Special Edition # 14
Look out as the heavy hitters from Cannes 2006 are starting to make their way onto DVD as Special Edition # 14 contains reviews two of the very best from last year’s festival. Laurence Boyce also sees that DVD producers are suddenly suffering from outbreaks of common sense, as numerous great –and forgotten – TV shows are unleashed on the buying public. There’s even a little bit of a TARDIS traveller and his spin off show for those so inclined. Its enough to make you a shut in for the rest of the month (don’t joke though: how do you think that I reviewed these?
Pedro Almodovar mixes bleak drama with feel good comedy with typical aplomb in the acclaimed Cannes favourite Volver (Pathe). The film, which sees two sisters believe that their mother has come back from the dead, has Almodovar’s distinctive style stamped all over it as everything looks absolutely gorgeous. The entire movie is swathed in bright colours giving everything a gloriously camp edge. But the real revelation here is Penelope Cruz who shows how much she’s been misused by Hollywood cinema. Sexy, vulnerable and riveting, her role as one of the sisters is not only the emotional glue that holds the film together but is also the best thing she’s ever done (aside from dumping the midget scientologist). In fact, the film is close to the best thing that Almodovar has ever done – it’s certainly the most accessible. There are plenty of extras, including a commentary from Cruz and Almodovar which are just the icing to this wonderfully rich and satisfying cake.
Also lauded at Cannes was Red Road (Verve Pictures), a film that’s completely at the opposite end of the spectrum to Almodovar’s vibrant masterpiece. Look up ‘depressing’ and ‘gritty’ in the dictionary and there’s a good chance it will refer you to this film. But whilst it’s certainly a tough watch those who stick with it will be rewarded, as it’s one of the most complex and absorbing British films of the past few years. CCTV operator Jackie spots a familiar face whilst in the course of her duties and she starts to track him down as the film slowly reveals the reason for her obsession and her damaged past. In her feature film debut Andrea Arnold has created something that’s profoundly sad yet beautifully restrained, avoiding the bleak melodramatics that the film could have so easily slipped into. This is also thanks to Kate Dickie who, in the lead role, gives a quiet and dignified performance. It’s an emotionally draining affair but with the prospect of hope at the end, and is one of the most unique and brave cinematic works of the past few years. Extras are a sparse, and for once this seems right as the film really does speak for itself. It would have been nice to have more explanation of the ‘Advance Party’ trilogy of which this film is one part. Given that it’s spearheaded by Lars Von Trier however, there’ll probably be no explanation forthcoming.
With the likes of Shortbus and Destricted recently getting cinema audiences rather hot under the collar Eros (Artificial Eye) seems something of a latecomer (pardon the pun). Yet the movie, which takes three of the greatest directors in the world and asks them to create three erotic movies, first premiered at the 2004 Venice Film Festival. Could the fact that other – much more explicit movies – have been released before indicate that distributors believe that graphic sex will entice audiences? No. Surely not. Indeed, if there’s a dirty mac hanging in your wardrobe this won’t float your boat (or anything else) as this is a subtle portmanteau film. Wong Kar-Wai directs Gong Li as a courtesan in the beautiful ‘The Hand’ whilst Stephen Soderbergh brings a playful edge to ‘Equilibrium, in which Robert Downey Jr. describes his dream woman. Finally, Michaelangelo Antonioni brings a sensual edge to ‘The Dangerous Thread of Things’. Of all three, Antonioni’s effort is by far the best as it has a passionate edge that is almost tangible, though Soderbergh and Kar-Wai provide fun interludes. Like many portmanteau films, it’s wildly uneven – and some may find the constant longing looks rather tedious - but it’s an intriguing watch for those who think that the brain is the most important sexual organ.
On to Nic Roeg’s seminal sci-fi film with The Man Who Fell To Earth: Special Edition (Optimum Classic). David Bowie gives one of the rarest things for a rock star: namely a good performance. He stars as an alien who crash lands on Earth and – rather than doing all that ‘take me to your leader’ shtick – uses his knowledge to build up a vast business empire with the fame, money and women that comes with it. But it all starts to fall apart and he begins to fall from grace faster than a shooting star. Surprisingly Roeg’s film – which is really a note perfect critique of 70s society – has stood the test of time of well (apart from absolutely shocking clothes and hairstyles) with Bowie giving a great performance as a man (well, thing) for may have vast amounts of power and knowledge but none of it can stop him from being lonely. The disc itself includes a fantastic new interview with Roeg and an absorbing documentary about the making of the film.
Rabbit On The Moon (Guerilla Films) is an intriguing Mexican/UK co-production that was sadly ignored on its initial theatrical release: it’s a shame as, whilst the film certainly has its flaws, it’s an accomplished and tense affair. Julie and Antonio live a fairly ordinary life in Mexcio City but their lives are turned upside down when – through a number of coincidences – Antonio finds himself implicated in a political assassination. Antonio flees to England but his wife is captured by the corrupt chief of police. As Antonio tries to prove his innocence, Julie finds herself locked in a deadly game whilst trapped in a police cell. The film has some gripping moments (particularly the scenes with Julie and her desperate attempts to escape) and the story manages to keep on the right side of plausibility. The film does fall flat in the UK set scenes (where the urge to scream “Get on with it!” does start to start to overwhelm), but this is a unique and absorbing political thriller.
Wang Xiaoshuai, the director of the acclaimed Beijing Bicycle, returns with the touching Shanghai Dreams (Artificial Eye). During the 1960s, the Chinese government moved many families from major cities to desolate places in Western China as factories were moved inland. 19-year-old Qinghong – living during the 1980s - is the daughter of one such family. When she starts to fall for a local boy, her father becomes an obstacle as he dreams of returning his family to Shanghai. The film – which is beautifully shot – is not only a moving study of adolescence but also a fascinating study of a changing country that is starting to come to terms with it’s own role in the rest of the world.
From the sublime to the ridiculous(ly nasty) in Spanish horror film H6: Diary of A Serial Killer (Tartan DVD). A killer finds it hard to go straight on his release from jail and even inheriting a hotel can’t set him on a new career path. He soon starts to lure wayward souls to his establishment so that he ‘cure’ them with nasty torture. This aspires to be Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but is really just a repulsive mess that has no redeeming features whatsoever. If you really do insist in watching it, it might be best to do so on an empty stomach.
There’s some much more accomplished horror in Master Of Horror Series 1, Volume 2 (Anchor Bay Entertainment) as some of the biggest names in horror band together to provide some chilling tales in a series made for US TV. Out of the six films, some of the most interesting include the Dario Argento directed Jenifer about a detective who takes custody of a young orphan who turns out to be rather more depraved and violent that she initially appears. There’s also the notorious Imprint that was so extreme that it wasn’t shown on TV lest it deprave the average viewer. Unsurprisingly it’s directed by the king of extreme Takashi Miike who tells the story of a journalist who searches for his lost love in 19th Century Japan. But he soon finds himself involved in a complex plot of revenge that will lead to an orgy of – very nasty – violence. There’s enough blood and guts to keep people happy for a long, long time as well as numerous extras for each film including very in depth features and documentaries.
The name Norman McLaren may be unfamiliar to some but the release of Norman McLaren – The Masters Edition (Soda Pictures) should allow you the chance to discover the work of the great Canadian animator. Wildly inventive and original, McLaren was an influence on a wide range of filmmakers include Richard Linklater and George Lucas and this box set shows why. Films such as Begone Dull Care - abstract images accompanied by jazz music – show an innate sense of wonder and joy that is both entrancing and striking. The seven discs are a hugely impressive affair, with all his films meticulously restored alongside absolutely everything he produced including animation test and unfinished films. There are also a number of documentaries that follow his career and also the themes prevalent in his work. All those who are interested in the history of animation should simply buy the set now.
We move over to the small screen now and it’s no secret that Special Edition has a bit of a soft spot for everyone’s favourite time travelling Doctor. So it’s nice to see Doctor Who: New Beginnings (BBC DVD) containing three classic 80s adventures that see the ever changing Time Lord change from the large haired Tom Baker to the youthful Peter Davison. First up we have The Keeper Of Traken which sees the return to the series of The Master (Anthony Ainley, who stayed in the role to the end of the original series thanks to his deliciously camp performances) followed by Logopolis which sees Tom Baker wave bye bye to the role after more than six years. Finally there’s Castrovalva, which takes Peter Davison and hands him the key to the TARDIS. The stories will seem gloriously silly to the uninitiated (and provide a surprise for those who only know the current incarnation of the show) but those who grew up with it will wipe a nostalgic tear from their eye. These discs really come into the own thanks to the incredibly detailed features (including a fascinating look at the reasons for Baker’s leaving) and commentaries. The discs even have the 1982 Doctor Who Annual. Result!
Doctor Who has now managed to spawn it’s own spin off in the form of Torchwood (it’s an anagram folks…). But those who expect family fare will find themselves quite surprised as the release of Torchwood Series 1, Volume 2 (BBC DVD) adequately demonstrates. The alien hunting team (from the lovely country of Wales) find themselves hunting cannibals in the thoroughly nasty ‘Countrycide’, getting involved with gratuitous lesbian antics in ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’, getting slowly shot in the head in ‘They Keep Killing Suzie’ and finally being spied on by dead people in ‘Random Shows’. The running themes of the episodes are general swearing, shagging each other and trying to save the world. It’s all a lot of fun (and it’s great to see a stylish adult sci-fi show made in this country) but it does sometimes makes it hard for you to care for the characters. But those who like sci-fi will like this: though you may want to wait for the spiffy box set (full of extra features and commentaries) which will almost definitely be released later in the year.
Whilst Doctor Who has had a glorious come back, other shows should be left alone as This Life + 10 (BBC DVD) sadly shows. The original programme was one of the best TV of the 90s as a group of young lawyers drink and shag their way around London. Hip, sexy and fresh it helped define the mid 90s. But revisiting the characters 10 years on has seen them reduced to caricatures – and not very nice ones at that. The central conceit (Miles invites the rest of the friends to visit him at his hotel whilst a documentary is made about them) never entirely rings true whilst the current situation of characters we know and love is more than little unsatisfying for long term fans of the series. And we never find out what happened at Miles’ wedding…
For every series of The Office or Little Britain that manages to hit the public consciousness, there are numerous great comedies that manage to slip by. But thanks to DVD, there’s a chance to re-discover a show such as 15 Storeys High: The Complete Series (BBC DVD). Sean Lock plays the world’s ultimate misanthrope Vince who spends his time holed up in his South London flat or biding his time in his job as a swimming guard. He’s ably assisted by his rather strange flatmate Errol, the other residents in the block (who prove to have their own idiosyncrasies) and – in one brilliant episode – cans of Blue Rat (which contains “All the energy of a rat. In a can.”) With a unique style that combines the drabness of the suburbs with a wild surrealism and some brilliant one liners, it’s a series that worth discovering after having been rather mistreated during it’s stint on BBC Digital TV. There’s also some commentaries on the episodes and a featurette with Lock and Mark Lamarr (who co-wrote some of the series).
Something a little bit brighter now as The Simpsons: Season 9 (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) wends its way on to our favourite shiny discs. Many do see this season as the one where the Simpson’s started to go downhill quite a bit, and it’s true to say that some of the episodes seem to be relying on increasingly tired. There’s the controversial episode ‘The Cartridge Family’ for one, which takes the concept of Homer becoming a gun owner and wastes it with forced polemic and thin jokes. But there’s still plenty of quality here including ‘The Last Temptation Of Krust’ (Krusty becomes a Bill Hicks like comedian) or ‘Simpson Tide’ (Homer becomes a submarine captain). But even thin episodes of The Simpsons contain nuggets of genius and – thanks to the commentaries and a sneak clip of the upcoming Simpsons movie (which looks great) – mean this is a great purchase even though they’re repeated ad nauseam on the television.
However, King Of The Hill Season 5 (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) has kept a pretty even keel, with Mike Judge’s beautifully observed show continually keeping its gently humorous look at Texan and American life. There are some gems here including an episode in which Hank is unimpressed by George W. Bush’s handshake and another in which he and Peggy find themselves accidentally becoming pimps. KOTH works much more as a gentle farce interweaved with some extremely sharp observations about the state of the ‘Land Of The Free’. There is a paucity of extras here but, given that show is repeated much less than The Simpsons (and often at ungodly hours) this is a great way to spend a few hours.
It always seemed that Homicide: Life On The Street, The Complete First Series (Fremantle Home Entertainment) got something of a raw deal. Bad scheduling and inept TV stations (hey, are you detecting something of a theme in the latter half of this column?) meant that this groundbreaking series has been forgotten in favour of The Sopranos and NYPD Blue. If you’re one of those people who don’t know the show then remedy this now with buying the set as soon as possible. One of the first shows to have a narrative arc and some heavy hitting acting (from the likes of Yaphet Kotto and Ned Beatty) this eschewed the usual cop show histrionics and concentrated much more on the emotional toil of crime solving. Not as slick as CSI (but much more absorbing and inventive) or as completely ridiculous as 24, the show is a high point of American Television.
All the above are available now or over the next week. And, in the spirit of participation, can anyone let me know what classic TV series they would like to see on DVD. Tell us why and what extras you’d include as well. If there’s any good ones, we might even be able to rustle up some sort of price…