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The Shelf: BIG BAD WOLVES, DOCTOR WHO, SORCERER

This week, we’ve got Quentin Tarantino’s top film of 2013, a Doctor Who story not seen for 45 years, and the forgotten classic from one of Hollywood’s toughest filmmakers. Also, some TV shows…

Big Bad Wolves

A good, scary, violent dark comedy is really hard to make properly. If you overdo the comedy, you can lose the scares, and if you go too bloody and tense, you can lose a bit of the laughs. It’s a very fine line, fittingly the width of a razor’s edge, that few films can pull off successfully. The Israeli film Big Bad Wolves is one these few films that manages to keep the tension and the nervous chuckling going throughout much of the proceedings. It’s not an easy film to watch, but what else do you expect from a movie Quentin Tarantino called the best of last year?

The film begins with a group of police detectives, thuggish, it has to be said, picking up a meek looking little man and taking him to an abandoned building. They’re trying to find a sadistic murderer of little girls who leaves the defiled bodies for authorities to find, but is hiding their heads somewhere. The police believe this small man, a religious studies teacher with a daughter of his own, is this killer, and begin beating him with a phone book to get him to confess. After the chief calls them off, they are forced to let him go, and the following day, they find a new victim.

That victim’s father is inconsolable and wants revenge, as does the main cop who has been relieved of duty when a cell phone video of the beating goes viral on YouTube. The three men intersect, and we soon find ourselves in the distraught father’s secluded, sound-proof cabin, where he intends to do to the suspect everything he’d (allegedly) done to the little girls before finally killing him, and the cop has to either go along with it or die himself. Not a great place in which to be.

There is a good deal of torture in Big Bad Wolves, but it’s certainly not a movie I’d label “torture porn,” though it’s certainly rough. Before the second “interrogation” happens, the father says to the cop, “Maniacs don’t fear guns, they fear other maniacs,” which is a pretty chilling thing to keep in the back of your mind as you watch, and have to decide along with the police officer if the ends justify the means, or if cold blooded revenge is really justice or not.

The filmmakers, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, do a very good job of making the audience nervous as we wait for the next eruption of violence and then sometimes releasing it with a joke, like when the father is about to tear the suspect’s toenail off and stops at the last moment when his cake timer goes off. Or that the father has to make sure he answers when his own mother calls, lest she make him feel guilty. They’re funny situations that never make you forget there are people tied up and bloody in the basement.

The genius of the movie is that, amid all the carnage and offbeat humor, it truly keeps us guessing about whether or not what we’ve seen is really the truth, and whether the suspect is guilty or not. Neither scenario is particularly inviting, if you think about it; torturing a guy who refuses to tell you anything or torturing a guy who truly doesn’t know anything. Big Bad Wolves is thoroughly engaging and will make for good wince-and-laugh viewing.

Doctor Who – The Web of Fear

Last October, it was announced that 9 episodes of classic Doctor Who had been discovered and were available for download on iTunes. Those episodes made up the Season 5 stories “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear,” consecutive serials from Patrick Troughton’s second year as the Second Doctor. “Enemy” will come out on DVD next month, but this month we get what was long considered the lost classic everybody thought would be great based on who directed it and what it was about. It lives up to only about 60% of these theories, but that doesn’t make it bad by any means.

After the events of “Enemy of the World,” the Doctor and his two companions, Jamie McCrimmon and Victoria Waterfield, end up in the London Underground, which appears to be completely deserted. They soon learn that the city has been evacuated due to the appearance of webs and fungus which are choking the city. The British Army has a detail in the Underground to attempt to fight off whatever this is, and the Doctor and company are soon thought to be part of the threat, before they are reunited with their friend Professor Travers, whom they met in Tibet in the 1930s (Earth time). Along with Travers, though, is the return of the Yeti, huge hairy robot monsters controlled by the amorphous Great Intelligence.

While the army fights the Yeti, people start getting killed off, and it becomes more and more evident that someone in the group is a spy for the Great Intelligence, and perhaps it’s the Doctor… or perhaps it’s the mysterious Col. Lethbridge-Stewart who showed up to help. The Doctor and Professor Travers’ daughter think they have a plan to get control of the creatures, but will that be enough to save London?

I listened to this story in audio format last year, before its existence on video was announced, and I have to say, I wasn’t particularly enthralled with it. The plot seemed very by-the-numbers and the characters, many of them anyway, were broad stereotypes, sometimes edging toward ethnic insensitivity. However, this was largely considered great because it was directed by Douglas Camfield, who is famous for directing some of Who‘s best action-oriented stories, like “The Invasion,” the filmed parts of “Inferno” and “The Seeds of Doom.” This aspect, obviously, is not done justice by audio alone, but I figured it would have to be pretty spectacular to make up for the repetitive script.

I’m happy to say it is, somewhat. The first two episodes (episode 1 was always in the archive, 2 is newly discovered) are still pretty boring, and there are too many characters to really care about any in particular very much. Episode 3 is still missing and presented here using off-air audio and still photographs, which is where Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney in his first appearance as the character) comes into things. Halfway through the story, I wasn’t loving it. However, by time you get to episodes 4-6, all of which are recovered and looking great due to the work of the fabulous Restoration Society, my interest began to be piqued more and more, due in no small part by a really well-shot and choreographed action sequence in Episode 4. Camfield does a great job of making us doubt all of the characters, any of whom could be in league with the Intelligence, and even though we now know it’s not Lethbridge-Stewart, the story at the time very much wanted us to think it could be.

Overall, “The Web of Fear” is a pretty enjoyable experience, made all the more so by the fact that we can now watch it, cleaned up and at its best, in DVD format. There are no special features on the disc, which is probably due to the BBC just wanting to get it released into stores as quickly as possible, but since we’ve never even been able to watch it before, that’s a special feature enough for now.

Sorcerer

There were few directors as hot in the 1970s as William Friedkin. As the above trailer says, in 1971 he gave us The French Connection, for which he won a Best Director Oscar, and in 1973 he gave us The Exorcist, for which he was nominated for Best Director, two monster hits that proved to be awards movies as well. He waited a full four years to release his follow-up to The Exorcist, and it was to be his most ambitious production yet, a huge remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense thriller The Wages of Fear, entitled Sorcerer.

The film stars Roy Scheider as one of a group of down-and-out losers hiding and wasting away in South America. They’re all offered the chance to get out, if they pull of a massive, and unbelievably dangerous, feat: transporting several hundred pounds of unstable nitroglycerin 200 miles across very rocky terrain in order to help put out an oil fire. The chances of dying are enormous, but each of the men knows this will be their only ticket to a different life, and so the slow crawl begins, but it’s a much more difficult prospect than even they first thought.

Sorcerer received only mixed reviews by contemporary critics, and tanked at the box office. Why? It happened to have come out the exact same week as a little movie about Wookies, robots, and farm boys called Star Wars. No one saw anything else that weekend and Sorcerer was buried. Many film scholars point to this moment as the decline of the New Hollywood model and the beginning of the Blockbuster as we know it, and which still persists to this day.

After years in relative obscurity, Friedkin’s lost masterpiece gets a spiffy new Blu-ray release with cleaned-up picture and sound, which you’re going to want with the Tangerine Dream music in the background.

ALSO AVAILABLE

Spectacular Spider-Man Seasons 1 & 2 – Get prepared for the newest live-action webslinging film with the first two seasons of the most recent animated series.

Spider-Man Trilogy – Same thing, but this time with the Sam Raimi films from the 2000s, two of which are good.

Mr. Magoo Collection – A set of 53 theatrical shorts produced from 1949 to 1959 featuring the famously near-sighted old millionaire.

Newhart Season 3 – Third season of the ’80s sitcom in which Bob Newhart runs an inn in the mountains. Darryls are involved.

Hapkido/Lady Whirlwind – Two ’70s martial arts films starring Angela Mao Ying and Sammo Hung. Interesting, Lady Whirlwind is also called Deep Thrust. Wonder why they didn’t go with that one for the DVD release.

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