Thursday, August 19, 2010

August Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Date Night (Fox)
Even Steve Carell and Tina Fey's best efforts can't raise Date Night above intermittent laughter. As a married couple out for a night in Manhattan that goes spectacularly wrong, Carell and Fey get more comedy out of a formulaic script than most others would, with good, amusing moments from both, especially Fey, who can milk laughs out of a simple glance even more inspiredly than her co-star, whose everyman persona is getting old fast. The movie's Manhattan locations are well-chosen, and the Blu-ray transfer, while not the gold standard, gets the job done. Extras include an extended version of the film with 14 minutes of mediocre material, director Shawn Levy's commentary, deleted, extended and alternate scenes, featurettes and the ubiquitous gag reel, which shows that Carell and Fey probably and more fun making Date Night than we do watching it.

The Ghost Writer (Summit)
Based on Robert Harris's tense novel The Ghost, a thriller about a ghost writer, hired to pen a former British prime minister's autobiography, who finds himself in international intrigue and political assassination, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is diverting but minor stuff, an entertaining instance of a great director slumming—sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not. This story seems more exciting on the page than onscreen, maybe because Polanski treats it too cavalierly, assuming that twists and turns are enough. There's much impressive technique on display from the director and his actors Pierce Brosnan as the Tony Blair-like disgraced politician, Ewan McGregor as the ghost, Olivia Williams as the PM's smart wife and Kim Cattrall as his faithful assistant. Expertly shot by Pavel Edelman in European locations believably standing in for Cape Cod, The Ghost Writer looks immaculate on Blu-ray: Polanski's naturalistic visuals keep us grounded in a realistic milieu. The meager extras include interviews with Polanski, Harris and the cast.

DVDs of the Week
Helen (E1)
Thanks to many rote action dramas, Ashley Judd has gotten short shrift as a formidable actress. But films like Ruby in Paradise and Bug have shown that she can give nuanced, complex performances if the material warrants it. So too her riveting turn in Helen as an emotionally crippled mother who sinks so deeply into depression she begins a precarious friendship with Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith), who suffers from bipolar disorder. Sandra Nettelbeck has written and directed a sober character study that's flawed solely by melodramatic excess, especially in Mathilda's subplot. But with Judd in top form, and solid support by Goran Visnjic as her husband and Alexia Fast as her young daughter, Helen is a psychologically convincing portrait. The extras comprise short interviews with Judd, Visnjic, Smith and Fast.

Welcome (Film Movement)
The French drama Welcome accomplishes a miraculous balancing act by dramatizing the plight of illegal immigrants without sentimentality or cheap dramatics: 17-year-old Kurdish refugee Bilal has crossed Europe in hopes of reuniting with his girlfriend living in England. But when he reaches northern France, authorities prevent him from going any further. His audacious idea is to swim to her, and Simon, a local swimming instructor whose personal life is a mess, reluctantly helps him. Director Philippe Lioret avoids a didactic debate about illegal immigration, instead showing sympathy for those who have taken it upon themselves to make new lives in a new country. Vincent Lindon (Simon) gives a textbook lesson in understatement; newcomer Firat Ayverdi (Bilal) persuasively reveals what’s at stake for a young man whose only crime is that he was born in the wrong country. The lone extra is a British short, Berlin Wall.

CDs of the Week
Alondra de la Parra: Mi Alma Mexicana (My Mexican Soul) (Sony Classical)
Young Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra has already shown her mettle with fiercely committed performances leading the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in the past few years. She champions the music of her home country, and in a surprisingly daring move, Sony Classical has released a two-disc set of her conducting her own orchestra in two hours' worth of Mexican music spanning 125 years, Mi Alma Mexicana (My Mexican Soul), a decent overview of 13 mainly obscure composers. Manuel M. Ponce's scintillating guitar concerto is performed with brio by Pablo Sainz Villegas, while Silvestre Revueltas' impressive Sensemaya and Federico Ibarra's compressed yet compelling Symphony No. 2, Las antesalas del sueno, are other highlights. Alex Brown's solo playing makes one wish we could hear the entire concerto for piano improvisation by Eugenio Toussaint, not only the Largo movement. De la Parra and her players' enthusiasm makes one anticipate this superb conductor's next project.

Erwin Schulhoff/Stefan Wolpe (Ars Medici)
20th century classical music was forever changed by the Nazis, who not only murdered millions but also destroyed a rich musical legacy in the countries they overran. The composers heard on this wonderful recording by the Ensemble Aventure chamber group were Jews hounded by the Nazis: Erwin Schulhoff died in a concentration camp in 1942 and Stepan Wolpe emigrated to the United States, where he lived, taught and composed until his death in 1972. Both Schulhoff and Wolpe's “dadaist” works—which have outlived that short radical artistic movement—are presented in their original context, with two Schulhoff pieces preceded by a “Dada prologue.” Schulhoff's expressive chamber works for unusual combinations—Bass Nightingale for double bassoon or Divertissement for oboe clarinet and bassoon—and the two Wolpe works—the mini-opera To Anna Blume and the Sonata for Oboe and Piano—give fine introductions to two composers whose music should be more widely-heard. This disc (which, at 55 minutes, could easily include another work by each composer) is a promising start.

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