Monday, October 14, 2013

October '13 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week

American Horror Story—Asylum
This series’ second season retains some of the same actors in a burgeoning repertory company; its first season—whose title was Murder House—has given way to an overdone “nuthouse” setting. There’s creepiness galore, but excessive blood, gore, sex and ickiness mitigate whatever compelling storytelling lurks about. If Jessica Lange and James Cromwell overdo the monstrousness, it’s nice to see actors I’ve rarely liked, such as Zachary Quinto, Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson, do well with subpar material. There’s a first-rate Blu-ray transfer; extras are featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

Curse of Chucky
Here’s another sequel as another franchise gets rebooted—but how many more Chuckys do we need? In a world of schlocky horror movies, there’s no reason not to do it, since kids today will thrill to seeing the murderous doll return to terrorize so many stupid people. This moves passably along its creaky way, violently enough to make it worthwhile for its target audience. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include a commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

Dead Before Dawn
The undead plagues high school teens in this scattershot horror comedy: the zombie well, which has run dry, squeezes out a few last drops of goriness. There’s a welcome, if dopey, sense of humor, but there’s only so much director April Mullen and writer Tim Doiron can do with such shopworn material, especially if they’re not imaginative enough to breathe life into a moribund genre. The Blu-ray transfer looks good; extras are featurettes and a blooper reel.

Europa Report
For once, “found footage” makes sense in context: astronauts sent to Jupiter’s moon haven’t contacted mission control, and their camera footage (relayed back to earth) shows what happened once they land. It sounds better than it plays since—even with built-in tension and a solid Embeth Davidtz as head of mission control—director Sebastian Cordero can’t properly handle its rhythms, evidently assuming all will automatically lock into place. It doesn’t, and the final “reveal” is a dud. The Blu-ray looks luminous; extras comprise deleted scenes and a visual effects featurette.

Jack Irish—Set 1
In this well-observed Australian procedural, Guy Pearce vividly portrays a former cop whose personal life—he’s a widow and alcoholic—won’t let him move on, even though he’s now a thorny private eye. Based on Peter Temple’s books, the two full-length films, Bad Debts and Black Tide, are more gritty and tart than sentimental. A top supporting cast supplements Pearce’s star turn. The hi-def transfer is quite good; lone extra is a behind the scenes featurette.

The Mentalist—Complete 1st Season
(Warner Archive)
Warner Archive is now releasing TV series on Blu-ray: since they’re shown on TV in HD, it makes sense. The first season of this popular hit show is a good place to start. Simon Baker is Patrick Jane, a charmer who uses his extrasensory powers of perception to track criminals, including the man who killed his wife and daughter. It’s often derivative, but done so elegantly, what’s to complain about? It looks terrific on hi-def; extras are featurettes, deleted scenes and gag reel. (available through

North America
Tom Selleck narrates this stunning, seven-episode look at Mother Nature’s glories, many of them just out of sight of modern civilization, from the heights of the mountains to the depths of the desert, from sea to shining sea. Stupendous camerawork catches such amazing sequences as buffaloes somehow escaping ravenous wolves and bears lining up for salmon feedings as bald eagles arrive to steal a carcass or three. Selleck’s narration is often risible, but viewers should concentrate on the visuals—which look incredible on Blu-ray—and don’t listen. A filmmakers’ commentary is the lone extra.

DVDs of the Week
The Adventurers and
The Evening Star
(Warner Archive)
A lumbering three-hour elephant, 1970’s The Adventurers stars Candice Bergen, Rossano Brazzi and Charles Aznavour (all stolid) in a caterpillar-paced adaptation of Harold Robbins’ bestselling novel about jet-setters. The Evening Star is a likeably minor 1996 sequel to Terms of Endearment. Although Shirley MacLaine reprises her role of feisty Aurora Greenway, a lackluster Juliette Lewis takes the dynamite Debra Winger’s place, while Jack Nicholson has a mere cameo. (available through

In conversations held at Manhattan’s Rubin Museum of Art beginning in 2008, several celebrities were paired with neuroscientists and other experts to discuss topics related to our brain and intelligence: originally streamed online, this three-disc set compiles 10 of these fascinating talks. For starters, there’s infamously raging comic Lewis Black on anger and actress Debra Winger on dreams; other talking heads are singers Henry Rollins and Laurie Anderson and author Amy Tan.

China Beach—Complete 1st Season
It took awhile—I guess due to music-rights red tape for its classic soundtrack tunes—but this seminal Vietnam-era series finally arrives on DVD: its first season (from 1988) introduces Colleen McMurphy and cohorts, saving and sewing up wounded soldiers. Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger made their names here, and this character-driven drama remains a superior example of its type. All seven first-season episodes are included, along with classic ‘60s songs like the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and the Supremes’ “Reflections”; extras include a new Delany/Webb interview, episode commentaries, 25th anniversary cast reunion and retrospective featurette.

(Anchor Bay)
This film about a grieving couple unable to cope with a beloved young son’s death is so relentlessly grim that, despite a superlative performance by Jeanne Tripplehorn as the downtrodden wife—hubby is played less affectingly by her real-life husband, writer-director Leland Orser—we never care about their plight because too many contrivances are piled on. So much reminds the mom of her dead boy, like a chatty acquaintance with a young son and a chatty friend whose teenage son is a blatant reminder of what she’ll never get to experience, that the lone bit of subtlety is that the title is not Mourning.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
(Cinema Guild)
What could have been a charming short is instead expanded beyond its slender means into a resistible romantic comedy that blatantly nods to forerunners from Annie Hall to She’s Gotta Have It. At 84 minute, Terence Nance’s movie meanders, jumping back and forth between live action and animation but making few pertinent points about relationships. Namik Minter is delightful but Nance takes on too much in front of and behind the camera. Extras include two Nance shorts, Nance’s and Minter’s commentaries.

War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical novel pretty much resists adaptation, but that doesn’t mean that filmmakers won’t keep trying. This European television adaptation scores points for its vastness, locations and costumes—all of which are in the spirit of the book—but despite an extraordinarily large cast, none of the main characters is drawn very sharply. In an international ensemble, Frenchwoman Clemence Poesy is a decent Natasha, Italian Alessio Boni a lackluster Andrei and Brit Malcolm McDowell enlivens things whenever he appears as Andrei’s father, Prince Bolkonsky.

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