Sunday, September 18, 2011

September '11 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Big Bang Theory: Season 4 (Warners)
and Sanctuary: Season 3 (MPI)
The Big Bang Theory, about the relationships between nerdy brainiacs and a brainless beauty, gets comic mileage from its central trio: Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons and underrated comedienne Kaley Cuoco. Sanctuary, about a scientific team tracking down and studying terrifying creatures, balances small-scale story strands with extravagant visual effects. Both series (especially Sanctuary’s elegantly weird visuals) gain immeasurably from Blu-ray’s higher resolution; Theory bonuses include cast interviews and a gag reel, while Sanctuary bonuses include featurettes about the cast, music, effects and creators.

Citizen Kane (Warners)
Rightly celebrated as The Great American Movie, Orson Welles’ towering debut remains a remarkable achievement, with an innovative narrative structure that still works strongly 70 years later. And the sterling Blu-ray transfer only enhances Gregg Toland’s lustrous B&W compositions, as well as throwing Welles’ youthful genius into sharp relief: he never topped himself in the next 40+ years of making (or trying to make) movies. Warners’ anniversary edition includes extras like the controversial documentary The Battle OverCitizen Kane; an HBO movie, RKO 281, based on the documentary; Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich commentaries and featurettes.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Magnolia)
How much you enjoy this record of Conan O’Brien’s post-Tonight Show firing North American comedy tour will depend on your allegiance to the talk-show host: simply put, if you’re a rabid Coco fan, you don’t need to be told to watch this pleasant if inconsequential documentary; if you’re not, you won’t become a fan after watching it. The movie’s guerrilla shooting style and talking heads interviews don’t look appreciably better on hi-def; extras include additional footage, an O’Brien interview and commentary.

Henry’s Crime (Fox)
Set in a drably working-class Buffalo (with the Music Hall in Tarrytown standing in for an intimate local theater), this unassuming, ultimately innocuous comic drama is about a quiet man, after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit, falls in love with a local actress and sets about planning a heist with the hardened criminal with whom he shared a cell. Keane Reeves is too wooden in the lead but Vera Farmiga and James Cann lend color as the actress and partner in crime, respectively. Director Malcolm Venville’s dull color palette is recreated faithfully on Blu-ray; there are no extras.

Last Night (Miramax/Echo Bridge)
Movies don’t get much more glamorous than Massy Tadjedin’s sophisticated-looking but superficial examination of a couple dealing with temptations of both flesh and spirit. Keira Knightley (never more ravishing) and Sam Worthington (without Avatar’s blue pigment) are the couple; that Sam has the chance to cheat with the equally gorgeous Eva Mendes makes his predicament even more difficult. A listless Guillaume Canet rounds out the quartet. Glitzy shots of Manhattan look stunning on Blu-ray; no extras.

Meek’s Cutoff (Oscilloscope)
Kelly Reichert’s minimalist western about lost settlers on the Oregon Trail in 1845 turning to a captured Indian to lead them to desperately-needed water is nicely shot (in academy ratio) by cinematographer Chris Blauvelt but puts characters through predictable paces. The cast is part authentic (Michelle Williams, Will Patton and Bruce Greenwood), part disastrously contemporary (Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan). Reichert’s effective editing keeps one hopeful about the outcome of what, disappointingly, turns out to be a shaggy-dog allegory about our last two presidents. The film does have a glorious hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a making-of documentary.

3 Women (Criterion)
Robert Altman’s dreamscape, while not a direct rip-off of Persona, is so influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s superior character study that it makes one wince while watching it. Still, for all its half-baked ideas and dime-store psychology, Altman’s visual sense and superb actresses (Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, both never better) keep interest, no matter how silly his antagonists become. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer gives this 1977 drama an appropriately grainy look; Altman’s enlightening commentary is included.

X-Men: First Class (Fox)
Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to the smash hit movie franchise introduces several mutant characters in a convoluted plot tying their coming-of-age exploits alongside the tense world situation between the two superpowers in 1961: but combining the Cuban missile crisis with comic book silliness is a waste of (overlong) storytelling. The performers, from Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy to January Jones, Rose Byrne and Jennifer Lawrence, do their best but are outclassed by CGI effects and makeup, all looking superb on Blu-ray; extras include a making-of documentary and deleted and extended scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist)
This engaging chronicle of the New York Times’ legendary photographer shows Cunningham’s unique take on both his work and navigating the busy New York streets for decades. Cunningham comes off as eccentric but appealing, and his photographs--which are still being published every Sunday in the Times’ Style section--superbly balance the fashion world with the everyday world. Extras include additional scenes and interviews.

Rescue Me: The Sixth Season and the Final Season (Sony)
Denis Leary’s no-holds-barred drama limped to its end with the seventh season finale; both the sixth and seventh seasons are included in this five-disc, 19-episode set, continuing the immature shenanigans of Tommy Gavin, his women (superbly played by Andrea Roth and Callie Thorne) and his fellow firefighters. Too bad the show’s copout finale (only one character dies in what looks like a conflagration) sums up its inability to deal seriously with life-or-death situations without screaming and drinking. The tremendous cast (minus the incredibly dull Adam Ferrara) smooths over the writing’s rough patches. Extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and cast and creator interviews.

Vera (Acorn Media)
Brenda Blethyn’s intelligent performance as tough-as-nails detective solving violent crimes is the focus of this absorbing four-episode mini-series shot in picturesque villages of the Northumberland section of England. Alongside Blethyn’s usual excellence is good support from David Leon, Wunmi Mosaku and Paul Ritter as her harried co-workers and guest stars like Gina McKee, Kerry Fox and John Lynch, who portray suspects or witnesses. This is gritty storytelling done well, as is usually the case with these BBC productions.

Von Heute auf Morgen (Dynamic)
Arnold Schoenberg’s absurdist, atonal 1929 comic opera, about the disarmingly simple story of a bickering couple, works better in theory than execution, for Schoenberg’s unwavering 12-tone music doesn’t really allow the comic aspects to breathe. But the energy of this 2008 Venice production gives the work its due, glossing over the writing’s bumpiness: the singers (Georg Nigl, Brigitte Geller), musicians (Orchestra del Teatro la Fenice) and staging (by Andreas Homoki) are all exemplary.

CDs of the Week
Falla: Piano Music (Harmonia Mundi)
20th century Spanish master Manuel de Falla’s entire oeuvre for solo piano fits easily onto one CD, and it’s explored with a combination of sure technical prowess by pianist Javier Perianes, who also exquisitely performs Falla’s grandest composition for piano and orchestra, Nights in the Garden of Spain, accompanied by the sensitive playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor Josep Pons.

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben/Four Last Songs (BIS)
Works from opposite ends of Strauss’s career--an early, blistering orchestral tone poem and four delicately scored late songs--are performed with the necessary delicacy and bravado by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s steady conducting. Soprano Dorothea Roschmann sings the Four Last Songs with subtlety, wringing every emotional moment from Strauss’s exceptionally elegant score.

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