Sunday, September 22, 2013

September '13 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
(Music Box)
In Alice Winocour’s absorbing historical drama set in 19th century France, a doctor uses a vulnerable young woman’s physical ailments to raise awareness of her afflictions while exploiting them for his own medical gain. This fascinatingly complicated movie, highlighted by bluntly effective performances by Vincent London as the doctor and pop singer Soko as Augustine, is strangely compelling throughout. The Blu-ray image looks splendid; extras include Winocour and Soko interviews, two Winocour short films and two Soko music videos.

Autumn Sonata
Ingmar Bergman’s trenchant 1978 chamber drama is a battle royale between two of cinema’s greatest actresses: Ingrid Bergman (no relation) and Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s muse for much of his best work. Although there’s a sense of déjà vu in this mother- daughter conflict, Ingmar’s pinpoint dissection of relationships, Sven Nykvist’s burnished and beautiful photography and Ingrid and Liv’s extraordinary acting make this a 93-minute tour de force. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray transfer looks luminous; extras include an Ingmar intro, new Ullmann interview, vintage Ingrid interview, Peter Cowie commentary and exhaustive, 3-1/2 hour on-set documentary.

The East
Brit Marling has become a critics’ darling starring in and co-writing movies like Another Earth, Sound of My Voice and now The East—all of which traffic in Big Ideas with little nuance to back them up. The East, in which a secret agent infiltrates an anarchic environmentalist group only to fall in love with its sexy leader, has a smart opening but after setting everything up succumbs to sentimentality and a copout ending. The performances, especially by Ellen Page and Julia Ormond, are superior; it’s writing and directing that are a let-down. The Blu-ray image is fine; extras include deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Java Heat
and Suddenly
Here are a couple hackneyed action movies with incidental interest: Java is set in photogenic Indonesia, which helps give this hollow terrorist thriller visual pizzazz—Mickey Rourke’s scenery chewing also qualifies. Suddenly, by contrast, has an intriguing premise (small town terrorized by presidential assassins) but despite that—and the clenched-jaw presence of Ray Liotta as the local hero—the movie trods familiar ground without much distinction. Java’s lone extra is a making-of.

A Letter to Three Wives
Although it lacks the staying power of his all-time classic All About Eve (1950), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s finely wrought 1949 comic character study about a trio of wives whose best friend may have run off with one of their husbands remains a deeply satisfying film featuring Mankiewicz’s celebrated wit and panache. The actresses—Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern—are exemplary, and even the men (like a young Kirk Douglas) are almost as good. This B&W gem looks wonderful on Blu-ray; a Darnell featurette and a commentary are extras.

Two Men in Manhattan
(Cohen Media)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s lackluster black and white 1959 film noir suffers from a lack of dramatic focus, despite refreshing use of Manhattan locations: there’s no real reason to care about a missing UN diplomat and the French journalists looking for him. As a time capsule of a bygone New York City era, it’s a real curio, but with Melville himself starring as one of the journalists, it’s dullness personified. The Blu-ray image looks quite good; lone extra is a talk between critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

DVDs of the Week
Andre Gregory—Before and After Dinner
(Cinema Guild)
As someone who thinks director Andre Gregory and playwright Wallace Shawn are among the biggest blights on American theater, I’m not the intended audience for this portrait of Gregory by fawning wife Cindy Kleine. If you need years to rehearse a show (like Gregory’s Master Builder starring a grievously miscast Shawn as Ibsen’s hero), then you’re probably in the wrong business. Touching moments of Gregory recalling his father and uncle’s Nazi connections aside, the movie is taken up by self-indulgent glimpses of Gregory at work. Extras include deleted scenes and outtakes.

The League—Complete 4th Season
Leverage—Complete 5th Season
Now that fantasy football has become as big a business as the NFL itself, The League seems less like parody—the guys’ juvenile antics remain less than hilarious, while the women’s stabilizing presence helps this off-balance show keep its head above water. Leverage leverages credibility against implausible plots, but a winning cast headed by Tim Hutton helps keep the stories on an even keel even when the drama goes off the rails. Extras include deleted scenes, gag reels, featurettes and commentaries.

Nashville—Complete 1st Season
Little more than a glossy soap from creator Callie Khouri, this drama set in America’s country-music capital has its pluses, like a perfectly pitched performance by Connie Britton as a waning superstar, matched by sexy Hayden Panetierre as an up-and-coming star (think Faith Hill vs. Carrie Underwood). For a truly officious villain, there’s the great (and too infrequently seen) Powers Boothe as Britton’s kingmaking father. Neither the series nor its songs are memorable, but the dynamics among these characters keep the whole thing watchable. Extras comprise bloopers, deleted scenes and interviews.

Simon Killer
After the promising debut Afterschool, writer-director Antonio Campos’ follow-up is a thoroughly irritating study of a 20ish American moping around Paris after his girl dumps him. Why would any Parisian young woman even look at this annoying guy let alone take him home? But that’s what happens, and the poor girl ultimately pays for her mistake. Brady Corbet all too easily embodies the ugly American, and even Paris is made to look as dingy as 1970s Manhattan: but that doesn’t make it any better. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette, interviews and Conversations with Moms, featuring Campos, Corbet and their mothers.

Two American Families
Over two decades, TV journalist Bill Moyers and crew followed a pair of families to see how the American dream is working out for them. The obvious answer, after watching this unique documentary, is simple: not very well. Troubling sequences of relationships falling apart as a result of economic hardships is unsurprising: the 1 Percent has outpaced the 99 Percent in the past twenty years by unimaginable leaps and bounds, and this must-see film shows how crushing that defeat his been for most of us.

The We and the I
Wish You Were Here
(e one)
These movies start out decently but get bogged down in singlemindedness. Michel Gondry’s We/I, a well-observed glimpse of teenagers on a Bronx bus, repeats itself ad infinitum, with little compassion for anyone older than 18. Wish, Australian director Kieran Darcy-Smith’s slow-burning drama, too heavily relies on a gimmicky flashback structure to tell its tale of two couples whose vacation goes horribly wrong. Wish includes a making-of featurette and interviews.

CD of the Week
Mark Knopfler—Privateering
In a 35-year career spanning six Dire Straits albums and seven solo releases (including one with Emmylou Harris), Mark Knopfler has written songs of resignation tinged with hope, along with strongly detailed portraits of ordinary people to which he brings a cinematic sensibility in his lyrics and arrangements. His latest album, Privateering, was released last year in Europe, but due to a record company fracas, has not been available here until now. Comprising 20 originals on two CDs, Privateering continues Knopfler’s quest to pare his songs down to their bare essentials, both lyrically and musically.

The group playing a dive bar in “Sultans of Swing,” the complaining appliance store employee in “Money for Nothing,” the former Nazi concentration camp attendant in “The Man’s Too Strong”—Knopfler’s vivid snapshots are as instantly recognizable and memorable as any in rock history. Only a few of the lyrics on Privateering approach that high standard—notably the title song about a Barbary pirate—but there are evocative images on the opener “Redbud Tree,” “The Dream of the Drowned Submainer” and the closing “After the Beanstalk.”

Knopfler’s signature guitar sound, in which one note says as much as other players’ shredding of the entire fretboard, is now just one more piece of a widescreen sonic blend that includes fiddle, bouzouki and uilleann pipes. There’s a certain homey sameness to Knopfler’s music that might put off those wanting something new or different, but for those who’ve remained on his wavelength, Privateering is another Knopfler gem.

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