Every Tuesday, I’m going to try and review the new DVD releases that I’ve seen for that week. This week, I’ve actually seen quite a few of them, so I’ll just get right too it.
I know there are people who’d rather have endless root canal work done than see another WWII film, but Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is quite different. It may tell a similar story, of course. The heroine, Rachel, a Dutch Jew, has to flee when the Nazis invade. She barely survives when the group of refugees she tries to escape with by boat are brutally gunned down by the German army. She joins a resistance group, and disguises herself as a German singer so she can go undercover to gain revenge on the Nazi officer who carried out the slaughter. Complications arise when she not only falls in love with one of the Nazis, but also finds out there’s a traitor in the resistance.
That last part shows the method to Verhoeven’s madness here. We’re eager to hear stories of people who either fought against the Nazis (Schindler’s List) or somehow manages to survive them (The Pianist) – and I hope this doesn’t come off as a slight against those films, as I think both are brilliant – but the fact is, many if not most people in that situation either stood by and did nothing, or collaborated with them. Verhoeven is trying to show the lengths people had to go to in order to combat this (the controversial scene where Rachel must dye her own pubic hair is a good example – some saw this as Verhoeven being his usual overly salacious self, but it’s a fact most Jews who had to pass for something else would have to go this extra mile, and Verhoeven presents it as such) and survive. And some thought the so-called “good Nazi” (played by Sebastian Koch, who was the playwright in The Lives of Others) was carrying things too far, but he really wasn’t that good – he still ordered the capture and murders of innocent people, and he wasn’t so blinded by passion that he didn’t immediately guess Rachel was a spy.
I should mention here Black Book is also an entertaining and thrilling film, with some surprising twists along the way. But Verhoeven isn’t trying to make the sober-minded film people expected with this subject matter. He’s trying to show, once again, how WWII was, on many fronts, as ugly to fight as other wars have been. In some ways, it reminded me of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (released in the U.S. for the first time last year), which also dealt with resistance soldiers fighting traitors in their own country. Verhoeven’s movie is more sardonic, but just as powerful.
Judd Apatow, who once was known for having not just one, but two prematurely cancelled shows (Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared), is now considered one of the kings of comedy filmmakers. His latest, Knocked Up, is, as almost everyone knows by now, the story of what happens when Allison (Katherine Heigl), a newly promoted on-air correspondent for E! Network, and Ben (Seth Rogen), a slacker, improbably get together for one night, Allison becomes pregnant as a result, and both of them have to deal with it. Most people who talked about the movie (when not focusing on how much it made them laugh, if at all) wondered whether or not a woman like Allison would really get together, even for one night, with a guy like Ben, or they focused on how the movie was yet another demonstration on how movies duck the question of abortion. Few mentioned how Apatow is really cut from the same cloth as Kevin Smith (although he knows how to move a camera better) – both of them may revel in the fratboy-ish antics their heroes may get into, but they also know if there heroes want to get anywhere with women, they need to grow up, and the trouble is how few are willing to do just that. Apatow makes this point most clearly through the relationship between Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real-life wife), Allison’s sister, and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd). Debbie has become bitter at what she perceives is Pete’s arrested development, especially when she finds out a secret he’s been keeping from her. Ben, for his part, may be a slacker and a pothead, but what makes him endearing rather than annoying ultimately is his slow willingness to change to help Allison.
In case I made Knocked Up simply sound like a spoon-fed morality tale, let me add this is often a funny movie (although I agree with Mike White; Apatow does rely a little too much on humor that could be construed as homophobic), and Rogen shows he can be as talented in a lead role as he was in a supporting role on Freaks & Geeks (although it’s not a stretch, since his character had to go through a similar journey in the episode “The Little Things,” where he finds out his girlfriend was a hermaphrodite). Also, this is the first role I’ve liked Heigl in – freed from the teen angst of Roswell and the soapy antics of Grey’s Anatomy, she shows herself to be a talented comedienne. But the best reason to see the movie is Mann – she’s done little aside from playing the love interest in George of the Jungle, but she brings some unexpected depth here.
Apatow also produced Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set, which is subtler than Knocked Up, but just as funny. David Duchovny is Mike, a veteran TV writer who tries to get his show The Wexler Chronicles, a comedy series about a man who comes home after his brother commits suicide, on the air. The story is how it all goes wrong – how the actor who gets the lead role (Fran Kunz) mugs instead of acts, how one studio exec (Ioan Gruffud) enthusiastically supports Mike’s decision to keep the suicide, and then, just as enthusiastically, asks Mike to shoot a different version, and other ways the series gets chipped at because, as the head exec (Sigourney Weaver) says, “Originality scares me.” Kasdan (who directed episodes of Freaks & Geeks, so he knows from frustrating network experiences) makes it all the funnier by not having the characters yell, but deliver their broadsides at Mike by being overly cheerful and supportive (“We absolutely love this, but we have some concerns…”). Of course, none of this will be news to anyone who knows the process of getting a show on the air, but Kasdan knows the details of what he speaks, and by having the tone be more Christopher Guest than Robert Altman, he brings understanding to his characters. And Weaver is in top comic form, as is Judy Greer as Mike’s manager.
The one dud of the week is William Friedkin’s Bug, although it isn’t terrible. Ashley Judd reminded me she still had talent with last year’s little seen but wonderful Come Early Morning, and she’s just as good here playing a waitress trying to escape an abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.), only to end up with an unbalanced Iraq War vet (Michael Shannon). And the first half of the movie (adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play) sustains a creepy atmosphere. But the film gradually becomes ridiculous and overwrought, and therefore unwatchable. Judd’s character has a speech near then end that aims for horrifying and moving, but had me snickering instead.
Living and working in NYC for the last 6 ½ years, I’ve seen all kinds of things affecting our city, including racial tensions, a blackout, mayor candidates who run by dividing rather than uniting, the events of 9/11 making us live in fear, and so on. Substitute “serial killer” for terrorists, add the magnified soap opera of the New York Yankees (much more pronounced then), and you’ve got the summer of 1977. The Bronx is Burning, the ESPN miniseries arriving today on DVD, does a fairly good job capturing at least the Yankee soap opera. The blackout and mayoral race are shown mainly through archival footage, and the hunt for the infamous “Son of Sam” killer, although well acted (particularly by Stephen Lang as a police lieutenant), seems shoehorned in. But the baseball stories make it all worth watching. The Yankees of 1977 were a clash of three big egos – owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt), manager Billy Martin (John Turturro), and star Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata). About the only thing they all agreed on is they all wanted the Yankees to win the World Series after getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds the previous year. Steinbrenner wanted Jackson not only because he thought he would help the Yankees win the Series, but also because he thought Jackson would bring in lots of fans and attention. Martin wanted another right-handed hitter, instead of the left-handed Jackson, and he thought Jackson would be another threat to his control of the team. A former teammate said of Jackson, “There isn’t enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog,” and Jackson seemed to do little to dispel that when the June issue of Sport magazine quoted him as saying as far as the Yankees were concerned, he was “the straw that stirred the drink.” (To this day, Jackson denies ever saying this).
All three lead actors are terrific. Turturro is, of course, much taller than Martin was (Martin always felt slighted because of his height), but as he did when he played Howard Cosell in Monday Night Mayhem, he captures Martin’s brashness and vulnerability. Steinbrenner was a spoiled rich kid who had no idea how to run a team, but did have a love for the game, and wasn’t afraid to spend money to win. Platt shows all that, and, as usual, gives a very physical performance. Many viewers thought Sunjata didn’t have the heft for the role of Jackson, but I thought he was fine. Jackson was a hot dog, but he was also one of the most intelligent players around, and Sunjata does demonstrate that. The other players and coaches do get short shrift, though Erik Jensen bears a frightening resemblance to Thurman Munson, and Joe Grifasi goes past the usual Yogi Berra clichés to play Berra as someone Martin was always able to depend on. After his botched movie version of The Avengers, I never thought I’d like Jeremiah Chechik again, but he stages the baseball stories with flair here (he directed all seven episodes, and exec-produced the series). The miniseries does stall when it mostly uses archive footage, but it’s still a thrill to watch Jackson hit his 3 homers in the final game of the Series. In baseball terms, The Bronx is Burning scores a stand-up double.