Monday, January 13, 2014

January '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The Following—Complete 1st Season
Kevin Williamson’s taut new series about FBI agents, led by unconventional Ryan Hardy (a properly grim-faced Kevin Bacon), who are tracking serial killer Joe Carroll, a man with acolytes a la Charles Manson, is filled with more grisly violence than warranted, which mitigates its dramatic effectiveness. Still, superior acting and precise directing helps smooth over the writing’s deficiency throughout the 15 episodes. The hi-def image is very good; extras include commentaries, featurettes and deleted scenes.

Fruitvale Station
(Weinstein Co)
Based on a tragic true story, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s drama recounts the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young black man killed by police in an Oakland rapid transit station on New Year’s Day 2009. With a maximum of insightful detail and minimal use of a soapbox, Coogler devastatingly shows how even a normal life takes on larger-than-life dimensions due to tragedy. Michael B. Jordan makes an unforgettable ordinary man, while Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer are both powerhouses as his girlfriend and mother. Even a coda of actual footage celebrating Grant’s life is tearful but never sentimental. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras include interviews and Q&A.

Good Ol’ Freda
Ryan White’s documentary about Freda Kelly, a Liverpool teenager who became an unsung but invaluable member of the Beatles’ entourage—their fan club manager—might not be scintillating, but it will satisfy the eternal hunger of Fab Four fans for more scraps of info (no matter how trivial) about their heroes. Freda herself is a no-nonsense presence, living up to her rep as a necessarily calm backbone for the “lads,” as she still calls them. The Blu-ray looks decent; extras include a White and Kelly commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes and Q&A.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler
(Weinstein Co)
This is History Writ Large with a Sledgehammer, but even with its unsubtlety and willingness to look at the big picture through eyes welled up with tears, it’s done with such a big heart that it’s difficult—but not impossible—to not be touched by the true story of a black Forrest Gump who served presidents for 34 years, and who witnessed Obama’s election. Lee Daniels’ direction is, at best, undistinguished, but his cast—led by Forrest Whittaker in the title role and a granite-solid Oprah Winfrey as his wife—more than makes up for it. The hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes, music video and gag reel.

Nightmare City
(Raro Video)
Umberto Lenzi’s 1980 zombie movie owes less to George Romero and more to the Italian horror genre, Giallo, that was so prevalent at the time; watching it now is an often risible exercise in unabashed silliness, as bad postsynching, often ludicrous acting and bloody makeup and even more dreadful plotting take center stage over real thrills. Still, unfinicky undead fans will want to give this a look. The Blu-ray image is OK; lone extra is a Lenzi interview.

(Cohen Media)
Emanuele Crialese’s occasionally touching fable tackles a controversial theme (immigration) through the actions of a fishing family that helps two helpless victims out of the sea and becomes criminal abettors. Although there’s the beauty of the waters around Sicily, the loveliest images are of that remarkable actress Donatella Finacchiaro’s eternally sad eyes, which speak volumes; Finacchiaro herself makes a formidable but gentle matriarch. The Blu-ray image looks luminous; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

20 Feet from Stardom
(Anchor Bay)
Unsung rock’n’roll backup singers are the subjects of Morgan Neville’s documentary that’s as soulful and moving as these artists (mostly women) sound when belting out a tune. Interviews with many (but not all—this could easily have been three hours long instead of 90 minutes) of the subjects, including Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer, give a sense of how stardom might or might not be their ultimate but unrealized goal, while comments by the likes of Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger come off as superfluous. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras include several deleted scenes, interviews, Q&A.

DVDs of the Week
The Happy House
(First Run)
This eye-rolling attempt at an unnerving horror film demonstrates writer-director D.W. Young’s inability to conjure thrills that are not cheap or tawdry: his eponymous bed and breakfast is populated by characters not worth caring about or having any interest in. I don’t know who’s the least likely inhabitant of this B&B—the dumb young couple, the goofy butterfly hunter, the wingnut inn owner or her dimwitted son. Either way, you’d be better off passing this up. Extras comprise deleted scenes and a Young short.

Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey
Secrets of Ancient Egypt
Athena documentaries’ combination of scholarship and engaging style make dry subject matter come alive, like actress Joanna Lumley’s lively travelogue Odyssey, where—in four fascinating episodes—she travels throughout Greece to not only show off obvious tourist sites (Acropolis, Parthenon, Oracle at Delphi) but also finds time for off-the-beaten-path places like a village where inhabitants whistle to one another as a recognized language. The three-part Egypt explores how the remnants of those ancient civilizations are providing, millennia later, exceptional areas for study by archeologists and other scientists; Egypt also includes a bonus program, Realm of the Dead.

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