Tuesday, April 7, 2015

April '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
In this slow but absorbing PBS Mystery series, small-town vicar Sidney Chambers (discovering that most people will talk to a priest) aids skeptically hard-nosed detective Geordie Keating in criminal investigations plaguing the countryside, and showing a seamier side of early 1950s rural England. In the leads, James Norton (Chambers) and Robson Green (Keating) have a pleasing rapport, while an expert supporting cast and well-honed scripts make these six hour-long episodes irresistible. The Blu-ray transfer is impeccable; extras include a making-of featurette, behind the scenes footage, cast interviews.

The Immigrant 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co.)
Is there nothing Marion Cotillard can't do? Sure, the French actress was Oscar-nominated for her amazing performance in Two Days, One Night (that she lost is another reason why the Oscars are a joke), but she should have also been nominated for her powerful portrayal of an early 20th century Polish immigrant who becomes a prostitute as she tries to survive in her new country. Writer-director James Gray's potent drama has shrill moments (mainly involving the cliched men in her life, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner), but whenever Cotillard is onscreen, bathed in the glow of Darius Khondji's luminous photography, it's magical. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are Gray's illuminating commentary and a brief feaurette.

Manh(a)ttan—Complete 1st Season 
This ambitious new series explores the lives of the scientists of the infamous Manhattan Project, who moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico with their families to create the atomic bomb and, by extension, all the moral and political fallout that came with it. Although at times it overreaches, the fine acting of John Benjamin Hickey as one of the lead scientists and Olivia Williams as his wife and the overriding theme of secrecy on the governmental and personal level, compensates. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are commentaries and featurettes.

Shania Twain—Still the One Live from Vegas 
(Eagle Rock)
For her return to performing—after an exile of eight years due to a vocal problem, during which she got divorced and remarried (to the ex of the woman whose affair with her husband prompted Twain's breakup)—the Canadian country-pop superstar did a residency in Las Vegas that was a 90-minute greatest hits show. Starring alongside Twain are her spectacular costumes and hairdos, dancers and backup singers, an elaborate stage set including a horse she rides in on, and a bunch of (mostly) bombastic hit tunes; still, it's the singer's ingratiating personality that helps it go down so smoothly. Hi-def visuals and audio are excellent; extra is an hour-long tour feature, directed by Twain's husband.

(Warner Bros)
Cameron Crowe's 1992 followup to his directorial debut Say Anything, which follows self-conscious 20-somethings looking for love in Seattle during the early '90s grunge scene, now plays like a time capsule of when grunge exploded: there are concert sequences of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and members of Pearl Jam, including lead singer Eddie Vedder, in supporting roles. Aside from its great soundtrack, Singles is notable for giving Bridget Fonda, one of the most natural and alluring Hollywood actresses ever, one of her best roles: where has she gone? The hi-def transfer looks quite good; extras include many deleted scenes, a gag reel and concert footage.

In Jean-Marc Vallee's middling adaptation of the awfully named Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her long wilderness trek after her mother's death, Reese Witherspoon gives an energetic but bland performance as a woman trying to set a new course in life after some soul-searching. Vallee, who made the far better Dallas Buyers Club, is unable to invest this film with the same kind of emotional immediacy, even with Thomas Sadoski as her ex and Laura Dern as her dying mom lending gravity that's otherwise lacking in Witherspoon's surface portrayal. The film looks great on Blu; extras are a commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Gunned Down—The Power of the NRA 
This hard-hitting episode of Frontline explores the history of the National Rifle Association, and how it morphed from a sportsman's club to a powerful Washington lobby, dead set against any gun control legislation, no matter how incremental. Led by the conscienceless Wayne Lapierre, the increasingly radical organization has become so intensely disengenuous in its public pronouncements and hypocritical in its arguments about the right to bear arms that there seems no way back to the conservative (in both senses) group it once was. 

If You Don't, I Will 
(Film Movement)
A long and stable marriage is put to the test when, during a hike in the woods, wife Pomme decides to stay while husband Pierre returns to their comfortable middle-class life; a week apart forces both to question their roles in a relationship that may or may not have run its course. Writer-director Sophie Fillieres and her extraordinary actors, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, have created a richly adult tale that, although it nearly loses its balance toward the end, is kept from tottering over the edge by sheer force of talent. Extras comprise director and actors' interviews.

Pelican Dreams 
In this gentle but wise documentary, director Judy Irving follows the journey of Gigi, a California brown pelican captured on the Golden Gate Bridge, as a jumping-off point to explore these magnificent creatures, which the director calls "flying dinosaurs" because of their link to ancient animals. The superb footage of the birds living in the natural habitat of the Channel Islands off the coast of California gives way to a touching denouement, when Gigi finally flies away back to nature. Extras are deleted scenes and mini-movies.

The Simon Wiesenthal Collection 
This invaluable 11-documentary boxed set, which provides a wide-ranging spectrum of Jewish history and the unavoidable shadow of the Holocaust, includes two excellent Oscar-winning Best Documentaries: 1982's Genocide and 1997's The Long Way Home. Even though all of the films are worthwhile, those most worth exploring are a trio of more recent films by director Richard Trank: 2007's I Have Never Forgotten You, about Nazi-hunter Wiesenthal himself; 2010's Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny, and 2013's The Prime Ministers, a history of the early years of the state of Israel.

Song One 
In writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland's syrupy romantic melodrama, Anne Hathaway plays Franny, the sister of Brooklyn musician Henry who sits at his bedside after he's seriously injured in an accident: she soon ends up falling for James Forester, the popular singer-songwriter who was Henry's idol. Though well-acted by Hathaway and Mary Steenburgen as her mother, the 88-minute movie bogs down with the same-sounding songs of Johnny Flynn, who plays the supposedly charismatic James without much conviction. Extras comprise deleted scenes and soundtrack featurette.

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