Saturday, October 15, 2011

October '11 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Beautiful Boy (Anchor Bay)
Michael Sheen and Maria Bello give emotionally overwhelming portrayals of a couple about to separate who must deal with a shattered existence after their only son has committed a heinous campus shooting. Director/co-writer Shawn Ku’s low-key approach, which attempts to avoid clich├ęs, ends up as a meandering and unaffecting clinical study of the depths of solitude and sorrow. The Blu-ray image is perfect; the extras comprise Ku’s commentary and deleted scenes.

Boccaccio ‘70 and Casanova ‘70
(Kino Lorber)

The Holy Grail of 1960s omnibus films, Boccaccio ‘70 united directors Mario Monicelli (whose segment was deleted for American release), Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini for a 3-½ hour stew of sexual hypocrisy: Fellini’s segment, The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, is a masterly hoot. Casanova ‘70, Monicelli’s delightful sex comedy stars Marcello Mastroianni as a playboy who discovers he’s impotent unless a life and death situation stares him in the face. Both films have received excellent hi-def transfers with a film-like graininess; too bad there are no extras.

Bonekickers and Going Postal (Acorn Media)
These witty British television series are clever amalgams of comedy, history, mystery and adventure. Bonekickers, set in Bath, follows intrepid archeologists, while Going Postal features a con man trying to run a run-down post office. Those summaries don’t do justice to the whimsy and wit included in both series in equal measure, with a group of stellar actors balancing such lunacies effortlessly. Both series’ visuals are improved greatly by the hi-def upgrade, especially the beauties of Bath in Bonekickers, whose extras include behind-the-scenes segments; Postal extras include commentary, introduction, interviews, deleted scenes and blooper reel.

The Four Feathers (Criterion)
Zoltan Korda’s sumptuous and entertaining 1939 color adventure is the best adaptation of the classic novel about British troops in Africa. Although the intimate dramatic scenes are creaky, the rousing action sequences in Khartoum make this film Zolta’s brother Alexander’s most flamboyant productions. The Criterion Collection’s stellar Blu-ray gives this seven-decade-old film its best-looking image ever; extras include an audio commentary, an interview with Korda’s son and a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette.

Master Harold and the Boys (Image) Athol Fugard’s heartfelt play about the relationship between a white teenager, Hally, and two middle-aged black servants opened eyes that Apartheid’s horrors were vastly more complicated than what’s usually remembered (if at all). Lonny Price’s earnestly stiff adaptation decently renders the atmosphere of a specific time and place, while Freddie Highmore (Hally), Ving Rhames and Patrick Mofokeng are affecting in the three lead roles. The film looks good on Blu-ray; there are no extras.

Masterpiece: Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Wuthering Heights (PBS)
Direct from Britain, this trio of classic literary adaptations--two by Jane Austen, one by Emily Bronte--which aired on PBS’ Masterpiece series are distinguished by the compelling portrayals by several of the best young British actresses in the lead roles. Mansfield Park features Billie Piper and Hayley Atwell; Northanger Abbey stars Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan, an actress incapable of a false note; and Wuthering Heights has Charlotte Riley. An added diversion is gorgeous period locations like Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, which looks splendidly enticing on Blu-ray; the lone extra is Wuthering Heights behind the scenes footage.

Mr. Nice (MPI) Rhys Ifans’ delicious turn as Britain’s most unlikely marijuana smuggler is the center of Bernard Rose’s inventively stylish biopic, another of those “too unbelievable to be made up” true stories. With hallucinatory sex, drugs and rock’n’roll sequences and a topnotch supporting cast led by the always great Chloe Sevigny and an irresistibly slimy David Thewlis, this is one extremely entertaining portrait of a wild and crazy era. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; a making-of featurette is the lone extra.

Terri (Fox)
Finally: a rare film about teenage misfits that doesn’t condescend or pretend that everyone is a world-class wit. Director Azazel Jacobs and writer Patrick DeWitt introduce overweight loner Terri (Jacob Wysocki) on his own terms, allowing him to interact with a cute girl with her own problems (Olivia Crocicchia) and his unconventional vice-principal (John C. Reilly). Not everything works, but the believable teenage milieu allows us to care about these people which, in this era of smartass foolishness, is a real achievement. The Blu-ray transfer is solid; the extras comprise a behind the scenes featurette and deleted scenes.

The Tree of Life (Fox)
Terrence Malick’s visually stunning personal essay is ostensibly the story of a 1950s Texas family as a microcosm of life lived either as a state of grace or of nature. The 19-minute “creation of the universe” sequence is audacious enough; scenes featuring a sullen Sean Penn tie things together in what could be considered a true religious film. Sublime editing, extraordinary photography, excellent use of much classical music and gripping performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, make this philosophical film another thought-provoking work of art by America’s greatest living director. The movie looks amazing in hi-def; the lone extra is the 30-minute Exploring The Tree of Life, with interviews with cast, crew, and admiring directors David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.

DVDs of the Week
The Harvest (Cinema Libre)
This arresting documentary profiles a trio of child migrant workers in the United States, of all places, who work back-breaking hours seven days a week to help keep farms going. Kudos to director U. Roberto Romano for the intimate scale and executive producer Eva Longoria, who obviously took the subject to heart and shepherded it to completion. Seeing these youngsters working ungodly hours for little pay is something we all could learn from, but the people who need to see it will not. Extras include additional scenes and Longoria and others speaking in Washington D.C.

The Trip (IFC)
Michael Winterbottom’s winning road movie stars two of our most capable comic actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing thinly veiled versions of themselves while trekking around England sampling the cuisine…and, not coincidentally, annoying the hell out of each other. That’s pretty much the entire movie. But superb comedians ad-libbing their way through reading menus, ordering food, dissecting the other one’s flaws and doing spot-on impressions of celebrities like Michael Caine is all Winterbottom needs, and he wisely shoots and edits to keep everything percolating for 105 minutes. Extras on-set featurettes and deleted scenes.

The War of 1812 (PBS)
This documentary about America’s first war since gaining its independence is a lucid, impressive account that makes good use of talking heads (including several Canadian scholars), historic maps and other illustrations. Still, this Joe Mantegna-narrated program suffers from “reenactment-itis,” which, instead of letting history come alive on its own, amps up the drama with awkward-looking performers enacting Dolly Madison and other big names of that era. This style never works, for me at least; luckily, the rest of The War of 1812 is informative and insightful.

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