Monday, July 26, 2010

July Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week

The Losers (Warner Brothers)

Loud, bombastic action pictures are a dime a dozen, and The Losers, despite clever touches, is no exception: a group of CIA black ops, stuck in Bolivia, finds themselves battling various thugs and underworld criminals while being helped by a femme fatale to end all femme fatales. Sylvain White’s flick has the requisite shootouts and rote violent sequences--including a badly-done CGI explosion that mars the slam-bang finale--but it has, among a mainly interchangeable cast of male actors, the indispensable Zoe Saldana. Freed from her hideous blue colorings in Avatar, the gorgeous Saldana shows enough gumption guts to ignite the fantasies of the James Cameron fan boys. She might actually have the goods to make a female-based action franchise succeed (especially if Angelina Jolie in Salt fizzles out). The Losers gets a top-notch hi-def transfer, good news for a movie about guns and hardware. Extras include the usual bombast about its making and fun with the cast, including a featurette about Saldana joining--and outclassing--the boys’ club.

Steamboat Bill Jr. (Kino)
Arguments about whether Buster Keaton was “greater” than Charlie Chaplin are moot: I would side with Chaplin, but happily, we don’t have to choose. In any case, Keaton’s slapstick films rank among the funniest ever. Although Steamboat Bill Jr. ambles along for 45 minutes, the pay-off sequences late in the movie, in which Keaton is caught in a hurricane and a flood, are so stunning in their sheer audacious hilarity (high winds blow Keaton around and houses crumble around him, all expertly done by the star himself, of course--no stunt doubles or CGI) that you watch the final 20 minutes with your jaw on the floor. Kino’s new hi-definition transfer is the best-looking Steamboat Bill, Jr. I’ve yet seen, although not on the level of their earlier Blu-ray of Keaton’s The General. Extras include an alternate cut of the film, a short retrospective documentary, even two music videos (!!). It’s too bad that, on the back of the box, the illiterate phrase “comprised of” is used not once, but twice.

DVDs of the Week

Entre Nos (IndiePix)
This valentine to co-director/star Paola Mendoza’s mother showcases, without sentimentality, how a new immigrant living in Queens with her husband and two young kids learns to survive after hubby leaves for Miami and a better job and never returns. In this heartwarming drama, Mariana discovers that she can raise her children even in the most difficult of circumstances. Mendoza’s lovely and utterly natural acting makes it very easy to fall in love with this low-key and unassuming movie, even as it smooths over some hardships the family faces. Special features include a directors’ commentary, Mendoza’s short film Still Standing, a behind-the-scenes featurette and another one about making empanadas (the movie will explain!).

A Town Called Panic (Zeitgeist)
This Belgian stop-motion animated feature is, in a word, wacky. The introduction of the denizens of the panicky place in which the movie’s set is gutbustingly funny, as they--to a man (or animal)--are supremely on edge. After the first, transcendently creative half--as the tiny plastic figures are made to do things so insane (and inane) that the filmmakers who actually thought it all up deserve our endless thanks--gags start getting repetitive, jokes get staler and the movie comes apart at the seams, limping to the homestretch. Still, it deserves applause for what it attempts, if not what it achieves, and for doing it in a very original way. Zeitgeist’s disc includes interviews with directors Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier, deleted scenes, La Fabrique de Panique (a 52-min. making-of doc) and a bizarre short, Obsessive Compulsive, chosen by the directors as the winner of the company’s Stop-Motion Animation Contest to accompany this film on DVD.

CDs of the Week

Tribute to Frederic Chopin by Irena Portenko (Blue Griffin Recording)
Victoria Mushkatkol Plays Bach and Chopin (Fantasy Records)
In this bicentennial year of Frederic Chopin’s birth, it’s only natural that we are getting inundated with many Chopin CD releases. The Polish composer’s reputation rests almost entirely on his solo piano music, even though he wrote concertos and other orchestra works; and it is that formidable array of compositions that these new releases are leaning on, including these excellent new discs by pianists Irena Portenko and Victoria Mushkatkol. Portenko’s disc focuses on two dozen of Chopin’s glorious Etudes, 12 each of Op. 10 and Op. 25. Hearing these short but substantial pieces--most no more than two to three minutes long--might make one think that Chopin was a master of miniatures; even the meatier works Portenko plays on this enticing collection (Etudes, Op. 10, No.3, and Op. 25, No. 7) are less than six minutes long. Mushkatkol’s more substantive two-CD set opens strongly with Bach’s French Overture before settling into Chopin’s larger keyboard pieces, among them several Ballades, scherzos, and mazurkas, along with an opening Barcarole. Both women play Chopin as if their lives depended on it—which, being pianists, they obviously do.

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