Video Picks & Passes







CONTENT ADVISORY: The Ninth Day is subtitled, and contains horrific but restrained depictions of concentration-camp atrocities, some crude language and mixed perspectives on the role of Pius XII during WWII. It might be suitable for mature teens. Cinderella Man contains much brutal pugilism violence, recurring profanity, mild sensuality, and a couple of sleazy taunts. It, too, might be suitable for mature teens. Fantastic Four contains stylized violence, some sexually themed humor and innuendo, and at least one instance of profanity. Tolerable for teens and up.

One of the best films of the year, Volker Schlondorff's The Ninth Day, new this week on DVD, is a haunting moral drama inspired by the Dachau concentration camp diary of a Catholic priest who was strangely given a nine-day reprieve from imprisonment. Not a rah-rah apologetic for the role of Catholic leaders during WWII, if that would even be appropriate, the film dares to dig beyond rote charges and counter-arguments regarding ecclesiastical complicity with Nazism to explore various levels of resistance and protest — and their consequences.

The film pits wary, weary Abbé Kremer (Ulrich Matthes) against fresh-faced Nazi officer Gebhardt (August Diehl) in a battle not of wits but of moral strength. Their cautious interactions, which could easily have degenerated into mere philosophical chess matches, are saved from doing so solely by Kremer's refusal to play by Gebhardt's rules.

Another Dachau survivor, Viktor Frankl, went on to argue in Man's Search for Meaning that man's most basic drive is not for pleasure, as Freud thought, but significance. The concentration camps, Frankl felt, showcased humanity at its worst and most depraved, but also at its purest and most profoundly human. Few films illustrate Frankl's thesis as profoundly as The Ninth Day.

Another edifying new DVD release based on a true story, Ron Howard's Cinderella Man celebrates the rags-to-riches life of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe). Refreshingly, unlike the stereotyped movie boxer, a morally checkered, socially alienated single man with a history of extracurricular violence and troubling relationship issues (Rocky, Raging Bull, The Boxer), Braddock is a wholly decent, self-controlled, devoted family man. He's not only Cinderella, he's Prince Charming, too.

It's too bad the film can't celebrate Braddock's virtues without demonizing his final opponent, heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), as a scowling, swaggering creep who provokes Braddock before and during the fight with indecent taunts involving his wife. Even so, this is one Cinderella story that goes the distance without turning into a pumpkin, and earns its happily-ever-after ending.

How bad is Fantastic Four, also new on DVD? So bad, execs have resorted to spinning it as a “funny family action film.” It's the Kangaroo Jack strategy: When your dumb, trashy film isn't good enough for teens and adults, reposition it as a kiddie flick. Our kids deserve better than Hollywood's garbage. Despite reaction shots from Dalmatians and whipped-cream-in-the-face gags, Fantastic Four is no more appropriate for youngsters than the dark, scary Batman Begins. The relentlessly one-note portrayal of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, as a randy, insufferably egocentric tomcat and glory hound makes sure of that.

If none of the other characters is quite as insufferable as the Torch, none is much more interesting, either. Even Dr. Doom, on the printed page a towering Vader-esque iconic figure in cape and armor, is here reduced to a younger, duller Donald Trump, with ill-defined super powers. Had the filmmakers deliberately set out to insult, demean and trample upon Lee and Kirby's legacy, they could hardly have done a more efficient job.