purchase for those who appreciate great British cinema.
Less energetic, but no less beautiful, there’s also the opportunity to appreciate the final films of legendary director Japanese director in the Ozu Boxset 4 (Tartan DVD). His final two films – both filmed in colour – continued to touch on his ever popular themes of generational differences and the ever growing influence of the West. Late Autumn concerns a mother who – determined that she not be burdened with caring for her – decides to find her daughter a husband whilst An Early Autumn runs along similar themes with a widower trying to find his daughter a suitable partner. Both are beautifully observed and wryly comic films that are a perfect epitaph for one of the greatest directors on the 20th Century.
To the uninitiated Belle De Jour (Optimum Releasing) evokes notions of salacious and exploitative cinema. But nothing could be further from the truth in what could very well be Luis Bunuel’s masterpiece. Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, a housewife who finds an outlet for her frustration by becoming a prostitute. Radical for its time, as it focused on female sexuality and desire, it remains a provocative and erotic piece of work thanks to the thank it concentrates on the desires of the mind as opposed to falling into the trap of showing any explicit on screen action. Deneuve is stunning in the lead role as she absolutely seethes with repressed sexuality and passion whilst Bunuel’s combines his usual satirical of the bourgeoisie with an enlightening treatise on the nature of freedom and desire. The disc comes with a intriguing history of the film and a commentary from academic Professor Peter W Evans.
Black Orpheus (Second Sight) is Marcel Camus’ multiple award-winning film that takes the Rio Carnival and uses it to tell the Greek myth of Orpheus. An absolute pleasure from beginning to end, Camus utilises a Bossa Nova soundtrack and a vibrant colour scheme to create an intoxicating piece of cinema. This is a film that is ripe for rediscovery, especially due to the excellent transfer to DVD and is a reminder of when films could be visually amazing and moving without the need for hundreds of special effects.
Russian Cinema now as two classics of late 50s/early 60s make their way on to DVD. The Cranes Are Flying (Nouveaux Pictures) is a superb combination of World War II movie and romantic feature as Boris and Veronica are torn apart when Boris joins up to fight the onslaught of German soldiers. As he deals with the horrors of the front line, Veronica must deal with her own loss and unwanted advances of Boris’ cousin. A triumph of wonderful cinematography combined with a tender and affecting story. The Ballard Of A Soldier (Nouveaux Pictures) explores similar themes as, on a leave of absence, a young Russian soldier returns home to visit his mother. On his way he meets a myriad number of people who will alter his life forever. A simple and emotive tale that’s a great companion to The Cranes Are Flying. Finally we have The Star (Nouveaux Pictures) which sees a small Russian patrol infiltrate German lines in an attempt to change the course of World War II. This film takes a much more direct approach to the subject of war and is often reminiscent of Hollywood war films with its impressive set pieces. An interesting view of the WWII from a different perspective. All the discs have been remastered and come with interviews and deleted scenes.
All these DVDs should be available now, though I've been off for ages and keeping track of everything has been difficult. So if you travel 100s of miles to a DVD shop and can't find them, don't blame me. OK?
As a bonus feature, here are some of the more interesting DVDs that have come out whilst I've been away. Well, you need something to spend your Christmas vouchers on.
Don’t Look Now: Special Edition (Optimum Classic) will warm the cockles of your heart and make you feel generally all lovely. OK, not really. It will scare the absolute crap out of you, give you a phobia about dwarves in red coats and generally screw with your brain. One of the most inventive and genius British films of all time.
Cate Blanchett acts her little socks off in Little Fish (Tartan) in which she plays a former drug addict who is ready to start her life anew. But when her past seems to keep catching up with her she made find staying on the straight and narrow much more difficult than she originally thought. Alongside Blanchett we have Sam Neill and Hugo Weaving who do an admirable job in keeping everything convincing and fresh even though the story has been done a 1000 times before.
Michael Haneke has always been something of a favourite with Special Edition even though his movies are often the cinematic equivalent of being scrubbed with a stiff wire brush and then being doused with vinegar. The Michael Haneke Trilogy Box Set (Tartan Video) finally sees the set of films that he referred to as ‘the emotional glaciation trilogy’. The 7th Continent, Benny’s Video and 77 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance all revel in their alienation and ability to use cinema in it’s most profoundly disturbing way and pose questions about the current state of human relationships.
Club Le Monde (Guerilla Pictures) is Brit director Simon Rumley’s film that concentrates on the clubbing scene of the mid 90s. Whilst dated and uneven, it’s an unfairly neglected British film that will provide much entertainment for those who seek it out.
The Death Of Mr Lazarescu (Tartan DVD) is one of the most unique films of 2005 as a man is taken to hospital and is consistently ignored whilst desperate for treatment. A wonderfully absurd yet vtragic film that plays out over real time, it’s an amazingly affecting work.
The Secret Policeman's Ball: The Ball In The Hall - Protect The Human (Amnesty International) is a very funny show featuring some of the best modern stand up comics. Add in the fact that it’s all for a good cause and it’s something that should be going into your pocket as soon as possible.