Sunday, May 29, 2011

May '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Christian Carion’s cold war drama, based on a true story set in 1981, has two worthy adversaries: French actor Guillaume Canet and Serbian director Emir Kusturica play an engineer and KGB colonel who helped the West bring down the Iron Curtain. Drenched in an authentic period atmosphere (with amusing references to Freddie Mercury and Queen), Farewell is a taut thriller with a splendid cast, including Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan, of all people. The movie has a superior Blu-ray transfer; there are no extras.

Freedom Riders

This enlightening documentary recounts the heroism of several brave American patriots in 1961 who rode buses into the segregated South, where several were arrested and beaten. Still, they helped turn the tide against Jim Crow, which ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Insightful interviews with participants, others who witnessed the events and historians who provided needed context are featured, along with archival footage that gives immediacy to a long, painful struggle. The movie’s visuals have added sharpness on Blu-ray; there are no extras.

Grand Prix (Warners) and The Manchurian Candidate (MGM)
These films show director John Frankenheimer in his prime. 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate is a true nail-biting classic of the paranoid thriller genre, with hard-bitten portrayals by Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey complementing a brilliantly created B&W world; 1966’s Grand Prix, however, is three hours of wooden dramatics and explosive car racing throughout Europe, with an attractive international cast (Yves Montand, James Garner, Jessica Harper, Brian Bedford) doing little. Both films have been transferred to Blu-ray with superb results, particularly Grand Prix’s 65mm widescreen panoramas. Extras include featurettes on both releases, with added interviews and a commentary on Candidate.

I Saw the Devil (Magnet) and Vanishing on 7th Street (Magnet)
These horror films approach their stories from opposite angles. Kim Ji Woon’s I Saw the Devil jumps into gory violence from the beginning, as a terrorizing serial killer gets his eventual (and bloody) comeuppance, while Brad Anderson’s Vanishing uses suggestiveness rather than gore to extract suspense from a blackout that causes people to disappear mysteriously. Both movies work on their own terms, although Devil’s bludgeoning wearies and Vanishing’s reticence induces dullness; both also look terrific on Blu-ray. Extras on Devil include behind-the-scenes featurette and deleted scenes; extras on Vanishing include featurettes, interviews and alternate endings.

The Misfits (MGM) and Some Like It Hot (MGM)
Two of Marilyn Monroe’s seminal roles (one dramatic, the other comedic) arrive on hi-def: John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), from Arthur Miller’s treacly script, stars Monroe and Clark Gable in their final onscreen appearances; Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), one of Hollywood’s all-time classics, finds Monroe keeping up with the breakneck pace of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis‘s comic chops. Both black and white films look better than on DVD but are not visual knockouts. There are no extras on Misfits; Hot’s DVD extras (commentary and featurettes) are included on the Blu-ray.

The Other Woman (IFC)
Natalie Portman won the Oscar for her tour de force in the ridiculous Black Swan, but that recognition buried any praise for her equally superb work in this tragic character study of a young woman who loses her newborn child and tries to come to terms with how the baby’s death affects her relationship with her husband and stepson and his ex-wife. Portman’s sympathetic portrayal, as in Black Swan, allows us to care about an unlikable woman, even if writer-director Don Roos eventually leaves her (and us) hanging. The film is given a solid Blu-ray transfer; there are no extras.

Pale Flower (Criterion)
Masahiro Shinoda’s Japanese New Wave classic is a strange but compelling drama about a yakuza who, just released from jail, falls in with a compulisve and irresistible gambler. Shinoda’s unerring camera eye, coupled with Toru Takemitsu’s unerring ear (in which natural sounds and silence are as important as his music), make this a powerful experience, even for those already familiar with Shinoda’s better known films like Double Suicide. Criterion’s first-rate transfer, in which the moody B&W photography positively shimmers, does Shinoda proud. Extras include a new Shinoda interview and commentary by Takemitsu expert Peter Grilli.

The Rite (Warners)
On the Blu-ray cover, Anthony Hopkins looks like a demented Hannibal Lecter, which gives the false impression that this somber, unexciting drama is about the unorthodox priest that he plays; rather, it’s about a seminary student learning about exorcism. Either way, it’s basically one long tease: it’s neither intensely scary nor psychologically probing, which makes it vastly inferior to The Exorcist, if you were wondering. The clinical visuals are for the most part rendered acceptably on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes, alternate ending, and interview with the priest whose story is told in the film.

DVDs of the Week
British Royal Weddings of the 20th Century (Strike Force)
The Royal Wedding: William & Catherine
William & Kate: Planning a Royal Wedding
There’s been an unsurprising run of releases related to the recent Royal Wedding, as most Americans can’t get enough of all things William and Kate (mostly Kate, and her sister Pippa too). British Royal Weddings of the 20th Century is smartly done, with vintage archival footage of royal weddings from Patricia and Alexander in 1919 to Edward and Sophie in 1999. In all, 17 weddings are featured in three hours. The PBS special Planning a Royal Wedding is a decent 45-minute overview that includes interviews with “experts” about what to expect on the big day. The BBC disc The Royal Wedding is the real thing, however: two hours of BBC’s own wedding coverage in HD, and with a satisfying bonus: a 50-minute special, William & Kate: A Royal Engagement, an informative and entertaining look at the couple’s history together.

CD of the Week
Nino Rota: Symphony No. 3, Etc. (Chandos)
Best known for his Fellini film scores and Godfather music, Nino Rota was also an accomplished composer of concert music, ballets and operas. This disc features three orchestral works, each a wonderful example of Rota’s instantly recognizable style. The Concerto soiree for piano and orchestra is rhythmically lively and just plain catchy, the Divertimento Concertante (for the unlikely combo of double-bass and orchestra) is both light on its feet and seriously thoughtful, and the Symphony No. 3, with less weightiness than its predecessors, nevertheless is another beautifully structured work. The Turin Philharmonic, led by conductor Gianandrea Noseda, makes it all sound so effortless and flavorful, the highest compliment to Rota and his music.

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