Wednesday, November 18, 2015

November '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Bat
A Bucket of Blood 
(The Film Detective)
In 1959’s The Bat, an especially disjointed horror movie about a faceless man (the actor has a stocking over his head) who terrorizes women, Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price help mitigate the fact that it’s forgettable in nearly every way. Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (also 1959), which follows a crazed artist whose bizarre and lethal new way of creating is exposed as murder, is so insane that even uniformly bad acting doesn't entirely bury it: the nutso premise helps keep it afloat for its brief 65-minute duration. The hi-def transfers are acceptable, nothing more.

Before We Go 
(Anchor Bay)
A guy smarting over a breakup and a gal who missed the last train out of Grand Central Station meet cute(ly) and bond over a night together in Manhattan has more contrivance than would seem possible in a 90-minute drama. Although his directing debut is far from auspicious, Chris Evans does well as the sax-playing good Samaritan, while Alice Eve gives an even more nuanced portrayal of the woman he helps out. The Blu-ray transfer looks terrific; lone extra is a brief Evans interview.

Black Sails—Complete 2nd Season 
(Anchor Bay)
In the second season of this explosive high-seas guilty pleasure, the storylines and pirate intrigue both thicken while the women (played with zest by Jessica Parker Kennedy, Hannah New and Clare Paget) steal scenes pretty consistently from their male costars. This season’s 10 episodes should satisfy those who like their pirate soap operas alternately intimate and epic. The series looks sumptuous on Blu-ray; extras comprise several featurettes.

Eric Clapton—Slowhand at 70: Live at the Royal Albert Hall
Nazareth—No Means of Escape 
(Eagle Rock)
To celebrate his 70th birthday, Eric Clapton performed at London's Royal Albert Hall in May by running through his five-decade career as the preeminent British blues guitar god. His incendiary guitar work on "Key to the Highway" and "Crossroads" remains peerless, but it's surprising that he still insists on digging out the dull acoustic version of "Layla" instead of the fiery original. But that's the only quibble with this memorable two-hour musical showcase.

Although not as well-known as Aerosmith or Guns'n'Roses—just two artists influenced by them—Scottish hard-rockers Nazareth have endured for four decades, despite member changes and other ups and downs, as this release's 50-minute retrospective documentary and new 75-minute concert show. "Love Hurts" and "Hair of the Dog" would be career highlights for any artist. Both releases look and sound spectacular in hi-def. Slowhand includes the entire concert on two CDs; Escape has additional interviews and an acoustic number.

The Hobbit—Battle of the Five Armies: Extended Edition 
(Warner Bros)
In the final film of his epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's first Middle Earth adventure, director Peter Jackson continues the drawn-out narrative he began with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: but The Hobbit is but one-third the size of Rings, so why stretch it out nearly as long, along with the extra 20 minutes added to the extended edition? Whatever the reason, it all looks fantastic on Blu-ray, and fans will find much to admire. But the real motherlode is the two discs' worth of extras—nearly ten hours—of everything you'd want to know (and some things you didn't) about Jackson’s onscreen vision, along with a commentary and the final part of a New Zealand featurette. 

Kurt Cobain—Montage of Heck 
(Universal Music)
More than 20 years after his suspicious death, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain still exerts a strange hold on his many fans, as that legendary aura has only grown: and that’s sort of what director Brett Morgen punctures in his fastidious, evenhanded documentary that's built around Cobain’s own recordings and drawings, shown to touching effect along with well-used (because not overdone) animation. Interviews with Kurt’s widow, family members and a former bandmate—Krist Novoselic, not Dave Grohl, who was apparently unavailable, to the film’s detriment—round out this defiantly unhagiographic portrait. On Blu, the film looks quite good; extras comprise bonus interviews.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. 
(Warner Bros)
In this noisy reboot of the ‘60s TV espionage drama starring Robert Vaughn, director Guy Ritchie goes for the glitz, overwhelming a game cast—Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and the usually spectacular Alicia Vikander—with so much inane plot twistiness, loudly thudding action sequences and colorful international locales that whatever might have made this an entertaining two hours has turned to mud. Ritchie’s insistence on flashy gadgetry and visual gimmickry over coherent storytelling and better acting makes this pale in contrast to the original series. The film does look first-rate on Blu; extras are several featurettes.

Mr. Holmes 
In director Bill Condon's engaging fantasy, 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes' retirement is shaken by things beyond his control, especially his own fading memory: he attempts to find some semblance of peace before he completely loses command of his mental faculties. Ian McKellen makes a fun Holmes, Laura Linney is her usual commanding self as his housekeeper, and Milo Parker is superb as her young son who finds the key to Holmes' final sleuthing days. The film's hi-def transfer is sharp and clear; extras are two very brief featurettes. 

Two Men in Town 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Alain Delon might have been a pretty face but he also could get down and dirty with the best of them, as in Jose Giovanni’s 1973 drama about an ex-con who, even while falling in love and starting anew, can never escape the cycle of violent crime, especially when a nosy detective ends up dead. Veteran actors Jean Gabin and Michel Bouquet also give fully-realized performances, giving this familiar tale more authenticity. The restored film has received an immaculate transfer; lone extra is an audio commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Marie's Story 
(Film Movement)
This unforgettable drama about a deaf and dumb French teenage girl could be the Gallic Miracle Worker, but shrewd director Jean-Pierre Ameris has instead made an enriching study of how two disparate and desperate people discover that they can spiritually feed each other, even with blindness, deafness and mortality at the forefront. Ameris works miracles with deaf actress Ariana Riviore as Marie, whose onscreen forcefulness is complemented by Isabelle Carre who, as the nun who becomes Marie's Annie Sullivan, gives a bracing portrayal of grace and bravery. The movie looks and sounds glorious, its striking cinematography and sound (including sparingly-used solo cello music) underscoring this unique relationship. Extras are an interesting 26-minute making-of featurette and an Iranian short, Motherly, about a deaf woman. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment 
A disturbing psychological study underlining the questionable methods of Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo, Kyle Patrick Alvarez's drama recounts Zimbardo's 1971 prison experiment, which attempted to see how quickly people act as dominating guard or cowering prisoner. Although it makes pertinent points about people subjected to cruelty and torture—and the Abu Grahib scandal exploded in 2004, Zimbardo was brought up—the movie almost too unrelentingly explores its subject in two hours, which creep by so slowly as to become  diminishing returns, despite excellent performances by a cast led by Billy Crudup's Zimbardo. Extras comprise a director commentary and featurettes.

A Tale of Two Thieves 
(Virgil Films)
The 1963 great train robbery, which has entered crime lore as one of the most daring heists ever, still raises questions about exactly what happened and who was involved, and Chris Long's documentary places one of the men—Gordon Goody—squarely at its center. Goody, now in his mid-80s, discusses his own criminal career and part in the robbery. Even at a mere 69 minutes, the movie feels padded, its robbery reenactments and archival footage of swinging London and interviews with other, marginal people complementing Goody's tale. It makes for an interesting but less than enthralling documentary about a rich subject.

CDs of the Week
Guillaume Lekeu—Complete Works 
When he died at age 24 in 1894, Belgium's Guillaume Lekeu was already an accomplished composer, but the biggest tragedy of his early death from typhoid was that it snuffed out in its infancy the artistic career of someone who was already a prolific and important artist, as this eight-disc set of all of his extant works proves. 

I was mainly familiar with Lekeu’s chamber music, and this set's string quartets, trios and sonatas comprise lengthy, yearning movements similar to the structure of the late, great Schubert quartets and quintets, with solo piano pieces and songs that are equally accomplished. The orchestral music, which has hints of Wagner throughout, sounds less essential than the chamber work but still shows off a first-rate orchestrator and melodist. The performances by many different soloists and ensembles are first-rate on these discs, and the music is varied enough to, once again, let us bemoan what was lost when Lekeu died and exalt in what he did compose.

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