Tuesday, June 23, 2015

June '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Beyond the Reach 
The premise of Jean-Baptiste Leonetti's singleminded thriller—after ultra-rich businessman (Michael Douglas) inadvertently kills a local man while hunting, his guide (Jeremy Irvine) refuses to go along with the cover story and ends up being chased down in the desert—is stretched thin even with its scant 90-minute running time. Douglas relishes playing such an odious character, while Irvine flexes his biceps throughout; the cat-and-mouse action is diverting enough, if unmemorable. The movie looks good on Blu-ray, and the extras are a Douglas/Leonetti commentary and a making-of featurette.

The Cat Returns 
Spirited Away 
The magical Studio Ghibli animation stable continues re-releasing its innovative and visual inventive films on wonderful hi-def discs. 2002's The Cat Returns is a charming tale of a young girl who enters a feline world after saving a cat prince from certain death, but 2001's Spirited Away—one of Hayao Miyazaki's best—is another beast entirely. Concerning a young girl (again) whose parents become pigs, it's a breathtaking phantasmagoria about a fantastic, forbidding but enticing world that only Miyazaki could have imagined. Both Blu-rays look exquisite; extras from the original DVD releases are included.

The Fisher King 
Terry Gilliam's 1991 fantasy is, despite the bravura lunacy going on around his main characters, his most heartfelt film: the sympathetic portrayals by Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges and Mercedes Ruehl (who won a deserved Oscar) keeps the drama earthbound and intelligible even when Richard LaGravenese's script threatens to go off the rails. Gilliam's dazzling direction juggles the bizarre fantastical stuff and the humanity underneath in a way unequalled in his other films, while his outlandish visuals look spectacular on Criterion's new hi-def transfer; extras feature Gilliam's commentary; new interviews with Gilliam, LaGravenese, Bridges, Ruehl and Amanda Plummer; 2006 Williams interview; and deleted scenes with Gilliam commentary.

The Lazarus Effect 
In a university lab, as a pair of married scientists and their assistants work on re-animating dead animals, the husband's beloved partner is accidentally electrocuted...so he forces the reluctant assistants to bring her back to life. There are consequences, obviously, when she returns: the lab itself becomes a place where death is inevitable. A serviceable premise leads to a guilty-pleasure horror flick, an 80-minute Twilight Zone ripoff that hits on familiar, and cheap, scare tactics. The always dull Mark Duplass plays the husband; the always lively Olivia Wilde plays the wife. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras are featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.

The Sunshine Boys 
(Warner Archive)
George Burns won the 1975 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a retired vaudevillian making a last attempt at performing with his ex-partner, played by Walter Matthau; I don't know if it's the tired material, Neil Simon's scattershot script or Herbert Ross's stilted directing, but neither Burns nor Matthau are very interesting in this frenetic, trite and mean-spirited look at show biz friendship/hateship. Richard Benjamin, who gives the movie's most fully realized performance as Matthau's exasperated nephew-agent, also provides a commentary full of fond reminiscing about the movie, which looks OK on Blu. Other extras are screen tests and an MGM featurette.

(Cohen Film Collection)
Abderrahmane Sissako's daring, even startling study of how terrorism affects everyday life is set in the eponymous African city, where ordinary people go about their business despite being harassed by local Muslim fanatics who want the world to revolve around their seventh-century vision of their religion. Sissako's film, despite its pessimistic premise, is filled with humor and humanity, especially in his depictions of women, seen as far more hardy than the men on either side of the conflict. The movie looks gorgeous in hi-def; lone extra is a half-hour New York Film Festival press conference. 

Welcome to Me 
Kristen Wiig plays another of her troubled characters in Shira Piven's offbeat black comedy about a woman who wins the lottery, goes off her meds and transforms herself into her own version of Oprah, who does the most outrageous things in front of live and TV audiences. While the one-joke plot doesn't leave much wiggle room for three-dimensional characterizations, Wiig gives her usual intense performance, although a touch of the smugness has crept into her acting since leaving SNL. The Blu-ray looks decent; lone extra is a making of featurette.

(Warner Archive)
This patently ludcrous 1981 horror film about—I kid you not—Native Americans who turn into supernatural wolves and tear apart unsuspecting victims in New York City is not the finest hour for anyone involved. Director Michael Wadleigh, who made Woodstock, shows a less than sure touch; Albert Finney, Gregory Hines and Diane Venora look embarrassed to be involved; and Manhattan itself, whose locations are utilized extensively, shows off plenty of awe-inspiring shots of the late, lamented World Trade Center, courtesy of cinematographer Gerry Fisher, also responsible for the risible thermo-night photography that's supposed to be the creatures' POV. The movie looks surprisingly good, and grainy, on Blu-ray.

DVDs of the Week
Manuel de Falla—When the Fire Burns/Nights in the Garden of Spain 
Barbara Hannigan—Concert/Documentary 
These DVD releases pair musician portraits and concert performances. Manuel de Falla—When the Fire Burns features an emotional overview of the life and art of Spain's greatest 20th century composer, who died in Argentina in 1946 (he left home when Franco's fascist regime took over); there's a scintillating performance of his masterpiece Nights in the Garden of Spain with pianist Alicia de Larrocha as soloist. Barbara Hannigan—Concert/Documentary introduces the tremendously talented Canadian soprano whose specialty is fiendishly difficult modern music; the 51-minute documentary shows a versatile singer branching out into conducting, while the 71-minute 2014 concert—in which she conducts and sings Mozart and Ligeti, whose stratospheric Mysteries of the Macabre is a Hannigan calling card—rounds out a thoughtful glimpse at a brilliant artist. 

Me Without You 
(First Run)
Thrilling performances by Michelle Williams and Anna Friel as opposites who become long-time friends, then drift apart over the years, dominate Sandra Goldbacher's engaging and lively 2001 comedy-drama. Although tied down by melodramatic subplots involving families and romantic relationships, Williams' mousy Holly and Friel as the gregarious Marina make this a intimate journey through the lives of two ordinary but extraordinary women.

Roman de Gare 
(First Run)
Claude Lelouch, whose career pretty much consisted of A Man and a Woman in 1966, made this quirkily involving mystery in 2006, when he attempted a comeback against all odds: he made the movie using a pseudonym so no one would know it was he. Despite an accomplished cast headed by Fanny Ardant, Dominique Pinon and Audrey Dana, Lelouch and co-writer Pierre Uytterhoeven twist themselves into pretzels making their jumbled storyline about a famous writer, her ghost writer and an escaped serial killer into something meaningful. It remains interesting, but its varied strands start to unravel as it goes along.

That Show with Joan Rivers 
(Film Chest)
In the late '60s when she was still a promising young comedienne, Joan Rivers hosted her own talk show on the local NBC affiliate in New York, and 29 episodes from the first season in 1968-9 are included on four discs; they show an already formidable comedic force with scathing observations about everything from marriage to being a young Jewish woman in New York. Her guest list is also quite impressive, ranging from Ed Sullivan and Barbara Walters to James Earl Jones and even Johnny Carson, her long-time friend who was her biggest booster then quickly turned to stone whenever her name was mentioned. 

CDs of the Week
Keith Jarrett—Barber/Bartok Concertos 
Creation (ECM)
Composer-pianist Keith Jarrett, who recently turned 70, has straddled the classical and jazz worlds for decades, shown by two new CDs that bring together some of his live recordings from the mid '80s and from last year. On the classical disc, he  performs 20th century concerto masterworks by Barber and Bartok in concerts from 1984 and 1985, along with his own brief improvised encore, with enthusiasm and discipline. On Creation, nine of his own improvisational solo pieces—performed at different concerts in 2014 and sequenced on the disc to mimic a large-scale work—unfortunately sound half-baked, without much variety despite the obvious virtuosity that Jarrett brings to his playing.

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