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Special Edition # 36

Now, as the holiday season has come to an end, it’s come to that time of year when you have loads of vouchers to spend (“Oh, thanks for that Auntie. A voucher I can spend in a specific shop, as opposed to money which I can spend – you know – anywhere”) and DVD’s to exchange for something better. So Special Edition # 36 is here to point you in the right direction as Laurence Boyce examines some of the latest releases in the cold light of the New Year.

Currently riding a wave of award nominations, The Hurt Locker (Lionsgate and Optimum Home Entertainment) is a return to form for Kathryn Bigelow who reasserts her status as one of the most accomplished directors of action working in cinema today. Here she tells the story Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team working in Iraq in 2004. With a job to disarm bombs in the desert heat, these are soldiers who live their lives on the edge. But when a new sergeant is placed in charge of the team, everyone is poised to lose their balance. Bigelow’s direction is amazingly taut and manages to capture the general insanity and confusion of war. Indeed, this is one of the most intriguing movies about the Iraq War made over the past few years: initially it’s less concerned with the political situation of Iraq and concentrates on being an amazingly tense examination of men and masculinity pushed to the limit. But in focusing upon the people who risk their lives every day, the film  still provides a fresh insight on the conflict whilst still managing to contain some of the finest action sequences seen over the past year.

District 9 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) is another fine example of the fact that genre films can also be literate and intelligent. Aliens have landed on Earth (specifically in Johannesburg) but – rather than the marauding hordes you would expect – are a rather maudlin bunch of refugees. But humans are not ready to welcome their cosmic neighbours, and the aliens are placed into District 9, a ghetto which will soon see their situation become worse. This sci-fi actioner thrives on gritty realism, and director Neill Blomkamp clearly has learned a lot from producer Peter Jackson.  With a grim tone but an assured sense of action, the film is continually compelling and the racism allegory – whilst sometimes a bit forced – adds plenty of intellectual meat to the CGI bones. An excellent and unique sci-fi film that provides an interesting contrast to the usual summer blockbusters. This DVD includes a director’s commentary and an in-depth documentary.

It may surprise some to learn that Charles Darwin was, at one point, an extremely religious person: take that shocked look off your face Dawkins. Creation (Icon Home Entertainment) focuses upon the middle part of Darwin’s life where his ‘Origin of the Species’ is written but is waiting to be published. Darwin struggles to reconcile his past religious views with those held by his wife and the potentially devastating effect that his theories will have on them both. But as he and his daughter become ill, his faith s soon placed in nature instead of religion and he finds himself on a path to change the way that many view the world (except for creationists, but we can safely ignore them as they’re stupid). Real life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are intimate and absorbing as the Darwin’s and this is an engaging drama focusing on faith and responsibility. Also look out for more quality drama in Shadows in the Sun (Artificial Eye) in which legendary actress Jean Simmons plays a liberated mum whose son attempts an awkward reconciliation with her. It’s all a bit staid, but Simmons performance as the pot smoking matriarch is fantastic and there’s some lovely Norfolk scenery to gawp at whilst letting the story wash over you. ****Since writing this, Jean Simmons has sadly passed away. You should really check out one of her last peformances alongside classic films such as the 1948 Hamlet, which bagged Simmons an Oscar nomination, and the wonderful Black Narcissus. A huge talent who will prove a sad loss to the UK Film Industry****

If you to believe the theme tune of Fame (Entertainment In Video) then you will live forever if your famous. Christ almighty that means both Jordan and Piers Morgan are going to be around until the end of time. Perhaps we can lock them in a room with this film and quietly leave them to it until the sun burns itself out. This remake of the 80s musical is a glossy and rather inconsequential affair about the New York Academy of Performing Arts and the precocious students who want to make a name for themselves. Whilst the 80s version at least has a sheen of grit and realism, this is populated with paper thin characters and doesn’t say anything new at all. A colourless and unnecessary update. Hell, you even wonder why they’re going to school in the first place. After all, the best way to get fame would seem to appear on Pop Idol.And the last thing people need to do is give Cowell his own movie...

Talking of unnecessary remakes, you can also check out The Taking of Pelham 123 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). Whilst it has never resided in the pantheon of great 70s US movies, the original was an enjoyable crime thriller about a gang of criminals who hijack a subway train and demand $1million of ransom whilst the hangdog subway controller, played by Walter Matthau, attempts to save the day. For the 2009 version, director Tony Scott brings the action and explosions and new hero Denzel Washington (whose character is cheekily re-named Walter) to save the day from the nasty John Travolta (who appears to be auditioning for a pantomime). A typical actioner that does its job adequately (and will be a great accompaniment to late night lagers from now until the end of time) but it lacks the charm of the original and seem rather throwaway in comparison.

Sin Nombre (Revolver Entertainment) is a heady story of people attempting to find a new life in the US whilst escaping from their brutal past combined with a treatise on young people becoming embroiled in a world of guns and gangs. Finding himself on the run after a melodramatic series of incidents, El Caspar encounters Saraya who is attempting to enter the US illegally. With gang members chasing him, and Saraya looking for her family, things soon being to reach a desperate conclusion. Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga shows much promise in his debut feature, with some extremely well staged sequences and an excellent choice of cast. Whilst the plot contrivances do start to get a little dense, this is a brave and bold piece of indie filmmaking.

Asia has been one of the biggest influences in horror cinema over the past decade or so, with numerous hit horror films coming out of the continent and Western cinema has been cannibalising it for its own nefarious purposes for ages. Thus it’s interesting to see 70s Japanese horror House [Hausau] (Eureka Films) a deranged story of Angel, a young girl tormented by her father’s plans to re-marry. To get away from it all, she takes six of her friends to her Aunt’s isolated mansion where – unsurprisingly – strange things being to happen. Big dollops of comedy, a garish approach to image and almost gleeful disregard for any sort of convention make this a unique experience. Clearly a precursor to the likes of The Evil Dead and the movies of Troma, this throws everything at the wall: and much of it sticks. Despite the overt ridiculousness, there’s something amazingly affecting about the film and its strange aesthetic really draws you into a new kind of world. It’s helped by the fact that this is the latest of the Masters Of Cinema releases, meaning an excellent new transfer and a great documentary that includes interviews with the likes of director Nobuhiko Obayashi and actress Kumiko Oba. A cult hit and a immensely watchable slice of early Japanese horror/comedy.

Described by the director as a ‘cousin to the Zombie film, Pontypool (Kaleidoscope Entertianment) is a remarkably clever and fresh take on the horror film. In it, DJ Grant Mazzy greets the awaking population of the small Canadian town of Pontypool with his usual brand of provocative chat and local news. But when his producer and assistant begin to receive news of strange events, it’s clear that this is no normal winter’s morning for the town’s inhabitants. Certainly, to reveal too many of the ideas that the film has to offer would only succeed in lessening its impact. Suffice to say that previous comparisons to the likes of (early) Cronenberg and Carpenter are well observed, with director Kevin Macdonald making intelligent use of his single location to create a fine sense of tension. A cult hit in the making, Pontypool marries intelligence, humour and thrills to create a wonderfully eccentric chiller. Oh, and you’d be well advised to stick around after the credits…

If you’re not a fan of David Tennant, then British TV may have been a bit of a problem for you over the last few years. His ascendance to most ‘popular British TV star ever’ (copyright: UK tabloids) has made Doctor Who into a jewel of the BBC’s Output Crown, his appearance in anything a ratings and his agent a very happy person. So when the Royal Shakespeare Company cast him as the lead in ‘Hamlet’, there were many accusations of stunt casting. But Hamlet (BBC DVD) shows that Tennant justifies the praise (and money) he gets with a stunning performance as the Prince of Denmark. His interpretation is a cauldron of volatility and nervous energy that is as gripping as it is outstanding. But this is far from a one man show: Patrick Stewart brings typical gravitas to the role of Claudius whilst Mariah Gale is a sympathetic Opehlia. The staging itself is made for TV – it’s not just a filmed version of the stage play – and is intriguingly staged without being distracting. A fine record of a. excellent performance of one of the greatest characters of all time (I’m talking about Hamlet Doctor Who fans….). Comes with a ‘Making Of’ and interviews.

Of course, if it’s Doctor Who you want then you might feel like picking up Doctor Who: Peladon Tales (BBC DVD) in which Jon Pertwee (who, to the best of my knowledge, never played Hamlet) has two adventures on the planet of Peladon. The first, ‘The Curse of Peladon’, sees the Doctor and Jo Grant become mistaken for alien delegates at a Galactic Conference. With people disappearing is the Curse Of Aggedor at work? And is it pushing pineapples and grinding coffee? (ah, that reference will sort out the men from the boys….). The follow up, ‘The Monster of Peladon’, sees The Doctor and Sarah Jane once again on Peladon. Where they fight a monster. This is fairly typical ‘Pertwee Era’ Who with adventure and politics put together for some entertaining TV with a slight satirical edge. As always, some of the effects haven’t aged well (and the character of alien ambassador Alpha Centurai looks like, well, it could be bought at Ann Summers) and it’s sometimes padded out, but this is still a nice example of the adventures of the Third Doctor. Comes with extensive extras, including the usual well made documentary about the making of the episodes and a commentary with Katy Manning and the – sadly missed – former producer Barry Letts.

Another sad loss in 2009 was Patrick McGoohan, perhaps best known for his role as ‘Number 6’ in ‘The Prisoner’. But, before they locked him up and gave the key to a scary balloon, McGoohan played suave secret agent John Drake in Danger Man – The Complete First Series (Network). McGoohan brings an intensity that would become his trademark and it adds a certain level of class to what is – ostensibly – a slightly silly spy show. And it’s all a lot of fun, where you get to play ‘spot the famous person’ (this series includes Donald Pleasence, Honor Blackman and Patrick Troughton), enjoy McGoohan playing a tough but chivalrous hero and enjoy the cool theme music entitled ‘High Wire’ (though ‘Secret Agent Man’ by Johnny Rivers, used for the show when it was broadcast in the US was cool). As this is the first season with half an hour episodes, everything zips along nicely and it’s a nice change from the bombastic nature of many shows that we see today. Includes a booklet on the making of the show and image galleries.

Family Guy: Something, Something, Something Dark Side (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) is a pitch perfect spoof of The Empire Strikes Back which acts as a follow up to the Family Guy version of Star Wars. This brings back all the Family Guy characters to inhabit the Star Wars Universe. Chris Griffin is Luke Skywalker, Peter is Han Solo and – perhaps best of all – Stewie is a miniature Darth Vader. This gleefully takes the rise out of the franchise with jokes abound about the true nature of Yoda (he loves DVD extras don’t you know), Stormtroopers who wear shirts to go out clubbing and how the ending of Empire should REALLY have gone. But it’s still done with a great deal of love and affection for the series and makes use of the original soundtrack, sound effects and other surprises to make a funny parody. It is rather rude for those who are easily offended and those who don’t know the Star Wars films will find a lot of it sailing over their heads. But those who know exactly what a Tauntaun is will laugh long and loud at the swearing, silliness and sci-fi fun of it all.

Finally, there’s more animated antics with Robot Chicken: Season 3 (Revolver Entertainment), which we’ve covered here before. Needless to say, the rude and crude stop-motion show hasn’t let up as we have Spielberg’s Munich done with Hanna-Barbera, just what would really happen if you were in the Chronicles Of Narnia and had to face the ‘Jesus Allegorical Lion’ and lots more.  This two disc set also has brilliant commentaries and extras. After you can enjoy Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Season 3 (Revolver Entertainment). It has characters called Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad. If these names excite you then the show – which is a twisted and really funny superhero, erm, thing – will already be winging its way to your collection. And if they fill you with rage and a yearning to head back to a time when cartoons were much more simple, then this might not be the best thing for you….

Unless otherwise stated, DVDs are all reviewed as standard DVDs. Please check online stockists for release dates and availability on Blu Ray.

Ok, back in a few weeks. Out of interest: anyone get any DVDs over the holiday period they really hated? Prizes for anyone who got something – usually from an unsuspecting aunt or grandparent – truly dreadful.  Please let us know vis the comments below.