Sunday, August 7, 2011

August '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Exporting Raymond (Sony)
Creator of the hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, Phil Rosenthal traveled to Russia to work on the Russian television of the show, and this amusing documentary recounts the arduous process involved. The movie’s laughs stem from the obvious cultural chasms between America and Russia: different senses of humor and attitudes towards relationships and masculinity, all shown with a jaundiced eye and raised eyebrow. Still, it’s a fun ride, even if you don’t know Russia: you can still appreciate the difficulty of turning Raymond into Kostya. The movie doesn’t gain much visually on Blu-ray; extras include episodes of both shows for comparison, Rosenthal’s commentary, deleted scenes.

Life During Wartime (Criterion)
Todd Solondz’s dysfunctional characters, as in his 1998 film Happiness—to which this is a sequel of sorts—behave in supposed “shocking” ways. A flaky white woman’s troubled black husband can’t control his violent impulses toward women, so they separate in a final attempt to save their marriage: but when she calls him, he’s on the floor, suicide handgun next to him. A young Jewish boy worries about pedophiles and homosexual rape because his father was jailed for it; his mom tells him that if a man ever touches him, he should scream—so (of course!) when her new beau innocently does just that, her son’s scream ends her budding relationship. There’s unfunny and unincisive dialogue and derivative effects like baroque arias. For all its topicality, the movie plays like a Jerry Springer episode. Criterion’s transfer is top-notch, as always, and the extras (director‘s audio Q&A, cinematographer interviews, making-of documentary) contextualize the film.

The Name of the Rose (Warners)
Umberto Eco’s unlikely best-seller was adapted by adventurous French director Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1986, and if the movie isn’t up to Eco’s erudite, absorbing monastery murder mystery, Annaud’s visual style—muted colors and many dark sequences that are reproduced acceptably if not perfectly on Blu-ray—keeps one interested for two slow hours. Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater are an intriguingly odd sleuthing team and good actors like William Hickey, Michael Lonsdale and F. Murray Abraham fill out pivotal roles as monks. Extras include Annaud’s French and English commentary, vintage making-of featurette, and Annaud’s narrated photo gallery.

Rio (Fox)
If you’ve wondered what that huge statue of Christ above Rio de Janeiro looks like animated, then this is your movie. Although there’s fun in this romantic comedy about two macaws who find each other in the world’s biggest carnival town, there’s also a sense that the creators are more interested in recreating one of the world’s great wonders: Rio and its astonishing harbor, rain forests and mountainous areas. I’d prefer to see the real thing, but I’m finicky; there are amusing voice turns by Anne Hathaway and Jesse Eisenberg, among others. Rio’s bright colors pop off the TV screen on Blu-ray; extras include music videos, making-of and voice talent featurettes.

Sleepers (Warners)
Barry Levinson’s gripping but overwrought 1996 revenge drama features a bevy of stars: Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, et al. But telling this multi-generational story of vengeance shouldn’t take 2-½ hours, and Levinson loses his grip on his story’s substance and the characterizations by dawdling over details to ensure that is able to “get” all the connections. The Blu-ray image is an improvement over the DVD but is not eye-popping; there are surprisingly no extras.

Source Code (Summit)
Think of this nail-biting but nonsensical thriller as the sci-fi Groundhog Day: Jake Gyllenhaal gamely goes the Bill Murray route of reliving the same situation over and over, hoping to use knowledge he gains incrementally to eventually stop a terrorist attack. Director Duncan Jones smartly keeps the action moving and the running time short so nagging questions about the ultimate silliness of it all don’t pop up until the movie’s over. The solid hi-def transfer gets a thumbs-up; there’s a writer/director/star commentary and Access Source Code, an interactive feature that can be played during the movie.

Stargate Atlantis: The Complete Series (Fox)
This popular sci-fi television series arrives on Blu-ray in a humongous 20-disc set that comprises five seasons’ worth of 100 episodes, as this inventive sequel picks up where the original Stargate: SG-1 left off. On Blu-ray, the extravagant imagery and special effects have never looked better, which is reason itself for all Stargate Atlantis fans to upgrade to hi-def. Plentiful extras include commentaries with cast and crew on most episodes, deleted scenes and on-set and off-set featurettes.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand)
Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul unfathomably won the Cannes Palme d’Or for this diffuse, lackluster film about ghosts, reincarnation and nature. An early sequence with a cow is absolutely glorious, but once the title character (dying of liver disease) sees his long-dead wife return as a ghost and his long-away son return as part of a group of forest monkeys with red lasers for eyes, the movie becomes much less magical. The final scenes are truly inscrutable, as is the entire movie, except to those who find profound meaning in the solace of benevolent ghosts. The Blu-ray image is crisp and clear, but the subtitles that won’t turn off are a real turn-off, hindering studiers of Weerasethakul’s imagery; extras are a director interview, deleted scenes and a short film.

DVDs of the Week
Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man and La Rabbia/The Anger (Raro)
Raro Video continues releasing obscure Italian films on DVD, like these dramatically and politically charged dramas. 1976’s Live Like a Cop begins with a stunning motorcycle chase through the busy streets of Rome, and amazingly, Ruggero Deodato’s crime drama keeps up the breakneck pace for the next 90 minutes, as two rogue cops clean up the streets by spilling blood. 1963’s La Rabbia/The Anger is an historically important snapshot of the Italian left and right by, respectively, directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Giovannino Guareschi. Cop extras include a 42-minute making-of documentary; Anger extras include a Pasolini short and a 68-minute making-of documentary.

Robert Schumann—A Portrait (EuroArts)
This splendid two-part portrait of the great German composer (who died prematurely, as so many artists do, in 1856 at age 46) mixes contemporary accounts of Schumann and his art with compelling performances of his wonderful music by conductor Leonard Bernstein, the Vienna Philharmonic and pianist Andras Schiff. Using the voices of two actors, Michael Tregor and Sophie von Kessel, as Schumann and his beloved wife/fellow composer Clara, Michael Fuehr’s warmly affecting biography displays a master composer whose artistry was eclipsed by ill health and inadequate medicine.

CDs of the Week
Britten—Songs, Volume 1 (Onyx)
This two-disc collection of Benjamin Britten’s finest (and rarest) songs and song cycles was recorded at the 2009 Aldeburgh Festival, which was founded by the composer 61 years earlier. As a celebration of Britten’s unique facility for setting poetry in English (and German in a few instances), these performances by several enthusiastic young vocalists and veteran pianist Malcolm Martineau can’t be beat. In addition to classic cycles The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and Winter Words, there are five previously unrecorded songs, under two minutes each, which are of special interest to Britten completists.

Previn—Brief Encounter (Deutsche Grammophon)
Based on David Lean and Noel Coward’s classic 1942 film romance, Andre Previn’s opera—which premiered in Houston in 2009—is a solid, workmanlike but uninspired adaptation that’s best heard as a vehicle for two outstanding American singers: soprano Elizabeth Futral and baritone Nathan Gunn, who wrap Previn’s melodic movie music in their lustrous voices to nearly make it sound substantial, accompanied by Patrick Summers leading the excellent Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. But, since both Futral and Gunn are as good at acting as at singing, it’s a missed opportunity to not also release this on DVD.

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