Tuesday, May 13, 2014

May '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Blazing Saddles—40th Anniversary
Mel Brooks’ legendarily crude 1974 western has become a classic despite the fact that it probably has two misfired jokes for every one that hits: but its gleeful sendup of every cinematic cliché and racial stereotype in the book makes it one smart “dumb” comedy. Even with Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Cleavon Little and Slim Pickens, Madeleine Kahn steals the movie—naturally—as the hilariously named Lili von Schtupp. The Blu-ray has the same sharp transfer from the previous release; extras are the same along with a new half-hour Brooks reminiscence.

Le Comte Ory
Since she rarely performs in New York, it’s always a treat to watch (and listen to) Italian opera superstar Cecilia Bartoli in action: she’s still at the top of her game in these relative  rarities by Giacomo Rossini, a comic romp and dark tragedy. In Comte, Bartoli glitters as a Countess being wooed by a Count in disguise; in Otello—not the masterly Verdi opera—the soprano is heartbreaking as the innocent Desdemona. On Blu-ray, the hi-def transfers and sound are peerless.

Dave Clark Five—Glad All Over
In this (for many) eye- and ear-opening documentary, the meteoric career of one of the British Invasion’s unsung bands is recounted in interviews with Dave Clark, other band members, and fans/colleagues from Paul McCartney and Elton John to Freddie Mercury and Twiggy, along with endless snatches of tunes and videos. Too much credence is given to the claim that they were as good as the Beatles or Stones, but this snapshot of rock’n’roll history is lively and well-told. The Blu-ray image looks quite good; another disc comprises two extra hours of interviews and performances.

Flying Tigers
Home of the Brave
(Olive Films)
These World War II-set dramas treat their soldier protagonists seriously, even if they diverge when it comes to dramatizing heroism or jingoism: 1942’s Tigers stars John Wayne as the macho commander of a group of daring American flyers who take to the air against their wily Japanese enemies. 1949’s clumsy but compelling Brave—from Arthur Laurents’ play—concerns a black soldier dealing with the army’s institutionalized racism while fighting the war in the Pacific. Both B&W films look stellar on Blu-ray.

One of the most absurdly overrated films of recent vintage, Spike Jonze’s computer romance about a lonely, anti-social geek who (surprise!) falls in love with the voice of his operating system is so pleased with itself that it drones on for two stultifying hours, stretching its one-note premise far beyond its meager limit. Joaquin Phoenix’s goofily-moustached, nerdy-glasses wearing protagonist would be more plausible if he wasn’t so patently and symbolically desperate for some sort of connection, just so that everything can fall neatly into place in Jonze’s leaky (but somehow Oscar-winning) screenplay. On Blu-ray, the movie’s visuals look snazzy; extras include shorts and featurettes.

For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, this visceral reenactment of what it was like for Allied soldiers coming ashore amidst that day’s carnage is out on hi-def, courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Stuart Cooper’s 1975 small-scale film might not have the impact of a Full Metal Jacket, but its immediacy draws the viewer in, thanks to gritty B&W photography by John Alcott (himself a Kubrick associate) and forceful performances by Brian Stirner in the lead and Julie Neesam as the girl. The hi-def transfer looks miraculously good; extras include a Cooper/Stirner commentary, Cooper short film and various pieces documenting the war and the footage used in the film.

The Wind and the Lion
(Warner Archive)
John Milius’s spirited 1975 yarn, which overcomes its reliance on Rudyard Kipling-esque adventure clichés, has Spanish locations standing in for Morocco—the tangy cinematography is by Billy Williams—and amusing performances as Sean Connery as the Berber pirate who kidnaps an American widow (an unfortunately dull Candice Bergen) and  Brian Keith as a blustery President Theodore Roosevelt. The Blu-ray image is strong; extras are a Milius commentary and vintage making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
After Tiller
One of the most devastating documentaries I’ve seen, Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s study of the only four doctors in America who perform late-term abortions following the cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller doesn’t flinch from diving headfirst into the complexities of the abortion debate. There is no demonizing or caricaturing either side as the emotionally drained doctors are seen doing what they must for women desperate enough to want the procedure to avoid an even worse fate. An extraordinary array of extras includes a Sundance Festival Q&A with directors and doctors; an interview with the directors and one with Dr. Susan Robinson; and a vintage Tiller interview.

Alexander Calder
(First Run)
One of the great sculptors of the 20th century, Alexander Calder created an entirely new medium, the mobile, and also created massive artworks that have been placed in public plazas throughout the world, as this smart, succinct 1998 PBS American Masters documentary shows. This entertaining 60-minute summary of this truly unique artist features several historians, art critics and others (like his good friend Arthur Miller) discussing Calder in familiar yet awed terms.

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
(Sundance Selects)
Noah Chomsky’s challenging theories in linguistics and philosophy—among much else—are brought vividly to life in this often playful film by French director Michel Gondry. Gondry’s witty animated passages superbly make what might seem arcane and distant to some viewers stimulating and comprehensible. Extras are an animated making-of featurette, an interview with Gondry, and a Docfest Q&A with Gondry and Chomsky.

Kennedy’s Brain
(MHZ Networks)
This taut, globe-trotting mini-series, based on the book by Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, was dubbed into German for the local TV market, which is how it’s presented on DVD somewhat confusingly. An archeologist whose son turns up dead in Sweden tries to find out what happened and, when she discovers that he was uncovering dangerous information about corrupt government officials, goes to Cape Town and Mozambique to dig up more evidence and becomes embroiled in more mysterious doings.

Seduced and Abandoned
(Warner Archive)
Although his narcissism blunts this look at the near Herculean task of raising money for new films, director James Toback shrewdly lets Alec Baldwin, Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski discuss their own amusing travails in the movie business. With the Cannes Film Festival as a backdrop, cinematic history drenches the movie despite Toback’’s usual crudeness—he foolishly hopes to get financing for a quasi-remake of Last Tango in Paris set in Iraq. The lone extra is Baldwin interviewing Toback.

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