Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Americanization of Emily
(Warner Archive)
Arthur Hiller’s uneven 1964 satire—from Paddy Chayefsky’s hit-or-miss script—shows how idiotic war is as a skeptical navy man goes ashore on D-Day since his superiors want one of their own to be first to die heroically on Omaha Beach. Acted with gleeful urgency by James Garner, James Coburn, Julie Andrews and Melvyn Douglas, Emily scatters its shots far too widely, which Hiller and Chayefsky would repeat in The Hospital seven years later. The Blu-ray image is good; extras comprise Hiller’s commentary and on-set featurette.

The lost continent has been found in this entertaining retelling of Greek myths and legends, as a group of ancient-world “three musketeers” named Hercules, Pythagoras and Jason deals with the likes of the Medusa, the Minotaur and Pandora’s Box. Although it’s done lightheartedly, the actors look a little embarrassed to be spouting banal dialogue masquerading as wit; but at least there’s the wonderful Juliet Stevenson as the Oracle. The locations—the series is shot in Morocco and Wales—look stupendous on Blu-ray.

Carlos Kleiber—I Am Lost to the World
(C Major)
One of the most renowned 20th century conductors, German-born Carlos Kleiber was also a major recluse, according to Georg Wubbolt’s first-rate documentary. His  Beethoven and Wagner conducting was sublime, as clips of his work show, and his attentiveness to detail was second to none—as attested to by his many colleagues and friends who are interviewed—but he rarely performed, and if this this doc doesn’t get to the heart of his troubles, it’s still a riveting portrait of a talented artist. The hi-def transfer is decent.

German tenor Jonas Kauffmann, the hottest voice in opera today, dominates these 19th century French opera stagings. He’s a powerhouse in the title role of Charles Gounod’s Faust, dueling with Rene Pape’s equally mighty Mephistopheles, in Des MacAnuff’s entertaining 2011 Met Opera production. Kauffmann is also formidable vocally and dramatically in the title role in Werther, Jules Massenet’s lyrical romantic tragedy based on Goethe’s novel, with fantastic support from soprano Sophie Koch as the woman he can never have. The hi-def video looks fine, while the music sounds strong throughout; Faust extras include brief cast and director interviews.

The Hidden Fortress

Fanboys know it—if at all—as the inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars (which he readily admits in an included interview), but Akira Kurosawa’s spectacularly entertaining 1958 adventure The Hidden Fortress is a singular B&W widescreen epic seen mainly through the eyes of two nobodies who inadvertently rescue a princess. It works as both a Kurosawa classic and a popcorn movie for anyone to devour; rarely has the Japanese master been so beguilingly light-hearted. 

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece Persona, one of the most profound studies of human behavior ever captured on film, comprises a character study of immense psychological depth and penetrating acting by two Bergman muses, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. The films’ hi-def transfers are luminous; extras include commentaries and interviews (on both discs), an episode of It’s Wonderful to Create (on Fortress), and on-set footage and documentary Liv & Ingmar (on Persona).

Mysterious Skin
Gregg Araki’s best-known film, which helped launch Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career in 2004, is an ambitious adaptation of Scott Heim’s book about two friends who deal with sexual abuse at the hands of their little league coach differently. There’s persuasive acting by Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet as the boys and Elisabeth Shue as Gordon-Levitt’s mom, which gives Araki the chance to explore this subject matter with more assurance than in his other films. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras include an Araki intro and commentary, new Gordon-Levitt, Corbet and Heim interviews and deleted scenes.

The Past
(Sony Classics)
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won the 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar for A Separation, returns with another look at the effects of a crumbling marriage—this time,  on an Iranian husband, his French wife, her children and her Arab fiancée. Farhadi’s script has much to offer, but ultimately—as in the earlier film—there’s less than meets the eye, as the accumulation of details starts to overwhelm his focus. Still, it’s superbly acted, especially by Berenice Bejo, who showed her comedic side in the frivolous The Artist (did that really win Best Picture?) and demonstrates her raw dramatic chops. The Blu-ray looks sharp; extras include Farhadi’s commentary and Q&A and a making-of.

DVDs of the Week
The Big House
(Warner Archive)
George Hill’s 1930 jailhouse drama—which won Oscars for writing and sound—is dated by muted violence and a squeaky-clean look at hard prison life, but some tough-mindedness remains, thanks to the accomplished cast which works within the narrow strictures of the era. For added historic interest, both the French and Spanish language versions of the film are included, shot with different casts by different directors on the same locales and with the same (translated) script.

Camille Claudel 1915
(Kino Lorber)
Even though he’s using a movie star for the first time—the usually luminous Juliette Binoche has been scrubbed down to resemble the famed French sculptress during her lengthy stay in an asylum—director Bruno Dumont has made another typically rigorous and disturbing exploration of extreme behavior. As usual, Binoche holds the screen—and Dumont’s many close-ups—with intelligence, assurance and anything but star-turn theatrics, but Dumont’s method of casting real non-actors to populate the asylum is questionable at best, mitigating the film’s unblinking look at such a sadly illuminating case of an artist whose life took a tragic turn.

When Samantha screws a shady guy from a party, she becomes victim to a most insidious STD that turns her by degrees into a zombie in writer-director Eric England’s initially intriguing but ultimately risible horror movie. Despite Najarra Townsend’s charged performance—she makes Samantha’s physical and mental deterioration plausibly frightening—England’s movie relies far too much on shock effects. Extras are two commentaries, a making-of and Townsend’s audition.

Let the Fire Burn
This devastating documentary recounts the incendiary standoff between Philadelphia police and radical black group MOVE in 1985, which ended with dozens of people dead (including several children) and the destruction of the group’s headquarters and dozens of houses in a conflagration set—and pointedly not controlled—by authorities. Director Jason Osder, who cannily utilizes archival footage from the era, unravels one of the most egregious misuses of power against civilians in our history. As a sad postscript, sole child survivor Michael Ward—shown being interviewed afterwards—mystifyingly died last year in a cruise ship pool at age 40. Extras are a 2002 Ward interview and an insightful Q&A with Osder.

Belgian Cesar Franck composed this tragic opera when merely 20 in 1842 and it was never performed in his lifetime: receiving its 2012 world premiere in Leige, Belgium, it shows an accomplished, mature musical hand. Film director Jaco van Dormael shows a real affinity for opera with smart pacing and striking visuals, leads Isabelle Kabatu and Marc Laho are strong singers and performers, and Paolo Arrivabeni conducts the opera house’s orchestra and chorus, which sings the extended—and vocally ravishing—finale.

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