Digital Week – July 7


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This week’s roundup is highlighted by 4K releases of two certified classics: Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 masterly “King Lear adaptation, “Ran” (streaming only); and the 1971—and best—version of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (on disc). Also worth noting are Ellen Burstyn in the new senior rom-com, “Queen Bees” and a first-rate documentary about the infamous Japanese women’s volleyball team, “The Witches of the Orient” (both in theaters).

4K Releases of the Week

Ran (Lionsgate)

Ran (Lionsgate)Akira Kurosawa’s black, bleak 1985 war drama is among the Japanese master’s greatest epics, poetically showing man’s inhumanity by compellingly welding Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to traditional Noh theater. Kurosawa’s masterly adaptation gives that tremendous actor Tatsuya Nakadai (mostly hidden behind amazing make-up) one of his best roles as the foolish king who destroys his empire by dividing it among his two older sons and banishing the youngest. There’s much to admire—two unforgettable battle sequences, the despairing yet breathtaking final shots, Toru Takemitsu’s perfectly realized score—especially in a new 4K restoration that shows off Kurosawa’s stunning use of color, both realistically and symbolically.

Space Jam (Warner Bros)

Space Jam (Warner Bros)Re-released on UHD to coincide with the new Lebron James version arriving in theaters, Joe Pytka’s 1996 original starring Michael Jordan shooting hoops with Bugs Bunny and other animated characters is certainly no classic, but it does do the job entertainingly and succinctly. I’m surprised it took a quarter-century for a reboot, but today’s quantum leap forward in visual effects might hinder the new version. Of course, this looks dazzling in 4K; the accompanying Blu-ray disc includes the film, and extras are a commentary with Pytka, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, vintage making-of and two music videos

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros)

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros)One of the most beloved movies ever makes the jump to 4K in a 50th anniversary edition: despite it softening the edges of Roald Dahl’s original story, there’s no denying Gene Wilder’s career-defining portrayal of Wonka, which dominates the movie despite not appearing nearly halfway through. The movie, of course, looks lovely in ultra hi-def, and the accompanying Blu-ray disc also includes the film. Several interesting extras include some of the now-grown kid actors in an amusing and informative commentary; the documentary, “Pure Imagination,” with such priceless tidbits as why the title was changed from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (apparently because of tie-in chocolate “Wonka bars”); a vintage featurette; and four singalong songs.

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week

Queen Bees (Gravitas Ventures)

Queen Bees (Gravitas Ventures)Like the stars of recent feel-good senior citizen romantic comedies, such as Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn makes the most of her chance to display her continued vitality and charm well into her 80s as a stubborn widow who finally acquiesces to her harried daughter and loving grandson by moving into a retirement home, where she reluctantly makes new friends and even—surprise!—finds love. Michael Lembeck directs and Donald Martin writes with a sledgehammer, but let’s face it, subtlety would be lost in such a cutesy concoction; at least Burstyn’s partners in crime are the equally winning Ann-Margret, Loretta Devine and Jane Curtin—these women leave the poor men, James Caan and Christopher Lloyd, far behind.

Till Death (Screen Media)

Till Death (Screen Media)If viewers ignore the hypocrisy and the many howlers in the dialogue, plotting and plain common sense, S.K. Dale’s brittle chiller about a harried wife who is (literally) chained to her husband while the bad guys invade their remote winter hideaway is certainly an effective contraption. That the glamorous Megan Fox, of all people, plays the wife with her usual self-assurance—always looking like a supermodel no matter how much blood has splattered or how long she runs in the snow and ice in her bare feet—makes this even more of a guilty pleasure.

Werewolves Within (IFC Films)

Werewolves Within (IFC Films)It’s not surprising that this less-than-clever horror parody is based on a video game: the characters are caricatures, the would-be scares are telegraphed mercilessly, and the rat-a-tat dialogue is smart-ass without being particularly smart. Josh Ruben directs with his tongue firmly in cheek; it’s too bad that this particular style renders anything that’s potentially worthwhile into something that’s enervating, like the appealingly off-kilter performance of Milana Vayntrub as a postal worker assisting Sam Richardson—who unfortunately repeats his limited comedic effects from “Veep.”

The Witches of the Orient (KimStim)

The Witches of the Orient (KimStim)I knew nothing about the Japanese women’s volleyball team that won the gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in front of a delighted home crowd, but Julien Faraut’s slyly satisfying documentary introduces us to several of the players today, and they discuss the team, their coach, their nicknames, the atmosphere, the racism they encountered, and their origins as Osaka factory workers. Faraut cleverly shoots new interviews and shows vintage footage in the old-style Academy ratio: when the gold-medal match vs. Russia is in widescreen and vivid color, the effect is transforming.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Chain Lightning (Warner Archive)

>Chain Lightning (Warner Archive)This creakily watchable B movie likely got a hi-def release since it stars Humphrey Bogart; in 1950, he was at the top of his profession, and even though the role of Lt. Colonel Matt Brennan—a former star aviator in the military who fearlessly tests the newest air technology—doesn’t fit him snugly, his charismatic appearance keeps director Stuart Heisler’s routine melodrama aloft, despite the dated aerial sequences. There’s also solid support from Raymond Massey as Bogey’s new boss at the civilian company and Eleanor Parker as the woman on the ground he’s in love with. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise a contemporary cartoon and short.

His Dark Materials—Complete 2nd Season (Warner Bros)

His Dark Materials—Complete 2nd Season (Warner Bros)The continuing cosmic adventures of Lyra and Will, the two youngsters who must navigate the multiple universes in this fantasy world created by novelist Philip Pullman once again conjure up many diverting sequences, especially the more fantastical ones. Even more so than in the first season, however, there’s never a sense that something personal is at stake, and the moribund earthbound sequences keep this technically superlative adaptation from really taking flight. Luckily, Ruth Wilson gives a typically multi-layered performance as the enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, which keeps the series on track for much of its length. Unsurprisingly, all seven episodes look spectacular in hi-def; extras include on-set featurettes.

Madame Curie (Warner Archive)

Madame Curie (Warner Archive)While it’s certainly not good history, this romanticized 1943 biopic about Marie Curie, the pathbreaking Polish scientist whose discovery of radium with her French husband Pierre led to her early death, is as entertaining as Hollywood hokum can be without becoming risible. Director Mervyn LeRoy gets tremendously affecting performances by Greer Garson as Marie and Walter Pidgeon as Pierre, which go a long way toward forgiving the willful distance from the facts. The B&W film looks luminous on Blu; the lone extra is a short, “Romance of Radium.”

DVD Releases of the Week

Drunk History—The Complete Series (Paramount/Comedy Central)

Drunk History—The Complete Series (Paramount/Comedy Central)There’s something amusing in theory about a bunch of semi-recognizable celebrities trying to discuss important events in American history while under the influence of alcohol, but most memorable about this long-running Comedy Central series are the reenactments where other celebrities act out the events, even mouthing the exact slurred words. Still, a little of this goes a long way: if you’re already a fan, you’ll gobble up all six seasons. Others might just sample a few episodes here and there. Extras are drunk outtakes, deleted scenes, extended clips and the “sober reveal,” where the previously inebriated talkers revisit their episodes while not under the influence.

Us on Masterpiece (PBS)

Us on Masterpiece (PBS)Based on David Nicholls’ novel about Connie and Douglas, a couple about to divorce who still go on a long-awaited European vacation with their son, Albie, himself about to leave the nest for college, “Us” is an alternately insightful and clichéd glimpse at complicated relationships that doesn’t justify its four-hour running time. Too often the series seems like a thinly veiled travelogue that visits places like Paris, Amsterdam and Venice—the family’s interactions with one another and others (with the exception of Freja, a lovely divorcee Douglas meets) are labored and overdone. Despite excellent performances by Tom Hollander (Douglas), Saskia Reeves (Connie), Tom Taylor (Albie) and Sofie Gråbøl (Freja), “Us” is much less than the sum of its parts. Extras are three making-of featurettes.