Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Alive Inside 
(City Drive)
How music burrows through the frayed brain cells of those suffering from Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases is brought to exhilarating life in Michael Rossato-Bennett's documentary, which shows several people who miraculously escape from their moribund existence when they hear music that's familiar from their past. There are scenes here, in which a light is turned on and a patient's face glows with life, that are among the most inspirational onscreen moments ever. The Blu-ray looks good; extras include added scenes and interviews.

What starts as a lackluster knockoff of Blade Runner soon turns into an original (but equally lackluster) tale of a future world in which robots—surprise!—turn out less benevolent than humans planned them to be. Although Antonio Banderas doesn't play a robot, he acts just like one, while his offscreen ex-wife Melanie Griffith gives an embarrassingly earnest performance; at least Danish actress Birgitte Hjort Sorensen is sexy and fiery as Banderas' onscreen (and pregnant) wife. The impressive effects are the best thing about the film, which looks excellent on  Blu-ray; extras include a behind the scenes featurette.

Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 masterpiece of ennui and alienation remains a marvelous example of the great Italian filmmaker's singular vision, as his characters start to recede further  from each other and landscapes and architecture become symbolically oppressive. The brilliant B&W photography and elliptical editing were in many ways unsurpassed by the director, even though his next two films, La Notte and L'Eclisse, came close. Criterion's hi-def transfer looks wondrous; extras include a commentary, Jack Nicholson reading, director Olivier Assayas' analysis and an hour-long documentary, Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials.

The Damned 
(IFC Midnight)
Unlike many show-offy thrillers that tell their outlandish tales of possessed people, The Damned distinguishes itself by not being very distinguished: we've been down this road before, and director Victor Garcia and writer Richard D'Ovidio do little to alleviate the non-tension and feeling of deja vu that permeates the entire enterprise. The best one can say is that The Damned has the courage of its convictions, ending on a darker note than most such movies do. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are cast and crew commentaries and a making-of featurette.

The Last Play at Shea 
Billy Joel's final concerts at Shea Stadium, before the New York Mets' ballpark made way for CitiField, are memorialized in this fleet 90-minute movie that's part concert film, part documentary. Joel's career and the Mets' history are shown alongside footage of Joel's live performances with special guests like Garth Brooks, Tony Bennett (who sang "New York State of Mind") and Paul McCartney who was accompanied by Billy and his band on Beatles' classics "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Let It Be." Too bad neither concert is documented in its entirety. The hi-def transfer looks sharp and the music sounds great; extras include a Joel interview, two additional songs and time-lapse of Shea giving way to CitiField.

The November Man 
In this hackneyed but exciting espionage thriller, Pierce Brosnan returns to his 007 days as a former CIA agent who battles a protege tasked with eliminating him amid the picturesque locations of Belgrade and surrounding Serbian environs. Director Roger Donaldson things taut despite implausible twists and turns, but Brosnan, the impossibly gorgeous Olga Kurylenko as the woman he's protecting and the film's breathless pace makes it work. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras are Donaldson and Brosnan's commentary and three making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Beyond the Edge 
(Sundance Selects)
I have never been a fan of reenactments in documentaries, for too often, they are uninteresting dramatizations that turn the films they are part of into fictional accounts of real events; that is the lone flaw in Leanne Pooley's otherwise estimable film about the amazing Mount Everest ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Such a riveting real-life adventure remains gripping even with unnecessary reconstructions, and there's enough genuine archival footage and the words of the men themselves to give a sense of the scale of Hillary's achievement. 

Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection—Volumes 1 & 2 
(Warner Archive)
These enjoyable boxed sets return us to a time when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were two of the biggest entertainers in Hollywood, and the films they made together showcased not only their comedic talents, both also their singing and even dancing. Although the films vary wildly in quality—the Frank Tashlin-directed films, 1956's Hollywood or Bust and 1955's Artists and Models, are by far the most memorable of the 13 features spread out over 7 discs—but they all contain hints of the delicious chemistry the duo had.

Lines of Wellington 
(Film Movement)
Valeria Sarmiento's star-studded war epic, set during the Napoleonic Wars, features the Emperor himself (Mathieu Amalric) and his British archenemy, General Wellington (John Malkovich), while other famous faces flit by, from Michel Piccoli to Catherine Deneuve. But the bulk of its 2-1/2 hour running time is on war's effects on ordinary civilians and soldiers; this is humane work from director Sarmiento, who took over when her partner, Raul Ruiz, died in pre-production. Extras are a 30-minute making-of featurette and unrelated Australian short, Two Laps.

When Comedy Went to School 
(First Run)
The Borscht Belt, which introduced new generations of comedians—mostly, but not exclusively, Jewish—receives an entertaining gloss by directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, who explore the beginnings of Catskills comedy resorts with lots of vintage footage and interviews with veterans like Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl,  Jackie Mason, Milton Berle and Jerry Stiller. Narrated by a wry Robert Klein, this documentary is both humorous and informative about an aspect of show biz history too often relegated to cliches and stereotypes.  Extras are several additional scenes.

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