Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
One of the most annoying of recent Oscar-winning Best Pictures comprises Emmanuel Lubezki's relentlessly mobile Oscar-winning photography, scenery-chewing performers delivering moronic dialogue dreamed up by four Oscar-winning writers and Alejandro G. Inarritu's  too-clever but Oscar-winning directing, which add up to a headache-inducing cartoon about acting, show biz and (mostly) whatnot. As Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and others ham mercilessly, Amy Ryan scores by her relative restraint, while the caricatured critic (played with notable embarrassment by poor Lindsay Duncan) is only part of the movie's ludicrous treatment of Broadway theater. So much is nonsensical—like a final sequence featuring a hospital window a few floors up which a patient can open and climb out of—that this should be called Birdbrain. It does look alluring on Blu-ray; extras include an Inarritu and Keaton interview and a 30-minute making-of featurette.

The Connection 
In the Land of the Head Hunters 
These releases continue Milestone's remarkable streak of restoring forgotten classics. Independent-film trailblazer Shirley Clarke's 1961 feature The Connection finds drama in a group of addicts and jazz musicians who populate a dilapidated New York apartment and who talk and riff for an arrogant documentary filmmaker while waiting for their drug connection to arrive.

An even more vital restoration, In the Land of Head Hunters, is famed photographer Edward S. Curtis' 1914 foray into feature filmmaking, and its immersion in the world of Native Americans before white settlers arrived is far more than a mere historic document. The spectacular restorations of both films look great in hi-def; Connection extras include interviews and featurettes, and Land extras include a 1973 version of the film, audio commentary, and film reconstruction and making-of featurettes.

Far from the Madding Crowd 
(Warner Archive)
In this beautifully shot 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's epic novel, director John Schelesinger goes the David Lean route by following the plot faithfully (courtesy Frederic Raphael's literate script) and having attractive performers in the leads, as Julie Christie's Bathsheba plays with the men in her life, played by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. But Schlesinger errs in substituting gigantism for subtlety. Freddie Francis' exquisitely wrought camerawork and Richard Rodney Bennett's varied musical score are also undeniable assets. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; lone extra is a vintage 10-minute on-set featurette.

Fellini Satyricon 
Federico Fellini's free-wheeling, flagrantly unfaithful 1969 adaptation of Petronius' memoir of Rome is the epitome of the adjective "Felliniesque": the freaks and grotesques that populate this world are less ancient Roman denizens and more Fellini's own fantastical creations. Of course, this stunning-looking film has extraordinary photography, sets and costumes, but the superimposition of Fellini onto the material makes it most memorable. The Criterion Blu-ray transfer is immaculate; extras include a commentary, behind-the-scenes diary, hour-long on-set documentary Ciao Federico!, archival Fellini interviews, new interview with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and new featurettes about the adaptation and famous on-set photographs.

Horrible Bosses 2 
The first Horrible Bosses was mostly mediocre, a fitful comedy with few laughs; but the sequel emphasizes the first word of its title to stultifying effect, especially when allowing Charlie Day and Jason Sudekis—neither remotely funny here—to dominate the asinine proceedings. If you want to hear Jennifer Aniston curse like a sailor, this might be your best chance, but even that isn't enough to save a movie that (aside from Kevin Spacey's hilarious cameo) is dead on arrival, whether in the 105-minute original or even deadlier 115-minute extended cut. The Blu-ray looks fine; extras comprise several featurettes.

Der Rosenkavalier 
(C Major)
Richard Strauss's magnificent 1911 opera is many things: a lament for the middle-aged Marschallin, who loses her young lover Octavian; a romance of young love between Octavian and sweet Sophie; and a farce about foolish middle-aged von Ochs, Sophie's erstwhile suitor. The music is gloriously melodic, as always with Strauss, and the characters are expertly etched by his best librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthall. Last summer's Salzburg Festival staging (by Harry Kupfer) keeps liberties to a minimum and has the characters front and center, with superlative musical portrayals by Krassimira Stoyanova (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian) and a meltingly lovely Mojca Erdmann (Sophie); Franz Welser-Most conducts a sympathetic account of Strauss' music. The Blu-ray video and audio are first-rate.  

Stray Dogs 
(Cinema Guild)
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's slow-moving films are not everyone's cup of tea, although many reviewers swear by his impossibly long, static takes that delve into people's interior lives: still, those shots can go too far, making us wonder whether shots of seven or eight minutes can convey just as much in half that time. This drama about a single father in Taipei struggling to raise his children is his latest contemplative examination, highlighted by several astoundingly long takes, especially the final two shots, which run twelve and seven minutes repectively; aside from making us marvel at his actors' ability to do little for so long, they don't really add anything of substance. The hi-def transfer is stunning; extras are Tsai's 55-minute film Journey to the West (also in HD) and his 70-minute master class at Paris's Cinematheque Francaise.

DVDs of the Week
Above Suspicion—Complete Collection 
The offbeat (not entirely sexual nor entirely platonic) chemistrty of Kelly Reilly and Ciarin Hinds as a newish detective and her hard-bitten boss is delicious to watch in this well-scripted, superbly-acted series of taut mysteries that, unfortunately, ran its course after four television films, all included in this boxed set. Here's hoping that someday there's a follow-up feature film—or another series—with these two fascinating characters....and performers. Extras comprise behind the scenes featurettes and interviews.

What begins as a familiar but stylish haunted house movie set in misty Yorkshire soon becomes a lumbering "dad goes crazy" flick that recalls and—as discordant music swells on the soundtrack—downright steals from The Shining. Matthew Modine (who was in Kubrick's Shining follow-up, Full Metal Jacket) plays the father with an obviously crazed glint in his eye while, sadly, Olivia Williams—a resourceful actress whose roles rarely suit her talents—is little more than a screamer here, like Shelley Duvall in (of course) The Shining. Writer-director Nick Willing's cheat of an ambiguous ending shows his desperation.

August Wilson—The Ground on Which I Stand
Shakespeare Uncovered—Series 2 
The revealing American Masters episode, August Wilson—The Ground on Which I Stand, chronicles the career (which ended far too early upon his death in 2005 at age 60) of the trailblazing playwright, whose singular 10-play cycle encompassed the 20th century black experience in America.

In the second series of the entertaining, informative Shakespeare Uncovered, six actors each analyze one of the Bard's classic plays: Joseph Fiennes (Romeo and Juliet), David Harewood (Othello), Hugh Bonneville (A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Morgan Freeman (The Taming of the Shrew) provide enjoyable hours, but best are Kim Cattrall's look at Antony and Cleopatra and Christopher Plummer's illuminating overview of the most despairing of Shakespeare's masterpieces, King Lear. Wilson extras include additional segments.

Star 80 
(Warner Archive)
Bob Fosse's unlikeable 1983 masterpiece, which tells the depressing, sordid story of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten and her discoverer, slimy Paul Snider, is Fosse's own cautionary morality tale of the seamiest side of show business, as the director artfully rubs our noses in watching how Snider got Stratten her big break, only to rage against her when she finally outgrows his low-class ways, finally killing her, then himself, in 1980, when she was 20 and on the cusp of stardom. That Eric Roberts pretty much repeated his performance as Snider for much of his career doesn't make it any less poweful, while Mariel Hemingway makes a sweetly naive Dorothy. It's too bad that Warner Archive released Star 80 without any restoration, compromising Sven Nykvist's dark, moody cinematography; this classic deserves a Blu-ray with contextualizing extras, which we probably won't get any time soon.

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