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The DVD Report #239

One of the pleasures of home video is the discovery of TV shows you may have missed in their initial run and getting to watch not just one episode, but an entire season over the period of a couple of days. Such is my experience with the newly released first season of Boardwalk Empire.

Produced by creator Terence Winter; Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese; Emmy and DGA winning director Tim Van Patten and Oscar nominated actor Mark Wahlberg among others, the show has such a built-in pedigree and an audience appeal that I don’t know what has taken me so long to get around to it.

The series opens on New Year’s Eve of 1920, the day before Prohibition goes into effect. The sets, the costumes, the music which is always playing, are vintage 1920s. The story, which revolves around crooked politicians and gangsters of the era, is authentic. Real life characters and fictional characters based on real life characters abound. If there is one drawback it’s the portrayal of women of the day who are mostly depicted as whores or upstanding women who are jealous of the whores. Most of the whores, however, are portrayed as good-hearted while the men are portrayed as conflicted at best. Everyone is shown to be a flawed human being, which is not necessarily any more realistic than strict portrayals of good and evil. There isn’t, however, a dull moment in any of the first eight of twelve episodes that I’ve watched.

The acting is first-rate. Standouts include Steve Buscemi as the boss of Atlantic City, actually all of South Jersey; Michael Pitt as his surrogate son, a war hero turned mobster; Kelly Macdonald as an Irish immigrant widow; Michael Shannon as a corrosive FBI agent; Shea Wigham as Buscemi’s brother, the Atlantic County sheriff; Michael Stuhlberg as Arnold Rothstein; Vincent Piazza as Lucky Luciano; Stephen Graham as Al Capone and Gretchen Mol as Pitt’s still sexy mama. Though set mainly in Atlantic City, the show also has scenes set in New York and Chicago, the latter not only run by hoodlums but the scene of the 1920 Republican National convention where Ohio’s Warren Harding is nominated on the tenth ballot, which figures into the plot.

The Blu-ray is stunning.

Not so stunning, but adequately produced, one of the year’s most acclaimed films, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball was a disappointment to me.

I should disclose that I resided in San Francisco’s East Bay, where the Oakland Athletics is the home team, for more than a quarter century, and attended many of the team’s home games in the 1980s and 1990s. By the early 2000s, the time in which the film takes place, I had so many other things going on in my life that I paid scant attention to the travails of the team. By all accounts, Billy Beane, played in the film by Brad Pitt, was a brilliant strategist and great general manager. The film based on his whipping the team back into shape without the golden purse strings of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, should have been an inspiring film. Instead it seemed to me a sometimes fascinating, often repetitious and somewhat boring treatise on the use of highly complicated calculations in determining who the best players on or for your team might be.

In further disclosure, I should also tell you that for most of my banking career I was known as an innovator who took chances and did things that the old-timers were convinced wouldn’t work, and I did much of it with computers. I did a lot of moving people around as Beane (Pitt) does in the film, but I would not tolerate a manager working for me who refused to cooperate and sought to undermine my every move as Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seems to do in the film. The tension between the two men is not explored or, in my estimation, adequately explained. I also don’t get the acclaim for Jonah Hill’s performance as Beane’s strategist based on a composite of different people who worked for Beane. The guy is just there. Also the character doesn’t make much sense. Beane spies him at a meeting one day and instantly becomes a believer and hires him away from another team. I didn’t buy it. You don’t instantly become a believer in numbers. It’s a gradual thing.

Aaron Sorkin won an Oscar for writing last year’s The Social Network in which the often soulless computer nerds’ motivations are made crystal clear. None of that clarity is apparent in Moneyball, which Sorkin co-wrote and for which he is thus far winning as many awards as he did last year. Pitt’s performance is adequate, and maybe deserving of an Oscar nomination in a so-so year, but a win seems a bit of a stretch. Still, stranger things have happened.

Roland Joffé, the Oscar nominated director of The Killing Fields and The Mission has had a hard time living up to the expectations that those two films brought. He returns to form in There Be Dragons, which is a difficult film to describe, but I’ll try.

Dougray Scott is a Rome based Spanish journalist assigned to research the life of Josemaria Escriva, a candidate for sainthood. He discovers that his estranged father was a childhood friend of Escriva, who ultimately became the founder of the Catholic organization of Opus Dei Scottt’s father, played by Wes Bentley, who is now old and dying, never talked to his son about the Spanish Civil War or his life before that. A request for information from the son leads to the father recording the significant pieces of his early life including his relationship with the charismatic young priest played by Charlie Cox.

Most of the film is played in flashbacks, from the boys’ childhood friendship, through both their lives in a seminary form which Bentley’s character is expelled to Bentley’s working for both sides in the Civil War while Cox’s character is forced to flee and hide his true identity while priests, including his mentor, are being murdered in cold blood on the streets of Madrid in broad daylight.

There are several shocking revelations late in the film and a death scene that can be interpreted as either a miracle or a hallucination.

Extras include thirty minutes of deleted scenes, most of them involving Geraldine Chaplin, the comic relief as a family servant of one of the boys. There is also a filmed reminiscence from Wes Bentley who credits the film with bringing him his newfound sobriety after ten years of hazy drug addiction.

Religion is also the subject of Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground about a sect of born-again Christians, in which Farmiga’s character questions her lifelong blind faith. Farmiga surround herself with a marvelous supporting cast led by Joshua Leonard; Norbert Leo Butz; John Hawkes and Donna Murphy. It’s definite worth a look.

This week’s new DVD releases include George Clooney’s political thriller The Ides of March and the Blu-ray debut of Luis Bunuel’s erotic masterpiece, Belle de Jour.

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