Tuesday, February 3, 2015

February '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Before I Go to Sleep 
Despite a compelling performance by Nicole Kidman as a woman whose memory goes blank every morning as she pieces together fragments of what's happened to her, this tepid thriller from S.J. Watson's novel never transcends its clever premise. The main problems are the story's nonsensical elements—like why her doctor doesn't know what's going on with her husband (well-played by Colin Firth)—and an ending that too patly wraps everything up. On Blu-ray, the movie looks great; extras include short featurettes.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein)
Three films—Her and Him, about a relationship from each side's POV, and a recut version that tells both stories—are still not enough for writer-director Ned Benson to insightfully examine two people through thick and thin, despite some good moments. On the plus side, there's another memorable turn by the always magnetic Jessica Chastain as Eleanor (named after the Beatles song, of course), nakedly emotional, always real, never grandstanding. Her tough, powerful piece of acting overwhelms the otherwise fine James McAvoy. The Blu-ray images are quite good; unless one counts all three films on two discs, the lone extra is a Chastain/McAvoy Q&A.

Maison Close: Season One 
(Music Box)
This steamy French series, which seems tailor-made for an American reboot on HBO or Showtime or another pay-cable channel with plenty of nudity, is set in Parisian brothel in 1871—a politically fraught time in France—and examines the personal, professional and sexual lives of the prostitutes, madam, clients and authorities (which were often one and the same). Beautifully shot and with sumptuous costumes and sets, the series sometimes lags behind in characterizations and storylines, but, overall, the first season's eight episodes are bingeworthy. On Blu-ray, the series looks terrific.

Open Windows 
Nacho Vigalondo's enjoyable trashy thriller features Elijah Wood as a geeky superfan who's been unwittingly brought into a convoluted plot that involves his favorite movie star, played by the actress who will forever be known as an ex-porn queen, Sasha Grey. Although the story strands become so entangled that all of it becomes laughably silly to watch at times, the movie cleverly uses the internet and technology for its nefarious purposes, Wood is properly harried, and even Grey is more than just a pretty face (and body, as a gratuitous nude scene shows). The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are a making-of featurette and special effects reel.

Love Is the Devil 
Based on Charlotte Roche's controversial book, Wetlands explores a teenage girl's burgeoning sexuality as it holds sway over a male nurse while she recovers from an operation. Such frank subject matter, explored matter-of-factly by director David Winendt, is not for everyone, but with his fearless star Carla Juri, Winendt has made a funny and honest look at teen sexuality. In John Maybury's striking 1999 biopic about painter Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil, Derek Jacobi skillfully embodies the flamboyant artist, while Daniel Craig convincingly embodies Bacon's hunky lover, George Dyer; Maybury's dazzling direction finds visual equivalents for Bacon's painful, often intentionally ugly art. Both movies have decent Blu-ray transfers; Love includes a Jacobi/Maybury commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Days and Nights 
Credit actor and first-time writer-director Christian Camargo for having the audacity to transplant Chekov's classic play The Seagull to rural New York State in 1984 (lots of Reagan allusions), following a fading movie star, her offbeat family and servants, but little of it is memorable, let alone masterly, in the hands of someone who cannot approach Chekhov's genius. The depth of the play's feelings, emotions and relationships are jettisoned, and although there are good performances by Allison Janney, Katie Holmes and Juliet Rylance, the men are interchangeably bland, which doesn't help.

Hector and the Search for Happiness 
In this quirky comedy, Simon Pegg plays an analyst who wants to find out what happiness is, so he leaves his faithful girlfriend Clara in London; as he goes from China to Africa to Los Angeles, Hector finds that happiness means different things to different people. If little of this is earth-shattering, outstanding sequences like one on a plane with a terminally ill woman are worth sitting through the sometimes snail's-paced storytelling to see. Excellent acting by Pegg, Rosamund Pike as Clara, and—in small but pivotal roles—Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard and Ming Zhao (as an impossibly gorgeous student Hector picks up in China) goes a long way to alleviate a lengthy and bumpy ride. Extras comprise director Peter Chelsom's commentary and two featurettes.

Sex(ed) The Movie
(First Run)
This informative, amusing and often unsettling documentary shows how sex education has been brought to Americans over the decades, with snippets of now uproarious sex-ed films that show how changing moral codes colored what children were taught. Director Brenda Goodman also corrals astute commentators and ordinary people to provide a runnning commentary about the distinctly American puritanism of dealing with sex. Extras include two vintage sex-ed films, including 1961's A Respectable Neighborhood, about a VD outbreak and directed by Irvin Kershner (who went on to make The Empire Strikes Back); and deleted scenes.

CD of the Week
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Anna Netrebko, the superstar soprano currently essaying the title role of the blind heroine in Tchaikovsky's rarely-heard one-acter at the Metropolitan Opera this month, also sang it in Essen, Germany, in 2012, from which this vibrant live recording was made. Netrebko's dramatic chops, which let her perform whatever she wants even if it doesn't snugly fit her voice, give this saggy, blunt drama some gravitas; of course, Tchaikovsky's gift for melody is on display, with the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra and Chamber Choir under conductor Emmanuel Villaume providing sturdy musical support. 

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