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Blu-rays of the Week
Ash Is Purest White
In Jia Zhangke’s latest saga about contemporary China, Qiao—devoted companion of crime boss Bin—goes to jail for five years after taking the rap for Bin’s unlicensed gun but finds he’s moved on when she is released.
As always, there are many absorbing moments in this cutting critique of modern Chinese society, but Jia’s muse/wife, actress Zhao Tao, isn’t a strong enough performer to carry the weight of this complicated woman’s story. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Jia interview from last year’s New York Film Festival.
Dramatizing the tragic 2000 accident aboard Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg’s nail-biting thriller is at times too clever for its own good—its changing aspect ratios are nice but irrelevant—but it’s still a chilling examination of how corrupt bureaucracy, ineptitude and cavalier playing with human lives denies the doomed men’s families any comfort. (A title card states that 71 children were left fatherless by the accident and cover-up.)
A first-rate international cast is led by Matthias Schoenaerts, Lea Seydoux, Colin Firth, Pernilla August and Max von Sydow. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a making-of featurette with interviews.
The Curse of La Llorona
In this routine haunted-house entry, an ancient curse is visited on a single mother and her children, and the only way they can exorcise the demon is by enlisting the services of a former priest who is familiar with it.
Allusions to Poltergeist, Close Encounters and, of course, The Exorcist (among others) abound, but director Michael Chaves’ horror programmer skips along at a brisk 93 minutes without defining its characters or their motivations, making the monster—whose makeup design is terrific—the default focus. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.
The Fate of Lee Khan
(Film Movement Classics)
In King Hu’s 1973 classic martial-arts adventure set near the end of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, after a general and his sister visit an inn in a remote area to get their hands on a map that provides the rebels’ plans, the innkeeper helps a band of resistance fighters get it back so the rebellion isn’t crushed.
There’s a sense of humor as well as a precision to the framing and movement in the many balletic fighting sequences in this sequel to Hu’s own masterly epic from two years previously, A Touch of Zen. The film looks tremendous on Blu; lone extra is an appreciation of King Hu.
Girls of the Sun
In Eva Husson’s tough, heartbreaking war drama, a female unit fighting ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan—as hardened and courageous as their male counterparts, if not more so—are treated with disdain due to their gender, putting them in even more mortal danger.
Shot and acted with the utmost authenticity, this searing feature could only have been made by a woman (and it is worlds away from Husson’s intriguing debut Bang Gang). The performances of Husson’s cast, led by the extraordinary Golshifteh Farahani as the squad leader, are nothing short of miraculous. There’s a superlative hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Husson post-screening Q&A.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s passionate, vitriolic and drily sarcastic performance as a middle-aged man whose life of privilege masks the insecurity he feels as part of a dysfunctional family with little moral compass is the centerpiece of this five-part mini-series based on Edward St Aubyn’s novels.
In addition, there’s a formidable cast (Holliday Grainger, Hugo Weaving and Blythe Danner are particular standouts) and a unique look to each of its five parts, but the blackly comic cynicism is laid on with a trowel, so bingeing might be too exhausting. The hi-def transfer is perfect; lone extra is a short on-set featurette.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Despite the overuse of CGI, the effects in Rob Letterman’s goofy but enjoyable Pokémon movie are eye-popping, including the cute little Pokémon who teams up with our teenage hero to stop a madman (the paycheck-cashing Bill Nighy) from melding Pokémons with humans.
Ryan Reynolds voices the furry yellow critter with the same snark he uses in Deadpool, except that the innuendos and cursing are toned down a bit. The hi-def transfer is transfixing; extras include an alternate opening, several making-of featurettes, Mr. Mime's audio commentary and a music video.
DVDs of the Week
American Beach House
Bikini Model Academy
Straw Weisman’s disposably passable time-wasters hark back to the staple of late-night pay-cable networks, flicks with jiggly T&A galore: the titles explain everything, meaning not much goes on in these indifferently-acted beach-and-poolside horny male fantasies.
Of note for golf fans is that Jena Sims—who traipses around in the altogether in Beach House—is champ Brooks Koepka’s girlfriend. Gary Busey and Morgan Fairchild lend their good-natured selves to Academy, while Beach House enlists Mischa Barton and Lorenzo Lamas as top-liners.
CD of the Week
Wynton Marsalis—Works for Violin
Jazz great Wynton Marsalis composed his violin concerto for the electrifying Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti: its four movements revel in Benedetti’s explosive displays of virtuosity and her innate musicality through its four musically diverse movements—as their names, Rhapsody, Rondo Burlesque, Blues, and Hootenanny, show.
Benedetti might even be more impressive playing Marsalis’ Fiddle Dance Suite for solo violin, which she dispatches with gentle power and mighty finesse.
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