New releases serve up gritty history, barbed satire
This week we begin — where else? — in 14th-century Mongolia:
Not rated, 129 minutes.
Now available on DVD.
Not surprisingly, 14th-century Mongolia looks like a bleak, untamed place in this compelling Russian-Mongolian drama filled with action, colorful characters and court intrigue.
The rise and fall of several members of the great Khan family takes place against a backdrop of national conquest. Stuck in the middle of it all is a Russian Orthodox priest called on to cure Emperor Khan’s mother of blindness.
To his regret, but not to his surprise, he fails, resulting in various tortures and periods of cruel servitude. Director Andrei Proshkin then delivers third-act surprises that send everyone in different, unexpected directions.
The DVD offers the film in English and in the original languages.
Hell’s House (**1/2), Of Human Bondage (***) Kino Classics one-ups the Warner Archive Collection with these two early Bette Davis films remastered in high definition. The two have been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation, with Davis’ personal print for Hell’s House going to the Library.
In the 1932 film, the 24-year-old Davis takes a minor role, playing the well-intentioned girlfriend of a bootlegger (Pat O’Brien). Because a 14-year-old boy trusts him and works for him, the man stands by while the youth is arrested and then sent to reform school. There, director Howard Higgin delivers the socially aware message of the day about the dangers of such institutions. Not rated, 71 minutes
Davis takes a major role in 1934’s Of Human Bondage as Mildred, a callous, gold-digging waitress who taunts, teases and ultimately humiliates medical student Philip (Leslie Howard).
Based on Somerset Maugham’s novel, the film treats Philip — who has the medical condition known as talipes (also known as clubfoot)— as the idealized “outsider.” The sympathic Other is one of the author’s favorite tropes.
For her part, Davis shamelessly chews the scenery, resorting to an clumsy artificial British accent. The disc also includes Michael House’s excellent 97-minute documentary on the writer, Revealing Mr. Maugham, featuring interviews with Armistead Maupin, Ronald Harwood and others, including archival footage of Maugham. Not rated, 83 minutes.
Fred Won’t Move Out (***) Writer-director Richard Ledes captures and conveys an uncomfortable sense of realism in this poignant story of a strong-willed man, Fred (Elliott Gould), aging and failing in his physical and mental capacities yet fighting to stay with his senile wife, Susan (Judith Roberts).
An excellent Fred Melamed and Stephanie Roth Haberle play the couple’s children, who travel to their family home in upstate New York in a futile attempt to put their mother in a nursing home and to bring Fred with them into New York City. Mfoniso Udofia plays the Ghanian caretaker who tries to be helpful without meddling. Not rated, 75 minutes.
As Luck Would Have It (***) This Spanish-language film never tips its hand as to whether it is straight drama, biting satire or just pulling our collective legs.
A depressed, unemployed man (Jose Mota) leaves yet another failed job interview and then has an accident at a museum construction site, leaving him lying on his back with a metal rod inserted into his head. His wife (Salma Hayek) frantically arrives on the scene, and before long, they are in the middle of a media bidding war. Not rated, 98 minutes.
Knife Fight (***) Political junkies will enjoy this fast-moving socio-drama/light comedy about political operative Paul Turner (a convincing Rob Lowe), who promotes his candidates even while they commit egregious acts.
He eventually confronts the decision on whether to continue his advocacy when several candidates, a Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) and a California senator (David Harbour), misbehave shamefully. But the news has not yet been made public. When confronted with a decent human (Carrie-Anne Moss) who might actually make a difference as an officeholder, Turner hesitates because she has virtually no chance of winning against well-financed candidates.
The film touches on several sleazy campaign practices and shows enough dirt to cast even further gloom on our electoral process. Rated R, 95 minutes.
Charlie Zone (***) This gritty Canadian thriller features Glen Gould as a college graduate and former professional boxer who falls in over his head with a ruthless Montreal gang. After taking a brutal beating in a street fight, he agrees to abduct a runaway young woman (Amanda Crew) from a drug house for her parents and for a handsome payout.
But once he has her, his problems escalate, resulting in several additional beatings, an attempted murder and a triple-cross. He ends up back at his grandfather’s home on the native Indian reservation where he grew up.
Good performances, unforeseen twists and adequate atmospherics make this a neo-noir sleeper. Rated R, 103 minutes.
The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse Though animated, this feature is not for kids — it’s based on the underground comic by Ken Haeser and Buz Hasson.
It’s the latest twist on the zombie phenomenon, featuring John Romero, a.k.a. the Living Corpse, a soulful zombie who wears his heart on his sleeve. But alas, despite his soft side, when he grows hungry, he must find something, or someone, to eat. Rated R, 88 minutes.
Justin Bieber: Always Believing This documentary on the Biebster features interviews with Usher, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Sean Kingston and others, all commenting on the popular singer. Director Thomas Gibson also attempts to flesh out some of Bieber’s life story, however brief it is. Not rated, 70 minutes.
And, finally, from this week’s TV offerings:
Call the Midwife: Season Two This excellent BBC series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs returns in its sophomore season featuring more dramas — and horrors — found in London’s East End during the 1950s. A group of dedicated midwives tend to the poor, perpetually pregnant wives of the area, each facing dangers and, in some, hostile home situations.
Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) finds rewards and struggles while living with the other midwives and the nuns at nearby Nonnatus House. With Jenny Agutter and Judy Parfitt. Vanessa Redgrave narrates. The season’s eight episodes, along with the Christmas special, come on two discs. Also included are cast and crew interviews. Not rated, 9 hours, 15 minutes.
Also available Tuesday on DVD: The Howling, Jack the Giant Slayer, Movie 43, Quartet.