Tuesday, March 4, 2014

March '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Agony and the Ecstasy
Carol Reed’s stolid adaptation of Irving Stone’s novel about the battle royale between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II over the Sistine Chapel provides scant insight into the artist or Renaissance Vatican politics. As an actor, Charlton Heston is a bigger granite block than the kind Michelangelo used to sculpt, while Rex Harrison overcompensates with a lot of hamming as the Pope; Reed’s dawdling direction makes the slow-paced movie seem longer than the years it took to paint the actual ceiling. Still, it looks splendid on Blu-ray: the prologue of Michelangelo masterpieces in loving close-up is radiant.

Grace Unplugged
As spiritual uplift goes, this drama about a rebellious teen who inherited the musical talent of her famous father—who chucked fame for God and family—isn’t bad, thanks to performances that raise it above the usual cardboard fare. AJ Michaela (daughter) and James Denton (dad) are especially good, and there’s fine support from Kevin Pollack as the father’s former manager to whom she reaches out to jumpstart her career. The movie looks good on Blu-ray; extras are a gag reel, deleted scenes and making-of featurette.

The Grandmaster

The true story of Ip Man—kung fu master who taught Bruce Lee—is recounted in Wong Kar-Wai’s surprisingly arid dramatization: the ridiculously inventive fight sequences (which involve stars Tony Leung and an otherwise wasted Zhang Ziyi) overwhelm the personal lives of our hero and his family. Despite the diffuse narrative, the beautiful visuals courtesy of Wong and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd—which look first-rate on Blu-ray—partially compensate; extras comprise featurettes and interviews.

Last Day on Mars
In this clever twist on the current zombie movie mania, astronauts on a Mars expedition are given over to shocking physical transformations leading to their deaths, one by one. The exotic locale and game actors like Olivia Williams, Romola Garai and Liev Schreiber are let down by director Ruiari Robinson’s inability to go past usual horror movie tropes. Still, unfinicky genre lovers may enjoy it, and it sparkles on Blu-ray; extras are making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Buster Keaton in Free and Easy
The World According to Garp
(Warner Archive)
Buster Keaton’s first talkie Free and Easy (1930) is a hit or miss effort, as singing/dancing interludes butting heads with intermittently funny comedy: Buster never seems at ease playing second fiddle to everything else, while the bonus Spanish version is a curio with more laughs. John Irving’s unwieldy novel The World According to Garp became a flavorful, entertaining 1982 comedy-drama thanks to the wit of Steve Tesich’s script and George Roy Hill’s direction, right from the opening sequence set to the Beatles’ classic “When I’m 64.” Robin Williams is an OK Garp, and Glenn Close’s Jenny and John Lithgow’s transvestite football player Roberta capture the book’s anarchic spirit.

Deep Roots/Starlet Nights
(Vinegar Syndrome)
Two vintage 1978 adult movies make up this latest “Peekarama” release. Deep Roots is an incredibly amateurish Hollywood spoof with a bunch of no-name non-actors, including a couple of fresh-faced starlets who apparently never appeared in an X-rated movie again. Starlet Nights, however, is an amusing Snow White update with the always alluring Leslie Bovee, one of the biggest—and best—porn stars of the so-called golden age of the 1970s.

The Iran Job
(Film Movement)
Former NBA player Kevin Sheppard goes to Iran to play basketball and discovers that those he meets (and befriends) are not the Great Satan haters we’ve been conditioned to expect in Till Schauder’s illuminating documentary, which allows Iranians their own individuality and complexity. It might be a truism to say that Sheppard and these people are changed by their mutual experience, but Schauder shows that even small steps help bridge the gap of misunderstanding. The lone extra is Schauder’s short, City Bomber.

First shown on PBS’s series POV, Bernardo Ruiz’s compelling 2012 documentary is a daring piece of reportage on an incendiary topic: the mostly unsolved killings of many brave Mexican reporters digging into the country’s murderous drug trade. Zeroing in on Zeta, a newsweekly that’s been making waves for 30 years, Ruiz demonstratively shows how the workers keep trying to do their jobs through a literal hail of gunfire: even fatal intimidation and threats fail to stop them….most of them, anyway.

Spiral—Season 3

(MHz Networks)
Laure Berthaud, now a most riveting protagonist in this realistic police procedural, heads a police squad that’s under immense pressure to catch a serial killer preying on young women. Laure’s private and professional lives are a mess, but she finds ways to get things done, and actress Caroline Proust gives her heroism and heart in this terrifically watchable French TV series comprising 12 hour-long episodes (not 9, as the DVD box has it). The drama spirals into greatness thanks to top-notch writing, location shooting and performances by Proust and a talented cast.

CD of the Week
Schreker—The Stigmatized
Austrian composer Franz Schreker was a giant of early 20th century opera alongside Richard Strauss, but the Nazi ban on his music probably shortened his life—he died of a stroke two days before turning 56 in 1934—and buried his glorious, sumptuous music, that’s fighting to be revived ever since. This estimable 2010 Los Angeles Opera recording of the three-hour work—under music director James Conlon’s revitalization project of composers silenced by the Nazis, Recovered Voices—contains Schreker’s signature orchestral sweep and melodies that dominate a meandering melodramatic plot. Sung with grit and muscle by Anja Kampe, Robert Brubaker and Martin Gantner and conducted by Conlon with precision, this overdue release bears comparison with the Enterte musik recording from Decca 20 years ago.

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