Tuesday, December 2, 2014

December '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Expendables 3 
The lazy formula for an increasingly turgid series of action-adventure yarns has calcified: in addition to those graying and/or balding actors who have been around since the first two—Stallone, Lundgren, Statham, Jet Li, Schwarzenegger—is another batch of over the hill vets like Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas and even Kelsey Grammer: but for my money, the biggest loss is the lack of Charisma Carpenter. Even by the shallow standards of the first two movies, E3 comes across as explosions and gunplay in search of something remotely resembling a story. The Blu-ray image is fine; extras include a gag reel, featurettes and on-location documentary.

The Giver 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Lois Lowry's mega-popular young-adult sci-fi novel has become a movie that feels like an outline, as all of the original story's beats are hit, but without much resonance: you feel like a character in the movie after seeing it because it's erased from your memory immediately. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep look uneasy as The Giver and The Chief Elder, respectively, while Brenton Thwaites is adequate as Jonas, the young man being trained as the new Giver. Philip Noyce cleverly shoots in B&W then gradually changes to color, but that's about the extent of the originality on display in the direction (or the script, for that matter). The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are featurettes, a deleted scene and a script reading by Lloyd Bridges (whom son Jeff wanted as The Giver way back when).

Jeff Beck—Live in Tokyo 
(Eagle Rock)
One of the all-time great blues-rock guitarists, Jeff Beck is still going strong at age 70, as demonstrated by his scintillating fretwork in a Tokyo concert from this past April: Beck's effortless style trumps all on well-chosen covers like Hendrix's "Little Wing," the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" and even Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi." Beck's equally superb band—comprising guitarist Nicholas Meier, bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Jonathan Joseph—keeps up with him throughout, as the concert culminates in an unforgettable rendition of Beck's own "Why Give It Away." The image and sound are excellent; extras are interviews and song list commentary. 

The Paradise—Complete 2nd Season 
The second season of this stylish costume drama co-produced by PBS' Masterpiece and the BBC centering around a large department store in 1870's London was also its last, mainly because it didn't bring in as many viewers of the more successful (and entertaining) Mr. Selfridge. Perhaps if the creators had kept their adaptation of Emile Zola's novel The Ladies' Paradise in its original French setting, it would have worked better; at least the cast—Joanna Vanderham, Emun Elliott, Sarah Lancashire and Elaine Cassidy, for starters—is top-notch. On Blu-ray, the visuals look sensational.

What If 
Daniel Radcliffe has certainly proven there's life after Harry Potter with interesting performances in several hit-or-miss movies; unfortunately, this fey rom-com about friends who try to remain platonic despite their mutual attraction is less romantic, funny and charming than it could have been. For that blame Zoe Kazan, an actress who in the right part can be forceful but an irresistible young woman is beyond her. If Megan Park—who plays Kazan's sexy sister—starred opposite Radcliffe, we might have had something. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Abuse of Weakness 
(Strand Releasing)
Catherine Breillat, who had a stroke 10 years ago at age 56, made this bitter, self-pitying drama about what happened afterward, when she was bilked by a charismatic “bad boy.” Played by the fearless Isabelle Huppert, director Maud Schoenberg (Breillat’s stand-in) won’t allow a stroke to slow her down, despite a limp and hand curled into a claw. The stroke itself is harrowing, and Breillat continues in that vein by showing a talented artist giving herself up to a man she knows will ruin her. Portuguese rapper Kool Shen is good as Breillat/Huppert/Schoenberg's nemesis, but Huppert is impossible to look away from, especially in that final unyielding close-up that peers into the depths of her soul.

(Film Movement)
Exploring bored young people on crime sprees like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and Bertrand Tavernier's far subtler L'Appat (Fresh Bait), Corsican director Thierry de Peretti, follows local kids who casually break into a home and, after swimming and partying, take off with valuable jewelry that leads them to a showdown with a local crime boss. Unfortunately, neither the performers nor the characters are differentiated enough, the situations are all too familiar, and director-writer de Peretti provides little insight. The lone extra is a short film from Italy, Margerita.

Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years 
One of TV's longest-running music series, Austin City Limits has for four decades presented the best contemporary pop, rock and country music, and this all-star celebration concert—hosted by Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow, both of whom also perform—features an array of artists for jam sessions, from Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson to Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. Highlights are guitarist Gary Clark Jr. doing a blistering "Bright Lights" and the Foo Fighters knocking Roky Erickson's "Two Headed Dog" out of the park. Extras include additional performances and two making-of featurettes. 

The Fan 
(Warner Archive)
In the aftermath of John Lennon's murder, Edward Bianchi's 1981 thriller about a famous movie star stalked by a deranged fan while starring in a Broadway musical seemed a victim of bad timing and bad taste; three decades later, it's simply awful moviemaking, as veterans Lauren Bacall, James Garner and Maureen Stapleton come off particularly badly, and younger names like Michael Biehn (overdoing the murderous fan) don't make much of an impression. This is best as a time-capsule of Manhattan—particularly the theater district—during its pre-Disneyfication days.

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his name with creepy but stylish tales of horrific behavior, and this five-part mini-series for Japanese television is no different: it follows four women many years after one of their friends was brutally murdered by a maniac when they were young children. Psychologically penetrating but painfully slow—its barebones plot fleshed out to 4-1/2 hours—Penance will appeal mainly to fans of Kurosawa's other work, although it is far better than his recent deadly feature Real. Extras comprise interviews with Kurosawa and his performers.

DVD/CD of the Week
Heart & Friends—Home for the Holidays 
For their 2013 holiday concert in their hometown of Seattle, Ann and Nancy Wilson of the band Heart host an enjoyably eclectic selection of holiday tunes and Heart hits, many with well-chosen guest singers who help out on this festive occasion. There are Sammy Hagar, Richard Marx, Train lead singer Pat Monahan and Shawn Colvin, the latter of whom sings a lovely "Rocking" and duets with Ann on "Love Came Down at Christmas." Ann's vocals, of course, remain incomparable, whether on Joni Mitchell's opening "River," a stately, choir-driven "Stairway to Heaven" or Heart's own "Barracuda" and "Even It Up." (The latter only shows up on the CD, not the DVD, a surprising omission.) 

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