Special Edition # 25
There were no accidents. Nothing blew up. So, unless I spontaneously combust in the middle of writing this column, then it seems we can go ahead with Special Edition # 25. Yay. And, yes, we’re on number 25. Laurence Boyce would have got some mugs specially produced but who needs merchandise when – as always – there are a multitude of delightful DVDs for your perusal. This time around we have to we have a surreal Argentinean treat alongside some class American Indies, the latest Mike Leigh venture and other intriguing odds and ends to keep you going.
In La Antena (Dogwoof Pictures) Spanish director Esteban Sapir channels the spirit of Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, the classic German Expressionist filmmakers and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It’s a wonder his brain doesn’t explode. Thank goodness it hasn’t as he’s created a lush and beautiful homage to silent cinema in a highly symbolic story of a city held in the thrall of television. After ‘The Voice’ – whose ability to move people with her songs – is kidnapped it is up to a little girl to team up with the son of The Voice to stop the plans of evil Mr TV. Brimming with great ideas – such as when people talk, you don’t hear them but see their words physically – this is a bold and brassy film. Some may find the lack of subtlety – TV is bad everybody! – a tad annoying but I think the forthright style adds to the charm of the film. Wall-E has shown that modern day cinema lovers are more than willing to let the visuals tell the story. What a story La Antena tells.
Walter Hill often gets forgotten about when the great pantheon of 70s US directors (indeed, he’s more well known for his scripts to such movies as The Getaway, 48 Hours and Aliens) are discussed. It’s a shame as The Walter Hill Collection (Optimum Home Entertainment) shows the director as a powerful and hard-bitten auteur of cerebral action films. His most famous work The Warriors – about gang members who must travel across the dangerous streets of New York when one of them is framed for murder – is still a fresh and exciting film that makes the most of its sense of societal decay and despair and a youth culture increasingly jaded about their futures. The Driver is another example of Hill’s spare style that sees ‘The Driver’ being pursued by ‘The Detective’ and, for all intents and purposes, that’s about it. But with his flair for the dramatic car chase the film is intensely enthralling despite it’s lack of any discernable character development. This intensity is also ramped up for Southern Comfort – Hill’s Deliverance-a-like that sees National Guardsman face the wrath of local Cajuns in the Louisiana bayou – and The Long Riders – a brilliant and violent retelling of the Jesse James legend movie that pushes the boundary of the Western genre and paved the way for many of the gritty Westerns of the 80s and 90s. His later 80s films continue to exude the same surreal and urban landscape that typified his earlier works with Extreme Prejudice, which sees Nick Nolte play a Texas Ranger on a mission of revenge, and Johnny Handsome, Hill’s underrated crime thriller starring Mickey Rourke as a disfigured criminal who – you guessed it – finds himself on a mission of revenge. Lots of people want missions of revenge: why can't they go on missions for buttery teacakes? That aside, all of Hill’s films are – on the surface - testosterone fuelled adventures but delve deeper and you'll see they contain many interesting points concerning the failure and crisis of masculinity in the 70s and 80s. Alongside lots of violence. The set includes a brand new – and very worthwhile – interview with the man himself.
In the last column I took a look at The Elephant Man: Special Edition (HERE ) a film that’s also available in The David Lynch Collection (Optimum Home Entertainment). Aside from his aforementioned masterpiece, the collection contains two of his most obtuse works. Which for Lynch is really saying something. Mullholland Drive is perhaps the closest Lynch will ever get to Hollywood in a film about an amnesiac who attempts to find out who she really is with the help of an aspiring actress (Naomi Watts who gives a brilliant performance) who wants to make it in Hollywood – or ‘dreamland’ as she calls it. Lynch conjures up a world in which time has no meaning, identities are interchangeable and reality fluid – as he does with the majority of his movies. But Lynch’s ability – and that of his actors – to draw you into the strange and uneasy rhythms of his world remains unparalleled as he throws us from one surreal situation to the next. The same goes for his latest film Inland Empire, in which he once again explores the fakery and reality of the movie business. Laura Dern plays an actress who discovers the film that she’s working on begins to be reflected in her real life. Unsurprisingly, things become complicated as the true nature of things will continually be obscured. His first film made entirely on digital, there are signs of Lynch becoming excessive with his unique vision (it’s almost 3 hours) and some will give at the sheer incomprehensibility. But Lynch fans will find that’s what they enjoy the most and – if they have still not managed to get these on DVD – will find this collection a must. Disappointingly, the (admittedly sparse) extras that featured on the Empire and Drive individual releases are absent from this set.
If you like you independent cinema to have a tad more narrative ‘bite’ then The Puffy Chair (Scanbox Entertainment) may be exactly what you’re looking for. Rising stars Jay and Mark Duplass make their debut in this comedy that proved itself a festival hit a few years ago. Mark Duplass plays Josh, a lazy yet lovable rogue who decides to travel across America with a Lay-Z-Boy Chair as present for his birthday. His girlfriend Emily and hapless friend Rhett comes along for the ride and soon there are many comic moments to be had on the journey including Rhett’s brief (and I mean brief) relationship and just how you avoid paying for a hotel room. Comparisons to such films as Juno, Little Miss Sunshine and other American independents is unavoidable but – thankfully – the film holds up well with some fine performances and plenty of laughs. It does suffer from being slightly meandering with no real ‘point’ to proceedings (unless you take ‘you’re a bit silly when you’re young’ as a theme) but this is a fine first movie that is very entertaining. Lots of very good extras as well including a commentary and some of the Duplass Brothers short films.
Similar to the above is In Memory of My Father (Scanbox Entertainment) which is an amazingly sharp dissection of a family that tries to cope with the death of the head of the household. Given that the family in question is your typical Hollywood family though, you don’t have to feel too bad as they’re all thoroughly nasty. Chris (Christopher Jaymes, who also directs) films the last moments of his father bringing him into conflict with the rest of his siblings and those who have turned up for the wake. Soon dark secrets are revealed about the family as bickering and jealousy all rise to the surface. There’s some good stuff here, with shades of ‘Arrested Development’ and more than a splash of the Dogme films as you’ll laugh guiltily at some of the near the knuckle humour. Whilst it sometimes tries too hard to be ‘dark’ there are plenty of affecting moments that will make you thankful that your family aren’t as bad as that. Well, that’s what I’d hope at least.
Someone who is often associated with ‘dark’ cinema is Mike Leigh, often unfairly. Yes, films such as Vera Drake and Naked (also released for DVD on the first time in association with this) can often offer some of the harsher realties of life but he always shoots his films with a wry sense of humour. Happy-Go-Lucky (Momentum Pictures) is perhaps his most joyous film to date with it being a character study of the ever optimistic Poppy (Sally Hawkins). She’s funny, sweet, excitable and refuses to let anything bad phase her. So when her bike is stolen and she begins to learn to drive and meets the irascible instructor Scott there’s a conflict of personalities that leads to plenty of entertainment. This is Hawkins’ film all the way whose exuberant performance is an absolute delight from start to finish. Never letting things get her down, you almost want her to got through Leigh’s back catalogue and tell some of his more dour characters to buck their ideas up. A wry and hilarious look at modern life, this is perhaps one of Leigh’s most accessible and enjoyable films.
Leigh has often been supported by the likes of Film4 who have recently released a slew of neglected films from its vaults. Including rom-com Crush, the dark The Winter Guest and the Billy Connolly starring drama The Debt Collector, one of the most interesting films in the series is an almost forgotten Michael Winterbottom film With Or Without You (Film4). Christopher Eccleston and Dervla Kirwan (and you can imagine it doing much better now thanks to the fact that it has ‘the bloke for ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘the woman from ‘Ballykissangel’ in it: and they do rude things!) play a married couple who are trying for a baby. But as former lovers enter their lives things begin to fall apart. As always Winterbottom tries a new genre, this time a romantic drama and he makes some salient points about relationships and sexual politics, even if the direction sometimes feels a little flat. Eccleston and Kirwan are very good and it remains a worthy re-discovery of the work of one of the UK’s most interesting directors.
Less interesting is Alex de la Iglesia’s English language debut The Oxford Murders (Contender Home Entertainment). Elijah Wood – who seems to permanently live in the UK – plays a mathematics student under the tutelage of Arthur Seldom (John Hurt being, well, very ‘John Hurtish’). When his landlady dies he discover a mystery (shame Morse carked it, as he would have solved it in five minutes flat whilst having a pint and listening to some opera) involving mathematics that is in no way similar to The Da Vinci Code. Oh no. Not one similarity. Honest guv. It all rattles along nicely but – as someone who hated that bloody Ron Howard film with a rare passion – I couldn’t get away from the fact I was waiting for an albino monk to turn up and spout rubbish. If you really like Wood and Hurt then you’ll be entertained. The rest of us should stick to Morse repeats on ITV3.
A change of tack from the rarified atmosphere of Oxford now as Vexille (Momentum Pictures) thrusts us into the year 2077 where Japan has isolated itself from the rest of the world after refusing to agree to a UN resolution to stop producing robotic technology. But the country has gone mysteriously quiet and a US Special Forces unit is sent to find out what has happened. When there they find that things have gone seriously wrong and are soon fighting for the survival of humanity. This is an anime full of inventiveness and great ideas, taking its visual cues from classic sci-fi films of the past. Alongside the action – of which there is plenty – there’s some intelligence with themes of identity and technology contributing to a heady brew of a film. As with many visually brilliant anime films, it does lose some of its impact on the transfer to the small screen but if you crank up the Paul Oakenfold soundtrack, you’ll find it all quite exhilarating. Comes with lots and lots of great extras including an interview with director Fumihiko Sori and lots of footage following the making of the film.
Ryuhei Kitamura is one of the great Japanese horror directors (see Versus and Azumi as examples) and his early effort Alive (Optimum Asia) finally comes to DVD to scare the pants of a western audience. This one sees a man survive his own execution and – when offered the opportunity to take part in a mysterious experiment – jumps at the chance lest his luck run out. He soon finds himself in a test area with a rapist and a girl seemingly infected by an alien. And, wouldn’t you just know it, it all starts to go a little bit wrong. Whilst not one of Kitamura’s most accomplished films, thanks to a clichéd setting (you just know what is going to happen before everyone else does) that spoils the suspense, this still manages to provide some thrills and spills along the way that will provide some interest to followers of the director’s work.
More horror with Steve Miner’s remake of Day Of The Dead (Optimum Home Entertainment). Whilst you would have expected a remake of a horror film to be rubbish – which, let’s face it, most of them are: The Wicker Man anybody – there was hope thanks to Zack Snyder’s superlative version of Dawn Of The Dead. Hell, it even stars (well, has a cameo by) Ving Rhames. Well, like a barricaded shopping mall, it provides false hope as this is an utter dud. Miner takes a couple of ideas from George Romero’s original but mostly concentrates on uninteresting gore and dull action. Avoid like a (zombie) plague. It also comes with a commentary with Miner and cast but I couldn’t bring myself to listen to it.
Onto the subject of ‘not very good remakes’ The Producers (Optimum Classic) is once again available on DVD. Thankfully it’s Mel Brooks’ hilarious original and not the dodgy modern version. If you’ve never heard of it then I would partly ask “Where the hell have you been?” especially given that this re-release celebrates the 40th anniversary of its premiere, but I would also be slightly envious as you get the chance to laugh at one of the funniest films ever made for the first time. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder give iconic performances as a Broadway producer and accountant who, in a complicated tax scam, decide to stage a flop. With their new ‘hit’ Springtime For Hitler they’re going to take the theatre world by storm: just not in the way that they anticipated. Look, put simply: if you don’t have this then buy it now for the bad taste songs, the screenplay which won an Oscar, the performances and the career highpoint of Mel Brooks (yes, it’s even better than Robin Hood: Men In Tights). Comes with a good hour long ‘Making Of’ documentary.
Another film celebrating its 40th anniversary is The Lion In Winter (Optimum Classic). In 11th century England King Henry II quarrels with his wife Eleanor of Aquitane (understandable really, as he’s kept her locked up for 10 years) over their three sons. Only one can be the rightful heir to the throne and they must decide who must lead England into the future. This is a film in which the performances are all with Katherine Hepburn (who won her third Oscar for her brilliantly sharp performance) and Peter O’Toole providing some sparkling energy as the ever battling royal couple. And, whilst the film is sometime interminably stagey, director Anthony Harvey combines enough of the beauty of England with James Goldman’s Oscar winning script to make this a fascinating gem. Mention must also be made of John Barry’s brilliant score which also netted him an Oscar. Coo, bet those involved with the film were a bit busy with the Brasso.
Whilst the work of many authors is usually mangled when it comes to the big screen, Graham Greene has – more often than not – avoided the indignity of celluloid evisceration. Films such as Brighton Rock and The End Of The Affair treated their source material with the utmost respect, something that’s also evident in The Quiet American (Optimum Classic), the original adaptation of the Greene novel which finds itself on DVD for the first time. Michael Redgrave plays a journalist asked to identify the body of a dead American. But he knows more than he’s letting on and soon a sordid and mysterious past that begins to reveal itself. Joseph Mankiewicz directs with typical verve and brings out the tension marvellously. A great addition to the films based on the work of the great novelist and for those who enjoyed Philip Noyce’s more recent adaptation of the novel.
Now of course, if you want a really long novel then The Neverending Story (Warner Home Video) should just about do you. OK, so it’s not really neverending and it’s a film but it has flying dragons, sinking horses that will make you cry and a really, really cool theme song sung by the bloke who used to be in Kajagoogoo. And if all that has really confused you then you either have something against children’s films from the 80s or are scarily young. Either way, whilst the film sometimes feels horribly cheesy (it’s a kids film from the 80s so no surprise their), there’s still something about it that’s incredibly entertaining and enjoyable. So fire up the DVD player and – much like Bastien in the film (and if you’re going to call your kid Bastien, you really should expect him to become involved in a magical book that transports him into other worlds) – become a part of the world of Fantasia. All together now: “Neverending storyeeeeee, oh oh o, oh oh o, oh oh o…..”
If you’re an old curmudgeon and adaptations of fantasy books aren’t your thing then perhaps Crime And Punishment (BBC DVD/2 Entertain) will be more up your alley. This is the recent adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel starring John Simm, Kate Ashfield, Shaun Dingwall and lots of other people that the BBC like to chuck money towards when they’re making ‘event’ television. But, like much event television made by the BBC, this is very good indeed as this adaptation really brings out the fraught tension of the story of man who believes that his killing of a pawnbroker will be justified as it is ‘for a higher moral purpose’. Simm is his usual excellent self - and the rest of the cast are very good indeed - and everything move along at a cracking pace without feeling as if everyone has been forced to jazz up proceedings to appeal to a modern audience. An immensely accomplished slice of television.
Finally we have QI – The ‘C’ Series (Warner Music Entertainment) the delightful quiz show with Stephen Fry at the helm. When originally introduced the show felt like it could be another lazy ‘comedy quiz show’ beloved of schedulers but it soon evolved into a witty and erudite programme with a loose enough format to allow the presenter and guests to do what they do best: have fun, elicit laughs and give us some fascinating facts amongst the way. Now onto the third letter of the alphabet (though, knowing the show and it’s constant surprises I’m probably wrong and it’s actually the 15th) the show is comfortably established with Fry as the benevolent yet stern quizmaster, Alan Davies as the resident dunderhead and a host of guest comedians. As always, the show is always at its best when the guests rise to the occasion so the likes of Phill Jupitus and Bill Bailey raise laughs to a new level and this remains one of the best shows on the BBC today that is thoroughly great to watch again and again on DVD. Let’s hope we get all the way to the letter ‘Z’: and then let’s hope they decide to do the Greek alphabet after that. Lots of good extras including deleted bits and some funny outtakes.