Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February Blu-Ray Roundup


Amelia (Fox)Mira Nair’s sluggish biopic about the legendary female aviator fails to make Earhart’s life dramatically worthy, wasting a wonderful performance by the always-excellent Hilary Swank, who’s saddled with a wooden Richard Gere as husband George Putnam. Also dragging down the authenticity is Ronald Bass’s and Anna Hamilton Phelan’s script, which treats everything in Earhart’s life as an Event. The movie becomes a series of highlights that never form a real life. The excellent Blu-ray transfer compensates somewhat for the lackluster drama. Extras include vintage newsreels that give some context, nine deleted scenes and brief on-set interviews.

The Box2

The Box (Warners)Richard Kelly foolishly stretches out Richard Matheson’s creepy short story—about a couple agonizing over pressing a button and collecting a million dollars, which means a stranger will die—with elaborate and, finally, dumb subplots with conspiracy theories that involve extraterrestrials. Under the circumstances, we should thank stars Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella for not breaking into laughter. The movie often looks hazy and indistinct, which doesn’t translate well on Blu-ray; perhaps a small B&W TV would work better for this Twilight Zone-ish tale. In the special features—a Kelly commentary and interviews—the writer-director explains how he based the characters on his parents. There must be better ways to show one’s love.

Dead Snow

Dead Snow (IFC)Lovers of Nazi zombies should check out Dead Snow, but be warned: there’s a lot of dead space between the “money shots.” This Norwegian production, directed by Tommy Wirkola, takes its sweet time with indifferent actors being set up as victims, and when the carnage begins, Wirkola gets overly arty by withholding the actual blood and guts. But it isn’t until the final reels—when the zombies rise from their graves to hammer the lone survivors—does Dead Snow finally get moving. Since the movie’s primary colors are red and white, the Blu-ray transfer looks best in knee-deep, gore-splattered snow. Extras include on-set footage and short featurettes.


GoodFellas (Warners)For this 20th anniversary edition, Martin Scorsese’s epic mob study, starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in his breakout role, has been repackaged into an attractive 32-page digibook that adds a new disc with the gangster-film documentary, Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film. The movie—which looks good but not great on Blu-ray—and its original extras (commentaries, featurettes, even gangster cartoons) are otherwise the same from the previous release. Scorsese fans who want to double-dip should remember that they may already have the Public Enemies documentary on an earlier Warner boxed set, Gangsters Collection, Vol. 4.


The Informant! (Warners) Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, recounting a real-life whistleblower who nearly torpedoes the government’s case through greed and idiocy, has been shot like a 1970’s conspiracy flick, with jaunty Dixieland music by Marvin Hamlisch a la Woody Allen’s Bananas underscoring the documentary-style visuals a la The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. Still, for all its technical prowess and an against-the-grain lead performance by Matt Damon, The Informant feels oddly flat when a jokiness that doesn’t always serve the material rears up: there’s an!Oceans 11 vibe that signals another interesting, but flawed, Soderbergh experiment. That sharp ’70s look remains on Blu-ray; deleted scenes are the main extra, with an illuminating Blu-only audio commentary by Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns.


Pelleas et Melisande (TDK)Rarely has Claude Debussy’s lovely, gossamer opera seemed so cold and forbidding as in this 2004 Zurich staging by director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, whose bright idea was to have the singers perform alongside mannequins, which stand in for the characters. So Debussy’s demanding score becomes a soundtrack for mental patients, which is one way to look at Bechtolf’s anti-romantic strangeness. Luckily, leads Rodney Gilfry and Isabel Rey and conductor Franz Welser-Most leading the orchestra give their all to Debussy’s formidable, still-fresh score, making one forget such foolish visuals as Melisande putting a hat over her “dead” double at the end. Blu-ray’s visuals accentuate the staging’s more exquisite qualities, and the audio sounds spectacular.

Sorority Row2

Sorority Row (Summit)Although Sorority Row promises a sexy, bloody thriller about a group of college bimbos who die one by one at the hands of an avenging killer, instead, we get a stultifyingly slow, unexciting B-movie in which the actresses seem to be chosen for their ability to scream, not act or even speak (example: Rumer Willis, Bruce and Demi’s offspring); but in these ladies’ defense, the dialogue and the entire script deserve a merciless murdering. Blu-ray at least makes the pallid gory sequences look better than they deserve. Extras include deleted scenes, outtakes and on-set interviews.

Time Traveler's Wife2

The Time Traveler’s Wife (New Line) Since author Audrey Niffenegger’s original novel is supposedly deep and serious for a fantasy, what might otherwise be ignored as silly contrivance in the film version becomes more obnoxious as the plotting twists itself into a pretzel. Indeed, not only does the story makes no sense, but it becomes more nonsensical as it goes along. It might be faint praise, but since Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams are the most attractive onscreen couple in awhile, The Time Traveler’s Wife’s watchability stems solely from their chemistry. The movie’s misty romantic look is perfectly rendered on Blu-ray—which might even be the main reason its stars glisten and shine so much. Extras comprise two on-set featurettes and the ubiquitous digital copy that I’ve never had occasion to use.


Triangle (First Look)When horror films get arty, watch out. Take director Christopher Smith’s initially acceptable genre exercise: a group of leisurely sailing friends are caught in the Bermuda Triangle, only to reach a deserted ship, which they board. Soon, they are mown down by a mysterious killer. The filmmakers tie themselves in knots exploring one character’s multiple personalities, which is plausible only as another kind of dramatic rug-pulling: you can’t figure anything out because you have no idea what’s going on. When The Twilight Zone did this sort of thing 40 years ago, it was in digestible half-hour nuggets, not overbaked 90-minute slogs. Still, on Blu-ray, it’s a good-looking gorefest.


Tristan und Isolde (Opus Arte)I agree that directors have to find fresh takes on familiar operas or they’re liable to become museum pieces. But what Christoph Marthaler wreaks on Wagner’s exquisitely tragic romance—staged at the composer’s shrine, Bayreuth, last summer—is sacrilege. We’re in the early 60s (Isolde sports a Jackie Kennedy hairdo), and our lovers sing and die in a setting that’ less timeless tragedy than movie of the week. Again (as with Pelleas), the musical standards are high, from ace singers Robert Dean Smith (Tristan) and Irene Theorin (Isolde) to Peter Schneider leading the splendid orchestra. Visually and aurally, this is one of the best-looking opera Blu-rays I’ve seen and heard; the lone extra is a 45-minute production documentary with interviews of the director, conductor, singers and Wagner’s great-granddaughter (and current Bayreuth head) Katharina.

Whip It2

Whip It (Fox) Never one of my favorite actresses, Drew Barrymore smartly picked a subject—women’s roller derby—for her directorial debut, and Whip It has a certain effortless charm that befits its throwaway topic. Ellen Page is dangerously close to becoming stereotyped as the witty teen outsider, but she still can play that role superbly, so why not? Barrymore knows enough to concentrate on Page, and backs her up with a colorful supporting cast—Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Eve, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Barrymore herself—to prevent the movie from slipping into monotony. With nicely-handled derby sequences, Whip It is trashy fun. Blu-ray accentuates its grungy, dark palette, and the extras comprise several deleted scenes and a featurette on screenwriter-novelist Shauna Cross.
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