Tuesday, March 10, 2015

March '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Believe Me 
(Virgil Films)
This labored comedy about hypocrisy and faith follows a desperate college student who bilks many easily fooled churchgoers out of their money by donating to his phony charity, with all of the spoils helping to pay for his large tuition bill. It's all predictable (and harmless) enough, but its attempts at inspirational drama grate quickly; in a game cast, Johanna Braddy shines as the romantic interest who just may derail his plan. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are outtakes and deleted scenes.

La Bete et la Belle 
(Opus Arte)
I never would have thought that the powerful but highly idiosyncratic music of Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti (who died in 2006) would work for dance, but this highly original ballet by director-choreographer Kader Belarni has proven me wrong. Although there's also Ravel and Haydn fragments, Ligeti's rhythmically haunting pieces are the perfect soundscape for this bizarrely brilliant variation on Beauty and the Beast, with phenomenal dancing. Both the Blu-ray video and audio are excellent.

This mild would-be thriller concerns a teenage girl who, while mourning her dead mother, is slow to notice that the Manhattan prep school she just started attending features bizarre student suicides and unnaturally attractive (and young) teachers. Meanwhile, the irresistible school nurse has wormed her way into her dad's confidence, and she's nothing like what she seems (duh). This scattershot movie probably won't even pass muster with its target audience of teenage girls, but the always fascinating Kelly Reilly (as the nurse) provides a reason for others to watch. The movie's hi-def transfer is excellent. 

Late Phases: Night of the Lone Wolf 
(Dark Sky)
In this standard-issue werewolf flick, our hero—living in a senior-citizen complex—is also blind: part of the supposed fun is that, despite not seeing anything, he has to fight off nasty creatures pretty much by himself. While it is as dopey as it sounds, Nick Damici gives a heroic portrayal of a man hellbent to survive despite his handicaps, and there are trite in-jokes as former TV and movie sexpots Tina Louise and Karen Lynn Gorney appear as geriatrics. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras comprise a director's commentary and featurettes.

The Liberator 
(Cohen Media)
Cramming just highlights of South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar's eventful if tragically short life is something even a two-hour film can't do with precision, and that's the main failing of an otherwise exciting biopic by director Alberto Arvalo, which features Edgar Ramirez's powerful portrayal of Bolivar as man and myth. With a rousing musical score by Venezuelan composer-conductor Gustavo Dumadel, Arvalo's film might be a Cliffs Notes epic, but it's splendidly realized nonetheless. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras comprise a Dumadel intro and an in-depth making-of featurette.

Life of Riley 
(Kino Lorber)
For his final film, master director Alain Resnais—who died last March at age 91—unveils another puckishly illuminating adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play (after Smoking, No Smoking; and Coeurs): it's amazing how well the sensibilities of the French filmmaker and British playwright mesh. In his version of Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy of manners about three couples' adulterous travails, Resnais uses comic-strip backdrops, stylized sets and exaggerated performances (including regulars like his wife Sabine Azema and Andre Dussolier, both too old for their characters) for his lovely last valentine to art and humanity. The Blu-ray transfer is superb; extras are cast interviews.

Life Partners 
The usually sunny Leighton Meester stars in this bumpy but watchable exploration of BFFs whose relationship is put to the test by each's straight and gay romantic trysts. The always delightful Meester doesn't rely solely on her natural charm as a psychologically and sexually messed-up 30-year-old; as her closest friend, Gillian Jacobs does a fine job with an even more contradictory character in an interesting but inessential rom-com about more self-absorbed young people. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras behind the scenes featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Low Down 
In this scathing, honest adaptation of Amy-Jo Albany's memoir, Elle Fanning and John Hawkes give bruising and brilliant performances as teenage Amy-Jo and her drug-addicted but talented jazz musician father, Joe Albany. Set in 1974 Los Angeles, Jeff Preiss's film, while not entirely depressing, unblinkingly features suicide, drug taking, mental and physical abuse, etc.; Fanning and Hawkes (along with Glenn Close, Leda Headey and Flea in small roles) make it worth spending two hours on. Extras are a director's commentary, Amy-Jo Albany interview, on-set featurette.

Outlander—Season One, Volume One
The Red Tent 
Outlander, the Starz network's new time-traveling series, opens its first season with genuine tension as WWII British combat nurse Claire Randall is suddently transported back two centuries to a Scotland embattled by raging war; in the lead role is the skillful Caitriona Balfe. The overlong but absorbing TV film The Red Tent stars Minnie Driver, Morena Beccarin, Debra Winger and Rebecca Ferguson in a sumptuous Old Testament drama based on a novel that tells the story of Jacob's daughter Dinah. Outlander extras include featurettes.

The Pet 
(Breaking Glass)
In the wake of 50 Shades of Grey, any movie with a sexual angle is getting a push, like this nominally provocative but crudely amateurish drama by director D. Stevens, who labors under the delusion that showing well-heeled men keeping submissive women in cages and on leashes is some kind of insightful comment on our sexual culture. Too bad there's so much wrong, like cliched writing and directing, inept acting and no inadvertent comedy to alleviate the dullness. The lone extra is a director interview.

The Story of Women in Art 
Understanding Art: Baroque & Rococo 
These art history documentaries, made for British TV, feature many unknown or overlooked artists alongside the Rembrandts and Vermeers of the world. Amanda Vickery's The Story of Women in Art gives a diverting overview of female artists through the centuries, from the great Italian Artemisia Gentileschi to French Impressionist Berthe Morisot and American modernist Georgia O'Keeffe. Waldemar Januszczak treks across much of Europe in his terrifically entertaining Understanding Art guide, exploring generations of artistic innovations from the likes of sculptor Bernini and painter Tiepolo. Januszczak's hour-long documentary about forgotten 17th century British painter William Dobson is the lone extra.

Watchers of the Sky 
(Music Box)
Edet Belzberg's compelling, heartbreaking documentary centers around Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term 'genocide' and whose intensely moral compass still guides those seeking justice against perpetrators of mass atrocities in Bosnia and Darfur at the international court in The Hague, Holland. Based on Samantha Power's award-winning book A Problem from Hell (Power is also featured in the film),  Belzberg's film is a worthy examination of the ongoing fight to put recognizably human faces on extraordinary evil. Extras include additional interviews and scenes.

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