Sunday, August 18, 2013

August '13 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Noel Coward’s play about a British family living through the first three decades of the 20th century was turned into an entertaining epic by director Frank Lloyd, enough to win 1933’s Best Picture Oscar. The intelligent performances of Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard as the Marryots, who live through the horrors of the Boer War and World War I (and historical events like the sinking of the Titanic) keep the expansive drama from becoming too unwieldy. The Blu-ray image looks impressive for an 80-year-old film; extras include Richard Schickel’s commentary and a brief glimpse of its Oscar win.

The Damned
(Cohen Media)
Rene Clément’s tense 1947 drama about a submarine with Nazis escaping Europe for South America at the end of WWII, claustrophobically set within the sub’s confines, has a tense situation that never relies on Hollywood touches like excessive melodramatics or overbearing music. The superlative French and German-speaking cast, led by Henri Vidal, makes Clement’s taut film even more engrossing. The Blu-ray image looks great; lone extra is a terrific hour-long documentary, Rene Clement or the Cinema of Sketches.

The Devil’s Backbone 
 and Seconds 
(Criterion Collection)

Unlike Carlos Saura’s films, Guillermo Del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone—a 2001 Spanish Civil War allegory—is a clunky, unsatisfying blend of horrific reality and terrorizing monsters; John Frankenheimer’s 1967 Seconds embodies Vietnam era paranoia, even if its story—about a man who buys himself a new life—is Twilight Zone lite, with little of the wit or economy of the classic TV series. Both films have fantastic Criterion transfers; Devil extras include a Del Toro commentary, intro and interviews, making-of featurette and deleted scenes; Seconds extras include Frankenheimer’s commentary and interview, star Rock Hudson and fan Alec Baldwin interviews, and retrospective featurette.

The House of Seven Corpses
In this clever variation on the haunted house movie, a crew shoots a horror film in an old mansion with a history of mysterious murders; one by one, performers and filmmakers are offed grotesquely. It’s essentially tongue-in-cheek trash—and the appearance of zombies at the end ruins the gothic mood—but Paul Harrison’s 1974 film is still fun. The grainy Blu-ray image adds atmosphere; extras include actor John Carradine interview and associate producer Gary Kent commentary.

The Muppet Movie
The Muppets’ first flick—which begat sequels like The Great Muppet Caper and delightful Muppet Christmas Carol—was made at the peak of their popularity (1979), when The Muppet Show was the hippest thing on TV. That coolness shows in the roster of guest stars like Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Milton Berle and Bob Hope, all one-upped by Kermit, Miss Piggy and my favorites—Statler and Waldorf, the grouchy, sarcastic old men. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include a Kermit featurette.

Once Upon a Time—Complete 2nd Season
Merging fairy-tale characters and 21st century civilians seemed like a good idea for a new series, but how does the gimmick keep going during the second season without becoming old-hat? The creators don’t entire solve this problem: the combination of soap opera and fantasy that worked during the first season ends up weirder but less entertaining. In such a format, even charming performers like Lana Parrilla and Jennifer Morrison can’t escape their restrictive shells. The Blu-ray image looks tremendous; extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, bloopers and commentaries.

George Stevens’ iconic 1953 western stars Alan Ladd as the eponymous gunslinger who arrives in a small town to assist a homesteader against a ruthless cattle baron and his scary hired gun. If Stevens’ direction is stilted at times, the story and characters’ simplicity has ensured that it remains a landmark Hollywood western. Warners’ hi-def transfer gives Loyal Griggs’ Oscar-winning cinematography the color and detail it’s longed lacked on video; the lone extra is George Stevens Jr.’s informative commentary.

DVDs of the Week
The Company You Keep
In this occasionally gripping political thriller, director Robert Redford plays a former radical whose “new” life as a single father and lawyer is blown with the arrest of one of his compatriots for a murder 40+ years earlier. Despite its by-the-numbers plot and mixed bag of performers (Shia LaBeouf is too slight as the crusading journalist—he even pronounces “Albany” incorrectly—while vets Redford, Julie Christie and Susan Sarandon score), Redford and screenwriter Lem Dobbs have made a rare intelligent American movie. Extras include a making-of featurette, interviews and press conference.

The first film in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy, Love follows a 50-year-old mother of a teenage daughter who vacations in Kenya to have sex with local black men: while the sex-tourist angle isn’t condescendingly dramatized, there’s also none of the insight of Laurent Cantet’s Heading South. Seidl unflinchingly shows the simultaneous exploitation of tourists and natives, so this stridently anti-romantic film never becomes sentimental. What that bodes for the rest of his trilogy is anyone’s guess.

Robert Williams—Mr. Bitchin’
(Cinema Libre)
Underground artist Robert Williams might be best known to mainstream audiences for his painting Appetite for Destruction, which became the controversial cover of Guns’n’Roses’ smash debut; Mary C. Reese’s impressively offhand documentary doesn’t dwell on it, instead putting it in the context of Williams’ long career. Williams himself comes off fairly engaging in interviews, and Reese smartly balances biographical info for those unfamiliar with him and details for Williams’ fans.

Southland—Complete Final Season
In its fifth season, this L.A. cop series has a gritty look as it displays the dirty work other shows don’t, but some of the writing—especially when showing the personal lives of the men and women who deal with violent individuals daily—is clichéd and lazy. Still, the solid acting makes the flawed show a watchable look at flawed people trying to protect society. All ten episodes of the final season are included; extras comprise deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

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