Sunday, July 24, 2011

July '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week

The very definition of an unnecessary remake foregoes the disarming charm of Dudley Moore in the original for the far less amusing Russell Brand, who’s funny in things like Get Him to the Greek but who can’t carry a movie like this. While Helen Mirren doesn’t have the sublime dryness of John Gielgud, she’s good fun, as is, surprisingly, Jennifer Garner. Too bad Greta Gerwig is already getting repetitious, and much of the time I was missing Moore, Gielgud and even (God help me) Liza Minnelli. This Arthur gets a decent hi-def transfer; extras comprise on-set footage, interviews, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Beauty and the Beast (Criterion)
Jean Cocteau’s 1946 fantasy is truly a film for the ages; even those entranced by the animated version should watch this to see where Disney borrowed many of the most enchanting images. Josette Day and Jean Marais are perfect in the lead roles, but it’s Cocteau’s visual magic (with an assist from Henri Alkan’s sumptuous photography) that makes this a classic that gets better with each viewing. The restored version Criterion released a few years ago receives a superb Blu-ray upgrade; extras from the previous release include two commentaries, a 1995 documentary, Screening at the Majestic, and the audio of Philip Glass’ dull opera, but why anyone would listen to that instead of Georges Auric’s gorgeous score and the voices of the original actors is a mystery.

Boyz n the Hood (Sony)
John Singleton’s 1991 drama about life in South Central L.A., which deals seriously with living in one of the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods, holds up 20 years later, despite some melodramatic shortcomings. Singleton’s truthful writing, realistic direction and a cast of then-unknowns (Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett) make this a gripping slice of life. The movie looks decent on Blu-ray, but the transfer is a little soft; extras include new interviews with Singleton and the cast, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and Singleton’s commentary.

Buster Keaton Shorts (Kino)
The latest valuable Kino release of Buster Keaton’s movies on Blu-ray is this three-disc collection of 19 two-reel short films made between 1920-3, including such gems as Hard Luck, The Boat, Cops and The Frozen North. Keaton’s timeless physical comedy should win new adherents thanks to these terrific HD upgrades, even if some visual debris unavoidably remains. Extras include 15 illustrated visual essays, alternate shots/scenes, and four of the shorts presented in their original forms and digitally altered versions.

Don Pasquale (Deutsche Grammophon)
Donizetti’s comic romp, staged for maximum hilarity by Otto Schenk, gets a first-rate workout in this Metropolitan Opera production. Conductor James Levine leads the Met Orchestra and Chorus, along with an exemplary cast led by the always intrepid soprano Anna Netrebko and her excellent co-stars, bass-baritone Mariusz Kwiecien and tenor Matthew Polenzani. Schenk’s colorful staging looks dazzling on Blu-ray (so does Netrebko, of course). Extras are short intermission interviews with the cast.

Limitless (Fox)
A less convoluted Inception, this high-octane thriller stars Bradley Cooper as a struggling writer whose shady ex-brother-in-law gives him a new drug that expands his horizons in many ways, but with disastrous (and dangerous) results. The far-fetched premise is belied by a fast pace that minimizes nagging doubts about believability. The always chameleonic Aussie actress Abbie Cornish and ubiquitous Robert DeNiro give the slickly handsome Cooper solid support, and Neil Burger’s eye-popping visuals translate well to hi-def. Extras include a lame alternate ending, Berger commentary and on-set featurettes.

The Music Room (Criterion)
Bengali director Satyajit Ray, best known for his Apu trilogy, introduced Western audiences to the marvels of Indian cinema. So it’s strange that the first Ray film on Blu-ray is this inferior 1958 drama about a once-wealthy aristocrat whose crumbling world is symbolized by a rundown music room where he once held concerts and parties. Much of this static film is taken over by interminable music-making sequences; the result is a film more important as part of Ray’s filmography than as a drama. The black and white film, while restored, retains a somewhat blurry patina. Extras include a 1981 roundtable discussion with Ray, interviews with director Mira Nair and biographer Andrew Robinson and a two-hour 1984 documentary, Satyajit Ray.

Peep World (MPI)
This dysfunctional family reunion dramedy might have been devastatingly dark if it had delved more deeply into the dynamics of the trio of siblings and their parents at its heart. Instead, we’re treated to nasty but somehow cutely inoffensive swipes in one brother’s first novel, a veiled version of his family. With a sputtering Lewis Black as narrator and Sarah Silverman, Ron Rifkin, Lesley Ann Warren, Michael C. Hall and Rainn Wilson as the feuding family—not to mention marvelous support by Kate Mara, Taraji P. Henson and Judy Greer as the women in the men’s lives—this should have been more biting and bitter. It’s given a solid Blu-ray transfer; extras comprise deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Kate Bush—A Life of Surprises (MVD)
For someone as notoriously publicity shy as Kate Bush, she’s had a lot of television interviews and appearances in England over the years, excerpts from which are shown in this “unauthorized” documentary of Bush’s unique career since she made a splash with “Wuthering Heights” in 1978 at age 19. There are interviews with musicians and journalists (notably ubiquitous BBC vet Paul Gambaccini), but Kate’s musical appearances over the course of this three-hour retrospective, from her debut album The Kick Inside to her last album of new material, 2005’s Aerial, make this a given for Kate’s fans, especially since she never performs live any more.

Omnibus—American Profiles (e one)
This impressive unearthing from the Archive of American Television selects 14 episodes from a biographical series that ran on all three networks successively from 1952 to 1960. The profiles range from humorist James Thurber and novelist William Faulkner to conductor Leonard Bernstein and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s even a segment with Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel, who narrates a walk through the “ultimate museum.” Narrated by Alistair Cooke, who also conducts most of the interviews, these Omnibus episodes show off the artistic and cultural bounty once available on network television

Wish Me Luck, Series 3 (Acorn Media)
This British made-for-TV series, originally telecast in 1989, continues the grippingly told true story of English women who were Allied secret agents while France was occupied by the Nazis. These eight hour-long episodes lead up to D-Day, as the London home office gives the spies orders to perform dangerous missions in the hopes that they divert German attention away from Normandy prior to the June 6 invasion. A top-notch cast is led by Jane Asher (best known as Paul McCartney’s pre-Linda fiancĂ©e) as the embattled chief of the home office.

CDs of the Week
Bacewicz—Chamber Music
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Ginastera—Cello Concertos

These discs of two of the 20th century’s most underappreciated composers prove that some record companies still release recordings that fill gaps in a shrinking repertoire. The haunting chamber music of Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), including her two masterly piano quintets and the forceful 2nd piano sonata, is passionately played by fellow Poles: pianist Krystian Zimerman and a string quartet. Argentine Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) composed two dramatic cello concertos inspired by his wife, cellist Aurora Natola, both unabashedly modern without embracing atonality or 12-tone complexity. Mark Kosower performs the concertos with controlled intensity, accompanied by conductor Lothar Zagrosek and the Bamberg Symphony.

No comments: