Saturday, August 27, 2011

August '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Beaver (Summit)
Mel Gibson’s performance as a depressed husband and father who uses a beaver doll to “speak” for him is eye-opening but overdone: why would a middle-class American speak in a Geico-lizard accented voice except to allow Gibson to show off? Still, he and director Jodie Foster make a believable married couple, and Foster smartly allows breathing room for the teenage son’s (Anton Yelchin) budding relationship with the pretty valedictorian (always spot-on Jennifer Lawrence). Too bad scriptwriter Kyle Killen’s clever idea goes nowhere; Foster’s restrained directing and the cast partly compensate. The Blu-ray image is decent; extras are Foster’s commentary, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Blood Simple (MGM/Fox)
I’ve always thought of the Coen brothers’ 1984 debut feature as Blood Simpleminded, so contrived is its plot and so impossibly imbecile are its characters. Even the vaunted visual cleverness is just that: the Coens’ emptily stylish shots are so relentlessly tacky and naïve that they must be ironic: except even as irony, they don’t work. There are, admittedly, a few cheap thrills as well as a certain chutzpah in their insistence on forcing such gimmickry down audiences’ throats. The Blu-ray image is good and grainy; Kenneth Loring’s audio commentary is little more but cheerleading.

Boris Godunov (Opus Arte)
and Le Songe (Arthaus Musik)

Russian Modest Mussorgsky’s epic Boris Godunov, in a version combining the composer's first attempt in 1869 and one in 1874, is seen in a 2010 Turin, Italy staging with conductor Gianandrea Noseda leading the orchestra and Russian singers Orlin Anastassov (Czar Boris) and Ian Storey (Grigory, pretender to the throne) leading the way. Andrei Konchalovsky’s vibrant production looks terrific and Mussorgsky’s impassioned score is teeth-rattling on Blu-ray. Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s film Le Songe, a ballet based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, alternates Mendelssohn’s beguiling score with electronic noises I’d hesitate to call music. Still, the dancers are wonderful, its beautiful visuals transfer well to Blu-ray and it sounds impressive too.

If… (Criterion)
Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 classic, a rare successful film allegory, was followed by his later failures O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital. A young, nasty Malcolm McDowell leads revolting boarding school students against stuffy headmasters in a riotous black comedy that still resonates over 40 years later. By alternating black and white with color and fantasy and reality, Anderson balances menace and exuberance in equal measure. Criterion’s perfect-looking Blu-ray is another winner, with extras comprising McDowell’s commentary; actor Graham Crowden interview; 2003 TV program with McDowell and others; and Anderson’s 1955 short about a school for the deaf, Tuesday’s Children.

In a Better World (Sony)
Susanne Bier’s flawed exploration of two families dealing with the consequences of their sons’ actions stacks the dramatic deck so obviously that, despite the efforts of a good cast, it never becomes the complex psychological drama it intends to be. Bier is a humane filmmaker, but she labors with hammer and tongs until her point is made and re-made. The often spectacular visuals are rendered beautifully on Blu-ray; extras include Bier and her film editor’s commentary, deleted scenes and director interview.

The Perfect Host
and Trollhunter (Magnolia)

David Hyde Pierce has a blast as a fey dinner host who opens his door to a robber in The Perfect Host, an unhinged black-comic thriller that loses its bearings after the first half-hour (it was expanded from writer-director Nick Tomnay’s short). The Norwegian chiller Trollhunter, a Blair Witch Project knockoff (why are those still being made?), has effective moments of horror but mainly bounces along as an action-filled B-movie spoof. Both movies have fine Blu-ray transfers: Trollhunter’s grainy look is especially memorable. Host’s extras include two making-of featurettes; Trollhunter’s extras include deleted/ extended scenes, bloopers and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Poetry (Kino) and
Secret Sunshine (Criterion)

Korean director Lee Chang-dong makes slow, evocative character studies that amplify their protagonists’ messy lives and the societies they inhabit. 2007’s Secret Sunshine follows a young widow whose decision to return to her late husband’s hometown causes more difficulties than she could have imagined, while 2010’s Poetry follows a grandmother struggling with early-onset Alzheimer’s, taking a poetry writing course and dealing with her beloved grandson’s crime. Both films are leisurely but impressively controlled, with enchanting performances. Criterion’s Secret has a gorgeous transfer, director interview and on-set video piece; Kino’s Poetry has an equally excellent transfer and on-set interviews.

Strike (Kino)
Continuing to release more classic silents on Blu-ray than any other company, Kino presents the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature. Made in 1925, Strike is filled with idealistic agit-prop for the Communist state as well as indelible, powerful imagery. The restored copy of the film, despite scratches and visual debris, looks fantastic: the soundtrack, newly commissioned, is played by the effective Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Extras include Glumov’s Diary, Eisenstein’s first short; and Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit, a 38-minute interview with French film scholar Natacha Laurent about Eisenstein’s truncated career and artistry.

Wrecked (IFC)
Like last year’s unfortunate Buried with Ryan Reynolds as a contractor in Iraq who finds himself in a coffin with little time left, this hackneyed thriller with Adrien Brody lacks crucial suspense in a nameless man’s dilemma when he finds himself in a badly crashed car in the middle of a forest surrounded by two dead bodies, cash and a gun. Director Michael Greenspan finds scant variety in the material, resorting to flashbacks hinting at what happened and bringing in a mountain lion and other animals. Ultimately, however this shaggy dog story has little rhyme or reason, despite Brody’s seriousness. The Blu-ray images (shot in the Pacific Northwest) are flattering; extras include making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Bleeding House and
(Tribeca Film)

While The Bleeding House, a minor horror movie about a straight-laced family being terrorized by a maniac, is negligible, Neds--Scottish actor Peter Mullen’s latest and his third devastating directorial effort following Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters--shows Mullen in supreme command of another messed-up slice-of-life tale as a 1972 Glasgow teen tries escaping the hell of his drunken, abusive father and delinquent older brother. Extraordinary acting by mainly unknowns (with Mullen as the drunken dad) distinguishes this hard-hitting drama. Too bad the English subtitles, instead of making the thick dialects clearer, show the actual slang, rendering everything useless. Each film includes two deleted scenes; The Bleeding House also includes an alternate ending.

Cell 211 and
Police Adjective

The enterprising KimStim label has released two IFC Films that would otherwise have fallen completely under the radar. Cell 211 is a familiar but enthralling action pic set during a prison riot, where a guard on his first day pretends he’s a prisoner to survive; Police Adjective, another example of the current Romanian film renaissance, is a deliberately paced, often dull but at times spectacularly minimalist look at a detective working a routine case. Both films are at least worth a look; it’s too bad that only Cell 211 has an extra: a making-of featurette.

Daguerreotypes (Cinema Guild)
This charming 1975 portrait of neighbors on the Paris street where the director has lived for over 50 years now is another light-hearted but endlessly watchable Agnes Varda documentary. She introduces us to the people on the street, their shops and their customers, showing once again that she is the most perceptive documentary filmmaker around. The disc includes several Varda shorts, including Rue Daguerre in 2005, the follow-up that shows her street over the past 30 years, that consolidate Varda as our most optimistic and good-humored social critic.

Everwood: Season 4 and
Two and a Half Men: Season 8

These two hit shows, in different ways, have gone as far as they could with their characters. Everwood, the slightly cloying family drama starring Treat Williams, ends its run in its fourth year on the air, while Two and Half Men, as amusing as it is, is better known for its now former star Charlie Sheen’s offscreen shenanigans. Everwood’s 22 episodes are complemented by deleted scenes and alternate endings; Two and a Half Men’s 16 episodes include no extras.

CDs of the Week
British Composers Series: Bliss; Britten, Berkeley and Rubbra (EMI)
While fans of this superb quartet of British composers already own most of the recordings in these re-releases, they are still indispensable for completists who may be missing a work or two and those wanting an introduction. The valuable five-disc Bliss set includes many of the underrated 20th century master’s best works (A Colour Symphony, Oboe Quintet, Checkmate ballet), along with a disc of Bliss conducting his own works like the Miracle of the Gorbals ballet and the vivid Music for Strings. The other five-disc set pairs a lot of Britten (Peter Grimes, Rape of Lucretia) with works by Edmund Rubbra (including his rarely-heard Piano Concerto) and Lennox Berkeley, whose disc features ear-opening performances of the masterly Horn Trio and lovely vocal and choral works.

Weill: Threepenny Opera and Other Songs (Capriccio)
Kurt Weill’s classic scores are heard in historic recordings (1928-1944) of Weill, wife Lotte Lenya and other cast members performing excerpts from The Threepenny Opera, and selections from other works like Mahagonny and Happy End. While the sound quality on these two discs leaves much to be desired, that’s part of the charm as we hear the composing genius and his very best and closest interpreters giving us run-throughs of such classics as “Mack the Knife” and “Alabama Song.”

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