Sunday, September 4, 2011

September '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Complete Jean Vigo (Criterion)
A rule-breaking, delightful quartet of films are collected in this essential release. Probably the most important director who never got to 30 (he died of TB at age 29 in 1934), Jean Vigo--who influenced Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Bunuel and Cocteau, for starters--made an absurdist documentary short (A propos de Nice), champion athlete portrait (Taris) and two towering masterpieces: boarding-school classic Zero for Conduct and 90-minute surreal romance L’Atalante. What would he have done if he lived even 10-15 more years? For their ages, these B&W films look absolutely remarkable. Extras include film commentaries by Vigo scholar Michael Temple, an alternate Nice edit, Truffaut and Rohmer conversation, French TV episode about Vigo’s career, a 2001 documentary about L’Atalante and appreciations by directors Michel Gondry and Otar Iosseliani.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Sony)
Leave it to Morgan Spurlock to make a movie from a desperate idea: the ubiquitousness of product placement on our screens and in our lives. So Spurlock’s movie chronicles his efforts to get corporate backing for and product placement into his movie, the movie that makes itself. It’s funny and thought-provoking about how everything is commercialized nowadays, even if its slight 87-minute running time feels padded. The film’s hi-def video shoot comes across brightly on Blu-ray; extras include commentary by Spurlock and others, deleted scenes, full-length commercials, behind-the-scenes featurette, Sundance footage and behind-the-scenes for the Hyatt and JetBlue ads.

Madea’s Big Happy Family (LionsGate)
Another Medea picture comes off the Tyler Perry assembly line, with the expected result: Perry’s Medea (a singularly unconvincing drag performance) spits out well-timed (but not very funny) insults to other members of her family when they get together for a family emergency. Even with a trouper like Loretta Devine in tow, the movie rarely scares up genuine laughs or tears, thanks to Perry’s risible dialogue and characters and barely-there directing. The solid-looking Blu-ray image is complemented by extras (on-set and behind-the-scenes featurettes).

Prom (Disney)
This tame, made-for-Disney TV movie won’t win awards for originality or (barely) competence, but it does what it sets out to do: entertain its targeted high schoolers and pre-teens who want to watch normal kids going through manufactured problems: when the prom is in jeopardy, the kids ensure it goes on. It’s anything but scintillating, and the performers seem chosen from a Benetton ad, but it’s passably entertaining anyway. The Blu-ray transfer is strong; extras include seven music videos, a making-of featurette, bloopers, deleted scenes and a new short film.

Sons of Anarchy: Season 3 (Fox)
The 13 entertaining episodes on this 3-disc set follow the continuing adventures of members of a renegade bikers’ club which helps protect a small town from developers and drug dealers and others. Although the show isn’t as clever as it thinks, there’s something likable about it, thanks to its top cast, led by the indomitable Katey Segal and intriguing Ron Perlman. The images look stunning on Blu-ray; extras include all-new-to-Blu-ray scenes bridging seasons 3 and 4; extended episodes; writer’s roundtable featurette; gag reel; deleted scenes; and commentaries.

The Twilight Zone: Season 5 (Image)
The final season of Rod Serling’s all-time classic series (1963-4) returned to the half-hour format after the previous season’s hour-long shows. While the 36 episodes are a bumpy ride, several stand with the best ever produced, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with William Shatner, “Living Doll” with Telly Savalas, and “Caesar and Me” with Jackie Cooper. Also included is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a chilling Oscar-winning French short film airing once as a Twilight Zone episode. Along with superbly upgraded visuals, this stacked five-disc set includes dozens of audio commentaries, interviews, promo spots, conversations with Serling and 22 Twilight Zone radio dramas.

Win Win (Fox)
In Tom McCarthy’s sympathetic story of a down-and-out lawyer/high school wrestling coach trying to straighten out his family’s economic difficulties, Paul Giamatti gives one of his most well-rounded performances. McCarthy’s excellent script has juicy roles for a crew of non-glamorous actors: alongside Giamatti are Amy Ryan as his devoted wife, Bobby Cannavale as his desperate friend and young Alex Shaffer as the teen wrestling prodigy whose own family situation causes more problems. This intimate comic portrait has a clean hi-def look; extras include interviews, deleted scenes and a music video.

DVDs of the Week
An American Family (PBS)
Public television’s greatest achievement, the 1973 mini-series showcasing the Loud family of Santa Barbara, was a riveting real-life chronicle that presaged the awful spate of reality shows that clutter TV today and remains a dramatic and psychologically penetrating document. The 12-hour show was reedited to 2 hours for this release, providing a necessarily incomplete overview of the whole messy, sad, funny and compelling series. Extras include a 1973 roundtable discussion with anthropologist Margaret Mead and new interviews with people who worked on the original production.

Carbon Nation (Team Marketing)
Peter Byck’s documentary about how we can switch to renewable energy from our dependence on foreign oil--which grows with each passing year--is an evenhanded approach to optimistic solutions rather than another round of finger pointing. Arguing for smart responses rather than those that line the pockets of a few, the film brings together under a big tent all political persuasions who want one future: a real fight against climate change. Informative extras include eight deleted scenes, two commentaries and three cartoons, along with Byck’s first documentary, Garbage.

Eclipse 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara (Criterion)
This is why the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse line was invented: to introduce us to a a filmmaker who, for one reason or another, has been buried for decades. Koreyoshi Kurahara, a Japanese contemporary of Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, made fever-dream dramas that were deliriously free-form but also tightly controlled, and the five films of his that are collected in this set are highly watchable (and even rewatchable) tours de force. The quintet begins with 1960’s Intimidation and concludes with 1967’s Thirst for Love, an extraordinarily compelling and typically bizarre adaptation of a Yukio Mishima novel.

A New Look: Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre
and Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Microcinema)
These documentaries chronicle artists who worked nearly two centuries apart. Although Samuel Morse is best known for the telegraph and Morse Code, his massive painting Gallery of the Louvre is studied in this interesting 30-minute featurette, an important work of American art that, unfortunately, was not accepted by his countrymen, which led to the inventions that would make his name. Trimpin, a composer who creates music for instruments that he builds himself, is shown in the engaging The Sound of Invention collaborating with avant-garde musicians Kronos Quartet.

CDs of the Week
Rossini: William Tell (EMI Classics)
Rossini never penned music more popular than the last section of the Overture for his 1829 grand opera from a Frederich Schiller play--today, it’s best known as the The Lone Ranger theme. Most impressive about conductor Antonio Pappano’s brilliantly paced account of this three-plus hour, five-act drama is that even when that familiar theme pops up, it remains in the context of a thrilling story of 14th century oppression. A tremendous cast led by Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as the hero makes this a thrilling listen, and kudos to EMI Classics for giving it the deluxe treatment--a beautifully designed box, three discs, thick libretto booklet, all a luxury in today’s belt-tightening classical world.

Schubert/Gal: Kindred Spirits (Avie)
Franz Schubert’s “Great” Symphony is, along with his “Unfinished,” the acme of his orchestral music, and a glimpse at where the composer’s style might have headed if he hadn’t died at age 31 in 1828. Thomas Zehetmair conducts the Northern Sinfonia in a solid rendition of that symphony, pairing it with the Second Symphony from obscure Austrian composer Hans Gal, born 62 years after Schubert’s death. A deliberately paced, enticingly dramatic work, Gal’s symphony is good enough to want to hear more: and you can, as Gal’s first symphony was earlier paired with Schubert’s sixth in the first “Kindred Spirits” release.

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