Sunday, July 31, 2011

July '11 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Four Weddings and a Funeral and Be Cool (MGM)
A new line of mid-price MGM Blu-rays includes Four Weddings and a Funeral, the sleeper hit comedy of 1994 that thrust Hugh Grant into stardom (and didn’t do too badly by Kristin Scott Thomas and Andie McDowell either), and Be Cool, the sleepy 2005 sequel to Get Shorty, with John Travolta reprising his gangster turned Hollywood mogul to lesser effect, although Christian Milian was a real find as his sexy singing (and swinging) sidekick. The movies receive good if not overly impressive hi-def transfers: Be Cool extras include gag reel, music videos, cast interviews, deleted scenes and making-of featurette; Weddings extras include filmmakers’ commentary, deleted scenes, on-set featurettes and making-of documentary.

High and Low (Criterion)
One of Akira Kurosawa’s towering masterpieces is this nailbiting 1963 thriller pitting the haves versus the have-nots in a tense game of cat and mouse. Approaching true Shakespearean pathos by its end, this lengthy but always absorbing and never dull crime drama features uniformly excellent performances (especially by Toshiro Mifune in the lead), the razor-sharp B&W photography and editing and Kurosawa’s inspired direction combine for a truly unique film. Criterion’s Blu-ray, as good as advertised, makes a great film look even greater; extras include Kurosawa expert Stephen prince commentary, vintage Mifune interview and a making-of documentary that's part of Kurosawa's It’s Wonderful to Create series.

Leon Morin, Priest (Criterion)
Although a young, dashing Jean Paul Belmondo plays the title character in Jean Pierre Melville’s 1961 chamber drama set in Nazi-occupied France, the movie is stolen by an always riveting Emmanuelle Riva, best known for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. A young woman of loose morals finds herself irresistibly drawn to a handsome priest, and Melville shows their relationship as a strange, forbidding but platonic courtship that is climaxed by his most honestly downbeat ending. The clean and sharp Blu-ray image is another Criterion winner; extras include vintage Melville and Belmondo interviews, deleted scenes and selected-scene commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

Monamour (Cult Epics)
Italian soft-core auteur Tinto Brass would never be accused of modesty , and this 2006 adventure for an unhappily married couple featuring extramarital sex, including simulated fellatio sequences, is one of his most recent titillating provocations. On a second disc is Kick the Cock or The New Maid, a 15-minute short starring the stunning Angelita Franco, the latest Brass discovery, in an amusing tease that shows Brass himself furiously masturbating to Franco’s gorgeous (and naked) figure. This supremely monomaniacal silliness, on Blu-ray at least, has clear imagery that provides fun to some in the audience. Extras include a making-of featurette for each film.

Priest of Love and The Romantic Englishwoman (Kino Lorber)
These nearly forgotten British films arrive on DVD/Blu-ray for the first time. 1981’s Priest of Love, a standard D.H. Lawrence biopic, stars Ian McKellen in one of his first major roles and Janet Suzman as his wife Frieda. 1975’s Romantic Englishwoman, one of Joseph Losey’s weakest melodramas, has Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine as an unhappily married couple and Helmut Berger as a poet with whom she may be having an affair. Although both movies are basically unmemorable they register strongly on Blu-ray, thanks to appropriately grainy transfers. No Englishwoman extras; Priest extras comprise a making-of documentary, interviews and deleted scenes with director Christopher Miles’ commentary.

Shark Week (Discovery Channel)
Discovery Channel’s biggest annual ratings blockbuster is Shark Week, and this two-disc set collects six programs chronicling the ocean’s most perfect killing machine, from a recent spate of shark attacks to an amazing airborne fish that’s been nicknamed “Air Jaws.” The photography (both on land and underwater) is crystal-clear and looks vivid and vibrantly stunning on Blu-ray; the extras comprise three additional programs: Sharks: Are They Hunting Us?; Man vs. Fish: Tiger Shark; and Man vs. Fish: Mako Shark.

Take Me Home Tonight (Fox)
This nearly laughless comedy sat on the shelf for awhile, which may be why it’s surprising to see Anna Faris in a muted role as the sister of hero Topher Grace, who finds little humor as a video-store loser who pretends to be a stockbroker to impress (and bed down) the girl on whom he had a crush in high school. There are foolish, unfunny sequences of characters acting like idiots, and even if that stuff clicked with audiences in The Hangover and Bridesmaids, moviegoers ignored this, which means all hope is not lost. The Blu-ray image is decent; the extras include deleted scenes and a music video.

DVDs of the Week
The Conqueror (e one)
Legendary Ukrainian warrior Taras Bulba, born in the great novella by Nikolai Gogol, was also the subject of an opera, an Janacek orchestral work and films. But this 2009 adaptation by Ukrainian director Vladimir Bortko returns one of Russian literature’s most celebrated historical characters to the screen with an undoubtedly huge budget that was paid for by the Russian Ministry of Culture. The result is an epically-scaled adventure with gory, rousing and prolonged battle scenes interspersed with reflective and romantic moments. The result is fun but superficial, thanks to unsubtle acting and Bortko’s recycled effects, particularly close-up bludgeoning that gets stale fast.

Dumbstruck (Magnolia)
Mark Goffman takes a subject which could have been turned into a freak show by a less sympathetic director and fashions an entertaining and heartening study of several talented ventriloquists. The director’s obvious affection for these people shows in how he burrows into their personal and professional lives without condescension and, along with the usual white male subjects, Goffman shows the community’s diversity by including a white teenage boy (with a black dummy!) and a young woman. Extras include Goffman and crew members' commentary, deleted scenes and additional interviews.

Selma Jezkov√° (Dacapo)
Danish composer Poul Ruders’ latest opera distills the drama of Lars von Trier’s relentlessly downbeat film, Dancer in the Dark, starring Bjork, who also composed trite songs, into 70 taut, excruciating minutes. Ruders shrewdly omits her tunes, supplying his own thorny soundtrack instead, and smartly focusing on Selma, sung by the amazing soprano Tiva Kihlberg in a fully committed portrayal. Copenhagen’s stark staging does von Trier one better, and Ruders’ music is formidably played by the Danish Opera Orchestra under Michael Schonwandt’s baton. A 45-minute making-of featurette includes interviews with Ruders and Kihlberg.

CDs of the Week
Delius, Ibert, Milhaud (EMI)
This trio of two-disc sets, part of EMI’s 20th Century Classics series of releases, is a superb way to discover three of the most unsung but inventive classical composers in affordable editions that contain first-class performances. The Frederick Delius set smartly programs all of the Britisher’s atmospheric and brilliantly orchestrated tone poems (such as Sleigh Ride, Brigg Fair and Florida Suite) in versions are led by conductor Thomas Beecham, Delius’ most visible advocate. The Jacques Ibert set includes the Frenchman’s wonderful Flute Concerto with Emmanuel Pahud as soloist, and the Darius Milhaud set features the Frenchman’s Flute Sonata, also played by Pahud, and the underrated First Cello Concerto, performed by the legendary Jonas Starker.

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