Sunday, November 3, 2013

November '13 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Beauty of the Devil
(Cohen Media)
This deviously funny 1950 take on the Faust legend perfectly sums up director Rene Clair: a light touch that approaches, but never crashes into corny sentimentality. Here, helped by a pair of smashing lead performances by Michel Simon and Gerard Philippe as Faust and Mephistopheles at various ages, Clair has created a dazzling allegory that works as comedy, drama, romance, cautionary tale and even a sort of tragedy. The Black-and-white classic looks superb on Blu-ray; lone extra is a 50-minute Clair documentary.

In Neil Jordan’s latest vampire drama—he made Interview with a Vampire in 1994—scenes of sultry Gemma Arterton and Atonement’s Saorise Ronan, a mother-daughter bloodsucking team, in a rundown resort hotel are intercut with glimpses of them since the Napoleonic wars. It’s often pretentious and jarringly violent, even if Jordan’s visual style remains sophisticated and unsettling. Arterton is always luminous and Ronan’s unique look serves her well as an eternal teenager. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras include an hour of interviews with Jordan, Arterton, Ronan, et al.

Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
(Eagle Vision)
The 1992 tribute concert to Queen singer Freddie Mercury (who died in November 1991) is a glorious, glitzy three-hour extravaganza that the flamboyant frontman would have loved: everyone from David Bowie and Annie Lennox to Elton John, Axl Rose and Liza Minnelli enthusiastically sing Queen songs with band members Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. Although Robert Plant’s rendition of “Innuendo” is still missing—apparently Plant hated it, so it’s been suppressed for 21 years—the Blu-ray includes the concert and extras (retrospective doc, rehearsal footage) from the 2002 DVD release. The image is decent, the sound extraordinary.

I Give It a Year (Magnolia)
and As Cool as I Am (IFC)  
These ensemble-driven comedy-dramas can’t transcend built-in clich├ęs. Year depends on the delightful Rose Byrne for comic gravitas; although writer-director Dan Mazer’s rom-com roundelay isn’t as subversive as he thinks it is, his cast (co-starring with Byrne are Rafe Spall, Anna Faris and Simon Baker) displays enough chops to put the whole thing over. As Cool has fine performances by Claire Danes as an emotionally absent mom and Sarah Bolger as a confused but smart teenager; their intelligent acting makes an otherwise routine movie worth a look. Both hi-def transfers are fine; Cool extras are a making-of and blooper reel, and Year extras are outtakes, deleted scenes and a making-of.

Just Like a Woman
(Cohen Media)
Although she’s usually the best-looking actress in a movie, in Rachid Bouchareb’s trite drama about two women who leave troubled marriages and discover fleeting moments of freedom as belly dancers, Sienna Miller burns a hole in the screen with her fiercely committed portrayal of a woman wronged by a cheating, no-good husband. Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani nearly matches her in a less showy role, but they are both undermined by a pedestrian script and familiar plot beats. The hi-def image is top-notch.

(Eagle Vision)
In this early 2013 concert at the Hollywood High School Auditorium, Morrissey plays hits from a quarter-century long career including The Smiths and solo stuff. His tight band churns out classics like “Meat is Murder,” “You Have Killed Me” and “Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” with intense audience participation from fans ecstatic to see and hear their idol in such an intimate venue. The Blu-ray image and sound are good and crystal clear; extras include an in-studio glimpse at recording four new songs, Russell Brand’s concert intro and a glimpse behind-the-scenes of the concert.

La Notte  
(Criterion Collection)
Following his masterwork L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1961 follow-up stars Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as a married couple in a disintegrating relationship, their mutual isolation visualized by the director’s innovative use of locations that comment on psychological states. Despite its lack of plot or vivid characterizations (neither star is in “star mode”), this insightful drama remains indelible. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer looks immaculate, which bodes well for eventual releases of L’Avventura and the final film in this trilogy, L’Eclisse; extras include contextual interviews.

Springsteen and I
(Eagle Vision)
This homemade documentary splices together contributions by fans professing their undying love for Bruce Springsteen. I’m no fan of the Boss—an electric live performer, his records don’t have that magic—so I’m not the audience for this, but for those who are, a selection of unreleased footage should sate them, like unseen live versions of “The River” and “Thunder Road.” The Blu-ray image is OK, considering the variable quality of the footage; extras include six songs from Springsteen’s 2012 London performance (including a Paul McCartney duet on “I Saw Her Standing There,” hilariously mistitled “When I Saw Her Standing There”) and more fan love letters.

DVDs of the Week

In a Town This Size
(First Run)
Himself a child abuse victim, Patrick V. Brown has made a devastating emotional chronicle of how one man—a pediatrician in Bartlesville, Oklahoma—ruined many lives by abusing young boys and girls in the 1960s and ‘70s. Through interviews with victims and their families, we discover again that the worst people to prey on innocent children are those marked with the authority to be alone with them. This pedophiliac doctor’s abuse, as seen in hindsight, was as much psychological as physical. Extras include deleted scenes, an epilogue and Brown interview.

Nine for IX
In honor of the 40th anniversary of Title IX—which made college sports gender-neutral—ESPN commissioned nine films by nine female directors to extol the achievements of women in sports, and the results are enlightening, exciting and even touching. Standouts are Let Them Wear Towels, about women reporters fighting for equal access to pro locker rooms, The Diplomat, a portrait of East German skater Katarina Witt, and The 99ers, the story of the famous U.S. women’s soccer team. Extras comprise an additional film, Abby Head On, about soccer player Abby Wambach, and a short, Coach, about Vivian Stringer.

The Rose Tattoo and
This Property Is Condemned
(Warner Archive)
These vintage dramas are based on Tennessee Williams plays. 1955’s Tattoo has Anna Magnani in a role Williams wrote for her (she declined the original play because her English wasn’t good enough). Her earthy intensity as Williams’ sympathetic heroines is the best thing about Daniel Mann’s decent adaptation. 1966’s Property, director Sydney Pollack’s second feature, is a colorful version of a one-act Williams play: Robert Redford and Natalie Wood, as a couple fated to not be together, are at their most glamorous in Pollack’s sometimes arresting adaptation.  
(available on

Shepard & Dark
(Music Box)
This left-field documentary intriguingly examines a half-century-long friendship between playwright Sam Shepard and deli clerk Johnny Dark, maintained over the years by the men’s letter-writing. Treva Wurmfeld’s film not only recounts a truly eccentric friendship but also chronicles their early times together, when Shepard was an up-and-coming New York playwright and Dark his partner in crime (so to speak). It’s more quixotic than insightful, but that’s a small quibble. Extras include deleted scenes and added interviews.

Spiral—Season 2
and Antigone 34
(MHZ Networks)
These French policiers are far more memorable than their American TV counterparts.  Spiral follows a group of Parisian cops trying to discover the complex criminal ring behind a burnt-out body in a car trunk, and Antigone 34 follows detectives in the southern French city of Montpelier tracking down the brutal killer of a female college student. Both of these unflinchingly (and extremely) violent dramas have arresting acting, hard-hitting storylines and gritty locations, and are addictive from beginning to end.

War of the Worlds—American Experience
This look at Orson Welles’ brilliant 1938 Halloween Eve radio show—when he scared millions of listeners out of their wits because they thought the Martian landing he and his actors were broadcasting was real—brings little new to the table, but the tale is so delicious, and damning of Americans’ sheep mentality, that it’s worth recounting anyway. The recreations of interviews with people affected by the broadcast are an unnecessary intrusion, the lone blemish on an otherwise skillfully paced hour.

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