Friday, May 13, 2011

May '11 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Blue Valentine
(Anchor Bay)

Derek Cianfrance’s exploration of the inevitable breakdown of a marriage can’t avoid the melodramatic clichés that affect most movies in this genre, but the writer-director is lucky (or smart) enough to have two of America’s most unaffected performers to soulfully enact two people trying, but failing, to re-connect. Although Michelle Williams received a deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination, that Ryan Gosling was ignored doesn’t mean he’s any less superb: they play off each other so self-effacingly and subtly that they seem like a real couple that has a lot of water under the bridge. The movie’s graininess, which mirrors the relationship gone astray, is well captured on Blu-ray; extras include director and editor commentary, a making-of and deleted scenes.

Fat Girl

Catherine Breillat’s tough films unblinkingly dissect their characters most often in terms of their sexuality, a valid and modern theme. This unsettling story (released in 2001) of an overweight teenage girl whose beautiful older sister is grappling with her burgeoning womanhood is the ultimate Breillat film: there’s a lack of sentimentality, a studied exploration of physicality and a late curve ball, a shocking denouement that makes sense for both the eponymous teen and this powerful psychological drama. Criterion’s excellent hi-def upgrade gives the movie a more sharply-defined visual palette; extras include on-set footage and two Breillat interviews.

The Illusionist

French comic master Jacques Tati lives again: or his animated doppelganger does, thanks to Sylvain Chomet, creator of the whimsical The Triplets of Bellville. Based on an unfilmed Tati script, The Illusionist develops a heartfelt, platonic relationship between a failed French magician and the young Scottish woman he meets while working in a local pub. Chomet understands the story’s delicacy, and his oblique but simple animation follows suit, but too bad that he doesn’t illuminate Tati’s classic comic persona. At least the quicksilver, wonderfully vivid drawings are beautifully rendered on Blu-ray, but that there’s a scant three-minute making-of featurette as an extra is unfortunate.

Murdoch Mysteries, Season 3
(Acorn Media)
This well-crafted Canadian television crime series shrewdly references such smash hits as CSI or NCIS while adding a twist. Victorian-era Toronto detective William Murdoch and his sidekick female pathologist aren’t limited by current science, as they break open tough cases in each episode by any means possible, sometimes even rubbing elbows with such contemporary eminences as H.G. Wells and Nikola Tesla. It all goes down easily and entertainingly, and the third season’s 13 episodes look striking upgraded to Blu-ray. Extras include two short making-of featurettes and the final episode’s alternate ending.

Our Hospitality

Kino’s terrific Buster Keaton Blu-ray releases continue with this lesser-known classic, a screamingly funny 1923 comic romp that finds the deadpan Keaton playing a dreamer whose inheritance is than expected and who is in love with the daughter of his family’s mortal enemy. The plot is only a hook on which to hang typically brilliant slapstick set pieces, including one involving a train that, even considering Keaton’s amazingly constructed stunts throughout his career, is still astonishing. Considering its age, Our Hospitality looks great on Blu-ray, and the enticing assortment of extras includes a making-of documentary, a 49-minute alternate cut and a 19-minute short, The Iron Mule, which Keaton made two years later using the same train.

Smiles of a Summer Night
Ingmar Bergman was never known for his light comic touch, so it’s all the more incredible that with this 1955 romantic tragicomedy, he made one of the most graceful and touching comedies ever. Set at a country cottage one summer weekend, Bergman expertly navigates among the alternately hilarious and heartbreaking travails of four couples; his brilliant direction and script are matched by the performances of Sweden’s finest actors and actresses, including Harriet Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Jarl Kulle and Gunnar Bjornstrand. Gunnar Fischer’s exceptionally tangy B&W cinematography looks even more ravishing in Criterion’s superlative hi-def transfer; meager but valuable extras include a Bergman introduction and conversation between scholar Peter Cowie and producer Jorn Donner.

DVDs of the Week
Looking for Fidel
In his 2003 portrait of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Oliver Stone tries to pin down the Communist tyrant, but with only middling success. Castro is always ready with a retort against Stone and the U.S., and the few times he has the chance to respond to some absurd notion, Stone doesn’t. It’s frustrating because Stone has his openings, but doesn’t take them, making Castro the winner of a lopsided contest. However, even if this is not a warts-and-all examination, Stone does show the iron fist with which Castro continues to rule Cuba, at least back when the film was made. An added Stone commentary or interview would have helped, but there are no extras.

(e one)
The extreme poverty of post-WWII Rome is memorably displayed in Vittorio de Sica’s masterly neo-realist classic from 1946. This rich portrait of two boys who fall in with the wrong crowd and are arrested by the police for trafficking stolen goods is as direct and unsparing in its depiction of ordinary lives ruined by war as De Sica’s better known masterpiece, 1948’s The Bicycle Thieves. Although this DVD release is most welcome, it’s disappointing that a Blu-ray version has not seen the light of day, considering the new restoration. Still, the print is top-notch, and historian Bert Cardullo’s commentary is illuminating if at times a bit pedantic.

CDs of the Week
The Chopin Concertos
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Daniel Barenboim, tackling Frederic Chopin’s music on two new recordings, says that performing Chopin brings him closer to physical pleasure than any other composer. That is evident on this recording of both concertos, especially so during the E-minor concerto which, at 40 minutes, is a monster of a work. Andris Nelsons leads the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra in this exciting and visceral performance, as Barenboim even makes the punishingly long opening movement (a mini-concerto in all but name) fit snugly with the following shorter movements. The less formidable second concerto is also given a scintillating reading: Chopin couldn’t have asked for more persuasive interpreters.

Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home
The jokey title composition of banjo player Paul Elwood’s latest release is a compelling hybrid of bluegrass, folk, and the modern classical music Kubrick used in films like 2001, which inspired the piece’s structure. With cryptic lyrics sung by Elwood and soprano Ilana Davidson “Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home” moves through so many diverse sections that it’s like a quick musical tour of Kubrick’s idiosyncratic career, in which the director never repeated himself. Another curious but listenable hybrid, “The Golden Road,” features Ellwood on banjo, Stephen Drury on piano and Min Xiao-Fen on the Chinese string instrument, the pipa.

No comments: