Special Edition # 17
There's a real air of independence with Special Edition # 17 as there’s no Hollywood blockbusters in sight. Instead there are movies from across the world, which show the real diversity of things available to movie goers nowadays. Whether it’s French horror, some classic documentaries or a curious Sci-Fi film then Laurence Boyce is here to show you can find just about anything to keep you amused. And, as always, there are also plenty of TV releases and the usual gratuitous references to Doctor Who. Ahhhh, it really feels like spring…
If you’re a Wim Wenders fan, then get prepared to be a bit of a shut in with the release of The Wim Wenders Box Set (Anchor Bay UK). Replete with 10 discs – many of which are available for the first time – this is a trawl through the director’s body of work. There are the usual suspects here, including Paris, Texas, Wings Of Desire and The American Friend (which – if you don’t have them already – make this an essential purchase already) but it’s the rare items (which are mostly documentaries that focus on cinema and the moving image) that provoke the most interest. Highlights include the fascinating and moving Lightning Over Water which follows legendary director Nicholas Ray attempt to finish his final film with the spectre of cancer hanging over him. There’s also Room 666 in which various directors at the ’82 Cannes Film Festival ponder the future of cinema and Tokyo-Ga in which Wenders goes to discover just exactly where the Tokyo that lived in the cinema of Ozu has actually gone to. Some of the films do feel little more than personal indulgences, but even then there are enough fascinating material here to keep the ardent cinephile glued to the screen.
Whilst many modern documentaries seem intent on flashy tricks and eccentric ideas, the best real stories seem to come through when people are allowed to tell their own stories. The kings of this were Albert & David Maysles (and Fred Wiseman as well, but let’s leave him out for the purposes of this review) as Salesman (Eureka) admirably demonstrates. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest American films ever made as four Bible salesman hawk their wares to the housewives of Middle America. There’s no voice-over, just four men who believe the American Dream has passed them by as they pressure people into buying in the name of religion. Both a reminder of a bygone time and an examination of what people will do to achieve success, it is a truly astonishing film. The Maysles Brothers also demonstrate their greatness with Grey Gardens (Eureka) the story of two women (‘Big’ Edie and ‘Little’ Edie) who live in a squalid mansion. As if Miss Havisham and Estella were committed to celluloid, this is another ode to lost dreams yet hope for the future. Buy these now if truly value the documentary form.
One of the UK’s most famous documentary makers, Nick Broomfield, slightly changes his style to docu-drama in Ghosts (Tartan DVD). It follows the infamous story of the Chinese cockle-pickers who were found tragically dead during 2004. Broomfield looks at why those people made their way to the UK in the first place and discovers people searching for a better life only to find themselves sold into virtual slavery. He focuses on the story of one of the exploited whose real life experiences are woven into the story. Unsurprisingly, this utilises a naturalistic style and allows the tragic events to unfold in front of our eyes. A relevant and important film about a subject that needs to be discussed before more people start dying. Sadly, there’s no real supplementary material (aside from a basic 'Making Of’ and notes) which is a shame as input from Broomfield and others would have added much to the debate this disc brings up.
For those that fancy a bit of silent cinema then the release of Harold Lloyd – The Short Films (2 Entertain) should more than adequately suit your needs. It sees the bespectacled star of the silent film doing what he does best, namely getting involved with a variety of dangerous stunts whilst making it all seem effortless. For those of you who haven’t seen Lloyd’s work, this set provides a great opportunity for those who want to be introduced to his work with shorts such as the brilliant The City Slicker. My only criticism would be that the disc comes with no commentary, extras or even a booklet. It seems a shame that, with these films being released on Region 2 DVD for the first time, there’s not more material to put them into context.
Esma and her teenage daughter Sara live in Sarajevo. When Sara’s school ask for a certificate to prove that her father died a hero in the Balkan War, Esma starts to become reticent. Just what exactly is she hiding? Esma’s Secret (Dogwoof Pictures) is a subtle and heart rending account of not only the relationship between a mother and her daughter but of a nation coming to terms with it’s brutal past and beginning to face their future. This debut – from director Jasmila Zbanic – is an example of the power of just how powerful character led cinema can be. A deserved winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Fans of musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy will no doubt be ecstatic to learn of the release of Old Joy (Soda Pictures), which features him (under his real name of Will Oldham) in one of the lead roles. It’s a wonderfully simple tale of two friends who go for a weekend camping trip. During the space of the time they spend together, they reflect on the changes of their lives. Whilst it may seem to some your ‘typical American Indie’, (which shouldn’t be a criticism anyhow) this is cinema at its most stripped back. The understated story contrasts wonderfully with both director Kelly Reichardt’s beautiful filming and a soundtrack from Yo La Tengo. A film that less punches you in the gut and more gives you a gentle talking to.
After the acclaimed 16 Years Of Alcohol, Richard Jobson directed The Purifiers a homage to the Kung Fu and Sci-Fi movies of his youth which picked up a luke warm reaction to say the least (no UK Distributor picked it up and – having seen it – I can see why as it's a fun but indulgent film). He returns to sci-fi – albeit of a much more serious kind – in A Woman In Winter (Tartan Films). A young astronomer begins an affair with an photographer whilst also attempting as he tries to tear down the divisions between space and time. Of course, it all goes wrong as he starts to suffer from delusions and begins to question what is and isn’t real. In the current vogue for ‘serious SF’ (see current release Danny Boyle film Sunshine for confirmation of that) this fits in quite well with a complex story of reality and love. It uses it’s Edinburgh location well, has some fine performances and is always interesting. But you can’t help feel there’s something missing and that Jobson has a while to go before he creates a real break-out film. A flawed curio.
The same goes for Sheitan (Tartan DVD), a tense Gallic horror movie starring Vincent Cassel. After three men invite two girls to a country retreat for Christmas Eve they all look forward to a relaxing weekend, with perhaps a bit of naughty behaviour thrown in. But it seems their first mistake is accepting (don’t they watch horror movies or at least Scream?) when the housekeeper turns out to be Vincent Cassel (second mistake: see him and you should immediately run) who seems to have made a deal with the devil. This is the latest horror movie which revels in the suffering of the characters and – whilst the die hards will be eager to add this to their collection – others may be a bit jaded after all the similar films of the past few years. Still, Cassel is always fun when in full on loony mode and if you fancy a bit of nastiness on an evening (not in that way you filthy minded people) then you can’t go far wrong with this.
Whilst it’s come under some criticism as of late, Channel 4 is more than capable of producing stunning and controversial television as The Mark Of Cain (Revolver Entertainment) shows. Writer Tony Marchant examines the lives of soldiers in Iraq as they live a life in which fear and anger go hand in hand. Its uncomfortable watching as it follows soldiers who abuse their Iraqi prisoners without fear of reprisal. Whilst some of the blame is put at the feet of the institutional racism and out-of-touch officers of the British Army most of it is firmly placed on Tony Blair. It’s a vital and harrowing affair that shows just what television can do – which is a shame as it was pulled just before it’s screening on TV. Let’s hope they do show it but, in the meantime, make sure you get this milestone of television.
Wedding Belles (4 DVD) is filthy – and not in a ‘let’s get the Mr Muscle out’ type of way. The swearing, shagging, violence and violent shagging would be something of a surprise until you become aware that this TV film is from the fertile mind of Irvine Trainspotting Welsh. Four women get ready for a wedding but – wouldn’t you know it – things start to go wrong thanks to balck market Viagra, murder and broken relationships. Completely over the top, this does sometime start to grate as obscene act is added to obscene act. But, thanks to actresses such as the brilliant Shirley Henderson and Michelle Gomez (who’s used to lunacy as she played Sue White in ‘Green Wing’), the film just about gets away with it all. Just make sure you don’t show it to your Granny.
The Thick of It Series 1 & 2 (2 Entertain / BBC DVD) is undoubtedly one of the best sitcoms ever to make it to the screen over the past few years. Armando Iannucci (he of ‘The Day Today’ and ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ fame) creates and directs a hilarious and often painful account of MP Hugh Abbot whose life is dictated by the spin machine of his unnamed (but it’s pretty easy to guess who it’s meant to be…) party. In particular, the monstrous Malcolm (Peter Calpadi who engulfs the screen with a terrifyingly brilliant performance) makes sure that party gets what it wants out of the media. With a naturalistic style, some top acting and a razor sharp script this is what comedy should be: very funny but also extremely thoughtful. Kudos as well for the fact that, even though Chris Langham (who plays the lead) is currently embroiled in legal difficulties and is absent, all the cast and crew make it for the commentaries that provide a genuinely fascinating insight into the creation of the show. So, unless you’re offended by naughty language (of which there is a lot – especially in the final episode) then buy this now.
More gentle humour as Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV Series 1 & 2 (2 Entertain / BBC DVD) finally make their way onto the shiny discs. Originally broadcast in the mid 80s, most would remember this for the glorious Acorn Antiques, the spot on spoof on a certain popular soap from the time. But there’s plenty of other stuff to recommend. There’s numerous well written sketches – with Wood often being ably supported by co-star Julie Walters – and some hilarious ‘documentaries’ (the girl swimming the channel is a particular highlight) that show that is Wood who nailed down the faux reality format long before Ricky Gervais saw the twinkle of BAFTA’s. As usual with these releases, no extras, but these are very good discs that showcase a talent who is often sadly ignored when talking about the pantheon of great comedians.
Speaking of which, Saturday Live – the Best of Series 1 (Network Releasing) sees appearances from the likes of Ben Elton (before he became the epitome of uncool), Ril Mayall and Ade Edmonson (in the guise of The Dangerous Brothers), Lenny Henry and many others hone their craft. The format – stolen from Saturday Night Live in the US – saw the best mid 80s comedians perform stand-up and sketches. Simple and effective, this disc showcases some great sets, the highlights being rare UK appearances for US comedians Sam Kinnison and Steven Wright. A must for all those who like their comedy history.
Ever since a certain Sci-Fi show returned to the screens, Saturday night UK TV has gone under something of resurgence. Yes, there’s your usual slew of rubbish reality TV, but programme chiefs have realised that the audience need something more to keep them away from the pub at weekends. Primeval - The Complete Series 1 (2 Entertain) was ITV’s answer and it contains all the elements that you need to keep you entertained. There are lots of special effects, some supremely silly stories and a cast of actors camping it up big time. The premise (which has not been nicked from Jurassic Park, oh no, not at all) sees zoologist Nick Cutter find out that dinosaurs are living in the present day. Soon it becomes apparent that there are anomalies in time and space that threaten the world. Can Cutter and his team save the world? Can they defeat the dinosaurs? Can they thrash Doctor Who in the ratings? This is fun of the dumbest variety but does lose something on the transfer to DVD – you really do need to be watching it on a Saturday drinking lager and waiting for a takeaway. The disc itself is a bit disappointing as well with a slight ‘Making Of’. Still, when there’s nothing on (i.e. middle of the summer with nothing but sport) this should prove more than satisfying entertainment.
Speaking of the good Doctor, you can now see the end of an era with the release of Doctor Who: Survival (BBC DVD). The last of the ‘original series’ to be transmitted (in 1989) this sees Sylvester McCoy face up his old foe The Master as he’s transported between this world and a planet full of malevolent cat people. This highlight that and the good of the McCoy era: some good ideas let down by a lack of budget and an over reliance on guest stars (in this case, Hale And Pace). Not vintage Who by any means, but to be honest this disc really excels in the extras. With documentaries charting the demise of the show, what would have happened if it did reach Season 26 and just what would have been the fate of The Doctor’s companion Ace, this is really fascinating stuff. At least for geek boys such as myself.
And the geekiness continues with Torchwood Season 1, Part 3 (2 Entertain / BBC DVD) which sees the conclusion of the DW spin off that has received a mixed reaction. Whilst it’s often slick and funny, with some cracking ideas, it suffers from trying to shoehorn too much gratitious sex and violence into proceedings without paying any attention to the plot. Shows on this set show just with the problems with ‘Out Of Time’ a mish-mash of time travel and shagging whilst ‘Combat’ is a dull rip-off of Fight Club with added aliens. The final two shows – ‘Captain Jack Harkness’ and ‘End Of Days’ - up the ante with some fine and emotional stories, including a brilliant final minute. Let’s hope that they take the criticisms on board and by the time the second season rolls around, we have much more of a coherent series. Well, at least as coherent as you can be with a large rift in time and space in the middle of Cardiff. Oh, and considering this is very much a vanilla disc, it will be interested to see if the makers manage to respond to the criticism to the undoubted Box Set which will most likely appear later in the year. Let’s wait and see…