Sunday, October 30, 2011

October '11 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
and Peter and the Wolf (Opus Arte)

These delightful ballets will enrapt viewers young and old. Alice beautifully pairs Joby Talbot’s effervescent score and Christopher Wheeldon’s invigorating choreography to imaginatively present Lewis Carroll’s surreal tale, including the most adorable Cheshire Cat anyone will ever see. Prokofiev’s enchanting Peter stars Royal Ballet School dancers taking the parts: with that gloriously witty music and enthusiastic children enacting the fairy tale, it’s 35 minutes of musical heaven. Both discs look sharp in hi-def, and both include a making-of featurette.

Anna Nicole (Opus Arte)
For this new opera based on the short life and tragic death of Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith, composer Marc-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas transform her story--from white trash Texas to celebrity and death at age 39--into a sometimes entertaining, sometimes infuriating, often inconsequential but always watchable and listenable stage work. Thomas’ libretto is clever but vulgar and Turnage’s music smartly moves from jazzy blues to thumpy dullness. The ace in the hole is Swedish soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, gorgeous to watch and hear as the heroine. The Royal Opera’s world premiere production glistens on Blu-ray; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Attack on Leningrad (e one)
The 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, one of history’s biggest tragedies, is grippingly fictionalized by writer-director Alexander Burasky. At 110 minutes, it abridges the horrors of the millions who lived and died during the siege, instead showing its effect on a female British journalist stuck behind the lines. Too bad the story’s jumping around among the Germans, Russians and British waters down the effectiveness of showing how harrowing this ordeal was. Blu-ray’s film-like quality makes the movie look like a documentary at times. Extras include a Burasky interview and making-of featurette.

Baaria (Image)
Giuseppe Tornatore, who won a 1990 Best Foreign Film Oscar for Cinema Paradiso, returns with another overwrought, overlong and ultimately underwhelming canvas of Italian life. We follow a Sicilian protagonist for several decades through love and death, tragedy and triumph, Communist politics and disillusionment. Immaculately shot, edited and scored (the last by veteran composer Ennio Morricone), Baaria is a gorgeous-looking 2-½ hours of sentimentality that looks especially striking on Blu-ray. Extras comprise Tornatore’s commentary, behind-the-scenes featurette, interviews and deleted scenes.

Father of Invention (Anchor Bay)
Kevin Spacey’s innate hamminess centers a tone-deaf comic drama about an inventor just out of prison for an invention gone awry that injured thousands who tries patching up his non-existent relationship with his grown daughter. Moments of clarity and humor in this study of redemption are helped by attractive cast led by Virginia Madsen (ex-wife) and Camille Belle (daughter), but ham-fisted subplots include a bug-eyed Heather Graham as a militant lesbian and an equally overdone Johnny Knoxville as Spacey’s unwilling partner. The Blu-ray image is good; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Island of Lost Souls (Criterion)
The first sound-era adaptation of H.G. Wells’ cautionary sci-fi tale The Island of Doctor Moreau stars Charles Laughton as the mad doctor: although Laughton minimizes his usual hamminess, this 1932 horror movie is at a near-hysterical pitch throughout, so by the time Moreau’s experiments have been discovered, there’s nowhere to go but down. Still, if schlocky scary movies are your thing, this is a must-see. The Criterion Collection comes up aces with a new digital restoration that makes the film look as good as it ever will; extras include commentary, interviews and a short piece on Devo, which named its first album after the classic line: “Are we not men?”

The Last Circus (Magnet/Magnolia)
Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia’s over-the-top movies throw big emotions and bigger melodramatic stories in your face, but even by that standard, The Last Circus is absurd and wearying. It follows a sad clown who turns psychotic, with violence galore, crazed characterizations, plot twists and a finale that must be seen to be disbelieved. I’ve enjoyed his movies in the past, but this is just too grotesque and unsatisfying. The magnificent visuals, however, are transferred brilliantly to Blu-ray; extras include making-of featurettes and interviews.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Oscilloscope)
A bizarre comic “anti-holiday” thriller by Finn Jalmari Helander begins with the gruesome killing of a herd of reindeer, followed by the disappearance of the village‘s children. Can an enterprising dad and his son avenge them and “save” Christmas? Stunningly shot in the land of the midnight sun, the movie has a certain gruesome humor, but it’s too flimsy to work at feature length. It does look great on Blu-ray; extras include two short films that preceded the feature, all the better for their brevity. Also included is the 1964 disaster Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, if you really want to subject yourself to it.

A Serbian Film (Invincible)
According to director Srdan Spasojevic, this lurid attempt to shock complacent audiences by watching a porn actor appear in a snuff film (with actual killings of people) is a metaphor for the country of Serbia since Yugoslavian dictator Tito died and its citizens were subjected to the Balkan war under Milosevic and minions. That’s laudable in theory, but the movie exists for its shock value, even if its most outrageous bits (a newborn and small child are raped) have been almost entirely excised. It’s all done to a glossy sheen, but it’s so patently full of “serious” intent that it fails as an allegory about the justification of violence. The Blu-ray image is probably more crystal clear than most viewers would want; no extras are a shame, because this is a movie demanding some kind of context.

Winnie the Pooh (Disney)
Everyone’s favorite yellow bear returns in this throwback to the classic animations starring A.A. Milne’s immortal characters. The smartest move the new Pooh’s creators made is to not computerize or digitize the animation; the hand-drawn style is the only way to make Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin come to vivid, funny life; so what if the movie’s barely an hour long? On Blu-ray, everything is crisp-looking; extras include deleted scenes, two short films, and a movie sing-along (but why is Zooey Deschanel mucking up classic Pooh tunes?).

DVDs of the Week
Anti-Nazi Classics, Volume 2 and The Art of Filmmaking (First Run)
The second Anti-Nazi Classics volume features a quartet of estimable East German films that deal unflinchingly with the nation’s Nazi past: Joachim Kunert’s epic The Adventures of Werner Holt, Wolfgang Staudte’s taut Rotation, Falk Harnack’s bitter The Ax of Wandsbek and Kurt Maetzig’s unsettling Council of the Gods. The Art of Filmmaking boxes together five excellent moviemaking documentaries: the wonderful portrait of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Light Keeps Me Company; two-disc set of interviews, Directors: Life Behind the Camera; the screenwriting tutorial, Tales from the Script; Lavender Limelight: Lesbians in Film; and Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary.

Eclipse 29: Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys (Criterion)
Aki Kaurismaki’s awful fictional music group was amusing in 1989’s ramshackle spoof Leningrad Cowboys Go America. But as usual, Kaurismaki beats his jokes into the ground, following up with the 1994 insufferable sequel, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses. He also took the success of his “musicians” seriously and had them go “legit,” playing a dull stew of pop-rock to thousands in a Helsinki concert filmed for 1994’s Total Balalaika Show. All three films are included in this Eclipse set, which is for Cowboys completists, I guess. Also included are five music videos, funnier than anything in the features.

Goya (Arthaus Musik)
Gian Carlo Menotti (best known for his popular 1950 TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors) penned this tuneful if inconsequential 1986 opera on the life of the great Spanish painter for Placido Domingo who, in this 2004 Vienna staging, reprises the heroic role with a strong vocal presence, even if his English is too heavily-accented to always be understandable. Menotti’s pleasant opera reduces a complex character to a tortured artist in love with an unattainable woman--but at least we’re getting a chance to see and hear an opera by one of America’s most successful opera composers.

Nora’s Will (Menemsha)
Mexican writer-director Mariana Cenillo made this gentle comedy about a middle-aged Jewish man whose former wife’s death right before Passover forces him to reconsider their relationship along with their son and her family. Happily, with Cennillo smartly avoiding caricatures and stereotypes through her low-key sense of humor, and with her excellent actors breathing warm life into these credible people, this sympathetic character study is likeable and involving throughout.

CDs of the Week
Britten, Winter Words (Avie)
Young American tenor Nicholas Phan tackles two Benjamin Britten song cycles and a selection of his folksong arrangements. Phan’s emotive voice and lyrical style are perfect for Winter Words, an illuminating setting of Hardy poems. Although Britten was best at setting English poetry, he also composed the formidable Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo; these spiky Italian songs are securely in Phan’s wheelhouse, as do the half-dozen folksong arrangements. Myra Huang is the sensitive piano accompanist.

Susanna Phillips, Paysages (Bridge)
Young soprano Susanna Phillips may be from Alabama, but her mesmerizing voice and excellent French diction belies that fact in the trio of works she sings on her first recital disc. Debussy’s dreamy Ariettes Oubliees, Messiaen’s surreal Poems pour Mi and a quartet of glorious Faure melodies bring Phillips’ elegant musicality to the fore, accompanied by (once again) Myra Huang’s sympathetic piano playing. One quibble: this 54-minute disc could have been fleshed out with an entire Faure cycle, which would give us more chances to hear this beautiful voice.

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