New releases explore Israeli history, U.S.-Mexico relationship, drug war
Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.
Available Tuesday in DVD
and streaming formats.
This week we begin in Israel:
This Oscar-nominated documentary features long interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s terrorist intelligence agency. They sit, almost eerily calm, with director Dror Moreh and discuss some of the challenges they faced while in service. Their testimonies are riveting.
Moreh also chronicles Israel’s modern history with copious archival footage and emotional onsite news clips of actual bombings and other acts of terrorism. Moreh’s biggest discovery, however, is not with the visual documentation but with what the men have to say about the limitations on how the alleged war on terrorism has been waged. And their similar views are not comforting.
The DVD includes commentary and a 42-minute onstage question-and-answer session with Moreh and moderator Stephen Farber.
The Host (**1/2) This recent science-fiction/fantasy film written by Stephenie Meyer, the author behind the Twilight phenomenon, made for an easy critical target with its expected gooey teen triangle. But it also provided some workable themes for Australian writer-director Andrew Niccol, who has previously turned out a number of films probing identity and free will: Gattaca, Simone, The Truman Show.
When Host begins, Earth has already been taken over by aliens who inhabit everyone’s bodies except for a few human outliers. Much like the humans in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these humans fight to retain their own identities.
But when Melanie Stryker (Saoirse Ronan) is inhabited, her real self remains inside, making for an eerie sort of dual dialogue and a discomforting voiceover. She joins a rebel group led by William Hurt, and in between romances with two handsome young men, she finds balance.
Rated PG-13, 126 minutes. The DVD, in all formats and downloads, offers commentary, four deleted scenes, an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and a brief “Seeker” public service announcement.
The Painted Veil (**1/2) Of the three film versions made from novelist Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (the other two: 1957’s Seventh Sin and 2006’s The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts), this 1934 adaptation has something the others do not: Greta Garbo.
The enigmatic Swedish actress almost makes believable the overly dramatic story of a clumsy English physician (Herbert Marshall) taking an Austrian wife (Garbo) and going to China to help the natives. While there, she becomes bored and cheats on her husband (something not possible in films released later this same year, when the Production Code began to be enforced) with a local bureaucrat (George Brent).
When rebuked by her lover, she returns to her husband, who takes her back in name only. She then redeems herself by working with cholera patients. 85 minutes.
The Human Factor (***) Graham Greene wrote the source novel for this intelligent, albeit slow-paced spy drama, released in 1979. Noted playwright Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, paying heed to Greene’s morally tortured characters. But Otto Preminger directed, bringing his lethargic style to an already measured character study.
Nicol Williamson plays a London bureaucrat in England’s Intelligence division. His superiors (John Gielgud and David Attenborough) believe another man (Derek Jacobi) to be the source of the division’s intelligence leak. A cat-and-mouse game of wits plays out. Rated R,115 minutes.
Zandy’s Bride (***1/2) In this 1974 film, one of the few jewels from master Swedish director Jan Troell, Liv Ullmann stars as the title character, Hannah, a shy immigrant to California’s Big Sur country during rough frontier days.
She arrives as a mail-order bride to small-time cattleman Zandy Allan (Gene Hackman). From the start, he berates and belittles her, even raping her on their wedding night.
From there, Troell could have taken a formulaic route with Zandy softening and Hannah eventually winning him over with her charms. But instead, she triumphs with great grit, arriving at a point of self-sufficiency that precludes the rough frontiersman, as she stuns him with her intelligence and discipline.
As with virtually all of Troell’s films, Zandy’s Bride is beautifully filmed with little falsity found in the characters. Rated PG, 116 minutes.
The Girl (***) Abbie Cornish plays Ashley, a somewhat irresponsible single mother in South Texas. After losing custody of her child, she visits her shady father (Will Patton) in a Mexican border town. When she learns he has been making money smuggling immigrants into the United States, she finds a new way to earn money to help get back her child.
But the scheme goes horribly wrong, and she ends up with an abandoned girl (Maritza Santiago Hernandez). The two seem shackled together as Ashley struggles to find refuge for the girl. Of course, they bond along the way, and Ashley redeems herself despite her selfish and feckless ways. The film maintains viewer interest despite familiar material from writer-director David Riker.
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes. The DVD includes a two-minute making-of featurette.
The House I Live In (***1/2) Eugene Jarecki’s engaging, fast-moving documentary focuses on the war on drugs and how it has been a laughable failure. Jarecki interviews politicians, judges, convicts, ex-convicts and others while examining the unfairness of drug laws. He paints an indicting picture against current laws and practices, and even offers a few remedies.
Not rated, 108 minutes. The disc also includes five additional, brief featurettes on some of the film’s topics.
In this week’s TV arrivals, a new favorite appears along with a well-known classic.
Portlandia: Season Three West Coast weirdness finds a home in this popular Independent Film Channel series set in Portland, Ore. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein return to find regular amusement in antics of local personalities, including the over-energetic mayor (Kyle MacLachlan) and a host of characters played by the show’s co-creators.
Also this year, a new roommate, Alexandra (Chloe Sevigny), complicates matters for Fred and Carrie. The season sees appearances from Jeff Goldblum, Kumail Nanjiani and others.
Not rated, 242 minutes. The season's 10 episodes arrive on two discs, along with deleted scenes and the special episode “Winter in Portlandia.”
Twilight Zone: Season Three This episode-only assemblage of some of creator Rod Serling’s finest work includes 37 episodes on five discs. Serling had somehow kept his series fresh and innovative, even by this third season, which saw a greater attention to possible nuclear annihilation.
For example, the episode “Two” stars Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery as the only survivors in an isolated, destroyed town. With virtually no dialogue, they convey what happened a few years earlier.
Serling wrote the episode “The Shelter,” in which a neighborhood devolves into anarchic chaos when the owner of the area’s only bomb shelter refuses to admit others during a bomb scare. The season also features appearances by guest stars Robert Redford, Leonard Nimoy, Dean Stockwell, Cliff Robertson, Carol Burnett and many others.
Also available Tuesday on DVD: Boy, Dead Man Down, Spring Breakers.