An early film starring the young John Cusack, the latest episodes in an excellent historical drama from Britain and two fresh takes on World War II are among the more intriguing recent DVD releases.
Better Off Dead (CBS/Paramount Home Entertainment, $21.99 Blu-ray, rated PG): Unless you're gripped with an enduring nostalgia for the kind of high jinks portrayed in 1980s teen comedies, writer/director Savage Steve Holland's 1985 film (making its Blu-ray debut) starring the young John Cusack as a love-sick high school student might leave you colder than the ski slopes on which Cusack's character competes.
The cliches run rampant and the plot, when it's not borrowing from Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, is predictable to anyone who's gotten within spitting distance of the genre. Example: The bad guy here, who steals Cusack's character's girlfriend, is blond, good-looking, egotistical, athletic, and mean, his name is Roy Stalin (was "Sam Hitler" taken?) and he deserves the comeuppance we know he'll get in the end.
Still, Cusack, early in his career (he had just made The Sure Thing), is charmingly offbeat as the hapless Lane Meyer, who resorts to a variety of failed suicide schemes after getting dumped by Beth (Amanda Wyss). And amid the suburban stereotypes of the ineffectual dad (David Ogden Stiers), the mom (Kim Darby) whose cooking is run-away-from-the-table disgusting, the tech whiz of a younger brother (Scooter Stevens), and the goofy sidekick (Curtis Armstrong), there's a bunch of very funny, quirky scenes. My favorite features Vincent Schiavelli as a nerdy math teacher whose class is filled with adoring students who pay rapt attention to his complex geometry and algebra lesson, are passionate about their homework assignments, and groan when the bell rings to end their class. Scenes like this and running gags like the paper boy obsessively trying to collect his bill ("I want my two dollars!") have helped make Better Off Dead a cult classic.
Garrow's Law: Series 2 (two discs, Acorn Media, $39.99, not rated): When this BBC courtroom-drama series, based on the real-life late-18th-century cases of pioneering barrister William Garrow, debuted on DVD early this year, I thought it was one of the best historical dramas I had seen in years. The four one-hour episodes that make up Series 2 are out on DVD, and Garrow's Law is even better. (The show, a hit on British TV in 2009 and 2010, has aired here on selected public television stations.)
Andrew Buchan returns as Garrow, the barrister who brought a passionate sense of justice and a sharp legal mind to the Old Bailey, where fairness was in short supply and those accused, often poor, rarely had a strong defender in their corner. The cases Garrow tries in Series 2 deal with such topical matters as the shoddy treatment of injured or infirm sailors, the deaths of black slaves thrown overboard from a slave ship and the crime of sodomy. These episodes all were adapted from or inspired by actual cases, which became more readily available when the Old Bailey's records were made public in a digitized online archive.
Lending their support to this riveting drama are veteran character actor Alun Armstrong, reprising his role as the attorney/solicitor who is Garrow's mentor and friend, and Lyndsey Marshal as Lady Sarah Hill, who is drawn to Garrow (and vice versa) despite her marriage to the aristocratic Sir Arthur Hill (Rupert Graves), a member of Parliament.
Winter in Wartime (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack, $45.99, rated R, spoken in Dutch with English subtitles): When you're a 13-year-old boy and the son of the mayor of a small Dutch town occupied by the German army, whom do you trust when you discover an injured British pilot hiding out in a nearby forest? Set in early 1945, just before the Allies' liberation of Holland, director Martin Koolhoven's suspenseful 2008 drama forces young Mikiel (Martijn Lakemeier) to make life-and-death decisions based on his own limited knowledge of the adult world. Who is in the Resistance and might be able to help the pilot? Who might be a collaborator working surreptitiously with the Nazis? And who is simply trying to survive honorably in a perilous situation?
As in other recent films exploring similarly treacherous terrain during World War II in Western Europe, such as Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (2006) and Danish director Ole Christian Madsen's Flame and Citron (2008), Winter in Wartime challenges our usual assumptions about heroism and villainy, offering surprising twists and turns along the way.
Jackboots on Whitehall (New Video/Flatiron Film Company, $19.95, not rated) offers the strangest perspective among these films about German occupation during WWII. Sporting an all-star British cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Rosamund Pike, Alan Cumming, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson and Dominic West, it presents a counterfactual look at what might have occurred had Germany won the Battle of Britain in 1940 and occupied London and the rest of England.
This "what if" movie imagines the German armed forces, having destroyed the outmanned Royal Air Force, invading England by tunneling under the English Channel from already-conquered France. The last-ditch resistance to the invading hordes is provided by a plucky group of irregulars from Kent, the Punjabi Guard from colonial India, a cocky Yank pilot, an amorous French Resistance fighter and a cigar-chomping Winston Churchill.
That the story is played for laughs, including a sharply satirical portrayal of the German high command of Hitler (who appears to be wearing one of Queen Elizabeth I's dresses after taking over Buckingham Palace), Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler, is pretty weird.