Tuesday, May 27, 2014

May '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Bridges of Madison County
This major miscalculation by director-star Clint Eastwood—whose turgid 135-minute adaptation (from 1995) of the popular Robert James Waller romance novel never escapes its sappy origins—has an opening sequence that may be the worst-acted and tone-deaf bit of one of his pre-Gran Torino movies. Too bad Eastwood and Meryl Streep’s real rapport can’t overcome the sentimental melodramatics. The Blu-ray image looks decent; extras are an audio commentary, making-of featurette and music video.

A ballet about Charlie Chaplin’s life and films sounds promising, but Mario Schroder’s choreographically lazy vision—which contrasts Chaplin’s own music with Wagner, Schnittke, Brahms, Britten and Barber—traps the Little Tramp (a glorious Tyler Galster) by boxing in his signature movements with too much stage busyness. Some wonderful moments make clear how balletic Chaplin’s physical comedy was, but after awhile the repetition becomes numbing. The Blu-ray image and sound is stellar.

Dan Curtis’ Dracula
Jack Palance takes on the Transylvanian count with a taste for blood and nubile young women in Dan Curtis’ straightforward, mostly uncampy take on Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel, which has a no-nonsense script by the great Richard Matheson. Palance gives a controlled performance in a role usually hammed up to the nth degree in this skillfully old-fashioned entertainment. On Blu-ray, the movie looks good; extras include outtakes and interviews with Palance and Curtis.

Endless Love
Following Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 bomb with Brooke Shields—also based on Scott Spencer’s novel—director-co-writer Shana Feste’s romance doesn’t try to be anything other than a watchable soap opera about a very attractive couple. If the plot and the characters never stray from what’s expected out of this type of movie, the ultra-beautiful leads Gabriella Wilde and Alex Pettyfer (surprisingly, both are British) share a chemistry that goes a long way toward selling this even to those who might resist. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras are making-of featurette, extended ending, deleted scenes.

Gang War in Milan
In Umberto Lenzi’s fast-paced 1973 thriller, local pimp Toto stands up to the newest crime lord set on lording it all over his small-time operations in Milan, a city that’s as much a character as the men and their (usually naked) women. The non-stop action—chases, showdowns and shootouts—keeps coming for 100 minutes, as Toto decides not to go down without a fight. The film’s grain is retained on Blu-ray to great effect; lone extra is an intro by Mike Malloy.

Journey to the West
Director Robert Chow shows off his talent for incredible action sequences and pacing in this caffeinated adventure about a demon hunter and his ultimate prize: Sun Wukong, the demon of all demons. Although the story is cartoonish in the extreme, Chow keeps things animated in both senses with game performers, an astonishing eye for detail and computer effects work. The fantastic images look terrific on Blu-ray; extras comprise several making-of featurettes.

Stranger by the Lake
(Strand Releasing)
Despite obvious visual allure, this sun-dappled story about a killer among the clientele at a secluded beach where gay men pick up one another for anonymous sex meanders for nearly two hours; Alain Guiraudie’s crude direction and heavyhanded script and the indifferent acting make the hardcore segments seem like desperate attempts to deflect attention from the rest of the film’s innocuousness. The Blu-ray image looks a little overexposed, but that may be Guiraudie’s intent; extras include a Guiraudie interview, two Guiraudie shorts, an alternate ending and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
The First World War—The Complete Series
(e one)
This ten-part series is a comprehensive look at the Great War, which made Europe a bloody battlefield for four years. By using much archival footage and the actual words from many of its participants gives greater, more personal meaning to many of the events, from the assassination in Sarajevo that sparked the conflict to the armistice that ended it. If you count yourself a true history buff—as I do—then you should watch every minute of its ten hours.

God Loves Uganda
(First Run)
American evangelicals not only make life miserable for Americans, but now that they outsource themselves to the rest of the world—Uganda has become an anti-gay battlefield—other countries are facing their own deadly infection, as Roger Ross Williams’ enraging documentary shows. Williams smartly allows both sides their say with no editorializing, so when a gay Ugandan activist ends up killed, no amount of commentary is needed to point out who the spiritual culprits are. Extras comprise deleted scenes and short films.

The Great Flood
A follow-up to his masterly The Miners’ Hymns, director Bill Morrison brilliantly marries archival footage he uncovered to a contemporary score by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Morrison’s ingenious editing and Frisell’s music provide stark beauty amid the misery of flooding that inundated the Mississippi delta in 1927. Although there are dead moments—a Sears Roebuck catalog segment seems an attempt to pad the running time—Morrison illustrates a necessary reminder of man’s relationship to nature’s ravages.

Hitler and the Nazis
This five-part, 4-1/2 hour documentary series—which recounts the horrible and lethal efficiency of Hitler and his henchmen, who caused the deaths of untold millions in European battlefields, concentration camps and ghettos—begins with Hitler’s inauspicious beginnings in rural Austria to his clever political wrangling that led him to become the infamous face of worldwide evil. Narrated by Chris Andrews, Karl T. Hirsch’s series offers vintage footage and photographs, as well as eyewitness testimony from everyone from filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to Jesse Owens’s widow and sister to vividly tell the story of the man and his horrific legacy.

The Jewish Cardinal
(Film Movement)
In the “truth is stranger than fiction” department comes this story about a French-Jewish convert to Christianity who, after becoming a Cardinal, finds himself as Pope John Paul II’s right hand man in touchy Church matters relating to the Holocaust. Director Ilan Duran Cohen’s measured tone seems right for a film in which much of the drama is inside a title character (the powerful Laurent Lucas) still anguished about his decades-old conversion. Cohen also accomplishes the feat of having actor AurĂ©lien Recoing play John Paul with humor and even irreverence without it seeming sacrilegious. The lone extra is an amusing short, Kosher.

Pretty Peaches 2/Pretty Peaches 3
Deep Tango/Young Secretaries
(Vinegar Syndrome)
This quartet comes from porn’s “golden age” (‘70s & ‘80s), when X-rated movies had plots punctuated by—occasionally relevant—sex scenes. Peaches 2 (1987) has curvaceous superstar Tracey Adams, while Peaches 3 (1989) stars the always energetic Keisha. The mid-‘70s flicks are pretentious (Deep apes Last Tango in Paris down to an opening scream echoing Marlon Brando’s from that film) and frivolous (Secretaries is as original as its title). Vinegar Syndrome keeps churning out vintage porn, an eye-opener to those who only know today’s “gonzo” style that the internet has made ubiquitous.

Weekend of a Champion
In 1971, Roman Polanski followed his pal race car driver Jackie Stewart for three days while he prepared for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, and we get to see the famous athlete and the famous director in Stewart’s world, both on and off the race track. Directed by Frank Simon, the film fascinatingly shows the two men together four decades ago and, at the end, today: an older and wiser Polanski and Stewart sit down to reminisce about the earlier footage, which comes off as a DVD bonus that’s become part of the film.

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