Tuesday, February 17, 2015

February '15 Digital Week III

A Day in the Country 
A masterpiece in miniature, Jean Renoir's buoyant 40-minute short might be his profoundest statement mainly because he refrains from making one: this graciously comic look at a city clan's eventful visit to the country is an absolute delight to watch. Renoir's lively visuals are reminiscent of his father's lustrous paintings, while his generosity and sympathy lie with his characters, foibles and all. This unfinished classic (finally released 10 years after it was shot in 1936) has been given the first-rate Criterion treatment, from the wonderful restoration to voluminous extras comprising a 90-minute compilation of outtakes, Un tournage a la campagne; interviews; a video essay; Renoir's introduction; and screen tests.

Earth—A New Wild 
In this gorgeous-looking five-part study, Dr. M. Sanjayan's travels are turned into a new kind of nature documentary, which shows how humans and animals are inhabiting our magnificent planet, both apart and together. The episodes, which feature one aspect of our mutually beneficial relationship—Home, Plains, Forests, Oceans, Water—also examine ways we can preserve our precious natural resources for ourselves and the future. The Blu-ray visuals are, naturally, eye-popping; lone extra is bonus Sanhayan interview.

Fear Clinic 
(Anchor Bay)
If not for Robert Englund—best known as Freddy from the Nightmare on Elm Street series—this thriller about people dealing with a horrific past event through hallucinations that are becoming murderously real would be even more routine than it is. Englund is solid as the doctor whose risky treatments might be the cause of some grisly deaths, but flimsy motivation and scare tactics won't appeal to any but the least finicky horror fans. The movie looks good in hi-def; lone extra is an on-set featurette.

The Homesman 
Director Tommy Lee Jones, who stars in this western as an outlaw who helps a spinster take a trio of women driven mad by the harsh frontier existence to a safe house, has made a sturdy, solid picture that's a bit too slow and studied for its own good; surprisingly, Jones gives a curiously uncontrolled performance that mars the straightforward filmmaking on display. The film, though, belongs to Hilary Swank, who as the spinster gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance, even if the occasionally harrowing drama (based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout) severely shortchanges her, throwing the story out of whack in its final half-hour. The western vistas look spectacular on Blu-ray; extras include three substantial on-set featurettes. 

This mild comic study about Megan, a 20ish slacker who befriends high school student Annika and her father, with whom she becomes romantically involved, limps along without committing for 100 minutes, essentially aping its idle protagonist. With a too-familiar script by Andrea Seigel and uneven direction by Lynn Shelton, it's still worth a look, thanks to committed acting by Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray; extras are Shelton's commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

Life Itself 
Steve James' documentary about Roger Ebert's final years is an affecting portrait of the famous movie lover who faced mortality with bravery and humor, especially after horribly disfiguring cancer treatments that only prolonged the inevitable (he died in 2013). There's no denying the importance of the phenomenally popular movie review show starring Ebert and fellow Chicago reviewer Gene Siskel—who died of a brain tumor in 1999—but James shows how Ebert kept his love of cinema in proper perspective, as only one aspect of his gregarious love for life. The Blu-ray has a first-rate transfer; extras are deleted scenes, James interview and featurettes.

Mariinsky II Gala 
(Arthaus Musik)
When the Mariinsky Theatre opened its ultra-modern concert hall, Mariinsky II, on May 2, 2013, the cream of the crop of its stable of singers, musicians and dancers, alongside international stars, converged on St. Petersburg for the ultimate gala concert, led by the indefatigable conductor Valery Gergiev. Among dozens of highlights, there are Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko, the immortal Placido Domingo and luminous ballerina Diana Vishneva. The two-hour performance features Russian composers Tchaikvsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and works by Wagner, Mozart and Verdi. The Blu-ray's image and sound are extraordinary.

Le Pont du Nord 
(Kino Lorber)
French director Jacques Rivette's fanatical cult marches on despite a painfully mediocre cinematic output: his 1981 Paris-set film pairs a middle-aged ex-con and a paranoid 20ish loner, who together battle a menagerie of men named Max for a red-herring filled "mystery" that wears out its slender welcome long before its two-plus-hour running time expires. Amid the eternal beauties of Paris locations—which, to Rivette's credit, bypass the usual tourist traps (except for the Arc de Triumphe) for less photographed areas—actress Bulle Ogier and daughter Pascale (who tragically died in 1984, one day short of her 26th birthday) traipse around with little rhyme or reason. There's enough willful obscurity and symbolism to delight Rivette fans; for the rest of us, it's heavy going. The Blu-ray looks splendid; extras are two video essays.

(Cohen Film Collection)
In this 1942 dramatization of jazz's evolution, trumpeter Jackie Cooper falls in love with piano player Bonita Granville, but their romance rightly takes a back seat to the glorious musical performances from the likes of Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. Director William Dichterle provides enough breathing space for the musicmaking to make viewers overlook the bumpily melodramatic plotting and pacing. The restored film looks tremendous on Blu; extras comprise nine jazz shorts featuring such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Bille Holliday, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith.

The World Made Straight 
When she was Derek Jeter's girlfriend, Minka Kelly was just another pretty face, but her strong portrayal of a young woman caught in a cycle of drugs, violence and sexual exploitation catches all the nuances of what could have been a paper-thin character. Too bad the rest of the film (despite solid acting by Noah Wyle, Jeremy Irvine and Adelaide Clemens) isn't up to her forceful portrayal, instead getting bogged down by back-country in-fighting and Civil War memories that make this downbeat melodrama meander for two hours. There's an excellent hi-def transfer.

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