Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Best Night Ever
Cocaine Cowboys Revisited
Best Night Ever could be called a female Hangover, except that there are actually scattered laughs in this inane attempt to ape that unfunny blockbuster—it also tries to be a found-footage movie, as one of the Vegas bachelorette party gals records everything. Game actresses are defeated by increasingly desperate material. An extended version of a documentary, Cocaine Cowboys Revisited is a thorough expose of Miami as the bloody battleground for violent drug dealers in the ‘70s-‘80s. Interviews with participants and archival footage bring viewers closer to what happened and why. Both discs have good hi-def transfers; extras include deleted scenes and, on Best, interviews.

Black Jack
(Cohen Media)
Ken Loach’s 1979 costume drama—an anomaly in his long career of politically aware films—is a pleasantly minor adaptation of a children’s adventure novel about a gruff adventurer and two children in mid-18th century England. Though made on a shoestring, Chris Menges’ low-key 16mm photography glistens, thanks to Loach’s fastidious eye for detail, which helps overcome variable acting from mostly unknowns. The grainy Blu-ray image is soft but palatable; extras are a Loach commentary and deleted scenes.

With so many nature documentaries proliferating on TV and the big screen, new ones must distinguish themselves from the others—all of which have gorgeously-looking HD-photography—and the six-part Earthflight does just that. By putting tiny HD cameras on the backs of actual birds and showing them in flight all around the world, the programs find a new way to astonish viewers by giving a literal bird’s-eye view of the marvels in our world, both natural and man-made. Of course, the hi-def images look absolutely stunning, whether taken in Asia, Antarctica, Europe or North and South America.

Forgetting the Girl
(Ram Releasing)
What begins as a mildly intriguing portrait of a Manhattan photographer doing headshots for aspiring actresses—and who fails to personally connect with any of them, despite his efforts—turns into an unsatisfying slasher flick. For awhile, this study of a loner and loser with unresolved issues nods seems psychologically acute, then descends into routine blood and gore. Christopher Denham is extremely good as the protagonist, and Anna Camp—who appears in far too few movies and plays—is delectable as the one female who responds to him. The Blu-ray image is decent; extras include deleted scenes, director commentary and web videos.

The Making of a Lady
Murder on the Home Front
From a story by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who wrote The Secret Garden), Lady follows a young woman marrying a widower who immediately leaves home—she soon must deal with his cousin who decides he wants to take over the estate. Director Richard Curson Smith’s tidy 90-minute mystery, which slowly builds in tension, has slyly restrained performances by Linus Roache and Lydia Wilson. Murder—a slow-moving WWII drama about another young woman (a very good Tamzin Merchant) who works with a pathologist to solve murders in a London preoccupied with German bombings—is a handsomely mounted if unexceptional mystery. Both films have fine hi-def transfers; Murder extras comprise cast and crew interviews.

Paths Through the Labyrinth
(C Major)
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, a 1950s avant-gardist now one of our most renowned classical composers, is still going strong at age 80, with an astonishing array of orchestral works, operas, chamber music and film scores. Director Anna Schmidt’s superb documentary follows Penderecki for a year, still composing, conducting and living life as a major artist, along with admiring interviews with his wife; director Andrzej Wajda; and musicians Anne Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (whose own classical forays ape Penderecki). Well-chosen clips from Kubrick’s The Shining and Wajda’s Katyn illustrate how cinematic Penderecki’s own music really is. The hi-def image is stellar; extras are Greenwood and conductor Lorin Maazel interviews.


(Weinstein/Anchor Bay)
This heart-tugging drama about an Irish woman’s search for the son she gave up 50 years ago while among the Magdalene Sisters in a Catholic convent stars a marvelously understated Judi Dench and an amusingly bitter Steve Coogan as journalist Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the brilliant book about her quest. Stephen Frears’ economical direction and Dench and Coogan’s interplay are the main draws of this mere skimming of Sixsmith’s account, in which Philomena’s son’s rich, varied and surprising life is developed in 420 pages—perhaps a sequel, Michael, will do justice to his life story? The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras are Coogan and cowriter Jeff Pope’s commentary, interviews with Dench and the real Philomena Lee, and a Coogan Q&A.

DVDs of the Week
In Claire Denis’ fragmented, convoluted attempt at film noir, a sea captain must deal with his brother-in-law’s suicide and the disappearances of his weak, estranged sister and niece, all while carrying on an affair with a woman married to a terrifyingly evil corporate capitalist. Although Denis’ eye remains unerring—her cinematographer is, as usual, the great Agnes Godard—her narrative sense has never been her strong suit, and the movie’s central mysteries are slowly, unsatisfyingly brought to a close. Still, a solid cast led by the always watchable Vincent Lindon and the amazing young actress Lola Creton helps smooth over many bumps.

The Children Nobody Wanted
Life According to Sam
(Warner Archive)
Children, an earnest, honorable 1981 movie about Tom Butterfield’s efforts to create a home for mistreated young boys in the small Missouri town where he attends college, gains credibility from Fred Lehne’s lively Tom and a young Michelle Pfeiffer as his lovely girlfriend. The difficult to watch Life, a documentary about children with the incurable disease  progeria, which causes rapid—and fatal—aging, focuses on Sam Berns (who sadly died last fall at age 17), a sparkplug who put a brave face on the disease. Sam extras include Berns’ speech and a PSA with Berns and Dave Matthews.

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony
(First Run)
Wherein a determined group eventually puts together a performance of British composer Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, all 120 minutes, 400 choristers and 200 musicians’ worth! I find Brian’s music even more bloated than Bruckner, but kudos to those loyal fans who persevered and finally saw their dream come to fruition. Director Randall Wood presents their story engagingly, even including biographical tidbits of Brian himself, although the reenactments of events in the composer’s life are ludicrously staged.

In the Name of
(Film Movement)
In Malgoska Szumowska’s engrossing melodrama, a closeted priest hides his sexual proclivities while mentoring young men and resisting the advances of an attractive young local woman. Although contrivances start to creep in after an interesting opening, the natural performances help ground it in a credible reality that keep the film from going off the melodramatic rails. Lone extra is an Israeli short with a similar theme, Summer Vacation.

The Last Time I Saw Macao
(Cinema Guild)
This sleight-of-hand film combines documentary, mystery and visual essay to create a fascinating hybrid: beginning as a reverie about the disappearance of the protagonist’s close friend, it morphs ever more cleverly and ends up an illuminating if occasionally mystifying drama. Co-directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata—who narrates his return to the Portuguese Pacific colony where he grew up to find his friend—provide beautiful imagery amid their narrative misdirection. Extras include an interview with the Joaos and a pair of their shorts, Red Dawn and Mahjong.

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