Special Edition # 15
starting to become an interesting time to be a DVD fan. With an
increasing number of movies being released on the format for a second
time (watch out in the next column for a review of the upcoming
‘Definitive Edition’ of Fight Club which might gall the thousands who
bought the already extra laden DVD only a – comparatively - scant few
years ago) and talk of Blu-Ray and the like, there’s never been a more
obvious opportunity for people to make money out of the consumer for
the same thing over and over again. Then again, DVD has allowed a
number of films and unknown TV shows to finally fight their way out of
dusty vaults and into the living rooms of those who would love and
cherish them. As Special Edition #15 (and most of the rest of
the columns) shows there’s an eclectic wide range of films new and old
that are being introduced to a whole new set of film fans. Where else
can Laurence Boyce get excited about Hitchcock going via the Queen of
France and some hard edged TV drama outside of a crazy man’s dream?
Marie Antoinette (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) almost seems a deliberate attempt by Sofia Coppola to distance herself from her most successful feature, the sublime Lost In Translation. That movie was awash with subtlety. This is an exercise in the bombastic. LIT was an intricately told story. Marie Antoinette seems to have left crucial elements of the narrative out. Lost In Translation contains a moving and studied performance from Bill Murray. Marie Antoinette has the bloke from American Pie. Yet there’s too much about this film to like than to dismiss it, as many have done. There is no doubt that is a simply astonishing film to watch, even when brought down to size on the small screen. It’s the kind of film that you can show to people who ask “What exactly does a costume designer / set designer actually do?” Kirsten Dunst also hits all the right notes as a teenage queen forced into a role she will always fail to understand. And when the cake hits the fan, there is a real sense of empathy with her emptiness even if the majority of characters remain ciphers. Destined to go down as a flawed cinematic biopic (which counts for a lot of films ) and a film consistently rented by 12 year olds who can’t be arsed to go to double history that day it’s fun if inconsequential affair. And if Coppola keeps trying to wrong foot everyone then I look forward to her forthcoming announcement of her intention to direct the next Carry On … film very soon.
Now, if you wanted someone to think of a director who tended to stay within one genre then you’d probably think of a certain Mr Alfred Hitchcock. But, as The Early Hitchcock Collection Box Set (Optimum Classics) shows, he certainly experimented with many different styles before he decided that scaring an audience absolutely stupid was by far the best way to go. There are a number of curios in this nine-disc set, and see Hitchcock experiment with a number of genres (including plain comedy in Champagne) never quite successfully. What’s most interesting to see individual elements in films that would soon combine to form his own unique vision (and let’s not start having arguments about the Auteur Theory shall we?) There was the manipulation of cinematic conventions to find new ways of conveying information (in The Farmer’s Wife the passing of time is indicated by meat cooking on a fire), the MacGuffin (in Number Seventeen it’s a necklace – and if you don’t know what a MacGuffin is then go here and add to your film knowledge) and his growing realisation that money equalled murder (only in cinema box office terms I may add). The best film here is the still brilliant Blackmail, largely recognised as the first talkie in British movie history. Using the sound as an integral part of the story, rather than a gimmick, and maintaining a gripping (if sometimes sluggish) narrative this is when Hitchcock seems to have gained his real fascination with the process of movie making. And of having monuments in his films, as the end chase through the British museum would indicate. The extras include introductions from historian Noel Simsolo (he establishes his credentials by being French and also smoking copious cigarettes throughout his introductions) and a comprehensive documentary. Those who only watch the occasional repeat of North By Northwest will find this set a bit dull but those who want to learn more about the growth of one of our most talented directors will find this a very rewarding purchase.
Right, after all that heavy analysis I feel like something lighter. Thank goodness for Highlander: The Immortal Edition (Optimum Releasing) which is the epitome of absolutely dumb but absolutely irresistible action cinema from the 80s. After a beheading at a wrestling match (and that’s unusual how?) forensics expert – and, handily, connoisseur of ancient weapons - Brenda Wyatt becomes embroiled in the life of Connor MacLeod who turns out to be an immortal. Flash back to his early days as a Scottish warrior and his training to ensure ‘that there can be only one’ with Egyptian Ramierez (Sean Connery, who embraces method acting by – you guessed it – not changing his accent one iota) and then move forward again as the evil Kurgan repeatedly attempts to lop his head off. Add a bit of Queen on the soundtrack, some ridiculously convoluted ideas and lots of fighting for no apparently good reason and you have the ultimate in masturbation cinema: fun while it lasts, but afterwards you wonder why you bothered. There’s a lengthy documentary which includes interviews with the stars and writers (which prompts the response, “The film had writers?”) and a commentary by director Russell Mulcahy who seems to have a hard time understanding why anyone would like to know in-depth details about this load of old rubbish. A guilty pleasure.
Speaking of guilty pleasures, I have to admit that Guillermo’s Del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy had me readily entertained. So imagine my delight to see Hellboy: Sword Of Storms (Anchor Bay Entertainment UK) was popped into my – increasingly knackered – DVD player. Utilising many of the original cast as voices (including Ron Perlman and Selma Blair) and with heavy involvement from Del Toro and original Hellboy creator Mike Mignola this is a heady blend of evil monsters unleashed on Earth and cursed Samurai artefacts. Given the origins of the character, this animated sequel seems much closer to the source material and has much more of its spirit (that being rip-roaring adventure crossed with some adult themes but never allowing itself to drift into the realms of the po-faced). There’s also a ton of extras, all focusing on the etymology of the film and a nice look back on the origins of the red demon himself. Granted, this won’t convert non-fans but there’ll be some highly entertained geeks out there (of which I count myself one).
Frostbite (Soda Pictures) is a Swedish Vampire movie that proves that genre has yet to grow long in the tooth and start to suck (on behalf of all reading I would like to apologise for shoehorning those two quite, quite dreadful puns in there: I just had a compulsion). After moving to a new location – that’s surprisingly dark a lot of the time – teenager Saga meets a Goth whose strange nocturnal antics confuse her and indicate to the audience that she’s never seen The Lost Boys. Soon she discovers the whole town may want her to give blood without her getting any tea and biscuits at the end. Worse still, it’s still one month before dawn will rise… This is actually a very funny (rabbit murder has never been so hilarious – in a film context may I add, before I get the RSPCA writing to me) and stylish movie that not only makes great use of location but also skilfully balances the laughs with the lashings of gore on offer. With tonnes and tonnes of Asian horror movies being released every second, it’s nice to see something just that little bit different.
Back on to serious territory now with Johanna (Tartan DVD), a Hungarian movie very reminiscent of recent Special Edition favourite The Death Of Mr Lazarescu. This twisted take on the story of Joan of Arc sees a young nurse discover that she power to cure people by giving her body to them. The Head Doctor, who disapproves of such – erm – unorthodox methods, soon finds himself heading for a confrontation with Johanna and her legions of adoring patients. Swinging from the melodramatic to the slyly humorous, this is a unique and bold experiment in storytelling that marks it out as something quite different from the majority of films being made today. It sometimes drowns under the weight of its own quirkiness but, on the whole, this is a rewardingly intriguing affair.
With it’s theme of a female mortician who develops a physical relationship with the corpses she works on, Kissed (Tartan DVD) stirred much controversy when it was released during the mid 90s. Now almost 10 years on (and with seemingly a controversial movie on every other week) it’s interesting to examine the film in a more sober light. It is certainly a brave choice of debut from director Lynn Stopkewich as she attempts to understand the nature of human emotions and attachment from an extreme point of view. Molly Parker, in the lead role, brings a haunted dignity to everything and – as one would expect with a film that raises shouts from the moral majority – the actual subject of the film is dealt with subtlety and respect. Yet it all seems just a little bit forced and – in trying to restrain itself – actually prevents the audience from forming an emotional relationship with the characters. An imperfect but gutsy film.
John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish (2 Entertain) gets a timely release on DVD that combines both magical fable with a strong sense of realistic social concerns. In a small Irish village, a young girl believes that her baby brother – who was lost to the sea – may live on an abandoned isle. She begins to set on the task of actually finding out the truth of what happened to him. There’s some great photography here, thanks to the sterling work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler and a really strong sense of fantasy narrative. For those who have yet to discover this strange dive into a world of the unknown might well think of taking a risk with this delightful movie.
Magical realism is also a very strong theme throughout The Live of the Saints (Tartan DVD), a film co-directed by famous photographer Rankin and Chris Cottam. In a grimy part of London, a young boy is discovered who seems to have the power of angel. Even if he enters you life for a brief moment, you’ll find yourself changed forever. But, unsurprisingly, there are people who would want to use the power for their own purposes. Rankin and Cottam have much fun turning the conventions of the British gangster film on its head and Rankin’s influence is obvious with some absolutely wonderful shots. Tony Grisoni’s script is sometimes patchy but – much like the forthcoming feature film Cashback – this is indicative of a new generation of British filmmakers who are dragging the industry away from the ‘Gangster and/or Corset’ cliché that have governed it for so long.
Eddie Izzard very much wants to be primarily known as an actor. Partly this is good, because he can a turn in a fine performance (witness his fine turn as Chaplin in The Cat’s Meow) when he puts his mind to it. Partly this is bad, as he’s often prepared to take a role in any old toss ‘to extend his range’. Whilst mini-series Kitchen (2 Entertain) is certainly not the worst thing ever committed to screen it’s also not the quality TV drama that he’s been striving for either. He plays a formerly brilliant chef who just keeps his chic restaurant afloat despite his drink and marital problems. But his beloved kitchen is thrown into chaos when a young probationer starts to become involved with stolen money and illicit relationships. There’s a lot of energy to this, what with violence, swearing and shagging going on all over the place: indeed, the word ‘subtlety’ has been left out of proceedings. It all gets a bit overwhelming and brutal, with the grotesque characters lacking the necessary humour to get you to come along for the ride. And Izzard – who is great, with his red eyes and barely concealed bitterness – isn’t in it enough to offset the problems. One for the die hard Izzard fans.
Finally we come to Ideal: Series 2 (BBC DVD), a vehicle for the talents of Johnny Vegas that actually works. As drug dealer Moz (think of the title: it’s a pun) he’s both disgustingly slobby but vulnerable enough to make us care about him as he sits in his grotty flat – and sometimes his hallway – and tries to deal with the bizarre characters who come to partake of his products every day. There are some loose story arcs through this series – such as his pregnant girlfriend and his beguiling new neighbour – but there’s a wilful insouciance abound that give the entire show a shabby charm that won’t have rolling off the couch in laughter but will make have a lazy grin throughout. At least, I think that’s the effects of this show. It couldn’t be anything else. Could it?