Special Edition # 23
And we start off with a re-released classic in Bonnie and Clyde: Special Edition (Warner DVD). The film still ripples throughout cinema history as one the defining points in the history of American film. It swept away old morals with it’s depictions of sexuality, criminality and – with that ending – violence. Yet, despite its status as cinematic legend, the film still manages to provoke the same reactions of shock and exhilaration it provided when it was first released 40 years ago. Beatty and Dunaway’s performances as the titular bank robbers cum murderers are still "smack in the face" astounding with a touching naivety coupled with a gleeful amorality. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the playfulness of the film that provides an – almost uncomfortable – sense of empathy with our "heroes". Indeed, the loose plot serves as a treatise for the then contemporary issues (that still resonate today) of fame, violence and the emergence of a new generation. It may be cinema history, but the film is anything but a relic. The documentaries included in this 2 disc set are the usual thorough job with cast and crew all interviewed in detail telling a fascinating story of the American Film Industry during the 60s.
Shocking in a different way is The Living and the Dead (DNC Entertainment) a psychological thriller from talented UK director Simon Rumley. Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd Pack) is forced to leave his bed-ridden wife and schizophrenic son James in their mansion as he goes on business. James is determined to look after his mother to prove his status as the man of the household and locks their nurse out of the house. But he soon proves unfit for the task as his mental state becomes more fragile. As fantasy and reality blur, things begin to take a tragic turn. Utilising a small cast and one location, this is an agonisingly tense piece of work with a tremendous rawness and energy. The cast are uniformly excellent – especially Leo Bill as James – and the consistent wrong-footing of the audience makes this film a disconcerting but affecting piece of work. There are moments that do fall down – some of the nightmare sequences start to move towards the faintly ridiculous – but this remains brave and exciting UK filmmaking. Reactions on the film festival circuit show it’s a very polarising film with people either loving or hating it. Those who love safer and more formulaic fare will fall into the latter. Those who appreciate unique cinema would be well advised to take a chance. Includes a commentary from Rumley and his short film Smiles. You can read an interview with Simon Rumley HERE .
Lovers of unique cinema would also be well advised to look at The Jim Jarmusch Collection: Volume 1 (Optimum Home Entertainment) which contains the director's very earliest work. His debut feature Permanent Vacation is a meandering affair in which a man walks through Manhattan. And, erm, that’s about it. It’s self-conscious ‘hipness’ is at times painful and it just screams ‘student piece’. Which is unsurprising, because that is what it is. Yet fans of Jarmusch will find it interesting to examine the director experiment with a style that he would soon master as he career progressed. His next film, Stranger Than Paradise, was slightly more disciplined, based as it was on the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song 'I Put A Spell On You'. It’s still a rambling affair, this time about a girl who lives with her hip (there’s that word again) cousin, but there’s some brilliant exchanges between the characters on offer here. The set ends with the excellent Down By Law starring Tom Waits and John Lurie as criminals who team up with Roberto Benigini to escape from prison. But, unsurprisingly, this isn’t Escape From Alcatraz and is another talky – and very funny – example of low-fi filmmaking. All in all the films on offer on this set are flawed but fascinating. Those who like their characters so laid back it’s a wonder their heads don’t hit the floor will find much to admire. No commentaries – I’m sure Jarmusch is too hip for that – but some quirky extras including a Waits video and phone conversations (yes, you read that right) about the films.
Wim Wenders also enjoyed basing his early films on songs as Alice In The Cities (Axiom Films) shows. Here he uses the Chuck Berry song ‘Memphis’ (and gets Berry to appear in the films as well) to inspire him in the creation of the story of a drifting journalist who becomes the guardian of a little girl. What sounds like it could be a vomit inducing Hollywood movie is in fact a searing indictment on the nature of America during the early 1970s. Our lead character, Winter, is alienated from a society that is steeped in mind-numbing culture with seemingly no hope of return. But – even in this savage attack on American values – there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for our main protagonist and his young charge. A captivating example of Wenders early work – beautifully shot in black and white and on 16mm – this is a thought provoking and engaging affair. The disc includes an in-depth interview between Wenders and film crtic Mark Cousins.
If experimental directors are still your thing then you’ll be glad to know that up next is Gus Van Sant with Paranoid Park (Tartan DVD). Here he ties up the loose trilogy of films – that included Elephant and Last Days – that deals with the disaffected youth of America. The film follows a young skateboarder who becomes embroiled in the death of a security guard. Withdrawing into his own world, the film charts his increasingly bizarre behaviour. Van Sant eschews a linear narrative to create a sensitive and uncompromising evocation of a modern youth unwilling to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. His collaboration with Chris Doyle – the cinematographer best known for his work on Chungking Express – makes this one of his most exquisite films to date. A striking movie that just about makes us forgive him for that entire Psycho fiasco. Just.
More from the eyes of the young, this time in Blame It On Fidel (ICA Films) a gently amusing story, set in the 70s, of nine-year old French girl Anna whose parents turn from the comfortable middle class to the radical left. Just who are these strange men visiting the house preaching revolution and these people seeking refuge from other countries? Confused and angry Anna rebels in the only way that she knows how. Director Juile Gavras has crafted a film that is crammed full of ideas and politics, mirroring the political and social maelstrom of the times. There’s plenty in here about the battle between Right and Left and though, it’s clear that the film supports the latter, this is as much about intolerance and ignorance as it is politics. Anna is perhaps the wisest out of all her family as she sees the flaws in the arguments of both sides and is untainted by the dogma of her elders. Political, human and thoughtful, this is a wonderful little film that shows that growing up is a continual process no matter what your age.
There’s a slightly more serious coming of age tale in Libero (Axiom Films). Here, 11 year-old Tommi is raised by his father Renato who believes in doling out harsh punishment. But the return of his mother Stefania throws his life into further confusion as he deals with the problems of his parents whilst trying to find his own within the world. A movie of powerful performances (especially Alessandro Morace as the central character) this is a poignant yet tough caution about the effect that people can have on the lives of their children and how, just because people are adults, it doesn’t mean that their answers are correct.
Growing up also brings the pangs of first love, a confusing and painful time that at least provides plenty of storylines for movies. Camping Sauvage (Soda Pictures) sees brand new swimming instructor Blaise finding himself entranced by the charms of 17 year-old Camille. She begins to use him to make her boyfriend jealous but they grow close as their disaffected lives begin to intertwine. Passion and malaise soon threaten a terrible ending for all involved. This is an adequate thriller from directors Christophe Ali & Nicolas Bonilauri that provides some fine suspense and intensity. Yet this all seems very familiar territory (the ‘older man falls under the spell of younger girl and it all goes horribly wrong’ has been done once or twice) you can’t help feeling you know how it’s all going to turn out.
Now we have to put the children to bed as, ever since the influx of Japanese Anime in the late 80s, it’s pretty much become common knowledge that animation isn’t just for the little ones. But, if you’ve forgotten, then Princess (Tartan DVD) will provide a timely reminder. August returns home, after years of missionary work, to avenge his dead sister, a porno star known as ‘The Princess’. Collecting his five year old niece, he commences a rampage of violence and death in the name of revenge. This is an uncompromising film, with the fact that it’s animated somehow making it’s themes of sex, violence, redemption and faith all the more powerful. Indeed, the oft cited comparisons to Taxi Driver are well deserved as this is a film unafraid to examine the dark recesses of the human psyche and mark out director Anders Morgenthaler (whilst it’s history is rooted firmly in the anime tradition, the films itself is actually Danish) as one to watch over the coming years.
Aside from anime, Asia has amassed a reputation for horror films, of which two more are now available. First up is Yesterday (Tartan Asia Extreme) which sees a group scientists being murdered one by one in the year 2020. How is it related to the disappearance of a group of children during the 1990s? The next is The Wig (Tartan Asia Extreme) which does what it says on the tin. Yes, it’s an evil wig which causes to commit suicide. Both this and Yesterday show – that whilst there are many imaginative films coming out of Asia – some of the ideas are, well, getting a bit thin on top (hell, even "The Simpsons" did an evil wig skit). Even the die hard fans will find both these films a little wearing: perhaps it’s time that the Asian Horror film industry started to focus on quality as opposed to quantity.
If you want a horror film that is quality then look no further than the classic Eyes Without A Face (Second Sight – quite appropriate company really). Georges Franju’s tale of the macabre still manages to send a shiver down the spine with an immensely chilling affair. Renowned plastic surgeon Dr Gennister is responsible for the disfigurement of his daughter in a car accident. Determined to restore her to her former beauty, he looks for donors for a new face. And whether people are actually willing to donate is not of concern to the Doctor driven mad with grief. This towering slice of horror would show the Eli Roth’s of this world how it really should be done. There’s brutality aplenty but also beautiful imagery that counters this, making the film a study in what may be best decribed as elegant sadism. Comes with an extract from the documentary ‘Georges Franju – Visionary’
Robert Bresson, another great of French Cinema, sees three of his films come to DVD. The greatest of these is perhaps A Man Escaped (Artificial Eye), Bresson’s adaptation of the true story of Andre Devigny, a Resistance fighter imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII. Bresson is at the height of his powers here, using a non-professional cast to add a realism to this emotional story of one man’s attempt to escape for his cell. There’s very little dialogue here, but Bresson makes inventive use of sound evoking an atmosphere that is both stark yet amazingly affecting. His take on the Arthurian legend Lancelot Du Lac (Artificial Eye) is similarly spare, as the fantastical elements of the story are sidelined for a more human examination on the relationship between Lancelot and Guinivere and the interaction between the Knights Of The Round Table. Finally his penultimate film The Devil, Probably (Artificial Eye) is a remarkable tale of a man who yearns to live a life beyond the materialistic. Once again, a spare style is used as a device to rally against the complacency of the late 20th century and a cry to rebel against the monotony of the modern age. In an age when slam bang action dominates, these releases provide a breath of fresh air. Bresson’s work is passionate yet serene, angry yet calm and a reminder of one of the true greats of cinema.
Whilst Alfred Hitchcock is rightly lauded as one of the greatest directors in British Cinema, spare a thought for Anthony Asquith. A contemporary of the rotund director, some of Asquith’s greatest films have sometimes slipped out of the consciousness of cinema history. His silent film A Cottage On Dartmoor (BFI) is one of these films, a mesmerising blend of Soviet Montage and German Expressionism that tells the melodramatic tale of jealousy, imprisonment and escape. Dark and moody, this is just full of invention and atmosphere that sometimes manages to out-Hitchcock the great man himself. The film is the usual exemplary package from the BFI with a new score, some fascinating short films both by and about Asquith and an impeccably researched booklet. A timely release for a film that deserves to be re-evaluated by film historians and cinema lovers.
Another British director that deserves more prominence is Christopher Petit for his amazingly brilliant debut feature Radio On (BFI). A twisted road movie that sees DJ go on a trip to Bristol to investigate the death of his brother. On his travels he meets many strange people that combine to create a view of a Britain that is on the verge of collapse. The film is also a statement on the perceived death of British cinema (as the highpoints of the 60s gave way towards the tawdry genre fare the dominated the 70s) all wrapped within a soundtrack that features the likes of Kraftwerk and David Bowie. This is an utterly unique film which gives a beautiful brutality to an England that had lost its way during the 70s. And, of course, the DVD itself is great with a remix of of the film entitled radio on (remix) and interviews with Petit and producer Keith Griffiths.
"For once a DVD that contains engaging material instead of fluff, and a must purchase." Onto modern British directors now as Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha (Contender Home Entertainment) is one of the most powerful examinations of the Iraq War created since the outset of the conflict. Utllising the faux documentary style he used to great effect in Ghosts, Broomfield investigates the massacre of 24 people by US Marines purportedly in retaliation for the death of a marine killed by a roadside bomb. Broomfield gives us all points of view, with the frustrated soldiers, angry insurgents and frightened civilians all caught up in a devastating situation for which there seems little hope of resolution. Whilst the massacre is an - obviously- emotive subject (indeed, the film does not hold back from showing the horrible violence and it’s devastating consequences) Broomfield avoids ‘US bashing’ and tries to discover the real motives of all involved. And the answer seems to be an almost inexorable sense of helplessness, a state of being used in other people’s political battles. It’s a savage indictment of the current and past policies on Iraq and is a vital – if distressing – piece of filmmaking. The extras are also extra. The on-set reports actually provide background that’s relevant whilst the interviews with Broomfield are really worthwhile. For once a DVD package that contains engaging material instead of fluff, and a must purchase.
Whilst the death of JFK gave rise to an entire industry centred around a conspiracy, the demise of his brother Bobby some five years later became more of a footnote in conspiracy history. Shane O’Sullivan’s documentary RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy (Soda Pictures) posits the theory that Sirhan Sirhan – the Palestinian who still is in jail for the murder – was not acting alone. Whilst this doesn’t really reach the level of lunatic ideas beloved of many mad conspiracy nuts, the theory that Sirhan was made to commit the murder under hypnosis may still be difficult for some to swallow. But O’Sullivan has provided a lot of in depth research here and, even if some ideas may fall down, there is a general feeling that RFK’s death does certainly demand more investigation. The sceptical amongst you might believe that the truth is just too way out there but those who keep an open mind will find one or two things of intertest to uncover.
'Absolutely' was a gloriously silly sketch show broadcast a little less than 20 years ago on Channel 4. It had a legion of loyal fans who enjoyed the antics of the mad city council of Stoneybridge, the boring Calum Gilhooley, the Little Girl who knows everything and the insane Welsh duo of Denzil and Gwynned. But as it was never repeated and left many thinking it could have been some sort of insane dream. Now Absolutely Everything (Fremantle Media) shows that it wasn’t the product of deranged imaginations (well our deranged imaginations) as it contains all 4 series of the show. It hasn’t dated at all, and is still as riotously funny as it was when first broadcast. Almost acting as a bridge between 'Monty Python' and the lunacy of 'Vic and Bob', the fine blend of sketches, songs and monologues is a must for fans of the show and those who want to discover an important part of comedy history. The set comes with a raft of extras that include a reunion of the cast and crew who discuss the origins of the series and the creation of the characters.
Deranged could also be applied to Angry Kid – Series 2 (2 Entertain). This is an animation about a kid. Who is angry. Bet you couldn’t see that one coming eh? There’s lots of farting and swearing (indeed, one of the episodes is entitled ‘Tourettes’ and the other – with a beautiful simplicity – ‘Piss’) but, as each episode lasts around one minute long, it never really outstays it’s welcome. Whilst some may find this a bit strange to purchase on DVD – as the Angry Kid vignettes seem much more suited to You Tube and the like – it’s a nice little collection for those who like the animation a little bit raw. And, indeed, angrier.
Comedy of a much more gentle nature is contained in Sensitive Skin Series 2 (BBC DVD). Joanna Lumley stars as widow Davina who, at the age of 60, finds herself facing life alone. She finds herself meeting a cast of strange characters (including a hilarious turn from Maureen Lipman as a raging feminist) as she tries to live her life. This is a wonderfully observed piece of work that is exquisitely written with a fine central performance from Lumley. There is a undercurrent of darkness throughout but this is deftly handled by creator Hugo Blick (who also was responsible for the vastly underrated 'Operation Good Guys') and the balance of life affirming moments go towards creating a fine and somewhat different British sitcom.
Roman’s Empire (BBC DVD) goes for a somewhat more traditional route of British Sitcom – at least traditional for the 21st Century. There are lots of nasty characters and grotesque situations in this chronicle of the weird family of millionaire Roman Pretty. With a bunch of people prepared to stab each other in the back for money, a father who thinks his newborn son is talking to him and the only remotely normal person – played by rising comedy star Matthew Horne – still, well, pretty weird, this is all edgy and underground. Or it would be if it hadn’t been done - usually better – by so many others before. It’s lazy stab at risqué situations and ever more gross happenings just fall flat and the thing never really manages to raise a laugh. Cancelled after one series, perhaps it’s good that this empire crumbled when it did.
Mythbusters Volume 1 (2 Entertain) looks at some of the greatest myths in history. Will your mobile cause a petrol station to explode? Will watching lots of DVDs cause you to get through lots of DVD players? (actually, that’s true: trust me). This US show – which originated on the Discovery Channel – attempts to find out the facts. Now, here in the UK, we’re used to “Hey, isn’t science/history fun!” but it usually consists of men such as Adam Hart-Davis wearing a bunch of silly costumes. This being American, this ramps it up with explosions, wackiness other experiments you couldn’t do in science lesson. This is all fun with lots of ‘learning by stealth’ and has the desired effect of entertaining you whilst giving you vague satisfaction that you may know more than you did when you started.
But, as 40 (4DVD) shows, it may be a little bit too late to teach some old dogs new tricks. Originally broadcast on Channel 4 in 2003 this mini-series sees various characters who found that being middle aged causes – quelle surprise – many problems as they take stock of their lives. They all have sexual, emotional and psychological problems that are bad for them but good for keeping a viewing audience entertained. Lots of strong performances here with Eddie Izzard playing a coke addicted ad exec (are there any other kinds?) and a Hugo Speer and Kerry Fox as a unhappily married couple keep everything bobbing along nicely. But it all strives a bit too hard to be ‘event TV’ in the same way as such series as ‘Our Friends In The North’ and falls down under the weight of its own ambitions. It’s certainly adult but not as mature as it would like us to think it is.
And finally, we have a bit of a Special Edition favourite with Homicide: Life On The Street: Series 5 (Fremantle Home Entertainment). The show was really on a high at this point (for the uninitiated it follows the fortunes of the fictitious Baltimore Homicide Squad) with a story arc that includes the ongoing battle with drug lord Luther Mahoney. All the episodes are of the highest quality with taught writing, fantastic performances and some gripping ideas. Whilst for some – spoiled by a glut of high gloss US TV Dramas – may by a little less impressed, those who remember this the first time will be – quite rightly – clamouring to make sure that they own this set.
So that’s it. Phew! All these should be available now or very soon. Check the internet for release dates and, if you’re unable to check the web, then I’m mightily impressed you’re reading this now. Special Edition will be back in around 3 weeks with more new releases for you to enjoy. And I’ve not forgotten the prize and there’ll be on one offer for this column. All you need to do is tell me in which film Eddie Izzard played Charlie Chaplin. Answers on an email to