Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Dead Kids
This trio of thrillers provides a glimpse of the “Ozploitation” genre from Australia and New Zealand from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s: Dead Kids, written by future Oscar winner Bill Condon, lives up to its titles (it was also called Strange Behavior); Patrick finds its horrific carnage in a comatose killer’s mental state; and Thirst is a weird vampire movie like no other. Of course, these movies are acquired tastes of the highest order, but they all deliver what they advertise, so lovers of B-movie bloodfests will rejoice. The Blu-ray transfers are adequate; extras comprise commentaries, interviews and featurettes.

Funny Face
Hi-def programming is all about getting to watch a glamorous star like Audrey Hepburn on Blu-ray, as in this pair of charming romantic comedies. Billy Wilder’s sentimental but tough Sabrina (1954) gets by on an attractive cast led by Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, while Stanley Donen’s colorful musical Funny Face (1957) stars Hepburn as a book shop owner turned model who falls for photographer Fred Astaire; its real glories—aside from Hepburn—are Gershwin songs and Paris locations. Both movies have been visually spiffed up for their hi-def debuts; extras comprise vintage featurettes.

Grudge Match

When Sylvester Stallone resurrected Rocky Balboa to re-enter the ring at an advanced age, it was played straight, unlike this fuzzy flick that pits Sly against Robert DeNiro in a fight for the (old) ages that erases their iconic boxing characters (remember Raging Bull?) from memory by duking duke it out in the most unbelievable way possible. DeNiro seems to be having fun spouting nasty jokes while Stallone sleepwalks yet again, maybe to offset Kevin Hart’s irritating motormouth promoter. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras include featurettes, alternate openings and ending and deleted scenes.

The Hobbit—The Desolation of Smaug
The second part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is—despite much slow, repetitive action, thanks to Jackson’s decision to stretch out material for one three-hour film into three—more worthwhile than the first film, which dragged and sputtered interminably. Here, better pacing, more fully realized creatures and plot strands, along with fantastic special effects work make one look forward to the final installment this Christmas. The Blu-ray image is unsurpassable; extras include several on-set featurettes.

Nurse 3-D
If you love trashy horror movies, this splattering-blood spoof will be up your alley, especially if you pine for sexy young women parading around in nurse outfits that would seem too risqué for a porn flick. Paz de la Huerta plays a crazed young nurse who kills with impunity, and Katrina Bowden plays her latest victim—neither actress is known for her thespian skills. Lots of blood and gore are sprayed toward the camera, but as one-note sick jokes go, it’s mild stuff. In hi-def, the effects look campier in 3-D than in 2-D; extras include making-of featurettes and director commentary.

(Warner Archive)
It’s hard to believe that this messy 1970 mash-up by co-directors Nicolas Roeg and Douglas Camwell was once considered shocking and edgy; but 44 years on, this seems like the epitome of the time-capsule movie, as hippies face off against squares in a dated drama best seen as a window into a long-gone world. Mick Jagger’s androgynous presence still holds up, but his performance of the sub-Stones tune “Memo from Turner” does not. Still, the movie has gained a cult following, whatever that’s worth. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are retrospective and vintage featurettes.

A Touch of Sin

Director Jia Zhang-Je focuses his laser-like lens on modern-day China, whose economy resembles America’s—the rich get richer, the poor get poorer—as the bottom drops out. Based on four incidents of violence as a last resort for desperate people, Jia links them narratively: the marvelously self-contained first section, about a persecuted miner who resorts to murder after insults threaten his manhood, is filled with powerful imagery of a corrupt society rotting from within. But the three episodes that follow essentially repeat the first without its unsettling seriousness. This draining, frustrating experience would have been masterly if Jia had expanded his first segment instead of undercutting its insightful observations with the others. The superlative Blu-ray transfer is the lone extra.

DVDs of the Week
Broadchurch—Complete 1st Season
(e one)
This gripping mini-series about two detectives looking into a murder case in a small seaside town fascinatingly explores how a young boy’s killing affects the psyche of the area’s inhabitants, who find themselves under a national microscope due to the crime’s heinousness. As the detectives, Olivia Colman and Daniel Tenant juggle the smart-alecky aspect of similar characters with more interestingly shaded portrayals. Extras include deleted scenes and a behind the scenes featurette.

The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts—Fully Roasted

This six-disc compilation of 17 infamous Dean Martin Roasts comprises roastees such as Hugh Heffner, Redd Foxx, Zsa Zsa Gabor and then California Governor Ronald Reagan, roasted by celebrities like Orson Welles, Charo, Henry Fonda, Henny Youngman, Jonathan Winters and Shelley Winters. If the jokes and one-liners are too non-PC today—all but proclaimed on the box itself with a back cover warning—then viewers’ mileage may vary. Extras are bonus sketches, featurettes and interviews.

Over the course of several years, Michael Winterbottom filmed this story of a dad who, while imprisoned, realizes that his family—wife and children both—has been moving on and growing up without him. This low-key (except for Michael Nyman’s annoying score) drama, shot in sequence to mirror the actual aging of the performers, is anything but gimmicky: Winterbottom, as so often, gives an insightful take on ordinary lives. Extras include a deleted scene.

The Fiery Angel
(Arthaus Musik)
Sergei Prokofiev’s electrifying opera—about the horrific visions of a young nun haunted by demons during the Inquisition—is seen in this seminal 1993 production at St. Petersburg, Russia’s Mariinsky Theater. Director David Freeman’s mesmerizing staging allows the visuals to run riot, a perfect complement to Prokofiev’s thunderous music, sung by superb Russian singers like Galina Gorchakov as the troubled heroine, with conductor Valery Gergiev leading the orchestra and choir with remarkable intensity. This opera packs a wallop, even in plain old stereo and standard 1.33:1 framing.

Mayberry RFD—Complete 1st Season
Medical Center—Complete 4th Season
(Warner Archive)
Mayberry RFD, a spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show, debuted on network TV in 1968, and Ken Berry’s gentle Sam Jones quickly became an audience favorite, as these disarming 26 episodes demonstrate. For the fourth season of the popular drama Medical Center (which aired in 1972-73), our Los Angeles hospital heroes—played by Chad Everett and James Daly—save the lives of guest stars that run the gamut from William Devane and Larry Hagman to Stefanie Powers and Barbara Eden.

CDs of the Week
Gil Shaham—1930s Violin Concertos
(Canary Classics)
An amazing array of masterworks for the violin appeared in the 1930s—their composers obviously affected by the volatile worldwide political situation, as the rise of Fascism led to World War II—each different in tone, themes and execution. Violinist Gil Shaham gives impassioned readings of extraordinary works by Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten, a treasure trove of enduring artists’ responses to their era. Since this is only Volume 1, we can anticipate more from Shaham: here’s hoping he tackles concertos by Paul Hindemith, William Walton, Karl Szymanowski and Sergei Prokofiev, to name a handful of other important composers.

Hans Werner Henze—Symphonies 2 & 10
The gap between Hans Werner Henze’s second and tenth symphonies is enormous—nearly 53 years, the second premiering in 1949 and the tenth (his last) in 2002, a decade before his death at age 86—but they are still unmistakably the work of the same master composer, who was a master of orchestration and texture. The second, though written by a young composer, is mature in outlook; the tenth, written by a veteran in his mid 70s, displays the still-youthful vigor of the greatest symphonist of the last half of the 20th century. This stellar recording ends conductor Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-sinfonieorchester Berlin’s valuable Henze symphony cycle.

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