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The DVD Report #257

The story of Glenn Close’s thirty year struggle to bring Albert Nobbs to the screen dominated last year’s pre-Oscar nomination talk for almost the entire year. So much so, that by the time the film opened, its mixed reviews seemed to suggest that the talk was much ado about nothing. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The only thing wrong with this film, now out on DVD, is the almost non-existent theatrical distribution it was given in the U.S. It's a more subtle character study than recent films celebrating the lives of legendary figures Margaret Thatcher and Marilyn Monroe. Unlike the weak tea films based on their lives, it gives us something we haven't seen before.

Set in turn of the last century Ireland, it’s about a repressed woman who has spent her life disguised as a man, an action she first took as a young girl in order to find work in a world that didn’t offer many opportunities to women, a situation that hadn’t changed as he/she aged.

Strangely, most reviews of the film seemed to be reviewing Close’s harsh makeup rather than her performance. It seemed reviewers were so accustomed to seeing the actress play strong female characters that they were unwilling to accept her as a man and couldn’t believe that anyone else would either. That might be true if she were playing a contemporary character, but she isn’t. The film doesn’t take place in some hip, modern metropolis. Anyone seeing the "strange little man" that Albert Nobbs appeared to be in the time period the film takes place in would have thought he was just that, a strange little man, not a woman disguising herself as a man. In the context in which it is intended, Close provides a brilliant internalized interpretation of a person whose dreams appear from the outset impossible to come true. He/she doesn't seem to have the inner or outward strength to do or be anything else. Attempts to break out of his/her humdrum existence seem to be pipe dreams.

Faring much better in most reviews, Close’s fellow Oscar nominee, Janet McTeer gives an impeccable performance as someone Close meets at the hotel with a secret of her own. Contrary to some reviewers’ opinions, McTeer doesn't blow Close off the screen, she compliments her beautifully, and the supporting cast, which was handpicked by Close, and includes such stalwarts as Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker and Brendan Gleeson, delivers strong characterizations that we have come to expect from things like TV’s Downton Abbey.

Close may have lost the Oscar to long-time rival Meryl Streep, but she had the last laugh when she won AARP Movies for Grownups Award for Best Actress over Streep.

Albert Nobbs is available in both Blu-ray and standard DVD.

Oren Moverman, who directed Woody Harrelson to an Oscar nomination in 2009’s The Messenger attempted to repeat the feat with last year’s Rampart which he co-wrote with James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential.

The police procedural about a dirty cop on a downward spiral provides Harrelson with a strong role, but the film raises more questions than it answers. Who set up the volatile cop to beat up a bad guy who rams his police car and films Harrelson’s beating of the guy, and why? Is it the police department who wants to shift the focus from other investigations? Is it the prosecutors who want to get him for past misdeeds including cold-blooded killings of “bad guys”? We never find out. Nor do we find out if Harrelson’s former mentor (Ned Beatty), whom he left in need of an ambulance, dies or survives.

The supporting cast includes Robin Wright as a lawyer who may have a stake in the double-cross; Sigourney Weaver as a no-nonsense police lawyer; Steve Buscemi as the District Attorney; Ben Foster as a wheelchair bound Vietnam veteran; Ice Cube as an Internal Affairs investigator; Audra McDonald as a lonely conquest and Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as sisters who are both Harrelson’s ex-wives.

Being John Malkovich; The Odessa File; Before and After and White Squall have all been given Blu-ray upgrades.

When Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich first appeared in 1999, it seemed audacious and fresh, if more than a bit whacky. Thirteen years later, we’ve seen writer Charlie Kaufman’s films get wackier and wackier to the point where the film on one hand, seems more nuts than audacious. On a deeper level, however, the film possesses a great prescience. It foreshadows the obsession with celebrity that consumes today’s world with its reality TV, Facebook and Twitter friendships with celebrities and instant YouTube stardom.

Malkovich was at the time, a well-known actor, but he wasn’t really a household name so the obsessions of the various characters with the actor seemed funny. Today, with seemingly anyone who wants to be a star becoming one for fifteen minutes, we can look at it as an example of the age-old envy of people who see the grass being greener in someone else’s yard. The message that it isn’t was there all the while, pointing out to us that others’ lives can be just as humdrum as yours and it’s not worth the time wanting to be someone else so just be happy with who you are. If you recall the film, people went to great lengths to crawl through a tunnel to enter Malkovich’s head and be in his life for fifteen minutes, only to be dumped at the side of the New Jersey turnpike and have to make their way back to their lives in on the other side of the Holland Tunnel. Yet they kept doing it, not getting the message, and being just as miserable every time.

The performances of John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener still hold up, but it’s Malkovich himself who now seems the most appealing, spoofing himself while the others merely seem to only make fools of themselves.

The Criterion Edition Blu-ray contains several extras including a recent interview with Malkovich.

One of numerous films in which former Nazis in hiding to wreak havoc on the world decades later, Ronald Neame’s 1974 film, The Odessa File, is set in 1963 and begins with a mysterious death in Hamburg the night of the assassination of JFK. The film is unusual for one of its genre in that it relies more on character development than action.

Jon Voight delivers a strong performance as the investigative reporter whose search for a former Concentration Camp Commandant leads to a climactic showdown with the villain, played by Maximilian Schell. Schell’s sister, Maria, plays Voight’s mother. The film’s score was the second and last to date composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Perry Como sings the catchy “Christmas Dream” written by Webber and Tim Rice, with German lyrics by Andre Hellér.

One of Meryl Streep’s lesser known films, 1996’s Before and After, directed by Barbet Schroeder, features the actress in a nail-biting suspense thriller in which she plays a Massachusetts doctor whose son is accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend. Complicating matters, her artist husband, Liam Neeson, destroys evidence that could prove the boy’s innocence as well as his guilt. Edward Furlong is the boy, Julia Weldon his young sister and Alfred Molina his sleazy lawyer.

Also from 1996, Ridley Scott’sWhite Squall may well be one of Jeff Bridges’ lesser known films although it is one of the actor’s best.

Bridges plays the real-life skipper of an ill-fated teaching vessel that sails halfway around the world in 1960/61 with its crew of mostly high school seniors played by, among others, Scott Wolf, Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Sisto, David Lashcer, Eric Michael Cole and Balthazar Getty. Caroline Goodall is Bridges’ wife and the vessel’s surgeon as well as one of the on-board teachers. John Savage is the English teacher. David Selby is the obnoxious father of one of the boys.

Twlight Time has released limited editions of two other new to Blu-ray films, the 1950s classics, The Big Heat and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Fritz Lang’s gritty 1953 film noir, The Big Heat, remains one of the best of the genre with Glenn Ford giving what was arguably his best screen performance as a nice guy cop who toughens up when his wife is killed by a car bomb meant for him. He’s matched by Gloria Grahame as a sassy gun-moll who turns informer after her boyfriend, Lee Marvin at his meanest, burns her face with boiling coffee.

Forget the numerous versions of Jules Verne’s classic, Journey to the Center of the Earth that have come since, Henry Levin’s 1959 version with James Mason and Pat Boone is still far and away the best.

The film, which was nominated for three Oscars, still looks and sounds great as Mason’s Edinburgh professor and his expedition go down the remnants of an extinct volcano to discover all manner of prehistoric creatures living in the earth’s bowels. Arlene Dahl and Diane Baker co-star.

This week’s new DVDs include The Woman in Black and the U.S. debut of Certified Copy.

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