Tuesday, September 23, 2014

September '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Arrow—Complete 2nd Season 
Little House on the Prairie—Complete 3rd Season 
The lively second season of Arrow, about a bow-and-arrow wielding superhero pointedly not called "Green Arrow," shows Oliver Queen and his costumed alter ego vowing to fight crime without killing anyone—a rule made to be broken, of course. In the third season of the beloved Little House (1976-77), the Ingalls family (parents Michael Landon and Karen Grassle, daughters Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson) continue to present moral guidance to viewers without cloying sentimentality. The Blu-ray images look stunning on Arrow and lovely on Little House; Arrow extras comprise commentaries, deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes, while the lone Little House extra is a featurette with new interviews.

Burt's Buzz 
In this engaging profile of Burt Shavitz, face and founder of the Burt's Bees franchise, Jody Shapiro introduces us to a man who's always wanted to do things his way: preferably alone. But he allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by a woman who marketed his products and became a multi-millionaire from them. Any lingering bitterness from that experience clouds but doesn't overwhelm Shapiro's breeze character study: and when the ornery but likeable Burt travels to Taiwan, he's treated as a rock star. The movie looks terrific in hi-def; extras are superfluous shorts by Isabella Rossellini.

The Great Race 
(Warner Archives)
Blake Edwards' fractured 1965 mess fits in perfectly (or imperfectly) with the gargantuan canvas that infected comedies of its era like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World: the serviceable plot about an international car race from New York to Paris (don't ask) is DOA. Even with a cast comprising Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn, Edwards hits all the wrong comic notes; all that's left are stunning locations, wonderfully rendered on Blu-ray. Lone extra is a vintage-of featurette.

Hangmen Also Die 
(Cohen Media)
Fritz Lang's fact-based drama about the inevitable reprisals after the assassination of Nazi "hangman" Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia is too long at 135 minutes and has an awkward script by Bertolt Brecht that lurches from scene to scene. Still, this 1943 English-language production—which tantalizingly has German language interludes with no subtitles—tackles seriously and with minimal Hollywood melodramatics the complex political realities of its time. The B&W film looks stunningly good on Blu-ray; extras comprise Richard Pena's commentary and featurette on the film's history and legacy.

The Last of the Unjust 
(Cohen Media)
Claude Lanzmann, who made the seminal Holocaust documentary Shoah, again illuminates man’s ultimate humanity to man in this nearly four-hour, penetrating examination of the Czech concentration camp at Terezin, a Nazi “show camp” for the Red Cross's benefit. Structured around Lanzmann's 1975 Rome interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, last of the camp’s Jewish Elders, the film is colored by shades of grey in what many simply see as “good vs. evil.” Murmelstein, engaging and thoughtful, even demolishes Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” description of Adolph Eichmann, with whom he interacted. New footage of Lanzmann reciting from Murmelstein’s valuable book on Terezin is awkwardly inserted, but never detracts from his film’s cumulative power. The Blu-ray image is good enough; lone extra is a brief Lanzmann interview.

Queen Live at the Rainbow '74 
(Eagle Rock)
This concert from 1974's Sheer Heart Attack tour at the legendary London venue shows a band that's already disciplined, cocksure and incredibly entertaining, and for old-time Queen fans, the song list could scarcely be bettered: alongside classics like "Now I'm Here" and "Keep Yourself Alive" are album tracks largely ignored in later set lists, like "Liar," "Son and Daughter" and the brilliantly crazed, heavy-hitting tunes from the grievously underrated Queen II—"Ogre Battle," "Father to Son" and "White Queen." Freddie Mercury already shows why he's a peerless onstage frontman, while Brian May's scintillating guitar, Roger Taylor's pummeling drums and high harmonies and John Deacon's sturdy bass lines coalesce to form a truly classic quartet. The 80-minute show (which needs to be longer) has acceptable video quality and fantastic sound; five bonus tracks from an earlier Rainbow concert are included.

DVDs of the Week
Age of Uprising 
Jackpot (Music Box)
Anchored by the impressively craggy Mads Mikkelsen as a 16th century horse trader seeking vengeance when he loses his family and livelihood, Arnaud des Pallières' Age of Uprising is an entertaining adventure based loosely on a novella by the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist. Although based on a story by Jo Nesbo (whose work was also the basis for the trippy thriller Headhunters), Jackpot never gains any momentum with its silly plot about a group of annoying low-lives fighting over lottery winnings. Age extras are Mikkelsen and des Pallières interviews and deleted scenes; Jackpot extra is a making-of.

Casting By
(First Run)
Casting By, which introduces the unsung casting directors who filled movies like Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and The Graduate with stars like Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, is crammed with film clips and many interviews of casting pioneers Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stallmaster and admirers like Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese. Evergreen, a fascinating behind the scenes look at Washington state's race to legalize marijuana, evenhandedly examines the passionate warring factions debating the bill's fairness, including advocates like travel writer Rick Steves. Evergreen extras include the short film The Future of Legalization and additional interviews.

(Music Box)
(Virgil Films)
In Pawel Pawlikowski's evocative B&W chamber drama Ida, a novice nun accompanies her worldly but troubled aunt to discover the truth about her dead parents; beautifully shot, the film's vivid characterizations are complemented by unerring authenticity of time and place (it's set in 1960s Communist Poland). Korengal, Sebastian Junger and late photographer Tim Hetherington (who was killed in Libya) return to the U.S. soldiers they profiled in Restrepo for another sad, scary and haunting view of the effects of Afghan combat. Ida extras include on-set footage, director's Q&A and interview; Korengal extras comprise Junger's commentary and discussion.

Reign—Complete 1st Season
The first season of this diverting costume drama about a teenage Mary Stuart, the future Queen of Scots, is set in the year 1557, as Mary is sent to France to prepare her for the British throne. Although the show tries to imitate dramas like The Tudors or The Borgias, and their blend of political and sexual chicanery. The resulting mish-mash gains the most from a solid cast led by young Aussie actress Adelaide Kane as Mary, along with the voluptuous costumes and location scenery; extras include making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.

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