Tuesday, January 7, 2014

January '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Being Human—Complete 3rd Season
(e one)
As their relationships with humans become more complicated, the trio of supernatural roommates must deal with more bizarre strangeness, as when the ghost Sally (the always-terrific Meaghan Rath) avoids rotting away completely by no longer being one of the living dead at the expense of losing her loved ones. The series premise is carried to ever less plausible heights, but since this is sci-fi fantasy, who’s to argue with the direction it’s going by the end of these 13 episodes? The hi-def image is excellent; extras include behind-the-scenes and cliffhanger featurettes, bloopers and San Diego Comic-Con panel.

For Ever Mozart
Hail Mary
(Cohen Media)
Jean-Luc Godard has remained a provocateur throughout his 60-year directing career, and these two films show him at his most provocative. 1996’s Mozart is a muddled if striking treatise that explores, through the disastrous Bosnian conflict, what art can—or can’t—do in response to the modern world’s atrocities. 1985’s Mary, a brilliantly conceived study of how the modern world responds to a virgin birth; it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds and Godard’s partner Anne-Marie Melville’s preceding short, The Book of Mary, is a perfect complement. Both Blu-ray images are wonderfully detailed; extras include commentaries and interviews on both discs and Godard’s own Notes on Hail Mary on that disc.

Hell Baby
For their leaden horror comedy, co-directors Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon—who also broadly and unfunnily play conniving priests— waste the immense comedic talents of Robb Corddry and the daring of the lovely Leslie Bibb. This lame, lunkheaded It’s Alive/Rosemary’s Baby/The Exorcist parody has bursts of cartoonish violence amidst the desperate attempts at humor: although missing laughs, there’s enough gratuitous nudity to keep the young men who titter over that sort of thing awake. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include deleted scenes and gag reel.

(Kino Lorber)
Director Eric Valli’s stunningly photographed 1999 drama is a magnificent-looking journey through the remote, mountainous regions of Nepal, where the malign wintertime climate makes simply surviving a chore. The story, which focuses on the balance of power between an elderly leader and a younger man, is fairly routine, but the visuals and spiritual sense are presented so sublimely that they make the plot superfluous. The hi-def image is splendid; extras comprise Valli’s commentary and making-of featurette.

Inequality for All
(Anchor Bay)
Economist Robert Reich and director Jacob Kornbluth’s documentary about how the betterment of the middle class will also improve the standing of the ultra-rich is easy to absorb, well thought out commonsensical in its approach to solving our country’s crisis as the haves get more and the have nots less. Reich’s personality—he’s a man of short physical stature, which he pokes fun at himself—is that of a pleasant but cajoling professor, which helps sell his heartfelt screed. The Blu-ray image is good; extras include Reich interview and deleted scenes.

The Killing Fields
When Milos Forman’s colossally trivial Amadeus swept the 1984 Oscars, this major war film was robbed: I have scant use for the Oscars, but they can highlight worthy achievements at times. Joffe’s shattering dramatization of the relationship between journalist Sydney Schanberg (a fine Sam Waterston) and Cambodian refugee Dith Pran (Dr. Hnaig S. Ngor, in a formidable, Oscar-winning performance) encapsulates the Vietnam War’s absurdity. Except for using “Imagine” too obviously at the end, Joffe and screenwriter Bruce Robinson have made an enduring, important work. The Blu-ray image is exceptional; Joffe’s informative commentary is the lone extra.

Many Wars Ago
(Raro Video)
Francesco Rosi’s unsparing, stark 1970 anti-war drama shares similarities with Paths of Glory—World War I trench setting, officious general barking impossible orders, soldiers dying by firing squad as “examples”—but Rosi’s point of view is less despairingly nihilistic than Kubrick’s. There’s a superlative cast—headed by Gian Maria Volonte, Mark Frechette and Alain Cuny as the crazed general—in Rosi’s powerful glimpse at war’s insanity, fashioned with consummate artistry. The restored hi-def image is stunning; extras include a 28-minute Rosi interview and restoration demonstration.

The Rutles Anthology
(Broadway Video)
Eric Idle and Neil Innes’ inspired Beatles spoof, 1978’s hilarious All You Need Is Cash, is finally resurrected for hi-def release, while Idle’s far less good but occasionally funny sequel-cum-remake, 2002’s Can’t Buy Me Lunch, remains on DVD. Although the video quality of Cash is noticeably improved, it’s too bad that many of the extras from the first DVD releases are missing: all that remains are an amusing Idle commentary and interview and the original Saturday Night Live short film that introduced the Rutles.

Throne of Blood
Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films are of an astonishing caliber and variety, and his inventive Noh-influenced adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is among his most audacious and fiendishly entertaining creations. With superlative performances by Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada as Lord and Lady, Kurosawa conjures an exceptionally fine action-cum-monster movie whose heart happily beats bloodily. The excellent hi-def transfer is par for the course with the Criterion Collection; extras include a section of the series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create and a commentary.

We Are What We Are
(e one)
In his aggressively empty thriller, co-writer-director Jim Mickle recounts a family of cannibals trying to keep their generations-old secret from getting out: when it does, the blood and the flesh start flying even more than usual. Despite the gore and general air of yuckiness, a cast led by a solid Bill Sage as the father does what it can, but they can only do so much: eventually, the movie eats itself from within. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include a making-of documentary, commentary and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Birth of the Living Dead
(First Run)
Rob Kuhns’ arresting documentary explores the legacy of Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s shoestring 1968 zombie flick that spawned a cottage industry of Romero sequels, countless undead movies and TV shows like The Walking Dead. Interviews with an animated Romero and others, along with tidbits and trivia about the film, make this irresistible entertainment. Extras include a new Romero interview and 1971 audio talk at the Museum of Modern Art.

Caesar Must Die
(Kino Lorber)
The Taviani brothers (whose career turned bumpy after their early successes The Night of Shooting Stars and Kaos) return with a documentary-fiction hybrid set in a notorious Roman prison, where maximum security inmates put on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. On paper, insights abound as these hardened men tackle such complex roles, and the men are “characters” in a very real sense. But the 76-minute movie comes off half-baked, as if the brothers’ one idea is enough: offstage glimpses help bring needed depth to the men.

China Beach—Complete Season 2
This daring Vietnam TV drama’s first season created a precarious decision for its creators: keep moving forward or settle into a conventional format. The series goes both ways simultaneously in 1988-89, becoming—despite accomplished acting (by Dana Delany, Megan Gallagher and Marg Helgenberger) and well-chosen period songs (i.e., Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”)—a frustrating watch. Extras comprise interviews, commentaries and a Voice of War featurette.

Havana 57
This routine drama about Cuban nightlife during Batista’s waning days—when wine and women flowed freely—centers on a cop who, while investigating department corruption, falls for a beautiful nightclub singer. Leading lady Elisabetta Fantone and leading man Juan Riedinger look terrific together but lack chemistry, while the atmosphere of Havana in 1957 is only intermittently plausible; coupled with a banal plot, it lacks all sizzle.

CDs of the Week
Britten—War Requiem
(Warner Classics)
One of the final releases in the centennial year of Benjamin Britten’s birth is another version of his awe-inspiring anti-war oratorio, new instead of the 1962 premiere and the following year’s studio recording. Although it certainly won’t usurp the current top choice—that 1963 recording conducted by Britten himself—Antonio Pappano leads a heartfelt performance by the Orchestra and Chorus of Rome’s National Academy of St. Cecilia, with veteran Britten interpreter Ian Bostridge, American baritone Thomas Hampson and a surprise choice, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (heretofore not known for her Britten association), giving their all as the soloists.

Natasha Paremski—Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff
The scintillating pianist Natasha Paremski breathes fresh life into these Russian warhorses so that we hear them anew, starting with Tchaikovsky’s splashy but irresistible concerto, which in the gargantuan opening movement—already weighty and uncompromising—has rarely sounded so delectable as well. Her Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations might be even better: she plays like an improviser, constantly surprising while remaining true to the composer—actually, both composers. Conductor Fabien Gabel and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra lend fine support.

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