Special Edition # 21
It seems to me that I always talk about the weather in the introduction to these columns. I’ve vowed that I was going to stop that. Unfortunately, Danny Boyle’s latest film has kind of scuppered that. So I have to mention that, considering the general rain, it’s good that Special Edition # 21 has a new film that can bring some brightness into all our lives. Laurence Boyce also has his usual rag bag of re-releases, TV shows and Doctor Who. Enjoy!
Danny Boyle has always experimented with genres and on his latest film, he turns his hand to sci-fi. Sunshine: Special Edition (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) has a hokey set-up – crew are sent into space to save the Earth by re-igniting a dying Sun – but treats it with an admirably serious touch. Cillian Murphy plays the physicist upon whose shoulders the responsibility of saving the world falls when, unsurprisingly, things go wrong. There are plenty of good ideas on offer here, though perhaps too many for it’s own good. With philosophy, existentialism, science and scary monsters all vying for your attention, things can sometimes get a bit overwhelming. But, even when the story starts to become confusing, the films visuals are what keep you engaged. With an interesting look (though vaguely familiar for those who saw Soderbergh’s version Solaris) and some gorgeous sequences (especially the race to repair the surface of the spaceship) this is a film that will undoubtedly become a cult favourite over the coming years. The extras include a commentary by Boyle (as interesting as always) and one from Dr Brian Cox, the astrophysicist who advised on the scientific accuracy of the film. Something that will also delight readers of Special Edition is the inclusion of Chris Sheperd’s brilliant short film Dad’s Dead, a multi-award winning and wonderfully dark story of a person’s past. Along with short film Mole Hills by Dan Arnold it’s almost worth the price of the DVD alone.
Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most powerful and polemical voices in cinema. If you've never experienced the genius of his work then the Eisenstein Collection: Volume 1 (Tartan DVD) is a must buy. It contains some of his most famous work, headed up with the incomparable Battleship Potemkin, the dramatic story of revolution in Tsarist Russia. With the Odessa Steps sequence – still one of the most famous and parodied sections of film in history – and the ability to capture the passion and brutality of the mutiny this is still an immensely affecting movie. Also here is Strike about workers whose strike is crushed with brutal force and October a film commissioned by the Soviets to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. All three are brilliant examples of the inventiveness and uniqueness of both Soviet cinema and Eisenstein himself and each comes with the original soundtrack and a new score from Ed Hughes.
Those who saw Gyorgy Palfi’s sublime Hukkle will find themselves slightly shocked with his latest film Taxidermia (Tartan DVD). The film focuses on the human capacity for excess as we follow the fortunes of three generations of men all of whom have insatiable appetites in one way or the other. There’s some razor sharp satire here as Palfi gleefully exposes the extremes that people will go to indulge themselves. Extreme is certainly the word as there’s many scenes here which will require a very strong stomach especially in the section concerning Hungary’s world champion speed eater. But if you can hold down your lunch, this is a film full of verve and (gross) imagination that goes some way to establishing Palfi as an important and vital new voice in world cinema.
Kim Ki-Duk, a perennial favourite here at Special Edition, keeps up his prodigious output with his latest feature The Bow (Tartan DVD). Here he follows the fortunes of an old man who has been raising a girl since she was a baby. But when she starts to become a woman and assert her identity, the old man because perturbed. Just what are his true feelings for her and how will their relationship change? With typical subtlety – with one or two surprises on the way – Ki-Duk touches on the themes of relationships and identity with minimal use of dialogue. Veering towards the more fairy tale side of his oeuvre (such as Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring…) this is yet another sublime film from one of the greatest directors in Korea. Let’s just hope that Hollywood don’t try and ruin any of his films in the near future.
Caffeine (Blackhorse Entertainment) is an intriguing blend (pun intended) of British and American Indie Cinema. The relationships of various people who frequent and work at a London coffee house come into sharp focus during one lunchtime when secrets are unwittingly revealed. With all manner of relationship and sexual hang-ups on offer, this has some fun to offer but sometimes feels a little too all over the place to be satisfying. The inclusion of actors such as Mena Suavri also feel shoehorned in to earn the production money as opposed to any sort of aesthetic choice. But there are some good lines contained if you search hard eanough and, while the ultimate product is flawed, the script and direction show that those involved have plenty of potential for the future.
The next two releases serve as a reminder of one of the greatest directors in cinema history who we, sadly, lost a few weeks ago. Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust And Tinsel (Tartan DVD) is the story of a circus owner who embarks on an affair with the younger Anna. But they soon find themselves in a relationship that they will keep, even if it will destroy them both. The Devil’s Eye (Tartan DVD) is a more playful affair in which the world’s greatest lover is sent from Hell to seduce a young girl. In both, Bergman shows that – even in his ‘minor works’ – he could expose the ridiculous contradictions and complications at the heart of human relationships with an almost unparalleled skill. He may be gone but films such as this are a testament to his place in cinema history.
Most famous for the harrowing The Son’s Room, Italian director Nanni Moretti proves he also has a lighter touch in his 1998 feature Aprile (Optimum World). The film is a wry account of Nanni (played by Moretti himself) who, whilst making a documentary on government corruption, discovers that his wife is pregnant. His pride at his forthcoming child is soon supplanted by all the anxiety that fatherhood promises to bring. There’s a gentle air to proceedings and – on the surface – this seems to be nothing more than a rather whimsical comedy of manners. But dig deeper and you see that Moretti has plenty of salient points to make about masculinity and society in general.
Jacques Becker will always have the privilege of being one of the few traditional French directors that the enfants terribles of the Cahiers De Cinema actually admired. Now you can experience three of his greatest work, all of which showcase his sure and evocative style. Casque D’Or (Optimum World) is a fine gangster flick, which sees a small-time criminal fall for a gangster’s moll. Atmospheric and dramastic the film is highlighted by a performance from Simon e Signoret as the femme fatale at the heart of the story. There’s more crime in Le Trou (Optimum World), a subtle and taut film in which a group of inmates attempt to escape from a Parisian prison whilst gangsters try to pull of a robbery in Touchez pas Au Grisbi (Optimum World). All of them are amazingly atmospheric and entertaining genre films that prove why Becker was so highly regarded by the likes of Truffaut and Godard.
Belissima (Eureka) is Luchino Visconti’s brilliantly realised satire on the cinema industry that sees a mother convinced that her daughter is going to be the ‘next big thing.’ But her convictions are less based on blind faith and more of a desire to improve the lot of her entire family. But when she overhears the reaction to her daughter’s audition, she’s forced to revaluate everything that she’s dreamt about over the years previously. Anna Magnani is magnificent, both deluded and amazingly prescient as the woman who wants nothing but the best for her family. It exposes the cruelty at the heart of the studio system whilst also providing a warning against flase hopes. It’s a Masters Of Cinema release, so the disc is excellent with a fascinating documentary and book alongside a gorgeous transfer of the film. The Masters Of Cinema range also sees Silence (Eureka) a film from Masahiro Shinoda that explores the conflict amid those who would want to re-establish the Christian Church in seventeenth-century Japan. This is absolutely stunning to watch as Shinoda’s masterful direction gives proceedings a beauty rarely seen on the screen.
More classic Japanese cinema in The Ballard Of Narayama (Tartan DVD). Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, a contemporary of Ozu, the film is a meditative work that sees the community of a small village face the possibility of a famine. They make the difficult decision to take everyone over 70 to Narayama Mountian where they will be left to. We focus on one family and the difficulties they face as matriarch Orin makes preparations for her final sacrifice. Very much echoing Ozu in it’s examination of family duty verses personal desires, this is a an affecting and simple film that is wonderfully poignant.
Now on to a recently released collection of classic movies which are all thoroughly entertaining … even if you can’t shake the feeling that you should be watching them on Channel 4 during the afternoon. Firstly, there’s Anthony Asquith’s excellent version of The Browning Version (Second Sight) with Michael Redgrave resplendent as a bitter schoolmaster whose attitude is changed by the acts of one boy. An excellent study of character it’s an absorbing film with an excellent commentary from film historian Bruce Eder. Next is Summertime (Second Sight) the first colour film from David Lean and one which he considered his personal favourite – high praise indeed. It’s a simple love story with Katherine Hepburn playing a spinster who meets a charming man in Venice. Beautifully shot and acted, it’s an elegant piece of work from one of cinema’s greatest directors. Finally we have two George Bernard Shaw adaptations. Major Barbara (Second Sight) is a fine satire that includes Deborah Kerr in her first film role whilst Pygmalion (Second Sight) sees Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller give performances that netted them both Oscar nominations in this faithful adaptation of Shaw’s examination of class. All in all, a very interesting crop of lost classics.
Some classic British actors crop up in Three Men In A Boat (Network), the 50s feature film version of the classic comedy novel by Jerome K Jerome. Laurence Harvey, Jimmy Edwards and David Tomlinson play the roles of three slightly foolish English gentlemen who undertake a boating trip from Thames to Oxford. With plenty of mishaps on the way, they bumble along happily and deal with everything that is thrown in their way with a consummate ease. This is a completely gentle and entertaining movie that’s as English as can be. The extras include the shooting script but – sadly – not a nice glass of Pimms and a cucumber sandwich. You’ll have to provide those yourselves.
If you thought that ‘Life On Mars’ was unique for mixing the sci-fi and detective genres than you obviously need to seek out Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) – The Complete Series Special Edition (Network) which just about wins the award for longest DVD title ever. After private investigator Marty Hopkirk is knocked down, his business partner Jeff Randle faces a life of sleuthing alone. But he soon discovers that his partner has come back from the dead: and only Jeff can see him. Over the course of 26 episodes they team to fight crime in the most unique way possible. If there was ever your typical show from ITC then this was it. A light blend of drama and humour, some effective story lines and a charming trio of leads (including Annette Andre who plays Marty’s widow) all combine to make tremendous – and very British – entertainment. The DVD includes commentaries from the actors and a documentary on the making of the show. A great slice of comfort television.
It’s Special Edition which must mean that it’s time for the usual Doctor Who round up! Yes Time Lord fans, there’s a new lot of DVDs for you to get your hands on and marvel at just how special effects have moved on in the past few years. Doctor Who: The Time Warrior (BBC DVD) holds a special place in the hearts of all Who fans as it introduced Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane-Smith, perhaps the most enduring of companions (who even made an appearance in the modern day series). It’s a fun romp in the 13th century as The Doctor (Jon Pertwee this time around) finds the evil Sontarans up to no good and vows to stop them. Which, let’s face it, he probably will. The disc includes a comprehensive documentary on the making of the story and a commentary from producer Barry Letts, Sladen, and script editor Terrence Dicks. Less fondly remembered are Doctor Who: Time Flight / Arc Of Infinity (BBC DVD) two outings for Peter Davison. It’s not worth traipsing through the stories as both are epitomes of everything that was wrong with the show: bad stories and direction, silly ideas, hammy acting and ropey effects. Still completists will enjoy the usual bountiful extras (include some very funny commentaries, which basically say the stories were crap) and it’s fun to see Colin Baker appear in ‘Arc Of Infinity’a year before he adopted the mantle of The Doctor. But if you want to convert someone to enjoying the classic series, then I wouldn’t use these two at all…
After playing the sidekick in ‘Spaced’ and such films as Shaun Of The Dead, Nick Frost finally gets the chance to take centre stage in space sitcom Hyperdrive: Seasons 1 & 2 (BBC DVD). He plays Mike Henderson, commander of the HMS Camden Lock who represents the interests of Britain in an ever changing galaxy. He and his crew of misfits attempt to survive whatever the universe throws at them. This is an uneven affair, that compares unfavourably with ‘Red Dwarf’ as, at the moment, too many of the jokes rely on the old ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if 21st century things happened in space!’ But there are a number of good performances as Frost proves he can lead a show with charm and is given able support from the likes of Kevin Eldon and Miranda Hart and there is a slow improvement as the stories go on. Flawed but it tries and I would recommend sci-fi fans should give it a blast, especially since the disc has lots of interesting extras (including a funny documentary on the origins of the series).
If impressionist shows make you cringe (yes, ‘Dead Ringers’, you can fool people on the phone into thinking you’re Tom Baker. Well done. Have a biscuit.) then there’s a chance that you may have given Stella Street - Series 2 (Universal) a miss. If you have, then you should catch up with it on DVD as – whilst it was built around celebrity impersonations – its premise and execution was hilarious. Written and directed by Peter Richardson (best known for the ‘The Comic Strip’) the show centres on a suburban street that happens to house the likes of Mick Jagger, Al Pacino and Michael Caine. With a great sense of the absurd and really well observed, there’s some fine comedy to be found here. And not a Frank Spencer impression in sight…
And finally, in a column with the greatest filmmakers in the world, what shall we end on. Of course, it has to be Count Duckula: Series 3 (Fremantle Home Entertainment) that will known bastion of classic celluloid. OK, not really. But for those of us still clinging to nostalgia and desperately trying to believe we’re young … erm, I mean those of us with children/nieces/nephews, then this is really, really fun from the makers of ‘Danger Mouse’. David Jason voices a vegetarian vampire duck in a series of adventures that contain some surprisingly effective humour and nice farcical situations. Buy it to keep yourself amused … I mean, keep the kids happy.