Sunday, May 22, 2011

May '11 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Black Death
Christopher Smith’s exploration of the plague that killed millions in medieval Europe certainly looks stylish, and its story of a town that’s somehow remained untouched by the black death is intriguing. Although more concerned with building an atmosphere filled with dread and parallels to modern religious zealotry, Black Death remains watchable thanks to the acting of Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne and that fabulous Dutch actress Carice von Houten. This splendid recreation of a medieval world not far removed from our own looks terrific on Blu-ray; extras include behind-the-scenes footage and a making-of featurette.

Cougars Inc.
It's unsurprising that this R-rated comedy is little more than a crude American Pie knockoff. There are a few laughs scattered throughout this second-rate raunch-fest about a teenager who starts an escort service so he and his friends can satisfy an assortment of older women; but aside from Denise Richards’ hilariously unhinged portrayal of a horny MILF, the movie ends up distressingly tame when it should let itself go. Oh well. The good-looking cast looks even better on Blu-ray; extras include a commentary, deleted scene and Cougars 101 featurette.

Daydream Nation
(Anchor Bay)

Writer-director Mike Goldbach’s study of alienated but oh-so sarcastic teens is another routine post-Juno comedy where there’s never a moment where you believe that any of these people, from the high school kids to their parents to their teachers, are believable. But Goldbach was smart enough to cast in the lead Kat Dennings, who takes over the screen so completely and charismatically that you pretty much forget about the rest of the movie just to bask in her dazzling onscreen presence. Although the movie isn't visually compelling in any way, it certainly looks good on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Don’t confuse Henri-Georges Clouzot’s razor-sharp, tense thriller from 1955 with the tepid remake, made 40 years later with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic turns the screws so tightly telling its startlingly original tale of adultery, murder and double-crossing that ends with one of the most extraordinary twists in movie history. With excellent portrayals by Paul Meurisse as a hateful husband, Vera Clouzot (the director’s wife) as his sickly wife and Simone Signoret as his mistress, Diabolique casts an indelible spell. Criterion's Blu-ray includes a first-rate restored transfer; extras include a commentary and video introduction.

Mao’s Last Dancer

Bruce Beresford's supremely disappointing drama trivializes the extraordinary true story of the first Chinese ballet dancer to defect to the United States. The sequences showing the young boy before leaving China are sweepingly epic; when he gets to the U.S., Beresford can’t overcome cliched melodramatics, and the director is further hampered by a hammy Bruce Greenwood as the head of the Houston Ballet, and wooden portrayals by Chi Cao in the title role and Amanda Schull as his first American wife. This visually impressive film is worth watching on Blu-ray, but beware: it’s a two-hour soap opera. The lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Scent of Green Papaya

Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's 1995 debut feature introduced an expressive visual stylist: though it takes place in 1951 Saigon, the exquisite beauties of this scrupulously detailed world were created on a soundstage in Paris. While there’s a whiff of mere decorativeness at times, and keeping the characters at arm’s length does the film no favors, those flaws are not fatal: and when the film has been restored as well as this one has for its Blu-ray debut, then The Scent of Green Papaya in hi-def is a no-brainer. The lone extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Something Wild
Jonathan Demme’s comedy-turned-thriller flopped 25 years ago because audiences couldn’t deal with its shift from frivolity to shock. But Demme (helped by E. Max Frye's clever script) prepares the groundwork slowly but surely, and with knockout performances by Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta, Something Wild lives up to its title as a dizzying journey into the strangeness bubbling under the world of normalcy, doing it more subtly and intriguingly than Blue Velvet. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is superb, as always, but the lone extras are new Demme and Frye interviews—where’s the featurette on the bizarrely sublime music, for example?

The Twilight Zone: Complete Season 4

All 18 episodes from the 1963 season of The Twilight Zone—in which Rod Serling’s brilliant sci-fi/horror series was stretched from 30 to 60 minutes—are included on this five-disc set. And if quality sometimes suffers by padding each episode to an hour, there are still enough highlights (In His Image, Miniature, Printer's Devil, The Bard) to make this set worth re-watching. Stars include Robert Duvall, Burgess Meredith, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam, and a young Burt Reynolds. Anyone who’s watched the series on TV will be happily surprised by the pristine condition of the episodes thanks to the hi-def upgrade; extras include audio commentaries, video interviews, radio broadcasts, isolated music tracks, promos, bloopers and even a TV ad for Genesee beer with Serling.

DVD of the Week
The Beautiful Person
Christoph Honore’s modern take on the classic French novel The Princess of Cleves by Mademoiselle de Chartes (whose short story The Princess of Montpensier became Bertrand Tavernier’s superlative new film) has sophistication and ennui in spades. This introspective drama takes the measure of a group of men wooing the same woman, with ultimately tragic results. Honore’s stylishly unkempt actors are led by Louis Garrel as a womanizing Italian teacher and Lea Seydoux as the object of every male's affection. La Belle Personne, the original French title, sounds more evocative than the blunt English translation.

CD of the Week
Philip Glass: Complete String Quartets
(Orange Mountain Music)

It’s not easy to play the compositions of Philip Glass—which, for better or worse, share a similar rhythmic texture—and make them sound like entirely distinct pieces, but the dynamic quartet Brooklyn Rider has done just that in this recording of Glass’s music for string quartet. The works vary in structure from the relatively short movements in the Suite from Bent and Quartets 2, 3 and 5 to the longer movements of Quartets 1 and 4. The members of Brooklyn Rider give such enthusiastic, committed performances that even a Glass skeptic might hear these works anew. Well, almost.

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