Monday, March 7, 2011

March '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Bambi (Disney)
One of Walt Disney’s most celebrated animated classics, Bambi was made in 1942, but in its new and sparkling Blu-ray transfer, it looks like it’s from 2011. At a mere 70 minutes, Bambi also demonstrates how masterly Disney was at the economy of its storytelling, a far cry from the padded characters and sequences of today’s overrated computer cartoons, especially the Pixar movies that everyone loves. The breathtaking simplicity of the tale, the animation and the use of music and sound is still remarkable nearly 70 years later. Extras include an introduction by Diane Disney Miller (Walt’s daughter), two deleted scenes, the deleted song “Twitterpated” (which would obviously have a different meaning today), Inside Walt’s Story Meetings and bonus features from the original DVD release.

Burlesque (Sony)
I hate to use the word “disappointing” about Burlesque, but I admit I was hoping for something like Showgirls, a “so bad it’s good” flick. The dance rivalries in Burlesque, by contrast, are deadly dull, with Cher rotely playing Cher, Christina Aguilera showing basic competence as a performer, and the big musical set pieces resembling Christina’s videos on a loop. There’s scenery-chewing by Alan Cumming and Peter Gallagher, while Kristen Bell and Julianne Hough barely register as rival dancers. Writer-director Steven Antin has neither distinguished nor embarrassed himself. On Blu-ray, the movie has a sheen that has its appeal; extras include a director’s commentary, alternate opening, blooper reel, complete song performances and five making-of featurettes.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Lorber)
This revealing documentary of the mercurial Canadian pianist shows a man more complex than the usual “tortured artist” stereotype: he was a warm individual whose eccentricities eventually overtook him. The movie humanizes Gould through vintage footage in which, relaxed and chatty, he discusses his art near his beloved Ontario lake house, a quiet oasis to which he’d escape after grueling tours. Cornelia Foss—wife of composer Lukas Foss—talks about how she fell in love with Gould, left Foss and moved to Toronto with her kids. Illuminating insights into Gould’s artistry—explaining his unorthodox technique or Leonard Bernstein telling how, even though he didn’t agree with Gould’s interpretation of a Brahms concerto, he’d conduct it anyway—reinforce the impression of Gould as a singular artist and forceful personality. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include several deleted scenes and interview snippets.

Love and Other Drugs (Fox)
This unsatisfying romantic drama gets its schizophrenia from director Ed Zwick fusing two seemingly incompatible storylines: one based on a book about a Viagra salesman, the other about a young man’s relationship with a woman who has early-onset Parkinson’s. Although Anne Hathaway and Jale Gyllenhaal make a terrific twosome (and kudos to Hathaway for doing the unthinkable in a mainstream American movie: getting naked), their director hasn’t figured out the tone for his movie, veering from semi-slapstick (drug selling and early sex scenes) to near-tragedy. There’s also the unfortunate presence of Josh Gadd in the Jack Black sidekick role; entirely out of place, Gadd seems another desperate move by Zwick to keep things “funny.” As always with Zwick, Love and Other Drugs has a slick look, which the Blu-ray transfer captures. Extras include deleted scenes, making-of footage and interviews with Zwick, Hathaway and Gyllenhaal.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Disney)
Beloved anime director Hayao Miyazaki, who made his considerable name with such masterpieces as Spirited Away, Ponyo and Princess Mononoke, made Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind early in his career. Beautifully animated, as all his films are (and looking absolutely terrific on Blu-ray), Nausicaa also carries Miyazaki’s typically heartfelt environmental message inside of a strangely affecting tale about a post-nuclear war civilization. There are many debts, both visually and story-wise, to Rene Laloux’s animated classic Fantastic Planet, a film that Miyazaki has said is among his biggest influences. Extras include the interactive featurette The World of Ghibli, original Japanese storyboards, the Behind the Microphone featurette and The Birth Story of Studio Ghibli featurette.

127 Hours (Fox)
Overkill is the forte of Danny Boyle, Oscar-winning director of obnoxious Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire; he repeats his tricks telling hiker Aron Ralston’s incredible true story of amputating his own arm in a last-ditch effort to survive. Overdone split screens, grotesque close-ups, tilted camera angles, speeded-up motion, God’s-eye view shots, over-the-top sound effects and relentlessly swelling music underline Boyle’s misguided notion that this amazing tale needs goosing for its audience. What saves it are the power of Ralston’s survival story and the intensely physical performance of James Franco, onscreen for nearly the entire movie, who makes Ralston a goofy, likable egoist to cheer on as he slices through his own nerves to save himself. The movie looks spectacular on Blu-ray, and extras include commentary by Boyle and others, deleted scenes and two futurities about Ralston’s story and Franco and Boyle on-set.

DVDs of the Week
Four Lions (Magnolia)

A group of inept Jahidists based in London keeps failing at suicide-bomb martyrdom in this fitfully inspired but too often low-key satire. Reminiscent of In the Loop, which presented outrageous behavior among politicians deciding to go to war with Iraq as normal and hence worth our derisive laughter, Four Lions goes after terrorism with pointed humor that’s short-circuited by the story’s repetition and characters’ lack of differentiation. Director Chris Morris (who co-wrote the script with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain) uses the same semi-documentary detachment that served In the Loop well, but with diminishing returns: by the end, the movie simply peters out. Substantial extras include behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, background material and interviews.
Napoleon & Love and The Norman Conquests (Acorn Media)
These two excellent titles are the latest in Acorn Media’s valuable British TV catalog releases. Napoleon & Love is an entertaining 1974 mini-series starring Ian Holm as the legendary emperor and Billie Whitelaw as Josephine; for eight hours we are privy to Napoleon’s machinations away from the battlefields with which he gained infamy, instead concentrating on his bedroom conquests. The Norman Conquests, one of playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s grandest creations, comprises three separate full-length plays about a wild weekend for three couples, each set in a different part of the house where it takes place. Although the TV version loses much of the specific settings that work so sublimely in the theater, Ayckbourn’s peerless wit and believably befuddled characters, along with a superlative sextet of Tom Conti (as Norman), Richard Briers, Penelope Keith, Penelope Wilton, David Troughton and Fiona Walker, make this an hilarious and thoughtful five-hour epic about the human comedy.
CD of the Week
Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast, Symphony No. 1 (LSO Live)
These blistering live recordings showcase the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sir Colin Davis performing two of William Walton’s greatest works. Hearing Walton’s First Symphony, one of the most inventive and propulsive of any century, not just the 20th, is always a treat: this 2005 performance is one of the best I have ever heard. The symphony has been coupled with an equally mesmerizing 2008 performance of Belshazzar’s Feast, one of the towering choral masterworks of the past 100 years, with powerful contributions by the London Symphony Chorus and baritone Peter Coleman-Wright. This hybrid SACD, with its brilliantly crystal clear surround sound, can also be played on regular CD players.

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