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August '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Going in Style

(Warner Bros)
This remake of the 1979 oldster heist movie with George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg is an innocuous but entertaining vehicle for Michael Caine, Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman, who play octogenarians planning to rob a bank.
Director Zach Braff consistently takes the obvious route to every lame old age joke or schmaltzy twist, but his cast—which includes a still gorgeous Ann-Margret as Arkin’s love interest and an hilarious John Ortiz as a crook who gives our trio some robbery tips—is ingratiating enough to make this a smooth 95-minute ride. The hi-def transfer sparkles; extras are Braff’s commentary and deleted scenes.
Crashing—Complete 1st Season
Too bad Pete Holmes is so dull and unfunny: not that this lackluster Judd Apatow would have succeeded anyway, but a better lead might have given the series a chance to be amusing, pointed and even poignant.
Whenever someone with superior comic smarts appears—like Artie Lange or Sarah Silverman—Crashing sporadically turns into something humorous, but that’s not often enough. The series looks fine on Blu; extras are featurettes and Holmes’ HBO stand-up special.
The Sea Chase 

Blood Alley

(Warner Archive)
Two lesser John Wayne films showcase his passable acting in two wartime roles. In John Farrow’s barely adequate water-logged actioner, 1955’s Sea Chase, the Duke is a German U-boat pilot who loathes his Fuhrer and falls for Lana Turner.
In William Wellman’s nearly embarrassing Blood Alley (1948), Wayne is a merchant marine who ferries Chinese refugees with China’s navy hot on his tail, as white performers (unsurprisingly but eye-rollingly) play several Asian characters. Both films—shot in Cinemascope—look terrific on Blu-ray; Alley extras are newsreels and featurettes.
Where the Boys Are
(Warner Archive)
This mildly cautionary 1960 tale follows horny college kids to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break, where it’s suggested that they’re having sex, losing their virginity and even (in one shocking instance of honesty) being raped.
The attractive and charming cast is led by the gals, especially Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis. The Cinemascope compositions look superb in hi-def; extras include Prentiss’s audio commentary and two featurettes.
DVDs of the Week 


(Film Movement)

Barbet Schroeder’s latest, Amnesia—a slow-boiling drama about an German woman whose isolated existence is disturbed by a young man whose appearance leads to terrible revelations—is anchored by Marthe Keller’s lovely, understated performance in the lead.

Based on the 2011 treacly smash-hit French comedy The Intouchables, the Argentine version, Inseparables, is even more sentimental and crude in its story of a wealthy paraplegic and the working-class assistant who brings excitement into his life. The lone Amnesia extra is Your Mother and I, a fine short by British-Canadian director Anna Maguire.

July '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Barber of Seville

(Opus Arte)
In the 2016 Glyndebourne Festival production of Rossini’s great comic opera, beguiling American soprano Danielle De Niese unsurprisingly steals the show as Rosina, the feisty love interest of Count Almaviva, who enlists the help of the barber Figaro to woo and win her.
Enrique Mazzola nimbly conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which keeps the comedy and romance brisk. Hi-def audio and video are top-notch; extras are Mazzola and De Niese’s commentary and making-of featurette.
(Deutsche Grammophon)
In this 2016 Dresden staging of Richard Wagner’s opera, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko—whose early career comprised lighter-voiced roles by Mozart, Puccini and Prokofiev—shows herself as a Wagnerian singer par excellence: every scene she’s in, her Elsa rivets attention from an already formidable cast.
Angela Brandt’s production shrewdly mixes traditional and contemporary (as in the climactic appearance of the swan), and the music is performed with vigor and strength by the orchestra and chorus under Christian Thielemann’s baton. Hi-def audio and video are exemplary.

(Deutsche Grammophon)

(Challenge Classics)
Richard Wagner’s final opera—a long, slow, quasi-religious processional composed for his own theater at Bayreuth in Germany—is presented today by opera houses around the world. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s 2016 Bayreuth production flouts the composer’s own stage directions, dragging in pointless directorial “improvements” that obscure an accomplished cast including Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal and Elena Pankratova’s temptress Kundry.
Pierre Audi’s 2012 Netherlands Opera staging features similar questionable visuals, but again the cast—led by Petra Lang’s powerhouse presence as Kundry—overcomes those obstacles with reverent singing. Forceful orchestral playing comes from conductors Hartmut Haenchen (Bayreuth) and Iván Fischer (Netherlands); there’s impressive hi-def video and audio on both discs.
Stormy Monday
(Arrow Academy)
Mike Figgis’ 1988 feature debut is a fairly standard and unexciting neo-noir thriller drenched in the director’s own jazz score. Unfortunately, his solid cast can do little amid the worn-down Newcastle locations, the setting for 90 minutes of small-time hood shenanigans.
Sean Bean, Tommy Lee Jones and Sting snarl aggressively, while poor Melanie Griffith is simply out of her element. Roger Deakins’ photography looks particularly noteworthy in hi-def; extras are a Figgis commentary and video appreciation by critic Neil Young.
The Story of China with Michael Wood


Historian Michael Wood—veteran of such classic British TV series as Art of the Western World and In Search of Shakespeare—embarks on a journey through the epic and convoluted history of China, packing much fascinating information and insight into six hours’ worth of the country’s sights, sounds, people and culture. Wood’s expertise, intelligence and compassion are on vivid display throughout this don’t-miss series, which could use more contextualizing in the extras: despite the magnificent hi-def images, there are only a handful of very short featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
The Country Doctor
In writer/director Thomas Lilti’s intimate character study, Francois Cluzet plays the veteran doctor who knows everyone in his little corner of the French countryside, but who initially overreacts when a newcomer arrives from the city, ostensibly to help him out with his workload.
Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt (as adversary, rival and ally) connect emotionally, providing an authentically “real” relationship that never turns treacly—even when it easily could have. Lilti’s movie brims with small but not unimportant moments that display its characters in all their humanity.
Pretty Little Liars—Complete 7th Season

(Warner Bros)
The final season of the popular series about the quintet of “liars”—Aria, Emily, Hanna, Spencer and Mona—comprises a breakneck progression of 20 episodes culminating with one of the most bizarre TV twists since “Who Shot J.R.”: a twin of one of the gals appears as the infamous D.A., improbably controlling what’s going on.

Yet despite such silliness, the wrap-up is dramatically satisfying. Bonus features comprise several featurettes, wrap party “episode” and deleted scenes.

Film review—“The Midwife” with Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot

The Midwife
Written and directed by Martin Provost
Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in The Midwife (Music Box Films)
There can be no more quintessentially French film than Martin Provost’s The Midwife (the double meaning of the French title, Sage femme, is lost in English), and not simply because it stars Catherine Deneuve. It’s also because of its plot: a 49-year-old midwife receives a phone call one day from her father’s long-gone mistress, now in her 70s and looking for closure after receiving a fatal brain cancer diagnosis.
When she agrees to meet Béatrice Sobolevski, Claire’s own life is in flux: the clinic where she’s worked for decades helping to deliver newborns is about to be replaced by the latest high-tech one, where her hard-earned experience and expertise is beside the point; her son Simon, currently in college working his way toward a medical degree, brings home his pregnant girlfriend; and her neighbor Paul, as hard a worker on his vegetable garden as she is on hers, wants a closer relationship than she’s been willing to allow herself with any man.
Into Claire’s messy life storms the still glamorous and self-absorbed Béatrice, who becomes amusingly dependent on Claire after being told that Claire’s father killed himself decades ago after Béatrice left him. As written and directed by Martin Provost, The Midwife skirts melodrama and soap opera in its depiction of this odd couple, especially when the funny but repetitive back-and-forth between these completely antithetical women is overwhelmed at times by several scarily authentic birthing sequences.
Despite that, the film is quite affecting thanks to its two leads. Deneuve, of course, is even more elegant than the fake Hungarian princess she plays, but she is also believably heart-tugging as a grievously sick woman trying to keep up appearances even though the high life she used to lead is long gone. 
And Frot—whose pathetically hilarious opera singer with no talent in last year’s Marguerite was far more memorable than Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated turn in Florence Foster Jenkins—gives a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a middle-aged woman at a crossroads in her life who must also confront the ghost of her family’s sorrowful past in the form of Béatrice.
Provost’s droll touches—notably the moment when Béatrice discovers that Claire’s son Simon bears an uncanny resemblance to Claire’s father (and Béatrice’s lover)—complement the delectable performances of both Catherines, who make The Midwife far more substantial than it would otherwise be.
The Midwife
Opened July 21, 2017

July '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Kong: Skull Island

(Warner Bros)
As mindless entertainments go, the latest Kong has its moments, especially when the humans are relegated to the background and fascinating-looking creatures dominate the screen: prehistoric monsters, a yuge insect, and of course our giant ape.
Up against superior CGI, the cast has little chance to do anything, especially poor Brie Larson, who gives an embarrassing performance for an Oscar winner. At least John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson’s lapses into crude comedy help—a bit. But Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” at the end is unjustified arrogance from journeyman director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. On Blu-ray, the movie looks astonishingly good; extras include featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes and a director’s commentary.
The Devil’s Domain
(Cleopatra Entertainment)
This social-media revenge pic is built on a brazenly insane fantasy: an anorexic high school student makes a pact with the devil to eliminate those at school responsible for bullying her.
Director Jared Cohn stages a few brutal death scenes that are horrible fun, but does little else, including making Linda Bella less amateurish as a she-devil. Madi Vodane’s persuasive teen heroine makes this watchable, at least. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are a making-of and red-carpet interviews.
Midsomer Murders—Series 19, Part 1 


In the four 90-minute mysteries making up the latest set of this popular series, chief inspector John Barnaby is joined by new partner Jamie Winter for a series of investigations into several killings throughout the local towns of Midsomer, which are strangely prone to murder.
The episodes—and the crimes featured in them—include an exotic snake, an army tank, and vengeful cricket fan, and it’s always satisfying to watch Barnaby (nicely underplayed by accomplished vet Neil Dudge) and his latest sidekick solve these increasingly offbeat crimes. The Blu-ray transfer looks great; extras are featurettes and interviews.
Terror in a Texas Town
(Arrow Academy)
In Gordon L. Lewis’s tightly wound hybrid of film noir and western, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden)—who arrives at a small town terrorized by a rich hotel owner and his murderous hired gun—is on a mission of revenge for the killing of his father, but all he has is a whale harpoon for a weapon.
Even if Hayden’s Scandinavian accent slides all over the place, this does quite nicely as a taut, High Noon-esque drama. The hi-def black and white transfer shimmers with grain; extras are an intro and analysis by western expert Peter Stanfield.
DVDs of the Week 

The Artist’s Garden—American Impressionism

(Seventh Art)
Phil Grabsky’s documentary recounts the fascinating story of American painters of the late 19th and early 20thcenturies inspired by their more famous contemporaries on the other side of the Atlantic. Among the notable artists shown are Mary Cassett, Hilde Chassam and William Merritt Chase, whose works are as enduring as the French painters who inspired them.
As with other Exhibition On Screen entries, the dry 90-minute program (narrated by Gillian Anderson) features gorgeous examples of many artworks, so it’s too bad this wasn’t released on Blu-ray.
The Penguin Counters
(First Run)

Ron Naveen has been counting penguins for decades. If that seems funny, it’s not: he and his colleagues’ numbers are important indicators of how climate change affects various species in Antarctica, and this informative documentary lays out the continued importance of their ongoing scientific studies.

Directors Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon also provide beautiful images of the Antarctic habitat, which might convince even the most hardened climate-change denier about what we’re in danger of losing. Extras include additional scenes.

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