‘Changeling,’ ‘I Served the King of England’ and ‘Hobson’s Choice’ – DVDs for 2/17/09

Clint Eastwood came about Changeling, a period piece true story about a child kidnapping in late 1920s Los Angeles, as a director for hire. His skill is there, but not necessarily his passion. Angelina Jolie stars as the single mother whose son disappears, a working class mom who looks like a million buck under her dowdy frocks (because she’s Angelie Jolie, of course). The police are little help, and when they finally “reunite” her with the errant boy, they respond to her quite legitimate complaint that the kid they returned is not her son by tossing her in the loony bin. It turns out the women’s wing doubles as a prison for inconvenient witnesses and problem dames, and they don’t even need to hold a trial! It’s a terrific looking film and a pretty fascinating true story, and the muted-trumpet score recalls Chinatown, another period piece about corruption in old Los Angeles. But the most gripping section of the film involves a hard-bitten cop (Michael Kelly) following a questionable lead from a genuinely shaken runaway boy to the chilling discovery of the graves of serial-killer’s child victims. Clint seems far more engaged in the ambivalence of this tough-guy cop who is unsure whether the kid’s telling the truth (and surely hoping that he’s making this story up), almost brutal in his brusque treatment until he’s faced with the terrible truth and his own guilt about adding to this young boy’s ordeal. The film earned three Oscar nominations (for Jolie’s portrayal of the long-suffering but undaunted mom, for its Art Direction and Cinematography).

Read my DVD review on MSN here.

I Served the King of England is the latest from Czech New Wave legend Jiri Menzel. He channels the big-hearted spirit and satirical playfulness of his classic comedies (like Larks on a String) into this deft little satire of a big-hearted opportunist (Ivan Barnev) in 1930s Czechoslovakia who sides with the so-called master race (one that looks down on him) over his countrymen for love and money: he’s smitten with a German Fraulein (Julia Jentsch). Menzel treats this cheerful little man more as an innocent than a traitor and Barnev plays him as a silent movie clown with hearty sexual appetites. He’s willfully blind to his moral compromise as a young man but faces up to his actions as an old man. It’s funny and heartbreaking and there is a joy to Menzel’s filmmaking.

My “DVD For the Week” at Parallax View is Hobson’s Choice:

With Hobson’s Choice (1954), Lean brings broad humor and light satire to the “Tradition of Quality.” As in his Dickens adaptations, there is a sharp sense of class distinction and the safe distance of period filmmaking with which to make it. But he also plays off those great expectations of period seriousness in the opening scenes, as the prowling camera establishes the deserted cobblestone streets and the signs on the shop windows on a rainy night before slipping inside the quaint 19th century boot shop to take inventory of the fashionable boots and smart shoes on display. The stillness is cracked by a pounding thump and a whip pan to the skylight, where a branch is thrashing in the wind. Then a human shadow falls ominously upon the shop door. It’s a moment right out of Great Expectations, until that shape belches and stumbles through the door to reveal Charles Laughton in comic mode, playing the drunk and loudly slurring his protestations as his daughter tries to whisk him off to bed.

Laughton is comically tyrannical as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower who huffs away with arrogance and indignation at the three daughters who work his shop as unpaid employees. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, is more babysitter and nurse than daughter at home, and more accountant and manager than employee at work. She decides there’s more to life and plots her escape from Hobson’s tyranny. Willie, the meek bootmaker and unappreciated sculptor with leather, is key to her plan. John Mills, so marvelous as the adult Pip in Lean’s Great Expectations, plays the nervous Willie as a man who has aged into a such sense of inferiority that Maggie has to literally drive it out of him.

Read the complete review here.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: Body of Lies:

Leonardo DiCaprio is the headstrong American agent in the Middle East searching for a terrorist. Russell Crowe is the arrogant agency strategist at CIA headquarters following his progress through satellite surveillance. They’re only on screen together for a few minutes in Ridley Scott’s cynical spy thriller. The rest of the time they just phone it in to each other, which is what Scott appears to have done as well in this murky misfire.

TV: Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Eighth Year:

The original Law & Order never let private lives get tangled in the show’s laser-focused procedural structure. “Special Victims Unit” has no such resistance and this is surely its most turbulent season in the show’s run (now in it’s tenth season). Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) takes a leave of absence to go undercover with the FBI for half-dozen episodes (for her real-life maternity leave) and Connie Nielsen steps in as former vice cop Dani Beck, whose undisciplined style clashes with the unit. Stabler (Christopher Melon) struggles with a separation from his wife and with Benson’s absence. Old wounds are re-opened when Benson returns to duty (reluctantly?) and discovers that her half-brother (the son of the man who raped her father) is the suspect in a rape case obsessively pursued by a cop (Kim Delaney) looking for vengeance. And the season ends with a slash-and-burn attack on the entire detective roster when Fin’s nephew (guest star Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) goes to trial in a very public murder case. This is as volatile as the show gets and it makes for a memorable season.

Special Releases: The Kaiser’s Lackey:

Wolfgang Staudte’s 1951 adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s “Der Untertan” is a trenchant satire of Prussian authoritarianism and blind nationalism in the late 19th century through the story of a petit bourgeois hypocrite who embraces his sense of social and cultural superiority with pompous arrogance. Werner Peters is a dutiful student in a disciplinarian culture who emerges as a puffed-up clown and a petty tyrant who toadies to the local Governor and reveres the Kaiser. His arrogance is laughable but also unnerving…

The Midnight Meat Train (reviewed on my blog here)

Blu-ray: Capote / In Cold Blood:

Richard Brooks’ 1967 adaptation of the best-selling book, starring Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Shooting in B&W CinemaScope, Brooks creates a vivid sense of immediacy in a style both realistic and expressionistic: part reportage, part dramatic interpretation. John Forsythe leads the investigative procedural portion of the film and Paul Stewart is a reporter and a kind of Capote stand-in who narrates the final act. Brooks’ psychological commentary dates the film more than the style but his portrait of the damaged men and Perry’s tormented psyche is still effective. As Perry talks to the priest on the night of his execution, the light through the window on a rainy night casts the shadows of tears running down his cheeks.

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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