Tuesday, December 23, 2014

December '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Good Lie (Warners)
This earnest, touching drama follows the true story of Sudanese young men who escaped their country's horrific civil war and traveled across the Atlantic to start afresh with the help of volunteers who eased their navigation of the bewildering but welcoming place called America. Director Philippe Falardeau wisely keeps the focus on the new arrivals, even if that entails some melodrama and sentimentality, further maximized by the likes of Reese Witherspoon (featured on the cover to try and sell the movie) and Corey Stoll in supporting roles. The Blu-ray image looks first-rate; extras comprise deleted scenes and making-of featurette.

I Puritani 
Vincenzo Bellini's final opera, I Puritani, dramatizing the 17th century English Civil War, is given a sturdy 2009 production in Bologna, Italy; its stars, tenor Juan Diego Florez and soprano Nino Machaidze, have superb stage chemistry to go with their ability to easily navigate the composer's treacherously difficult vocal writing. Giacomo Puccini's perennial audience favorite, Tosca, is brought to vivid life in this 2011 Zurich, Switzerland staging; its formidable central trio of Americans Emily Magee and Thomas Hampson and German Jonas Kaufmann provide the gripping center of Puccini's tragic tale of love and death. Both operas have impeccable sound and video on Blu-ray.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears 
This followup to Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's unsettling homage to the Italian slasher genre called giallo, ups the ante in its dissection of a man's mental, physical and psychosexual anguish when he discovers his wife has disappeared. The directors fetishize everything, both in the film and in their visual style, comprising closeups, fragmented shots, split screens, dazzling lighting and editing; for awhile, it's intriguing, even hypnotic, but the technique soon becomes a dead end, and the repetition becomes numbing. The vividness of the filmmaking is given its hi-def due on Blu-ray.

DVDs of the Week
The Man with Two Brains 
(Warner Archive)
By the time of their 1983 romp, writer-actor Steve Martin and writer-director Carl Reiner had polished their silly but probingly sarcastic humor; if this mad-doctor spoof carries more comedic weight than the hit-or-miss The Jerk or Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, it's because Martin himself is more agile, more willing to go for broke on camera without losing the thread of his character and story, something he'd perfect in the following year's tour de force All of Me. Kathleen Turner shows admirable pluck as the femme fatale from hell, willing to go along with Martin on his inspired flights of sheer lunacy, and if it all bogs down at the end, the first hour or so flies by effortlessly.

Running on Empty 
(Warner Archive)
A fascinating subject—ex-radicals, on the lam from the FBI, try and build a family and new lives—is fatally compromised by Naomi Foner's superficial, soap-opera script (which somehow earned a 1988 Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe), which substitutes sentimentality and contrivance for three-dimensionality and taut drama. Sidney Lumet's direction is solid, and his cast, especially River Phoenix as the restless teenage son, Martha Plimpton as his restless girlfriend and Christine Lahti as his mother, does what it can, but the messy script moots any chance at intelligent and insightful character study.

1000 Times Good Night 
(Film Movement)
The always stunning Juliette Binoche adds another indelibly etched portrait to her growing collection of flawed but beautifully human women in this tough, no-nonsense account of a war photographer who returns home to her beloved husband and daughters but still feels the pull of the battlefield. Director Erik Poppe shrewdly centers the action on Binoche both at home and in the midst of unbearable carnage, and the final shot of her when again in the midst of inhumanity is shattering. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau makes a sympathetic husband, but it's Binoche's fierce, utterly compelling performance that commands our attention throughout. Extras are on-set footage and interviews.

Holiday CD of the Week
Renee Fleming—Christmas in New York 
Wherein America's foremost operatic diva gets jazzy for the holidays, with swinging versions of Christmas songs from "Winter Wonderland" to "In the Bleak Midwinter," showing off a voice still in its prime, and giving us a listen to her first musical love, which she may do more of once she stops singing Strauss and Mozart. With help from such illustrious collaborators as Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti, Rufus Wainwright and Kelli O'Hara (with whom she duets on a dreamy "Silver Bells"), Fleming celebrates the season in her usual elegant style. Too bad that this disc wasn't paired with a DVD of her PBS special, which also includes Fleming's performances of Christmas carols with her talented sister and daughters.

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