Wednesday, April 24, 2024

April '24 Digital Week IV

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Civil War 
In Alex Garland’s dystopian nightmare, the U.S. has degenerated into war pitting rebel forces from Texas and California—now there’s an unlikely alliance!—against remnants of federal troops that are disintegrating, as several intrepid journalists record the actual breakdown of America in real time. Garland gets the particulars right, from the intense opening of a suicide bomber on a Manhattan street to the final, prolonged shootout as the rebels storm the White House and root out a cowering president. But there’s no overarching theme or point, while visually and narratively, much is borrowed from Full Metal Jacket, with reporters and photographers following the fighting to the documentary-like visuals: one of the photographers even falls into a pit filled with dead bodies, a seeming homage to Kubrick’s classic. Although filmed and edited for maximum tension—and with good performances topped by the peerless Stephen McKinley Henderson as a veteran NY Times reporter on his last legs—Civil War is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.

Kim’s Video 
(Drafthouse Films)
The legendary lower Manhattan video store closed shop in 2009, and directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin—the former a particularly gregarious fan of the store’s legacy and cinema history—track down the collection to, of all places, a rural Italian town in this engagingly messy documentary. On visiting the collection, Redmon gets into a bit of trouble with the authorities, before teaming with the small chain’s owner, Youngkin Kim, to return the discs and tapes to their rightful place in New York. It’s breezy and clunky in equal measure, but by padding the narrative with clips from dozens of movies Redmon alludes to throughout ironically moves the focus away from Kim’s Video and its legacy, making for a strangely unsatisfying film.

LaRoy, Texas 
(Brainstorm Media)
I’ve never been a fan of the Coen brothers, but their most pernicious influence may be the copycats who have tried to remake, say, Miller’s Crossing or No Country for Old Men, blackly comic tales of revenge and murder. The latest wannabe, writer/director Shane Atkinson, checks all the familiar boxes—at times, it’s as if an overeager novice got his hands on the first draft of a Coen script and decided to film it. The twists, the turns and the relationships all come across as arch and forced, while the occasionally biting dialogue is more often than not crude. The acting follows suit, so that even good actors like Dylan Baker and Megan Stevenson can’t create plausible characterizations.

Sweet Dreams 
This parable about the perils of colonialism, written and directed by Bosnian Ena Sendijarevic, is a witty look at a family that owns a Dutch East Indian plantation: when patriarch Jan dies suddenly, his widow Agathe, their son Cornelius and pregnant daughter-in-law Josefin hope to keep the estate in the family—but Jan’s beloved servant Siti bore him a son, who’s been named the lone inheritor. Shot in perfectly boxy Academy ratio, Sendijarevic’s deadpan satire might lose its grip at times but remains an intelligent exploration of how history’s horrors keep reverberating.

4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker 
A true horror relic, this risible but occasionally entertaining 1981 flick follows the Oedipal relationship of high-school student Billy (Jimmy McNichol) and his overprotective aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell), whom he’s lived with since his parents died when he was young (we, of course, get to see the gruesomely fatal car crash). The plot involves dead bodies, a gay basketball coach (Steve Eastin), a homophobic detective (Bo Svenson) and student Julia (Julia Duffy), whom Billy is dating; if director William Asher and three (!) writers can’t make this more than a serviceable genre exercise, it never reaches the depths of its ungainly title. There’s a fine UHD transfer; extras include three audio commentaries, new and archival interviews with cast and crew, including McNichol, Tyrell and Svenson.

Cathy’s Curse 
In the vein of The Exorcist, The Omen and It’s Alive, this crudely made 1976 Canadian entry into the “evil child” genre doesn’t even try very hard as young, seemingly possessed Cathy causes her nanny’s demise out of a second-floor window and makes things dangerous for her parents, especially her weak mother. Director Eddy Matalon can barely muster the energy to make his movie competent-looking, and is further defeated by laconic performances and truly lazy writing. There’s a decent 4K transfer; extras include an audio commentary and interviews.

The Departed 
(Warner Bros)
Martin Scorsese won his lone best director Oscar for this 2006 crime drama (which also won best picture), set in Boston among the Irish underworld and crooked cops—it might not be one of his best films but it has Scorsese’s essential traits in, if anything, overabundance. There are the well-placed rock tunes, opening with the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”; the closely observed world of crime and punishment; the vicious and sudden violence—even the final image is an obvious if nasty joke. It’s brilliantly done, with spectacular performances by Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and even mark Wahlberg, even if there’s a sense of déjà vu after 2-1/2 hours. The film looks magnificent in UHD; extras include a new featurette with a new Scorsese interview, along with two featurettes and deleted scenes (with the director’s intro) from previous releases.

Motley Crue—The End 
Once upon a time, you couldn't turn on MTV without seeing and hearing Motley Crue in heavy rotation. For those still-loyal fans, this concert in the group’s hometown of L.A. on New Year’s Eve 2015—billed as The End, even though the Crue has since reformed—brings back those good old days, hitting on every phase of the band’s career: they began as a Kiss wannabe, became huge arena-rockers, then stumbled through new singers and drummers before returning to the original lineup. No true fan will be disappointed with this hit list, including much time-capsule material: “Looks That Kill,” “Girls Girls Girls,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Home Sweet Home” all contain big hair, makeup, tight pants—from the band and their sleek female dancer-singers. The 4K video and surround sound, are crisp and clear; extras include band interviews and closeup footage of the flame-throwing bass and drum rig.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Doom Patrol—Complete Final Season 
(Warner Bros)
In the final season of this weird but always watchable superhero series, the disposable, deplorable  outcasts once again take on the mantle of being simultaneous saviors and survivors, battling adversaries from without and within. The terrific ensemble, led by April Bowlby, Brendan Fraser and Dianne Guerrero, stays on the edge of being tongue-in-cheek and unabashedly sentimental throughout, and this unlikely blend prevents it all from becoming too sappy or satirical. This season’s dozen episodes look remarkable in hi-def; extras include three featurettes.

Drive-Away Dolls 
I had just watched LaRoy, Texas, the latest Coen brothers’ rip-off, when I encounter a new movie by one Coen brother (Ethan) and his wife (Tricia Cooke)—it’s so cartoonish and insistent on being a piece of blackly comic juvenilia that it has the feel of something from the early Coen years a la Blood Simple or Raising Arizona. It’s also no better than those two films, with annoying characters acting annoyingly while spewing offbeat, deadpan, obnoxious lines of dialogue. On the plus side, Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan make an amusing pair of lesbian friends on the run with some inept crooks’ stash in their trunk of their rental car, and the movie’s only 84 minutes long. It has a very good Blu-ray transfer; extras comprise three making-of featurettes. 

(Well Go USA)
The nameless protagonist tries to resurrect her flailing career by hosting a podcast about conspiracy theories—and is soon caught up in an insane alien conspiracy that she realizes she is also intimately involved with. Matt Vesely’s initially taut thriller unfortunately loses it about two-thirds through, but Vesely and writer Lucy Campbell’s portrait of conspiracist thinking hinges on Lily Sullivan, the only person onscreen (there are voices on phone calls), and she responds with a brilliantly crazed portrayal. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; lone extra is a behind the scenes featurette.

CD Releases of the Week
Frederick Delius—Hassan 
English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote music of great variety, from the tone poems In a Summer Garden and A Song of Summer to the operas A Village Romeo and Juliet and Fennimore and Gerda and the choral works Sea Drift and A Mass of Life. His incidental music for the prose play Hassan comprises about an hour’s worth of a colorful if at times meandering musical atmosphere that’s heightened when accompanied by a chorus or, in its most memorable moments, the haunting tenor voice in the melancholy final scene. This estimable recording combines the stellar singing of the Britten Sinfonia Voices, the first-rate narrator Zeb Soanes, and the fine playing of the Britten Sinfonia, all led by the adept conducting of Jamie Phillips.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich—Symphony No. 5 and Orchestral Works 
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s music is full of bountiful imagination, and this disc, comprising one of her very best works and three other orchestral pieces, shows her at the pinnacle of her artistry. The centerpiece of this superb recording is her Symphony No. 5, which I was fortunate to hear at its 2008 Carnegie Hall world-premiere performance by the Juilliard Orchestra. It’s an inventive, zesty, vital achievement, buoyed by Zwilich’s brilliance at writing melodically and vigorously for the orchestra as both an ensemble and a group of first-rate soloists. The other works on this disc range from the effervescent opener, the perfectly titled Upbeat!, to the subtle coloring of two concertos: Concerto Elegia for flute and orchestra and Commedia dell’arte for solo violin and string orchestra. Flutist Sarah Brady and violinist Gabriela Diaz are perfection in their showcase works, while Gil Rose skillfully leads the Boston Modern Orchestra Project throughout.

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