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Wilmington on DVD: Truth is stranger than fiction
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PICKS OF THE WEEK

Recount (A-)
U.S.; Jay Roach, 2008, HBO

Recount, a recent HBO original, is one of the best and most revealing of all dramatic movies about American electoral politics -- except, of course, it's not fictional. The subject: the 2000 Florida vote recount in that year's bitterly contested presidential election between "winner" George W. Bush and "loser" Al Gore -- which was finally decided by mere hundreds of votes, after an embattled series of machine and hand vote recounts and Machiavellian courtroom maneuvers. The perspectives are those of the two warring political teams: the determined and suspicious Democrats spearheaded by Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey) and, more briefly, Warren Christopher (John Hurt) and the resourceful Republicans, led by James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) and Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban), the GOP with a tremendous assist from that supposed neutral official, Florida's zany Secretary of State and Bush election chair Katherine Harris (Laura Dern).

The performances here are something else -- especially Wilkinson's smooth-talking Texas sharpie Baker, a near-perfect impersonation, and Dern's priceless Harris, a bizarre figure, with quasi-vamp makeup and wildly flickering smile, right out of a classic '30s screwball comedy. Others in the super-keen cast include Denis Leary as Michael Whouley, Ed Begley Jr. as David Boies and, briefly, the real Gore and Bush on TV. The movie follows the facts pretty closely, and it would be silly not to. They construct a story wilder, more startling and funnier, than almost any fictional drama.

Recount also presents a sobering view of the pitfalls and perils of modern electoral politics. Ingeniously mixing staged scenes and TV archive footage, brilliantly written by Danny Strong and sharply directed by Jay Roach (whose comic touch here proves just right) -- and executive produced by the late Sidney Pollack, who intended to direct it -- Recount, for me, was funnier than Pollack's Tootsie and Roach's Meet the Parents.

As for the drama: The best man, it seems, did win. He just didn't have all his votes counted. (Extras: Commentary with Roach and Strong; conversations between actors Kevin Spacey and Bob Balaban and their real-life characters, Ron Klain and Ben Ginsberg; featurette; inside story on the 2000 election recalled by Strong and TV legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.)


Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File (B)
Russia/U.K.; Andrei Nekrasov, 2007, Kino

Perhaps truth is stranger than fiction. Certainly, in this case, Andrei Nekrasov's brave and defiant nonfiction film about an ongoing international scandal and mystery is often more exciting, even terrifying, than the most breathless of the Bonds and the Bournes -- because what we're seeing and speculating about here may be true.

Poisoned by Polonium is a documentary about the supposedly unsolved poisoning in London, with the deadly toxin Polonium 210, of Russian dissident Alexander "Sasha" Litvinenko, allegedly by agents of Russian president and ex-FSB (secret police) head Vladimir Putin, who was a target of ex-FSB agent Nekrasov's whistle-blowing. It's a story that beggars, for thrills and twists, almost any modern tale of espionage and international intrigue -- and is nearly twice as scary.

Director Nekrasov was a friend of Litvinenko and is deeply and personally involved in his subject. Early we see the wreckage of Nekrasov's London apartment, destroyed by vandals who also may have been involved in the Litvinenko murder. We can sense Nekrasov's fury and frustration, but the absence of (or limits on) that presumed holy touchstone of journalistic objectivity actually helps the film. It's full of anger and outrage and a blazing sense of injustice that focuses the investigations and arguments of both Litvinenko and Nekrasov.

As we watch the story unfold, and as we hear Litvinenko's (and others') theory of contemporary Russian corruption and the complicity of Putin -- whose FSB is the feared successor of the dreaded Cold War KGB -- in everything from the rise of the Russian Mafia to the collapse of Russia's economy to the actual Russian apartment building bombings (blamed on Chechnian terrorists and led to the Russian-Chechnian war), we get a chill equal to anything in Eric Ambler or John le Carre.

This is a story of the shadow chambers of government, the uses of murder and the failures of journalism -- permeated with the anxiety of a suddenly revealed truth we've chosen to ignore. In English, Russian and Chechen. (Extras: Two additional short documentaries by Nekrasov: The Hero of Our Time (2003) and Disbelief (2004); interviews with Litvinenko's widow Marina and author Alex Goldfarb.)


Twenty-Four Eyes (A)
Japan; Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954, Criterion

One of Japan's most beloved films, and one of the country's supreme tear-jerkers, is this great antiwar drama by writer-director Keisuke Kinoshita, with '60s Japanese superstar Hideko Takamine as Hisako Oishi, the lovely, smart and compassionate young elementary school teacher known affectionately by her first-grade pupils as "Miss Pebble."

Kinoshita's epic story, beginning in 1928 and stretching though to the '50s, follows the fortunes of Miss Pebble and the 12 pupils (or 24 eyes) of her first class though the travails of life and the tragedies of World War II, all the more devastating for being shown indirectly, from the home front. The children believably grow and suffer convincing and sometimes shattering setbacks, and traumas. And so does Miss Pebble, a born teacher who has to cope not just with the grief and suppressions of wartime, but the prejudices of her bosses and co-workers. The ending breaks your heart.

Kinoshita is a great Japanese filmmaker who rarely gets his due here in America. But it's a mistake to compare him too closely to either Yasujiro Ozu -- who handles similar subjects -- or to Kinoshita's friend and admiring colleague Akira Kurosawa, whose last film, 1993's Madadayo, had a similar portrayal of teacher and pupils. Kinoshita, whose model here was Jean Renoir's The River, lacks Ozu's Buddhist serenity and Kurosawa's dynamism but makes up for it with a genuine connection to Japan's culture and people that illuminates these wartime and postwar years with unique warmth and depth.

Twenty-Four Eyes was one of the major hits of its era, and it became a success all over again when it was remade, scene for scene from Kinoshita's script, in the '80s. It was also the major Japanese movie award-winner of its year, winning the Kinema Jumpo "Best One" prize over a field that included Kurosawa's masterpiece Seven Samurai.

They're both film masterpieces on war, one from the viewpoint of the warrior; the other, movingly, from the 26 eyes of the common people. In Japanese with English subtitles. (Extras: Interview with critic/historian Tadao Sato, theatrical teasers, booklet with Audie Bock essay and interview with Kinoshita.)


The Small Back Room (A-)
U.K.; Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1948, Criterion

Not all of the great film noirs deal with murder, corruption, urban crime and femmes fatales. This riveting but now unfairly neglected Powell-Pressburger World War II thriller, based on the novel by Nigel Balchin (Mine Own Executioner), revolves around the bureaucratic crises and psychological torments endured by a disabled, alcoholic bomb expert named Sammy Rice (David Farrar of Powell's Black Narcissus), a volatile and tortured man sent to disarm deadly German mines on the British coast in 1943. Powell and screenwriter Pressburger depict Rice with their usual fire, flair and complexity. The supporting cast -- Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks, Michael Gough and the brilliant young Irishman Cyril Cusack -- are all extraordinary.

So is the snazzy art direction of Hein Heckroth (his first job for Powell, after their stunning The Red Shoes) and the haunting, shadow-drenched black-and-white cinematography of Christopher Challis. The film's many visual coups include an unforgettable alcoholic nightmare of Sammy's where the weird, gigantic bottles and clocks suggest Salvador Dali and Hitchcock's Spellbound.

The movie ends with a 17-minute bomb-defusing scene that ranks with Rififi's jewel store robbery and the fairground murder in Strangers on a TrainThe Small Back Room from Powell's audio dictation tapes for his autobiography; booklet with Nick James essay.)


BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK

Mulan: Special Edition/Mulan II (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1998, Walt Disney

One of Disney's rousing feminist/liberal cartoon features, about a feisty girl warrior (Ming Na-Wen) battling invading armies, Mulan is quite an achievement, especially on the visual side, with ancient Chinese scroll paintings among the many influences. The straight-to-video sequel Mulan II isn't really worth your time -- and, due to contract problems, Eddie Murphy's role of the irrepressible Mushu has been taken over by Murphy impersonator Mark Moseley -- but this is good family entertainment with a moral and a message -- and two Mulans.

Includes: Mulan: Special Edition (Barry Cook, Tony Bancroft, 1998, B); Mulan II (U.S.; Lynne Southerland, Darrell Rooney, 2004, C). (Extras: Featurettes, documentaries, deleted scenes, alternate openings, music videos, games.)


Popeye the Sailor 1938-40, Volume Two (A)
U.S.; Dave Fleischer, 1938-40, Warner

The second box set devoted to Paramount's and the Fleischer brothers' ineffable and wildly popular, super-tough, spinach-loving sailor -- along with his spider-thin bombshell Olive Oyl, hamburger-snarfing freeloader J. Wellington Wimpy and burly basso profundo rival/nemesis Bluto -- is another joyous romp through a lost classic childhood world of gritty, ethnic black-and-white cartoonery. Among the gems here: "Plumbing Is a Pipe," "The Jeep," "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp" and that nonpareil nightmare "Goonland."

As Popeye would say (or mutter) "I yam what I yam!" Amen and hurrah to that, sailor man. (Extras: Commentaries, popumentaries; Non-Popeye cartoons and short from the Fleischer/Paramount archives.)


OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES

Street Kings (C-)
U.S.; David Ayer, 2008, 20th Century Fox
David Ayer, who wrote all that venomously funny insult dialogue for Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day, does something similar here for Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves in another swaggering, foul-mouthed L.A. cops thriller. Starts strong and then fizzles -- somewhat like Training Day, actually.

Deal (D+)
U.S.; Gil Cates, Jr., 2008, MGM
An awful TV poker championship drama, this is a kind of hapless Color of Money knockoff with Burt Reynolds and Charles Durning as the wily old sharps and Bret Harrison as the young phenom. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Pete Kelly's Blues (B)
U.S.; Jack Webb, 1955, Warner
Jazz-loving director-star Jack Webb gives us a real treat here: The great Ella Fitzgerald sings several times in close-up. Also Peggy Lee not only warbles sweetly but gives a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance as the dipsomaniac thrush tied to sadist/gangster Edmond O'Brien. Meanwhile, Webb's Pete Kelly plays cornet and trades blows and gunshots in a 1920s jazz band (well dubbed by an all-star group) alongside Lee Marvin and Martin Milner. Webb is an underrated director; his biggest problem is that he's saddled with Webb the leading man, an unlikely playmate for va-va-voom flapper co-star Janet Leigh. But Pete Kelly's Blues is his best movie, and I agree with the theory that if Webb and Marvin had switched parts, this Richard Breen-scripted film would be a noir cult classic. (Extras: vintage short, cartoon.)


OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS

Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collection (B-)
U.S.; various directors, 1936-51 (20th Century Fox)
Tyrone Power was an astonishingly good-looking guy in black-and-white. Like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant or Louise Brooks, he may have been born for monochrome. He was also a sweet tempered, highly competent stage/film actor whose trump card was likeability. Even though Power once played Jesse James, he was a sterling citizen of Hollywood's Golden Age: an apt romantic comedian, a fine swashbuckler-adventurer, an effective middle-class hero and even, at times, a convincing villain (Nightmare Alley).

The previous Tyrone Power Fox box focused mostly on his mid-career epics; this one gives us mostly Power the young matinee idol of the late '30s and early '40s. And while I wouldn't file a brief for most of these films, the package will delight buffs. The prints are sparkling, and they're mostly rarer shows, the kind of films you usually see only on cable. There are some surprises. And what can I say: the guy looked great in black-and-white, as did his ideal costar, Loretta Young.

Includes:

Girl's Dormitory (C-)
Irving Cummings, 1936
Power's debut here is a small part supporting Simone Simon as a student who takes after teacher Herbert Marshall.

Love Is News (C-)
Tay Garnett, 1937
A breezy Front Page progeny, Power and stage buddy Don Ameche appear as feuding star reporter and editor and Loretta Young as the playful heiress who pretends Ty's her guy to pay him back for scandal-mongering.

Café Metropole (B)
Edward H. Griffith, 1937
One of the surprises: a good Lubitschian romantic comedy for Power and Young, costarring Adolphe Menjou (at his best) and written by Gregory Ratoff and Jacques Deval ("Tovarich").

Second Honeymoon (C)
Walter Lang, 1937
Power and Young star again, in another engagingly plush romance with an Awful Truth twist.

Day-Time Wife (C-)
Gregory Ratoff, 1939
Linda Darnell is a cheated-on wife who plays secretary to office lecher Warren William as pay back for hubby Power's dalliance with sexy sec Wendy Barrie. An insane show.

Johnny Apollo (B-)
Henry Hathaway, 1940
This is a good Hathaway gangster melodrama for rich-kid-turned-crook Power, dad Arnold, gang boss Lloyd Nolan, drunken attorney Charley Grapewin and faithful moll Dorothy Lamour. Only the ludicrous happy ending hurts it.

This Above All (B)
Anatole Litvak, 1942
An interesting philosophical World War II drama from Eric (Lassie Come Home) Knight's huge bestseller, the film stars Power (as a deserter), Joan Fontaine and Thomas Mitchell.

The Luck of the Irish (B-)
Henry Koster, 1948
From Koster's whimsical period: Power and leprechaun Cecil Kellaway cut up in Manhattan with colleen Anne Baxter in this picture with, begorrah, the original green-tinted Irish scenes.

That Wonderful Urge (C-)
Robert Sinclair, 1948
This is a bland remake of Love Is News, with Power and Gene Tierney (replacing Young).

I'll Never Forget You (B-)
Roy Baker, 1951
John Balderston's strange, 18th-century time-travel romance Berkeley Square is reconceived for Power, Ann Blyth and Dennis Price.

(Extras: Documentaries, shorts, cartoons.)

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