Tuesday, July 8, 2014

July '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Blood Ties 
For his draggy remake of a 2008 French crime drama, director Guillaume Canet fumbles the ball by setting his version—which pits brothers (detective and career criminal) against each other—in 1970s New York. Despite authentic performances by Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the brothers and Marion Cotillard, Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis as their women, Canet (who co-wrote the melodramatic script with James Gray) relies on misused period songs and an atmosphere that never rings true; consequently, the movie fatally suffers. The Blu-ray transfer looks great; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Elton John—The Million Dollar Piano 
(Eagle Rock)
Despite the fact that his last really good album was nearly 40 years ago, Elton John has pleased more pop music fans that anyone else, and his second Las Vegas residency (named The Million Dollar Piano after a keyboard that doubles as a graphics/animation projector) continues his audience-drawing prowess. For nearly two hours, John and his crack band tear through 18 songs, including beloved standards (“Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer”), indelibly crafted smash hits (“Philadelphia Freedom,” “Bennie and the Jets”) and even rare album cuts (“Better Off Dead,” “Indian Sunset”). There’s a good hi-def transfer, and the concert’s DTS audio is stunning. Extras are a making-of featurette and five songs from a concert in Kiev, Ukraine.

In a straightforward drama turned into pretentious nonsense, Jake Gyllenhaal plays both a history teacher and an actor who are either doppelgangers or split personalities of the same cheating husband. Needlessly making convoluted psychological studies is director Denis Villeneuve’s raison d’etre—his other overwrought dramas include Prisoners and Incendies—and he consolidates that reputation here, while poor Gyllenhaal is unable to do anything with his character(s)’ disparate fragments. The Blu-ray looks fine; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Guns’n’Roses—Appetite for Democracy in 3D 
Shot during a 2012 Las Vegas residency, this nearly three-hour concert shows that Axl Rose, even without Slash, Duff, Izzy, etc., can fashion a reasonable facsimile of Guns’n’Roses by playing classics from Appetite for Destruction alongside later progressive-rock numbers like “November Rain,” “Estranged,” “Street of Dreams” and “This I Love.” Axl can still shriek and—usually—hit the high notes, and his band (which includes guitarists Bumblefoot and DJ Ashba) can shred with the best of them. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate, although the 3D shoot is merely gimmicky; extras include band member interviews (but not Axl).

I Vinti/The Vanquished 
Michelangelo Antonioni’s stark 1953 drama might pale in comparison to his stylistic masterworks from the 1960s, but this uncompromising account of casual murders committed by young men in Italy, France and England is still powerfully disturbing. The gritty B&W photography loses some luster on Blu-ray thanks to too much cleaning of the digital image, but the film remains essential viewing for Antonioni aficionados. Extras comprise the uncut version of the Italian episode, Antonioni’s 1953 short Tentato Suicido and producer and actor interviews.

Nymphomaniac—Volumes I & II 
Why director Lars von Trier is still taken seriously is a question worth pondering after sitting through his ponderous and shallow two-part drama that for four excruciating hours never makes its title heroine in the least dramatically or psychologically credible. Von Trier’s juvenile tricks—onscreen numbers counting each thrust of her sexual partners, obvious and unoriginal classical music cues, “shocking” carnal encounters—are as archaic in the internet era as your racist uncle complaining about Obama. The hi-def transfer is superb; short featurettes are extras.

DVDs of the Week
Arne Dahl—Complete 1st Season 
The detective novels of Swedish author Arne Dahl are compellingly dramatized without losing their original narrative flavor: the stories, including the fascinatingly dark two-part The Blinded Man, are stylishly filmed and acted with utmost conviction. The first season’s ten episodes are included on five discs, which translates into nearly 15 hours of gripping if relentlessly downbeat entertainment.

Cool Spaces! The Best New Architecture—Season 1 
Architect Stephen Chung engagingly hosts this behind the scenes look at the creation of several 21st century public, private, cultural and artistic buildings, along with interviews with the architects whose visions were realized. Among the “cool spaces” covered in this two-disc set are the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, the new Barnes Institute in Philadelphia, the sensational Seattle Public Library and the Barclays Center, Brooklyn’s new basketball and soon to be hockey arena.

Helix—Complete 1st Season 
Although there are echoes of earlier shows and movies during this tantalizing sci-fi drama about researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dealing with a quickly mutating, deadly virus (including an unfortunate zombie outbreak), the clever plotting keeps you on the edge of your seat as the stories play themselves out. The 3-disc set includes all 13 of the first season’s episodes; extras include commentaries, deleted scenes and four featurettes.

Six by Sondheim 
(Warner Archive)
James Lapine’s ingeniously structured tribute to The Greatest Living Broadway Composer uses interviews from various times of Sondheim’s life to stitch together a seemless portrait from his early days until now. There are also masterly musical examples of his work from theater luminaries like Laura Osnes—who needs to star in any Sondheim musical, pronto—that illuminate overlooked gems like “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along

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