Special Edition # 26
Smart People (Icon Home Entertainment) seems to be a recipe for how to make an ‘American Indie Movie’. You’ve got the ‘star who never quite made it to the A-List but everyone knows is quite good’ in Dennis Quaid, the strong back up cast (with three names) of Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker and the upcoming star in Ellen Page. Add in a comedic yet dark story about a Professor trying to deal with his dysfunctional family and sprinkle with a dash of debut director and screenwriter. Bake on screen and serve at a cutting edge festival and follow up with a DVD. It certainly has its moments but the film consistently feels a bit, well, ‘meh’. Everyone plays their roles well but it tries so hard to be smart and intelligent that it’s self-consciousness overtakes everything and it ends up losing any sense of genuine humanity and insight. If you can get past this then you might find yourself amused but others might find the arch nature of proceedings a little too overbearing. Ellen Page also pops up in - yes, you guessed it - American indie The Tracy Fragments (Soda Pictures). She plays he titular character, a girl who drifts through life searching for her missing brother. This is an experimental piece of work that eschews a linear narrative for a splintered storyline which takes in Tracy’s increasingly bizarre world view. It often works thanks to Page’s assured performance and it certainly does mark it out from many other films of its ilk. Somethimes the film begins to fall under the weight of cod philosophy but- if that kind of thing doesn't make you retch - then it's a worthy watch.
Mackenzie Crook takes centre stage in the ‘hilarious’ British comedy Three And Out (Contender Home Entertainment). Here he plays a tube driver whose dissatisfaction with his job is exacerbated by the fact that he’s manages to have fall people fall under his train. But when he discovers that a third person will mean he qualifies for early retirement with 10 years of salary, he searches for someone who is looking to end it all. Oh my aching sides. Actually, there’s more thoughtfulness than one would initially expect but this is still just a dull and bad taste story line. Stars such as Colm Meany, Imelda Staunton amd Gemma Arterton deserve much better material whilst Crook must be banging his head against the wall after picking this and Sex Lives Of The Potato Men.
Now someone who could make a comedy was Woody Allen. Sadly he doesn’t want to make them anymore and he now seems intent on making overwrought dramas that inexplicably waste the talents of all involved. Witness Cassandra’s Dream (Optimum Home Entertainment) a film in which Ewan Macgregor (sporting a cockney accent so grating that Dick Van Dyke would walk into a graveyard, install himself in a coffin and spin in his grave) and Colin Farrell play debt ridden brothers who must decide whether to murder an associate of their rich uncle to claw them out of their troubles. This is a leaden morality yarn bereft of any grace, style or excitement. The London locations are lifeless, the actors (amongst them Tom Wilkinson and Sally Hawkins) phone it in and everything plods along at an snail’s place. On the plus side the Philip Glass score is great, but still feels way out of place. Avoid like, well, most modern Woody Allen movies.
After two movies that will never get the reputation as underrated classics, we turn to Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York – Special Edition (Arrow Films) one of the truly great gangster films. Christopher Walken plays drug dealer Frank White who rebuilds his empire with ruthless efficiency. Taking on the Colombians, Triads and Mafia, White begins to fight his way to the top: but two vigilante cops want to bring him all the way back down. There are plenty of grandiose set pieces with some glorious moments of operatic violence, but these are balanced with Ferrara’s concentration on themes of power, relationships and honour. A searing film with strong performances from Walken, Lawrence Fishburne and Wesley Snipes and a unique style. Alongside the film are some very, very good extras including a commentary from Ferrara and some comprehensive documentaries following the career of the maverick director. An absolute must.
Another underrated film is John Huston’s Under The Volcano (Mr Bongo Films). Based on Malcolm Lowry’s book, the film stars Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul who lives in Mexico who is a hopeless alcoholic. Following him throughout the day – specifically the Mexican Day Of The Dead – we stagger with him from bar to bar as he gets progressively drunker and tires to figure out where his life has gone wrong. Very much about the destruction of a person and an examination of human failure, this is an absorbing film thanks to Huston’s direction and Finney’s astonishing performance at the centre of it all. Filmed in real Mexican locations, the film has a sweaty and uncomfortable feel as Finney articulates (or, in thredrunker moments, doesn’t) the loves and losses of a man waiting for everything to end. A powerful and emotional film that deserves to be re-discovered by everyone who calls themselves a fan of cinema.
Street Kings (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) is a gritty cop thriller based on a script from the king of gritty cop thrillers James Ellroy. Keanu Reeves plays a cop haunted by the death of his wife. After being implicated in the murder of his former partner, he must fight against the corrupt police force to ensure that justice is done. There are some powerhouse actors here including Forest Whitaker and Hugh Laurie but even they can’t get around the fact that this is more familiar than the face in the mirror. Every single cliché that you’d expect in cop films is here from the one good cop to the nasty Internal Affairs office spying on ‘his own kind’. It tries to keep everything going along at a fast pace so you don’t realise that you’ve seen it all before but it all seems a little bit stale. Also Reeves gives his stock performance where he seems to have learnt much of his acting from a coach who was conceivably dead at the time. If you enjoy Ellroy’s dialogue then this is just about worth sticking with. Just don’t expect any surprises along the way.
Cool Hand Luke: Deluxe Edition (Warner Home Entertainment) which contains a re-mastered version of the classic prison movie. Those of you who have yet to experience Paul Newman’s Oscar nominated performance (and George Kennedy’s Oscar winning performance for Best Supporting Actor) will be in for a treat as he plays Luke Johnson who finds himself attached to a Southern chain gang. His spirit and energy – alongside a willingness to eat a lot of hard boiled eggs – gain him the respect of his fellow convicts and the enmity of his captors, especially when he seems so damn good at escaping. A shimmering and intense portrayal of rallying against the system, the film is a classic slice of American 60s Cinema. This new edition includes an entertaining commentary from Newman’s biographer and a really informative featurette “The Making Of Cool Hand Luke” which follows the origins of the film and examines Donn Pearce, the real life Cool Hand Luke.
Since writing this review the sad news of the death of Paul Newman was announced, so RIP one of the great actors of our generation and, if you want to find out why he was so good, then Cool Hand Luke is a fantastic place to start.
Another classic of American 60s cinema that still holds up to scrutiny today is Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (Optimum Classic) which – if you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years – sees Dustin Hoffman (in a performance that still remains one of his best) as Benjamin Braddock, a recent graduate who falls under the spell of the alluring Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft whose legs, contrary to popular belief, did not actually appear on the film’s poster. They actually belonged to Linda Gray who, ironically, would play the role on stage many years later). When he is forced into a relationship with Elaine, Ben must start to put his life into some sort of perspective. A insightful and wickedly sharp examination of both the generation gap in 1960s America and a call to arms for a generation that was losing its way, it remains a genuine cinematic classic. The Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack is pretty damn good too. Let’s just pretend that The Lemonheads never happened….
Just think eh. If the underwear budget on Basic Instinct (Optimum Home Entertainment) was any higher then perhaps we may never have heard of it. And whilst that scene is still fresh in many people’s minds it’s interesting to see how the film – at one time a controversial and heady mix of sex and death – manages to fare 15 years since it’s initial release. And the answer is pretty well: Sharon Stone seems to have been to play Catherine Tramell, the ‘ice queen’ for whom an ice pick is never far away whilst Michael Douglas makes a good – if slightly leathery - hero. Add in the typically unapologetic nature of Paul Verhoeven’s direction and you have a minor classic of 90s cinema. This DVD comes with a commentary by noted feminist Camillr Paglia who, whilst extolling her love of the film, manages to bring forth many interesting issues on the complicated politics in the movie. A guilty pleasure.
If anyone has read The Onion you’ll know it savagely skewers American values and ideas whilst being bloody funny at the same time (and if you’ve not then I highly recommend you visit www.theonion.com f or such headlines as “Parody Movie Script One Crotch-Hitting Joke Short Of Being Greenlit”). So hopes were high for The News Movie (aka The Onion Movie) (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). Alas, the finished product leaves something to be desired. A sketch movie in the style of Kentucky Fired Movie and Amazon Women On The Moon, it follows Onion News Network’s Norm Archer as he fights the corporate bosses who want to dumb down his new network. A few of the jokes – mostly those raised directly from The Onion – raise a smile but some of the running jokes start to fall a little flat. The disjointed nature of everything doesn’t really help matters and – whilst this has some fun – it doesn’t raise the belly laughs like it should. There is also something bitterly ironic about a film associated with The Onion being released by the same people who own Fox News. Now that’s comedy.
It’s a good job that the central conceit of Logan’s Run (Warner Home Video) hasn’t come true or this column would stop suddenly when I turn 30 next year (March 26th, all presents gratefully received but no DVDs thanks – I’ve got one or two already). Michael York plays the dissident who decides that he’d like to see his middle aged years so goes on the lam, taking the lovely Jenny Agutter with him. Pursued by future policeman Richard Jordan, they look for an escape from a society that has rather drastic solutions for dealing with old age. There’s still a certain kitsch value to this 70s sci-fi romp though it’s attempts to try and say something meaningful are somewhat lost in the sparkly costume, some (admittedly very good) expansive sci-fi sets and – for those who so inclined – the lovely Jenny Agutter. Includes a good commentary from York, director Michael Anderson and costume designer Bill Thomas and a featurette entitled “A Look Into The 23rd Century”
There’s more 70s sci-fi in Westworld (Warner Home Video) which sees Michael Crichton portraying a theme park that all goes horribly wrong. But this time, there aren’t any dinosaurs, as we’re taken to Delos, a world in which punters pay a lot of money to roam a faux Western world full of saloons and gunslingers. But when one of these gunslingers (played with a unsettling coolness by Yul Brynner) starts to malfunction, it’s up to holidaymakers John and Peter to try and stop him and save their lives. Whilst it all seems rather primitive nowadays, this was groundbreaking for its time with some of the very first use of CGI images in cinema history. There’s a simmering air of menace, some fine direction and performances and - whilst it stands up more as a historical curio, as opposed to a classic piece of cinema – it proves to hold the attention more than adequately.
Filmed in Cinerama and with stars such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Gregory Peck How The West Was Won (Warner Home Video) is the definition of the term ‘epic’. Beginning in 1839, the film takes in all the most important and defining events in America’s conquering of the west, from the Louisiana Purchase to the Pony Express. With segments directed but the likes of John Ford, this is a sprawling and compulsive film. And, for this special edition, it’s been restored to its former glory with the Cinerama process (which originally needed three synchronised projectors that ‘joined up’ the image) being recreated for the DVD. It’s a stunning experience that will remind of how wonderful the cinema can be. Includes an in-depth commentary from filmmakers and film historians and a documentary examining the Cinerama process.
A winner of the 2006 Venice Film Festival Still Life (BFI) is a moving tale of two people who search for their missing loves in the Chinese town of Fengjie – soon to be destroyed to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. Very much about loss of identity and hope in a world that is determined to move on no matter what the consequences, director Jia Zhangke has crafted a thoughtful and contemplative film, in which the ever changing landscape becomes an important character in the story whilst various deftly handled surreal sequences add a perfect balance to the languid nature of proceedings. It offers both a devastating critique on the march of progress whilst also providing a hopeful treatise of the nature of human resilience and confirms that those who have been hailing Zhangke as one of the most vital filmmakers in the world are indeed correct. The disc ncludes a commentary by Asian film expert Tony Rayns and a documentary Dong that follows various subjects within the community.
The Three Gorges Dam project is also an important part of the eye-popping documentary Manufactured Landscapes (BFI). Director Jennifer Baichwal follows artist Edward Burtynsky as he documents the negative impact of industry upon the environment. From the mountains of unwanted computers to displaced populaces, the manufactured landscapes of the title reveal a world of tragic beauty of never ending expansion. Never didactic, the film makes us think about what we will do in the name of progress and posits the idea that – maybe – we should think more carefully about our future. A wonderful and important film. Also a commentary from Burtynsky and some illuminating interviews with Baichwal.
Art of a different kind in the 1998 movie Love Is The Devil (BFI) stars Derek Jacobi as controversial painter Francis Bacon. Charting his relationship with small time criminal George Dyer, the film is an intriguing contrast between the world of the 60s artist and the London Underworld. There’s a wonderful energy going on in this film, with all the excesses of 60s Soho lifestyle being represented as both beautiful and venal. Jacobi and Craig are in absolutely top form and are joined by curious cameos from the likes of Tracey Emin and Tilda Swinton. A mesmerising and visually enticing biopic. This newly released version includes a commentary from director John Maybury and Jacobi and a documentary about legendary Soho club ‘The Colony’. Jacobi also turns up in Bye Bye Blackbird (Soda Pictures) a curious love story set in an early 20th Century circus. The story of two trapeze artists who fall in love, it’s a beautifully shot and measured film that will completely enthral those who have an interest in the aesthetics of early cinema.
Beautiful early cinema is represented by a new release of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la bete (BFI). It’s still one of the very best pieces of fantasy ever committed to the big screen with some stunning performances, amazing cinematographer and absolutely stunning direction. This, the original version of the film, is just gorgeous to watch and it breathes new life into a film that was pretty damn good in the first place. The film also comes with a commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling whose really adds some great background to the history of the film. A more modern French fantasy is Dante 101 (Momentum Pictures) directed by Marc Caro, best known for working with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Set on a futuristic prison ship, it’s a dark tale of prisoners who have to survive in extreme circumstances. As always with Caro, it’s the visuals that carries this along with some bravura sequences. A unique viewing experience.
Onto some horror releases now with a bunch of scary films that will provide a feast of gore for the eyes. Indeed, the first film is Feast (Optimum Home Entertainment) in which a group of people at a desert bar must fight flesh eating monsters. With plenty of blood and guts, it’s all rather slight and silly but it has Henry Rollins which automatically makes it great. Unfortunately Rollins can’t make it to the brilliantly titled Killer Klowns From Outer Space (Optimum Home Entertainment), a cult classic from the 1980s. The title basically explains the entire film and really: if you jumped at seeing that title, then it’s already on your rental list and if you need more explanation then trust me: you’re not going to like it. The same goes for Blacula / Scream Blacula Scream (Optimum Home Entertainment) two Blaxploitation films that feature the Vampire who was once an African Prince. Whilst not as ridiculously offensive as they sound, they don’t really work on the level ‘kitsch’ curio and just remains rather stupid. P2 (Palisades Tartan) is a tense gorefest about a woman who gets stuck in a parking garage. Which, let’s face it, is a terrifying experience even without a psycho chasing you. Again, this is all done with precision and – whilst it offers nothing new – should manage to keep your heart in your mouth. Deceit (Optimum Home Entertainment) tries to channel the spirit of film noir in telling the story of a person who returns to his home town after several years. It tries to be an intense thriller full of sexual tension but feels more than a little stale. More accomplished is Shutter (20th Century Home Fox Home Entertainment), the US debut of J-Horror director Masayuki Ochiai about a couple who begin to see ghostly figures in their photos. There’s nothing new here, with the usual shocks and thrills associated with J-Horror all present and correct but it’s all done with competence and should keep fans of the genre happy.
Speaking of J-Horror, there’s two new mad pieces of Asian cinema for you to marvel at. First up is Black Kiss (4Digital Asia) which crosses Hitchcock, Dario Argento and adds all the glorious excess that we’ve come to expect from our overseas cousins. Young Asuka finds herself witness to a brutal murder but the police can’t find any evidence. Soon the victims start piling up and it looks like to ‘Black Kiss’ is striking at the heart of Tokyo. With some gruesome moments and an intricate – if rather obvious – plot this homage to some of the great crime films of the 70s, 80s and 90s is nothing new yet is still curiously enjoyable. Similarly off the wall, though for a completely different reason, is the wonderfully titled Yo-Yo Cop Girl (4Digital Asia). A young delinquent girl is offered a deal by the authorities: go undercover at a school suspected of harbouring terrorists and her mother will be set free from serious charges brought against her. She, armed with a school uniform and – yes – a yo-yo she proceeds to save the world from a vicious gang, And school bullies. This is all mad and bonkers with eye popping visuals and tenuous grasp on reality. Look if you want social realism watch Scum. Everyone else just switch off the brain and enjoy.
Now on to some true greats of the horror genre. First up we have Horror Icons: The Roger Corman Collection (Optimum Classic). Corman, the man responsible for many a low budget masterpiece, helped to launch the career of many a Hollywood superstar. Corman’s exuberant style and willingness to give others a chance means that his films – even if they can seem a bit cheesy at points – are full of invention and energy. Here you have one of his series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations in The Masque Of Red Death, a Technicolor marvel with Vincent Price as the evil Prince Prospero, and the delightful slice of schlock Wild Angels, a biker movie that wears its counter-culture credentials on its sleeve with such stars as Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda. Vincent Price turns up again in Haunted Palace which is a heady brew of Satan worshippers and mysterious villagers while Poe is adapted again in Premature Burial, a film in which Ray Milland gives a fine performance as a man who is terrified of being buried alive. Add in the stunningly trashy Westerns Five Guns Go West and Gunslinger and you have a fascinating collection.
The same goes for The John Carpenter Collection (Optimum Releasing). Whilst he’s had a few mishaps in his career, this represents the absolute pinnacle of his work. Included is The Thing still one of the most terrifying modern horror movies ever made. The claustrophobic atmosphere and sterling special effects work still sends a shiver up the spine and its essential viewing. The same goes for Halloween which has managed to keep its reputation as an amazingly accomplished study of being able to terrify audiences that has managed to survive a multitude of poor sequels. Both Escape From New York and They Live have the gloss of many 80s films but have the skill to try and say something about society in the midst of their set pieces whilst Assault On Precinct 13 is still a gripping and claustrophobic thriller. Prince Of Darkness is something of a minor Carpenter film but Donald Pleasence always gives value for money in this tale of the end of the world whilst The Fog rounds everything off with a nicely chilly atmosphere. This is a great collection of a filmmaker who is sometimes dismissed for being too populist. But he’s an accomplished and intelligent filmmaker who – sometimes – deserves more respect from the establishment.
One of the benefits of the DVD format has been the willingness of people to take risks to release less commercial fare. It’s been especially good news for short films with collections such as Cinema 16 proving that there is a desire to experience some of the great short films available from across the shorts. Now Future Shorts presents its first collection with Adventures In Short Film – Volume 1 (Future Shorts), a selection of some of the most important shorts from the past five years. The collection is certainly excellently put together with a number of enchanting and exciting films. 7.35 in the Morning is a brilliantly dark musical/thriller/comedy that was nominated for an Oscar in 2005 whilst City Paradise is an enchanting slice of magical realism about a Japanese girl who moves to London. There’s also Never Like The First Time, a hit on the festival circuit, in which people describe their first sexual experiences, videos from the likes of Bat For Lashes and Faithless and some cracking animations. A superb collection that will prove invaluable for those who want to get an overview of some of the trends in short filmmaking over the past few years whilst being immensely entertaining to boot. For more about the DVD read Suchandrika Chakrabarti's review HERE
Yes, what would this column be with that certain Time Lord? Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday (BBC / 2 Entertain) sees Peter Davison bringing his open face (oh, don’t ask) to a story that, well, let’s just say that it shows it’s age. Here the TARDIS finds it’s way on to a ship that is threatening to turn the human race into androids (somewhere, the Cybermen contact their lawyers to sue for theft of intellectual copyright). Not what you’d call a vintage outing for the Doctor – it’s most remembered sequence in which The Doctor floats outside the TARDIS to throw a cricket ball at it is pretty silly – this is padded beyond belief with companions given little to do. And the general atmosphere really does feel like you’ve walked into the 80s night at your local students union: albeit one that also contains giant frogs. With a commentary from Davison and companion Janet Fielding and some perfunctory extras, this is one for completists only.
And finally, get ready to throw a chicken in the air and stick a deckchair up you nose (and if you don’t realise what that is a reference to, you are making me feel incredibly old) as Spitting Image Series 3 (Network Releasing) hits DVD. This was the series in which the show really hit its stride with performers such as Harry Enfield and Chris Barrie really nailing the voices of such targets as Ronald Reagan alongside the writing team’s sharp satire. Poking fun at politics and celebrity whilst also just being plain silly (as the alluded to songs show) this represents the show at the height of its powers. It’s just a shame that they’re aren’t any extras as it would have be great to know a bit more history about the show.