Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Archer—Complete 5th Season (Archer Vice)
In the fifth season of this animated spy spoof, Archer and his cohorts are no longer at the ISIS agency, instead becoming drug dealers attempting to sell cocaine. With a top-notch voice cast—Aisha Tyler is incomparably hilarious as Archer's pregnant ex-girlfriend Lana and Jessica Walter devilishly sly as Archer's mother—and brightly-colored animation, Archer scores as a funny parody that strikes the right balance between crassness and cleverness. The hi-def images are striking; extras include a music video and interview.

Atlas Shrugged III—Who Is John Galt? 
For the final installment of the trilogy from the Ayn Rand novel that's become a conservative bible, the filmmaking and acting are even more amateurish than in the previous two parts: an epic tale of a dystopian United States saved by patriotic entrepreneurs is presented on an amateurish level just a notch below a bad high-school play. The acting is lousy, the directing and writing inept, the photography and sets cheap-looking; I must apologize to Taylor Schilling and Samantha Mathis, whose mediocre acting as Dagny Taggert in the first two films is award-worthy next to Part 3's dregs. The movie looks good on Blu-ray; extras include short on-set featurettes.

Director April Mullen's derivative mystery, cribbed from Memento, follows a young woman who finds herself in a diner bloodied, with a gun and no memory of how she got there. Her story is gradually pieced together through flashbacks; the scrambled chronology fights for screen time with much gore and flying bullets. Katharine Isabelle, onscreen for pretty much all of the 88-minute running time, lacks the sort of forceful screen presence that makes viewers forgive lapses in logic, plotting and dialogue. The Blu-ray image looks decent; extras include making-of featurettes.

Gone Girl 
I had hoped David Fincher could do something with Gillian Flynn's trashy novel, but her equally moribund screenplay pulls him under, making this glossy but uninvolving  adaptation of one of the least deserving bestsellers ever as close to a hack job as Fincher has ever made. There's a choppiness and lack of rhythm that's shocking coming from the director of Zodiac, the textbook example of expertly pacing a slow-moving story. Flynn's satirical targets are obvious—blueblood New Yorkers, moronic Midwesterners, white trailer trash, the media, fatuous TV hosts, ambulance-chasing lawyers—and Fincher indulges his writer so much that this long movie quickly becomes tiresome. Even the casting is off: Ben Affleck's chiseled jaw and Rosamund Pike's ice-queen look don't make them act any better; only Carrie Coon gives a fully realized performance as Ben's twin sister. The hi-def transfer is superb; Fincher's chatty commentary is the lone extra. 

The Manners of Downton Abbey 
Here's more proof that Downton Abbey has become a cultural phenomenon: this one-hour special that's basically a making-of featurette has received a standalone Blu-ray release instead of being part of the full season release. Host Alastair Bruce, the series' historical advisor, takes viewers behind the scenes to show how he and his staff ensure that the actors and production adhere to the necessary historical fidelity for the series' time period. The hi-def image is excellent; lone extra is a bonus scene.

My Left Foot 
Although Daniel Day-Lewis deservedly won his first Best Actor Oscar in Jim Sheridan's inspiring but unsentimental biography about Christy Brown, whose cerebral palsy and inability to use anything but his left foot didn't stop him from becoming a celebrated writer, there are also tremendously affecting portrayals by Hugh O'Conor as the young Christy and Brenda Fricker as Christy's headstrong mother. Sheridan's sensitive direction makes this 1989 drama is a masterpiece from its first frame. The hi-def transfer looks quite good; extras are short featurettes. 

DVDs of the Week
Playing Dead 
(First Run)
In this bizarrely amusing French mystery, washed-up actor Jean takes a job playing victims in a crime scene reenactment at a Swiss ski resort, while Noemie is the local magistrate working on the case who is at first annoyed by Jean's annoying behavior but—surprise!—gradually warms to him. Writer-director Jean-Paul Salome has cleverly created a weirdly entertaining movie with memorably oddball lead characters, enacted persuasively by Francois Damiens (Jean) and Geraldine Nakache (Noemie). 

Two Mothers 
German writer-director Anne Zohra Berrached's concise, clinical study of a lesbian couple that wants a baby, only to discover that Germany's establishment health facilities can't (or won't) help: so they desperately look for sperm donors, which opens up a whole new can of worms. Karina Plachetka and Sabine Wolf are nakedly vulnerable as the women, whose dilemma—including jealousy and depression—is beautifully handled by Berrached in a pointed 75-minute film that never approaches melodrama or maudlin.

Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis? 
This devastating true story about an autistic teen's unfortunate death is a wholesale condemnation of a medical establishment that won't—or refuses to—deal with children suffering from a disease which needs special treatment. Director Andy Wakefield tells this tragic tale through the eyes of Alex's mother and godmother, accused of his murder when they decide that neither they nor he can tolerate his condition any longer. Tough to watch, this is still a must-see and humane look at our medical system's heartlessness. Extras comprise filmmaker interview and featurettes.

CDs of the Week
Busoni/Strauss—Violin Concertos 
The valuable series "The Romantic Violin Concerto" has brought dozens of unsung works out of mothballs for listeners to appreciate anew, and the 16th volume also does that with concertos by Ferruccio Busoni and Richard Strauss, neither of which are among either composer's greatest, but both are attractive and melodic with ample opportunities for a talented soloist to show off her chops. And this first-rate recording has that in spades with accomplished violinist Tanja Becker-Bender, whose lively tone and exemplary technique are perfectly attuned to Busoni and Strauss, as are conductor Garry Walker and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Rachmaninov—The Piano Concertos 
Sergei Rachmaninov was a master piano player and composer, and this two-CD, one-Blu-ray set, which brings together his four masterly concertos and equally worthy Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, is one of the best editions available, simply because of its soloist: Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who originally recorded these works in 1972. Now that they've been remastered, Ashkenazy's interpretations can once again be heard in all their glory—his rendition of the formidable third concerto (the "Rach 3" of Shine movie fame) leading the way—with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra providing rich accompaniment. The Blu-ray disc allows listeners the chance to savor these seminal recordings in the highest audio resolution possible.

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