Sunday, August 14, 2011

August '11 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The Battle of Algiers (Criterion)
Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterly recreation of the Algerian war--where rebels’ terrorist tactics finally convinced the stubborn French to grant independence--is as timely now as upon its 1966 release. This influential cinematic textbook of a failed counterinsurgency (which the U.S. aped in Iraq) is, despite its polemics, a superbly delineated exploration of impossibly different sides in a raging conflict. On Blu-ray, Pontecorvo’s striking black and white imagery is grainier and more documentary-like than ever; hours of extras include documentaries on its making, legacy, use as a case study, and historical worth. Too bad Bertrand Tavernier’s extraordinary four-hour The Undeclared War (1992) is missing from the supplements, since it’s as valuable a document as Pontecorvo’s classic.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Strand)
This account of the career of cinematographer Jack Cardiff is a blissful time machine back to the golden age of cinema, when visuals were faked by artists, not computers. Cardiff spent his entire life in movies, acting at age four and directing and photographing until he died in 2009 at age 95. There’s a lengthy interview with Cardiff and footage from countless movies he was involved in (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, even Rambo: First Blood Part II) and admiring mentions by colleagues Kirk Douglas, Martin Scorsese, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall and cinematographer Freddie Francis. The most pleasurable film at last year’s New York Film Festival looks gorgeous on Blu-ray, with some enticing extras: Cardiff featurettes and an interview with director Craig McCall.

David Holzman’s Diary (Kino)
Jim McBride’s groundbreaking 1967 pseudo cinema-verite chronicle of a narcissistic young filmmaker who documents his own exploits is more of a curio today, but it’s a snapshot of New York City in a specific time and place, with a good-natured humor about itself that keeps it palatable. Recently preserved, the scratchy B&W film looks spotlessly new on Blu-ray; the extras are additional McBride films: 1969’s My Girlfriend’s Wedding (62 minutes); 1971’s Pictures from Life’s Other Side (45 minutes); and 2008’s My Son’s Wedding to My Sister-in-Law (8 minutes).

Donnie Darko (Fox)
Richard Kelly’s bizarre 2001 psychological thriller about a disturbed teenager who sees an oversized rabbit warning him of a dire future has risible dialogue and pathetic attempts at depth and insight that are humanized by actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Katharine Ross, Jena Malone and Mary McDowell. Kelly’s later Southland Tales and The Box show him as unhinged and superficial as ever, so--especially in the longer director’s cut--Donnie Darko only began what became an eye-rolling career. The moody photography comes across interestingly on Blu-ray; the four-disc set includes the original and director’s cuts and extras including a commentary by Kelly and Kevin Smith.

The Fox and the Hound/Fox and the Hound II (Disney)
The 30th anniversary edition of the original The Fox and the Hound also includes its inferior 2006 sequel on Blu-ray: the difference between the two films is very obvious, not only in their worth (the original is far more memorable, even if it’s not up to the best of Disney’s similar animated features like The Lady and the Tramp) but in their “look." The original has a richness to its color palette, while the sequel is bright but shallow, which is particularly noticeable while watching it on Blu-ray. Extras include a few featurettes.

The Perfect Game (Image)
This family-friendly crowd pleaser is based on the true story of a ragtag team from south of the border that achieved the impossible dream of playing in the 1957 Little League World Series. Director William Dear gets small details right along with larger emotions, and with a solid cast of familiar faces like Lou Gossett and Cheech Marin, The Perfect Game is a clean single for anyone who played ball as a child or still enjoys watching them play. Extras include Dear’s commentary, interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Super (IFC)
James Gunn’s wrongheaded satire about a loser in a superhero suit who apprehends criminals to win back his estranged wife never finds a proper tone, while his script is strictly amateur hour. At least Rainn Wilson (hero), Kevin Bacon (gangster), Liv Tyler (wife) and Ellen Page (comic book expert turned superhero sidekick) provide gravitas, with Page hilariously on the money in a role that, as written, is mere window dressing. Too bad the misfiring Gunn can’t carve biting comedy out of material that has potential. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include Gunn and Wilson’s commentary, a making-of featurette and deleted scene.

Tekken (Anchor Bay)
The popular fighting video game has become a movie, and if the scenes outside the ring that, which tell a semblance of a futuristic story, are so dull they can’t even be called routine, the fight sequences are good enough, especially when gorgeous Kelly Overton is in action. The hero, barely portrayed by John Foo, doesn’t even register as a video-game character, but the visuals (rendered well on Blu-ray) and the fighting showdowns, which is what we’re all here for, deliver in spades. The lone extra: a substantial 50-minute behind-the-scenes look at the dangerous stuntwork.

DVDs of the Week
Masquerades and Shirley Adams (Global Film Initiative)
First in theaters, then on DVD, Global Film Initiative releases films from around the world that would otherwise stay unseen. This month, there’s Lyes Salem’s Masquerades, a rollicking Algerian comedy about a man who wants to marry off his beautiful but narcoleptic sister (Sara Reguieg) to the right man, not their next door neighbor whom she loves. Terrific acting and a light touch mark Salem’s funny portrait. Conversely, Shirley Adams is debut director Oliver Hermanus’ intense look at a South African mother whose paraplegic son hopes his suicide will ease her burden. Led by Denise Newman’s stunning lead performance, Shirley Adams grabs viewers by the throat and doesn’t let go.

Queen to Play (Zeitgeist)
Caroline Bottaro’s perceptive comedic character study stars the always-revelatory Sondrine Bonnaire as a middle-aged maid whose unexpected obsession with learning chess is at odds with her working-class husband’s idea of what his wife should be doing. Kevin Kline expertly plays the crusty expatriate American who encourages her, and Jennifer Beals has a delightful cameo as a tourist who prompts her obsession with playing the game. Despite its slightness, this flavorful movie becomes compelling in its quiet way. The lone extra is a featurette of Bonnaire, Kline and Bottaro interviews.

CDs of the Week
Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle (Channel Classics)
Bela Bartok only composed one opera, but it’s a doozy, a compact, 55-minute one-act thriller that sends shivers up the spines of even the most reluctant listeners with music alternately bludgeoning, mystifying and even, most improbably, ultra-romantic. This recording, made by Bartok’s compatriots, Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer, the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra and two estimable Hungarian singers, the late bass Laszlo Polgár (Bluebeard) and mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi (Judith), acquit themselves admirably, while the excellent surround-sound gives Bartok’s masterwork more immediacy and fresh life.

Orff: Ein Sommernachtstraum/A Midsummer Night’s Dream (CPO)
Carl Orff is best known for Carmina Burana, heard in movies and TV commercials for decades. This work, composed in 1964, comprises Orff’s complete music for a production of Shakespeare’s classic play, and so is frustrating to listen to. The CPO disc alternates the play’s dialogue in German with Orff’s occasional musical underlining; there are also instances of Orff’s pleasant music taking over, but those are few and far between for such a long work. As well performed as it is by the actors, singers and musicians, this work needs to be seen as well as heard, so a DVD would have been preferable to a CD.

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