BLACK BOOK (2006). Director Paul Verhoeven's first Dutch film in over 20 years is slam-bang entertainment that's almost delirious in its attempt to emulate some of the ambitious WWII epics from the past. Verhoeven, whose notable career (The Fourth Man, RoboCop) was single-handedly derailed by Showgirls, infuses Black Book with plenty of verve and passion, and he's aided by a top-notch cast led by the wonderful Carice Van Houten. In Rachel Stein, Van Houten has created a truly memorable character, a Jewish woman who endures her share of heartbreak and humiliation yet is above all else a survivalist. Even though her family is gunned down before her eyes, she manages to escape the carnage, determined to find the duplicitous rat whose actions caused their demise. She joins the Dutch underground, where she becomes attracted to Hans Akkersmans (Thom Hoffman, bearing some resemblance to Russell Crowe), a macho marksman who seems to have more lives than your average cat's grand total of nine. In true Mata Hari fashion, Rachel is asked to get chummy with a high-ranking Nazi official (Sebastian Koch, the conflicted playwright in The Lives of Others), a problem once she begins to fall in love with him. With its series of blazing gun battles, numerous espionage capers (will Rachel get caught while bugging Nazi HQ?), and characters repeatedly double-crossing each other, Black Book rarely gives the viewer time to breathe – it's like The Guns of Navarone for the art-house set.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Verhoeven, a making-of feature, and a dozen theatrical trailers.
BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992). Francis Ford Coppola's stunning (and fairly faithful) adaptation of the classic vampire novel is a movie lover's dream, as the director elected to rely upon old-school cinematic techniques (albeit executed with modern-day aplomb) to punch across his bold and bloody interpretation. Employing many tricks that were popular as far back as the pioneering years of the motion picture medium – double exposures, matte shots, miniatures – Coppola and scripter James V. Hart accentuate the romanticism of the story, with their Dracula (Gary Oldman) a fierce warrior whose every move springs from his love for his soulmate (Winona Ryder). After she's killed, he lives on for centuries, eventually finding her reincarnation in a Victorian-era bride-to-be. Oldman, Ryder and Anthony Hopkins (as Professor Van Helsing) are fine, other cast members less so (Keanu Reeves is hopelessly miscast as Jonathan Harker), but it's the film's intoxicating style that trumps everything else. Bram Stoker's Dracula earned three Oscars for Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Sound Effects Editing, yet equally noteworthy are the stunning art direction, Michael Ballhaus' gliding cinematography and Wojciech Kilar's superb score, which emerged as one of the best soundtracks of its decade.
Extras in the two-disc DVD set include an introduction and audio commentary by Coppola, a half-hour of deleted scenes, and over an hour of making-of material, including looks at the movie's costumes and visual effects.
THE HOAX (2007). There's a fleet-footed exuberance to The Hoax that suits the film just perfectly. Although based on a true story, the picture displays a freewheeling style that's more attuned to the rhythms of Richard Gere's performance than any sort of somber veracity. Gere stars as Clifford Irving, the author who in the early 1970s convinced the bigwigs at McGraw-Hill that he had landed an exclusive interview with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. There was absolutely no truth to the boast, but with dollar signs dancing in their eyes, the publishing house accepted Irving's flimsy evidence as proof, a decision that resulted in the company handing over an incredible sum for publishing rights. Gere has always excelled at playing amoral yet charming creeps, and he strikes gold once again; while attempts on the part of scripter William Wheeler (adapting Irving's tell-all book) to imbue the character with some degree of sympathy fall flat, Gere is skilled enough to nevertheless add some complex shadings. Also memorable is Alfred Molina, sweating up a storm as Irving's nervous accomplice in the scam. With its allusions to Richard Nixon and Watergate, Hallstrom and Wheeler firmly establish the timeframe of their film. Yet if anything, the movie feels more like 2007 than 1971, given that fraudulent writers (like Stephen Glass) have proliferated in recent years and "identity theft" has become a commonplace expression. The Hoax might be intended as a cautionary tale, but in today's climate, it stands a better chance of emerging as an inspirational training film for aspiring scam artists.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Hallstrom and Wheeler, separate commentary by producers Leslie Holleran and Joshua D. Maurer, six deleted scenes, a making-of piece, and a discussion with Mike Wallace (who had interviewed Irving on 60 Minutes).
MEET THE ROBINSONS (2007). When this Disney animated feature premiered theatrically this past spring, select theaters across the nation (including a couple in Charlotte) presented it in 3-D. I'm sorry I didn't catch the film at one of those showings – at least it would have added an extra dimension to what is otherwise a shallow cartoon that somehow manages to be slow-moving and hyperactive at the same time. Imagine The Incredibles made by profiteers and that's pretty much Meet the Robinsons in a nutshell – it's not surprising that, like Chicken Little (to name but one dud), this is Disney operating without the safety net of John Lasseter and his Pixar team. This obnoxious film focuses on obnoxious Lewis, an orphan whose scientific contraptions are coveted by an obnoxious villain known as the Bowler Hat Guy. In a bit of time-hopping not worthy of Back to the Future (I, II or III), a member of the obnoxious Robinson family of the future comes to help out Lewis, thereby leading to a scattershot adventure involving obnoxious singing frogs, obnoxious food fights and an only-slightly-less obnoxious dinosaur. The final 20 minutes include a pair of decent plot pirouettes, but by then, I was so bored out of my skull than even wayward scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark somehow slipping onto the DVD platter probably wouldn't have stirred me out of my comatose state.