Special Edition # 18
It seems that DVD companies have decided to educate us in cinema history as they’ve gone ‘auteur crazy’ with a number of box sets and new releases containing the greatest work of some of the most famous and influential directors of the past hundred years. So if your DVD collection is mostly populated by the films of Steve Guttenberg and Pauly Shore, then you’d better read Special Edition # 19 to learn how to make your disc shelf that little more impressive. And guess what? Laurence Boyce also looks at a new Doctor Who release. That’s not like him...
After the success of Touching The Void, Kevin Macdonald continues to use real life stories to inspire his work as he examines Idi Amin’s reign of terror during the 70’s in Uganda in The Last King of Scotland (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment). Based on the book by Giles Foden, the film is quite rightly lauded for the central performance of Forest Whitaker as the dictator who was powerful, enigmatic, vicious and quite, quite insane. But Macdonald is careful not to let the character of Amin overwhelm proceedings, as the film is shown through the eyes of naïve Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (played with great effect by James McAvoy) who becomes seduced by Amin’s promises of power and wealth. It’s only when he starts to realise the death being brought to ordinary Ugandans around him that he knows he’s in over his head. There are plenty of bravura sequences during the film (in particular the scene where Garrigan plans his escape, intercut with Amin's rantings) but it’s the performances that carry this film. An exhilarating examination of a person who was hell bent on creating his own mythology...
... which can be definitely seen in General Idi Amin Dada (Autoportrait) (Euerka) which provides you with the man himself as the vein dictator decides that part of his immortalisation should be thorough the moving image. Enlisting Barbet Schroeder to film his ‘benevolent acts’, Amin hoped that his legend would be enhanced by the big screen. But what is meant o be a carefully managed exercise in PR becomes an abject lesson in the dangers of self delusion and the horrors which it can bring. For all Amin’s claims to being the protector of his people, the fear shining behind their eyes belies the real truth to the feelings they have for their ‘beloved leader’. For all his claims to being a caring person, his scary and racist rants show otherwise. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that so many people died under his brutal regime, then this would be an almost hilarious examination of someone who cannot really see himself for what he is. As it is, it’s a sobering testament to the corruption that power can give rise to.
Onto insanity of a fictional kind with Bad Boy Bubby (Eureka) a film that managed to freak out audiences in the 90s and – frankly – can do exactly the same nowadays. Considering its central character is a man whose been locked up by his mother who uses him for sexual gratification, you can see why. When our titular hero (or ‘mad bastard’ as he’s affectionally referred to) is finally released (via a set of unpleasant circumstances) he has to deal with a world he’s never seen. Initially, he can only mimic what is seen around him. Will the outside world destroy him or will he find his place in an unfamiliar world? Yes, this is disturbing by director Rolf De Heer keeps a fine balance between sickness, humour and affection and – if you really dig below the surface – there is a an almost touching morality to proceedings. You just have to dig deep. In the lead role Nicholas Hope is astonishing as the emotionally stunted man/child and also provides an interesting commentary alongside the director. There’s also a brilliantly twisted extra that lets you hear Bubby’s thoughts during the film. Which is a bit different from your usual photo gallery.
Aside from painting, writing and reading tarot cards Alejandro Jodorowsky managed to find the time to become a celebrated filmmaker. The show off. But his work was amazing, in equal measure mental and mesmerising. Thanks to the wonders of DVD you can now experience the joy and wonder of his work with the release of The Jodorowsky Collection (Tartan DVD) which continues many films that are being seen for the first time since their release. First up is El Topo, perhaps his best known work. A spaghetti western (though with the spaghetti cooked by Salvador Dali), it features a gunfighter who takes his revenge whilst confronting a surreal world of dwarfs, cults and cacti. That are used for whipping. And not in the dessert sense. It’s insane but in the best kind of way and is featured here uncut. Slightly more serene is The Holy Mountain about a disparate group of people who try to find enlightenment from a guru, played with an ethereal charm by Jodorowsky himself. Don’t expect to understand, just enjoy the journey. Finally, we have Fando & Lis a surreal movie of an epic journey taken by a couple searching for a mythical land. Each comes with a commentary from Jodorowsky himself whilst there’s also a fascinating documentary, La Constellation about his work including his failure to bring Dune to the big screen (which was finally done by his spiritual son, David Lynch). But wait! There’s also remastered soundtracks to Topo and Mountain. Put the DVD in, turn on and drop out. Doesn’t really have the same ring does it?
Yet another great filmmaker gets a whole box to himself with the factually titled A Fritz Lang Boxset (Eureka), which celebrates 80 years since the release of Metropolis. Naturally, the classic sci-fi film is the jewel at the centre of the set, with its stylishly dystopian future still as massively influential on the genre as it was when it was first released. Its story of a seemingly utopian world which is run by slaves who turn to revolt is still a powerful piece of silent cinema and its grandiose sets and exquisite design have hardly dated. Basically, still an amazing piece of work. However, the same can be said of M, in which Peter Lorre plays a child murderer in one of the most chilling performances in cinema history. Again, just an amazing film that manages to be absolutely gorgeous yet utterly terrifying at the same time. His inventive crime films Dr Mabuse, the Gambler and The Testament of Dr Mabuse are also represented whilst the set is rounded out by a wonderfully constructed spy film Spione. Each film is a testament to Lang’s genius and ability to turn seemingly ordinary genre films into something transcendent. All the films are remastered and contain plenty of extras and this set is really, really worth the money.
And the ‘director gets a box set’ madness continues with the simply titled Fellini (Nouveaux Pictures), containing some of his best work (which says a lot considering his body of work). First up is 8 1/2, which is not only his best film but – for my mind – one of the greatest films ever made. If you’ve never seen it, then go out and buy this DVD now. Or else. It’s the story of Guido, a filmmaker who cannot create his new masterwork in the midst of continual harassment from his wife and mistress – and the film industry. To escape these he retreats into a fantasy world and the lines of reality blur. It’s a meditative, surreal and beautiful examination of the nature of filmmaking, the perceptions of reality and the human condition. And indescribably brilliant. Almost as good is La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s sumptuous look at the decadent lifestyles and excess in Italian society during the 60s. Whilst some of it has dated, this is still a massively affecting movie full of verve and invention and prescient points about our obsession with celebrity. And it also has that scene with Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain. Rounding off the collection there’s I Vitelloni – a wonderfully put together account of listless young Italians living in a small town at the end of 50s – and Guilette Degli Spiriti which features a towering performance from Giulietta Masina as a bored housewife who finds freedom through pleasure. The only disappointment is a lack of extras on the films, but the films are more than worth you spening your money on. The cinema of Fellini is some of the most important and affecting in history, and these films represent the pinnacle of his work.
If your predilection for great Italian directors is not sated by the above, then 1900 (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) should prove more than satisfying. At five hours, this epic story from Bernardo Betolucci examines Italian history through the lives of two very different people. Alfredo is the son of a rich landowner whilst Olmo is the son a peasant living on their land. As youngsters, they become the best of friends but as adulthood approaches they begin to realise that their differences might be unassailable. Especially when the spectre of Mussolini is hanging over the entire country. Gerard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland and Robert De Niro all give grand performances in this sumptuous film showcasing Bertolucci’s flair for the grandiose and, if one scene is to go by, hatred for cat. It may prove a little indulgent for some, but this should be engrossing for those who appreciate epic cinema. Surprisingly few extras (just some OK 'Making Ofs') but, hey, they needed room to fit the film on..
No, the box sets aren’t over yet as we now have Classics of German Cinema: 1920-1943 (Eureka) for you to digest. Like the Lang set, it pretty much does what it says on the tin by including some classics of German cinema. From 1920-1943. The highlight here is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, probably one of the most influential films of all time. The story of an evil hypnotist and the man who tries to stop him still not only manages to send a chill down the spine but also looks brilliant thanks to its – for the time – innovative design that set the bar for all future German Expressionist films. Der Golem – based on the Yiddish legend – is another sumptuous horror film and the fantastic theme is rounded off by Munchausen a deliciously epic attempt at the fairy tale that was made long before Terry Gilliam decided to dent his pocket book with it. We move into more real – yet sensual – territory with The Blue Angel as a certain actress by the name of Marlene Dietrich first shot to fame as a temptress who ensnares the innocent Emil Jennings with her feminine wiles. Finally we have Asphalt, an intriguing examination of the corruption at the heart of the Weimar Republic. A well thought out selection and, like the Lang set, the discs come packed with extras. Again, for those who don’t have these in their collection, this is an essential purchase.
Nic Roeg has never been afraid to tackle strange and eclectic subjects as the release of two of his less well known films illustrates. Firstly there’s Bad Timing (Network), perhaps one of the most sour ‘love films’in history. Art Garfunkel – who never gets enough credit for his brilliant performance in this film, which is reminiscent of his work in Carnal Knowledge – plays a psychiatrist who becomes involved with one of his patients (played by eternal Roeg muse Theresa Russell). When she awakes in hospital after an overdose she begins to recount the story of their relationship as a picture of manipulation and passion begins to emerge. An extremely creepy but effective piece from Roeg. As effective is Insignificance (Network) as the director contrives a meeting between (the never named) Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe McCarthy and Joe Dimaggio in a hotel room in 1953. As you do. He uses this strange set-up to examine the state of the world through the interaction of his iconic characters. The high quality acting from the likes of Russell and Gary Busey carries this Brechtian fantasy through and hold the interest even when it starts to get to far fetched for its own good. The only complaint that the video quality here is awful with a muddy image throughout: just a warning for you who have the nice big TVs and want to watch this with a pristine image.
Louise Brooks was perhaps one of the most striking female stars in silent cinema. Her innocent looks hid a dark and vampish interior, a fact traded upon in her most famous film Pandora’s Box. After this milestone of filmmaking she teamed up once again with director GW Pabst to make Diary of A Lost Girl (Eureka), another tale of lost innocence and redemption through sin. She plays Thymiane a girl who falls pregnant at the hands of a cad under her father’s employ. In the grip of disgrace, she finds herself in a reform school whose headmistress enjoys engaging in sadistic games. Soon Thymiane escapes to a brothel where, ironically, she thinks she might be able to find freedom. This grand melodrama oozes class from every frame, with Pabst’s brilliant direction and Brooks’ mesmerising presence. A real gem of the silent cinema.
There are 'fallen' women of a more colourful nature in Valley of The Dolls: 40th Anniversary Edition (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) a scandalous (for the time) expose of the excesses of Hollywood. Sharon Tate (in what would, tragically, be her last screen performance) is one of three girls who enters the world of showbusiness only to find a world of hedonism and excess. This 60s film is a heavy handed and camp affair, but there's something about it that is so appealing. Perhaps it's the sheer weight of the melodrama and the preposterousness of it all that makes it so fun. It's the kind of film you shouldn't like but do. This special edition is loaded with extras including featurettes about the main actresses, screen tests and even a chance to sing along to some of the songs included in the movie. And to think that Judy Garland was once attached to be in the film...
Alex Cox’s balances the grim and sublime in Sid And Nancy: Special Edition (Momentum Pictures) which sees the seemingly strange combination of Gray Oldman and Courtney Love team up to play ill fated lovers Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. They do an excellent job in their roles as Cox paints a grim picture of two people who love each other but are doomed to spiral out of control thanks to the influence of heroin. There’s a ghastly pall to proceedings as the unfolding events have a tragic inevitability about them but somehow Cox keeps an energy and life to the otherwise dark and grubby mood. The special edition includes an illuminating commentary by Cox (which was actually included on the first release) and a new documentary that examines the death of vicious and how people reacted to it. An uncomfortable but fascinating biopic.
Well, it’s official. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds since Tony Blair forgot to renew his CND membership, Doctor Who has gone from massively embarrassing sci-fi show to the jewel in the BBC’s crown. Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride (BBC DVD) saw the second big budget Xmas special in which the Time Lord gained Catherine Tate as a temporary companion. But with huge success, there are signs that the solid writing of Russell T Davis are starting to wobble with Tate being not much more than a shouty cipher and some shockingly poor plot contrivances (“Is sci-fi and it’s not meant to make sense,” is not an excuse). Yet the TARDIS car chase is brilliantly realised and Tennant is on form as the exuberant but grieving alien. Let’s hope they don’t mess this – so far brilliant – show up. Also on the disc is a special hour long look at the music of Doctor Who which shows why it is still THE best theme tune of all time. Take that Airwolf fans.
Just as popular was Life On Mars: Series Two (BBC DVD) the glorious show in which John Simm plays Sam Tyler, a modern detective who somehow finds himself back in 1973. As he tries to work out his predicament (is he dead? In a coma?) he’s teamed up with as DCI Gene Hunt for whom the term PC definitely means ‘Police Constable’ and not ‘Politically Correct’. Tyler tries to bring his modern day methods to the force of the 70s. But Gene Hunt prefers fists to words. As a show, it’s a perfectly judged balance of humour (including the very funny swipes at 70s attitudes, especially in the ‘wife swapping episode’), nostalgia and pathos. What’s more, the decision to end after the season leads to a finely judged climax that leaves everything on a satisfying note (though look out for a spin off series entitled Ashes To Ashes soon). The set has all 8 episodes and some vaguely revealing fetaurettes, including a fun one on the return of ‘Tufty’ and ‘Camberwick Green’ in the show. And if that last line leaves you a bit mystified, then you really have to watch this series.
All these DVDs should be available now. I think. Look, just go to Amazon and they should be able to tell you.... and no competition this time around as have too much to do to be able to think of one. Extra special one next time. Promise.