Sunday, November 10, 2013

November '13 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Farscape—The Complete Series 
15th Anniversary Edition
As the Sci-Fi (now Syfy) Channel’s first original dramatic series, Farscape remains an entertaining mix of special effects, intriguing characters, bizarre creatures and even cheesy humor 15 years later. And this comprehensive boxed set comprises everything any fan would need or want. In addition to all 88 episodes of the show’s four-season run (1999-2003)—all of which look as pristine as possible in hi-def—the Blu-ray set also features so many bonuses most fans probably won’t get through them all. There are 29 episode commentaries, documentary Memories of Moya—an Epic Journey, featurettes, interviews, 90 minutes of deleted scenes and a 16-page mini-comic book.

(Warner Archive)
Peter Weir’s pretentious 1993 drama (from screenwriter Rafael Yglesias’ novel) about dealing with death and survival after a plane crash was overrated from the start, and remains uninteresting despite powerhouse acting by Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez as the people affected by the tragedy who bond despite their families’ misunderstanding them. Weir ratchets up the hyper-realism in his meretricious finale, scored to the repetitious and dull Third Symphony by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki. The hi-def image, while good, could be better.
(available at

(Cohen Media)
D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic is one of the most audacious movies ever—nearly three hours of moralizing about sin throughout the ages, from ancient Babylon to then-modern America. If much of it is slow-moving today, remember that it was made a century ago with primitive means, and Griffith’s achievement—even more so than in the racially-charged Birth of a Nation—remains indelible. This two-Blu-ray set includes the film—which looks the best it ever has—on one disc and two full-length films (The Fall of Babylon and Mother and the Law) based on Intolerance segments and Kevin Brownlow’s analysis on another disc.

James Dean Collection
When James Dean died at age 24 in a car crash, he had made only three films, all classics: Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1954), Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and George Stevens’ Giant (1956). Dean’s magnetic presence is as important to their success as anything—or anyone—else. This magnificent boxed set has the films in immaculate hi-def transfers and four DVDs with Giant extras, Oscar-winning documentary George Stevens—a Filmmaker’s Journey, and full-length docs James Dean—Forever Young and American Masters—James Dean: Sense Memories. Eden and Rebel extras are commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes and screen tests.

Lady Antebellum—Live on This Winter's Night and
Move Me Brightly (Eagle Vision)
Country trio Lady Antebellum’s Christmas concert comprises 11 holiday perennials, from “Silver Bells” and “Let It Snow” to “The First Noel” and “Silent Night”—the group’s lilting harmonies are perfect for these seasonal melodies. In honor of what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday, his Grateful Dead buddies and musician friends like Carlos Santana and Sammy Hagar play tunes like “Terrapin Station” in engagingly laidback arrangements. Both discs look and sound stunning on Blu-ray; extras include additional songs (an hour’s worth on the Garcia disc).

Moby Dick
Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer transformed Herman Melville’s sprawling classic novel into a straightforward, conventional opera about a ship’s crew chasing a white whale. While the music is strikingly dramatic—especially as sung and played at last year’s San Francisco Opera world premiere—none of Melville’s poetic flights of fancy is present or even approximated. Another mistake is making Melville’s famous opening line the opera’s last words: this too-clever transposition adds nothing. Still, it’s a nice-looking production, and the melodic music can stand up to repeated hearings. The Blu-ray image and sound are very good.

(e one)
Brian DePalma returns to the stylishly empty thrillers of his early career with a unnecessary remake of Alain Corneau’s superior Love Crime, with the superbly matched Kristin Scott Thomas as a backstabbing boss and Ludivine Sagnier as her put-upon associate. DePalma turns it cheap and glitteringly shallow. Ravishing Rachel McAdams is gleefully nasty and Noomi Rapace holds DePalma's merciless close-ups without embarrassment, but it’s all for naught: at the end, DePalma plagiarizes himself with a series of ridiculous—and desperate—dream sequences. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras comprise DePalma, Rapace and McAdams interviews.

The Right Stuff
30th Anniversary Edition
In a perfect synthesis of theme, tone and talent, Philip Kaufman made a spectacular, enduring 1983 classic from Tom Wolfe’s trendsetting book about the early Mercury astronauts and Chuck Yeager, then the fastest flier alive. For over three hours, Kaufman treats these space explorers as both satirical cartoons and men worthy of serious study; it works splendidly, thanks to terrific acting, brilliant pacing and direction and epic subject matter that can withstand such unconventional treatment. The Blu-ray image looks amazing; extras include a 40-page commemorative book, deleted scenes, Kaufman/cast/crew commentaries and featurettes.

Strauss—Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky) 
and Ravel—L’Heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortileges 
(Fra Musica)
Richard Strauss’ rarely-produced, 3-1/2-hour Frau contains the ultimate melodist’s most gorgeous score—and Hugo Hofmannsthal’s unwieldy libretto. Luckily, Jonathan Kent’s visually unappealing modern-dress staging (St. Petersburg, 2011) is rescued by top-notch singers and Valery Gergiev leading his Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus’s arresting performance. Maurice Ravel’s delightful L’Heure and L’enfant, presented at England’s Glyndebourne Festival last summer, are wonderfully sung and played, but only L’enfant’s staging really shimmers; L’heure has been awkwardly updated to no discernible point. On both discs, the Blu-ray image is impeccable and the surround sound is stellar; the Ravel operas each have a making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
In this ordinary high school thriller, a female accuses a male of raping her at a house party, whereupon he’s accidentally killed by her friends; thankfully, there’s not enough time in its 80 minutes to pick apart its plot holes and flaccid characterizations. Of course, the performers were picked more for their attractiveness—Heather Hemmens, who wears a see-through blouse and black bra in class, looks like no girl I remember from my high school days—but the movie doesn’t give them much of anything to do.

Computer Chess
(Kino Lorber)
Andrew Bujalski’s best movie idea consists of a group of computer programmers getting together for a weekend of chess playing and other intellectual pursuits. Although clever—and shot in B&W by cinematographer Matthias Grunsky with a 1969 video camera in the old academy (or TV) ratio—Bujalski’s feature has little dramatic or comedic weight as its ciphers spout “witty” dialogue that sags under its own weight. What could have been an excellent short film has been stretched to 92 minutes. Extras include brief spots about funding the film and original computer chess matches.

Dean Martin Roasts—
The Complete Collection
(Star Vista/Time Life)
Over the years, Dean Martin’s ‘70s TV roasts have been released in separate sets, and this deluxe boxed set brings everything together: with extras thrown in for good measure. The roasts—whose “victims” included Johnny Carson, California governor Ronald Reagan, Muhammad Ali, Angie Dickinson, Betty White, even Truman Capote—were the last word in politically incorrect humor, as racial and ethnic jokes that would never pass muster today are tossed around by the likes of Don Rickles, Sammy Davis Jr, Rich Little, Milton Berle and Ruth Buzzi.

The set’s 25 discs, comprising 54 roasts, provide hours of unalloyed nostalgic fun, while 15 hours of extras—which include featurettes, interviews, a 44-page book, bonus comedy sketches, home movies, even two DVDs of episodes of Dean’s variety show—will provide additional fun.
(available at

First Monday in October
(Warner Archive)
In this stolid adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play about the first female Supreme Court justice, director Ronald Neame, despite surefire stars Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh, fumbles this promising comedy-drama pitting a young female conservative against a cranky elder-statesman liberal. Neame never finds a way to allow Clayburgh and Matthau to bloom, together or separately; its release right after Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated to the Court in 1981 is its only claim to fame.  
(available at

Manhunt—The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden
In Greg Barker’s riveting, skillful documentary from Peter Bergen’s book, the CIA’s decade-long hunt for the man behind the September 11 attacks is recounted through interviews and valuable—and often pulse-pounding—archival footage. Some detractors might say that this puts Zero Dark Thirty into perspective (or into its place), even though Kathryn Bigelow’s compelling film can stand on its own. Both films can coexist as complements to show a particularly dark chapter in our history.

Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ self-conscious bipartite drama follows a woman, seen first as a senior citizen in Lisbon and second as a beautiful pregnant wife in colonial Africa who has an affair with an explorer. Shot in shimmering B&W and in old academy ratio, the visually alluring film—whose very title evokes F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Tabu—relies on obvious metaphors (a crocodile’s recurring appearances nearly collapse its fragile structure) and surface pleasures to mask its alarming lack of depth or insight.

The Wall
(Music Box)
In this understated adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s allegorical novel, the quietly affecting Martina Gedeck plays a woman who, with her trusty dog, becomes trapped by an invisible wall that seems to have saved her from a fate that befell others: she survives against all odds, killing animals for food and writing a diary to keep from going insane. It’s not that risible (at least not Stephen King’s Under the Dome level), but director Julian Roman Polser goes on too long; even allegories must know when to stop. The glorious photography deserves a Blu-ray, which unfortunately isn’t an option.

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