Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Blend Call the Midwife and Mad Men together and you get this swanky but serious '60s hospital soap opera following the jumbled lives of doctors, nurses, patients and their fragile families in a soon-to-explode cultural powder keg in pre-swinging London. The series introduces Otto Powel, the dashing head of the gynecological ward who provides safe but highly illegal abortions, and his elegant but complicated wife Elizabeth: Jack Davenport and Natasha Little play these characters with persuasive conviction, supported by a superior supporting cast. The Blu-ray looks smashing.

Haven—Complete 4th Season 
(e one)
The Walking Dead—Complete 4th Season 
(Anchor Bay)
In the fourth season of Haven—based on Stephen King's novel The Colorado Kid—the small Maine title town is still dealing with the supernatural afflictions that have been unyielding for decades; although risible throughout, there's a guilty pleasure quality to the show, and Emily Rose makes a most attractively flawed heroine. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead stumbles around through a fourth year of post-apocalyptic battles among human and zombie survivors, but it does so with a singlemindedness that keeps many fans coming back for more. Both series look spectacular on Blu-ray; Haven extras are featurettes, interviews, commentaries, deleted scene and blooper reel, and Dead extras are featurettes, commentaries and deleted scenes.

High School Confidential! 
(Olive Films)
In the late 1950s, with rock'n'roll gaining traction among the younger set, Jack Arnold's 1958 drama about rowdy doings in a suburban high school—drug use, drug selling, drag racing—is a prime example of a not very good genre, with Jerry Lee Lewis himself providing the boppin' title tune. Although the acting is mostly embarrassing (especially Russ Tamblyn as an undercover cop pretending to be a horny, drug-adled teenager), there are memorable turns by Mamie Van Doren as a sexy aunt and Jan Sterling as a sexy single teacher; as a cautionary tale it's worthless, but as an hysterical piece of camp, it's worth a look. The B&W photography looks fine on Blu-ray.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson—
'Thick as a Brick' Live in Iceland 
(Eagle Vision/Universal)
Although his voice is now pretty much shot, former Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson still performs his band's classic 1972 album Thick as a Brick in its entirety, paired with (what else?) Thick as a Brick II, which he recorded and released in 2012. Accompanied by a solid backing band, Anderson blows through both albums in front of a racuous audience, showing that, even if his best days are behind him, he made an important contribution to '70s progressive rock. The Blu-ray image and sound are first-rate; extras include Anderson interview and additional songs.

Music from the Big House 
(Matson Films)
Bruce McDonald's documentary about Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli performing concerts with inmates at the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary is a rousing and soul-stirring example of how even convicted rapists and murderers find solace in music. Although McDonald allows the men to speak for themselves, frankly discussing their criminal pasts, his film avoids moralizing to concentrate on Chiarelli and the men's music-making. Steve Cosens' B&W photography looks stunning in HD; extras include bonus concert footage, additional scenes and a music video.

The Originals—Complete 1st Season 
Yet another stylish-looking drama series about sexy young vampires, The Originals has the added smarts of being set in New Orleans—where Anne Rice originally set her classic novel Interview wth a Vampire—bringing the Big Easy's visual lushness into the plotline itself. When the predictable machinations of the undead start to pall over these 22 episodes, there's an attractive cast and even more attractive locations to help out. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras include commentaries, featurettes and unaired scenes..

DVDs of the Week
Citizen Koch 
The rise of the billionaire Koch brothers and the sudden formation of the Tea Party after Obama's 2008 election are front and center in Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's valuable documentary, which also brings into the mix the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society (founded by the Kochs' father) and the current rabidly pro-business Republican party. This damning document should be seen by people of all stripes to see how big money and ultra-rich donors are ruining our political system, but those who would most benefit probably won't come near this movie. Extras include extended and deleted scenes, a conversation with Michael Moore and a Sundance Film Fest "Meet the Artists."

History Detectives—Special Investigations 
This entertaining PBS series follows a trio of investigators—Wes Cowen, Kaiama Glover and Tukufu Zuberi—who set out to unearth fresh evidence and perspectives on several unsolved mysteries from our country's past, traveling around America and beyond to try and crack "cold cases" like the disappearances of Jimmy Hoffa and Glenn Miller, Civil War sabotage and murders of servant girls in Texas. Admittedly, there's a slightly cheesy quality to the entire series, as the trio continually (and breathlessly) acts as if the probes are really solving these long unresolved mysteries, but it remains a guilty pleasure.

Out of the Clear Blue Sky 
On September 11, the Cantor Fitzgerald firm lost 658 employees—the most loss of life for any company in the World Trade Center attacks—affecting not only the firm's very survival but many surviving spouses, children, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, etc. Danielle Gardner's affecting documentary gives human faces to this unthinkable tragedy, recounting how CEO Howard Lutnick (who lived because he took his son to his first day of school) and survivors have made it through to today, not only emotionally but financially. Despite annoying overuse of dramatizations, this tough but tender film is a stark reminder that a lot happened to innocent people, both on that unforgettable day and for years afterward.

Richard Lewis—Bundle of Nerves 
An bottomless well of exaggerated tics, comedian Richard Lewis's act builds on Woody Allen's Jewish neurotic, this two-disc set is a perfect introduction to his unique brand of stand-up. Disc one comprises his hilarous 1997 HBO special, Magical Misery Tour, which was filmed at NYC's Bottom Line; and his first TV special, 1979's Diary of a Young Comic, an uneven but often sharp debut. Disc two consists of the 1995 film Drunks, a heartfelt but scattershot comic drama that stars Lewis and Dianne Wiest; and an exclusive new fetaure, House of a Lifetime, which shows off the comedian's many collections. Extras are Lewis intros on all four titles, and commentaries on Diary and Drunks.

Sol LeWitt 
Chris Teerink's sympathetic 76-minute 2012 documentary portrait of one of America's leading conceptual artists—who died in 2007—is an informed appreciation of, and introduction to, the notoriously private LeWitt and his personal art. Teerink's camera explores various works—in particular the 3-mile long installation Wall Drawing #801: Spiral—and conducts several  interviews with colleagues who bring to life his art and life; it's a little dry and academic, but never less than enlightening.

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