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Lockdown lovely box set blues
It's happening again with no new reviews posted for two weeks, but it's not for the want of trying this time. In a postponed blog, Slarek muses on why richly featured, multi-film box sets are great for film fans but huge time hoggers for disc reviewers.
17 November 2020

I was planning to post this blog a week or so ago, then thought better of it for reasons I don’t intend to clarify. Now I’ve reached the point where I feel it needs to go up, lest I be suspected of falling back into the isolationist funk I found myself in immediately prior to this year’s London Film Festival. Yes, my daytime workload has remained high and there have been a couple of insane deadlines that have had me working into the night and over weekends, but I was determined to continue the run of reviews I managed to bang out during the festival (when I did, admittedly, have some time off work) when I refocused my attention on Blu-ray releases.

Ah.

Right, here’s the problem, and I’m fully aware that it’s one that we have created for ourselves during the course of this site’s existence. When we review a cinema release, it’s only the film we have to cover. It may sometimes take a while, but once we’ve said all we have to say about it (or at least have cut ourselves short to prevent endless waffling), the review is complete and ready for formatting and posting. With discs, and especially the titles we tend to cover, that’s just the start of it.

If you’re reviewing a Blu-ray release, at least if you’re reviewing it properly, then you can’t ignore or gloss over the special features (and I’ve come to prefer the term ‘special features’ over the previously default ‘extras’, as for cinephiles those features are often as strong a reason for buying a disc as the film they accompany). Some review sites simply list a disc’s supplementary material or provide a single paragraph overview of it, but that’s not how we roll, and we have our reasons. Distributors like Indicator, Eureka, Arrow, Second Run and Second Sight clearly go to considerable trouble to secure the rights to existing supplementary material, as well as shooting and editing new interviews and creating informative featurettes, and we believe that these sometimes invaluable additions deserve the same level of attention and appreciation as the films themselves. The thing is that if you’re going to cover them in that sort of detail, you’re going to have to invest some serious time into the process, and as a result our disc reviews tend to take considerably longer to complete than those for cinema releases. If your disc watching and review writing is restricted to evenings and weekends and not going to swallow every minute of your free time (we do have lives, you know), then progress can feel frustratingly slow. I should note that rather than skipping through the supplementary material to get a flavour of their style and content to speed up the process, we always make a point of watching every special feature from start to finish. Quite aside from the fact that they will sometimes enhance our appreciation of the film they accompany, they can also clarify points we were previously uncertain of or even contradict assumptions we have made, which gives us the chance to make corrections before posting and avoid making prize asses of ourselves.

The Fu Manchu Cycle 1965-1969

Coming off my London Film Festival coverage (some of which I also never had time to complete, I should note), I made a decision that threw a small spanner into my plans. Knowing that the LFF had already put me behind on disc releases, I had reluctantly decided that I wouldn’t have time to cover Indicator’s Blu-ray of Joseph Losey’s Eve. Then, late one night when I was laid up with illness, I decided to watch it anyway and knew long before it had finished that I simply couldn’t let this one go. Thus, by the time I started work in earnest on Indicator’s The Fu Manchu Cycle 1965-1969 box set, my planned review schedule had gone up in smoke. Yet it was only once I really got my teeth into this extraordinary release that one of the biggest problems of being a part-time review site really hit home. This set contains five feature films on five Blu-ray discs, each with its own set of extra features, and it’s only once you really start watching them that you get a flavour for just how numerous and extensive they are. Yes, there are a handful of short introductions and interviews with crew members, but there are also four commentary tracks, five 90-minute long British Entertainment History Project interviews, two 50-minute interviews with genre experts, a 45 minute archival interview with producer Harry Alan Towers, an 86-minute Guardian interview with Christopher Lee, a full Children’s Film Foundation feature film, two silent short films, and a whole lot more. I totted up the running time of the special features in this set and it came to almost 24 hours worth of material. Combine that with the films themselves and you have over 31 hours of viewing and listening material in a single release. Even allowing for three hours or so of viewing an evening (not always possible, unfortunately), it would take ten days just to watch all of the films and special features, and that’s not allowing for the time that it takes to write the reviews and post the odd news story in between. It’s in part the heavy workload that such disc releases create for site contributors that prompts them to sometimes ask how many special features there are on a disc before agreeing to cover it.

All of this leaves me in a bit of a quandary. Should I continue to devote this sort of time to each release I choose to review and in the process cover fewer discs and miss a few deadlines, or simply provide a brief overview of the special features as many others do and free up time to review more discs, albeit in considerably less detail? It’s something I’ve certainly pondered on before, but it really bugged me as I slowly worked my way though the Fu Manchu box set whilst simultaneously trying to make a late start on Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 box set. Thankfully (at least for review purposes), this one has fewer special features, but includes a whopping six movies, all of which have commentary tracks and other supplementary material. It would certainly make sense to try and streamline my reviews, but every time I try to do so I end up being pulled back to the dark side, so to speak. In the original (it’s been rewritten) introduction to the Fu Manchu set, for instance, I stated my intention to just write short capsule reviews of the films themselves, but once I got going I just couldn’t do it. And I have to admit that the detail we go into on the special features has, over the years, become a signature aspect of our reviews and is doubtless now expected by regular readers.

These are difficult times for everyone. My daytime workload has certainly been impacted by the pandemic (I’ve been tasked with creating animated videos to outline the ever-changing rules and safety measures and then asked to rework them as the guidance repeatedly shifts), and other site contributors are dealing with health, family and work difficulties of their own that are currently leaving little time to spend on reviews. So once again I ask that you forgive the slow review turnaround on the site. My typically overlong review of the Fu Manchu box set is approaching completion and I’ve already started on the Columbia Noir set. After that I’m hoping to focus on a few single-film disc releases, just for a break, and even revisit a couple of the discs that I missed but remain keen to write about, including Second Run’s Blu-ray of Istiyad Ashbah’s bold and arresting blend of documentary and drama, Ghost Hunting.

Right, back to the reviews!