Sunday, November 6, 2011

November '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Brideshead Revisited (Acorn Media)
Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel was transformed into this epic 1981 British mini-series, one of the most monumental undertakings in TV history. Considering original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was replaced after the first episode by Charles Sturridge, there’s an amazing dramatic coherence to the entire series. Along with dazzling supporting turns by John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom and Jane Asher, Brideshead launched the careers of Anthony Andrews and (especially) Jeremy Irons. The lavish 11-part, 10-hour series looks stellar on Blu-ray; extras include audio commentaries, retrospective documentary and outtakes.

Cars 2 (Disney)
Even its staunchest defenders might find their affection for Pixar’s mélange of animated features has hit a roadblock with this noisy, mostly unfunny rehash of the amusing original. With two bland voices (Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy) in place, the movie revs up but ends up puttering its way to the finish line. It’s a bumpy ride with four flat tires. As always, the digital animation looks terrific in hi-def; extras include two short films and a director’s commentary.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Lionsgate/Miramax)
George Clooney’s witty 2002 directorial debut finds humor and adventure in Chuck Barris’ autobiography, which claimed that he was a CIA agent while making The Dating Game and Gong Show for American TV. Sam Rockwell gives a remarkable portrayal of a (possible) madman, and bright cameos by Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and Clooney himself give the film extra black-comic gravitas. The Blu-ray images leaves something to be desired, but the extras compensate: Clooney’s commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes and Rockwell’s screen test.

Crazy Stupid Love (Warners)
This confused attempt at sophisticated comedy uses adultery, one-night-stands and underage sexual activity to show what happens when a husband (Steve Carell) is told by his wife (Julianne Moore) that she cheated on him. He moves out, has a fling with a teacher (always adorable Marisa Tomei) and other women, before discovering that the ladies’ man (Ryan Gosling) he befriends has a secret of his own with his new girlfriend (Emma Stone). The spot-on performances and lively dialogue partially compensate for the clichéd story and characters over the course of two hours. The hi-def images is first-rate; extras include deleted scenes and two featurettes.

Faces in the Crowd (Millennium)
After surviving an attack by a notorious serial killer, a woman is unable to resume her normal life because of a debilitating disease where she cannot identify faces, even those closest to her. This intriguing premise is handled in a slipshod manner by director-writer Julien Magnat, and Milla Jovovich is mere pretty face unable to make her character come to life. There are a few good scares, but it all flies by rather routinely. The Blu-ray looks good, but not great; extras include short interviews and making-of segments.

Identification of a Woman (Criterion)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s semi-autobiographical and sexually frank 1982 character study follows a director, unable to decide on his next project, who is going though a divorce and juggling two other women. Often stodgy and over expository dialogue notwithstanding, Antonioni conjures many stunning images--including one of his greatest set pieces, during a murky fog--and racy sex scenes that bare the souls (among other things) of leading ladies Daniele Silvino and Christine Boisson. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray superlatively showcases Antonioni’s sublime visuals; too bad there are no bonus features, a rarity for the usually extras-laden Criterion discs.

An Invisible Sign (MPI)
This low-key drama comes as a surprise to viewers used to seeing Jessica Alba in junk like The Fantastic Four or The Eye. Here, Alba gives a sweetly sympathetic performance as a repressed young woman who blossoms while dealing with her young math students and a fellow teacher whom she falls for. It’s not unlike a typical Lifetime movie, but it has its charms, not least Alba’s interaction with the kids in and out of the classroom. The Blu-ray image is fine; there are no extras.

A Little Help (Image)
Jenna Fischer gives a strong portrayal of a harried Long Island wife who must rebuild everything after her philandering husband drops dead: that means dealing with meddling sister and mom, besotted brother in law and troubled teenage son who tells everyone his dad died on Sept. 11. Fischer’s open, friendly demeanor nearly legitimizes what writer-director Michael J. Weithorn has turned into a sitcom, despite her beguiling presence. The hi-def image looks good; extras include short interviews with director and cast.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Fox)
Wayne Wang’s wan, sentimental adaptation of Lisa See’s centuries-spanning novel about families has its pluses, namely gorgeous Chinese locations, fabulous photography (showcased so exactingly on Blu-ray that one can distinguish each single snowflake) and a bunch of talented actresses led by Vivian Wu, who once starred in Peter Greenaway’s notorious The Pillow Book 15 years ago). But too bad it all goes down too easily and with maximal saccharine for my taste; but what do I know: I’m not the target audience. The lone extra is a half-hour making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Composing Outside the Beatles (MVD)
This overview of Lennon and McCartney’s post-Beatles careers goes from 1970 (despite the title, which says 1973) to 1980, when Lennon was killed and McCartney released the experimental McCartney II, effectively finishing off his ultra-successful band Wings. We see both men’s artistic highs (Walls and Bridges, Band on the Run) and lows (Sometime in New York City, Wild Life), with much vintage interview footage and videos of their hit songs, along with commentary by various “experts.” It’s a worthwhile if overlong 140 minutes for Beatles fans; extras include bonus interviews.

Pearl Jam Twenty (Sony Music)
Cameron Crowe’s chronicle of Pearl Jam’s first two decades has a most interesting first half-hour, which traces the Seattle music scene back to its origins, concentrating on Mother Love Bone, whose demise after charismatic lead singer Andrew Wood’s death led to Pearl Jam’s formation. Crowe seems more engaged early on, during interviews with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and the former Mother Love Bone boys. Maybe Crowe should do a full-length overview of the whole grunge scene, which might be better than his take on Pearl Jam. Extras include bonus interviews and music segments.

Tabloid (IFC)
One of Errol Morris’ most oddball docs explores an unbelievable but true story of a young American beauty who falls for a Britisher whom she follows back to England after being “brainwashed” by a religious group and kidnaps and sexually ravishes him to “cure” him. Sundry sorts of points of view are extracted--hers and other witnesses (the man has since died)--which Morris records with his equally bemused and amused eye. When the movie branches further into fallow territory, one truly understands why the title Tabloid has been applied to this grossly entertaining sideshow. No extras, unfortunately.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People (Acorn Media)
Alec Guinness dominates these immensely involving BBC adaptations of John Le Carre’s classic spy novels. Directed by John Irvin in 1979, Tinker follows Smiley as he attempts to ferret out a mole in the upper reaches of the British spy network; made in 1982 by Simon Langton, Smiley is another go-round for the “retired” expert. Both movies feature superb supporting actors, authentic location shooting and an expansive air which suits the books’ complexity, unlike feature films made from Le Carre’s books. Above it all hovers Guinness, whose warm, slightly inscrutable presence makes Smiley endlessly fascinating. Each set contains an interview with the normally reticent Le Carre.

CDs of the Week
Frederick Delius, Concertos (Chandos)
Frederick Delius, an unsung British composer of the early part of the 20th century, was an unusually expressive purveyor of symphonic music, and the three concertos captured on this disc are lyrical works that are not the least bit showy. His Double Concerto’s eloquence is heard in the stylish but lovingly restrained playing of soloists Tasmin Little (violin) and Paul Watkins (cello). Little takes the elegant solo line in the Violin Concerto, while Watkins does the honors in the Cello Concerto. In support, Sir Andrew Davis ably leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Paul McCartney, Ocean’s Kingdom (Hear Music)
He’s also written a couple of oratorios, a large-scale symphonic work and several tuneful chamber pieces, but this is the ever-prolific Sir Paul’s first ballet. While obviously not in the same league as, say, Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, Ocean’s Kingdom is still an eminently danceable piece that relies on McCartney’s greatest strength, his innate ability to shape elegant melodies into larger musical forms. The hour-long ballet has many magical moments, like the second movement’s amusingly drunken bassoon or the wondrous climactic passages that build to a magical and most satisfying finale. I saw the New York City Ballet’s world premiere in September and was less entranced by the choreography and silly underwater plotline (there’s no Octopus’ Garden here), but McCartney’s uplifting score is great fun and should resonate with new, better stagings.

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