Jonathan Creek Series 5

Jono-Creek-5Order DVD

There’s a few things I have come to like thanks to my mum: Jamie Oliver, Days of Our Lives, Revenge (TV series), fruit cake and Jonathan Creek. “Boring old English lady crap” I hear you say… no it really isn’t. It’s not amazing but it’s not shit either and after 5 series I’ve still never guessed the outcome of a single mystery. My lateral thinking skills suck.

Granted it has lost a bit of its charm over so many series and specials, this series should really be the last. It’s just not that good. I think this has to do with the normalisation of Jonathan. He’s not quirky anymore. Gone are the days of living in a windmill and being the brain behind a camp-y magician’s tricks. He had a crush on a chubby woman and now he’s got an office job and a hot blonde wife, Polly (Sarah Alexander, whom I loved in Green Wing). I wasn’t a huge fan of Maddie (said chubby woman played by Caroline Quentin) but they had chemistry whereas Polly and Jonathan don’t seem to have much at all. Polly also seems like a total killjoy. The lack of sexual tension between sidekicks from previous seasons is really noticeable as instead of acerbic banter we get boring husband/wife dynamics.

Another problem over the last few seasons/specials is that so many mini mysteries are crammed into each episode and it can sometimes be confusing or they simply feel like filler material. Alan Davies has said in an interview that the budgets have been cut severely and that he doesn’t enjoy playing the character due to harsh work schedules and lack of money and I think it shows compared to the earlier seasons especially in the quality of writing.

In this season Polly and Jonathan move to Polly’s recently deceased father’s massive house in the countryside. As soon as they arrive Jonathan is called upon to investigate an attempted murder of an actress and the new village they are in provides plenty of “mysteries”. Although in a bizarre move the first episode of the series solves the crime in the first ten minutes…and why do we need to watch the rest of the episode? Don’t change the format!

There’s still the odd bit of dark humour, a stand out “mystery” that was pretty funny was when a robot vacuum cleaner was responsible for vanishing human remains. Really only one episode out of three was good and I’d barely call it great.

Totally worth it for hardcore Jonathan Creek fans but the census among fans seems to be that the show has gone downhill since series three. I enjoyed the odd episode since then and loved Adrian Edmondson being in the show but it’s just not as good as the early shows. If you like the show for the mysteries then you’ll be satisfied, I still couldn’t guess any of them. My plea to David Renwick – Keep Jonathan weird. Bring back the magician.

Deadlier Than the Male / Some Girls Do

Deadlier-MaleThe huge commercial success of Goldfinger in 1964 not only saw Ian Fleming’s fictional super-spy James Bond become a genuine international cultural phenomenon, but helped usher in the era of the Bond clones and parodies, with studios eager to carve out a slice of the box-office pie with a 007 of their own. As a result, the remainder of the 1960s gave us such cinematic super-sleuths as Derek Flint (James Coburn) and Matt Helm (Dean Martin), not to mention episodic series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Get Smart and Honey West on television.

Created (under the penname ‘Sapper‘) in 1920 by Herman Cyril McNeile, Bulldog Drummond had his origins in the decidedly grim, black & white world of the classic detective pulp magazines and early film noir, and had already been featured in nearly twenty films dating back to 1923 when veteran Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Ralph Thomas decided to update the character and drop him squarely into the coolly pulsating, pop-art world of the Swinging Sixties. Ironically, Bulldog Drummond had been one of the biggest influences on Fleming when he created Bond, and now he was trying to walk in the footsteps of his infinitely more popular illegitimate son.

Based on an original story (rather than one of McNeile’s existing novels), Deadlier than the Male casts Richard Johnson as the suitably debonair and sophisticated insurance investigator Bulldog Drummond, hired after a private jet carrying a powerful oil magnate suspiciously blows-up while in flight. Aided by his eager but somewhat naïve American cousin (and budding playboy) Robert (Steve Carlson), and in between bouts of womanising, Drummond eventually uncovers a plot by a mysterious villain to destabilize the oil industry and throw it into chaos, which he aims to achieve by hiring two gorgeous female assassins (Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina) to kill off key oil figureheads in various creative ways.

Any resemblance between Deadlier than the Male and vintage Bulldog Drummond begins and ends with the lead character having the same name (and even then he is rarely referred to as ‘Bulldog’). This is pure sixties cinema pulp influenced directly by the Bond movies – and for what it is, it is quite superb. Director Thomas (perhaps best known for helming the popular series of Doctor comedy films) keeps the proceedings moving along at a cracking pace, ensuring the film doesn’t lose its steam by the third act (a problem which hindered several of the Bond parodies). The art direction by Alex Vetchinsky is fantastic, particularly the giant automated chessboard which features prominently in the climax, and the exotic Mediterranean locales are captured to full advantage by cinematographer Ernest Stewart. The soundtrack is suitably nightclub cool, and makes great use of the Walker Brothers’ hit title song over the opening credits. Richard Johnson makes a smooth, laid-back and confident hero, but he is rather overshadowed by Nigel Green as the deliciously Blofeld-like evil villain, Carl Peterson. Elke Sommer and the late Sylva Koscina are also hypnotic to watch, using their charm, their firepower and their curves to get what they want.

Whether emerging from the ocean clad in bikinis and clutching spear guns or glammed-up in the latest European fashions, Sommer and Koscina dominate virtually every frame of film they are in, and have a nice onscreen chemistry. They would have been great in a spin-off movie together. Other cast members of interest include Milton Reid (who went on to an official Bond film in 1977s The Spy Who Loved Me), Suzanna Leigh (The Deadly Bees) and the lovely Virginia North (who gained a minor cult following amongst horror fans for her role in The Abominable Dr. Phibes).

Three years after Deadlier than the Male, Johnson was back as Drummond for the second – and final – time in Some Girls Do. Ralph Thomas also returned to the director’s chair, and the film really amped-up the sci-fi and fantasy elements, as Drummond once again faces off against his old foe Carl Peterson (played here by James Villiers), whom this time around is using a harem of beautiful, scantily-clad robotic women to help him sabotage the launch of a new British supersonic airliner jet (there is little doubt that these two 1960s Drummond films were a major influence on Mike Myers’ Austin Powers trilogy).

Although it features many of the same elements as its predecessor, they don’t all gel as well as they did the first time around. The screenplay is lacking Jimmy Sangster’s input, and the villains aren’t as memorable as they were in Deadlier than the Male (as Peterson, James Villiers is a poor substitute for Nigel Green). The film is also a victim of its own timing, as by 1969 the initial wave of the James Bond craze was starting to die down, and the Bond films themselves were starting to become overblown parodies. Still, there is plenty to admire and enjoy here, not least of which is the appearance by lovely blonde Swede Yutte Stensgaard (from Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire) as one of the sexy robot drones. Also appearing are Virginia North (playing a different character from the first film), an uncredited Joanna Lumley (who was filming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – also at Pinewood Studios – at the same time) and the portly Robert Morley, who tries to unsuccessfully add a bit of annoying comic relief and is thankfully killed off before too long.

Madman have done a suitably groovy job with their double-disc release of these two films. The 16:9 anamorphic widescreen print of Deadlier than the Male looks stunning – it’s crisp and sharp and literally pops with colour and depth. Unfortunately the 4:3 print of Some Girls Do is a letdown by comparison, giving the film a less spectacular TV movie feel, though the actual quality of the print is again superb. Extras on each disc include the original trailers and very extensive (and impressive) stills galleries for each film, while Deadlier than the Male also include some nice vintage on-set reports and cast interviews, filmed in black & white and no doubt intended to help promote the movie in cinemas and on television. Also included are two postcards featuring original promotional art for both movies, which gives the set a nice added visual appeal.

If you are a fan of vintage spy flicks, or just someone who loves everything that was silly, sexy and swinging about the sixties, this set deserves to be on your shelf.

Extras:
  • Vintage Cast Interviews
  • Vintage On Set Reports
  • Image Galleries
  • Theatrical Trailers

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Wetlands

Wetlands18 year old Helen (Carla Juri) is eccentric, to say the least. She considers bodily hygiene to be a con, borrows the vegetables from her family’s fridge so she can rate their performance as masturbatory aids, and has a spectacular talent for saying the least appropriate thing at any given time. Her life is spent making things difficult for her divorced parents, tormenting her (much) younger brother, growing avocados, and hanging out (getting high, and into trouble) with her best (and only) friend Corinna (Marlen Kruse).

Helen’s world is turned upside down (or perhaps inside out – since it’s already upside down from most perspectives) when she cuts herself in an anal shaving accident and winds up in hospital. Being Helen, she immediately forms a plan to use the situation get her parents back together, and develops designs on a handsome male nurse called Robin (Christoph Letkowski).

Like Helen, Wetlands is fairly confronting on the surface. Within the first 5 minutes we’ve had a tour through an astoundingly filthy public toilet accompanied by Helen’s cheerful discussion of her hemorrhoids, her sex life, and her “pussy health experiments”. However (again like Helen) this confronting exterior is a front for a more complex truth. As the film goes on, Helen’s various quirks and transgressions begin to be revealed as open-hearted (and reasonably rational) responses to an adult world that is deceitful and sometimes physically dangerous. Similarly, though it appears on the surface to be a sort of gross-out polemic, Wetlands slowly reveals itself to be at heart a coming of age story with elements of romantic comedy.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Charlotte Roche, who created Helen as a semi-autobiographical character. As a result, it’s not entirely surprising that Helen and her various unusual views should be portrayed sympathetically, but the degree to which this works on screen is largely down to the charm and daring of Carla Juri in the central role, and deft direction by David Wnendt. Together, they manage the tricky feat of making Helen’s perspective the central point of view in the film, and allowing the various (often uncomfortable) background details of her life to inform the person she is without explaining her into a mere bundle of pathological responses glued together and waiting to be “fixed” by the right man.

If Wetlands has a weakness, it’s that the fundamental story becomes fairly basic (particularly toward the end) and Helen’s motivations are actually pretty conventional. This means that while the gross-out details will put off the easily-offended, connoisseurs of the weird will find that it all becomes a bit tidy for them. That said, the individual details are idiosyncratic enough, and Helen is likeable enough that this only rarely becomes distracting.

Recommended (if my descriptions haven’t already put you off).

Extras:

  • Carla & Charlotte – A 1 minute short about the relationship between Carla Juri and Charlotte Roche.
  • Blood Sisters – A 1 minute short about the relationship between Carla Juri and Marlen Kruse.
  • Dare – A 1 minute short about Carla Juri’s preparations for the role of Helen.
  • The Making of Wetlands.
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Land In Sight music video
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • “Madman Propaganda” – trailers

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Hamburger Hill

HamburgerHill‘War at it’s worst. Men at their best.’

While the 1970s produced a number of classic Vietnam War films, such as Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) and the Australian production The Odd Angry Shot (1979), it really wasn’t until the 1980’s that the subject became more acceptable as popular entertainment. In the seventies, it was no doubt still a bit too recent and painful for most Americans to confront, while by the early-eighties the country was beginning to accept its failure and started honouring their people who served in the conflict.

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Scum

Scum-DVDOriginally made for an episode of the BBC’s television play series, Play for Today, but swiftly banned before airing, Scum was later remade as a feature film without any of TV’s restrictions.

It follows Carlin (played to the hilt by a young Ray Winstone), an inmate being transferred to a borstal for assaulting a screw at his last reformatory. After settling in and adjusting to the punishing military-style regime, Carlin quickly sets about securing the position of “Daddy”. This involves a couple of well-placed snooker balls and a sock.

As Daddy, Carlin runs shit and the screws turn a blind eye. During his reign he encounters various characters such as Archer, the facility’s elder intellectual oddball who uses minor acts of civil disobedience to fuck with the wardens (and himself simultaneously), such as refusing to wear shoes. And Davis, the institutional victim who commits suicide after being nastily gang-raped, which triggers the riotous finale.

Scum has a long history of controversy and notoriety. Its VHS artwork and poster campaigns sell it as a shocking exposé uncovering the harsh conditions inside a British borstal. Yet, graphic story aside, it also works to present an unflinching condemnation of the penal system and its complete lack of rehabilitation. Brutality breeds brutality in here.

The gritty documentary style used by Alan Clarke fits the subject matter perfectly. A colourless, grim environment is captured via slow tracking shots and long uncomfortable takes, refusing to turn away when things get too real. This is Clarke’s protest against the inhumanity of the borstal system at the time, as he forces others to look.

The performances here are impressive in their realism – the young cast exude a naturalistic and raw adolescent rage that boils over in stages, while Winstone commands with an unstable intensity.

Despite perhaps originally being viewed as an exploitative video nasty, Scum has now earned its name as a classic of British kitchen sink cinema. Can’t recommend it enough, along with the rest of Alan Clarke’s oeuvre.

Available on R4 DVD and Blu-Ray from Shock.

When Animals Dream

When-AnimalsFor Marie (Sonia Suhl), life in her small coastal town is simple and now that she is 16, she gets a job at the local fish processing plant to help bring money into her family – her father (Lars Mikkelsen) and her catatonic, wheelchair-bound mother (Sonja Richter). She catches the eye of a handsome young fisherman named Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), but not everything bodes well.

Doctor Larsen (Stig Hoffmeyer) warns her that she will likely inherit her mother’s debilitating condition and several bullying men at her new job have decided she is the perfect target for taunting and abuse. Then Marie feels her body beginning to change…

The werewolf has always been a potent metaphor. Typically used as a male id symbol, the concept of physical change has also been applied to awakening sexuality. On rare occasions (most notably the Canadian film Ginger Snaps) it has been applied to female sexuality.

When Animals Dream takes that a step further. Marie’s real identity, her real destiny, is as a werewolf. As she comes of age, she does not flee from this. Her mother, heavily-medicated by her controlling (but caring) father and her doctor, serves as a warning of what happens if she just toes the line.

The feminist statement of the film is writ large, right from the uncomfortably sexual opening scene where Marie is examined for bodily symptoms by Doctor Larsen. Marie is wanting freedom and independence which clearly scares the traditionalist menfolk of her town.

Daniel is the exception. He is the only one who accepts Marie’s true nature and does not fear her for it. But the others in the town do, and they will not tolerate Marie in their midst. The more she stands out from the crowd and defies expectations, the more she raises their ire.

Debutant director Jonas Alexander Arnby shows a remarkably assured hand. The performances are all low-key and believable, free from overt affectation. The shooting is handheld and his Denmark is a bleak, cold place where the sun never seems to shine. The setting is a place of dying tradition, where there is no future, superbly realised.

The pacing is careful and the plot itself is very simple. This, perhaps is the film’s weakness. The ideas it presents are evocative and powerful, but along the way entertainment is somewhat sacrificed. The progression to the climax is single-minded, leaving little room for twists or turns in the storyline and while the inexorability of the film is part of its message, it does adversely affect the more superficial thrills.

A reflective, delicate and sombre film, When Animals Dream is a low-key gem and a reminder of how powerful the metaphors of fantasy and horror films can be to reflect our real world. An excellent debut.

Extras:

Just trailers, which is disappointing for a film of this thematic depth.

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

The Legacy

The-Legacy-DVDI’m pretty much up for reviewing any Scandinavian film or television series and when I saw that this show was from the makers of The Killing and Borgen I had to check it out. I’ve taken a stance of reading very little about the things I review so I can watch it with an open mind. Naturally, not knowing anything until reading the blurb, I assumed this would be another among the many Nordic crime wave shows.

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Kite [Blu-Ray]

--Sawa (India Eisley) is a young woman bent on revenge. Her parents were killed by a human trafficker known only as The Emir, leaving her with nothing. Her father’s partner, hard-bitten cop Karl (Samuel L Jackson) feeds her information, weapons…and memory-repressing drugs to enable her to fight through her darkness.

She kills her way up the local criminal ladder, assisted by a mysterious young man (Callan McAuliffe), trying to get to The Emir before gangs and the police hunt her down.

A live-action adaptation of a fairly grimy hour-long anime of the same name from 1999, Kite wisely ages its heroine up to 18 but for all its supposed female empowerment, the film clearly enjoys Sawa’s various wigs and sexy outfits.

The whole young-female-assassin schtick is already, in the wake of films like Kick-Ass and Hanna let alone La Femme Nikita, becoming old hat and there is little here to invigorate the set-up. The setting is a grubby near-future and the film is shot amongst the graffiti and crumbling concrete of Johannesburg for a fresh look, but somehow still manages to look cheap.

This is despite a real commitment to style – lots of silhouettes and smoke and edgy lighting. But it all feels a little film student-y and ends up like a feature-length music video with sluggish pacing and laborious exposition unloaded in a sequence of lengthy monologues. Eisley in the lead gives it a bit of effort, but the rest of the cast seem to just be going through the motions, aside from bit players with little acting ability.

The action scenes are serviceable and there is a fair chunk of gore, but Kite is a lightweight, forgettable film. Its by-the-numbers story (with a ‘twist’ so obvious you may have already picked it from reading the synopsis above) plods along in utterly predictable fashion, rapidly eroding any interest the set-up may have inspired.

In the end, Kite is a bit like its heroine: pretty, intriguing, but ultimately over-familiar.

No extras.

Kite is available on R4 DVD and Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay.

20,000 Days on Earth [Blu-Ray]

Nick-CaveAfter watching Autoluminescent (the documentary about former Birthday Party member Rowland S. Howard) I thought it was odd that there hadn’t been any about Nick Cave and hoped I wouldn’t have to wait for him to die to see one.

20,000 Days on Earth is based around a fictional day in the life of Nick Cave. At the start there’s some montage clips presented in fast-forward of Nick’s milestones from birth to The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds, right up to present day. 20,000 Days on Earth is not of the past. Nick discusses events and people from the past but it is not a retrospective documentary about his career. It also focuses a lot on the recording of Push the Sky Away, so those anticipating any coverage/stories about The Birthday Party/Bad Seeds won’t find it here.

Cave also provides voice-over narration that has a literary quality to it, although some of it comes off a tad ostentatious (more so on first viewing), it totally fits Cave’s style and so does the film itself in that it breaks a lot of conventions. In between scenes of Cave going about his (fictionalised) day we see rehearsals, interviews with psychoanalyst Darian Leader, and footage of Cave driving around with Blixa Bargeld, Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone. I enjoyed the scenes in the car and Warren Ellis the most as the conversations felt really organic and not as boring as the usual talking heads of people answering questions/fawning over the subject of the film/documentary.

Cave has said that  20,000 Days on Earth is fictional but within it there are truths. It’s definitely more of an art film rather than your typical “rock n‘roll” documentary.  It is very stylized and staged and Cave is presented in a very flattering matter (lighting, narration etc) but that’s not to say there’s no meat to the film or that it lacks an intimacy. It’s elegantly shot and despite it being staged, is very affecting and you gain a lot of insight into the myth of the man. I really enjoyed the filmic/meditative take on exploring an artist but having said that I’d still love to see a traditional documentary about The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds. If you’re expecting a more in-depth warts-and-all type of documentary this will disappoint.

It’s a film that has a little bit of something for everyone and can be enjoyed by those who don’t even know the man. Not so much a film about a man and his career but the art of storytelling and the artistic process.

An absolute must own for fans of the man.

Extras:

The Making Of – Runs for 15 minutes and includes interviews with Nick Cave, the directors, producer, director of photography and has some behind-the-scenes footage mostly of the car scenes. Watching the Making Of kinda ruined it a little for me in that it’s not Warren Ellis’ house (he actually lives in France) and someone else cooked the eel. The archive is also fictional. I didn’t think they would have taken it that far but even though a lot of it is set up, the footage that is captured and the discussions are 100% authentic.

The Archives – About 6 minutes of extended/different footage of Nick talking with the archivists about photos and artefacts, a particularly funny anecdote is of an image of a bronze statue Nick wanted to give to his home town – big pineapple, big lobster, big Nick Cave.

Tour Rehearsals – about 10 minutes long, they perform Your Funeral My Trial and Stranger than Kindness.

Interviews –About 9 minutes of interviews that didn’t make it into the film or are extended.

Studio Backing Vocals – About three minutes of clips of Nick, Warrren and co doing backup vocals and Warren playing violin.

Ray Winstone Fish and Chips – a 2 minute clip of Nick and Ray arguing over which country does better fish and chips.

Demo Sessions: 3 minute clip of See that Girl.

Live at Koko Duet with Kylie – Nick and Kylie perform fan favourite “Where the Wild Roses Grow”.

To round out the disc there’s a theatrical trailer and Madman Propaganda.

20,000 Days on Earth is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Madman Entertainment.

The Last Circus

the-last-circus-dvdAlex de la Iglesia is just about the textbook definition of a ‘cult’ director. First breaking through in 1993 with the sci-fi lunacy of Accion Mutante before making a splash internationally with the comedy/horror The Day of the Beast. He has forged a path of unhinged films, populated with idiosyncratic and often grotesque characters, laced with a fine line in black humour.

The most notable exception to this pattern was his last outing, which was expected to be his Hollywood breakthrough. The John Hurt/Elijah Woods starrer The Oxford Murders was a tepid, by-the-numbers thriller, perhaps providing conclusive evidence that de la Iglesia is a director at his best when allowed to run wild.

And so to The Last Circus, where things run very wild, indeed.

The story begins in 1937, as a group of circus performers are press-ganged into service during the Spanish Civil War. Amongst these is a clown, still clad in make-up, wig and a dress. Armed only with a machete, he promptly wades into the opposing troops, cutting down and all sundry before he is finally overwhelmed and imprisoned.

Fast forward 36 years to the mirror image date of 1973 and the clown’s son Javier (Carlos Areces) has grown up and has followed his footsteps into the circus. His lot is not to be the star, the happy clown, rather he is to be the straight man, the sad clown, the butt of all the jokes. This is because his childhood of misery has left him devoid of mirth, but full of tragedy.

The happy clown is Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a charismatic superstar. The children love him, but his confidence bleeds into arrogance and alcoholism. When drinking, he has a tendency to abuse his wife, the acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang)…who Javier also falls for. It is a love triangle that rapidly spirals into violence, madness and murder.

The Last Circus plays out as a political allegory. Javier is the Republicans, wracked by internal turmoil while Sergio is Franco’s fascist Nationalists, violent and strong of purpose. Between them is Natalia, representing Spain herself, torn between two desires. This metaphoric approach gives the piece added depth, but sacrifices elements of the storytelling. The plot flow becomes increasingly stretched as the movie progresses and all of the characters become almost completely sympathetic as the madness and atrocities pile up on both sides.

Offsetting this stumble on the scripting side of things is some amazing work behind the camera. The production design is sumptuous and evocative, but the cinematography is never less than stunning. Deep shadows abound, with a rich, gothic, almost fairytale feeling throughout. This is one beautiful looking film.

The acting is more of a mixed bag, although de la Torre is the clear stand-out, chewing the scenery with aplomb whenever he gets the chance. Special mention must also be made of Bang, who is quite ridiculously attractive throughout. Oh, and she is also de la Iglesia’s real-life partner, for trivia fans.

An ambitious movie, The Last Circus starts off strongly, but loses its way somewhat in the second half. Perhaps fulfilling the requirements of allegory meant, in this case, a less enjoyable narrative. Still, the visuals are terrific and the invention on show means the movie is never dull. Perhaps a misfire, but a compelling one all the same.

The extras are limited to just the trailer for the film and trailers for some other titles from the Madman Entertainment catalogue. A shame, really, as a commentary track ruminating on the symbolism in the film could have been a terrific addition.

The Last Circus is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.