Tuesday, February 10, 2015

February '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 
Judith Viorst's beloved children's book about a young boy whose crappy day extends to his mom and dad as well has been expanded into this sweet-natured feature that, at a breezy 80 minutes, is the perfect length for children and adults to enjoy the unwanted shenangians to which the characters find themselves subjected. Playful but sympathetic performances by Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner as the parents and Ed Oxenbould as Alexander help put Viorst's magical story across onscreen. The Blu-ray image looks fab; extras include featurettes and bloopers.

Force Majeure 
Reminiscent of Michael Haneke's better films, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund's intelligent exploration of a seemingly happy family coming apart by a snap judgment during an avalanche at the skiing lodge where they are staying is filled with superb acting, perceptive writing and precise direction. Too bad that Ostlund pushes everything just a bit too far, like the lodge's janitor who always seems to be around and an ending that basically repeats what's been shown during the preceding two hours. Still, truly provocative black comic dramas come along all too rarely. The movie (and its eye-catching Alps locale) looks great on Blu-ray; extras comprise a featurette and an interview with Ostlund and lead actor Johannes Bah Kuhnke.

Left Behind 
(e one)
Poor Nicolas Cage: this Oscar-winning actor has churned out garbage for the past 20 years, with his latest an inert adaptation of an end-of-the-world novel in which The Rapture occurs (and millions of people are "disappeared") as Cage pilots a commercial jet and wonders what has become of his family, including his born-again wife. There's little tension in this mostly risible attempt at making a straight-faced drama, with the biggest foolishness saved for the finale, in which the pilot is guided to an emergency landing by his pickup truck-driving daughter, who singlehandedly makes a runway. The acting is, to be charitable, undistinguished: alongside Cage's evident embarrassment is the sorry state of Lea Thompson's career. It all looks presentable in hi-def; extras are cast-crew-author interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The Retrieval 
(Kino Lorber)
This low-key but intensely haunting drama set during the Civil War finds the moral grey area in the story of a black teenager who works with white bounty hunters retrieve runaway slaves: he bonds with the fugitive free black man he's supposed to help cature. Writer-director-editor Chris Eska, who knows his history and his filmmaking, visualizes the boy's inner struggle in a few brief words, glimpses or interactions; his unheralded and largely unknown cast is perfect, while his eye unerringly captures the right shot or moment of clarity. The hi-def transfer is understated but excellent; extras comprise Eska's commentary, deleted scene with commentary, post-screening Q&A with Eska and cast, and stunt rehearsals.

Richard Pryor—Omit the Logic 
Marina Zenovich's absorbing documentary chronicles the innovative comedian who died in 2005; it was supervised by his widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor (the last of five wives and seven marriages), but doesn't skimp on a life that was often overtaken by drugs, self-destructive impulses and serious relationship issues. While there's little new or revelatory included here, this free-wheeling overview of a legendary artist's erratic career includes plentiful clips of Pryor at work onstage, on TV or onscreen that showed his comedic genius. There are also sundry interviews with friends, colleagues and family members like his son Richard Pryor Jr., Mel Brooks, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are additional interviews.

The events that overtook Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari after covering Iran's presidential election—including an appearance on The Daily Show that led to his being captured, interrogated and tortured by the Iranian secret police—compelled Jon Stewart to do "penance" for contributing to Bahari's plight by writing and directing his first feature based on what happened. This earnest, well-crafted dramatization has a certain flair, but a more accomplished filmmaker would have given Bahari's story more immediacy and vibrancy. Still, even though Gael Garcia Bernal makes a passive hero, Kim Bodina's powerful if pathetic villain provides much of the story's urgency. The striking imagery is given a first-rate Blu-ray presentation; extras are short featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Color of Time 
(Anchor Bay)
In this impressionistic biopic about American poet C.K. Williams, a dozen director-writers alternate episodes about the artist's life and work, and the results, while at times individually memorable, never coalesce into anything more than a scattershot look at a complicated individual. James Franco, along with several other actors, plays Williams, and is outclassed at every turn by Jessica Chastain and Mila Kunis as his mother and wife, respectively. At 76 minutes, the effect of the film is of several minor shorts strung together haphazardly.

Once Upon a Time Veronica 
(Big World Pictures)
Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes' unsparing but delicate study follows a young, sexually free woman, just out of medical school, who has difficult decisions to make about the direction of her life, professionally and personally. Gomes' film is far more subtle than this summary makes it sound, as his assured writing and directing are immeasurably aided by the fierce, unforgettable Hermila Guedes as Veronica; she is an actress unafraid to bare herself physically and emotionally to create an indelible character worth watching and rooting for.

Rocks in My Pockets 
In chronicling the remarkably sturdy hold mental illness has had on several generations of her own family, Latvian director Signe Baumane has fashioned a wholly and boldly original way to deal with its distressing and downbeat heaviness. By providing her own amusingly drawn animation—remnisicent of the playful Bill Plympton—and her own narration (in both Latvian and English), Baumane underlines the importance of her and her relatives' plight without sacrificing her ultimate seriousness of purpose. 

(First Run)
In this gritty character study, a teenage delinquent is shipped off to the tranquil suburbs to stay with his aunt and uncle, but instead of going straight, he falls in with his cousin's own gang, which tags buildings at night with their colorful—and illegal—graffiti. Director Helier Cisterne's small but potent drama explores, without condescension or excuses, how a young man can, despite (or because of?) the watchful eye of his elders, continue down the wrong path. There are remarkable performances all around from a (to these eyes) largely unknown cast.

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