Monday, March 21, 2011

March '11 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Heart: Night at Sky Church
Promoting their latest album Red
Velvet Car, Ann and Nancy Wilson and their current backing band deliver a killer 90-minute set comprising old and new material, which holds its own against classics like “Barracuda,” “Straight On” and “Crazy on You.” The Velvet tunes alternately kick (“WTF”) and croon (“Sand”), while stupendous deep cuts like “Mistral Wind” and “Back to Avalon” prove that the Wilsons are not just a Top 40 hits band, although those are included as well: at least “These Dreams” contains a special guest star, Alison Krauss, who gives the overplayed single a welcome country lilt. Nancy still can play guitar with the best of them, and Ann’s vocal chops have never been in doubt: she still sings the hell out of “Alone,” giving it more emotion than it really deserves. The Blu-ray image is, of course, first-rate; the three audio tracks are rip-roaring.

Clint Eastwood’s latest follows a
trio that’s touched life after death: a 12-year-old Londoner’s twin brother is killed in a car accident; a French newswoman survives a tsunami; and an American ex-psychic reluctantly begins doing it again. Eastwood intercuts their stories until they finally meet in a most unlikely way for a happy ending. Dishonest, disingenuous and effects-heavy—the tsunami and glimpses of the “hereafter” show executive producer Steven Spielberg’s leaden touch—there’s little of interest here; too bad, since the subject of contacting the dead has possibilities. Aside from a scene of the young boy (well-played by twins George and Frankie McLaren) running into fake psychics, Hereafter takes the easy road toward feel-good redemption, wasting good work by Matt Damon and Cecile de France. Visually spectacular—which the Blu-ray release shows off faithfully—the movie includes 45 minutes of interviews/making-of footage and a full-length documentary, The Eastwood Factor.

How Do You Know
James L. Brooks phones in this hackneyed comedy-drama that trips all over itself trying to be relevant. A smart woman's softball player is dating a not-so-smart multi-million-dollar major league pitcher, then meets a businessman under investigation by the feds for financial shenanigans at his father’s firm. Cutesy to the max, Brooks’ latest film is a TV sitcom stretched out to two hours, which is what his other films have also been: this one, however, isn’t even saved by a game cast led by Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson and Reese Witherspoon. As always, there’s a handful of pithy observations, but much rancid and soggy sentiment masquerading as toughness. The movie looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras include commentaries, interviews, a blooper reel and 30 minutes of deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week

Fernando di Leo Collection
(Raro Video)
Another discovery by the
enterprising Italy-based Raro Video is director Fernando Di Leo, who made schlocky but effective gangster flicks in the 1970s that explored the corruption of small-time underworld criminals in Italy. The four films collected here—1972’s Caliber 9 and The Italian Connection, 1973’s The Boss and 1976’s Rulers of the City (with a dubbed Jack Palance as a mob boss)—are a terrific introduction to a filmmaker whose niche, while small, was nonetheless expertly if unsubtly explored. We can possibly blame Di Leo for the career of Quentin Tarantino (who admits to great admiration and influence), but the movies, very entertaining despite the roughness, speak for themselves. Each film gets a making-of treatment with archival interviews with Di Leo (who died in 2003) and his casts and crews.

Hemingway’s Garden of Eden
John Irvin’s cumbersomely titled adaptation has lots of sex and nudity, but there’s little heat—sexual or otherwise—in James Scott Linville’s dutiful but uninspired script, which ticks off Hemingway’s themes of androgyny and gender reversal, but lacks emotional connections to its self-satisfied characters. The relationships are mapped out ploddingly and monotonously, which seeps any drama out of what could be an intriguing warts-and-all character study. Jack Huston’s rugged, clench-jawed handsomeness can’t hide his blank expressions; Mena Suvari is too modern in bearing; Caterina Murino’s dark Mediterranean beauty and exotic, heavily-accented English overwhelm the other two. Cinematographer Ashley Rowe squeezes every drop of natural beauty out of Spanish locations that stand in for Cannes, Paris, Nice, and even Madrid, making the movie visually, if not dramatically, palatable.

Sugar Boxx
(e one)
Writer-director Cody Jarrett's
homage to '70s sexploitation flicks like The Arena, Jackson County Jail and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase fails on most counts: lame humor, awful acting (when ex-Russ Meyer vixen Kitten Natividad walks away with performing honors, you know you’re in trouble), wooden story, dialogue and characters; and unhot mostly girl-on-girl sex. It’s too bad, for Jarrett’s heart is in the right place, and he has a cast that has no problems getting down and dirty from the very first scene of going down. The extras include a short making-of and a minute’s worth of actress Tura Satana (who died early this year) breaking things on-set.

CDs of the Week
Ravel: Complete Solo Piano Music
British pianist Steven Osborne ta
ckles all of Maurice Ravel’s shimmering solo piano music on a two-disc set that includes the Frenchman’s large-scale masterpieces like Gaspard de la nuit and Miroirs and miniatures like the three Menuets. Osborne’s nimble technique brings out the variedness of Ravel’s keyboard sounds, from the soaringly atmospheric Valse nobles et sentimentales to the straight-ahead waltz of the piano version of La valse. The idiosyncratic playing of Jean-Yves Thibaudet on his brilliant 1992 “complete” set (which omits La valse) is bypassed by Osborne to concentrate on the musicality of Ravel’s stunningly elegant music.

Yuja Wang: Rachma
(Deutsche Grammophon)

The Beijing-born pianist Y
uja Wang shows her affinity for “the Russian soul,” as she calls it in the liner notes, by not breaking a sweat while dispatching two of ultra-romantic Sergei Rachmaninov’s most notable works for piano and orchestra. With help from the sensitive conducting of Claudio Abbado and accompaniment of the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Wang makes even the most familiar notes of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Variation No. 18) sound as if they were just written and not the most overplayed of all time. She does the same with the C minor concerto, in which she demonstrates that Rachmaninov’s architecture was much sturdier than those who considered him a spinner of beautiful melodies first and composer second believe.

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