In Order of Disappearance (Norway, 2014, Magnet/Magnolia, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 114 min.). This Norwegian film, the fourth that actor Stellan Skarsgård has made with director Hans Petter Moland, often brings the Coen Brothers' "Fargo" to mind and it is not only in the snowy vistas. There is the same sense of black humor running through much of the film, which involves a man, just selected as the small town of Tyos' Citizen of the Year, slipping further and further into darkness as he tries to avenge his only son's death and his actions result in events spiraling out of his control.
Skarsgård plays Nils Dickman (an unfortunate last name that comes to play a role in the plot), who has been honored for his work as the local snow plowman who keeps the lone road through the surrounding wilderness open. Images of Nils operating his plow down lonely roads and throwing snow high up in the air fill the film with an ongoing calmness that most of the other characters do not feel. When informed that Ingvar, his only child, who worked as a baggage handler at the local airport, died of a heroin overdose, Nils refuses to believe it and starts investigating up the local criminal chain, starting with his son's friend, Finn, who gives up the name of dealer Jappe (Jan Gunnar Røise). Nils later learns that Finn had "borrowed" a bag of cocaine belonging to Ole Forsby, aka The Count (Pål Sverre Hagen in a scenery-chewing role), and that is why Ingvar and Finn were beaten up, although Finn escaped.
As Nils works up the criminal chain, each time he elicits a name, he kills the drug dealer, wrapping their bodies in chicken wire -- so the small fish can get in to feed on them, as he explains to his brother, who once worked for The Count's father as Wingman -- and throwing the bodies over the waterfall. However, after The Count learns three of his men have disappeared, he orders a hit on one of the Serbian drug dealers. The Count and Serbian leader Papa (Bruno Ganz) have split up parts of Norway into drug-distribution territories; now The Count believes Papa has broken their agreement. Unfortunately for The Count, the Serbian who is killed is Papa's son, and thus a gang war breaks out. The viewer gets to see into The Count's personal life; he and his estranged wife Marit (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen of "Pitch Perfect 2") share custody of their son, Rune (Jack Sødahl Moland, the director's son). When Nils' attempt to hire a hitman to kill The Count fails, he decides to kidnap Rune, which has unexpected and bloody consequences.
The film actually was made in 2014 and only now is seeing a U.S. release. Whatever the year, it is one of the best films around. The only bonus features are interviews -- in English, unlike the film, which is in Norwegian -- with Skarsgård (6:01) and director Moland (13:57), who first had the idea for the story 15 years ago, when an unprepared Norway started to be inundated with illegal drugs. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2 stars.
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Suicide Squad Extended Cut (Warner, 2 Blu-ray + 1 standard DVD, NR/PG-13, 134/123 min.). Other than Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie of "The Wolf of Wall Street"), I previously knew nothing about the other members of the Suicide Squad. They are Floyd Walton, aka Deadshot (Will Smith); El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje); Capt. Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Dr. June Moone/Enchantress (Cara Delevingue), with the latter soon going rogue. The team of villains, officially known as Task Force X, is assembled by the government's Amanda Waller (a strong and sometimes scary Viola Davis) to carry out dangerous missions and take the blame if things go wrong. Assigned to the team are Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara in her feature film debut). Each team member has an explosive device injected into their necks for control.
Many initial reviews of the film were scathing, but at least the 13-minute-longer extended cut (each version has its own Blu-ray disc) is an OK movie, with only a few things that do not make sense. I did not watch the theatrical version.
When Enchantress, a witch, goes rogue, she turns a businessman into her brother, Incubus (Alain Chanoine), who then turns people into an army of hard-to-kill, faceless creatures. The squad's mission is to take Incubus down and rescue Dr. Moone from possession by Enchantress -- although that mission is hidden from the squad for some time. The film, written and directed by David Ayer ("End of Watch"), spends the first 20 minutes introducing the bad guys who will make up the squad, including a couple of cameo performances by Batman (an unaccredited Ben Affleck). Also delved into is Harley Quinn's relationship with the Joker (Jared Leto, whose weirdness is fascinating to watch). The film kind of more happens than follows a cohesive plot.
Extras include a look at the history of the Suicide Squad (23:08), which began in the comics in the late 1950s as military operatives under Flag, then became more like the film presents in the 1980s; how director Ayer and crew tried to ground the film and the characters (9:37), using practical sets; a look at the IT couple of Harley Quinn and Joker (14:29), in which we learn Leto was constantly in character as the Joker while on and around the set; the actor's fight training (9 min.); the weapons (11:48); the battles (10:54); a promo piece on the squad (4:19); and a fast-moving gag reel (2:04). The UltraViolet code unlocks some exclusive extras through Vudu. Watching the movie on an iPhone or iPad enables an "Extras+" mode; if one tilts the device to portrait mode, the screen will display trivia, cast information and maps of filming locations. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2.5 stars
Harley and the Davidsons (Lionsgate, 2 Blu-ray + 2 standard DVDs, NR, 236 min.). This is a solid three-part Discovery Channel miniseries about two friends, Bill Harley (Robert Aramayo of "Game of Thrones") and Arthur Davidson (Bug Hall), who along with brother Walter Davidson (Michael Huisman), develop the first Harley-Davidson motorbike and go on to form the iconic company. Walter was a farmer whose land was taken by the railroad for 15 cents an acre through eminent domain and he then invests $175 in his brother and Bill's endeavor. The trio's goal was to build bikes that could go anywhere, can ride hard and ignore all the rules. Of course, motorbikes soon became motorcycles. Bill was the engineer, while Arthur was the salesman, and it was Walter who drove the motorbike during the early races to build their vehicle's reputation.
As with most history-based miniseries, I'm sure the facts were massaged to make for better TV. The TV story starts in 1903. Bill's early struggle was having to support his family, including an invalid brother, and thus leaving the Davidsons to attend the University of Wisconsin. He was them offered a position as engineer by brothers Cecil and Ira Mason of Mason Gears, who wanted to build a more affordable automobile. The three also faced problems getting dealers to sell their vehicles, with Preston King working with George Hendee, maker of the Indian, to restrict what dealerships could sell. (Reportedly, this is the most made-up portion of the story, with the real rivalry being between dealerships and not between Hendee and Arthur Davidson, who actually were friends.)
The miniseries offers fascinating glimpses into the development of the motorbikes and does a wonderful job of recreating the early machines. It is less effective with the romantic bits, which seem shoehorned into the story. The bonus features are a making-of featurette (6:44) with interviews, and a "Biketacular" special (40:37) that counts down the greatest motorcycles of all time. Grade: miniseries 3 stars; extras 1.5 stars
Sudden Fear (1952, Cohen Blu-ray, NR, 110 min.). This exciting piece of noir by director David Miller is presented in a new 2k restoration. Set mainly in San Francisco, it stars Joan Crawford as playwright Myra Hudson, who is also a wealthy heiress, and Jack Palance as Lester Blaine, the actor she comes to love and marry, after rejecting him as not romantic enough to be the leading man in her new play. Both Crawford and Palance were nominated for Oscars for their work, as was cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. and costume designer Sheila O'Brien. The thrilerl also features an exciting score by the great Elmer Bernstein.
After rejecting Lester for the part and having the show open to wonderful reviews, Myra heads home to San Francisco by train. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, also on the train is Lester, who becomes her constant companion, even changing his ticket from just to Chicago to go through to San Francisco. The pair date and wed after a whirlwind romance, with Myra thinking she has found true love. An important feature of Myra's home is her home office, which has four hidden microphones so she can record her play ideas while wandering around the room. Her father also left her a wonderful seaside home, with very steep steps, with no railings, that go down to the water.
Lawyer Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett) handles all Myra's affairs. His younger brother, Junior (Mike Connors), also works for the firm. One day, Junior brings Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) to a party, and it turns out that Irene is Lester's old partner in bilking people and his former girlfriend. A few weeks later, Steve Kearney presents a new will for Myra to sign, along with the documents to set up the Hudson Heart Foundation to honor her father. Myra plans to turn over all her inheritance, except real estate, to the foundation and only live off the money from her plays. Learning of the new will, Lester and Irene, who have rekindled their romance, sneak into Myra's office, discover Steve's version of the will -- not knowing that Myra had rejected it -- and plot to kill Myra sometime during the weekend, before the will can be signed on Monday.
Myra never turned off the recording device, however, and when she plays back her notes on the will, she learns of Lester's treachery and the danger she is in. From that point, Myra plots to turn the tables and kill Lester, with Irene being blamed for the crime. The ending is terrific, as Myra has a change of heart that forces her to improvise, while being chased by Lester. The bonus feature is audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold, who points out that this was Crawford's first film after leaving Warner Bros. and that she asked for Miller to be the director. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extra 2.25 stars
Baked in Brooklyn (Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, Nr, 86 min.). This film, especially with central character David Sharpiro (Jack Brener) very much in the talks-too-much, insecure-about-romance mode, seems like the kind of stoner film Woody Allen would write, if he ever were to write one.
David, 22, is a recent college graduate who befriends Kate (Alexandra Daddario) over his mix tape at a party. Despite some initial awkwardness and the fact that Kate has a boyfriend, their friendship deepens until Kate informs David she has broken up with her boyfriend. That is the same day that David gets fired from his consulting firm job. For whatever reason, David decides to become a marijuana dealer, actually advertising on the Internet, with his motto being he is fast and will deliver anywhere in Brooklyn. As his business grows, he alienates Kate and his two roommates, none of whom he has much time for.
Despite being billed as a comedy, the only truly funny scene comes at the end. For most of the film, David just seems to get into more and more of a mess. A lot of details about why some things in the film happen also are left out by screenwriter David Shapiro (yup, very close to the character's name, so perhaps the story is at least somewhat set on actual events). There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2 stars
Equity (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 100 min.).The story behind the film here is that it was produced, directed, written and 80-percent funded by women, which really does not show in the film. The film does have a woman's viewpoint, though, as the central character is Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn, two-time Emmy winner for "Breaking Bad"). She is a sharp, experienced investment banker who keeps coming up against a "glass ceiling" at the Wall Street firm where she works.
Naomi's newest project is bringing Cachet, a privacy company that says it can build an impenetrable network online, to the public through an initial public offering. Along the way, the clients prove unable to keep their mouths shut, while her relationships with a hedge funder (James Purefoy as Michael Connor) and an ambitious underling (Sarah Megan Thomas as Erin Manning) threaten the IPO. There also is a woman in the Attorney General's office (Alysia Reiner as Samantha Ryan), who is looking to bring anyone down, but especially Benji Akers (Craig Bierko). The film has a sense of realism about what goes on behind the scenes on Wall Street.
Extras include a look at the film's women investors (8:31); a making-of featurette (14:17) that looks at the moral ambiguity portrayed in the film; and a Q&A from the LA Film Festival with Gunn, director Meera Menon, Rainer, Thomas and Samuel Roukin (he plays Ed, one of the two principals of Cachet). Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2 stars
Citizen Kane (1941, Warner Blu-ray, PG, 119 min.). Frequently hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest, Orson Welles' masterpiece comes as a stand-alone Blu-ray to mark the 75th anniversary of the film. This is the same 4k resolution Blu-ray restoration that was part of a three-disc package five years ago. It includes separate audio commentaries by the late film critic Roger Ebert and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; interviews with actress Ruth Warrick and editor Robert Wise; newsreel of the world premiere; and still photography with commentary by Ebert.
The film’s central character is powerful publisher Charles Foster Kane, who aspires to be president of the United States. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst claimed the film was a thinly veiled and slanderous account of his own life and sought to use his formidable muscle to halt the film’s production and distribution, and ultimately to destroy Welles himself. Not only did Welles star in the film, but the then only 25-year-old filmmaker also produced, directed and co-wrote the film, which won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz) and captured nine more nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director (Welles). Joseph Cotten makes an impressive screen debut as Jedidiah Leland, a newspaper reporter and Kane’s longtime friend, from whom he had become estranged over the issue of journalistic integrity. Other actors included Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Warrick, Paul Stewart and William Alland as the investigative reporter who delves into Kane’s life and his mysterious "Rosebud." Alan Ladd and Arthur O’Connell appear uncredited as reporters. Gregg Toland was the film’s cinematographer and Wise, later a two-time Academy Award-winning director, edited the picture. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 4 stars
Howards End (1991, Cohen, 2 Blu-ray or 2 standard DVD, PG, 142 min.). One of Merchant Ivory's masterpieces, this edition of "Howards End" is presented in a new 4k restoration. This adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic novel won multiple prizes, including three Academy Awards -- Emma Thompson as Best Actress, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for Best Screenwriter Adaptation and Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.. This edition has been overseen and approved by director James Ivory and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts.
A saga of class relations and changing times in an Edwardian England that is on the brink of modernity, the film centers on liberal Margaret Schlegel (Thompson), who, along with her sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), becomes involved with two couples: wealthy, conservative industrialist Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave); and the downwardly mobile working-class Leonard Bast (Samuel West) and his mistress Jackie (Nicolla Duffett). The interwoven fates and misfortunes of these three families and the diverging trajectories of the two sisters' lives are connected to the ownership of Howards End, the dying Ruth's beloved country home. The film is a brilliantly acted study of one woman's struggle to maintain her ideals and integrity in the face of Edwardian society's moribund conformist values.
The film has previously been released on Blu-ray in 2009 by the Criterion Collection in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, while the theatrical release was 2.39:1 and this Blu-ray is 2.50:1 (the basic differences being more picture at the bottom of the screen). Some of the supplements are the same as on the Criterion release, including "Building Howards End" (42:37 on the production history); "The Design of Howards End" with Arrighi and James Beavan on their work (8:58); "James Ivory Remembers Ismael Merchant" (12:11); and a behind-the-scenes feature from 1992 (4:32). New are an audio commentary by film critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein; a new conversation between Ivory and Laurence Kardish, former senior curator of film for MOMO (26:43); a new interview of Ivory and Redgrave at the Cannes Film Festival (8:08); and an onstage Q&A with Ivory and critic Michael Koresky at Lincoln Center (27:17). The film comes housed in a handsome that also contains a nice glossy booklet with essays by Ivory, John Pym and Arrighi. Grade: film 4.5 stars; extras 4 stars
Federico Fellini's Roma (Italy, 1972, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 120 min.). Part travelogue, memoir and outrageous cinematic spectacle, this is the famed director's kaleidoscopic valentine to the Eternal City. Leisurely one moment and breathless the next, this urban fantasia by Fellini ("8 1/2," "La dolce vita") interweaves recollections of the director's young adulthood in the era of Mussolini with an impressionistic portrait of 1972 Rome, where he and his film crew are gathering footage of the bustling cityscape. The material delights of sex, food, nightlife and a hallucinatory ecclesiastical fashion show are shot through with glimmers of a monumental past: the Colosseum encircled by traffic, ancient frescoes unearthed in a subway tunnel, and a pigeon-befouled statue of Caesar. With a head-spinning mix of documentary immediacy and extravagant artifice, the film penetrates the myth and mystique of Italy's storied capital, a city Fellini called "the most wonderful movie set in the world."
The film is divided into two parts. First, a young man arrives in Rome and begins exploring the city. His accent and the way he carries himself reveal him to be an outsider, someone who does not yet understand the rhythm of life in Rome. Soon after, the camera abandons the young man and moves away from the crowds, giving the viewer a glimpse of a different city, one that has prostitutes and beggars hiding in the shadows. In part two, Fellini takes us underneath the city, where some drillers accidentally find the ruins of a Roman home, but by allowing air to rush in, the beautiful frescoes revealed are destroyed.
The film is presented in a 2k digital restoration. Bonus features include 18 minutes of deleted scenes; audio commentary by Frank Burke, author of "Fellini's Films"; an interview with filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino on Fellini's lasting influence (16 min.); an interview with poet and Fellini friend Valerio Magrelli (17 min.); images from the Felliniana archive of director Don Young (19 min.); and a leaflet essay by film scholar David Forgacs. Except for the audio commentary, the features are in Italian, with optional English subtitles. Grade: film and extras 4 stars