Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Keeping viewers at arm’s length, while his raison d'etre, mars estimable director Aleksandr Sokurov’s bizarre attempt to turn Goethe’s classic into farce; although containing characteristically fluid camerawork (shot in Academy ratio by Bruno Delbonnel), the film is often tepidly humorless despite its being more lighthearted than usual for Sokurov. Because of the director's uniquely dream-like visual style, the movie looks pulled this way and that, but if you know what you're in for—who else but those familiar with Sokurov will watch this?—then there are intermittent pleasures to be had. 

Fed Up 
(Anchor Bay)
Stephanie Soechtig's advocacy documentary demonizes sugar in the fight against the current frightening epidemic of obesity while also demanding that our government stop subsidizing the junk food industry at the same time it fights for healthy eating. Inevitably, in a 90-minute feature important information gets short shrift, but the stories of several children trying to deal with weight problems are heartrending. Another quibble: narrator Katie Couric (co-executive producer with Laurie David) mispronounces "grocery" as "groshery." The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras comprise deleted scenes and a Spanish-language version of the film.

God's Pocket 
Based on Pete Dexter's novel, this drama tries hard to find the scalding humor in ordinary people's tragic everyday lives (and deaths), but actor-turned-director John Slattery is unable to to get a handle on and balance the constant tonal shifts. And despite a game cast—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins and John Turturro, for starters—the film's plot unspools more interestingly than the characters do, so the story's sharp turns overwhelm the performers' otherwise sharp characterizations. The movie looks terrific on Blu-ray; extras are Slattery's commentary and deleted scenes.

The Roosevelts—An Intimate History 
Ken Burns' latest documentary comprises 14 hours and 7 episodes of American history that explores the greatness of two of our ablest presidents, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Franklin's wife Eleanor, who may have been more famous and popular than either. Made in Burns' usual way—archival footage and photographs are shown while narrator Peter Coyote and actors Edward Herrmann (FDR), Paul Giamatti (TR) and Meryl Streep (Eleanor) speak their actual words—The Roosevelts is another valuable American history lesson, this time reminding all of us what progressivism has accomplished. The hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise deleted scenes with Burns' intro, making-of featurette and 13 bonus videos..

Willow Creek 
(Dark Sky)
Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait is late to the game with his riff on The Blair Witch Project about a couple hoping to discover clues to Bigfoot's existence but instead finding  worse horrors when they get lost in the woods. Aside from the fact that the movie's hero and heroine act so idiotically that they deserve their fate, there's no denying that the "found-footage" mania ran its course years ago, and Goldthwait has little in the way of scares and twists to add. The Blu-ray looks first-rate; extras include Goldthwait and his stars' commentary and a making-of featurette. 

DVDs of the Week
Burning Bush 
The 1968 Prague Spring, a brief flicker of democracy during Czechoslovakia's Communist rule, occurred while Polish director Agnieszka Holland was attending film school in the Czech capital; that closeness to the mesmerizing immediacy of history in the making has informed her three-part, epic exploration of some of that history—the aftermath of student Jan Palach's self-immolation as a form of protest. Holland made this as a mini-series for HBO Europe and is a master at the rhythms of dramatic arcs in vogue on TV (she's directed episodes of The Wire and Treme and the recent Rosemary's Baby), and hers is an exciting version of history writ large, with gloriously lived-in performances by Tatiana Pauhofova, Ivan Trojan and Jaroslav Pokorna, among many others. But why isn't Burning Bush on Blu-ray?

The Equalizer—The Complete Series 
This compelling police drama ran on CBS from 1985 to 1989 and not only showcases a charismatic Edward Woodward as the title man for hire who will do the dirty work for his often helpless clients but is also a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan (with many shots of the World Trade Center, which will always pull me out of whatever I'm watching for a few moments).

Woodward does yeoman's work throughout, and is joined by many guest stars, several at the beginning of their careers (Kevin Spacey, Cynthia Nixon, Stanley Tucci) and others veterans of the small and large screen (E.G. Marshall, Maureen Stapleton), while Philip Bosco leads an impressive list of New York stage actors who got in on the fun, like Tammy Grimes and Laila Robins.

This 30-disc set includes all 88 episodes and contains several enjoyable, if somewhat superfluous, extras aside from a 45-minute retrospective featurette: there's A Congregation of Ghosts, Woodward's last completed film before his 2009 death, and CI5: The New Professionals, a 1999 espionage series with Woodward that was a big hit in Europe.

The German Doctor 
(First Run)
In this tantalizing could-be true story, Nazi refugee Josef Mengele sets up shop in Argentina, where there is already a substantial post-WWII German-speaking population: in the process, the amiable monster becomes unusually close to a family, especially the young wife and her vulnerable little daughter (a remarkable Florencia Bado). Director Lucia Puenzo—who also adapted her own novel—never strays far from melodrama, but the cast is top-notch and the inevitable tension is, generally, smartly underplayed. 

Inspector Manara—Complete Seasons 1 & 2
With his blue eyes, wavy hair, sideburns and moustache, actor Guido Caprino plays up the physical attarctiveness of Inspector Luca Manara to the hilt in this ingratiating if thinly stretched police drama in which the atypical chief inspector (in both looks and manner, natch) annoys nearly all his male colleagues but enchants all his female ones—natch. It's fun and entertaining, even if the cases that are solved are less than enthralling, while the cast swings between overplaying and ignoring the obviousness of the conceit.

Years of Living Dangerously 
In this multi-part series calmly foretelling our doom from climate change, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman leads a pack of celebrities—Don Cheadle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Munn, Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Matt Damon, America Ferrera—to spell out matter-of-factly the road to ruin we are on. There is some optimism in seeing so many people of every stripe trying to help out, which temporarily tempers the obvious conclusion that we are in trouble. Extras comprise hours of material, including deleted scenes and interviews.

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