Monday, February 3, 2014

February '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
A Case of You
Once again it’s time to extol the virtues of Evan Rachel Wood, an actress incapable of a false note in any of her performances—especially here, since surrounding her is an inoffensive but forgettable rom-com that’s too cutesy to be effective. A mopey Justin Long (who co-wrote with his brother Christopher and even more mopey co-star Kier O’Donnell), an unbelievably hammy Peter Dinklage and a phoned-in Vince Vaughan can’t ruin Wood’s golden appearance, happily. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras include interviews.

City of Angels
Two Weeks Notice
If you’re remaking a classic like Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, I guess you should make it as unrecognizably sappy as possible, which is what 1998’s City of Angels does, underscored by Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage’s lack of chemistry; best is a soundtrack featuring U2’s “If God Would Send His Angels” and the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” 2002’s Two Weeks Notice, a paper-thin comedy, glides by on Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant’s star power, even if writer-director Marc Lawrence nearly sabotages it all with gimmicky silliness. Both Blu-ray transfers look fine; extras include commentaries and music videos (City) and commentary, making-of, deleted scenes and gag reel (Notice).


(Sneak Attack)
Here’s another inconsequential rom-com about a faltering animator who falls for a slightly annoying but endearing young lady whom he accompanies on a road trip to Pixar. Whit Hertford isn’t very interesting either in the lead or as co-writer, while Mary Kate Wiles is too eccentrically goofy to charm as much as her character is supposed to. The hi-def transfer looks decent; extras include a commentary, blog and short films.

Fanny Hill/The Phantom Gunslinger
(Vinegar Syndrome)
Of these mild ‘60s artifacts, Russ Meyer’s adaptation of Fanny Hill—nicely photographed in B&W—is easiest to digest, even if its attempts to ape Tom Jones are mainly inept: Leticis Roman’s inadvertently sexy heroine only intermittently scores. Albert Zugmsith, who produced Fanny, also directed and produced Gunslinger, a western that starts promisingly but soon falls apart. The hi-def transfers look good; extras (on DVD only) are two interviews.

The Fifth Estate

Even a story as movie-ready as the Julian Assange/Wikileaks scandal doesn’t quite work on film, despite director Bill Condon’s obvious effort to rescue it from overfamiliarity: like Aaron Soprkin’s The Newsroom, we are asked to get emotionally involved in old news, however persuasively recreated. Fancy computer-screen visuals seem a desperate bid to appeal to a younger crowd, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s amazing transformation into the arrogant Assange makes the film feel like a documentary at times, which is at odds with the bells and whistles. On Blu-ray, the transfer looks terrific; extras include special effects featurettes.

Jules and Jim
Made in 1962, Francois Truffaut’s third feature surpasses his arresting debut The 400 Blows with its surehanded treatment of a difficult subject: a ménage a trois between two men and a woman (in the sensational form of Jeanne Moreau at the height of her allure). Truffaut’s command of the medium was never greater—and he never approached this masterpiece again in his remaining two decades, sadly. Criterion’s luminous Blu-ray exquisitely shows off Raoul Coutard’s B&W photography; extras include commentaries, archival Truffaut interviews and segments from French TV programs.

Metallica—Through the Never

Hungarian director Nimrod Antal provided the visual flash and muscle for the metal superstars’ 3-D concert movie, but he’s also to blame for a ridiculous-looking “frame” of surreal segments that lessens the show’s visceral power. At least longtime fans will love the song selection, which skimps on recent stuff in favor of full-throated blasts of vintage Metallica. The Blu-ray image looks splendid, while the sound pummels; extras include a 75-minute making-of doc, interviews, Q&A and music video.

Mother of George
Despite director Andrew Dosunmu’s low-key approach, this story of a Nigerian wife in Brooklyn who goes to extremes to get pregnant because her mother-in-law feels she’s beneath her beloved son is too contrived for its full dramatic effect to work. Still, there are lovely performances by Isaach de Bankolé (husband) and especially Danai Gurira (wife), and Bradford Young’s burnished cinematography looks award-worthy on Blu-ray. Extras include audio commentary, deleted scenes and featurette with interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Erotic Blackmail
(One 7 Movies)
Wakefield Poole’s Bible
(Vinegar Syndrome)
A pair of 70s exploitation films, Brutalization and Blackmail have little to offer except an early gang-rape sequence and the presence of Emmanuelle’s Sylvia Kristel in the former film (whose real title is the less sexy Because of the Cats). Wakefield Poole’s Bible—which is definitely not your parents’ good book—lacklusterly dramatizes scenes like Adam & Eve and Samson & Delilah, but despite an attractive cast (Georgina Spelvin is Bathsheba), it’s more a curio than a truly erotic soft-core flick. Bible extras include Poole’s commentary, interview and deleted scenes.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
The Jimmy Stewart Show
(Warner Archive)
Bill Bixby and Brandon Cruz had great chemistry as a widower and young son in the beloved sitcom Courtship; the third season set (1971-2) also showcases superb guest stars like Carol Lawrence’s free-spirited Soviet, Sally Struthers’ free-spirited artist and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara’s needy neighbor couple. One of our most beloved movie stars, Jimmy Stewart never looked comfortable starring in his own sitcom, as this lone season (also from 1971-2) set shows: his endearing persona came off better on Johnny Carson.

Sebastian Bergman
The tense, Brittany-set crime drama Dolmen—which follows an increasingly convoluted murder investigation by detective Marie, who’s returned home for her wedding after years away—is distinguished by its atmospheric locales and Ingrid Chauvin’s multi-shaded performance. Similarly, Rolf Lassgard is stunning as a psychologically scarred criminal profiler in Sebastian Bergman, a gritty procedural that starts slowly but soon becomes addictive.

It’s Not Me, I Swear
(First Run)
Nuit #1
(Koch Lorber)
These Quebec-set films give a glimpse at French-Canadian cinema. Philippe Falardeau’s It’s Not Me (2008), a penetrating but lighthearted look at a 10-year-old boy’s tribulations, has a terrific performance by young Antoine L’Ecuyer. Anne Emond’s Nuit #1 (2011), which looks at how a one-night stand affects both principals, is shallower than it thinks, but the acting—notably by the fearless Catherine de Lean—gives it some gravitas.

CD of the Week
Benjamin Britten—Britten to America 
Early in his career, Benjamin Britten was composing music for radio shows, films and theater, and some of these rarities appear on an interesting disc that displays yet another facet of the composer whose centenary was commemorated this past year. Although the fragmented nature of these works is unavoidable, there are moments of great beauty in his scores for two plays by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier, along with a BBC/CBS radio series, An American in England. Maybe these aren’t essential Britten compositions, but for Britten completists, this release should be something of a godsend.

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