BETTER CALL SAUL: SEASON TWO, Various directors/Sony Blu-ray, Steelbook and DVD This much-acclaimed prequel to the cult crime series Breaking Bad sets up the requisite elements for slippery lawyer Jimmy McGill’s development from small-time, semi-legal attorney into the serviceable criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. Season Two has Jimmy’s halting relationship developing with fellow lawyer Kim, his principled but neurotic brother Chuck and tough disgraced cop Mike. The show stars the excellent Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Jonathan Banks as the phlegmatic Mike Ehrmantraut, and Michael McKean as his disturbed, neurotic brother Chuck McGill (McKean eschews his This Is Spinal Tap comedy for a superbly nuanced performance here). The AMC drama series, produced by Sony Pictures Television was created by Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould, Season 2 of Better Call Saul averaged 4.3 million viewers per episode, keeping the series in the top 10 of cable shows. The show received seven award nominations including Outstanding Drama Series, Lead Actor (Bob Odenkirk) and Supporting Actor (Jonathan Banks).
THE SMALL WORLD OF SAMMY LEE, Ken Hughes, director/StudioCanal In receipt of a welcome-new 2k restoration and boasting extended special features (including new interviews), this is a find. Of the film, I wrote in British Crime Film: In 1963, when The Small World of Sammy Lee appeared, there was something of a fashion for British films which opened up a variety of subcultures of Metropolitan Life to cinema audiences. And certainly the unvarnished (if stagey) image of Soho presented here was considered to be an accurate one by many who did not live in the capital. Director Ken Hughes’ screenplay has the pithy ring of authenticity, and a grasp of idiom that is taken full advantage of by a talented cast (the unconventional Anthony Newley, of course, as the beleaguered Sammy, and such reliable British characters actors as Wilfred Brambell, Kenneth J. Warren and Warren Mitchell). Sammy is a fast-talking, ducking-and-diving compère in a strip club, faced with the nigh-impossible task of coming up with the £300 cash that he owes his bookie before he is viciously worked over by the latter’s heavies. As the five brief hours which Sammy is granted to find the money ebb way ever more swiftly, we are presented with the picture of a hermetically sealed, cloistered community outside of ‘respectable’ society which lives by its own peculiar rules, as codified as those of a religious institution (and of which it is something of a reverse image). Crucially, in Sammy, we are shown a man possessing very little less self-respect, but obliged (in the time we spend him) to divest himself of what little remains. His naive but nubile girlfriend Julia Foster (a specialist in such roles) becomes part of a strip act in order to help him, and Sammy is even reduced to trying to sell reefers – all to no avail. The sharply observed dialogue is a considerable plus point, and is one of the signal achievements of the film – notably with Sammy’s caustic onstage diatribe to strip club punters, who are impatient for the next minimally-dressed girl to appear (‘I don’t know what you come here for. The girls here, they hate you, you make ‘em sick. There’s no love here, mate – there isn’t even any sex. If it’s sex you want, you won’t get it here.’) Ironically, this contemptuous outburst is treated amiably by the customers on the receiving end of it, and the suggestion registers that such moral niceties are unimportant to them – who cares what the girls think?
The sleazy characters that Sammy encounters as the clock ticks (notably the lascivious and calculating club owner played by Robert Stephens, an actor perfectly able to move across the social spectrum whenever required) ensure that identification with the luckless Sammy, however compromised, survives intact, and Ken Hughes’ dramatic instincts rarely desert him except, crucially, in the inevitable final beating of Sammy, which is desperately anticlimactic. The audience has been led to expect that Sammy will be beaten (and perhaps knife-slashed) to within an inch of his life, but he seems to finally be on the receiving end of a fairly cursory roughing up, from which he recovers with surprising speed. Given that this beating has been the Damoclean sword hanging over him throughout the film, what was clearly required (for dramatic purposes) was the kind of bloody, realistic working over that Marlon Brando endured at the end of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront – or, for that matter, in many of Brando’s films of the period). Nevertheless, muffled conclusion (and some less-than-convincing Soho sets) aside, The Small World of Sammy Lee is a strikingly individual piece of work, as much a study in loneliness and self-destruction as it is a snapshot of one of the less respectable corners of British society. Even the notion of family is presented as offering no amelioration in this bleak world (a desperate visit to Sammy’s initially sympathetic brother to ask for money is cut short by the latter’s unsympathetic wife) and Ken Hughes’ knowledge of then-recent developments in French Nouvelle Vague are put to intelligent use. (Interestingly, the now-neglected film itself was to influence much successive work, including, indirectly, Mike Hodges’ very different Get Carter. It was of course regrettable that the film has been unseeable so many years, but it has now been made available again and time has, in general, been kind to it.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, John Carpenter, director/Second Sight As with so many filmmakers of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, the director John Carpenter was (and is) a film aficionado, and a favourite golden age predecessor of his was Howard Hawks. Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct at 13 is both a homage to the older director and a sort-of-urban-remake of the latter’s classic Western Rio Bravo (with added violence). This is the perfect example of the cult film from low budget roots, and it is one of the most successful independent releases ever. The film took Carpenter (whose Halloween was an even bigger hit) into mainstream filmmaking. Apart from the skill that Carpenter demonstrates as a director in his narrative (the siege of a police station by a murderous multi-racial gang), there is another plus factor in the film which is less remarked upon: the fact that Carpenter is able to draw such first-rate performances from his virtually unknown cast. He doesn’t have John Wayne, Angie Dickinson or Dean Martin as Howard Hawks did, but the actors here (who did not go on to spectacular careers) do exemplary jobs as the beleaguered protagonists. To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of this seminal film, Second Sight has released a newly restored high definition version from a 1080p transfer. It is presented in a limited edition Blu-ray box set, with new special features including an early John Carpenter student short, as well as the original soundtrack CD and art cards
THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, John Sherwood, director/Fabulous Films Many years ago, John Sherwood’s intriguing monster film was this writer’s first acquaintance with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d missed Jack Arnold’s original classic and his own follow-up Revenge of the Creature, so by the time I caught up with the Gill Man from the Amazon in his third filmic incarnation, he was being surgically altered in this film which, unlike most entries in such sequences, tries to do something new rather than simply reheating an existing formula. Needless to say, Jack Arnold’s original outing remains the definitive entry for the last of the great Universal Studios monsters (director John Sherwood was an Arnold assistant), but there are ingenious and pleasing concepts folded into this entry in the cycle – the only one not to be originally issued in 3D. As with an American DVD issue of the film, it is, sadly, in Academy ratio only, but it most definitely does the job.
TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A, William Friedkin, director/Arrow Time for a fresh look at William Friedkin’s seminal 80s crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A.. Starring William Petersen (along with Willem Dafoe in menacing mode), this is one of the most stylish thrillers of the decade. To Friedkin’s disappointment it was nothing like a hit on the order of the director’s The Exorcist and The French Connection. But To Live and Die in L.A. is actually one of Friedkin’s most accomplished films, kinetic and focused. The Arrow Video release has had a brand new 4K restoration from the original 35mm negative, supervised and approved by the director himself.
ROXANNE, Fred Schepisi director/Eureka Blu-Ray While his initial success may have been due to his abilities as a manic comic actor, Steve Martin quickly proved that he had more strings to his bow in a variety of films which utilised his comic abilities, but added more subtle nuance – as may be seen in this modern-day take on Cyrano de Bergerac. Martin gives a winning performance as a small town fire chief whose life has been blighted by his massively elongated nose. He nurtures a secret passion for an attractive astronomy student – the eponymous Roxanne (enchantingly played by Daryl Hannah), but her attentions are directed towards the none-too-bright fireman Chris (played by Rick Rossovich), good-looking but lacking the Martin character’s intelligence and wit. Martin himself was in fact responsible for the screenplay for this update to Cyrano, and the film quickly won plaudits for both its humour and its humanity.
JAMAICA INN, Alfred Hitchcock, director/Arrow Blu-Ray Arriving with an exemplary visual essay by the much-respected Hitchcock scholar and biographer Donald Spoto, Jamaica Inn is very welcome in this beautifully detailed Blu-Ray edition. It seems a very long time ago since Alfred Hitchcock was regarded as a mere entertainer, and his enthronement as one of the great film directors (a process inaugurated by the French, with critics such as Claude Chabrol acclaiming his genius) is now complete. Modern cinéastes are so obsessed with Hitchcock that even his less successful films are studied with great scrutiny, and we are now afforded an opportunity to look afresh at one of his misfires, which even the director himself did not esteem. With the always watchable Charles Laughton, over the top but mesmerising, this version of Daphne du Maurier’s rambunctious novel has many incidental pleasures, and even Hitchcock’s failures are more fascinating than some other directors’ successes. Lacking the psychological acuity of the director’s later du Maurier adaption, Rebecca, Jamaica Inn is a tale of wreckers on the Cornish coast sporting a relishable cast of British character actors (all pitched at nigh-operatic levels) including Laughton, Robert Newton and Basil Radford, along with an early starring role for Maureen O’Hara as the film’s heroine. This new 4K restoration by the Cohen Film Collection and the BFI sees one of Hitchcock’s most neglected works looking resplendent. With a fascinating audio commentary by film critic Jeremy Arnold and that visual essay Spoto, this is the gold-standard release of Jamaica Inn.
INTERIORS Woody Allen, director/Arrow Blu-Ray Considered a miscalculation when it first appeared, Interiors can now be seen in the broader setting of Woody Allen’s filmography; the film clearly anticipates his later work, but at the time of its release it was considered an ill-advised departure from his comedy, heavily in debt to Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman. And though Allen (as he would admit) is no Bergman, there is much to admire here. Interiors is an intimate family drama, looking impressive in a spruce Blu-ray presentation.
THE INITIATION, Larry Stewart, director/Arrow it is often a very curious experience on revisiting films and one at first encountered on grainy VHS tapes in their new crystal clear Blu-ray incarnations. Shored up by veteran actors Vera Miles and Clu Gulager, The Initiation is a good example of the college-based slasher movie, with hair styles defining it as being a product of the 1980s. One of the later entries into the genre, it sports a fun twist of an ending. This new restoration from original film elements lets fans see Daphne Zuniga’s Kelly taking on a mysterious killer as she pledges to become part of her college sorority, unleashing murder and mayhem.
THE LEVEL, various directors/RLJ Entertainment/Acorn It seems that it’s possible to still find something interesting to say in the crime thriller genre even when familiar elements are used – as The Level proves. A squeaky clean detective’s dark past comes back to haunt her in this Brighton-based detective drama featuring an interesting cast of British acting talent, including Karla Crome, Philip Glenister and Laura Haddock, Detective Sergeant Nancy Devlin (Crome) has a secret double life. Her exemplary police career masks a covert attachment to shady businessman and drugs trafficker, Frank Le Saux (Glenister), who she is inextricably linked to from childhood, as the father of her best friend, Hayley (Haddock), and the father figure she herself craved. Nancy has been playing a dangerous game to ensure that Frank always remains off the police radar, but she soon finds herself at the centre of an investigation which puts her at risk of exposure and sees her stalked by a killer intent on destroying her.
THE CODE, Various directors/Arrow With a slew of excellent (and not so excellent) crime series appearing both on TV and DVD, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep up – and (what’s more) to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Word of mouth is a useful guide and, accordingly, you may have heard about the strongly written series The Code and added it to your list. The second season of the Australian crime drama (originally shown on BBC Four) makes a welcome appearance. Hoping to escape the storm they unleashed at the end of season one, Jesse Banks (Ashley Zukerman) and Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) are confronted with the terrifying possibility of being extradited to the US to face serious charges in an American court. The second season is not quite as rigorously handled as its predecessor, but this is still a recipe for compelling TV drama.
GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, Peter Medak, director/Fabulous Films If you’re a Peter Sellers fan, you will probably need to see this fascinating disaster of a film, largely considered un-releasable. The company issuing it, Fabulous Films, wisely makes no attempt to gloss over this train wreck of a movie, but explains precisely why it was always fated to fail – principally because of Peter Sellers’ typically wayward behaviour, demonstrated by the neurotic actor on so many of his later films. Nevertheless, Sellers admirers will feel obliged to watch it – in some ways it has become a holy grail for the actor’s fans, rather as many Tony Hancock followers are keen to see his unseeable (and equally disastrous) ITV series.
HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF, Philippe Mora, director/Arrow If you are a fan of camp horror, a leather-clad and voluptuous Sybil Danning and a slumming Christopher Lee, then here is a Blu-ray that has your number. The Dual Format release of Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, the tongue-in-cheek follow-up to Joe Dante’s The Howling — for all its faults — may divert. Incorporating everything from werewolf orgies to killer dwarves into the mix, this new digital transfer features new interviews with actors Reb Brown and Sybil Danning, and special make-up effects artists Steve Johnson and Scott Wheeler.