Please note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while Blu-ray or Blu-ray/DVD combos are in italics and bold font.
Most viewers took a pass on Being Flynn (Universal), director Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Nick Flynn’s marvelously titled memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, largely for fear of another maudlin family-in-crisis drama starring Robert De Niro. Their concerns were certainly warranted, but in doing so, they missed a capable if minor drama that narrowly skirts the melodramatic aspects of its story, about an aspiring writer (Paul Dano) who finds his long-absent father (De Niro) in a homeless shelter. Dano’s attempts to forge a new relationship with his father, a writer whose alcoholism kept him from proving his talent to the world. Twin voice-overs by Dano and De Niro trace the mental and emotional missteps that have caused the son to follow in some of his father’s footsteps; your taste for VO will likely anchor you to the picture or unmoor you altogether. Those who stay will find solid work by the increasingly untouchable Dano as well as one of De Niro’s more palatable Big Performances in recent years.
There’s an array of music titles on the schedule this week, the most prominent of which is probably Jimi Plays Berkeley (Sony Legacy), which has always been a frustrating experience (so to speak) for Hendrix fans. Though his 1970 performance at the Berkeley Community Theater is stellar, the visual portion of the film is rife with unsteady and occasionally unfocused camerawork, as well as edited songs and extraneous footage of student riots, that makes actually viewing it a disorienting (and occasionally nauseating) chore. The new Blu-ray attempts to improve matters by fleshing out some of the concert footage with previously unseen snippets not seen in the original theatrical release, but Berkeley‘s selling point has always been the music, which is presented here in a new stereo and 5.1 surround sound mix, as well as a complete second set (audio only) from the same night, also in 5.1 surround sound. Not perfect – never will be – but it’s the best you’ll get from this particular effort.
Also available is Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones: Live at the Checkerboard Lounge Chicago 1981 (Eagle Vision), a short but sweet set featuring Waters and his band, along with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, backed at various times by Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Ian Stewart, with Mick Jagger joining on a few songs. The energy and interaction between the players, who appear not only well lubricated (pass the whiskey, boys) but in excellent spirits, is the chief attraction of this DVD, as is a clip of the Stones performing “Black Limousine” from the same period.
There’s also Fela Kuti: Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense & Berliner Jazztage ’78 (Lorber), a two-fer disc featuring a hour-long documentary on Fela that includes a typically electrifying performance in Glastonbury, England, and a TV broadcast of his headlining date with Afrika ’70 at a German jazz festival. And Robert Plant and the Band of Joy: Live from the Artists Den (Universal) is a satisfying live set from 2011 showcasing Plant’s now-defunct Band of Joy and, in particular, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller, who get their own time in the spotlight during a set list comprised of solo and Zeppelin material.
Oh, and on the feature front, the wartime drama Flowers of War (Lions Gate), which gained some press when star Christian Bale was roughed up by Chinese security forces during film, is the well-crafted if occasionally overwrought story of an American mortician (Bale) who finds himself thrown in with a terrified group of Chinese schoolgirls, as well as a cadre of tough prostitutes, during the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937. Bale’s decision to forgo freedom and make an attempt to save these women forms the emotional backbone of the story, which takes a battering from the relentless violence that occurs throughout the picture. Directed by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers), Flowers of War is beautifully filmed and acted but at times a trial due to the downbeat intensity of the material.
The Saphead (Kino Classics) marked Buster Keaton’s feature film debut, and as such, it’s worth seeing from a historical standpoint, although the picture itself is a largely dreary melodrama, with Keaton playing the wastrel son of a wealthy Wall Street family who must prove his worth to his family. There are relatively few moments for Keaton to show off his comic talents, save for a couple of reaction shots, so the picture is mostly for silent buffs or those interested in seeing his transition from featured player in shorts to an actor in longform projects. But even at this early stage in his career, Keaton possessed a unique presence – note his stillness as the other actors gesticulate with theatrical abandon – that suggested a quiet, controlled power, even in a somewhat wishy-washy role as this one.
Meanwhile, Warner has a spate of science fiction titles new to Blu-ray this week, including Ken Russell’s Altered States, the still-unnerving Coma, Peter Hyams’ outer space Western Outland, with Sean Connery and the great Peter Boyle, and Brainstorm, special effects designer Douglas Trumbull’s ill-fated thriller released shortly after star Natalie Wood’s death. Each have their merits (Brainstorm perhaps less than the others; it’s a ponderous film, though marred by Wood’s death during production, which forced reshoots) and their faults, but all will help a hot afternoon pass quickly.
Though far from Hammer Films’ best vampire movies, Twins of Evil (Synapse) is a colorful 1971 effort from the British horror factory, largely due to its plotting, which pits Puritan Peter Cushing against Damien Thomas’ vampire king, with twin beauties Madeleine and Mary Collins (both future Playmates) as the object of their respective lusts. The final film in an unofficial trilogy based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla that included the superior Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire, Twins of Evil ping-pongs between overripe comic book fantasy and a lush Gothic morbidity thanks to some striking visual set pieces, but what keeps the affair tipping into camp is the conflict between hardline conservative Cushing and undead libertine Thomas, with both sides offering fairly convincing arguments for their actions. Synapse’s Blu-ray/DVD combo looks gorgeous and offers supplements that run almost as long as the picture itself, including an exhaustive making-of doc featuring experts like Tim Lucas, Joe Dante, Kim Newman and David Skal; the Blu-ray offers deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, among countless other special features.
Speaking of hardline conservatives, Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi (HBO) follows the Journeys with George filmmaker through the American South to examine the Evangelical community in its many and often dizzying manifestations. Pelosi largely lets her subjects define their position for themselves, including a brace of big-name ministers like Jerry Falwell, Joel Osteen and the disgraced Ted Haggard, as well as Christian comics, wrestlers, teachers with a creationism bent and even a fellow with a Bible-themed mini-putt green. To her credit, Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) casts neither a critical nor comic look on the people she encounters, despite their occasionally out-to-lunch claims; rather, she accepts that for many, this is their belief, and allows them to present it for your approval or dismissal. It’s a typically fine HBO documentary, and an entirely prescient one, given our upcoming election mishegas.
Also available is Adventure Time: The Complete First Season (Warner Bros.), which improves on previous pick-and-choose DVD releases by including all 26 mini-episodes of this endearingly offbeat animated series from Cartoon Network. At once a charming tribute to and spoof of fantasy media, the series follows human Finn and his talking dog Jake (John DiMaggio of Futurama) in their fight against the Ice King (Tom Kenney, Spongebob Squarepants), whose penchant for kidnapping princesses causes much consternation throughout the mythical Kingdom of Ooo. The heroes are aided in their quest by a bass-playing vampire girl, a talking video game console and a lumpy space princess named, accurately enough, Lumpy Space Princess; stories are short and sweet and thoroughly cracked, and invariably underscore both the human frailties lurking beneath larger-than-life exteriors and the inherent absurdity of fantasy scenarios. The whole thing clocks in at a little over two hours, with a variety of fairly silly making-of extras as chasers. Adventure Time has the giddiness of classic Saturday morning fare, but with a welcome sense of self-satire that adds some fizz to the bubblegum froth.