Chariots of Fire
The surprise 1981 Best Picture Oscar winner—beating out Warren Beatty’s romantic epic Reds—is, despite its pedigree (British, respectable, conventional), surprisingly upbeat if historically problematic. Despite director Hugh Hudson pouring on slow motion, crowd-pleasing sequences and Vangelis’ dated electronic score, the movie holds up well enough. The muted hi-def image looks comparable to the original theatrical release; extras include a Hudson commentary and interview, screen tests, deleted scenes, featurettes including interviews with Hudson, producer David Puttnam, writer Colin Welland and photographer David Watkin, and a CD sampler of four Vangelis tunes.
The synth-pop British hitmakjers reunited last year (nostalgia being what it is, who doesn’t nowadays?), as witness this savvy performance in front of an energetic, mostly female crowd. Simon LeBon and two of the three Taylor brothers are joined by assorted backup musicians and singers for a romp through their three-decade career, with an obvious leaning toward the early smash hits (“Rio,” “The Reflex,” “Hungry Like the Wolf”) that longtime fans will enjoy. The hi-def cameras provide crisp visuals; extras include two bonus songs (including “Is There Something I Should Know”) and band member interviews.
The well-documented atrocities against the Chinese when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1936 have been dramatized in several movies; unfortunately, acclaimed veteran director Zhang Timou comes a cropper with his shallow take on such a tricky subject. As a Westerner posing as a priest who tries to save an improbable group of courtesans and young students, Christian Bale looks confused and embarrassed, while Zhang—whose technical control remains unabated—allows sentimentality to seep in at every turn. On Blu-ray, Zhang’s splendid compositions leave the weak script behind; the lone extra is a behind the scenes featurette.
Abel Ferrara’s latest unhinged rant explores the final hours for Manhattan residents as the countdown to Armageddon begins. There are interesting moments—particularly when protagonist Willem Dafoe screams from a rooftop at people still wandering the streets—but Ferrara never develops anything coherently. The relationship between Dafoe and a wooden Shanyn Leigh as his wife never gives us any reason to care about the impending demise of such non-entities. The Blu-ray image is first-rate.
In 1998, Nicholas Evans’ novel was made into a pictorially lovely, dramatically distaff drama by director/star Robert Redford, who smartly cast Kristin Scott Thomas to play the mother of a teenager (Scarlett Johansson) whose accident while on her beloved horse is the catalyst for nearly three hours of intermittently powerful drama. The movie looks much better than on DVD, but there’s a softness to some scenes—particularly shots of the expansive Montana visitas—that mute the exquisite visuals; extras include three very brief interviews with Redford and real “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman.
Kenneth Lonergan made this illuminating study of a Manhattan teenager who witnesses a gruesome bus accident back in 2005; it sat on the shelf until edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker down to 2-½ hours. Like You Can Count on Me, Lonergan’s excellent 2000 debut, this movie is less concerned with plot than character and dialogue; its textures are of real-life people interacting in ways completely antithetical to typical Hollywood movies. Crammed with scenes of the girl at school, at home or dealing with the accident’s aftermath, Margaret has unyielding empathy for its characters. Anna Paquin (teen) and J. Smith-Cameron (mom) are great; Lonergan, Josh Hamilton, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon and Allison Janney provide smart support. The movie looks excellent on Blu-ray; the lone extra is the original, 186-minute cut on DVD: it’s an entirely different movie than the released version, though whether it’s better—it has the same strengths and weaknesses in greater abundance—will be debated for awhile.
A Buster Keaton silent feature that he did not direct (Herbert Blache did the honors)—based on a play, The New Henrietta, by Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith—this is not as memorable as his many comedic classics already out on Blu-ray, though there are enough moments for Keaton fans to savor. The 1920 color-tinted movie looks fairly worn, but on Blu-ray it’s the best it will look—along with an alternate version that comprises alternate takes and camera angles. Other extras are a featurette comparing the two versions and a 1962 audio recording Keaton regaling a party with youthful songs and memories.
This quartet of programs, featuring breathtaking underwater footage, shows the lives of several kinds of sharks (and manta rays!), and how humans—especially scientists and tourists in search of more dangerous escapades—try to co-exist with them. The four episodes—Shark Divers, Shark Business, Whale Sharks: Gentle Giants and Giants of San Benedicto—have spectacular hi-def camerawork in spades; there are no extras, but who cares when there are over three hours of stunning journeys to go on?
This delightfully twisted 1971 Hammer horror flick, with Peter Cushing as the leader of pious witch hunters who meet his match when a local count transforms one of his sexyl twin nieces into a vampire, is a real hoot. Blood and breasts are equally on display, and the finale is ludicrously over the top, even for such a flamboyant film. With its dark shadows and red gore, the movie looks quite good in hi-def, with film-like grain; extras include The Flesh and the Fury, a thorough 85-minute documentary of the film’s history; The Props that Hammer Built, a 25-minute featurette; and a deleted scene.
Jesus Henry Christ
If quirkiness were all, then writer-director Dennis Lee’s exploration of a boy’s search for his real father would be a triumph. But quirkiness aside, Lee’s movie is skin-crawlingly obnoxious, as this most bizarre of bizarre families comes off uninteresting and dull after so many similar movies and TV sitcoms: why can’t we see normal people for a change? If everyone’s offbeat, then no one is offbeat; Michael Sheen, Toni Collette and Jason Spevack (as the boy) can’t change that. Extras include interviews with Lee and his cast.
Christoph Honore’s bland family relations drama pales next to better French films on the subject, with Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours and Arnaud Desplechin’s flawed but interesting A Christmas Tale the most recent. Unlike bull’s-eye acting in Summer (Juliette Binoche) and Christmas (Catherine Deneuve), Honore is stuck with Chiara Mastroianni, movie royalty—daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni—but a mediocre actress who can’t breathe life into a multi-dimensional heroine juggling young kids, annoying brother and sister, new boyfriend, former husband and overbearing parents.
The final film in writer-director Leon Ichaso’s Cuban trilogy—following El Super and Bitter Sugar—is his personal take on a rarely mentioned issue: how newly arrived Cuban immigrants see their American “promised land” if the promises of a better life don’t happen. What begins as an inchoate character study morphs into a romance and finally into a strange kind of thriller, its heartfelt honesty trumping loose ends in plotting and characterization. Extras include an Ichaso interview, Benjamin Bratt introduction and Ichaso’s short about poet Justo Rodriguez Santos, J.R.S.
Omri Givon’s provocative Jerusalem-set drama follows a survivor a year after a terrorist bombing on a bus which killed her boyfriend: she can’t remember what led to the tragedy, but therapy and an anonymous gift help her make sense of what happened and her future. Givon artfully shows the wounds, both physical and psychic, on a survivor of such an attack and, in Reymonde Amsellem’s beautifully modulated performance, brings this woman to life. The lone extra is a Brazilian short, Grandmothers.
Jeffrey Khaner: Czech Flute Music
For this well-programmed CD of music from the former Czechoslovakia, talented American flutist Jeffrey Khaner plays pieces by three towering 19th and 20th century masters and a contemporary Czech composer. First is Erwin Schulhoff’s jazz-inflected 1927 Sonana, followed by Jindrich Feld’s melodic but distinctly modern-sounding Sonata (from 1957). Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonata No. 1, written in America in 1945, is expressive and lilting, the composer at his considerable best; finally, there’s a reworking of Antonin Dvorak’s 1893 Violin Sonatina transcribed for flute. Khaner performs with flair, suppleness and musical sense; pianist Charles Abramovic provides sturdy support.