Sunday, October 9, 2011

October '11 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

Two of Tim Burton’s most impressive visual feasts finally get their long-overdue hi-def upgrades: his colorful debut, 1988’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and his 2005 “remake” of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a weirdly off-putting turn by Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. Of course, Blu-ray is the perfect format for Burton’s surreal extravaganzas, since his singular directorial eye and arresting color palette are simply breathtaking transferred to hi-definition. Extras include Burton commentaries and on-set featurettes.

Go West and Battling Butler (Kino)
A pair of lesser-known silent gems continue Kino’s Buster Keaton Hi-Def Upgrade. 1925’s Go West finds Keaton heading west on a train to find his calling as a rancher, with a spellbinding comic climax of a cattle stampede through L.A.; 1926’s Battling Butler shows Keaton hoping to impress his girlfriend’s tough-guy brothers by entering the ring--needless to say, his climactic bout is a doozy. These films are in slightly rougher shape than earlier issues, but they’ve been cleaned up nicely; extras include a Keaton audio recording, a Hal Roach short also titled Go West, and excerpts from Keaton’s screenplay for a 1947 Battling Butler remake.

Harakiri (Criterion)
Masaki Kobayashi’s classic 1962 samurai film is structured brilliantly: a talky, intentionally static first half gives way to kinetic blood-letting in some of the most elegantly staged fight sequences ever filmed. Kobayashi’s stellar photography and razor-sharp editing are the big draws here, along with Tatsuya Nakadai’s sublimely controlled performance. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray transfer of this seminal Japanese film may be the most exquisite-looking black-and-white film in their collection; extras comprise scholar Donald Richie‘s introduction and Kobayashi, Nakadai and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto interviews.

The Lion King and
African Cats

It’s no coincidence that Disney released its “lion” movies on Blu-ray at the same time, since everyone who loves The Lion King will also love watching, in their native habitat, real African Cats, a family-oriented nature documentary in the vein of Disney’s own Earth and Oceans. 1994’s The Lion King, one of Disney’s most beloved animated features, looks absolutely terrific on Blu (even without 3-D), while African Cats records Simba’s real-life counterparts with excellent hi-definition cameras. Extras on Cats include behind-the-scenes featurettes, a music video and interactive featurettes that explain filmmakers’ intentions; Lion King extras include never-seen deleted scenes and bloopers, a deleted song, extended scene and making-of featurettes.

Planet Earth (BBC Earth)
The classic 2006 BBC series set the standard for televised nature documentaries when it first aired, then set the standard for Blu-ray when it was first released. Now, with technology moving forward even faster, this new, upgraded Blu-ray release is even more astonishing to watch. The six-disc set is packed with hours of bonus features, including a quartet of new programs (Great Planet Earth Moments, Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth, Secrets of the Maya Underworld, Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert) that nicely complement the original nine-hour series, audio commentary, video diaries, a music-only option and a sneak peek of the upcoming Frozen Planet.

Le Quattro Volte (Kino Lorber)
Michelangelo Frammartino’s astonishing documentary, shot in southern Italy’s Calabrian hills, is a nearly wordless exploration of man and nature’s life cycle. With perfect control, the director shows the daily life of an elderly shepherd, his goats, herding dog and surrounding countryside (including a magnificent fir tree): life and death casually—and causally—interconnected. A jaw-dropping sequence of the old man’s dog is so intricately structured that it seems staged: that it’s real life makes it more incredible. The final sequence, which seems aimless, climaxes with forceful images of recycling in the truest sense. The exquisite cinematography gets its due on this first-rate Blu-ray; no extras.

Scream 4 (Dimension)
The fourth go-round for this self-referential, winking horror franchise is three too many. Even if it never takes itself seriously, the constant references to other horror movies get old-hat fast; and, stretched to nearly two hours, it’s obvious director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson couldn’t let their beloved in-jokes go. David Arquette, Courtney Cox and Neve Campbell are awful, but the “kids” make it watchable: Hayden Panetierre shows a knack for self-parody and Emma Roberts has a blast as a foul-mouthed, not-quite-what-she-seems teen. The hi-def image is impeccable; extras include a commentary track, gag reel, deleted and extended scenes, and alternate opening and ending.

The Showgirl Must Go On (Image)
This entertaining chronicle of Bette Midler’s return to Las Vegas in 2008 showcases a star with perfect comic timing, flamboyant theatrical flair and a solid song list (which includes her ‘70s novelty, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and beloved standards like “The Rose” and “Wind Beneath My Wings”). Even though she’s in her 60s, the Divine Miss M still has the energy of performers half her age, and far more talent than most of them. The Blu-ray image is much sharper than the DVD version, and the audio has a lot more clarity and punch. Unfortunately, there are no extras: since the show is barely 70 minutes, it’s too bad that no backstage featurette or Midler interview is included.

Submarine (Anchor Bay)
Writer-director Richard Ayoade’s coming-of-age comedy balances preciousness and insightfulness in an easily digestible stew. With a minimum of visual flourishes, Ayoade tells a teenager’s story of dealing with his own fantasies, girls at school and his parents’ troubles in a clever, original way, and the acting by Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor is superb. This touching tale contains enough quirkiness to satisfy its “cool” quotient without overdoing the eccentricity. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Buck (MPI)
This compassionate portrait of a real-life horse whisperer who was technical advisor on Robert Redford’s 1998 film based on the famous novel is a straightforward look at an ordinary but eccentric character with a compelling back story. Buck is an authentic slab of Americana, a man whose special talent (handling the wildest of horses) is related to a deep, dark secret he candidly discusses. This beautiful-looking film, which lovingly studies marvelous equines and landscapes, details an engaging true story. Deleted scenes are the lone extra.

Death of the Virgin (Indican Pictures)
Joseph Tito’s middling, muddled thriller has a trendy storyline, a la The Da Vinci Code: in the Italian town of Caravaggio (the famed artist’s hometown), a shocking series of murders based on his paintings are occurring. Or are they just one woman‘s dreams? Despite an attractive cast led by gorgeous Maria Grazia Cucinotta (best known as the love interest in the Oscar nominated Il Postino) and equally attractive locales, the movie is nothing more than a series of grisly killings with occasional sparks of visual or dramatic invention courtesy of the long-dead painter.

Moby Dick (Vivendi)
Herman Melville’s unfilmable novel (even John Huston came a cropper in 1956) is barely dented in director Mike Barker’s three-hour TV adaptation. Despite stirring sea sequences shot off Nova Scotia‘s coast, the movie is a mere collection of plot highlights, beginning with a not-so-clever scene where we hear the novel’s famous opening, “Call me Ishmael.” William Hurt woefully lacks gravitas as Captain Ahab, Charlie Cox makes a handsome but blank Ishmael, and Donald Sutherland a crazed Father Mapple (Orson Welles hammed it up in Huston’s version). Even the appearance of the infamous white whale is anti-climactic, especially since it’s reminiscent of the mechanic shark in Jaws.

To Be Twenty (Raro Video)
Fernando Di Leo, an Italian cult director getting his due on video after decades of neglect, made this bizarre and bloody sexploitation flick in 1978. Nubile actresses Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati are memorable as carefree, sexually liberated small-town girls who hitchhike to Rome to look for the “sweet life” and find more than they bargained for, culminating in a truly chilling finale that apparently was too much for censors even in the late 70s. Two versions of the film are included: the shredded 85-minute cut and Di Leo’s 98-minute director’s cut, with lots more skin and mayhem. The lone extra is a half-hour featurette about the film, including a Di Leo interview.

No comments: