Scum (BBC Version)
Best known because it was banned by the BBC before it was supposed to be aired in 1977, Alan Clarke's Scum holds up well despite all the hype around this made for TV movie. Ray Winstone plays Carlin, a thug imprisoned for his wrongdoings on the outside. He's recently been transferred to Borstel, a youth prison, from another facility. He's sent there along with two other inmates, Davis and Angel. The three of them learn the hard way that prison life sucks and that the system is full of corruption. Further more, rather than attempt to reform them, it seems to be working towards destroying them. The wardens and officers don't care what happens to them, giving Carlin the perfect opportunity to work his way up to top dog.
Scum is pretty strong stuff, considering it was made for TV back in 1977. It's bleak, uncompromising, and rather downbeat. It's quite critical of Thatcher's administration's prison policies that were in effect at the time and doesn't seem to offer a whole lot of hope for the prison community in general. The rape scene still plays quite harshly as does some of the language and violence, though all of this occurs to provide a point – that obviously the prison system has a lot of problems and that things won't get better until the government takes a look at things and at least makes an attempt to rectify them.
Winstone is great in the lead. He's frightening and even a little bit sympathetic in one or two spots. He shows great range and depth as an actor and is convincing in his role. The rest of the supporting cast are also quite good making it easy to suspend your disbelief for an hour and a bit.
Scum (Theatrical Version)
After Scum was essentially buried by the BBC, Clarke and Winstone decided to remake the television version and release it theatrically. The film follows pretty much the same plot with most of the same characters (many of whom are even played by the same actors). The biggest difference here is that there's a lot more foul language and considerably harsher violence – hey, you can get away with a lot more on the big screen than you can when working in the television market – at least you could in the late seventies before shows like The Sopranos were around.
So we've got a rougher, rowdier and bloodier version of Scum, does it work? Well, yes and no. The violence and language do sound and look more realistic here. We're dealing with the criminal element under some extremely harsh conditions and it makes sense that they're going to use curse words in their day to day language. It also makes sense that when they get hit, they bleed. So choke up a few more points for realism in favor of the theatrical version of the film. It doesn't feel quite as bleak as its predecessor though. I'm not entirely sure why, both films are very well directed and very well acted and you'd think the added realism would make this version the winner hands down, but it doesn't. It doesn't make it any worse though. The two films are pretty much on an even keel in terms of quality, both are excellent and the theatrical remake doesn't take anything away from the BBC TV version.
Made In Britain
Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction) plays a young Nazi skinhead named Trevor in his debut role in this made for TV drama. Trevor is sent to a detention center after he's arrested again for destroying an immigrant workers window. His social worker has tried his best, but Trevor seems to be a lost cause in the truest sense – he has no regard for authority at all and only cares about himself. He's a racist, he's cruel, and he has nothing but total disregard for the law. The government employees at the detention center try to make Trevor conform, but he won't – no matter how hard they try – and just fights back with a flurry of curse words and idle threats.
After getting over the initial weirdness of seeing Tim Roth with a shaved head and a swastika tattooed on his forehead, Made In Britain is a pretty straightforward film, even if it is a bit ambiguous. Hardly feel good movie material (as if any of the film in this set are!), it takes a cold, hard look at the way society tries to reform those that it doesn't like or those who try and fight against it. It's interesting in that a Nazi skinhead isn't likely someone that most of us can really sympathize with, but by the end of the movie it isn't all together too clear if Trevor is the villain in the story or not.
Some stark cinematography and a couple of song by The Exploited on the soundtrack give the movie a strange, almost alien feel to it at times, particularly when he's locked up and confronted head on by the supposed social workers towards the end of the film.
There are three soccer 'firms' (fan clubs) operating out of an English city. When Bexie (Gary Oldman of The Professional), the leader of one of the firms, decides that they should unite before going to the European Championships being held in Germany. The two leaders of the opposing clubs don't think too kindly of Bexie's plan, as it calls for him to act as leader, so they make a point of challenging him for leadership of the united firms, and a nasty rivalry ensues between the three teams, eventually turning ugly and violent.
The Firm (not to be confused with the Tom Cruise/John Grisham movie of the same name) is a stark look at the strange manifestations of violence that seem to arise around the European soccer scene. The almost cult like behavior of the club members, who all display a fearless dedication to their sworn team, is pointless and counterproductive at best. Why it continues is anyone's guess but continue it does and The Firm gives us a look at how hooliganism has evolved over the years and will likely continue to evolve as the world changes – rather than cease to exist all together.
Oldman gives a stand out performance as Bexie, at times both sensitive and manic, almost possessed. He shows a strong penchant for violence, though he does usually at least try and think before he acts. He's smarter than the average hooligan it would seem.
Elephant is a hard film to categorize. At its purest, the film is a depiction of a series of random killings occurring in the Northern Ireland of the late 1980s (which as we all know wasn't a very happy time or place). There's really no context or rationalization to the deaths, making the film all the more poignant – sometimes life (and more obviously, death) are pointless and unexpected. These things don't always have a context.
There's no real story, at least not in the traditional sense, and there's not really any dialogue going on in the film. You don't get to know the characters all that well, and none of them even have names in the film. It's simply death followed by death set against the backdrop of the torrid political climate of the times and justified by the 'liberation' of Northern Ireland. This is all accomplished with no emotion displayed on screen and looks to have been shot using a handheld camera, giving the film an almost documentary/newscast feel.
Whether or not this is an accurate representation of the times is hard to say unless you were there (and I wasn't). The film doesn't pretend to take sides, it doesn't literally justify any of the deaths on either side of the political spectrum and it doesn't ever pretend that any of what we're seeing is okay. It simply presents its scenarios as they are and lets the viewer make up his or her own mind about it all.
All five films are presented in their original aspect ratios, which is fullframe except for the theatrical version of Scum which is 1.66.1 and is enhanced for anamorphic television sets. Some of the movies look a little dark but this isn't the fault of the transfers so much as it is part of the gritty look that Clarke was obviously going for in his filmmaking. Edge enhancement and compression artifacts aren't ever an issue though the features are all coated in a visible and natural looking coat of grain. The odd speck of print damage does creep into the picture from time to time but it's never more than just that – a speck or two. Colors are sometimes drab but this is a stylistic choice rather than a fault. Skin tones and black levels are dead one.
Every one of the features is presented in its original Dolby Digital Mono mix save for the theatrical version of Scum which has Dolby Digital Mono, Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound options, all in English. All five of the films have optional English subtitles, which do come in handy in a few of the movies (The Firm in particular) as there are a few spots where the British accents get pretty thick and may prove to be a little difficult to understand for North American audiences. Dialects aside, the audio tracks are all nice and clear without any hiss or distortion problems. There's not much range in the mono tracks but that's to be expected – they do get the job done just fine though. The Surround Sound mix on the theatrical cut of Scum sounds quite good with nice use made of the surrounds and the subwoofer, adding some atmosphere and 'boom' to the soundtrack. Purists have the option of watching it in Mono, so we really get the best of both worlds here.
The supplements for each movie can be found on their respective discs in the set, and are laid out as follows:
Scum (BBC Version): Two of the main stars of the film, Phil Daniels and David Threlfall are joined by the film's producer, Margaret Matheson, on a feature length commentary track. It's an interesting listen as they discuss not only their work on the film together but also the rather convoluted history of the movie and its subsequent banning by the BBC for fifteen years. A second commentary track by star Ray Winstone covers selected scenes, and he too discusses his work on the movie as well as some of the controversy surrounding it.
Scum (Theatrical Version): This time out, Ray Winstone gives a full length commentary track, discussing his working relationship with Alan Clarke as well as how things lead up to the two of them remaking Scum as a theatrical feature. He goes into a bit of detail about how the two productions differed, and why.
Video interviews are supplied with writer Roy Minton and producer Clive Parson, both of whom have no shortage of words about Clarke, his films, and their combined efforts. Some of the information given here is repeated in the commentary track but it's always interesting to hear someone else's side of the story and that's more or less what happens here. Rounding out the supplements on this disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, a poster gallery, and a stills gallery.
Made In Britain: Tim Roth gives a great full length commentary on this one, going into detail about what it was like to take on the role of a Nazi skinhead and how he felt about the part and the film itself. A second commentary track featuring writer David Leland and Producer Margaret Matheson is also supplied, they go more into detail about the making of the film from an off set perspective but it's also a pretty informative session.
A video interview with Tim Roth is also supplied and while he repeats a bit of the same information that was on the commentary track, he's an entertaining guy to listen to and being able to see his reactions makes things a bit more curious. Lastly, there is a gallery of promotional materials on this DVD as well.
The Firm: Sadly, the only extra on this disc are a pair of still galleries. I was really hoping for an Oldman commentary, but no dice.
Elephant: Sharing the disc with the almost extra-lessThe Firm, it's nice to find that Elephant does have some keen bonus material packed inside it's animated menus. Producer Danny Boyle (yes, he of Trainspotting fame) gives an interesting and lively talk over the film in his feature length commentary track. There's also a five minute featurette entitled Memories Of Elephant that features interviews with Gary Oldman, David Hare and Molly Clarke as they look back on the movie and it's impact, as well as the influence it had.
Director: Alan Clarke: The final disc in the set contains a feature length documentary entitled Director: Alan Clarke. What this is, in a nutshell, is an in depth look at the director and his work through the eyes of those who knew him and who worked with him during his time at the BBC and through his stints at feature film making. There's plenty of great behind the scenes footage of Clarke on set as well as loads of clips from his films to punctuate the points being made by the documentary. There are plenty of photos from his family archives, as well as some interesting anecdotes from those who were close to him. Blue Underground has also unearthed some television interview footage, which lets Clarke speak for himself about a few things. The documentary, which runs a swift fifty-four minutes in length, does a great job of painting a picture giving the viewer a great representation of the importance of Clarke's work without overshadowing the man himself. The only other item on this DVD is a lengthy and informative biography of Alan Clarke written by Jonathan Sothcott.
Blue Underground has done their usual stand up job bringing these gritty slice of life films from England to North American audiences. While the audio/video isn't perfect, it's pretty darn close and the extras are all relevant and interesting to watch and listen to. The Alan Clarke Collection comes highly recommended. This box set is a limited edition of ten thousand numbered copies.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.