Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Adua and Her Friends 
Antonio Pietrangeli's 1960 neo-realist drama—which sympathetically follows a quartet of prostitutes who decide to open a restaurant when a new Rome law closes all of the city's bordellos—sounds treacly and melodramatic in the extreme. But Pietrangeli's sensitive direction, assisted by the wonderfully realistic portrayals of Simone Signoret, Emmanuelle Riva, Sandra Milo and Gino Revere as the women, provides a powerful dramatic trajectory for this compassionate and insightful character study. The B&W film's transfer looks good enough if a bit waxy; extras include an introduction and Pietrangeli short.

By the Gun 
"By the numbers" more accurately describes this wheels-spinning crime drama about a flashy young gangster (Ben Barnes) doing things on his own—including picking up the adorable daughter (Leighton Meester) of a rival—against his boss's wishes. Director James Mottern and writer Emilio Mauro follow the blueprints of other, better films, but do little more than make a hollow recreation of them, drowning veteran actors like Harvey Keitel and Toby Jones in a tsunami of banalities. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras are a commentary and deleted scenes.

La Cienaga 
Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's auspicious debut feature is a blackly comic 2001 exploration of a bourgeois extended family dealing with hidden tensions that threaten to bubble up to the surface. Although there is more provocation than substance in her visual and dramatic symbolism, at least Martel was onto something interesting, which unfortunately was not followed through with her increasingly hermetic films The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman. The Criterion hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andrés Di Tella.

Downton Abbey—Complete 5th Season 
The final season of the PBS/Masterpiece smash hit comprises nine episodes that wrap up the various story strands, from an ongoing murder investigation to a wedding and a farewell. Although there is some obviousness in the writing—a discussion of someone named Hitler and his new group the Nazis is an example of 20/20 hindsight—that's a mere quibble when the production values remain impeccable, the acting generally outstanding and the storytelling sheerly entertaining. The hi-def transfer looks smashingly good indeed; extras are three featurettes.

The Drop 
The late James Gandolfini—who seems to be in more films since he died than before—is at his disheveled best in this violent, uneven but generally compelling crime drama by writer Dennis Lehane, playing a bartender in a drop bar who doesn't trust his partner after a suspicious robbery. Although he could have played the role in his sleep, Gandolfini has a formidable presence that outshines costar Tom Hardy's sleepy sidekick; happily, chameleon actress Noomi Rapace is also on hand, and her performance makes us forget how ludicrously implausible her character is. Director Michael R. Roskam has a good eye for Brooklyn locations; the Blu-ray looks solid and extras are Roskam/Lehane's commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
All Neat in Black Stockings 
(Warner Archive)
This late-'60s artifact came out in the wake of such successful farces as The Knack and Alfie, which show a young man seducing attractive "birds" without a thought, until he meets a young woman who turns his head and stops him in his tracks. Victor Henry plays a window washer ladies' man who is upended by the bird played by Susan George, one of the most delectable bits of typecasting in movie history. The comedy is creaky, the sentiments sexist, but it works, mostly due to Henry and George's chemistry.

Art & Craft 
Mark Landis, who donated his own forgeries of master paintings to museums as gifts, is chronicled in Art & Craft, Sam Cullman,  Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker's eye-opening documentary exploring the complications of art forgery, mainly through the eyes of Matt Leininger, who exposes Landis's chicanery. In Coherence, four couples at a dinner party discover, as a comet flies overhead, that theirs is one of many realities; as Twilight Zone ripoffs go, it's an OK diversion, but writer-director James Ward Birkit trips himself up trying to outsmart viewers. Art extras are commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, Q&A; Coherence extras are commentary, behind the scenes featurettes.

Bird People 
For the first two-thirds of its two-hour running time, Pascale Ferran's ambitious character study of two lonely people—an American businessman and a French cleaning woman—who don't meet until the very end is beguiling in how it displays the minutiae of their lives through an exhilarating combination of formal precision and alternating narratives. But when the film's heroine (played by the always excellent Anais Demoustier) transforms into one of the title creatures, all bets are off, and Ferran's movie limps along to an enervating, diffuse, predictable finale.

The Green Prince 
(Music Box)
In the impossible-to-believe-it's-true category is this forcefully engrossing documentary portrait of Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian whose father was a Hamas leader and who became, against all odds (and even credulity), an informant for Israel's version of the FBI, Shin Bet, under the auspices of agent Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Director Nadav Scirman adroitly explores the dynamic—and dynamite—relationship between the two men, an unlikely pairing that throws a wrench into the accepted narrative of the Middle East's political situation. Extras include interviews and featurettes.

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