Cinema without borders: Placing a new world order

Foreign films are definitely among the good things in life that come to those who wait. Today, any home can be an art house. You can satisfy your wanderlust without sweating passports or custom forms.

Indeed, the best foreign directors often place a higher premium on the real world than do their American counterparts. Their movies don't require 3-D glasses because they extend into historical dimensions. You won't find much of that anymore in Hollywood's silly, high-profile time-killers.

Here are a few recent imports we found especially engaging. All of them are grounded in reality, and come ready for booking in your own private repertory house:

"Of Gods and Men" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, rated PG-13, Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack $45.99). Who knew there was so much to intrigue us about life in a Trappist monastery? This prize-winning French drama brings into methodical focus the real-life story of a handful of altruistic Christian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s, who had the misfortune to be caught in the path of a religio-ethnic cleansing undertaken by local Muslim fanatics.

How does one confront the hatred in others? How can a cycle of violence be stopped without perpetuating it? Two millennia after the death of Jesus, Christians still grapple with the mandates of the scriptures — though not always under such apocalyptic circumstances. Director Xavier Beauvois assembled a top-notch cast that imbued the script with enough subtlety and pathos to clinch the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. This Blu-ray/DVD combo set boasts a luminous transfer and a full behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with relatives of the real French monks.

"Mao's Last Dancer" (20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, rated PG, DVD $19.98; Blu-ray Disc $29.99). This stirring, real-life tale of an escape from slavery is actually as much an English-language production as a foreign film. It was directed by Australia's Bruce Beresford ("Shine") and co-stars American movie actors Kyle MacLachlan, Bruce Greenwood and Joan Chen. It's the story of Li Cunxin, who was taken from his parents and their modest Chinese village to undergo state ballet training in Beijing, only to defect years later when he had had a taste of life outside totalitarianism.

Beresford was blessed to find Chi Cao, just the right actor-dancer to play the adult Li Cunxin, and though the script follows some well trod paper footprints from time to time, the movie is rich in both memorable human moments and in the drama of professional ballet. You'll definitely want to stick around afterward and watch the "making of" documentary that is a welcome disc extra in this case.

"Miral" (Anchor Bay Entertainment, rated PG-13, DVD $29.98; Blu-ray Disc $39.99). This international production is mostly played in English, directed by American filmmaker Julian Schnabel and starring "Slumdog Millionaire" actress Freida Pinto. But it unfolds deep within the underbrush of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The screenplay, adapted from her own memoir by Rula Jebreal, sprawls across generations and the lives of four women living in war-torn Jerusalem, setting up orphanages and teaching in refugee camps and trying in vain to avoid the volatile regional politics that threaten their world.

Schnabel tends to see the world in terms of victims and oppressors, but it's disappointing that his film is — admittedly, by design — so one-sided, because it plays like propaganda. In the view of virtually all the characters we meet here, the only problem in the Mideast is Israel. Israeli soldiers are seen as brutes and torturers who enjoy making life miserable for the innocent Palestinians who are forced toward radicalism.

The more persuasive elements of the film are the interpersonal relations of family, teachers and young lovers, all trying to carry on despite the political pressures. The disc comes with a commentary, documentaries and a filmmaker Q&A panel discussion.

"Winter in Wartime" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, rated R, Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack $45.99). Just arriving in America is this 2009 winner of the Netherlands Film Festival's Golden Calf award. It's a riveting melodrama about life in Nazi-occupied Holland in the last winter of World War II. A 13-year-old boy comes to the aid of a wounded British paratrooper, whose unknown whereabouts puts the life of his father and their whole quiet village in peril from German retribution.

The script was based on a best-selling book by Jan Terlouw that perfectly captures the psychological shadings of ordinary people living under life-threatening conditions. The performances are all very strong, as is the look and pace of the film. All that it seems to gloss over a bit too gingerly is the severe implications of the winter food shortage, which we see in more graphic detail in newsreel footage contained in the supplements. Still, it's a gripping yarn, and highly recommended.

'Boyz' turns 20

John Singleton was just 23 years old and fresh out of film school when he directed "Boyz N the Hood." So cut him some slack when you take a fresh look at the new high-definition, 20th anniversary edition of his big 1991 hit, "Boyz N the Hood" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, rated R, Blu-ray Disc $19.95).

If you remember the hard-hitting film as being somehow perfect, you will be disappointed to find it is sometimes stagey and stilted. Approach it more as a good melodrama, notable for its screen debuts and risk-taking confidence, and you should be more satisfied by what you see.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube are foremost among the stars getting their first showcase here, but also on hand are such pros as Angela Bassett and Larry Fishburne. The story takes the first half hour to introduce the leads as children and establish the harsh conditions of life in South Central Los Angeles.

Via implication and innuendo, the director makes the case that President Reagan was somehow to blame for the plight of the unemployed, crime-ridden, broken black families of Singleton's old neighborhood. Jumping ahead a few years, we meet the same characters as a pack of street-savvy toughs, but by then it's not so easy knowing where to point the blame.

The new Blu-ray Disc features a bright and steady transfer, with enhanced color and DTS-HD audio. The package of extras is extensive, including a director's commentary, deleted scenes, music videos, audition tapes and both a vintage and a brand new documentary on the film's rich history.

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