Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Beyond the Lights 
In her long-awaited followup to 2008's The Secret Life of Bees (her only previous feature was 2000's affecting Love and Basketball), writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood has made a melodramatic but involving film about an up-and-coming star singer and the bodyguard with whom she falls in love. Memories of Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston notwithstanding, Prince-Bythewood explores this familiar tale with sensitivity, and there's a star-making performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw—even better here than in her breakthrough, Belle—as the budding superstar. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras comprise a commentary, music video, featurettes and deleted scenes with commentary.

The Captive 
Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan returns with this stylish but hackneyed drama about how the disappearance of a young girl affects her parents' relationship, as well as those in law enforcement and those behind her abduction. As usual, Egoyan's pretentiousness gets in the way: convoluted plotting, wedded to inapposite allusions to Mozart's Queen of the Night (the movie's original title), detracts from the tense goings-on. The Blu-ray transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise Egoyan's commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending and featurette.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—10th Anniversary 
Tim Burton's 2005 adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book won't usurp the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka from classic status, yet Burton's treatment of the material—whimsical but dark, with a bizarrely fey Johnny Depp as the opposite of Wilder's charming Wonka—is perfectly attuned to his usual sensibility. In fact, this was Burton's last fully-realized work until the recent Big Eyes finally approached his best earlier films, Ed Wood and Big Fish. The hi-def transfer is transfixing; extras include Burton's commentary, an "in-movie" experience and featurettes.

The Humbling 
This erratic adaptation of Philip Roth's choppy 2009 short novel is worth recommending for the fine supporting performances of Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin and Dylan Baker, but it is otherwise hamstrung by its two leads. Greta Gerwig plays the lesbian who becomes the lover of a washed-up actor, played by Al Pacino; although theirs is an intriguing chemistry, they otherwise do little with their roles, and for this (as well as the cop-out ending in Buck Henry and Michal Zebede's script) we must blame director Barry Levinson, who doesn't do much to make Roth's story more compelling. The hi-def transfer is good; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Kiss Me Kate 3D 
Cole Porter's classic song-filled riff on The Taming of the Shrew became George Sidney's colorful backstage 1953 movie musical, with outstanding performances by Ann Miller, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson—and a spectacular assist by a young dancer/choreographer named Bob Fosse. If the Shakespearean allusions remain creaky, they are happily overshadowed by great Porter tunes like "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and "I Hate Men." The Blu-ray transfer shows off a terrific restoration in both 2D and 3D; extras are Cole Porter in Hollywood: Too Darn Hot, hosted by Ann Miller; vintage short about Manhattan; and vintage cartoon.

Midsomer Murders—Set 25 
In the six 90-minute mysteries that make up this newest set of the popular Midsomer Murders, chief inspector John Barnaby is joined by new partner Charlie Nelson for a series of investigations into an array of killings throughout the local countryside and even abroad. The best episodes are The Christmas Haunting and Let Us Prey, both with a welcome gallows humor, and (the show's 100th episode) The Killings of Copenhagen, which for fans of the great Danish series Borgen has the delectable Birgitte Horjt Sorensen as a local detective. The Blu-ray transfer looks splendid; extras are featurettes and interviews.

New England Patriots—Super Bowl XLIX Champions 
In one of the most competitive and exciting Super Bowls yet, the New England Patriots captured their fourth NFL Championship with a nail-biting 28-24 win over defending champs Seattle Seahawks, helped by a controversial last-minute play call. This Blu-ray not only includes the game in sparkling HD, but also many extras for Patriots fans, including Media Day and post-game coverage, featurettes, and interviews with Coach Bill Belichick, Rob Gronkowski and MVP Tom Brady.

DVDs of the Week
The Better Angels 
(Anchor Bay)
Is A.J. Edwards merely a pseudonym for Terrence Malick (one of the film's producers)? If not, then Edwards has absorbed Malick's singular style—camerawork, editing, music, sights and sounds of nature—and put it to use to prop up his aimless chronicle of young Abraham Lincoln growing up on an Indiana farm. To be sure, there are discernible differences—this has been shot in immaculate B&W by Matthew J. Lloyd, and Edwards' scope doesn't reach Malick's grandiose heights—but, despite moments of beauty, it comes off as a second-rate imitation.

(First Run)
This tension-filled dramatization of a real hostage crisis—based on a pre-Sept. 11 kidnaping of a group of innocent tourists and foreign workers at a Philippine resort by Islamic separatists, or "freedom fighters"—is directed by Brillante Ma. Mendoza as a believable recreation of the excruciating everyday horrors of months in captivity in the wild. Although the always excellent Isabelle Huppert as a French social worker is this engrossing movie's obvious selling point, the entire cast of realistic unknowns provides the grounding that makes this an absorbing two hours.

The J. Geils Band—House Party 
(Eagle Rock)
Before hitting it big in the early '80s with playful hits like "Love Stinks" and "Centerfold," the J. Geils Band was playing R&B flavored tunes, both originals and covers, as this 1979 concert, shot for German television, shows. The group—Peter Wolf on vocals, J. Geils on guitar, Magic Dick on harmonica, Seth Justman on keyboards, Daniel Klein on bass and Stephen Bladd on drums—is in rip-roaring form on originals like the opener "Jus' Can't Stop Me" and covers like the closing "First I Look at the Purse." Also included is a CD of the same concert.  

Michael Collins 
(Warner Archive)
Liam Neeson's commanding portrait of the leader who began the road to Irish independence until his untimely (and mysterious) death at age 31 in 1922 is the intense center of Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic, a fluid, exciting drama on a dense, difficult subject. Great acting by Stephen Rea, Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman and Brendan Gleeson offsets Julia Roberts' unmagnetic presence (and wavering accent) as Collins' fiancee. Although this film needs a hi-def restoration, not least to appreciate Chris Menges' cinematography, the lone extra—an hour-long South Bank Show episode with Jordan being interviewed and experts discussing Collins' life—is illuminating.

Return to the Wild 
The tragic story of Chris McCandless, immortalized by the book and movie Into the Wild, has become modern mythology, his death also affecting many people personally, as this ultimately touching hour-long PBS documentary demonstrates. Chris's family members discuss their son or brother, and while the family is currently estranged—the children, including Chris, accused their father of physical abuse—both parents speak, along with his sisters, who also make the emotional trek to Alaska to visit the rusted-out bus where he met his end. 

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