Category: Blu-ray

Mar 24 2015

Videophiled: Battling ‘The Hobbit’

HobbitBattle

Warner Home Video

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD), the third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s supersized take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy, opens with a spectacular dragon attack on Laketown and tops it with a battle that nearly dwarfs the Middle Earth-shattering war Lord of the Rings trilogy (pun intended). It’s Elf and Man against Dwarf, but for the Orcs it’s personal. Which, as any fan of the original novel “The Hobbit” will tell you, pretty much misses the point of the story. But then Jackson isn’t interested in a faithful interpretation of Tolkien’s novel as much as backfilling a prequel story to The Lord of the Rings, transforming the novel’s story of legacy and destiny warped into greed and hubris, a grand fantasy adventure with dragons and trolls and Shakespearean dimensions, into the initial stirrings of the evil Sauron and a war that will engulf the world and all the races.

That pretty much sidelines Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the ostensible hero of the tale, while redirecting the focus to characters who never appeared in the original novel or in Tolkien’s universe at all, namely the above-mentioned Orcs with a grudge against Thorin (Richard Armitage), the Dwarf who would be king. The final half of the film, which is already the third film in the telling, is an enormous battle and, yes, it is impressive as a physical thing. It’s also exhausting and overdone, with two Orc villains who prove comically unkillable. These guys are fiercer than the next generation Orc-Goblin hybrids that Sauroman breeds in Lord of the Rings.

Those caveats aside, it’s an exciting film with a grand sense of scale and sweep and a sure sense of weaving together multiple stories in the climactic battle. Jackson is quite adept at these things and he keeps the stories straight and the momentum up. What he misses is the heart of Tolkien’s tale. For that, we just may need to wait for someone to edit this story down rather than expand it even more.

It’s released in multiple formats. All of the disc editions offer five short featurettes, all 12-minutes or under: “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 3,” “Recruiting the Five Armies,” “Completing Middle-earth: A Six-Part Saga,” “Completing Middle-earth: A Seventeen-Year Journey,” and “The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes,” plus a music video. This is the same version that played in the theaters but come Christmas you can count on an even longer version from Jackson, with commentary and feature-length documentaries.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 19 2015

Videophiled TVD: A revolutionary ‘Turn’

TurnS1

Anchor Bay

Turn: Washington’s Spies – The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The Revolutionary War was launched with a declaration of independence and fought for the ideal of self-determination and democratic representation. By any measure it was unprecedented and it gave birth to the first sustained democracy in the world (despite D.W. Griffith’s insistence that the Civil War as the Birth of the Nation), yet there are fewer dramatic portraits of the war in movies or on TV than practically any other American conflict, and fewer still that stand as significant productions in their own right: John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, the HBO miniseries John Adams, and… I’m sure there are others, but none jump to mind.

Turn from AMC (the cable network of Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad) doesn’t quite jump to the top of the list, at least based on the initial season, but it is an intelligent show with a novel approach: it’s built around the civilian spy network supplying intelligence to the revolutionaries under the noses of the occupying British soldiers. This is historical drama, not documentary, but it is based on the true story of the Abraham Woodhull, the head of the real-life Culper Spy Ring in New York City and Long Island. Jamie Bell plays Woodhull, a farmer in Setauket, New York, who sells his produce on the black market to both sides while committing to neither until he’s recruited by an old friend, Continental Army officer Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), to use his smuggling routes to pass messages. The one-time favor turns into a full-time commitment and puts him on the opposite side of the conflict from his father (Kevin McNally), the town magistrate and a committed law-and-order British loyalist, and in partnership with his childhood sweetheart Anna Strong (Heather Lind), whose husband was sentenced to certain death aboard a British slave ship for a crime he didn’t commit.

In a TV culture of anti-heroes and compromised protagonists, this is a fairly straightforward conflict: there are a few honorable Brits (notably Major Hewlett, the garrison commandeer played by Burn Gorman) but far more of them are brutal and sadistic, while the rebel sympathizers may be conflicted but are ultimately on the side of their neighbors. The show has its share of romantic and dramatic complications, especially as Woodhull contrives to carry information through British territory to the rebel forces while posing publically as a loyalist, and it’s light on action and spectacle. It takes some time for the story to get any traction, but when, about halfway through the season, George Washington arrives to discuss the fledgling spy network with Talmadge, the show offers a crash course in state of the art spycraft, circa 1776. That’s a fascinating history lesson that gives scope to the personal drama and illustrates just how novel a civilian espionage circle was in warfare. As the season develops, it also takes on the issue of slavery, though while it shows the hypocrisy of the British (who free the slaves only to make them indentured soldiers in their fight) it’s frustratingly quiet when it comes to exploring the colonists’ relationship to the reality of slavery and shies away from seeing the war through the eyes of the blacks who, in the event of American victory, would remain enslaved.

What I find most interesting is the portrait of conflicted loyalties among the Americans. Friends, neighbors, even family members cannot necessarily be trusted, but that doesn’t make them enemies. Woodhull secretly defies his father’s allegiances but never his father, who he loves and protects through the conflict, and he keeps his activities secret from his wife (Meegan Warner), who suspects something is going on but isn’t sure what. That’s the real human story of the show, not the personal conflicts between Woodhull and sneering, sadistic British officer Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) or Talmadge and Scot mercenary Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) or the renewed passions between Woodhull and Anna Strong, flamed by the danger of their missions.

There are also fun bits of history woven through here, like the crossing of the Delaware from the point of view of a soldier at the back of the makeshift armada (Washington is never seen) and a rousing rendition of a British drinking song over dinner with British officers, which became the tune to The Star Spangled Banner. These are dropped in without comment, nudging the viewer to dig into their American history (Wikipedia should get a workout while watching the episodes).

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with two very brief featurettes that are really no more than promotional pieces and about 25 minutes of deleted scenes. This season will also be available on Netflix later this month.

The second season begins in April.

Mar 18 2015

Videophiled: Chris Rock’s ‘Top Five’

TopFive

Paramount

Top Five (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is Chris Rock’s third film as a writer / director and his most personal. He plays a comedian named Andre Allen, once branded “the funniest man alive” for his electric stand-up act, who made a fortune in lowbrow comedies, bottomed out in alcohol, and wants to remake himself as a serious actor in his sobriety, which is hard to do when his upcoming marriage is little more than a reality TV stunt as far as his fiancée (Gabrielle Union) is concerned. It all plays out in an eventful 24 hours in NYC as a reporter (Rosario Dawson) tags along his errands and interviews on the opening day of his new film, a stiff of a well-meaning historical drama called “Uprize!,” and the day before his wedding, an affair more stage-managed than planned.

It’s very funny—Rock channels the uncensored language and subject matter of his stand-up act, which lands the film in decidedly R-rated territory—with a serious undercurrent. He’s a recovering alcoholic who’s afraid he’s no longer funny sober, with a career on life support and a marriage he now seems to dread. Dawson, one of the most underappreciated actresses around, matches Rock with confidence and intelligence as the journalist who pushes the comedian to be honest with her—and ultimately with himself.

It’s got an episodic structure, dotted with flashbacks (Cedric the Entertainer takes a starring role in “the lowest moment of his life”) and meetings with old friends (among them Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan) and comedy colleagues. Rock lets these moments reveal different dimensions of the man behind the persona, while generously letting them show off their chops. It’s a familiar structure that Rock juggles well and fills with sharp, smart, and often hilarious take on the mid-life crisis of an artist caught between public expectations, private ambitions and anxieties, and professional compromises and commitments. There’s a complex understanding of the business of entertainment and celebrity behind the comedy, and a smart character portrait behind the performance.

On DVD and Blu-ray, but only the Blu-ray comes with extras: commentary by Rock and co-star JB Smoove, the featurettes “It’s Never Just a Movie: Chris Rock and Top Five” and “The Making of Top Five,” the “Top Five” stand-up outtakes and “Moments You Didn’t See in the Film,” plus deleted scenes and bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of the film.

Also on Cable On Demand and VOD from Amazon Instant, Vudu, and Xbox.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Mar 13 2015

Videophiled TVD: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ ends

SonsAnarchyFinalSons of Anarchy: The Final Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) and Sons of Anarchy: The Complete Series (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) – This drama of family ties, brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal, and honor in an outlaw motorcycle gang that practically runs the (fictional) Central California desert town of Charming grew from cult show to surprise hit for the FX network over the course of its seven season run.

The crime drama had taken on almost Shakespearean dimensions, from a “Hamlet”-like conflict between club heir apparent Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his step-father Clay (Ron Perlman), while offering a kind of leather jacket soap opera and an idealized portrait of underworld brotherhood under fire. Jax was the well-meaning warrior prince determined to deliver Camelot to his brothers but constantly beset by blowback from his alliance and criminal activities. By the time the final season roared out in the fall of 2014, the club had left enough victims in the wake of their criminal activities and territorial battles to fill a small graveyard, including Clay and his own wife, murdered by his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal), the ferocious den mother of this wolf pack. As likable as this scruffy but loyal brotherhood could be, it was hard to overlook the violence of their business, the bodies dropped in misguided acts of vengeance (either by impulse or spurred by the lies of betrayals or cover-ups), and the innocents killed in the crossfire.

Those reservations aside, I remained a fan of the show to the end if only for creator Kurt Sutter’s commitment to the whole twisted idea of brotherhood and the fantasy that they are the protectors of their town. The bad boy romance of their world is a façade, but Sutter sure knows how to work that fantasy into brutal, bloodsoaked melodrama of retribution and redemption. The individual members of the club (at least those who survived to season seven) have all become distinctive, integral characters with their own issues and Gemma a broken, doomed figure spinning stories to delay the inevitable revelation and retribution. Jax’s young son (who knows what Gemma did) takes on the look of a zombie, haunted by the knowledge that his grandmother killed his mother and acting out with acts of violence at school. The hypocrisy he sees in the adult world is poisoning his soul, a truly innocent victim of the violent life of his father.

Annabeth Gish joins the show as the new sheriff of Charming, a veteran who understands that a certain amount of accommodation to the outlaw elements is necessary to keep things from blowing up on the streets, and Jimmy Smits is back as Nero, club ally and conscience to Jax, the compassionate and honorable father figure he lacked in Clay, and there are return visits from some familiar faces, notably Hal Holbrook as Gemma’s infirm father and Walton Goggins as Venus, a tough yet tender transsexual dominatrix with whom club hothead Tig (Kim Coates) falls in love in one of the most touching stories weaving through the series.

Guest stars include Marilyn Manson as a white supremacist taking care of business for the club in prison, Courtney Love as a pre-school teacher who tries to help Jax’s troubled son, Lea Michelle as a truck stop waitress who befriends Gemma, and small roles from Robert Patrick and Michael Chiklis (star of Kurt Sutter’s previous series, The Shield).

Charlie Hunnam and Marilyn Manson

As far as the idea of justice is concerned, the show follows its own tunnel-vision code. These guys sell guns to California gangs and run a brothel and a porn business (which, oddly enough, are managed by women and accommodating to the employees—you gotta love a socially progressive gangster) and routinely murder obstructions and threats, but Jax draws the line at drugs and the IRA pipeline that Clay established. In their world, that’s a moral stand, and while the show flirts with the collateral damage and unintended consequences of their business, it tends to overlook the bigger picture and ask up to look beyond the criminal code. But then that’s part of the outlaw romance of the series. And while there is a fatalism to much of it, Sutter also offers redemptive stories, rewarding longtime fans with a happy ending for a few deserving characters.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, The final season expands each episode to 90 minutes (a little over 60 minutes without commercials), giving the stories more space to play out (it’s like getting an extra six episodes). The disc sets feature hour-long documentary “Carpe Diem: The Final Season of Sons of Anarchy” and featurettes on the legacy of violence, the motorcycles, the stories of the tattoos, and the guest stars of the final season.

Fox also releases the entire series in a box set on Blu-ray and DVD, a bargain way to get the complete show.

More TV on Disc at Cinephiled

Mar 11 2015

Videophiled: Francois Truffaut’s ‘The Soft Skin’

SoftSkin

Criterion

The Soft Skin (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Francois Truffaut’s cool, creamy smooth melodrama of a doomed affair, channels the director’s love of Hitchcock into a film that you wouldn’t otherwise associate with the work of the master of suspense. It’s not a thriller in any generic sense of the term, but Truffaut sets the lush romanticism of exciting indiscretion in a world where sudden stabs of ominous music hint at a tragedy in the making.

Literary critic Jean Desailly doesn’t have adultery on his mind when he becomes entranced with a lithe, lovely young stewardess (Francoise Dorleac) who keeps crossing his path on a speaking engagement—he’s happily married with a wife (Nelly Benedetti) and a daughter—but he plunges ahead with an affair that, despite his best efforts, begins to unravel all of their lives. Truffaut invests it with Hitchcockian echoes of guilt and fear of discovery as well as stylistic touches both effective (a meticulously plotted sequence of just-missed connections) and merely offbeat (a drive to the airport backed by a Psycho-like violin theme). Pulling back the veneer of chic elegance and attractive confidence, Desailly emerges not so much sordid as vain and pathetic, and his wife comes into her own with her heartbreaking discovery of his lies, at once angry, hurt, threatened, and grasping at reconciliation while sabotaging her own efforts with frustrated attacks. It’s an unusual film with sudden changes in tone that does little to prepare the viewer for the dark climax: the tragic side of Truffaut’s fascination of philandering men that runs throughout his career. Watch for the scene with the kitten who licks off the plate set out for room service; Truffaut recreated it for his film-within-a-film in Day For Night.

Previously only been available on a poorly-mastered (and long out-of-print) DVD in the U.S., it’s been remastered for Blu-ray and DVD from a new digital HD digital transfer from the original camera negative. It features commentary (in French, with English subtitled) by Truffaut’s co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and Truffaut scholar Serge Toubiana (originally recorded in 2000), the half-hour 1999 documentary Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock (about the famous interview book), a new video essay by film critic Kent Jones, and an archival interview with Truffaut from 1965 about the film, plus a leaflet with an essay by Molly Haskell.

The Criterion restoration is also available to stream for Hulu Plus subscribers, but an HD stream can’t match the quality of a high-quality Blu-ray.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 10 2015

Videophiled: Alain Resnais’ ‘Life of Riley’

LifeofRiley

Kino Lorber

Life of Riley (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) – It is curious that Alain Resnais, who was the most narratively experimental and ambitious of directors at the birth of the nouvelle vague in France, spent the last two decade of his filmmaking career melding cinema and theater in productions that are both highly theatrical and uniquely cinematic. Life of Riley, the final film from the director (he passed away in 2014, a few months after the film’s debut), is his third adaptation of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and, like his penultimate feature You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012), revolves around the theater. In this case it’s an amateur production, a play within a play that we only get in glimpses of rehearsals interrupted by disagreements and digressions. The biggest digression is their friend George Riley, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He never appears on screen but his presence looms over the film and his actions stir the drama between the three couples of the story: suburbanites Kathryn and Colin (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot), wealthy friends Tamara and Jack (Caroline Sihol and Michel Vuillermoz), and George’s ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) now living on a farm with the older Simeon (André Dussollier).

“Drama” may not be the right word. The play itself is a pleasant frivolity, a mix of bedroom farce (without the bedrooms), romantic comedy, and self-aware theater that opens on the first day of rehearsals and ends after closing night, with a coda that brings us back to the themes of mortality and emotional connection. Resnais was 90 when he made the film and it is surely no coincidence that his final two features raise a glass to life by facing death and mortality.

Life of Riley is no funeral, though a funeral does take place before it ends. It’s a celebration, albeit a low-key one. It plays out in the gardens and lawns of the characters, represented by stylized, abstracted sets with hanging strips of heavy cloth as backdrops, with footage of driving down real country roads marking transitions and architectural drawings establishing the next location. It’s not necessarily a successful device but it is inventive and playful, just like the stylized performances. All the world is indeed a stage. This story simply takes place in the rehearsals and afterparties of the “official” performance, while between scenes George continues to play the womanizer, using sympathy and the romance of a dying man’s final fling to entice all three women into lending their attentions to his comfort.

Hippolyte Girardot and Sabine Azéma

It’s the end of a filmmaking career of over 60 years, perhaps not the last word he would have chosen (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet is more profound, more rapturous, and more stylistically exhilarating), but a pleasant variation on a theme in a rich career, minor but sweet.

Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles, with a featurette of cast interviews and an accompanying booklet with essays by director Alain Resnais and film critic Glenn Kenny.

Also available on digital and VOD from iTunes.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 09 2015

Milestones: ‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’

InLandHeadHunters

Milestone

In the Land of the Head Hunters (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) is not a documentary but it is an invaluable historical document nonetheless. Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis made a career documenting the native tribes on the west in the early 20th century, preserving the imagery of a culture that had almost entirely eradicated through resettlement and assimilation. He lived for a time with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia and filmed some of their traditional dance for his lectures before he came up with the idea of making a feature with the members of the tribe.

Neither documentary nor strictly recreation—Curtis wrote a melodramatic tale drawn as much (if not more) from western mythology and European fairy tales as from native cultures—In the Land of the Head Hunters showcases traditional dances and rituals from the era before contact with white settlers through its story of love and war. There’s a brave warrior in ritual of manhood, the daughter of a chief who is in love with him, a cruel sorcerer who plots to destroy the warrior, and the sorcerer’s brother. The actors were all non-professionals and Curtis, who is more documentarian than dramatic storyteller, a rudimentary filmmaker, but he worked with the tribe to recreate the costumes, masks, canoes, and longhouses of the old culture, preserving a legacy that the Canadian government was trying to stamp out (the tribes were forbidden from practicing their cultural rituals and this film provided an exception, which they eagerly took).

In this way, it anticipates Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, which staged recreated scenes to show a way of life that was no longer being practiced by the Inuit people. Though In the Land of the Head Hunters (a reference to a dramatic act in the film but a misrepresentation of the tribal culture) is fiction, it serves a similar purpose as an ethnographic record. The storytelling is rudimentary but the imagery is often gorgeous, with Curtis’ photographer’s eye capturing dramatic images set against striking coast landscapes and seascapes. The dances are gorgeous as are the costumes, recreated village sets, and other props. The ambition of the project can’t be overestimated: it was initiated before feature films had become dominant in the industry and released before The Birth of a Nation debuted in 1915.

‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’

The film was orphaned for decades and only existed in an incomplete version (titled In the Land of the War Canoes) reconstructed in 1973 from existing prints and set to a naturalistic soundtrack of native music, chants, and sounds until recently. In 2008 the original cut was reconstructed with newly-discovered footage and still images (to cover footage missing or damaged-beyond-reclamation), using and set to the original score composed for the 1914 debut. In addition to preserving that initial presentation, surviving copies of the sheet music with notations made by musicians helped in the reconstruction of the original cut. The condition of the footage is worn at best and badly decomposed at worst but it is a unique piece of film history that preserves some of the earliest footage of the distinctive culture of the North Pacific tribes. In 1999, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Milestone releases both versions of the film and includes scholarly commentary, the short documentary Documents of Encounter: The Head Hunters Reconstruction Project that explores aspects of restoration not always shown in such productions, a 1979 short documentary by Bill Holm and George Quimby (the men behind the seventies reconstruction) on the making of the original film, a feature-length presentation of Kwakwaka’wakw tribal dances performed by the Gwa’wina Dancers, and other supplements.

More restorations on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 08 2015

Milestones: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

Connection

Milestone

The Connection (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from Shirley Clarke, turns a stage play originally produced by New York’s revolutionary Living Theater as a play within a play into an innovative work of cinema. Clarke was a pioneering American independent filmmaker before that label was even invented and this is Volume One of Milestone films’ Project Shirley, their program to restore and rerelease (in theaters and on home video) the works of Clarke. It’s actually their third disc release—the documentaries Portrait of Jason (1967), a landmark of queer cinema, and Ornette: Made in America (1985), were ready for disc before The Connection—but it really is ground zero for the project and her career.

In this adaptation, a filmmaker and his cameraman (William Redfield and a largely off-screen but present Roscoe Lee Brown in his film debut) film a group of junkies in a New York loft as they await to score heroine (paid for by the filmmakers) from their drug dealer, a flamboyant character named Cowboy (Carl Lee). While they wait, the men trade-off delivering soliloquies to the camera, a jazz quartet (which includes composer Freddie Redd on piano and brilliant sax solos by Jackie McLean, both reprising their roles from the stage play) periodically launches into impromptu jams, and the director spouts off about film theory and authenticity without having any idea about the world he’s trying to capture. They alternately provoke the filmmaker, who has never so much as a taken a puff of marijuana, and perform for the prowling handheld cameras, and then slip off to the bathroom to discretely shoot up.

It’s experimental theater meets cinéma verité with a self-aware sensibility: a drama in documentary form. The cameras never leave the derelict loft yet the film is constantly in motion, whether it’s the restless movements of the actors or the handheld camerawork, constantly picking out characters and details, and Clarke’s editing gives the film a rhythm that rises and falls like a sustained piece of music.

‘The Connection’

It wasn’t the first American film to take a serious look at drug use but it was the rawest to date and it faced censorship battles due to language that today is tame. Most of the cast member reprise their stage roles and bring a theatricality to their performances, which Clarke emphasizes. The film is as much about performance (as actors, as characters, as junkies doing what they need to do for a fix) as it is about addiction and the culture of these down-and-out men. Like her later film Portrait of Jason, it collapses the space between personality and performance. It’s also a pioneering “found footage” film, presented as if it’s simply a rough assembly of raw footage shot by the filmmakers on 16mm, though the strong images are very much sculpted in light and preserved on 35mm. The film is actually quite handsome.

Milestone Films restored the film to near pristine condition (a few minutes show minor wear) and includes illuminating supplements on Blu-ray and DVD. There’s a slideshow gallery of behind the scenes still set to music from the film, home movies shot on the set during the last day of filming, interviews with art director Albert Brenner and actor / musician Freddie Redd. Note that the 1959 radio interview listed on the case was left off the disc, apparently due to poor audio quality.

More restorations on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 04 2015

Videophiled: ‘Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1′

Outlander S1V1

Sony

Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1 (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD), a mix of historical drama, romantic melodrama, and time-travel tale based on the novels of Diane Gabron, shows that Starz is starting to figure out this original cable series thing. That’s not to say they haven’t had their successes—Spartacus did just fine for them, thank you very much—but Outlander manages to combine serialized storytelling, budget-minded historical spectacle, and pay-cable nudity in a compelling story that never feels contrived or exploitative. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and build on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world.

Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, who spent World War II as a combat nurse and, with war’s end, is finally reunited with her husband (Tobias Menzies) for a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands. That’s where (and when), after witnessing a ceremony at an ancient Druid shrine, she’s cast back 200 years, landing in the midst of war between the occupying British army and the rogue Highland clans who are considered savages by the British. Both sides believe she’s a spy (especially a cold-blooded British officer who happens to be her husband’s ancestor and is played by the same actor) but she is slowly accepted into the MacKenzie clan and married to the handsome young Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), cousin to the clan laird and a man with a price on his head. It’s her protection from the British soldiers, if only in legal terms. But this sympathetic Brit in a Scottish land is still an outsider, much more than even they realize, and she keeps her wits about her in the hopes of returning to the shrine and hopefully getting back to her world and her husband. Her first husband. Needless to say, it gets complicated, and not just the timelines. She starts to fall for the romantic young Scot and it seems that Dougal (Graham McTavish), the clan laird, is falling for her.

Ronald D. Moore, the Star Trek TV veteran who rebooted Battlestar Galactica for SyFy, developed the show for Starz and scripts the key episodes of the first eight episodes, which ran on Starz in 2014 to strong ratings and reviews. Balfe gives Claire a courage and strength of character that makes her drama matter to us. No wonder everyone in this world is so fascinated with this woman who speaks her mind and has the courage of her convictions.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “An Epic Adaptation” and “The Dresses and Kilts of Outlander.” The Blu-ray also includes three additional featurettes, 21 deleted scenes, and a bonus Ultraviolent HD copy of all eight episodes. The second half of the first season begins in April and a second season is already in production.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Mar 03 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I’

HUngerGamesMock

Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the number one box office hit of 2015, follows the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series by splitting the final book into two film installments, making this the third of four films. For anyone who has read the books that might seem like quite a stretch, drawing out the first half of an already short novel to feature film length while including enough drama to entice viewers to return for the finale. Maybe my expectations were duly lowered but director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from filmmaker Gary Ross and raised the bar, and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong turn out a surprisingly engaging film about rebellion, propaganda, media, and the emotional and psychological scars of war, all seen from the point of view of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who becomes a symbol of resistance simply by surviving with courage, dignity, and compassion.

By this time in the saga, Katniss (Lawrence) has been rescued from the Games and the totalitarian “President” Snow (Donald Sutherland) by the rebellion, which is building its forces in underground bunkers beneath District 13, which everyone thought was bombed to cinders decades ago. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), however, did not escape and Snow and his propaganda team is using him in a propaganda campaign designed to attack the image of Katniss as the symbol of resistance. Julianne Moore joins the series as President Alma Coin, leader of the revolution and a savvy military mind who doesn’t quite understand the power of Katniss for the hearts and minds of Panem. She’s committed but also cagey and cold as a commander, wary about her own authority as Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in a series of pointed propaganda pieces that, curiously enough, work due to the earnest, guileless authenticity of Katniss in the face of the Capitol’s cruelty. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before production was completed on the film) and Jeffrey Wright provide the brain trust behind Snow’s leadership and their scenes help give the film added gravity.

Extending the final book across two films is a commercial decision rather than an artistic choice and it shows. The film takes us into strategy sessions and explores the efforts to shape Katniss into a packaged symbol with telling detail that, while interesting, slows the momentum of the story, even with battle scenes and action set pieces spaced through the film. It’s not enough to smother the fire of the film but it does douse Hutchinson (who plays a brainwashing victim with the empty sincerity of a sleepwalker) and Chris Hemsworth, who gets lost in the massive cast and busy script.

Lawrence, however, burns in the role of the reluctant Joan of Arc of the rebellion. She makes us feel that anxious turmoil of a teenage girl thrown into a battle she didn’t choose, both in her heartfelt response to the brutal repression and reprisals of the Capitol and in the private horror of the psychological warfare waged by President Snow to break her spirit and resolve. As the film keeps reminding us, she’s used by both sides and she knows it. But she also understands the stakes of the war. That’s a lot for one person, let alone a teenage girl, and Lawrence doesn’t let us forget it. And her haunting rendition of the song “The Hanging Tree” will linger in your mind long after the film is over.

Jennifer Lawrence as The Mockingjay

Like the disc releases of previous Hunger Games installments and all the Harry Potter films, this disc has taken a Friday release to set it apart from the rest of the week’s releases. So on Friday, March 6, the number one box office hit of 2015 arrives on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, and a sneak peek at the second chapter of the other Lionsgate young adult action / rebellion franchise: The Divergent Series: Insurgent. The Blu-ray Combo Pack also features the eight-part documentary “The Mockingjay Lives: The Making of Mockingjay: Part 1,” an in-depth, feature-length piece, and the featurettes “Straight from the Heart: A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman” and “Songs of Rebellion: Lorde on Curating the Soundtrack,” plus bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Feb 28 2015

Videophiled: ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’

WildAngels

Olive

Before Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels became a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction. The film was released before the ratings system was in effect but later given an R-rating for drug use and the HD master looks very good, especially considering its production history. Corman shot quick and dirty when necessary and a few shots stick out as soft or out-of-focus, quite likely a matter Corman making due and moving on to the next set-up.

PsychOut

Olive

Psych-Out (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) from 1968 belongs to another genre of youth exploitation cinema, one that put hippies and flower-power and counterculture imagery on the screen with a cautionary warning about the dangers of drugs and the hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle. This one, however, came from music mogul Dick Clark, and for all the drug culture stereotypes and free love displays, it’s at least more open to the positive aspects of San Francisco hippie culture than most counterculture portraits. Part of that is surely due to director Richard Rush, who explored counterculture protest movement with greater insight and intelligence in the underrated Getting Straight and direct the Oscar-nominated The Stunt Man, as well as a cast of ambitious youth movie veterans, many of them on the cusp of becoming major stars.

Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg) is a deaf girl who arrives in San Francisco from a straight suburban home in search of her brother (Bruce Dern), an artist who tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Jack Nicholson is Stoney, the callous hippie leader of a jam band who helps her dodge the cops and invites her to stay in his communal home (where there’s always a party going on) and his bed, and Dean Stockwell is band drop-out turned self-styled guru Dave, who lends his connections to her search and his patience to her pain.

This is the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power scene of hippie communes, free love, bad trips (future filmmaker Henry Jaglom sees dead people), and rock happenings, and while it tends to confirm the clichés of the era it’s more critical of the mainstream culture that dismisses and even persecutes the hippies. I’m not really sure why there’s a blue collar gang of tough guys out to get Jenny’s blissed-out, freaked-out brother, who lives in the city dump and is known as “the Seeker”—is there some Jesus allegory that got lost in the rewrites?—but it sure paints the straights as an intolerant, bigoted bunch. And Rush appreciates the energy and the idealism of the culture at its best while acknowledging contradictions in the individuals within. Nicholson’s Stoney can be a groovy guy but he’s also a little self-absorbed and certainly ambitious, trying to get his band out of the one-night-stands and into big venues and a recording contract. There’s something calculating about his embrace of the culture and insincere in his relationship with Jenny, who is more of a curiosity than a commitment. When he’s bored of the novelty his attentions wander to the blond groupie turned band tambourine player (Linda Gaye Scott) and Jenny loses her moorings in the unfamiliar party scene.

Susan Strasberg and Jack Nicholson

The music from Nicholson’s band is shamelessly derivative (their signature tune is reversal of a familiar Hendrix riff) but the film also features The Strawberry Alarm Clock performing their hit “Incense and Peppermint” in front of the liquid lightshow and Sky Saxon (of The Seeds) leading a funky funeral march. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who went on to shoot Easy Rider) brings a vivid, psychedelic look to the film that are nicely preserved on this disc. And watch for future TV producer and film director Garry Marshall as a plainclothes cop searching for Jenny in the first scene, sticking out of the coffeehouse scene like he’s Sgt. Joe Friday at a peace rally. Unfortunately this disc does not include the featurette from the DVD release.

More Blu-ray and DVD releases from Olive at Cinephiled

Feb 24 2015

Videophiled: Oscar winners ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Big Hero 6′ on disc and VOD

Two freshly-anointed Oscar winners arrive on home video this week: Whiplash, which won awards for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons and for editing, and sound mixing, and Big Hero 6, this year’s Best Animated Feature, debut on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Sony

In Whiplash (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), music competition is a bloodsport and J.K. Simmons’ instructor is as feared as he is respected. His Fletcher is the drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket in a simple black t-shirt and slacks and head shaved to a hard sheen and his boot camp is the school’s competition stage band: the best of the best. He bullies his students into total obedience and fear and they are desperate to win his approval while he browbeats, humiliates, and even physically assaults them, none more so than the intense and driven Buddy Rich disciple Andrew (Miles Teller). Teller is as fearless as Simmons, giving us an obsessive who is intense, driven, and at times insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed. He’s not very likable, at least not when he puts his drumming ahead of everything else, but he is compelling, taking the sports ethos of pushing past the pain to reach perfection. He literally bleeds for his art. Fletcher demands more through his hyena smile. He may actually believe that such tactics make better musicians (that which doesn’t kill only makes you a stronger player?) but he clearly enjoys the mind-games and emotional warfare. Simmons gives him life by playing it with cagey calculation, as if the very act of teaching is a competitive event.

This is as much psychological thriller as musical drama and it turns on the increasingly toxic chemistry between two clearly damaged people, to the exclusion of pretty much anyone else in the film. The other members of the band fade away as bystanders, object lessons, or seat-fillers and Andrew’s fleeting attempts at romance are all about how Fletcher’s influence infects him with the same emotional brutality. We never really get to know girl left wounded by his insensitivity. Such oversights allow the film to slip out of the real world and into a stylized arena of musical warfare but it works in the scheme of things. Writer / director Damien Chazelle has basically created a two-hander and that collision of ruthless ambition and ferocious control is riveting. The jazz band pieces, especially the title song “Whiplash,” give the film a brittle edge; these tunes aren’t played to express musical joy, they are designed to showcase musical precision, and the percussion-heavy element puts the film on edge as successfully as the drum solos in Birdman define the nervous tension of that film.

Blu-ray and DVD both feature commentary by filmmaker Damien Chazelle and co-star J.K. Simmons and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening with Chazelle, Simmons, and Miles Teller. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original short film Chazelle shot with Simmons to help fund the film (Simmons’ son plays the role that Teller essays in the feature), the 40-minute drumming documentary “Timekeepers,” and a deleted scene, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and cable and web VOD.

Disney

Big Hero 6 (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an adaptation of a Marvel Comics title but the filmmakers thoroughly transform it into a Disney feature, complete with issues of loss and family at the center of the creation of a student superhero team, with the spark of Pixar in its visual invention and knowing wit. The comic book was set in Tokyo but this plays out in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, where adolescent robotics prodigy Hiro discovers that his science fair invention has been turned into a weapon and then transforms his engineer brother’s plush medical bot, Baymax, into the cuddliest, sweetest, most protective crimefighter the world has ever seen. Together with his brother’s best friends and fellow engineering students, they form a team of what you might call science heroes, turning their inventions into superhero accessories.

In a stronger year Big Hero 6 might not have won the Oscar—it doesn’t have the timelessness or universality of the best Pixar movies or the elemental fairy tale resonance of Disney’s best—but there is no denying the art and heart of the film. Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock) voices the robot Baymax as a gentle nanny turned inflatable transformer, like a giant plush doll with the instinct of a caregiver and the mind of an overprotective child, a little slow on the uptake but utterly benevolent. That level of compassion is comforting amidst the flashy chaos of a superhero spectacle.

This disc actually offers two Oscar winners: Best Animated Short Feast, which played in front of the film in theaters, is included as a supplement. It also offers two featurettes—”The Origin Story of Big Hero 6: Hiro’s Journey,” which follows the process of adaptation process from comic book to animate feature, and “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters,” with the animators discussing the evolution of the characters on the screen—deleted scenes (in rough form, as they were removed in early stages of production; you can see one of them at the end of the post), and Easter Eggs for the kids to hunt for. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

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