Sunday, June 26, 2011

June '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Cedar Rapids (Fox)
Ed Helms is being positioned as a sensitive farceur a la Steve Carell, but based on the execrable The Hangover and this mild comedy, he’s in danger of falling into the trap of sameness and falling completely off the radar. The “fish out of water” story of a small-town insurance salesman who discovers the big, bad world at a business convention in swinging Wisconsin is barely enough for a feature, as the brief running time reveals. The cast, comprising John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver alongside Helms, is game, but the feeble material holds them back. There’s an adequate Blu-ray transfer; extras include deleted scenes, gag reel, featurettes and interview segments.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (Fox)
A painless 95 minutes, this silly sequel to the original adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s famous children’s book has enough humor about the absurdities of being parents and kids that it will surely click with many families. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen spoofed before in the generational department, but the actors are certainly enjoying themselves, which helps pass the time. The Blu-ray transfer is decent; extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes, alternate ending and director/author commentary.

Hall Pass (Warners)
The Farrelly brothers, still motoring along, keep their raunchy comedy tradition going. This one has even less going for it than usual, as a strictly second-string cast comprises Owen Wilson, Jason Sudekis, Christina Applegate and Jenna Fischer. There are a few good laughs, but most of the humor is of the deliberate gross-out kind, especially in the seven-minute longer unrated cut, where we (and Wilson) are supposed to find the sight of a black man’s large penis and a white man’s small member shocking and hilarious. (It’s neither.) The Blu-ray transfer is quite good; extras consist of a four-minute deleted scene and two-minute gag reel.

Insignificance (Criterion)
Nicolas Roeg’s insignificant 1985 fantasy, based on Terry Johnson’s mediocre play, features unnamed stand-ins for Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Joe McCarthy duke it out in 1950s Manhattan. The plot gives Roeg the chance to show off his well-worn visual trickery, including slo-mo nuclear annihilation, but nothing really stays with you after viewing. The actors give their all, but if Michael Emil, Gary Busey and Tony Curtis are defeated by the weak material, Theresa Russell is luminous and touching as The Actress. As usual with Criterion, the Blu-ray image is far superior to any other home video version of the film so far; extras include new interviews with Roeg, producer Jeremy Thomas and editor Tony Lawson, vintage making-of featurette.

Kill the Irishman (Anchor Bay)
This fast-paced dramatization of Danny Greene, the real-life Irish crime boss in 1970s Cleveland, has enormous sympathy for a gangster who just happened to be taking on even nastier Italian gangsters. It helps that Jim Stevenson’s enormously charismatic presence becomes the focal point of the film. Even if this ground is oft-trodden, such an offbeat take on the mob scene is worth a look. Considerable support comes from Vincent d’Onofrio, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer and Linda Cardellini and Laura Ramsey as Danny’s women. Jonathan Lensleigh’s movie looks strikingly realistic on Blu-ray; the lone extra is an hour-long documentary, Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman, which gets insights from the people involved in Danny’s life story.

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)
Robert Aldrich’s dark film noir is a triumph of style over substance: it’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino loves this film, which has ridiculous characters and an even more ludicrous storyline. But Aldrich’s tough-minded direction compels one to watch even as the implausibilities pile up higher and higher. The stiff and awkward acting mitigates against the movie succeeding dramatically, but damned if Aldrich doesn’t tighten the screws until the risible but awesomely explosive ending. The stark B&W photography is well-served by Criterion’s pristine Blu-ray transfer; extras include a commentary, documentary excerpts, altered ending and an appreciation by director Alex Cox.

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…. Season 2 (MVD)
Season 2 of Elvis Costello’s Sundance Channel musical talk show is bookended by heavyweights: the first program finds Bono and the Edge engagingly discussing careers with Elvis and singing songs with and without him; the final two programs are given over to Bruce Springsteen, who does the same. In between, four episodes feature appearances by Sheryl Crow, Levon Helm, Nick Lowe, Lyle Lovett and Ray LaMontagne, who sing and talk with Elvis, and actress Mary Louise Parker, who interviews Elvis but does not sing. The shows look sharper than on TV, although it’s not necessary to put them on Blu-ray; extras include three bonus songs and a behind-the-scenes documentary.

Unknown (Warners)
Based on Taken and Unknown, Liam Neeson should avoid Europe. In Taken, his daughter was kidnapped in Paris; in Unknown, he loses his memory and finds his wife with another “husband” in Berlin. Stylish, action-packed and thoroughly illogical, Unknown is turn-off-the-brain entertainment, with a swaggering Neeson complemented by spunky Diane Kruger, smarmy Aidan Quinn, voluptuous January Jones and cadaverous Bruno Ganz. The movie’s images look excellent on Blu-ray; the meager extras are a four-minute Neeson profile and a four-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

DVDs of the Week
American: The Bill Hicks Story

Bill Hicks was a cult comedian whose career took off before he tragically died of cancer at age 32 in 1994. This heartfelt documentary shows excerpts from his standup act alongside a standard bio narrated by friends and family members. Though Hicks had an interesting outlook on the foibles of everyday life, his onstage persona owes a lot to Sam Kinison, who is never mentioned. Hours of fan-friendly extras include additional interviews and vintage clips.

Poison (Zeitgeist)
Todd Haynes’ first feature is an overheated, campily melodramatic triptych of stories that overlap routinely. Half-baked plotting, amateurish acting and Haynes’ ineptitude defeat whatever he’s trying to say; even neophyte Jean Genet did better with his lone film, an obvious influence. Haynes would go on to make Far from Heaven, I’m Not There and Mildred Pierce, all well-crafted dramas that show he learned something from making Poison. The 20th anniversary release includes interviews from last year’s Sundance Film festival and Haynes’ 1999 audio commentary.

CD of the Week
Herbert Howells: The Winchester Service

British composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) wrote much sacred choral music, and this valuable disc collects works he composed near the end of his life for choir and organ, solo organ, and a cappella choir. The standouts are the 10-minute title track and the 12-minute Te Deum 'St Mary Redcliffe' in which the Winchester Cathedral Choir soars angelically. Also noteworthy is Exultate Deo, a beautiful hymn to the beyond that stands as an 82-year-old composer’s remarkable religious anthem. It’s a testament to Howells’ talent that he found so much variety in a relatively narrow genre, and a testament to the choir (under leader Andrew Lumsden) and organist Simon Bell, who give all of these works such splendid readings.

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