Tuesday, April 5, 2016

April '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Banshee—Complete 3rd Season 
The third season of this extremely violent but rarely dramatically potent Cinemax series ratchets up the excessive gore at the expense of coherent storytelling and plausible characters: jettisoning anything resembling credibility in order to oversell the next bludgeoning, killing or decapitation is a recipe for becoming less interesting as it continues. It has stylishness in spades, including its ultra-attractive cast, but then the blood-letting begins again and it loses any dramatic momentum. The hi-def transfer is impeccable; extras include commentaries, deleted scenes and featurettes.

Death Walks Twice 
(Arrow USA)
Italian giallo master Luciano Ercoli directed his future wife, actress Nieves Navarro—who went by her stage name Susan Scott—in a pair of bloody thrillers as a clichéd damsel in distress: both 1971's Death Walks in High Heels and 1972's Death Walks at Midnight lean on Scott's winsome personality to follow her through convoluted mysteries that are minimally psychological but maximally trashy. As always, Arrow has included both films in a classy boxed set that features a 60-page booklet, new hi-def transfers, and interviews, featurettes and introductions/ commentaries.

King Priam
(Arthaus Musik)
While I've never been a fan of British composer Michael Tippett, his 1962 opera King Priam is strongly dramatic and musically cohesive; based on Homer’s Iliad, it’s a knottily-plotted tale, and Nicholas Hytner's 1985 film (with Rodney McCann as Priam, Sarah Walker as Andromache, Neil Jenkins as Achilles and Anne Mason as Helen of Troy) is a tough, taut interpretation. Conversely, it’s simply too bad about choreographer Maguy Marin's 1989 production of Cinderella, Sergei Prokofiev's most beguiling ballet: child-like masks and costumes, which may have looked charming onstage, instead come off mildly creepy on TV. Video and audio for both discs are fine.

Losing Ground 
Another valuable addition to Milestone Films' growing library of resurrected historically and artistically important American films and filmmakers, this two-disc set features this astute 1982 character study by provocative writer-director Kathleen Collins (who died six years later at age 46) starring Seret Scott and Bill Gunn as an artistic couple with marital problems: Collins’ genius was for showing her characters as people, not simply as black people. Also included are The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, the 1980 debut collaboration between Collins and cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, a probing 1982 Collins interview, and new interviews with Scott, Gray and Collins' daughter. The film has been lovingly restored in hi-def.

Michael Collins 
(Warner Archive)
Liam Neeson's commanding portrait of the Irish independence leader from his political beginnings until his untimely (and mysterious) death in 1922 is the center of Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic, a fluid, exciting drama on a dense, difficult subject. Complementing Neeson is superb support by Stephen Rea, Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman and Brendan Gleeson, which offsets Julia Roberts' unmagnetic presence (and wavering accent) as Collins' fiancée. The film's belated but welcome appearance on Blu-ray helps viewers better appreciate Chris Menges' tangy cinematography; extras are an hour-long, illuminating South Bank Show episode about Collins' life and a Jordan interview.

(Anchor Bay)
I don't get the current mania for trying to make Jason Sudekis—who was merely a comic journeyman on Saturday Night Live—a leading man in the movies, but this low-energy character study of a dead pop star's widow rediscovering her importance as muse thanks to a music professor leaves a gaping hole at its center with his casting. Happily, the widow is played by Rebecca Hall, an actress of rare grace, vulnerability and truthfulness, so all is not lost. Small roles are well-handled by Blythe Danner, Richard Masur, Dianna Agron and Griffin Dunne, helping Hall to fill the Sudekis void. The film looks decent on Blu; extras are making-of and music featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Brotherly Love
A Fine Pair 
(Warner Archive)
Although their films aren't very memorable, two star pairings provide mostly indifferent vehicles with occasionally interesting moments. 1970's unsubtle Brotherly Love, about a man's more-than-familial interest in his sister, stars Peter O'Toole and Susannah York as misfit siblings, and they get more out of the problematic relationship than it deserves. Similarly, 1968's Fine Pair, set in shabby New York and photogenic Italy, teams Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale for a forgettable caper chase picture that promises little but delivers some entertainment thanks to its stars’ presence.

Jacqueline du Pré—A Celebration 
(The Christopher Nupen Films)
Supremely gifted English cellist Jacqueline du Pré stopped performing at age 28 due to her battle with multiple sclerosis, which she sadly lost at age 42, in 1987; the loss to the music world is immeasurable, as this disc of vintage interview clips with contemporaries, friends and loved ones discussing her force of personality, musicianship and happiness (her nickname was Smiley) shows. We see her performing, especially the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she is most closely associated with, and hear her discuss her own love for music, and the three-plus hours of footage become a riveting portrait of a great and humane artist.

Ron Taylor—Dr. Baseball
Invisible Scars 
(First Run)
The 20-minute short Ron Taylor—which recounts his baseball career, quitting the big leagues at 35 to become a doctor, then returning to baseball in a medical capacity—was made by sons Drew and Matthew as a loving document of their dad's overlooked career. In Invisible Scars, co-director Johnna Janis opens up about sexual abuse as a youngster and how it affected her ever since: interviews with experts and victims paint a troubled portrait of how people are affected by such a tragedy, but there’s also an optimism that many—including Janis herself—are defiantly taking charge of their own lives. Taylor extras are a directors' interview and film festival Q&As; Scars extras are extended interviews.

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