Monday, March 17, 2014

March '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Beyond Outrage
By now, we know what to expect from Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano’s modern yakuza crime dramas: sporadic outbursts of operatic ultra-violence compensating for a lethargic grasp of characterization and plotting. This sequel to the tightly-wound Outrage has moments of marvelously delirious mayhem—best is the slow death of a traitor by a baseball pitching machine—yet it seems too familiar and, at times, lazy. The movie does look superb on Blray; lone extra is an hour-long making-of.

Dark House
Here Comes the Devil
For its first half, Dark House sets up an interesting tale of a young man searching his sordid family history only to find outright horror; too bad the second half—full of ridiculous decisions like the hero head-scratchingly allowing his pregnant girlfriend near the malevolent doings—completely falls apart. No such luck with Here Comes the Devil, which is ludicrous from the start, despite setting up its situation as matter of factly as possible; however artfully done, this devil children flick is risible throughout. Both hi-def transfers look great; extras include making-of featurettes.

This formulaic animated feature, from Hans Christian Andersen The Snow Queen, was one of Disney’s biggest hits ever, despite (or because of) its bland “be yourself” mantra: too bad its characterizations and comic relief compare badly with earlier and better flicks from the Disney vault. I’ve never been a fan of computerized animation, and the clunky visuals didn’t change my mind, while the songs, especially the annoyingly anthemic Oscar-winner “Let It Go,” are no better. Oh well: at least the Blu-ray looks top-notch; extras include a cutesy making-of, deleted scenes, music videos and Andersen featurette.

Kill Your Darlings
This intriguing investigation into the Beat writers before they became the Beats is not only a first-rate character study but also a thoughtful précis of America’s postwar literary scene, before Allen Ginsberg, Williams S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac became famous (or infamous). John Krokidas’s assured direction and the unshowy acting by Daniel Radcliffe (as Ginsberg), Ben Foster (as Burroughs) and the rest of the cast give the film an authenticity that makes the killing at its center more than a mere plot twist. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras comprise an audio commentary, deleted scenes and interviews with Krokidas, Radcliffe and others.

Mandela—Long Walk to Freedom

(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
This biopic of one of the 20th century’s great men is earnest to a fault, but perhaps director Justin Chadwick and writer William Nicholson cannot be faulted for being so reverent to Nelson Mandela’s eventful life, although there are nods toward the complexities of a man who was no saint and his equally human wife Winnie. What is unequivocal is Idris Elba’s towering portrayal of Mandela, which is a performance for the ages; Naomie Harris is nearly his equal in the smaller but pivotal role of Winnie. The Blu-ray looks splendid; extras include a Chadwick commentary and featurettes.

Saving Mr. Banks
Director John Lee Hancock’s handsome-looking biopic details the squabbling between Mary Poppins creator PL Travers and Walt Disney himself over how her beloved nanny would be transformed into a movie: with songs and animation, to her eternal chagrin. This sturdy if sentimental recounting is halfway between a warts-and-all portrait and a Disney whitewash, with Tom Hanks an OK Walt and Emma Thompson a deviously prickly Travers, making for an unfair fight. The hi-def transfer looks quite good; extras are deleted scenes and featurettes.

(Cohen Media)
Set in the picturesque Australian outback, this inferior thriller from the Body Heat school of Hitchcock knockoffs follows a loner who finds himself embroiled with a lonely wife and her dangerously unbalanced (and crooked) husband. Director Craig Lahiff, despite the right sordid atmosphere, omits plausible (or, at least, not risible) plot points, limping to a fizzled-out conclusion; Emma Booth, an Aussie Jennifer Lawrence, makes the wife more complicated (and sizzling) than she is on paper. The Blu-ray image is stellar; extras comprise several interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Above Suspicion—Set 3
Kelly Reilly—who got her big break stateside in Flight, and who stars in a new TV series Black Box, in April—again lends her unique presence to another gripping mystery as a DI who teams with her former boss (an always terrific Ciaran Hinds) to solve the murders of a promiscuous young actress and her drug buddies. Reilly and Hinds’s offbeat chemistry is delicious to watch, so it’s too bad that this well-scripted, superbly-acted series of mysteries has now run its course. Maybe one day we’ll get a follow-up feature film—or another series—with these two characters.

Girl Rising
Nine touchingly humane stories of remarkable young women from around the world demonstrate how important it is to educate females in such countries as Afghanistan, Egypt, Napal and Pakistan, which contributes to ending poverty and illiteracy. With several celebrities providing voiceover narration—ranging from Kerry Washington, Meryl Streep and Frieda Pinto to Anne Hathaway and Liam Neeson—Richard E. Robbins has made a worthy film on a worthy subject. Extras include a director’s welcome, outtakes and behind the scenes and location vignettes.

Rogue—Complete 1st Season
(e one)
This DirecTV original series follows Grace, an undercover detective who tries solving the brutal murder of her young son, looking for a traitor in the midst of the sordid underworld in which she works. Although the drama’s 10 episodes are fast-paced and action-packed, at the center of it all is a great, gritty Thandie Newton as our complex heroine: I for one have been waiting for this kind of performance from her since she came to our attention in Australian John Duigan’s films of the ‘90s like Flirting and The Leading Man.

Show Boat
(Warner Archive)
Frankenstein director James Whale’s 1936 film version of Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II’s legendary Broadway musical is dramatically uneven and occasionally draggy, but the songs—in strong performances by Paul Robson (“Ol’ Man River”) and Allen Jones and Irene Dunne (“You Are Love”), among others—remain indelibly stamped in one’s memory. Overall, it’s stylish, effective entertainment which also shows that Hattie McDaniel (later immortalized in and stereotyped by Gone with the Wind) was a multi-talented actress, comedienne and singer.

This isn’t the action-adventure series with a plethora of sex and violence on the History network; instead, it’s an intelligent if (mostly) unsexy documentary featuring archeologist Neil Oliver, who goes beyond the usual Norsemen clichés for a nuanced examination of their voyages of exploration and battle, as well as their complex legacy. The three one-hour episodes—which include visits to far-flung sites as Russia, Scandinavia and Greenland—provide new insights into an unfairly maligned historical group.

CDs of the Week
Anne Akiko Meyers—The Four Seasons/The Vivaldi Album
(e one)
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, a dazzling virtuoso and formidable interpreter, brandishes her 1741 “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri instrument to give a dynamic take on one of the most overplayed showpieces ever written, Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Along with making Seasons sound fresh and full of feeling, she also performs a richly textured account—doing all three solo parts—of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Three Violins and, as a nice throw-in, Arvo Part’s Baroque-inspired Passacaglia.

Gustav Holst/Frederick Delius  
Francis Poulenc—Stabat Mater
(Harmonia Mundi)
Three astonishing choral/vocal works by two unheralded 20th century English composers—Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus for chorus and Delius’s Sea Drift for baritone and choir and Cynara for baritone—receive stirring performances by Halle’s orchestra and choirs, with Roderick Williams an emotive soloist, all under the baton of Sir Mark Elder. Poulenc’s masterly religious compositions—topped by his opera Dialogues des Carmelites—also include his 1950 Stabat Mater and 1959 Sept Repons de tenebras, both given expressive readings by soprano Carolyn Sampson, Cappella Amsterdam, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Daniel Reuss.

Prokofiev—Piano Concerto No. 3/Symphony No. 5

Sergei Prokofiev is one of the few composers whose most crowd-pleasing works are also among his best—and this recording has two of his most popular masterpieces, courtesy of the indefatigable conductor Valery Gergiev and Mariinsky Orchestra. Peerless Russian pianist Denis Matsuev scintillatingly plays the solo part in the masterly Third Piano Concerto, which combines dexterous technical workouts with those unforgettable melodies which came so easily to him. Gergiev also leads his forces through the Fifth Symphony, whose deft, light touch is anchored in brilliant orchestration. There’s a bit of a messy Fifth finale, but that’s the only slip-up here.

Mark Rivera—Common Bond
(Red River)
For his debut solo album, Mark Rivera—saxman extraordinaire best known for Foreigner and Billy Joel hits, along with being longtime music director of Ringo’s All-Starr Band—shows off his multi-instrumental prowess on guitar, percussion, flute and keyboards, and a pleasant voice that carries him through such pop-rock tunes as “Loraine” and “Turn Me Loose.” When Rivera lets go—both singing and tooting his way through a rollicking cover of Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic” (with Joel on keyboards) and crooning a piano ballad, “Rise”—it makes you wish he’d do it more often.

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