DVD Round-up, 9 November 2009

Evil creatures, Goblin Kings, martial arts, silent classics, zombies and a very English Christmas feature in this latest DVD round-up.

Finally arriving on Blu-ray are the late, great Jim Henson’s two non-Muppet films from the 1980s, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (Sony).

Dark Crystal transports us to a land where good and evil have co-existed for generations, only for the status quo to be shaken when the last of the Mystics dies and leaves a Gelfling called Jen to travel into the realm of the evil Skeksis and find the shard of the Crystal of Truth.

Using intricately designed models and puppets to represent his characters, Henson brings the world of the Dark Crystal to life with flair, even if its target audience of young children may find it scarier than the average modern-day fantasy.

In Labyrinth we’re introduced to modern day (well, 1986) America, where young Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is left quite literally holding the baby by her parents, only to find herself forced to set out on an adventure through the Labyrinth to save her brother from the evil Goblin King (the always singing David Bowie).

Meeting various odd characters on the way – headless monsters, talking door knockers and living cannonballs – Sarah comes to realise the importance of friendship as she gets closer and closer to the Goblin castle.

Both films are journeys into the unknown for characters with little experience of life, magic or evil, Henson taking his time to give his audience strong stories to go with the impressive visuals.

As well as looking fantastic on Blu-ray, both films benefit from a range of impressive extras, with behind-the-scenes features, games and commentaries from Brian Froud, conceptual artist, on each.

For those yet to enter the fantastical worlds of Henson, these are a superb way to enter them – just be careful what you wish for when you get there.

Exploding onto DVD is Ip Man (Cine-Asia, DVD and Blu-ray), an action movie disguised as a biography (or is it the other way round?) telling of the life of the martial arts genius who trained Bruce Lee.

Opening in 1935 China, Donny Yen stars as Ip Man of the title, an unassuming expert in Wing Chun who at first refuses to teach his skills to others, but whose decision is sorely tested as the years pass and his country is invaded by the Japanese.

Though some the facts have no doubt been stretched to fit the needs of the story, this is a sumptuous looking film with some impressive fight sequences from Yen which will be of particular interest to those looking to learn a little bit more about the history of the martial arts genre and Bruce Lee’s influences.

Stretching even further back into the past, Phantom/Die Finanzen Des Großherzogs (Masters of Cinema) are two silent films from acclaimed German director FW Murnau made in 1922 and 1924 respectively – but don’t let the lack of sound deter you.

Phantom centres on Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel), a young town clerk who dreams of being a writer and who is nearly run over by a horse and carriage owned by a beautiful young woman.

Smitten with the girl, Lubota goes out of his way to find out who she is, borrowing money from his aunt to fund an extravagant lifestyle while his mother and sister try to understand what has changed him.

The second film, Die Finanzen Des Großherzogs (The Grand Dukes Finances) is the polar opposite of Phantom, a rollicking tale of mystery, terror and, well, finance, on a small Mediterranean island. Alfred Abel returns to star as cat burglar Philipp Collins in a story which was cut down in length to its current 77 minutes after its original screenings, perhaps losing some sense of cohesiveness in the process.

This is a rewarding DVD set, with film scholar David Kalat’s masterly commentary on Grand Duke giving the set a welcome boost.

One of the most enduring horror franchises of the last 40 years is the Living Dead series from director George A Romero. Depicting an America where zombies have begun roaming the streets and killing innocent humans, the story began back in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead now released for the first time on Blu-ray from Network.

As the zombies move ever closer towards a small farm house in small-town USA, it’s up to Ben (Duane Jones) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea) to try and fight them off alongside a group of strangers.

Though it’s filmed in black and white and the sound quality is slightly muffled at times thanks to its tiny budget, this is an essential watch for any horror fans, it being the inspiration of generations of film makers right up to the present day.

Finally, slip on your mittens, warm up the mince pies and return to Christmas 1952 with Holly & the Ivy (Optimum Home Entertainment), out now on DVD.

Set in a small English village, where an ageing vicar (Ralph Richardson) is coming to terms with the death of his wife, we’re then introduced to the family he’s neglected over the years in his determination to look after his parishioners.

With its strong cast, including an impossibly young Denholm Elliot, Celia Johnson and future Doctor Who William Hartnell, plus a tight script which doesn’t ladle the emotion on too thick, Holly and the Ivy is a Christmas tale which deserves to be better known amongst the other hardy perennials that crowd our TV screens each Yuletide.

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