Tuesday, June 3, 2014

June '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Alexander—Ultimate Cut 
Oliver Stone takes another pass at his 2004 Alexander the Great biopic: this, supposedly last version runs nearly 3-1/2 hours and is certainly wildly ambitious, with many striking sequences, superlative set design and fantastic photography: but Colin Farrell’s so-so leading man is outclassed by Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto, Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins. It’s not entirely Farrell’s fault, for Stone—who is engagingly forthcoming during his new commentary—failed to capture Alexander’s greatness and complexity even with a longer cut: another hour or more might have helped. The hi-def transfer is sumptuous; one new extra is a half-hour featurette, the rest—featurettes and Stone’s own son’s documentary on the making of the film—are from earlier editions.

Death Spa 
This 1989 flick might be the ultimate in cheesy horror movies, as several unsuspecting idiots meet their lethal ends in various icky ways at the title spa. Although it sometimes humorously winks at its own silliness, the overall effect is that of a low-budget piece of schlock that’s not really as smart as it thinks: even the plentiful nudity—an obvious selling point in certain quarters—doesn’t really help either. The Blu-ray image is adequate; extras include a commentary and making-of featurette.

Parts Per Billion 
In yet another familiar apocalyptic drama attempting to marry intimate character studies with its end of the world scenario, a few couples negotiate emotional and practical minefields that are literally killing off most of the planet. Director-writer Brian Horiuchi’s Utter Seriousness stifles any emotional involvement we might feel for such fine actors as Frank Langella, Gena Rowlands and Rosario Dawson, none of whom can do much with the hands they’ve been dealt. The Blu-ray image looks superior.

This reboot of a franchise that went downhill after Paul Verhoeven’s enjoyable 1987 original cleverly updates to a stateless, terrorist-laden world at first, then reverts to a routine crime drama/action flick that relies too much on technology and not nearly enough on the humanity at the story’s core. Director Jose Padilha amusingly uses Focus’s forgotten hit “Hocus Pocus” during one violent sequence, but the movie’s tongue isn’t in its cheek enough: solid performances by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman and perennially underrated Abbie Cornish are the highlights. The hi-def transfer is impeccable; extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.

Super Duper Alice Cooper 
(Eagle Rock)
In an immensely entertaining portrait of the former Vincent Furnier, a Detroit pastor’s son who grew up from an asthmatic, lonely child to one of rock’s greatest showmen and elder statesmen, directors Reginald Harkema, Scot McFayden and Sam Dunn smartly utilize archival interviews, TV clips and concert segments as we hear the voices of the principal players. Alice, his band members, manager, wife and admirers Elton John, Bernie Taupin and Iggy Pop alternately narrate warts-and-all accounts of the debauchery that made a rock’n’roll legend. The Blu-ray image looks OK, considering the substandard state of so much of the vintage material; extras include deleted scenes and rare interview footage.

The Universe—Ancient Mysteries Solved: 7th Season 
The ancient mysteries that are solved in this, another provocative season include the Star of Bethlehem, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and some possible explanations for both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. As always, a group of select talking scientific heads, on-location photography and expansive CGI effects combine to present a tantalizing look at these seemingly inexplicable unknowns of our world; the hi-def images look terrific.

DVDs of the Week
Blue Movie 
Italian director Alberto Cavallore’s weirdly hypnotic and hallucinatory 1973 sex movie, shot on 16 mm, has copious amounts of nudity and even some at the time taboo interracial sex. But it’s the bizarre psychological dislocation and mental games playing that keeps this watchable (in the car crash sense) as it continually threatens to go off the deep end. Extras include a 45-minute retrospective featurette and seven scenes from the uncut version.

Child’s Pose 
Although Calin Peter Netzer’s extremely well-crafted drama has a grasp of the minutiae of daily existence in its story of an upper-class woman who frenziedly ensures her grown-up son won’t be jailed for running over a teenage boy with his car, its deliberate pace slowly robs it of its cumulative power. Luminita Gheorghiu’s persuasive performance as the mother and Nataşa Raab’s slyly understated portrayal of her son’s girlfriend, coupled with Netzer’s assured direction, keep one watching in spite of its damaging slowness. Extras include a deleted scene and on-set footage.

Max Linder Collection 
Although he had the misfortune of being compared to the—to my mind—much greater Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, silent French comedian Max Linder made a series of hilarious silent movies that don’t rely on genuine slapstick. The four films collected here—The Three Must-Get-Theres, Be My Wife, Seven Years Bad Luck, Max Wants a Divorce—all have their moments, especially my favorite, Divorce, a one-note comic idea taken to its funniest extreme.

Pioneers of Television—Season 4 (PBS)
For the latest season of the PBS series showcasing important performers who made television what it is today, a quartet of episodes—Standup to Sitcom, Doctors and Nurses, Acting Funny and Breaking Barriers—takes the measure of the comic and dramatic actors and actresses of all stripes through interviews with legends ranging from Robin Williams and Bill Cosby to Diahann Carroll and Dick Van Dyke. There’s also a healthy amount of clips from many of the shows, ranging from St. Elsewhere to Mork and Mindy, which make these nostalgic excursions memorable for any baby boomer who watched TV while growing up (and who didn’t?).

CDs of the Week
Elton John—Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 
40th Anniversary (UMe)
When Elton John released his first double album in late 1973, he was already one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, but Road shot him into the stratosphere: for a few years anyway. The 40th anniversary edition of Elton’s best record (although Tumbleweed Connection and Captain Fantastic nip at its heels) adds some head-scratching extras but it’s the album’s 17 tracks—whose dizzying array of styles and sounds run the gamut from the eerie strains of “Funeral for a Friend” to the insanely catchy closer “Harmony”—that keep Road sounding fresh and new despite its familiarity.

The 4-CD, 1-DVD set features the original album, two discs of a 1974 concert, a disc of nine contemporary Road covers and bonus tracks like the holiday tunes “Step Into Christmas” and “Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas).” But what are 1974’s “Pinball Wizard” and 1975’s “Philadelphia Freedom” doing here? The DVD of director Bryan Forbes’ 1973 documentary, Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye Norma Jean and Other Things has been edited down presumably to excise people who are now enemies of the Elton camp.

Overall, the 40th anniversary Road doesn’t improve on the 30th anniversary (which had a revelatory surround sound mix). But for Elton completists—or if you somehow don’t have it yet—it’s a must.

Natalie Merchant
For her first album of original material since 2001’s Motherland, Natalie Merchant once again assembles a cohesive artistic statement of sophisticated and strong pop music. Although the opening track, “Ladybug,” is uncomfortably reminiscent of “San Andreas Fault,” which led off her first solo album Tigerlily (1995), the remainder of the album harks back to her solo and 10000 Maniacs work without slavish imitation.

Standouts are two songs about the effects of war, “Seven Deadly Sins” and the haunting closer, “The End,” which features a most sensitive—and subtle—orchestral arrangement. Merchant’s voice, among the most distinctive in pop/rock/folk, still shimmers, and her lyrics sound effortlessly conversational at the same time that they reach for the metaphoric. This sterling self-produced effort makes one hope that Merchant doesn’t wait as long next time to record and release more of her finely-crafted original songs.

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