This week’s roundup includes three new films on-demand—another Liam Neeson revenge picture, another Nazi revenge picture and a superb Italian film based on a Jack London novel—along with new Blu-ray titles from Warner Archive (Reversal of Fortune and Drop Dead Gorgeous) and the Criterion Collection (Stephen Frears’ The Hit).
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Honest Thief (Open Road)
Another Liam Neeson vehicle that’s as blunt and simplistic as the rest: he plays a successful bank robber who attempts to go straight when he meets the woman of his dreams, but unfortunately corrupt FBI agents get in his way. Neeson is as gruffly no-nonsense as ever and Kate Walsh has a welcome engaging presence as his girlfriend, but director Matt Williams has taken his own flimsy script—every obvious bad guy move and Neeson response are telegraphed far in advance—and adds nothing but 90 minutes of action to make up for any originality or involvement.
Martin Eden (Kino Lorber)
Pietro Marcello’s intelligent adaptation recasts Jack London’s San Francisco story to Italy, as an uneducated lower-class lout decides to smarten himself up after meeting the lovely daughter of a rich family: but will his new-found writing talent and leftist beliefs destroy his chances with her? Smartly, Marcello keeps the focus on his protagonist’s maturation as a writer and more importantly a human, and Luca Marinelli’s complex, nuanced portrayal is on-target. Equally compelling are Jessica Cressy as Martin’s unreachable love Elena and Elisabetta Valgoi as her mother. Bracingly directed, acted, and written, Martin Eden is one of the richest Italian films I’ve seen in awhile.
The Secrets We Keep (Bleecker Street)
A small-town American wife and mother is certain that a neighbor was a member of the SS who tortured her and killed her sister back in Europe; she hatches a plan to take justice—or, more honestly, revenge—into her own hands in this initially interesting but eventually risible drama by director Yuval Adler (who wrote the ill-conceived script with Ryan Covington). Noomi Rapace works hard and efficiently as the woman, but how unbelievably easily she carries out her plan is only the beginning of a hopelessly contrived melodrama. Ill at ease are Chris Messina as Rapace’s husband, initially incredulous but quickly all in; and Joel Kinnaman, who could have been a credible villain/victim but who does little with the project’s plodding obviousness.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Before the Fire (Dark Sky Films)
In the midst of a raging pandemic in Los Angeles, up-and-coming TV star Ava is tricked by her boyfriend into returning to her small hometown, where long-simmering recriminations fester among the townsfolk, and she realizes that life can be an even bigger living hell than the one she just escaped. Despite its timely premise, this drama falls prey to star Jenna Lyng Adams’ scattershot script and Charles Buhler’s meandering direction, and we never care about what happens to Ava. Adams’ ferocious lead performance can’t carry this over the finish line. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; lone extra is a delete scene.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (Warner Archive)
This labored 1999 satire of beauty pageants huffs and puffs and occasionally hits a bulls-eye, but the scattershot approach of director Michael Patrick Jann and writer Lona Williams effectively transforms the characters into utterly unlikeable caricatures who pall soon after they’re introduced. The partial exceptions are Allison Janney and Ellen Barkin, who sometimes transcend the flimsy material by simultaneously laughing at and with their characters and become nearly human in the process. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.
The Hit (Criterion)
Stephen Frears’ 1984 blackly comic drama subtly gives meat to characters that start as mere types—informer, efficient hit man, jittery newcomer, naïve innocent—but soon become full-blooded and even sympathetic. Frears directs with skillful understatement, Peter Prince’s script is a marvel of economy, Paco de Lucia and Eric Clapton’s music is perfect for the lonely Spanish countryside settings, and the performances are, literally, killer: Terence Stamp’s informer, John Hurt and Tim Roth’s veteran and rookie hit men, and Laura del Sol’s innocent who’s the most resourceful. Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade looks smashing; extras include a commentary by Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince and editor Mick Audsley as well as a 1988 Stamp TV interview.
Peer Gynt (Unitel/C Major)
The great Danish composer Edvard Grieg composed his classic music for August Strindberg’s classic play Peer Gynt in 1875, and Danish choreographer Edward Clug has fashioned a potent and ultimately poignant ballet based on the play, with portions of Grieg’s wonderful Gynt music interspersed with other works like his Lyric Suite and Piano Concerto. It works beautifully thanks to Clug’s substantive movements and a superlative cast: as Peer, Jakob Feyferlik is unforgettable, and he dances brilliantly throughout with Alice Firenze as Solveig, his lost love. Both hi-def video and audio of this 2018 performance from Vienna are first-rate.
Reversal of Fortune (Warner Archive)
French director Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 docudrama tackles the case of Klaus von Bulow, the unlikeable aristocrat found guilty of negligence for the 1979 coma of his wife, socialite Sunny von Bulow, and who hired Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz to handle his appeal. It’s a fascinatingly disturbing true story, told with impressive control by Schroeder from a well-structured script by Nicholas Kazan, and anchored by two fine-tuned performances: Jeremy Irons’ arrogantly steely von Bulow, and Ron Silver’s arrogantly energetic Dershowitz. Strangely, Irons won the Best Actor Oscar while Silver wasn’t even nominated. The film looks sharp in hi-def; lone extra is a Schroeder/Kazan commentary.
Star Trek: Picard—Complete 1st Season (CBS/Paramount)
Patrick Stewart returns to his iconic role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who manned the Star Trek—The Next Generation ship for seven seasons (1987-94) in an unnecessary reboot that brings Picard out of a self-imposed 14-year retirement at his beloved vineyard. Stewart is as gruff and ironical as ever, but the new storylines don’t have the same urgency or interest, except perhaps for die-hard Trekkies. The season’s 10 episodes look eye-popping in hi-def; extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, gag reel, commentary on episode one, short film Children of Mars and commentary on the short.
To Your Last Death (Quiver Distribution)
This gleefully violent animated feature follows the heroine, Miriam—the lone survivor of her father’s vengeful “game”—who gets the chance to relive the past by trying to save her siblings this time around. Of course, this occasions dealing with the piling up of body parts and geysers of blood shooting up throughout. There’s more crimson red than imagination on display by director Jason Axinn, but there are amusingly disgusting moments courtesy of the excellent animated crew, and the voice cast—led by Morena Baccarin as the malevolent Gamemaster—is topnotch. It all looks especially vivid on Blu-ray.
DVD Release of the Week
Bellingcat—Truth in a Post-Truth World (First Run Features)
A collective that has taken on great importance since it was founded in 2014 by crusading British journalist Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat comprises committed citizen journalists from around the world whose research into headline news stories finds unexpected—and, often, unwanted—answers. Director Hans Pool’s absorbing documentary allows us to follow these intrepid investigators as they take deep dives into such events as the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine or the poisoning of a Russian dissident in England and provide the receipts necessary to bring some accountability to a post-truth, “fake news” world.