Tuesday, May 20, 2014

May '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Big Red One
The Women
Samuel Fuller’s uneven but stark 1980 World War II drama, The Big Red One, gets its Blu-ray debut, sort of: the familiar 113-minute release cut is in (substandard) hi-def, while the reconstructed—and far more engrossing—162-minute director’s cut is only in standard def. Based on Clare Booth Luce’s amusing play, George Cukor’s 1939 The Women has an exemplary starry cast—Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine, for starters—which provides masterly comic timing throughout, and it looks fine on Blu. One extras comprise a Richard Schickel reconstructed version commentary, Fuller documentary, featurettes and alternate scenes; Women extras include documentaries, a cartoon and an alternate sequence.

The Color of Lies
(Cohen Media)
Claude Chabrol’s low-key, creepily effective 1999 Hitchcockian mystery—about a painter, accused of killing one of his young students, who might be cuckolded by his loving wife—works precisely because Chabrol gives substantial weight to the characters and their relationships, not just to solving the murders (the wife’s possible lover later turns up dead). This shrewd thriller features sympathetic performances by Jacques Gamblin and Sandrine Bonnaire and tasty, well-used chamber music by Chabrol’s son Mathieu. The Blu-ray image is enticingly grainy; the lone extra is an audio commentary.

Countess Dracula
One of the most listless Hammer horror flicks is Peter Sasdy’s 1971 snoozer, in which an elderly countess (Hungarian actress Ingrid Pitt) drinks the blood of virgins to keep her youth—but what happens when the supply of young women dries up? What could have been a wicked and sexy parody is instead played pretty much straight, dulling the effect. Only the final scenes are campy fun; there’s also the lovely Lesley-Anne Down as the old lady’s nubile daughter. The hi-def transfer is attractive enough; extras include a Pitt audio interview and a Pitt career featurette.

Dio—Live in London
(Eagle Rock)
Ronnie James Dio was the leather-lunged singer beloved by metal fans for his solo work and stints in Rainbow and post-Ozzy Black Sabbath, and this 1993 London concert shows off his top vocal form as his crack band romps through 19 tunes in a fast-paced 90 minutes. Pretty much everything Dio fans want is here: “Holy Diver,” “The Last in Line,” “Rainbow in the Dark,” Rainbow’s “Man on the Silver Mountain” and Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell and “Mob Rules.” The Blu-ray image is basically a standard-def video, but the sound is appropriately pummeling. The lone extra is a backstage featurette.

Like Someone in Love
Following his Italy-set Certified Copy, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami travels to Japan for this enigmatic drama about a student call girl, her mechanic boyfriend and her elderly client. When the boyfriend thinks the old man slept with her, he takes his revenge—or does he? The not quite ambiguous final shot sums up the entire film: its supposed vagueness nods to a greater dramatic weight than this minor film by a major director has. The hi-def transfer is immaculate; the lone extra is a 45-minute on-set featurette.

Nikita—The Complete Final Season
The fourth and last season of Nikita, in which the world’s leggiest rogue assassin finds herself on the run after being framed for the assassination of the president at the end of season three, seems truncated, considering it’s only six episodes long: but it might also be the primary reason why the nonsensical plot twists are kept to a minimum. But real fans shouldn’t complain either way, since Maggie Q continues to look absolutely fabulous in her form-fitting killing outfits. The Blu-ray image looks impeccable; too bad there are no extras to help wrap up the series.

Pompeii 3D
When Titanic and Gladiator inserted silly romance and stilted melodrama onto their elaborate historical frameworks, they were awarded Best Picture Oscars; Paul W.S. Anderson does the same with his trashily entertaining drama about the Vesuvius eruption of A.D. 79, which buried an entire Roman city under ash for two millennia, but I doubt he’ll be winning any Academy Award hardware for his efforts. This CGI-filled spectacle doesn’t overshadow actors like Keifer Sutherland, Emily Browning and Carrie-Anne Moss, who help its 100 minutes pass by painlessly, while the final shots cleverly merge fiction and history. On Blu-ray, the film looks smashing in 3D and 2D; extras include an Anderson commentary, deleted scenes and several featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Back in Crime
(Kino Lorber)
If you can ignore the genre’s usual improbabilities, this time-traveling French policier is quietly riveting, mainly for the offbeat chemistry between haggard detective Jean-Hugues Anglade and psychiatrist Melanie Thierry, a beauty who may well be Michelle Pfeiffer’s Gallic daughter. If director Germinal Alvarez can’t quite grasp the fantastical aspects of the plot (the script is by Alvarez and Nathalie Saugeon), he at least concentrates on the personal side of things, which is more compelling than the serial killer case anyhow.

The Biggest Bundle of Them All
Pennies from Heaven
Summer of ’42
(Warner Archive)
Despite Mediterranean locales and a cast including Vittorio de Sica, Victor Spinetti, Robert Wagner and the ever-beauteous Raquel Welch, 1967’s Biggest Bundle is a pale imitation of the jet-setting action-adventures it wants to parody. Herbert Ross’s 1981 Pennies from Heaven is not the equal of Dennis Potter’s original TV mini-series with Bob Hoskins, but it has undeniable charm and pathos thanks to Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and the always underrated Jessica Harper. Then there’s Summer of ’42, Robert Mulligan’s affecting 1971 exercise in nostalgia, which features Jennifer O’Neill as the most alluring yet innocent-looking beauty in movie history. Pennies includes a 2001 reunion of cast and crew and reviewer Peter Rainer’s commentary.

Brownian Movement
(First Run)
The premise—a female doctor has sex with patients in an apartment she keeps separately from her husband and young son—makes it sound like this is a soft-core Cinemax special: would that it was! Instead, Nanouk Leopold—who takes his heroine at face value—has a clinical directorial style that turns what could have been a 95-minute jaunt into a slow crawl. On the plus side, actress Sandra Huller’s fiercely committed performance makes this contradictory woman empathetic if not exactly believable.

The Chambermaids/Honey Buns
Jungle Blue
(Vinegar Syndrome)
Porn’s “golden age” of the 1970s—so-called because supposedly talented artists made good films that just happen to include wall-to-wall explicit sex—includes this trio of basically plotless flicks with hardcore sex scenes that are anything but “good.” There’s 1974’s The Chambermaids, most notable for starring Andrea True, who later had a big hit single, “More More More”; 1973’s Honey Buns, which is completely innocuous;  and 1978’s Jungle Blue, which intercuts its hardcore inserts with a nonsensical ape plot.

Generation War
(Music Box)
This utterly absorbing 4-1/2 hour epic (made for German TV) examines how disastrous Nazi leadership annihilated the German people, literally and figuratively: of the five friends and siblings we meet at the beginning of the war and follow until its ignominious end, only three survive, each in various stages of emotional and physical duress. Director Philipp Kadelbach and writer Stefan Kolditz explore Germany both on a huge canvas and in microcosm; if there are unavoidable touches of melodrama, this is still an unforgettable three-part war film. The lone extra is a 20-minute director and writer “master class.”

The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story
(Eagle Rock)
The strange story of Syd Barrett—songwriter-performer extraordinaire who founded Pink Floyd and whose mental illness forced him out of the band after its debut album—is recounted in this hour-long 2001 documentary by friends and fellow Floyd mates David Gilmour (who replaced Barrett), Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Richard Wright, who quite touchingly discuss his genius and sad demise (he died in 2006). The first disc also includes the full Waters interview; a bonus disc comprises the full Gilmour, Mason and Wright interviews—did Waters demand to be separated from his former band mates?

(IFC Midnight)
Though not the female Fight Club, director Josh C. Waller’s single-minded movie about a group of kidnapped women forced to beat the crap out of one another to ensure that beloved family members are not killed doesn’t have the most original premise. Too bad the mind-numbing repetition of bloody revenge—not to mention a tease of a not quite happy ending—desensitizes the viewer after awhile. Extras include commentary, cast/crew interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes with commentary, gag reel and short.

CDs of the Week
Alfredo Casella—Complete Music for Cello and Piano
(Brilliant Classics)
Mieczyslaw Weinberg—Chamber Music (CPO)
Passionate Diversions—A Celebration of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (Azica)
Three chamber music discs by a strong composing trio begins with Italian Alfredo Casella, whose career spanned the the first half of the 20th century; his music for cello and piano—beautifully played by cellist Andrea Favalessa and pianist Maria Semeraro—is irresistibly romantic. Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish-born Russian who died in 1996, wrote music in many genres that’s only finding deserved audiences on disc and in performance (his opera The Passenger will be heard in New York this summer); this disc of his characteristically and wrenchingly emotional music, like his Trio and Sonatina for Violin and Piano, is performed brilliantly by pianist Elisaveta Blumina and violinists Kolja Blacher and Erez Ofer, among others.

Finally, there’s Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, today’s preeminent American composer, whose music has a strong reliance on melody as a modernist bent works its way insinuatingly into all of her compositions. The three formidable works on this disc are written for and dedicated to the superb Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, which plays with its typical assertiveness, especially on 1987’s sprightly Trio, 2008’s trenchant Septet and a Quintet based on Schubert’s classic Trout Quintet.

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