Monday, April 25, 2011

April '11 Digital Week IV


Blu-rays of the Week

Gulliver’s Travels (Fox)

Jack Black’s goofily good-natured persona keeps this routine update of Jonathan Swift’s classic from completely foundering. At one point, Black trades in Gulliver for Cyrano, helping one of the Lilliputian men woo the fair princess, which gives an idea of the movie’s paucity of clever ideas. The CGI-heavy special effects of Black as a giant with the Lilliputians and a dwarf when he meets the Brobdingnagians are cute but are too often fake-looking to be effective. The game cast (Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly) is pretty much wasted….this is the Jack Black show, for better or worse. Too bad the otherwise good hi-def transfer unmasks the obviously phony effects; extras comprise mainly fluff like deleted scenes, short making-of featurettes and a gag reel.


Jolene (e one)

Jessica Chastain makes a stunning debut as the tragic title character in this adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s short story about a young woman who survives each awful event in her life only to move onto another. What on the page is smartly written and with a humanistic, rather than moralistic, tone comes across in writer-director Dan Ireland’s version as unrelentingly downbeat, and only Chastain’s poised screen presence makes Jolene a vital, sympathetic, even sensual protagonist. Claudio Rocha's widescreen photography glistens on Blu-ray, and the extras feature an interesting conversation between Ireland and Chastain and interviews with Theresa Russell, Dermot Mulroney and Michael Vartan, all of whom give excellent support to Chastain’s star-making appearance.


The King’s Speech (Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co.)

This witty, exciting dramatization of how King George VI—overcoming a disabling stutter with commoner Lionel Logue's help—presented to the world a united England during World War II deservedly won Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Tom Hooper) and Screenplay (David Seidler). While Geoffrey Rush’s natural hamminess plays into the outsized gestures of Logue, his quiet scenes with the King shows stellar underplaying. Equally good is Colin Firth, amazingly conveying George’s human side while keeping his royal dignity intact, especially in the amusing scenes when he tolerates Logue's goofy exercises, while being understatedly moving in the profoundly dramatic scenes. These men complement each other beautifully in one of the year's best movies. There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer, and the terrific extras include Hooper’s commentary, making-of featurette, cast interviews, real King George speeches and real Logue footage.


The Universe: The Complete Series (History)

One of the best scientific series ever presented on television, The Universe includes 63 episodes from five seasons that feature enlightening topics, intelligent expert interviews and terrifically integrated NASA space footage and computer-generated graphics that bring viewers closer to what are often puzzling, seemingly unexplainable facts about our world, solar system, galaxy and universe. The episodes are easy to immerse yourself in, and after you’re done with them, there are hours’ worth of special features to watch, from the documentary Beyond the Big Bang to a 3D program, 7 Wonders of the Solar System. Spread out over 16 Blu-ray discs, The Universe: The Complete Series is a comprehensive set for lovers of science-based entertainment.


The Way Back (Image)

This incredible but true survival tale about the daunting escape and long trek to freedom for several Siberian prisoners during World War II has been directed with blunt force by Peter Weir, who shows the grueling lengths the men (and later, one woman) go to make sure they keep persevering, despite sand storms, starvation, scarce water and dangerous terrain. Still, despite a cast led by Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan and an unrecognizable (and Russian-sounding) Colin Farrell, Weir loses his grip halfway through, and the movie stomps its way to a cheering but soggily sentimental ending. The stunning vistas, rendered with precise artistry by the great cinematography Russell Boyd, make this a must-watch on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.


DVDs of the Week

Aleksis Kivi (Ondine)

Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara is one of our best living composers, and his superb operas run the gamut from a Van Gogh bio to nationalistic subjects like this brilliantly realized musical dramatization of the life of Finland's national writer, Aleksis Kivi, who died at age 38 in 1872. Taking a cue from Kivi's writings, Rautavaara cannily weaves past, present and fantasy into a mesmerizing sound world that takes the measure of an artist’s rich but sadly short life. In this superb 2010 Helsinki staging, Jorma Hynninen and Ville Rusanen skillfully share the difficult role of Kivi, while Pekka Milonoff’s striking staging breathes life into Kivi’s literary and personal lives, and Rautavaara’s intense, accessible music sounds better than ever under the baton of conductor Mikko Franck. The bonus feature, The Making of Aleksis Kivi, includes interviews with Hynninen, Milonoff, Franck and a frail-looking Rautavaara.


If God Is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise (HBO)

Spike Lee’s devastating sequel to his original Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke, shows the resourceful, resilient citizens of New Orleans and surrounding communities trying to rebuild their lives following the unprecedented destruction in 2005. Lee demonstrates how the Saints’ Super Bowl win last January further bonded the population but, based on the horrible BP oil spill last year, there's still a long way to go. Although there are many successes, Lee doesn’t shy away from the difficulties still faced in the rebuilding phase for this sunken American city. Along with Lee’s own audio commentary, the two-DVD set includes the hour-long Pickin' Up the Pieces, which nicely complements the main feature.


Lorna Doone (Acorn Media)

R.D. Blackmore’s classic tale of love, hate and revenge between two families was brought to vivid life in 1990 in this British TV adaptation starring Clive Owen and Polly Walker as the Romeo & Juliet-style lovers. Owen and Walker have terrific chemistry together, and although it’s easy to see even in this very early appearance that Owen had what it takes to become the movie star he is now, how is it that the equally charming and immensely talented Walker has been relegated to second fiddle in mostly brainless movies and TV shows for the past two decades? Either way, this entertainingly restrained bodice-ripper is easily the equal of Masterpiece Theater at its considerable dramatic best.


CDs of the Week

Echoes of Paris (Avie)

In this intelligently programmed recital, violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Robert Kulek play four very different works that nevertheless have something in common, as the CD’s title shows. The sonatas by Frenchmen Francois Poulenc and Claude Debussy, among their greatest works, sound elegant and eloquent in these two musicians’ hands. Igor Stravinsky’s Pergolesi suite is appropriately light-hearted, while Sergei Prokofiev’s tough, sinewy D-major sonata (originally written for flute and piano) also registers strongly. The Paris connection might be incidental, but the pair’s stellar musicianship is definitely not.


Shostakovich: Symphonies 3 & 10 (Mariinsky)

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra continue their Shostakovich symphony cycle with this superlative recording of two of the composer’s very best symphonies. The early Third Symphony is given a forceful reading by Gergiev and his forces, who ratchet up the tension of the stirring second movement‘s final bars, leading the way into the unexpected but perfect choral finale. The tautly magnificent Tenth Symphony, composed right after the devastation of the second world war, is a formidable one-hour work that, in Gergiev and company’s performance, leaves one breathless at such exciting musicmaking. The Super Audio surround sound is as splendid as the music itself.

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