Digital Week – September 19th

Blu-rays of the Week

The Vietnam War (PBS)

For the formidable team of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, it was only a matter of time before they got to the Vietnam War—following Burns’ famous The Civil War and The War (on World War II)—and, over 10 episodes and 18 hours, theirs is a thorough and informative history lesson in the usual Burns way, with clear-eyed chronicling and analysis from fascinating talking heads and sobering archival footage. It might not be the last word on such a divisive, disastrous war, but what could? On Blu, the series looks and sounds fantastic (big late ‘60s-early ‘70s hits are heard throughout); extras include a making-of featurette and extra scenes.

The Big Knife (Arrow Academy) / Erik the Conqueror (Arrow)

Clifford Odets’s intriguing but overly melodramatic play The Big Knife—on Broadway a few seasons ago with Bobby Cannavale—was adapted by director Robert Aldrich in 1955, an unsatisfying exploration of a Hollywood superstar’s difficulty balancing his personal and professional lives, despite strong work from Jack Palance, Ida Lupino and Shelley Winters. Italian schlockmeister Mario Bava’s 1961 Erik the Conqueror—an often risible but mainly watchable swords-and-sandals epic—has its moments, especially whenever stunning twins Alice and Ellen Kessler are onscreen. The films look pleasing enough in new hi-def restorations; extras include commentaries and Erik’s original ending.

Festival (Criterion)

Murray Lerner—who died earlier this month at age 90—directed this classic 1967 time-capsule about the Newport Folk Festival, with performances by luminaries Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger. Criterion’s Blu-ray features a superbly restored print with excellent sound, bonus musical performances, When We Played Newport, a new program of archival interviews with Lerner, music festival producer George Wein, Baez, Seeger, Judy Collins, Buffy Saint-Marie, and Peter Yarrow, and Editing “Festival,” with Lerner, associate editor Alan Heim, and assistant editor Gordon Quinn.

Madonna—Rebel Heart Tour (Eagle Rock)

Although her career has gone on longer than I expected for a celebrity of scant musical and artistic worth—notwithstanding a brilliant PR machine—Madonna does hire the best in the business, so this two-hour concert from her most recent tour is well-paced, -staged and -performed by her band and sundry dancers. That she’s always been arrogantly unsubtle has served her well with her many fans, and she gives them what they want: “shocking” sexual come-ons and a “daring” potty mouth. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch; extras include excerpts from another concert and a performance of “Like a Prayer.”

The Slayer / The Ghoul (Arrow)

In 1982’s The Slayer, two couples find themselves at the mercy of a killer in a remote vacation house; director J.S. Cardone’s slasher flick is heavy on atmosphere and gore but light on true chills, despite a game, attractive cast and photogenic locale (Tybee Island, Georgia). Dime-store psychology gives way to absurdity in The Ghoul (2013), Gareth Tunley’s would-be thinking-person’s thriller about a detective investigating bizarre murders, with an accomplished cast unable to overcome bumpy dramaturgy. Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; extras include commentaries, interviews and making-of featurettes.

Wonder Woman (Warner Brothers)

If it wasn’t for Gal Gadot—an Israeli actress who dominates the screen with personality, charisma, charm and fierce strength—as the title character, this overlong, overstuffed, underwritten and self-important superhero movie would be as redundant and pointless as all the others from the past decade or so. Director Patty Jenkins harnesses what she can of Gadot’s uniqueness but 40-50 minutes of bloat needed to be shorn from this 2-hour, 20-minute slog. The movie looks great on Blu; extras are extended scenes, blooper reel, alternate scene and several featurettes.

DVDs of the Week

Abacus—Small Enough to Jail (PBS)

Anyone still outraged that no big bank executives were punished for actions leading to the 2008 financial meltdown—except for several billions of dollars in fines, more than offset by taxpayer bailouts and bonuses—will be enraged anew by director Steve James’ probing look at how tiny Abacus Bank in New York’s Chinatown was the only financial institution hauled into court. As James deftly demonstrates, overreach by the New York attorney general’s office was the bigger story: it tried for at least one conviction, however miniscule in the grand scheme of things, to show it was tough on the big bad bankers. This is also a tale of the togetherness of a family banding together to fight to clear the name of the institution it’s run for generations.

The Treasure (Sundance Selects)

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu loves shaggy-dog stories, which he once again pursues in his latest dryly droll feature, of a piece with his earlier, accomplished but flawed Police, Adjective and 12:08, East of Bucharest. A treasure hunt undertaken by a man and his neighbor serves as a metaphor for post-Communist, post-capitalist Romanian society—one with lots of skeletons in its historical closet—with priceless moments of deadpan observation alternating with arid stretches.