Tuesday, September 15, 2015

September '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Aquarius—Complete 1st Season 
(Anchor Bay)
Set in Los Angeles during the summer of love, 1967, this 13-episode procedural follows Sam Hodiak, a veteran homicide detective whose own investigations lead him to run-ins with a new, bizarre cult led by a charismatic failed singer-songwriter named Charles Manson. This is one of those high-concept series whose ideas often outpace what's actually accomplished, but knowing about the grisly murders still to come allows viewers to stamp these mysterious goings-on with a greater importance. The era is nicely evoked, even if David Duchovny's Hodiak is more X Files than Helter Skelter. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are webisodes and a brief featurette.

Arthur & George 
When author Arthur Conan Doyle—the mastermind behind Sherlock Holmes—starts digging into an actual unsolved crime instead of conjuring fictional exploits for his own sleuthing hero, he teams with his own Dr. Watson—his private secretary Alfred Wood—for assistance as he utilizes what he knows from his creation to discover the elusive truth. This three-part British mini-series, although it stretches its plot a bit thin to for 2-1/2 hours, is good fun; Martin Clunes, as a credible Doyle, leads us through an entertaining thriller. The Blu-ray image looks excellent.

The Beast
Immoral Tales 
For a brief period in the '70s, Polish director Walerian Borowczyk's pseudo-pornographic meanderings enjoyed a certain cultish vogue on the festival and art house circuit, but Arrow's (admittedly splendid) new Blu-ray releases of his oeuvre shows him to be a pretentious poseur whose work leave a lot to be desired visually, dramatically, erotically and artistically. 1974's Immoral Tales and 1975's The Beast (the latter based on one of the five shorts making up the former) might titillate unfinicky viewers, but despite the many defenses of Borowczyk's filmmaking in the extras—including reminiscences from colleagues and explanations from critics—neither of these films is remotely memorable, not even their most “controversial” aspects. Both films have gotten beautiful hi-def restorations.

(Film Movement Classics)
For her 1989 biographical drama about St. Francis of Assisi, director Liliana Cavani shot on the actual locations where the 13th century saint lived, preached and died, but all of that goes by the wayside because of two fatal errors: Mickey Rourke and Vangelis. Rourke, although he looks the part, ruins the saint’s humble bearing and teachings whenever he opens his mouth to blurt out wise and familiar sayings in his unmistakably late 20th century voice, while Vangelis' anachronistic synthesized sounds are smeared over much of this slow film's 133 minutes. Helena Bonham Carter's nicely understated portrayal of Francis’s disciple Chiara and a supporting cast of authentic-looking unknowns can’t help Francesco from dying a slow death, with or without stigmata. The film looks good and grainy on Blu; lone extra is Cannes Film Festival press conference.

Homeland—Complete 4th Season
In the fourth season of this impressively single-minded terrorist drama series, the new world disorder created by Sept. 11 now finds Carrie as the new CIA station chief, who is preoccupied with hunting down one of the worst of the world's many bad guys. The high-powered cast, led by Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin and Laila Robins, combined with shrewdly-paced moments of nail-biting tension, makes this the series' best season yet. The series looks awesome on Blu; extras are deleted scenes, character profiles and "From Script to Screen" featurettes.

Love & Mercy 
In Bill Pohlad's absorbing biopic about Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, Paul Dano and John Cusack alternate playing the musician during his 60s heyday (Dano) and his 80s period of isolation and mental illness (Cusack): the gimmick works perfectly because they are, in essence, two different men dealing with specific problems at specific times. Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner's incisive script provides the narrative backbone for this honest exploration of art, love, loneliness and healing, with a fabulous Elizabeth Banks providing the emotional center as the woman who rescued Wilson from the diabolical psychiatrist who inserted himself into his life, Dr. Landy (played with a touch of caricature by Paul Giamatti). The film looks wonderful on Blu; extras comprise deleted scenes, Pohlad and Moverman's commentary and featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Breach 
(Kino Lorber)
Alaska's Bristol Bay was the last of the big runs for billions of salmon, so when their population began plummeting, fisherman and filmmaker Mark Titus wanted to find out why: the answer isn't simple, and his absorbing documentary lays out the reasons why humans have done so much—sometimes inadvertently, more often deliberately—to destroy the salmon's natural environment. Although there are annoying bits where the fish “speak” for themselves, such pretentious narration is a minor fault in a film this immediate and important. Extras include time-lapse and aerial footage.

Love at First Fight 
(Strand Releasing)
In Thomas Cailley's engaging romantic comedy, Madeleine and Arnaud meet cute in an army boot camp, then cement their relationship as they realize that the camp is far more punishing than they could have imagined. What could have been cloying and one-note is instead a richly detailed character study, as Cailley shows a real empathy for his characters, who are embodied by the exceptionally appealing lead performers, Kevin Azais and Adele Haenel.

The Returned 
This Americanization of the eerie French TV series Les Revenauts about several people—long thought dead—who return to a small town and its confused denizens is long on style and atmosphere but short on substantive characterization and compelling drama. With its lack of plausible interaction among characters—even those memorably etched by Sandrine Holt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the gifted but grievously little-seen Agnes Bruckner—the series seems like a weak Twilight Zone riff that doesn't justify 10 episodes' worth of supernatural melodrama. Extras are episode summaries and a brief featurette.

The Seven Five 
In the crime- and drug-ridden East New York section of Brooklyn in the 1980s, a gallery of rogue cops led by Michael Dowd skimmed so much drug money off the top that they became that infamous era's most notorious gangsters; Tiller Russell's documentary pointedly explores how they were lured by the promise of easy money to supplement a meager weekly paycheck. An unrepentant Dowd (who served 12 years) talks unashamedly, even eagerly, about his exploits, and the men who served with him—both those who joined in and those who didn’t—discuss their part in the case, which still amazes with its unsettling details and brazen illicit activities by those supposedly on the right side of the law.

Soaked in Bleach 
When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, there were suspicions that it wasn't a suicide, and a veritable cottage industry sprang up of those who believe that his wife Courtney Love was somehow involved. That was the premise of Nick Broomfield's supremely skeptical 1997 documentary Kurt and Courtney, and that's also where Benjamin Statler, director of this speculative hybrid of docudrama and documentary, stands. Interviews with Seattle cops, forensics experts, Cobain's friends and private eye Tom Grant—whom Love hired to find her husband days before his death—are interspersed with reenacted sequences featuring an incredible Love lookalike Sarah Scott (we also hear Grant's actual recordings of Love's voice), providing a tantalizing "what-if" about one of rock history's seminal demises.

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