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Special Edition #41

As always, the summer becomes a time when the focus is on the spectacle of cinema-going with movies such as Inception and Toy Story 3 packing them in. So, Special Edition # 41 will show you that it’s excellent time to chill out and enjoy some low key delights as they hit the shelves. Laurence Boyce finds some excellent films that have proved wildly popular on the festival circuit and a choice selection of re-releases.

It always seems that cinematographers never get the wider respect they deserve. Whilst your average person may be able to reel off the names of numerous actors and directors, the humble cinematographer is often forgotten about by the general cinema going public. Thankfully Cameraman – The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Optimum Releasing) redresses the balance with its thoughtful and illuminating examination of one of the best cinematographers in movie history. Jack Cardiff has worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Laurence Olivier and the film about his life and career has him reminisce about the greats that he’s worked with throughout his career. Director Craig McCall eschews a more formal approach to Cardiff’s career allowing Cardiff – and numerous colleagues including Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall and Kirk Douglas – to tell some fascinating and often humorous anecdotes of a career that begin as a child actor in 1918. Cardiff is obviously loved by his peers, not only for his winning personality, but for his artistry and talent and what results is a gentle yet endlessly rewarding portrait of a cinematic great and a paean to the skill of cinematographers from across the world. Jack Cardiff sadly passed away in April 2009, and this film is a joyous testament to his legacy.

More than 10 years after Happiness, Todd Solondz returns to revisit the damaged and broken characters of his ultra-dark film in Life During Wartime (Artificial Eye). In returning to the three sisters at the centre of the original film return we find that their lives are from perfect: Joy is haunted (both literally and figuratively) by lovers from the past whilst Trish is attempting to re-marry but the spectre of her paedophile ex-husband looms large for her and her children. Solondz has entirely re-cast the roles from the original and it gives us some great performances from the likes of Shirley Henderson as the meek (and ironically named) Joy and Ciarán Hinds as the recently released sex offender trying to discover what happened to his child. But the re-casting also puts into sharp relief about how the characters (and indeed society) have moved on over the years.  The pursuit of happiness seems ever more elusive in a country beset by war and there’s a terrible sense of stagnation as characters ‘make do’ whilst never truly understanding themselves or others. Indeed, the final moments of the film – which, in another universe, would be suitable for a farce – speak of a marked inability in society of people being able to deal and engage with the reality of situations. Certainly, there’s a certain artificiality about the film with dialogue that is both barbed and uncomfortable yet strangely theatrical and even arch. It makes for an unsettling yet compelling experience that, whilst not reaching the power of its forebear, certainly lingers in the mind.

Like the work of Solondz, The Last Station (Optimum Home Entertainment) also relies heavily upon dialogue: unsurprising as it tells the story of the final years of the man who wrote ‘War & Peace’. The film follows the tempestuous relationship between Leo Tolstoy and his wife as the writer decides whether to leave the rights to his work to his spouse or to the Russian people. This is very much a film that relies on performance and nuance and, with the likes of Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy doing their thing, said performances are brilliant. At the centre is Christopher Plummer who is magnificent as Tolstoy, a man who has forsaken the trappings of the (vaguely) modern world and finds himself at odds with the more materialistic members of his retinue. His portrayal is full of warmth and sympathy and the drama between him, his family and his followers as he begins to enter his final days is completely fascinating. Whilst the film is a little on the dry side – indeed, if you’re looking for action, then you’d be well advised to go elsewhere – it’s a display of how great acting can make really make a film.

The Unpolished (Second Run) is a startling film about a teenage girl who lives under the (bad) influence of her criminal parents. Far more than ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ made serious, as it deals with burgeoning sexuality and the failure of family,  the film sees the 13-year-old protagonist dreaming of a normal life but is instead forced to grow up fast and live a life of crime, drugs and wild abandon.  Ceci Schmitz-Chuh is great in the central role of Stevie giving a gripping performance as someone who wants to do nothing more than conform but – despite her precocious and clever nature – is thwarted at every turn by the machinations of her parents.  The acting is served well by some excellent dialogue and strong direction and the film is utlimately an impressively intense examination of a counter-culture gone awry and a girl struggling to determine what ‘normality’ actually is. Second Run are also keeping up their tradition of releasing unseen and challenging cinema with The Hungarian Masters Collection (Second Run) with Miklós Jancsó's My Way Home, Károly Makk's Love and Márta Mészáros's Diary For My Children. Some true greats from a national cinema that is often ignored.

On to French masters with the release of 6 Moral Tales (Artificial Eye) from the legendary director Eric Rohmer.  This collection of six films examines the battle of the sexes and established Rohmer’s sensitive style and unique ability to get to the very core of human nature. The collection includes My Night At  Maud’s which sees a staunch Catholic question his ethics after spending the night with a divorcée Maud and Claire’s Knee a sensuous portrayal of a man who, due to be married at the end of summer,  develops a crush on a 16-year-old. Rohmer’s ability to evoke the passage of time and remarkable takes on humanity and love make this an absolute must have purchase for those of you wishing to experience a great filmmaker at the peak of his powers. And, if you want even more great filmmakers, then you should also check out Alexander Mackendrick’s Sammy Goes South (Optimum Classics). Whilst it can’t hope to match the greatness of his previous films such as The Killers it’s a rip-roaring adventure about a boy who undertakes an epic journey after being orphaned. Edward G Robinson turns up and delivers a remarkably subtle performance as a smuggler and this is a fine chance to rediscover a film from one of the UK’s most neglected directors.

A quasi follow-up to his amazing film Black God, White DevilAntonio das Mortes (Mr Bongo Films) is Glauber Rocha's 1969 story about Antonio, a man who must wipe out  the revolutionaries hiding across the lands of Brazil. But, in a twist on the original film, Antonio is increasingly sickened by his terrible deeds and begins to feel sympathy for those he has to eradicate. Soon he begins to move over to the side of the honest people as he soon feels their pain and suffering. Rocha is adept at presenting sweeping tableaux and giving proceedings an epic feel (the sections in which peasants tell their stories through song are incredibly operatic indeed) and the result is a invigorating mixture of heartfelt political expression and incredibly gritty Spaghetti Western. The film justifiably netted Rocha the award for best director at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.

Finally, after such a glut of auteur cinema, let’s wallow in some trash with Solomon Kane (Entertainment In Video) a throwback to the sword and sorcery epics that were popular during the 80s (indeed the film is based on a character created by Robert E Howard, best known for bringing Conan The Barbarian to the printed page). James Purefoy is all hard-nosed and gravelly as the titular character,  a formerly murderous sea captain now looking for redemption. But when the Devil comes for his soul, a battle ensues that will see Kane attempt to save the world. It’s gloriously silly and whilst films like this are ten-a-penny nowadays there’s a certain pulpy nostalgia that makes it throwaway fun.

The next Special Edition will only be a few weeks away, reviewing some of the latest releases for the coming months. Coming up in August will be Martin Scorsese’s creepy Shutter Island and, whilst you wait for the DVD to come out, check out the cool (and rather scary) site