Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October '14 Digital Week II

Boxed Set of the Week
The Wonder Years 
This massive set is the Holy Grail for Wonder Years fans: every episode of the beloved half-hour show, on ABC from 1988 to 1994—that's 115 episodes in all—are housed on  26 discs, so the entire dramatic and comedic arc of this wise and wonderful character study of young baby boomer kids growing up and going to school in the volatile Vietnam era can be enjoyed and savored. There's superlative acting by Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Olivia d'Abo, Alley Miles and Dan Lauria, while narrator Daniel Stern provides the precise tone of wistful looking back. 

Inside a metal locker, the discs fit into two school binders, and there are also booklets and photographs; voluminous extras include commentaries, interviews and featurettes. (One complaint: the discs slide into the binders' pages very tightly, so be careful when pulling them out—several of mine were scratched.) Finally, the reason this set took so long to arrive on DVD—getting clearances for 285 popular songs from the era—is one of its most salient features: there are classics by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and even Joe Cocker, whose brilliant cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends" is the series' perfect title theme.  

Blu-rays of the Week
Chinese Puzzle 
(Cohen Media)
The third film in a trilogy about handsome writer Xavier and his relationships with women—after L'Auberge espagnole and Russian Dolls—is the kind of movie that director Cedric Klapisch could make in his sleep: that's not necessarily a criticism, since no one makes such slick, charming but ultimately paper-thin comedies of manners as Klapisch. His cast is uniformly strong—with Romain Duras, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly and Cecile de France are at their charismatic best—and there are amusing explorations of New York City through the eyes of Frenchman Xavier, but at two hours, Klpaisch ends up repeating himself. The hi-def image looks first rate; a nice complement of extras comprises 35 minutes of interviews and a 50-minute making-of.

Million Dollar Arm 
In this entertaining sports picture based on a true story, Jon Hamm plays a sports agent at the end of his professional rope who decides to go to India and find a new pitcher that could crash the majors—and, of course, he does! (Not one, but two, actually: both pitchers are in the Pittsburgh Pirates organziation now.) This agreeable movie could lose 10-15 minutes with no loss of effectiveness, but Hamm is charming, Lake Bell wonderfully eccentric as his love interest, and the Indian cricket backdrop is nicely rendered. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras include an alternate ending, deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes.

One of the weirdest entries in the bizarro world of conservative filmmaking is this straw-man entry about a world in which religious liberty gives way to a new law forcing all religions to give others equal time, and a famous preacher finds himself facing a trumped-up murder charge when he doesn't go along with a powerful senator who sponsored the legislation. This screed isn't even inept enough to be mocked mercilessly; rather, it's just humorless, strident and boring. Any movie in which Fox News' bubbleheaded bleach blonde Gretchen Carlson gives the most persuasive performance is seriously lacking in every way. The movie does looks good on Blu; extras (only on the DVD version, for some reason) are a commentary, featurette and interviews.

Sharknado 2—The Second One 
Of course, the sequel to a cheesy movie about a hurricane-like storm that rains down killer sharks on an unsuspecting populace would have to be even cheesier and more addle-brained than the original: that said, there's some ludicrously guilty fun to be had, especially the cheerfully idiotic scenes of the Statue of Liberty's severed head rolling down a Manhattan street or sharks chewing up subway riders after a Mets game. It's nice to see that Viveca Fox and especially Kari Wuhrer still look smashing, but garbage is garbage, even if it doesn't pretend to be anything else. The Blu-ray looks great; a plethora of extras comprises featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and commentaries.

DVDs of the Week
The Honorable Woman 
In this timely, sadly relevant eight-part mini-series, Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastically understated as an Anglo-Israeli entrepreneur trying to secure Middle East peace who finds herself caught in a controlling system (led by American and English spy services) that would prefer to keep the warring factions in place. Creator-director Hugo Blick's scripting sometimes lacks nuance, but a top supporting cast led by Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan provides the shades of grey necessary to keep this fast-moving thriller going. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.

To Be Takei 
(Anchor Bay)
Star Trek's Sulu, George Takei, turned himself into a remarkably durable celebrity in the 40-plus years since the beloved sci-fi series ended by becoming one of the most inspiring and witty voices for gay rights: hell, even Howard Stern is on his side. Jennifer M. Kroot's concise documentary follows Takei from his childhood in a WWII Japanese-American internment camp with his family to his early acting days to his breaking down barriers for both Asian and gay actors, all with his trademark grin and extremely likeable personality kept front and center. Lone extras are deleted scenes.

Two and a Half Men—Complete 11th Season
2 Broke Girls—Complete 3rd Season 
The appearance of Amber Tamblyn as the Jon Cryer character's niece isn't enough to brighten Two and a Half Men's 11th season; on the contrary, the whole charade smacks of desperation on the part of a sitcom that's been running on fumes since Charlie Sheen left—that this new season is to be its last is certainly no surprise. On the other hand, the third season of 2 Broke Girls continues a smutty but funny winning streak thanks to the comic chemistry of its stars, Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings, the latter of whom has a way with snarky remarks that are second to none. The lone Men extra is a gag reel; Girls has a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Venus in Fur 
David Ives’ witty play is turned by Roman Polanski into an exhilarating romp in many ways superior to what was onstage in New York in 2011. Set in an empty theater, this two-hander features Mathieu Amalric as a playwright-director who auditions Emmanuelle Seigner (real-life Mrs. Polanski) for the sizzling lead role in his new play. Though too old, Seigner gleefully throws herself into it with abandon as her husband lustfully photographs her from all angles; Amalric holds his own by keeping out of Seigner’s way. Unlike Carnage, his stillborn God of Carnage adaptation, Polanski never allows staginess and talkiness to bog down Venus. Extras are interviews with Polanski, Seigner and Amalric; but why, in 2014, is a film by one of our major directors not on Blu-ray?

Witching and Bitching 
(IFC Midnight)
The latest effort by off-kilter Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia is an unsavory brew that mixes a bungled heist, one of the robber's young son who's an accomplice, the boy's understandably upset mother, and a trio of witches—grandmother, mother, daughter—whose house the crooks stumble upon. For nearly two hours, we are subjected to de la Iglesia's usual stew of cheap jokes, cartoonish gore and ridiculous campiness (a deformed female monster appears); how the director got one of Spanish cinema's grand dames, Carmen Maura, to be in this farrago is anyone's guess. Extras are three short featurettes.

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