Monday, April 11, 2011

April '11 Digital Week II


Blu-rays of the Week

Arthur and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (Warners)

Dudley Moore’s soused, immature millionaire and John Gielgud’s unruffled butler entered cinematic legend in the original 1981 comedy Arthur (one of several reasons why I’m not bothering with the annoying Russell Brand in the new remake). While no classic, there are plenty of laughs until the inevitable trip down sentimentality lane in the first film; the less said about the belated 1987 sequel, in which Moore and Liza Minnelli look desperately bored, the better. It was a smart idea to put both movies on the same Blu-ray disc, and both have been given acceptable, if unexceptional, hi-def upgrades, looking better than they did before. No extras.


Black Swan (Fox)

This cheesy thriller set in the cutthroat ballet world promises to be a smart psychological study of an artist under pressure, but director Darren Aronofsky—who fills the screen with heavy-handed symbolism, visualized by his heaving and spinning camera—stops trying after awhile, throwing anything on the wall to see what sticks. Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Nina is compelling precisely because she doesn’t overact. The film consists mainly of blacks and whites (visually and metaphorically), and has been rendered beautifully on Blu-ray: if anything, the tale’s ludicrousness is well-served by hi-def. Extras include Metamorphosis, a making-of doc; Behind the Curtain; Ten Years in the Making; cast profiles; and BD Live content, including new behind-the-scenes footage.


Casino Jack (Fox)

The story of Jack Abramoff’s lobbying scandals begs for the absurdist “can you believe he did this?” treatment that director George Hickenlooper attempts here. However, despite top-notch acting by Kevin Spacey (Abramoff), Kelly Preston (wife), Barry Pepper (associate) and Rachelle Lefebvre (associate’s wife), the movie nudges us with the ridiculousness of it all so much that it ceases being funny in either amusing or horrifying ways and runs out of gas long before an ending we all know is coming. The movie looks properly slick on Blu-ray; the extras comprise A Director’s Photo Diary, deleted scenes and a gag reel.


I Love You, Phillip Morris (Lionsgate)

From the makers of the unrepentantly bad-taste Bad Santa comes the “shocking” true story of a con artist who fooled many with his scheming and who came out to a world not ready for his honesty only when it came to his sexuality. The tone is reminiscent of Casino Jack, since we’re supposed to be in on the joke, but like that film, it’s not sustained, here because Jim Carrey’s bug-eyed tricks wear out their welcome. There’s excellent support by Ewan McGregor as the con’s true love, and their scenes together calm Carrey down and go a long way to partly redeeming the movie. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include directors’ commentary, making-of featurette and deleted scenes.


Tron and Tron: Legacy (Disney)

A relic of its time, the 1982 sci-fi fantasy Tron isn’t much fun and has limited visual appeal. That aesthetic remains for the bigger-budgeted 2010 sequel, Tron: Legacy, which has the same flimsy story, cardboard characters and flattened-out graphics. What saves both films in my eyes is the star power of Jeff Bridges, to which both might owe their current popularity. Both Trons receive the top-notch Disney Blu-ray treatment, although obviously the sequel looks much better than the 28-year-old original. Extras include The Next Day: Flynn Lives Revealed, a continuation of the Tron story; Disney Second Screen; First Look at Tron: Uprising Disney XD Animated Series; Launching the Legacy, Visualizing Tron, Installing the Cast featurettes; “Derezzed” music video.


DVDs of the Week

Come Undone (Film Movement)

Silvio Soldini’s intense chamber drama focuses on a happily married mother who nearly chucks it all away after beginning an affair with a married waiter. Soldini daringly allows the adulterers to ignore common sense in their dangerous relationship, yet never makes them interesting enough to care about their fate over two hours. The accomplished cast is moved around in often cramped spaces by Soldini with superb strategy, but with little at stake, after awhile wondering when the other shoe will drop becomes wearying, and is only partly compensated for by a bittersweet ending. The lone extra is 12 Years, a German film by Daniel Nocke.


A Summer in Genoa (IFC)

In Michael Winterbottom’s universe, films come at us from all directions, so don’t feel slighted that you didn’t know about this low-key 2008 drama from the prolific British director. Colin Firth’s intelligently nuanced performance as a widower who, with his two daughters, moves to Italy following the death of his wife is the film’s hook now that he’s an Oscar winner. But, while Winterbottom uses the Genoa locations to good effect, the concentration is rightly on the family’s sorrow, with superb young actresses Perla Haney-Jardine (as the pre-teen who still sees her mom) and Willa Holland (as the teenager yearning to leave the nest) making this too-familiar drama far more than merely watchable. Extras include cast and crew interviews and on-set footage.


Tracy and Hepburn Collection (Warners)

One of the classiest couples in movie history, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn starred in nine films from 1942 until Tracy’s death in 1967, and this comprehensive set has them all, from George Steven’s frothy romantic comedy Woman of the Year to Stanley Kramer’s black-and-white romp Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Other standouts are George Cukor’s Keeper of the Flame, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, along with Frank Capra’s astonishingly contemporary political comedy-drama State of the Union, which doesn’t seem like it was made in 1948. The main extra is The Spencer Tracy Legacy, a 1986 documentary narrated by Katharine Hepburn; several discs include shorts or cartoons; Desk SetGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner has introductions by Tom Brokaw, Quincy Jones, Karen Kramer and Steven Spielberg.


CDs of the Week

George Antheil: The Brothers (CPO)

American composer George Antheil composed this one-act opera in 1954; based on the book of Genesis’ Cain and Abel, the setting has been updated to post-WWII America, but the tragic reverberations remain intact. Mary is married to Abe, whose older brother Ken has returned from the war a traitor to his fellow soldiers. The 55-minute chamber drama moves quickly to its fatal conclusion, and if Antheil’s libretto lacks genuine heft, his music more easily navigates the thin line between over-the-top melodrama and shattering tragedy. Soloists Rebecca Nelsen (Mary), Ray M. Wade Jr. (Abe) and William Dazeley (Ken) give it their considerable all, and Steven Sloane ably leads the Bochumer Symphoniker.


Reger and Strauss Piano Concertos (Hyperion)

Hyperion’s invaluable Romantic Piano Concertos series continues with the 53rd volume: superb Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin teams with conductor Ilan Volkov and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for a classic (Strauss) and obscure (Reger) pairing. Reger’s concerto opens with a dramatic orchestral flourish, then Hamelin pounds the keys with abandon in the difficult solo part before settling down for some lyrical passages. The weighty, 40-minute concerto bogs down in the lengthy first movement but compensates with an expressive Largo and adventurous Allegretto. Strauss’ Burleske, a mere 19-minute bagatelle by comparison, is one of the glories of the piano concerto literature—and Hamelin has no problem navigating its treacherous (but delightful) twists and turns.

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