Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Blind Woman's Curse
Massacre Gun 
(Arrow USA)
1970's Blind Woman's Curse, Teruo Ishii's colorfully choreographed bloodbath, follows dragon-tattooed female yakuzas being tailed by a vengeance-minded victim who skins their tattoos off their backs: it's as lunatic as it sounds, but its relentlessly fast pace keep it moving. Yasuharu Hasebe's 1967 Massacre Gun, about a mobster who retaliates after he is forced by his employers to execute his girlfriend, is crammed with poetically violent sequences and formidable widescreen B&W photography. Both films have been given striking new Blu-ray transfers; extras include an audio commentary on Curse and interviews on Gun.

Brokeback Mountain 
(Bel Air Classiques)
La Favorite 
(Opus Arte)
Already an Oscar-winning movie, Brokeback Mountain is now an opera, with a libretto by the original story's author, Annie Proulx, and music by composer Charles Wuorinen, whose blocks of unmelodic material aren't exactly tailor-made for this tale of two male sheep herders who fall in love, complicating their increasingly difficult home lives. Generous performances by Daniel Okulitch and Tom Randle, along with Heather Buck as one of their wives, made this sing pleasingly at its 2014 Madrid world premiere. Gaetano Donizetti's La Favorite, one of the Italian bel canto master's lesser-known operas, has been given a thoroughly impressive 2014 revival in Toulouse, France, starring American mezzo Kate Aldrich in a career-defining performance as the heroine Leonor. Both hi-def transfers and music are excellent; extras comprise backstage interviews.

Cancer—The Emperor of All Maladies 
Based on Siddhartha Mukherjee's encyclopedic book, this thoroughly involving three-part Ken Burns-produced mini-series is a simultaneously heartbreaking but heartening journey through centuries of medical, governmental and charitable attempts to attack the disease that humankind still cannot control. Director Barak Goodman's compiling of interviews, archival footage and an arresting history of the disease and our increasing knowledge of it makes for a riveting six hours; that Edward Herrmann died of brain cancer after completing his narration for the film is but one sadly illuminating back story. On Blu-ray,the film looks fine; extras are additional scenes.

Inherent Vice 
(Warner Bros)
Thomas Pynchon's rambling 2009 novel, nominally a detective yarn set in 1970, is all but unfilmable, with its countless asides and plentiful characters, and Paul Thomas Anderson's exquisitely wrought adaptation hasn't solved those basic problems (but who could?). A strand of a storyline keeps getting interrupted, just like the book, but in Anderson's hands, it's even more scattershot and jokey, despite strong performances by a mumbling Joaquin Phoenix and revelatory Catherine Waterston, whose leggy beauty and fierce intelligence overwhelm the film and its talented but erratic director. The movie's L.A. location shooting looks sumptuous on Blu-ray; extras are extremely brief featurettes/trailers. 

Last Days in Vietnam
Rory Kennedy's incisive, unforgettable documentary returns viewers to the final weeks in 1975 when a mere handful of United States military men and diplomatic envoys had to decide whom to help among their South Vietnamese allies as the enemy made its way unopposed to the capital Saigon. Using riveting first-hand accounts by those who were in Vietnam and those who were in Washington (including Henry Kissinger), new and archival interviews and stunning video footage and photographs, Kennedy sears an era already familiar to those who lived through it into our collective memory; included are the 100-minute theatrical release and two-hour PBS American Experience version, which is obviously preferable. The hi-def transfer is excellent.

Wolf Hall 
Based on Hilary Mantel's acclaimed novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, this absorbing six-hour mini-series chronicles one of history's great dramas: how Oliver Cromwell rose from obscurity to become King Henry VIII's closest confidante during scandals that centered on his marriages to wives Catherine of Algernon and her successor Anne Boleyn. Intelligently scripted by Peter Straughan, well-directed by Peter Kosminsky and splendidly acted by a large cast led by Mark Rylance (Cromwell), Damian Lewis (Henry) and Claire Foy (Anne), this straightforward but fascinating historical fiction could also serve as a documentary about its era. The Blu-ray transfer is terrifically detailed; extras comprise making-of featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Little Accidents 
(Anchor Bay)
A small-town mining accident that kills ten men leads to recriminations, threats of lawsuits and the death of the teenage son of the mine's manager and his wife, who ends up finding solace in the arms of the lone survivor of the disaster. If this all sounds too melodramatic to work, it is: writer-director Sara Colangelo never makes any of her film's relationships plausible, despite suitably authentic performances across the board, with Elizabeth Banks and Chloe Sevigny standouts as mothers dealing with the accident's fallout in differing ways. 

Xavier Dolan's passionate character study was shot in a nearly square aspect ratio for much of its length, presenting the clashing but loving relationship between a frustrated widow and her ADHD teenage troublemaker of a son as boxed-in and intimately as possible. Later, when the son celebrates freedom as the image "stretches" to a more familiar large-screen ratio, it's a gimmicky moment that summarizes this alternately insightful and maddeningly cliched drama, held together by a transcendent performance by Quebecois actress Anne Dorval in the title role.

Music Releases of the Week
The Ides of March—Last Band Standing: 
The Definitive 50 Year Anniversary Collection 
(Ides of March Records)
This boxed set by a mainly forgotten rock-pop-R&B band from Chicago with one smash hit to its credit (1970's "Vehicle") comprises four CDs with dozens of singles and album tracks, and a DVD that features a 2014 concert from last year that reunited the band at Chicago's House of Blues, along with interviews, vintage television footage from Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" among other shows and a video for the band's new tune "Last Band Standing." Guest musicians include Steve Cropper and Buddy Guy; the band's leader Jim Peterik went onto '80s fame with schlock-rockers Survivor, whose "Eye of the Tiger" and other hits are performed on the DVD concert, along with songs by .38 Special and Sammy Hagar that Peterik co-wrote.

Rush—A Farewell to Kings 
(Mercury Blu-ray Audio)
The 1977 followup to the Canadian progressive-rock trio's breakthrough 2112 consolidates their sound with epic tracks like the title cut, "Xanadu" and "Cygnus X-1," all-time audience favorite—and first Rush power ballad—"Closer to the Heart," and agreeable filler in the form of "Cinderella Man" and "Madrigal." The intricate instrumental interplay of drummer Neil Peart, bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson is wonderfully preserved on this Blu-ray Audio disc, whose remixing makes for an enveloping audio experience. 

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