Editor’s Notes: New to Blu-ray/DVD: 1944, The Good Son, The Lovers, Bender, Going In Style, Red Leaves, S.W.A.T.: Under Siege, Crashing: The Complete First Season, & The Carol Burnett Show: The Best of Harvey Korman are out on their respective home video formats August 1st.
1944 (Film Movement) was Estonia’s 2016 official Academy Award entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category. 1944 is a World War II drama about the citizens of this small Baltic nation who were turned against each other by rival superpowers. The events in the film depict the bitter aftermath of five years of invasion and occupation. First seized by Soviet Russia, then by Nazi Germany, Estonia ended up with more than 50,000 men forced to fight for the Red Army and over 70,000 for the German military. The result was effectively a civil war, with former friends and neighbors conscripted into slaughtering each other on the battlefield.
Director Elmo Nuganen focuses on Kark Tannik (Kaspar Velberg), a young man feeling guilt over his family’s deportation to Siberia by the Soviets. As he makes his way through battles, he comes in contact with his pro-Russian counterparts, all as poorly armed and frightened as he. There’s a romantic sub-plot involving the movie’s only female character, Aino (Maiken Schmidt).
The battle sequences are impressively filmed. One involves tanks running into a minefield, another an aerial attack on unarmed civilians. However, characterization suffers. The characters are not fully developed, and we never learn enough about them to care about their fate. The film succeeds in bringing to a wide audience the dramatic situation in Estonia brought about by war and almost serves as a memorial to a people shattered by conflict and subject to powerful armies.
The DVD release includes the bonus animated short film, The Two Lives of Nate Hill, which depicts two parallel but different life paths and the dualities of identity, chance, fate, and existence. “1944” is in Estonian, with English subtitles. There is also an English soundtrack option.
The Good Son
The Good Son (Kino Lorber) is a thriller about a boy with a sweet face who is the male equivalent of the Bad Seed. Henry (Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone)) appears loving and loyal to his parents, sister and friends, but he has a fondness for causing lethal “fun,” such as dropping a dummy from an overpass onto oncoming traffic, causing a multi-car collision. His cousin Mark (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is staying with Henry’s family while his father (David Morse) is away on business, and becomes an unwilling participant in Henry’s sinister pranks.
The contrast between Henry and Culkin’s angelic kid from Home Alone is extreme. Henry goes about his day looking to harm, maim, and cause terrible damage. Mark is horrified about what he witnesses, but doesn’t quite know how to handle it. The main character is Mark, not Henry, and Wood does an exceptional job conveying his confusion, terror, and frustration at seeing his cousin engage in deadly games. Mark turns to his aunt and uncle, but they don’t believe his warnings, so it becomes Mark’s job to stop Henry, who has his own ideas.
A thriller in which a deviant child is the protagonist is novel enough to involve the viewer. As Henry escalates his fun, and hints at past, horrific events, it becomes clear that this child is pure evil with a facade that suggests a sweet kid. We see events unfold through Mark’s eyes, and wonder how one child can possibly stop another from his path of destructive, homicidal behavior.
Special bonus materials on the R-rated widescreen Blu-ray release include interviews with director Joseph Ruben, actors Wendy Crewson, Daniel Hugh Kelly, and David Morse, and cinematographer John Lindley. Also enclosed is the original theatrical trailer.
The Lovers (Lionsgate) is a romantic comedy-drama about a soon-to-be-divorced couple navigating the consequences of extra-marital affairs. Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) have been together for many years, though the spark in their marriage has long been snuffed out. Both of them have taken lovers. He’s seeing an attractive, but unstable ballet teacher (Melora Walters); she’s with a charming, but shallow writer (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones). When Mary and Michael begin to feel guilty about their respective affairs, the film takes an unexpected turn.
The underlying joke of the film is that Mary and Michael are so much alike, which can be seen in the ways they attempt to conceal their affairs, make bad moral decisions, and become embarrassed because of them. Both Winger and Letts do an effective job balancing the seriousness of the situation with the awkward comic ramifications that arise.
Rather than following a romantic comedy template, The Lovers takes an original path. It’s a sophisticated movie about adult relationships, which are more complex and fraught with guilt than Hollywood rom-coms that deal with teens or young adults. Mary and Michael have a long history together and they’ve dedicated a good part of their lives as a couple. When their marriage loses its fizz and they don’t want to settle for awkward smiles and polite conversation under the same roof, they look elsewhere for romance, only to discover facets of their partner that they never appreciated.
Special materials on the widescreen Blu-ray release include audio commentary with writer-director Azazel Jacobs, and the featurettes “The Making of Romance: Scoring The Lovers” and “A Complicated Passion: Making The Lovers.” A digital HD copy is enclosed.
Bender (Candy Factory Films) is the story of America’s first serial killing family. The setting is 1870s Kansas, and people have started to disappear mysteriously on the plains. When the troubled Dr. York (Jon Monastero) goes searching for answers, he stumbles on the Benders, a homesteading family with an unnatural way of living off the land. The elders vie for dominance, their daughter Kate (Nicole Jellen) draws upon her supposed powers to will a better future, and a peculiar young boy (Chance Caeden) is reared in the family trade. When the doctor also vanishes, the locals sense that the Benders may be responsible for the many local disappearances. With the sheriff getting close to the truth and with insanity a factor, the Benders must decide what to do.
From 1869 to 1872, the family killed at least 11 people. James Karen (Return of the Living Dead) stars as Old Man Bender, playing the role in animalistic fashion. According to reports, the real Bender spoke little English and was prone to laughing aimlessly, which led many to regard him as a half-wit. Karen gives a performance that is both mesmerizing and creepy.
The film echoes the horror classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though it never achieves that film’s level of intensity. There is lots of blood and graphic gore, but the film rises above typical slasher horror flicks because its basis is actual events. Director John Alexander gives the film the look of a period Western, making its grim revelations all the more unsettling. The supporting cast includes Bruce Davison, Linda Purl, and Buck Taylor.
The unrated widescreen DVD release contains no bonus materials.
Going In Style
Going In Style (Warner Home Video) stars three Oscar winners — Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin — as three elderly guys who feel the system has screwed them. To balance things, they decide to rob a bank.
Joe (Caine), a New York grandfather, is facing foreclosure on his home because he was talked into a scam mortgage by a less-than-ethical banker. With pals Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin), Joe hangs out at a local diner, complaining about how hard it is to get by on limited funds in what are supposed to be their golden years. When their pensions are cut and Willie discovers he needs a new kidney that his insurance company refuses to cover, the trio decide to become thieves.
The subject matter of Going In Style is timely. Of course, discussing financial difficulties to taking on a bank robbery is a pretty big jump, but the film is, after all, a comedy. The motivation for the three senior citizens is to strike back at an institution that they regard as their chief villain — the bank. After the 2008 financial crisis, audiences are likely in their corner as they awkwardly and often hilariously plan the heist.
Director Zach Braff knows that when he has three veteran actors, it’s wise to provide them with screen time to match their talents. Some of the best moments in the movie simply involve the three buddies hanging out, shooting the breeze, commenting on reality TV shows, and good-naturedly putting each other down. Their comic timing and delivery are precise, with both jokes and simply reactions eliciting laughs.
Bonus materials on the 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack include deleted scenes and director’s commentary by Zach Braff. A digital copy is enclosed.
Red Leaves (IndiePix Films) follows the life of an Ethiopian immigrant in Israel — 74-year-old Meseganio Tadela (played by Debebe Eshtu) — who immigrated 28 years ago with his family. Rather than assimilate, the tough, obstinate Mesegonio has chosen to stubbornly retain his culture, speaks very little, and hardly speaks Hebrew. After losing his wife, he sells his apartment, vowing to live the rest of his life with his two grown sons, whether they like it or not.
However, during this journey to reconnect with family, the elderly Mesegonio comes to realize that he belongs to a rapidly disappearing class that believes in retaining Ethiopian culture against the backdrop of contemporary Israel. As this reality begins to sink in, he undertakes a quest to pass on fading values to his sons and an immigrant community that have lost their way.
Dramatic tension arises when Mesegonio’s plan becomes problematic as he starts noticing infidelities and unhappiness in his children’s lives, and can’t help himself from intervening. He is a man out of synch with changing times, and this forms the film’s primary conflict. It’s admirable that he wants to perpetuate a vanishing culture, but we understand his sons’ stronger connection to a modern world, albeit with its downside. Director Bazi Gete provides a seldom-seen look at an immigrant community’s ties to its native and adopted countries.
There are no bonus features on the unrated DVD release. The film is in Amharic and Hebrew, with English subtitles.
S.W.A.T.: Under Siege
S.W.A.T.: Under Siege (Sony Home Entertainment) is an action thriller in which the Los Angeles Police Department’s Special Weapons and Tactics team (S.W.A.T.) must defend its compound from a series of assault units seeking to recover a prisoner with ties to a powerful drug cartel.
When a D.E.A. and S.W.A.T. cartel takedown ends in a shootout, S.W.A.T. Agent Travis Hall (Sam Jaeger) seizes a mysterious prisoner and takes him into custody. Before long, however, the S.W.A.T. compound is under siege by wave after wave of heavily armed teams attempting to recover the prisoner known as “The Scorpion” (Michael Jai White). When Travis discovers that his prisoner is a black ops specialist with the goods on both U.S. intelligence agencies and international criminals, it’s up to Travis and the crack S.W.A.T. team to keep The Scorpion and his billion-dollar secrets safe.
This is the kind of action flick that’s fun to watch, but is almost instantly forgettable. The action is virtually non-stop with guns blazing, bloody deaths, and even some hand-to-hand combat. The film reminded me of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. In both films, you have a group of trapped people who must fight for survival against overwhelming odds. In S.W.A.T.: Under Siege, however, the folks fighting for their lives are well armed, well trained, and know how to handle themselves under pressure.
There are no bonus features on the R-rated widescreen Blu-ray release. The film is also available on DVD.
Crashing: The Complete First Season
Crashing: The Complete First Season (HBO Home Entertainment), executive produced by Judd Apatow and Pete Holmes, is a semi-autobiographical comedy about a stand-up comic whose suburban life unravels. Loosely based on Holmes’ personal experiences in stand-up comedy, the show follows an aspiring comic named Pete (Holmes), who finds out his wife Jessica (Lauren Lapkus) is cheating on him, forcing a move to New York to pursue his dream of being a comedian.
Thrown into a tough, unforgiving city, Pete learns some hard lessons about both life and comedy, encountering all kids of stand-up talent along the way, from cynical Artie Lange to provocateur T.J. Miller, to benevolent motivator Sarah Silverman, and many more. While trying to make ends meet by crashing on other people’s couches, Pete finds empathy and nurture in unlikely places, evolving into someone who’s more accepting of the messiness of life.
Holmes is the major ingredient of the show’s attraction. His character is so engaging and sweet of temperament that it’s difficult not to be charmed by him, as are most of the program’s characters, even cynical New Yorkers. Pete is humble, friendly, unafraid to ask for help, seeks solutions to his own setbacks, and remains pleasant while barely getting by as a comic.
The series works on two levels. While showcasing the acts of various stand-up comics, it also underscores the difficulty of making a living doing stand-up in a highly competitive market.
Bonus materials on the widescreen 2-disc Blu-ray release include Pete Holmes talking about his experience working with the comedians featured in Season One; “Comedy Extras” (stand-up moments featuring T.J. Miller, Aparna Nancheria and Pete Holmes); “The Art of Crashing,” a discussion among comedians about what it takes to make it in the comedy business; and a behind-the-scenes making-of featurette. A digital HD copy is enclosed.
The Carol Burnett Show: The Best of Harvey Korman
The Carol Burnett Show: The Best of Harvey Korman (Time Life) contains sketches from the long-running comedy/variety show. Known as one of television’s top second bananas, Korman sang, danced, ad libbed, and created some of the funniest moments of the show. The DVD release contains three (out of four) rare episodes which haven’t been seen in over 40 years, and showcase some of Korman’s most memorable on-screen moments.
Whether slipping into a Hugh Hefner-style fantasy to indulge his ego, going way over the top as a conga player and singer supporting Carol Burnett’s Carmen Miranda character, or donning a sequined dress and heels for an Andrews Sisters take-off with Burnett and Vicki Lawrence, Korman manages to elicit laughs with a combination of fearlessness and expert timing.
Included are classic long-running sketches “V.I.P.,” “Carol and Sis,” and “The Old Folks;” Carol cracking up at Harvey falling on his rear in a Carmen Miranda spoof and Tim Conway’s “Oldest Man” safecracker cracking up Harvey during a jewel heist; Harvey as the President in a casual, spontaneous “Fireside Chat” with the First Family; a vocal Harvey Korman Fan Club who track him to his dressing room; and Harvey, in full drag, lip-synching to the Andrews Sisters all to benefit the PTA.
Guest stars include Sid Caesar, Diahann Carroll, Ella Fitzgerald, Bernadette Peters, and Nancy Wilson. There are no bonus materials on the single-disc, full-screen DVD release.