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Special Edition # 43

It’s heartening to know that there is still life in the British film industry yet as Special Edition # 43 opens with an exciting example of some of the talent that this country has to offer. With the imminent closure of the UK Film Council and worries about arts cuts it’s films such as Skeletons that sure us that UK talent need to be nurtured and supported. And, as always, Laurence Boyce also wades through numerous other DVDs for your viewing edification.

Winner of the Best British Film at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, Skeletons (Soda Pictures) is a truly unique and genre-bending slice of cinema. Davis and Bennett are a pair of psychic detectives who travel to numerous houses around Middle England and help purge them of supernatural influence utilising mysterious methods. But one job, to help a housewife whose husband disappeared a few years previously, proves resistant to their methods things take a turn for the (even more) weird. It’s one of those films where talking about it slightly ruins it as it’s constantly surprising and obtuse. Director Nick Whitfield conjures up a wonderfully strange atmosphere and has made a film that recalls the likes of Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry in its assured creation of a world and assorted strange characters. It’s also great that Whitfield has created something that is recognisably British yet at odds with the vein of social realism that typifies the majority of UK cinema nowadays. Just go watch it and enjoy being wrong-footed, creeped out and thoroughly entertained at the same time. 

Also fresh from numerous accolades on the festival circuit is Eyes Wide Open (Peccadillo Pictures) a sensitive and restrained portrayal of conformity within the restraints of religion. Aaron, a butcher living in Jerusalem, is highly regarded by his wife and everyone else within the religious community. Along comes wayward young man Ezri to help Aaron run his business. Despite their differences, they soon find themselves falling for one another. Will they manage to keep their love secret in a society that frowns upon anything that deviates from the strict tenets of religious teaching? In some ways this is a incredibly tense film as the repressed emotions of the characters continually bubble beneath the surface: they need a passion and freedom that they believe that has been denied them all their lives. Indeed, this is not so much about sexuality and more about the difficulty in attempting to conform to religious and social obligations at the expense of happiness. Zohar Strauss is excellent in the lead role whilst director Haim Tabakman’s direction for his debut feature is assured and confident in this powerful tale of love, passion and society.

Once again Michael Winterbottom shows his prodigious talent for working in a number of genres as he tackles an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp noir novel in The Killer Inside Me (Icon Home Entertainment). Casey Affleck (who is brilliantly chilling here) plays a small town sheriff who is safe, reliable and rather boring. But beneath his passive exterior there lies the heart of a sadistic killer whose urges are about to get to the better of him once again. This is a troubling and disturbing film not just for the long, protracted and sickening sequences of violence that have garnered the film much notoriety. Whilst difficult to watch these brutal scenes are at least justified within the context of the film: it’s the cold and detached tone throughout that is more disturbing. In some ways reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Winterbottom’s dispassionate (though stylish, as he evokes the film noir style with aplomb) approach is oddly unsettling. Add in the sterling work from Affelck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson and it makes a film in which there is much to admire but it’s difficult to enjoy.

If you want enjoyment then Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Lionsgate Home Entertainment) should provide plenty, albeit in a totally perverse quite of way. Nicolas Cage takes the titular role of Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop hooked on painkillers that ease the torment of injuries he sustained in the course of duty. With a coke addicted hooker girlfriend and a weird relationship with local drug lord, McDonagh has not just crossed the line but left it in another time zone. It’s a completely mad film that straddles the line between dark thriller and batshit insane comedy. For every moment of introspection, there’s Cage gurning away whilst babbling on about his ‘lucky crack pipe’ and complaining about iguanas that have been left on his table. It’s far removed from the Abel Ferrara film of 1992 from which it takes its title (though, Herzog denies it’s a remake whilst Ferrara wishes that all involved”...die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up." Calm down Abel) and seems a giant up yours to Hollywood conventions and genre in general. Definitely unique it’s a film that could have only come from the mind of Herzog.

Speaking of Herzog, he’s back again with My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? (Scanbox Entertainment) in which he teams up with exec-producer David Lynch to create a creepy and unsettling slice of cinema that peeks in to the dark heart of American society. The films begins with the death of one Mrs McCullum which is soon discovered to be at the hands of her son Brad. Detective Hank Havenhurst attempts to piece together the events that led up to her death and discovers a man slowly driven mad by a world in which he seems out of kilter. Herzog once again returns to themes of obsession and madness and does so with typical aplomb in presenting a garish and staid world in which going crazy seems the only proper response. Michael Shannon is intense in the lead role, with more than a hint of Klaus Kinski about him, whilst Herzog (alongside an undeniable influence from Lynch) creates some extremely weird moments.

Re-released on a new print on both standard DVD and Blu-Ray Breathless- 50th Anniversary Special Edition (Optimum Classics) is given, well, a breath of fresh air. Not that it needed it as – even though it’s been half a century years since it was first released – it still remains an amazing work and one of the greatest films ever made. With a plot that is almost throwaway (a small time criminal murders a policeman and hides away at his girlfriend’s place) this is a movie about small moments and breaking the rules of narrative and cinematic language. The liberal use of jump cuts, strange angles and off-kilter editing were revolutionary at the time and – whilst everyone and their Uncle Charlie nowadays uses camera tricks as if they were going out of fashion – this still feels incredibly fresh and exciting. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg justifiably became icons for their lead performances and everything is suffused with an aura of cool. Jean-Luc Godard currently has the reputation of being a cantankerous old man of cinema (especially if you’re involved with the Academy) – derservedly so, as anyone making a film as good as this gets a free pass to do whatever he wants.

From the sublime to the ridiculous as Hot Tub Time Machine (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) sees John Cusack and cohorts travel back in time (thanks to the eponymous item of bathroom equipment) to 1986 to relive their youth. Needless to say, it doesn’t go too well and they realise that they should all be happy with what they have and not try and live in the past. Or something. This is arch to an almost ridiculous degree with constant references to the stupidity of the plot and allusions to the fact that we’re watching a film. But it just helps make the movie something of a mess and – at its heart – it’s still a rather tired gross-out comedy full of blowjob and fart jokes. There are a couple of nice appearances by 80s icons Chevy Chase and Crispin Glover and Cusack is always watchable but you would actually do better by popping come classic 80s movies in the DVD player than sitting through this.

If people aren’t careful, there’s going to be a generation of youngsters who are going to grow up to believe that Michael Sheen was once the Prime Minister of Britain. He plays Tony Blair once again in writer Peter Morgan’s latest exploration of politics. The Special Relationship (Optimum Home Entertainment) examines the dynamic between Blair and Bill Clinton as both leaders undergo tumultuous times. As always, Morgan’s script elevates what could be an extremely dry piece of work getting plenty of mileage out of Blair’s desire to do the right thing whilst making sure that everything he does is politically expedient. There’s a interesting mentor/pupil relationship between Clinton and Blair whilst Morgan does a wonderful job of portraying Tony and Cherie Blair both in and out of the spotlight. Sheen is excellent as always and is ably supported by Helen McCrory as Cherie. Dennis Quaid is less successful as Clinton (partly because, even with the very good make-up job, you can’t help but go “Hey, that’s Dennis Quaid.”) but still manages to put in a creditable showing. An engrossing docudrama.

After his debut feature Brick was released to huge critical accalaim, big things were expected from Rian Johnson’s second film. Unfortunately The Brothers Bloom (Optimum Home Entertainment) seemed to disappear from view. It’s a shame, as it’s an excellent ‘con movie’ in the vein of The Sting with an added sense of the fantastic. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play the eponymous brothers for whom grifting has been a way of life, but they are getting tired of constantly playing games with people and life. Enter heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz, who does a great job here) and a museum heist that goes wrong and the brothers find their skills put to good use in a story that is far from simple. Johnson does a good job in attempting to disarm cynical viewers and many of the twists and turns are genuinely surprising (though there are a few moments that you will have you scratching your head) and he gets some joyful performances out of his actors. Directed with a tremendous amount of style and panache this is destined to become a cult favourite.

Tetro (Soda Pictures) marks something of a return to form for Francis Ford Coppola as he creates an intensely personal tale of familial conflict and the creative urge. Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, who is a talent to watch over the coming years) arrives in Buenos Aires searching for his erstwhile brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Tetro is a surly and uncommunicative writer(Gallo playing those traits? Why, how quite unlike him) and refuses to return to America. Flashbacks reveal just what led Tetro to his current state whilst – in the present – his brother attempts to revive Tetro’s career. There’s a certain bravura on offer here as Coppola utilises numerous tricks (flashbacks in colour, etc) to create a grand and operatic saga. Indeed, he seems to enjoy going over the top on many occasion as if he’s saying “I made Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. I can do whatever the hell I want.” It often becomes too much and often seems to push the melodrama over the edge, Yet, despite its flaws and excesses, its ambition also makes it compelling and often interesting and – after a fallow few years – Coppola is at least creating cinema that once again causes debate as opposed to indifference.

In 2004 a girl became the victim of an anti-Semitic attack on the French railway. Set upon by numerous people of North African descent, she was beaten and had swastikas carved into her with a knife. The attack shocked the French nation and caused much debate about race relations the country. But people were even more shocked when it was discovered that she had made the entire thing up. The Girl On The Train (Soda Pictures) attempts to explore some of the motives for the girl’s actions and examine the complex dynamics that lead people to such extremes. Jeanne is living a rather directionless life and is content to let it pass her by – she tells her mother she is out looking for a job when she is in fact rollerblading. But when she meets a handsome stranger her life begins to spiral out of control. Set up in two sections (labelled ‘circumstances’ and ‘consequences’) the film is sometimes frustratingly vague thanks to the distant direction of director André Téchiné. But Émilie Dequenne’s performance in the lead role is superb as she embodies all the confusion and contradictions of Jeanne in a multi-layered and subtle performance and it’s this that makes the film worth watching. As a study of society and politics the film feels a bit staid but as a character study, the film is never less than fascinating.

A wonderful example of the so called ‘Romanian New Wave’ The Happiest Girl In The World (Soda Pictures) is shot in (almost) real time as it follows a young girl who has won a luxury car in a competition she entered after drinking some orange sode. There’s only one catch: she has to appear in a commercial for the fizzy drink that helped her win it. She brings her mother and father to the set and soon finds herself bickering about the ultimate fate of her new found prize all whilst trying to satisfy the demands of the commercial makers. This is a deliberate and elegant movie that’s helped by some naturalistic acting and an excellent chemistry between the three leads. Jude finds drama in the seemingly mundane as the argument between the family becomes the main focus of the film. In-between he also makes fun of the repetitive nature of filmmaking and shows that, sometimes, it’s real-life where the real fascinating stuff occurs.

Of course, it may be good that at least families are comfortable to argue as Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (Optimum Home Entertainment) shows that families can often go too far. An unnamed widow cares intently for her son Do-joon, looking after the slightly disturbed man-child’s every whim and showing concern when he begins to hang out with a local thug. But her concerns deepen when the boy is arrested for the murder of a girl. Unconvinced as to his guilt, the mother soon begins her own quest to free her boy. This is an often disturbing examination as to the lengths that people will go to protect their own with Bong Joon-ho consummately being able to balance drama and tension. As the titular matriarch, Kim Hye-ja is excellent (and a stroke of genius casting as she’s known for playing tender and motherly roles in her native South Korea) and really dominates the screen with an aura of caring and creepiness. This is a chillingly accomplished film that shows just how great a player South Korea is becoming in genre and world cinema.

Cuba has consistently had the best amateur boxers in the world and Sons Of Cuba (Mr Bongo Films) is an intelligent and engrossing documentary that uncovers just why that is. Scores of youngsters are selected at primary school age to attend a boxing academy where they will be trained with the hopes that they will someday make it to the Olympics. The regime is tough – very tough – yet all the boys who undertake it are proud to be a part of something so important. In following three of the boys and their trainers, this is an extremely even-handed look at a people and society who often feel under siege from the rest of the world. The film doesn’t shirk from some more of the distasteful elements of the Cuban regime, and also shows the appalling poverty in which some people live, but it also shows how much society is an inspiration for them and their quest to become the best boxers in the world. Not only a fascinating portrait of a society at flux but one of the desire to win and succeed.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb shocked a nation when they murdered a young man in order to prove that they were the living proof of Nietzsche's theories of the superman. Most famously Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was based on their crimes and their twisted ideals. However, Compulsion (Second Sight) is also an extremely interesting take on their crimes and motives. Bradford Dillman and (an extremely young looking) Dean Stockwell play the protagonists who embark on a crime spree that involves robbery and kidnapping. When they are finally caught it’s up to tough lawyer (Orson Welles) to prove that their pair are actually insane. Whilst this has the trappings of a traditional Hollywood black and white potboiler, this is quite a measured affair with their luridness of the boys crimes balanced out with (some admittedly quite primitive) attempts to examine their psychology. Stockwell and Welles are rather good throughout and this is a surprisingly entertaining affair.

Also hugely entertaining is Modesty Blaise (Second Sight) the film for which the term ‘camp classic’ was invented. Loosely based on the comic book by Peter O’Donnel, the film stars Monica Vitti as the eponymous super spy who teams up with British intelligence to help stop diamond thieves. With her knife throwing confidant Willie (played by Terrence Stamp) at her side, Blaise is ready to take on the criminal underworld the only way in which she knows. This is full of glorious 60s excess, with musical numbers, garish colours and a plot that doesn’t really make that much sense but no-one really cares. Even though she’s mainly there because she looks stunning, Vitti still manages to bring some presence to the lead role whilst seeing Stamp in his 60s heyday is always good value for money. OK, it may be all rather over-the-top but it does so in such an unpretentious way that you just can’t help being sucked in

Streetdance 3D (E1 Home Entertainment) brings you all the excitement of dance. On the streets. In 3D. Well, at least it does what it says on the tin. Nicola Burley (who is fast becoming one of the most ubiquitous young actors in British cinema) plays Carla who lead the dance ‘crew’ (as I believe the young people are calling it nowadays) towards the UK Street Dance Championships. But with no money, she turn Helena (Charlotte Rampling, who was probably badgered into this by her grandkids) of the Royal Ballet to let her rehearsal space. She does on the proviso that she helps motivate some of the more reticent ballet students (what do you mean, “This is sounding a bit implausible,”?) and soon everyone finds themselves joining forces to win the championships together. Look, this isn’t about coherent plot but lots of people doing lots of impressive dance moves with enough montages to make Eisenstein weep (I have just namedropped Eisenstein in a review of Streetdance 3D: I think I can happily retire now). If you don’t like dancing then what the hell are you doing buying a film called ‘Streetdance’ in the first place? It may be all rather silly but it’s a fun rather silly. And they have tried with the disc, a full double set with the 2D and 3D versions of the film and lots of extras.

I’m betting that those who enjoy Streetdance might also be rather excited about Glee – Season 1 (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) which follows the fortunes of a high school choir. It’s a serious and intense drama about the interpersonal relationships between all involved and it’s a searing expose of the underbelly of American teenage society. Nah, I’m kidding: it’s an updated version of ‘Fame’ with lots of singing and dancing and young people looking improbably handsome. The first season sees the choir try to regain its former glory under new leader Will who attempts to whip the singers into shape whilst defending them from the machinations of the cheerleaders coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, who is fast becoming something of a cultural icon in her role). It’s certainly impressive who they’ve managed to make the show appeal to all ages and – amongst the drama and singing – there’s also a fine sense of comedy. This is definitely not going to be for everyone but there are going to be a few people who absolutely adore it.

If you want a bit of an antidote to the sweetness of ‘Glee’ then House – Season 6 (Universal Pictures UK) might prove the perfect antidote. This is a somewhat bleak season beginning with the eponymous doctor (we’ve had a lot of eponymous people in this column this time around) fighting drug addiction and hallucinations. Indeed, those familiar with the show’s format (person comes in with mysterious illness, everyone panics and wonders what it is, someone misdiagnoses and then Dr House comes in and kicks ass with the answer) might start to get a little antsy wondering when things will get back on track. But when it gets back into the swing of things it remains an excellent bit of procedural drama with Hugh Laurie managing to fool millions of US citizens into thinking that he’s actually got an American accent. And there is enough drama around the central characters that will make you want to plow through this boxset on a cold wintery night.

The Simpsons – Seasons 13 (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) is definitely seen as unlucky for some as it seems that the rot has truly set in. Whereas once you could guarantee that every episode would be one of greatness, it fell into a trap of poor plotting and bad characterisation. Indeed, there are many episodes here where you can see high concept ideas (such as Homer being prescribed medical marijuana) that have no decent jokes or plot to back them up. But even though the ideas are markedly becoming more tired, the fact is that this is still ‘The Simpsons’ and even not very good ‘Simpsons’ manages to trounce almost anything else that is being made at the moment. Look hard enough and you’ll still see some sparks of brilliance and one or two guest performances (which this season includes the likes of R.E.M, Stan Lee and Paul Newman) that manage to entertain. As always, the discs are rammed full of commentaries from the production team and there are many more extras to make this a worthy buy.

That was another big one wasn't it boys and girls? More DVD madness at the end of October...