Sunday, July 19, 2009

Time for some DVD reviews as I haven't posted any in quite some time:

The Strange One

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Gazzara several years ago when he appeared at CityStage in a one-man play on the life of Yogi Berra.

Even with a diminished vocal capacity Gazzara turned in a masterful performance that was compelling to this non-baseball fan.

That's why I was eager to see "The Strange One," released on DVD for the first time. It was Gazzara's first film role - in fact, he was the star of the film - and it's a fascinating look at a near pathological bully.

The title gives little indication of the film's story. Gazzara is Cadet Jocko DeParis, an upperclassman at a military college located somewhere in the deep South.

DeParis is a smooth talking, highly intelligent guy who has mastered how the college works. His latest exercise is to punish a faculty member who disciplined him by engineering the discharge of his son from the college. He does so in a way that implicates four other cadets who all realize that if any of them come forward they will all be discharged.

Shot in 1957, the film has a strong contemporary feel to it by implying visually the segregation of the time as well as noting in the dialogue the strong prejudice against anyone deemed "foreign" or "un-American."

The 100-minute film moves very quickly and the drama is compelling, as the young cadets must grapple with doing the right thing or saving themselves.

Some reviewers have noted a gay character in the film that provides another layer of social criticism. Paul E. Richards played a cadet nicknamed "Cockroach" by DeParis. Despite the abuse, Cockroach is drawn to DeParis and has based a novel on his exploits.

The film features other early performances by Pat Hingle, James Olson and George Peppard. Arthur Storch almost steals the show, though, as a freshman cadet who appears like Peter Lorre and is a pathological liar and coward.

Even when scene-stealers are on camera, "The Strange One" is always Gazzara's show. It's a fascinating film.

The extra for the disc is a new interview with Gazzara about the making of the film.

Tell No One

I'm not a big French film fan, so this title was positioned toward the bottom of the review pile, but I'm very glad I watched it. This murder mystery is a top-notch thriller that understands how to keep an audience on the edge of its seat.

Francois Cluzet plays Dr. Alexandre Beck, a successful pediatrician who has loved his wife since they were kids. She is brutally murdered and he is the prime suspect until the evidence pointed to a serial killer who is caught and convicted.

Eight years later he is still mourning her death and there is now new interest in the case when two bodies are discovered at the site of her killing. The police are now interested again in Beck, who is acting a tad suspiciously because he received an e-mail with a video from his long-dead wife.

Director Guillaume Canet wrote the screenplay based on the book of the same name by Harlan Coben and clearly Canet understands how a suspense film is supposed to work.

I think a reference to the work of Alfred Hitchcock is an appropriate compliment for this film. Canet doesn't try to copy Hitchcock's style, but the story of the unjustly accused hero is right out of the Hitchcock canon.

The film has an English soundtrack for those of you who are subtitled impaired, but as always I like hearing the inflections of actors even if I can't understand their language.

With solid performances, an involving plot and plenty of surprises, "Tell No One" should be at the top of your pile.


Low budget horror and suspense films are a dime a dozen, but "Elsewhere" stands above the crowd. This independent production stays away from the standard elements of the genre - there is no nudity and very little on-screen violence.

In other words, writer and director Nathan Hope wants to present something more mature, something a little deeper than the typical horny-soon-to-be-dead teenager movie.

"Elsewhere" is set in small town in Indiana. Sarah (Anna Kendrick) has a pretty standard teen life of high school, a part-time job and coping with life as a child of divorce.

Her best friend Jillian (Tania Raymonde) has a greatly different life. Sexually active and dying to get of the town, she cruises for guys through her Web page. She plays the dangerous game of even meeting some of them and one day she disappears.

Her mother doesn't care. The police won't investigate. Only Sarah is concerned, along with another high school friend.

She discovers that Jillian isn't the only girl from the wrong side of town to have vanished in the past several years.

Part "Nancy Drew," part 21st century cautionary tale, "Elsewhere" develops into a pretty solid little thriller. Hope is also a cinematographer and although he wasn't behind the camera for this movie, the film has a great look that few low budget features have.

The performances are surprisingly good with Kendrick delivering an effective but low-keyed characterization and Raymonde - who has been a regular on "Lost" and "Cold Case" is bitter but vulnerable as Jillian.

"Elsewhere" is well worth checking out.

The Hunger Season One

It's difficult to produce a horror anthology series these days that breaks new ground. The two shows associated with the late writer Rod Serling - "The Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery" - still pack a punch decades after their original run on television.

I fondly remember "Tales from the Darkside," back in the 1980s, that was partly the brainchild of famed horror director George Romero. I never cared much for "Tales from the Crypt" or "Freddy's Nightmares," although those shows did have their fans.

The "Masters of Horror" series on Showtime, featuring hour-long productions directed by people such as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento and Joe Dante, was pretty impressive.

Not having Showtime in the 1990s, I missed "The Hunger," another anthology show, which is now out on DVD in a four-disc set.

All of these shows have to have a point of view or specialty to make them stand out and "The Hunger" is no exception. Its gimmick isn't a crypt keeper; it's sex and nudity.

Although I'm no prude, I have to say that in the episodes I watched from this set - sorry, I didn't sit through all 616 minutes of it - the sexual scenes seem a little forced into the narrative.

The other problem is the writing as a whole is a bit weak with predictable endings or endings that make you scratch your head in wonder.

Perhaps there are some good episodes in this set, but I couldn't find them.

The Three Stooges Collection Vol. 6, 1949 to 1951

Let us now sing a song of Shemp -- Shemp Howard that is - and the center of attention in this new volume of Sony Home Video's on-going collection of the Three Stooges.

When I attended UMass back in the 1970s, Three Stooges film nights were highly popular and many were presented on campus with a sign outside the door of the hall assuring "No Shemp." Curly Howard was the preferred third stooge, but frankly this collection shows that Shemp -- who took over for Curly in 1946 - was pretty damn funny.

Shemp had been part of the act before his younger brother Curly joined it and struck out on a solo career in 1932. He was a successful and busy comic character actor in a long list of films and came back to the act only when Curly had suffered a stroke.

While Curly was frequently an almost surreal comic creation, Shemp's humor was more grounded in a sort of reality - if you can call the world of the Three Stooges "real."

Shemp's character struck a balance from the odd non sequitur humor of Curly and that of an actual human being.

This collection has some nicely polished short subject gems. The Columbia short subjects had the advantage of using the studio's standing sets from its feature films, which gave them a more expensive look than other shorts.

If you're an ardent Curly fan, I probably can't convince you this collection of 24 short is worth the money, but I know I would never hang a "No Shemp" sign at my door.


This film came and went in theaters rather quickly and that is a shame, as director Edward Zwick's latest historic drama is a very moving film about a relatively unknown chapter of World War II.

In 1942, the Bielski brothers were forced to escape into the forest by the effort of the Nazis to hunt down and kill all the Jews they could in Poland and nearby Belarus. Eventually, as other people joined them, they formed both a resistance group that would engage the Nazi troops as well as a community that grew to 1,200 by the end of the war.

Tuvia and Zus Bielski, who settled in the United States after the war, didn't seek publicity for their actions, but historians of the resistance movement in Europe know their story.

Under Zwick's hand, this is not merely a war movie, but a film that examines how people behave under the duress of a situation such as war. The Bielskis were not saints, nor soldiers, but people who reacted in the best possible way to the horrible events they endured.

Zwick, who also directed "Glory" - another movie that shows a little known side of a well-documented war - is very capable to staging the battle scenes, but even more so in addressing the relationships between the brothers and their growing community.

Daniel Craig gets top billing as Tuvia Bielski while Liev Schreiber portrays Zus Bielski. Although Craig has had a long list of credits to his name before he donned the mantle of James Bond - a potentially restrictive career move - he shows here once again that he is a solid actor who is more than an action movie star. Schreiber confirms he is one of the most intense actors working on the scene today.

The extras include the obligatory "making of" featurette as well as a fascinating look at the Bielski brothers from the perspective of their children and grandchildren.

This film is well worth seeking out.

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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