Tuesday, June 24, 2014

June '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Ernest and Celestine 
The beloved French children’s books about a mouse and a bear who are unlikely friends becomes a charming and touching animated film by directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, which recreates author Gabrielle Vincent’s illustrations without slavish imitation. The original (and superior) French version features the voices of Lambert Wilson and Pauline Brunner; the English version features Forrest Whittaker and Mackenzie Foy. On Blu-ray, the images look fantastic; extras include a 50-minute making-of documentary and a Renner interview.

The Escape Artist 
An intense David Tennant is Will Burton, a defense lawyer whose successful defense of an accused killer leads to threats that culminate in his wife’s death witnessed by their terrified young son—and leads to the same man being defended by Will’s colleague Maggie Gardner (an equally strong Sophie Okonedo). Creator David Wolstencroft’s script, though filled with standard genre plotholes, overcomes its overfamiliar courtroom setting with twists in both characterization and story. The hi-def transfer is impeccable; extras are Wolstencroft and Tennant interviews.

Hearts and Minds 
Peter Davis’s shattering 1974 Vietnam War documentary—one of the most fair-minded but forceful pieces of cinematic journalism ever made, and a Best Documentary Oscar winner—remains relevant in a world of governmental overreach in all of our lives. Davis’ compelling and comprehensive footage and interviews are a sign of the intelligence, indeed intellect, behind such a thorough dismantling of the lies of those conducting the war, and Criterion’s new edition contains a first-rate hi-def transfer, Davis’ thoughtful commentary and two hours of added footage, including interviews with David Brinkley and General Westmoreland. If there was ever a must-see film, this is it.

Home Before Midnight
House of Mortal Sin 
Despite Pete Walker’s reputation as a purveyor of trashy genre movies, his Home thoughtfully studies a hypocritical culture destroying an intimate relationship between a 28-year-old rock star and a 14-year-old girl who could pass for 21, while House takes seriously a rampaging priest out for blood, with poisoned communion wafers and confession recordings in his arsenal. These are popcorn movies with deeper implications; Alison Elliot (teen) and Anthony Sharp (priest) give committed performances. The Blu-ray images are superbly rendered; extras are a Walker commentary and interviews.

(Warner Archive)
Russian composer Alexander Borodin’s ravishing music morphed into Broadway show tunes in Robert Wright and George Forrest’s popular musical, turned by director Vincente Minnelli into a glittering 1955 Cinemascope showcase. Howard Keel, Ann Blyth, Dolores Grey and Sebastian Cabot perform classics like “Stranger in Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” in this spectacularly costumed and eye-popping physical production. On Blu-ray, the photography looks dazzling; extras include shorts and outtakes. 

Winter’s Tale 
Martin Scorsese opted out of helming this adaptation of Mark Helprin’s fantastical novel, saying it’s unfilmable: and after seeing writer Akiva Goldsman’s directorial debut, I concur. This fairy tale-cum-allegory about life, love, death and the supernatural might not be so ridiculous on the page where a reader can conjure images, but onscreen, Colin Farrell, William Hurt, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and appealing newcomer Jessica Brown Findlay all look properly embarrassed as part of this farrago. Even the visuals, which should be the best thing about the film, are inexplicably drained of color, which the Blu-ray gets unerringly right; extras include featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Elaine Stritch—Shoot Me 
(Sundance Selects)
Chemi Karasawa’s documentary about the irrepressible 89-year-old actress—who, decades after conquering Broadway did the same on TV’s 30 Rock—savvily keeps up with this volcanic force of nature who dishes about her life and career, rehearses her new one-woman show and hangs out with friends and colleagues. Interviews with James Gandolfini, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, John Turturro and directors George C. Wolfe and Harold Prince are funny and touching, but Elaine’s indomitable spirit towers over this gracious glimpse at a one-of-a-kind personality. Extras include deleted scenes, interviews and a photo shoot.

House of Cards—Complete 2nd Season
Masters of Sex—Complete 1st Season 
The second season of Cards crumbles with its single-minded plotting of vice president Frank Underwood and wife Claire (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, both splendid) maneuvering their way toward the Oval Office—the season’s 13 episodes grow tiresome after it’s obvious no one can stand up to them. Best of a solid supporting cast is gorgeous and talented Joanna Going as the First Lady, a welcome return. The first season of Sex introduces Masters and Johnson beginning their seminal sexual studies: the series succeeds best when the pair (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Kaplan, both excellent) is allowed to deal with personal and professional problems with candor and humor. Cards extras are featurettes; Sex extras are commentaries, deleted scenes and interviews.

Jimmy P 
Arnaud Despleschin’s tantalizing drama treats a Native American with no condescension in the post-WWII era, when even the “best and brightest” were as racist as everyone else. Much of the film comprises meetings between battle-scarred Jimmy P. (Benecio Del Toro’s understated performance) and a sympathetic therapist (Mathieu Amalric, a bit overdone), and their scenes together are appealingly conversational. As for the rest, it’s bland enough to nearly derail the strengths of Del Toro’s effortless portrayal of a deceptively difficult role. Extras are a making-of and interviews.

16 Acres 
(First Run)
The world’s most famous and controversial 16 acres of land—the World Trade Center site—has been thoroughly, even redundantly covered since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but Richard Hankin’s documentary brings a fresh perspective to a decade’s worth of infighting among local, state and federal municipalities that finally decides what should be built: a memorial, more office towers, etc. Hearing once again from principals like real-estate mogul Larry Silverstein, who famously bought the Towers right before the attacks, seems less repetitive in this context. Extras include two brief shorts.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters 
(Film Movement)
If not for the French subtitles, this alternately irritating and enjoyable rom-com about the randomness of relationships could be confused with self-consciously quirky American independent films. Writer-director Sebastien Betbeder puts his characters’ self-consciousness right into the movie—they talk directly to the camera, even describing events as they happen to them—which (along with an accomplished cast) helps alleviate a terminal case of cutesiness. The bonus short, Sean Ellis’s Voyage d’Affaires, ably sets up its single joke, thanks to Guillaume Canet and Melanie Laurent.

We Always Lie to Strangers 
(Virgil Films)
AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s documentary about Branson, Missouri—a small heartland town that lays claim to more live-performance venues than Las Vegas or Broadway—gets up close and personal with several performers and their families, along with the town’s mayor and others connected to shows. Although it’s an interesting overview, at 110 minutes the movie eventually wears out its welcome, since its impressionistic approach makes these people’s stories seem unnecessarily abridged.

CD of the Week
Strauss Conducts Strauss 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Composer Richard Strauss, also an excellent conductor, ably led orchestras in many of his seminal works—and those of Mozart, Beethoven and others as well—as this seven-disc set demonstrates. These historic mono recordings (spanning 1921 to 1941) comprise Strauss’s energetic readings of his great tone poems like Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration and Don Quixote (which, for comparison’s sake, we get twice, from 1933 and 1941), and even four of his own lieder, as he accompanies baritone Heinrich Schlusnus on piano. As a bonus, his renditions of Mozart’s last three monumental symphonies and Beethoven’s 5th and 7th symphonies show that other composers’ visions were well-served with Strauss on the podium.

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