Sunday, November 17, 2013

November '13 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
All the President’s Men
Alan Pakula’s classic 1976 paranoia thriller is scarier than his earlier Parallax View because it’s true! Pakula’s low-key documentary style perfectly fits this look at Woodward and Bernstein doggedly pursuing the Watergate story no one cared about, eventually toppling Nixon’s White House. There’s superb acting by Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Martin Balsam and Hal Holbrook, down to the tiniest parts. The Blu-ray transfer retains the grain underscoring the film’s effectiveness as a shadowy mystery. Extras include a new documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited (narrated by Redford), Redford’s commentary, a 70-minute retrospective documentary (narrated by Holbrook), and a Dinah Shore talk-show segment with Robards.

The Attack
(Cohen Media)
The Israel-Palestine rift is given intensely personal expression in Ziad Doueiri’s shocking drama about a Palestinian doctor—revered among colleagues at an Israeli hospital—whose wife is a suicide bomber: his voyage of discovery gives him a few answers about why the woman he loved chose jihad. Doueiri doesn’t treat his subject with kid gloves, and the result is a probing, intelligent exploration of the unexplainable chasms deeply held convictions create. The Blu-ray image is superb; lone extra is a Doueiri interview.

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Bishop's Wife
William Wyler’s Years, 1946 Best Picture Oscar winner, is a sprawling, absorbing soap opera about three American GIs adjusting to postwar civilian life; Harold Russell, a real-life military man who lost his hands in the war, movingly played Homer and also won an Oscar. 1947’s Wife, thanks to Loretta Young and Cary Grant’s star power, is an entertaining romantic tale of a guardian angel, based on Robert Nathan’s novel. Both films look luminous in hi-def; Years extras are an introduction and interviews.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite—who says she has no anti-Seaworld agenda—made this devastating polemic about killer whales in captivity lashing out at their trainers, with documented woundings and fatalities. Astonishing video footage and remarkably candid interviews with ex-Seaworld employees and whale experts allows Cowperthwaite to fashion a powerful statement against keeping such exquisite but deadly creatures caged and performing for audiences instead of swimming free in the ocean. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include director’s note, director/producer commentary and featurettes.

City Lights

I waver when choosing Charlie Chaplin’s best film: when it isn’t Modern Times or The Great Dictator, it’s City Lights (1931), the master’s most unashamedly sentimental but deeply moving film. The final shot of Charlie is my favorite close-up in cinematic history: the movie itself is 90 minutes of simultaneous comic, tragic and romantic bliss that wears its 80-plus years with remarkable grace. The Criterion Collection’s hi-def transfer is beautifully crisp and clean; extras include a commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, documentary on the film, visual effects featurette, on-set footage, unused scene, rehearsal and excerpt from Chaplin’s short The Champion.

The Cunning Little Vixen 
(Arthaus Musik)
Eugene Onegin (Opus Arte)
Leos Janacek’s delightful Vixen—whose graceful animals show life’s cyclical nature—is given a wondrous 2009 staging by Laurent Pelly in Florence, Italy. Veteran Seiji Ozawa conducts a lovely account of Janacek’s glorious score, and a cast led by Isabel Bayrakdarian is fantastic in both senses. Tchaikovsky’s great Onegin has a trio of meaty roles—superbly filled by Simon Keenlyside (Onegin), Pavol Breslik (Lensky) and Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatyana), who sings a heart-melting letter scene—so it’s too bad Kasper Holten’s 2013 wobbly London staging uses doubles to show paths the characters might have taken. The hi-def video/audio is sublime; Onegin has Holten’s commentary.

The Hobbit—Extended Edition

Why director Peter Jackson turned Tolkien’s middle earth novel—a straightforward, unpretentious prequel to the massive Lord of the Rings trilogy—into a multi-part, lengthy film adaptation is a mystery. There’s much to enjoy (like the elaborately created physical production), but the plot, dragged out beyond endurance, and characters, who aren’t fleshed out, keep the movie at arm’s length as it slowly unfolds. The hi-def image is, unsurprisingly, perfect; extras include a bonus Blu-ray with seven hours’ worth of making-of documentaries.

JFK—50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector’s Edition
Oliver Stone’s 1991 JFK assassination conspiracy-theory drama is risibly over the top about who was involved, but Stone’s assured direction, Robert Richardson’s robust photography and Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s razor-sharp editing remain gripping, as does an all-star cast led by Kevin Costner (“Back and to the left”). Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, this deluxe set includes the 2008 Blu-ray (which looks fine), a Blu-ray of Stone’s Untold History of the United States JFK episode, the 1963 feature film PT-109 with Cliff Robertson as JFK and two DVDs with documentaries Years of Lightning, Day of Drums and the new JFK Remembered: 50 Years Later.

Lion of the Desert

The Message
(Anchor Bay/Starz)
These films produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad tackle historical figures with epic sweep but cardboard characterizations. Lion, about Libyan Omar Mukhtar—who resisted Mussolini’s army—and The Message, about the unseen Mohammad and birth of Islam, have far-flung locations, requisite overlength and huge casts, but there’s the matter of flimsy scripts, uneven acting and plodding direction. Still, these kinds of films are rarely made today—too costly—and these Blu-rays preserve interesting examples of cinematic, not real, history.

Amber Heard is perfectly cast as a brainy, beautiful businesswoman whom our slacker hero (a lackadaisical Shiloh Fernandez) unsurprisingly falls for, hoping she can help market his invention. Despite Heard’s appealingly natural screen presence, even she can’t save this tiresome attempt at a hip modern comedy about marketing and romance. Brittany Snow, a dead ringer for Heard, has little to do and the men (Fernandez and Keillan Lutz) are boringly presented, which leaves Heard stranded. The Blu-ray image is fine; extras are a featurette and interview.

DVDs of the Week
As I Lay Dying
There’s no denying the passion, blood, sweat and tears that writer-director-star James Franco put into his adaptation of William Faulkner’s brilliant but flagrantly unfilmable classic novel. Therefore—despite a “look” that’s absolutely right, including the use of split screens to visualize the shifting perspectives of the various narrators throughout the book—Franco’s film ends up an honorable failure or, more succinctly, a nice try. Extras include cast interviews.

BAM 150
Becoming Traviata
(Cinema Guild)
A celebratory overview of the first century and a half of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Michael Sladek’s BAM150 has vintage clips from innovative shows like Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with interview snippets. But missing—except in a still photo—is the imposing presence of Ingmar Bergman, whose extraordinary productions remain the venerable institution’s high-water mark. Traviata, Philippe Beziat’s fly-on-the-wall look at soprano Natalie Dessay and director Jean-Francois Sivadier reconceiving Verdi’s tragic courtesan, becomes repetitious with its recurring rehearsal footage, but Dessay’s vivid presence keeps interest. BAM150 extras comprise Sladek’s commentary, extended interviews and deleted scenes.


(Film Movement)
Asthmatic 12 year old girl Skunk witnesses the self-destruction her neighbors bring upon themselves: a teenage girl accuses a young man and a teacher she dislikes of impregnating her, whereupon her father putatively beats up both men and lives spiral out of control, including the young man’s parents. This is depressing material in the extreme, and even with actors like Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, and newcomer Eloise Laurence, director-writer Rufus Norris is unable to keep a handle on the drama, and his attempt at a happy ending is excessively tacky after such grimness. A bonus short, The Way the World Ends recounts the aftermath of a family death.

Deceptive Practice—
The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
For decades, magician Ricky Jay has delighted and astounded audiences with his amazing sleight of hand, which Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s documentary demonstrates over and over for 85 beguiling minutes. Jay himself discusses his important mentors—with names like Slydini and Cardini—and how he became one of the world’s best-known magicians. Colleagues and friends like David Mamet and Steve Martin give their stamps of approval on Jay’s magic. Extras include added interviews and footage.

The Heidi Chronicles
A Life in the Theater
(Warner Archive)
Plays by two of America’s noted playwrights were turned into enjoyably slight mid-‘90s TV movies. Wendy Wasserstein’s wonderful Heidi—which I saw on Broadway in 1989 with the peerless Joan Allen—loses a lot with the lightweight Jamie Lee Curtis as the complicated heroine; good support from Kim Cattrall, Tom Hulce and Peter Friedman (reprising his stage role) helps immensely. David Mamet’s two-hander Theater has juicy roles for Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick, but the play and movie are basically one-note actors’ exercises; not even Gregory Mosher’s clever direction covers up its thinness.

(First Run)
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a prestigious academy for young, aspiring ballerinas, holds auditions every year for a select number of spots for its next class, and Elise Swerhone’s inspiring film follows some girls and their families as they respond to being chosen—or not. This intriguing inside look at a world-class cultural institution and the people who run it also juggles several human-interest stories that pack a lot of insight into a short amount of time.

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