Tuesday, July 7, 2015

July '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Merchants of Doubt 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Following his breakthrough documentary Food Inc., an expose of the food industry, director Robert Kenner tackles an infinitely larger problem for our democracy and our world: the spin doctors who have, against all odds (and available evidence), produced skepticism among the public about scientifically settled subjects like climate change. Some of them gleefully discuss how they fool people (including themselves): there is no fear of accountability for such despicable sleight of hand, as the political points scored are too important. The movie looks fine on Blu; extras comprise Kenner's commentary. Toronto Film fest Q&A and deleted scenes.

The Flying Dutchman 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
The Metropolitan Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello—an opera which nearly matches Shakespeare's original—has been around for years but gets the dramatic job done, as does Renee Fleming's beautifully sung Desdemona: her rendition of the final "Ave Maria" is as prayerful as it is touching. Johan Botha's Otello is too broad, but Falk Struckmann's feverish Iago is the ultimate in villainy. In his abortive Zurich staging of Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, director Andreas Homoki sets the ship's action in a corporate boardroom, which may be modern but which illuminates nothing; at least Bryn Terfel in the title role and Anja Kampe as the heroine Senta give glorious performances that allow one to appreciate the musical side. Both operas look and sound excellent on Blu-ray; Otello extras include interviews.

Pit Stop
Spider Baby 
(Arrow USA)
Director Jack Hill made sloppy, low-budget genre pictures that have become cult films, like 1969's Pit Stop, a straightforward if undistinguished action flick about figure-eight racing that's notable mainly for an early appearance by who would later become Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn. 1968's Spider Baby is another beast entirely: this amateurish drama about a demented family is weird enough to stay interesting, kind of like a car crash that draws gawking rubberneckers. Both films have been nicely restored on hi-def; extras include commentaries, interviews and featurettes.

Poldark—Complete 1st Season 
In this new adaptation of the series of novels by Winston Graham about a man who returns home to England after fighting in the American Revolution, only to find his sweetheart betrothed to another man, Aidan Turner makes a smoldering Ross Poldark and Eleanor Tomlinson a sultry Demelza, the wild young woman he brings to his home as a servant and, later, his wife. This eight-part, eight-hour mini-series was shot on visually spectacular Cornwall locations, but fast-paced storytelling and good acting make it soar. The Blu-ray looks fantastic; extras comprise interviews, featurettes and commentary on the first episode.

Although director Susanne Bier's melodramatic instincts overwhelm her serviceable material (the relationship between a timber baron and his independent young wife in Depression-era North Carolina), this isn't the fiasco that some critics have made it out to be. If Bradley Cooper is little more than a one-dimensional pretty boy as the husband, Jennifer Lawrence again gives a fiercely committed, honest portrayal that compels one to keep watching even when her director, co-star and scriptwriter (Christopher Kyle) let her down. The film's photography (by Morten Soborg) glistens in hi-def; extras comprise deleted scenes and featurettes.

While We're Young 
This, yet another Noah Baumbach picture whose biggest frame of reference is other movies—and so has little of substance in its characters and their relationships—steals brazenly from Woody Allen's far superior Crimes and Misdemeanors (among other films) with a hackneyed generation-gap plot about a floundering documentary maker dealing with sundry professional and personal crises. Baumbach tries having it both ways by simultaneously laughing at and with his own characters, regardless of age, but he doesn't have the finesse to pull it off; and any movie that makes Charles Grodin dull and unfunny is in trouble from the get-go. The film does look good on Blu; extras are behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Woman in Gold 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co.)
The true story of Gustav Klimt's painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer (now at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan), which was stolen by the Nazis, and how her elderly niece Maria Altmann sued the Austrian government for its return is routinely dramatized by director Simon Curtis, who has a solid anchor in Helen Mirren's trenchant portrayal of Maria. Although Ryan Reynolds shows little charm or intelligence as her American lawyer, Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is as superb as Mirren as the younger Maria. At least Curtis doesn't condescend, as his Germans and Austrians are allowed to speak their language instead of heavily accented English. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras comprise Curtis's commentary, making-of featurette and Neue Galerie press conference.

DVDs of the Week
First Peoples 
This fascinating multi-part series examines our common ancestry by exploring where the first people to roam the planet came from, where they migrated to and how much of their DNA can still be found in our own, tens of thousands of years later. The five one-hour episodes of First Peoples—set in the relevant areas of Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and the Americas—comprise interviews with and discoveries by archeologists and genetic experts to enlighten viewers about ongoing explorations of our ancient, and current, history.

Human Capital 
(Film Movement)
Director-cowriter Paolo Virzi’s probing drama about the global economy after the stock market collapse zeroes in on a dysfunctional family whose teenage son is accused of hitting a man while drunk driving. Virzi juggles his story's strands effectively and the acting is estimable: although Valerie Bruni Tedeschi’s fine but unexceptional performance as the boy’s mother has gotten plaudits, they rightfully should go instead to Matilde Guidi’s lancingly truthful portrait of a friend of the son who holds his fate in her hands. Extras are a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, music video and a German short film, Job Interview.

Pantani—The Accidental Death of a Cyclist 
Italian cycling champion Marco Pantani—lone winner of both the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia races in the same year (1998)—was part of a doping scandal on the heels of his return to racing following a near-fatal accident; then, in 2004, his lifeless body was found in a hotel room, victim of a drug overdose. How did this champion athlete and celebrity end up dead at age 34? This documentary, directed by James Erskine, features emotional interviews with family, friends and competitors, along with archival footage of international news coverage and of Pantani himself to create a sympathetic but still-relevant cautionary tale. 

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