European heads of state often appear more dashing and benign to American audiences than they do to their own constituencies. The Conquest reveals not only the bluntly ambitious, self-obsessed Nicolas Sarkozy that so often gets lost in translation, but also some insight into how he's viewed by his countrymen. Paris-born TV-movie director Xavier Durringer guides a restrained, impeccably dressed cast through the motions of Sarko's rapid, ruthless rise from minister of the interior to president of the French Republic. Like some of HBO's great recent political reenactments, the portrayals of real-life politicians transcend imitation to become their own interesting characters. Unless you've been following French politics closely enough to recognize former prime minister and Sarkozy rival Dominique de Villepin, you'll probably miss the giddy, guilty pleasure of watching HBO's fantasized versions of screen-burned figures like Sarah Palin or George W. Bush. (The Conquest even stops just short of introducing the dazzling, wife-three-to-be Carla Bruni.) That could be because the most interesting part of Sarkozy's personal narrative, it turns out, is his second wife and political advisor, Cécilia, who must be wooed back to a camera-friendly domestic arrangement she detests but helped to create. (available now)
Special Features: Making-of featurette
Writer-director Joe Maggio's low-key films tend to center on tough characters with a soft underbelly, and the balance between idealism and raw survival. So it's a special treat to have him joined by Dennis Farina, a long-cherished character actor who embodies Maggio's ethos so fully, appear here as the titular Chicago hustler, an aging one-last-job addict who emerges from a seven-week bout with pneumonia to find the world has moved on without him. Farina enhances Maggio's standard redemption formula with every breath he forces against the chilly air, his every piece of stage business filling in the blanks of his back story like the underappreciated professional both he and May truly are. May discovers his place has been rented out to a single mom and her precocious daughter, with whom May forms an entirely predictable bond. As the guy's life prospects wither, he awakens to the slightest glint of light his hard-won existence can offer, but is it too late for him to find happiness? You wouldn't think such a rote thesis could still hold water, especially coming from the wildly hit-or-miss Tribeca Film/American Express distribution imprint, but Farina reframes the answer into more of a grunt of acknowledgement. (available now)
Special Features: Outtakes, director interview
Brutality begets brutality in this coarse examination of a man with rage in his heart, a woman who hopes she's above such violence and the unlikely friendship that forms between them. Peter Mullan, a Scottish actor who spits venom so effortlessly you'd think he was raised by cobras, plays Joseph, a widower and alcoholic whose only pleasure seems to come from bar brawls and kicking dogs. (Come to think of it, “pleasure” might be stretching things. Joseph conveys nothing of the sort, merely unforgiving nature.) He bonds with Hannah (Olivia Colman), an abused spouse whose motivation behind her tolerance of Joseph is only revealed at the end, fights with his frequently shirtless, equally rage-filled neighbor and generally makes a mess of everything he touches. But is there hope for him? Unlike Joe May, writer-director Paddy Considine is more concerned with the trainwreck details of rock bottom than the messy afterward, which makes Tyrannosaur feel a bit exploitative and its unforgiving tone almost too easy by comparison, but the actors here are far too compelling to ever look away – or, god forbid, provoke. (available now)
Special Features: Original short, audio commentary, deleted scenes
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