Sunday, October 23, 2011

October '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Bad Teacher (Sony)
I’ve never been a fan of Cameron Diaz, so I had little hope for Bad Teacher: but she’s perfect as a sexy, foul-mouthed teacher in this raunchy, mean-spirited, occasionally funny comedy. It’s tough getting laughs while showing off your trim bod as you wash cars, but Diaz manages to do both. Jason Segal is a decent foil as the gym teacher with the hots for her, but once again Justin Timberlake is lifeless as a substitute teacher Diaz likes. The movie’s insipid, sure, but it’s also defiantly un-P.C., so that counts for a little. The Blu-ray transfer is solid; extras include deleted scenes, gag reel, outtakes and on-set interviews.

The Clowns (Raro Video)
This 1970 paean to the circus that Federico Fellini always loved, made for Italian TV, might not be as visually or comically memorable as his obvious classics, but if “Felliniesque” wasn’t yet in use, it would have been coined for this surreal, shaggy dog of a film. Fellini is our guide for a loving look at circus clowns that opens with a beautiful nocturnal dream sequence of a young Fellini basking in the glow of the tent going up as the circus comes to town. This modest but immensely pleasing partial autobiography has an excellent hi-def transfer bursting with color; extras include Fellini’s 1953 short, The Matrimonial Agency, and Adriano Apra’s dry, academic essay, Fellini’s Circus.

The Guns of Navarone (Columbia/Sony)
One of the big super-spectaculars of its time, this overlong, muddled adventure is set in Greece during World War II. With Gregory Peck, Richard Harris, Anthony Quinn and David Niven in top form, J. Lee Thompson’s creaky epic (from Alistair McLean’s novel) works thanks to stunning location shooting--which looks remarkable in a restoration immortalized on Blu-ray--and Dmitri Tiomkin’s heavingly bombastic score. Extras are commentaries by Thompson and film historian Stephen J. Rubin, three documentaries, eight featurettes and an interactive feature, The Resistance Dossier of Navarone.

Kuroneko (Criterion)
Best known for his terrifying ghost story Onibaba, director Kaneto Shindo turned to another scary tale with 1968’s Kuroneko (Black Cat), an eerie fable of murder, sex and redemption. Shindo ramps up the atmospherics with exquisite B&W cinematography and Hikaru Hayashi‘s haunting score. This Criterion Collection release gives Shindo’s classic its due with a breathtaking Blu-ray transfer and extras comprising a Shindo interview and appreciation by film critic Tadao Sato.

Monte Carlo (Fox)
This vehicle, Selena Gomez’s attempt to escape her Disney shackles, is a pleasant teen rom-com that finds her in Paris on a vacation that includes her being mistaken for a prissy heiress and whisked off to Monte Carlo for laughs and love. It’s forgettably watchable, with European locales (Paris, Monte Carlo, Budapest) giving it added luster, especially on the decent-looking Blu-ray. Extras include fluffy on-set footage and deleted scenes.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (Magnolia)
This fascinating look behind the scenes of the Gray Lady chronicles the last bastion of traditional American journalism through reporter David Carr, whose own story (ex-drug addict, felon) is as interesting as his own take-no-prisoners attitude. In our unbrave new world of bloggers and internet arrogance, there’s room for newspapers, director Andrew Rossi says…or is there? At 90 minutes, the movie’s a little too breezy, but 20 minutes of deleted scenes are included, as are interviews and a Q&A following its premiere.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Disney)
In the fourth installment of the Pirates franchise, even Johnny Depp looks bored trotting out Jack Sparrow again. The fetching, able Keira Knightley has been replaced by a not-fetching, unable Penelope Cruz, good British actors Gregory Rush, Richard Griffiths and Ian McShane ham entertainingly, but director Rob Marshall (who also ruined Chicago and Nine) has no clue how to shoot action, even ruining a foolproof mermaid scene. The movie has a great Blu-ray transfer; extras comprise gag reel, short film and commentary.

Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom (Criterion)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 adaptation of de Sade’s magnum opus about debauchery and torture updates it to fascist Italy, where innocent young men and women are forced to perform grotesque acts of self-debasement before being horribly murdered by their jaded captors. Obviously, Salo is an acquired taste, and even if much looks undoubtedly fake (eating shit, cutting out tongues, gouging out eyes), it’s disgusting enough to avert one’s eyes anyway. Despite Pasolini’s passionate anti-fascism, Salo’s shock value obliterates artistic or psychological concerns. The Criterion Collection provides a typically first-rate release, with a fine hi-def transfer and extras that contextualize a movie screaming for it.

V: The Complete 2nd Season (Warners)
This cancelled sci-fi series, with supposedly benign visitors from outer space actually having malevolent intentions, wraps up its second--and final--season with 10 episodes on two discs. (There’s a letter-writing campaign by fans to get the show on another network.) Dazzling visuals--which look terrific on Blu-ray--outpace the rather routine contretemps between humans and aliens; at least the lead alien is easy-on-the-eyes Morena Baccarin, who could sucker any red-blooded human male into thinking she’s on his side. Extras include a blooper reel, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Ancient Marvels (PBS)
This boxed set of episodes from PBS’ intelligent science series NOVA brings together explorations of great, awe-inspiring architectural achievements of lost civilizations: Stonehenge, the Sphinx, Machu Picchu, the Parthenon, Easter Island, China’s Rainbow Bridges. Each hour-long episode dissects how and why each masterpiece was built, with modern-day archeologists and scientists attempting to replicate these monuments showing how amazing these achievements are, hundreds and thousands of years later.

The Music Lovers and
The White Bus

The latest MGM Limited Edition Collection releases are, unfortunately, two top British directors’ least interesting films. Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, a bizarre, vulgarized 1970 biopic of Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky (played with youthful energy by Richard Chamberlain), has frenzied visuals and blasting music but little nuance. Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus is a short, surreal 1967 melodrama that alternates between B&W and color like his superior next film, If…. While the films’ transfers are not top-notch by any means, they are adequate enough.

The Rise and Fall of Margaret Thatcher (BBC)
The Iron Lady, England’s first female prime minister, gets the biopic treatment in this trio of BBC productions showing Margaret Thatcher’s political triumphs and failures. The Long Walk to Finchley dramatizes how Thatcher (a superb Andrea Riseborough) wins her first election despite sexism; The Falklands Play has Thatcher (a stern Patricia Hodge) dealing with England’s 1982 war with Argentina; and Margaret shows Thatcher (a splendid if too youthful Lindsay Duncan) during her waning years of power. Together, these films provide an absorbing portrait of a formidable and controversial woman.

The Shock Doctrine (Kimstim/Zeitgeist)
Naomi Klein’s provocative book The Shock Doctrine details Milton Freidman’s free-market capitalism as an inevitable by-product of natural and man-made disasters like war, terrorist attacks and hurricanes. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’ pungent documentary, an illuminating overview of Klein’s “disaster capitalism” thesis, includes the author discussing her ideas. However, Klein gives too much credence to Friedman and his acolytes’ “success,” which seems coincidental and anecdotal.

CDs of the Week
Anna Netrebko: Live at the Metropolitan Opera (Deutsche Grammophon)
In the decade since her smashing 2002 Metropolitan Opera debut in Prokofiev’s masterpiece War and Peace, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has become the biggest star in the classical music world. This compilation of excerpts from her starring roles on the Met stage includes a disappointingly short scene from War and Peace (one of the most underrated operas of the 20th century), along with more obvious examples of her magnetic personality and gorgeous voice: Don Giovanni, La Boheme, The Tales of Hoffman, Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and the bel canto works now dominating her repertoire-- Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale and Bellini’s I Puritani.

Mojca Erdmann: Mozart’s Garden (Deutsche Grammophon)
German soprano Mojca Erdmann’s CD debut comprises a well-chosen group of arias by Mozart and contemporaries: his supposed nemesis Antonio Salieri (infamous from the play and movie Amadeus), Giovanni Paisiello, Ignaz Holzbauer and J.C. Bach. Erdmann’s lustrous tone and creamy voice hit all the right notes in the Mozart arias from Zaide, Idomeneo, Figaro and The Magic Flute. Giving estimable musical support are conductor Andrea Marcon and La Cetra Barockorchester Basel. Here’s looking to more from this luscious-sounding (and -looking) young artist.

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