Sunday, November 13, 2011

November '11 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Alleged (Image)
This sanitized dramatization of the famous Scopes monkey trial pits William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a courtroom battle for the ages: evolution vs. creationism. The movie sides with the creationists, which is fine, but it presents a “fair and balanced” showcase hidden by a dully made fictional romance. Brian Denney (Darrow), John Thompson (Bryan) and Colm Meaney (H.L. Mencken) tower over weak material. The Blu-ray has an adequate image; no extras.

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 (Fox)
This middling adaptation of Ayn Rand’s massive novel, covering the first third of the book, will continue with two more parts. With a wooden cast playing Rand’s caricatures with little subtlety, warmth or humanity, Atlas certainly lives up to Rand’s attitudinizing. Director Paul Johansson cannot make endless train scenes, wine-drenched business meetings and wide-open vistas from Colorado to Wisconsin cohere into anything involving. The Blu-ray image is stellar; extras comprise Johansson’s commentary, a making-of featurette and self-indulgent fan feature.

Blue Velvet (MGM)
David Lynch’s bizarre 1986 melodrama, an immediate “classic” upon its release, is little more than a meretricious literalization of the dark impulses that stir beneath red, white and blue American soil. MGM’s pristine Blu-ray only underscores its shallow psychologizing, and Frederick Elmes’ garishly lit photography and amateur-neight acting (especially Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell’s overdone bad guys) don‘t help much. Extras include a 70-minute retrospective documentary, outtakes, 50 minutes of unseen footage and Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s TV review (Ebert, bless him, disliked it).

Fanny and Alexander (Criterion)
One of The Criterion Collection’s best releases finally makes it to hi-def: Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 Swedish TV mini-series is five hours and 20 minutes’ worth of brilliance, the ultimate summation of his filmmaking genius. Included are the original TV version, the universally praised three-hour theatrical version, and on a third disc, Bergman’s own two-hour on-set The Making of Fanny and Alexander, a 40-minute retrospective with interviews and an hour-long 1984 Swedish TV interview with Bergman. The Blu-ray image is luminous, needless to say.

In a Glass Cage (Cult Epics)
Agusti Villaronga’s unsettling 1983 debut tells its shocking story of a pedophiliac former Nazi guard, now in an iron lung, whose past exploits trigger the crazed fantasies of a young male nurse. Tense scenes of psychological trauma sit alongside risible moments of physical torture, but Villaronga is apparently serious: his movie is a horrific traffic accident you keep watching despite the mayhem. The Blu-ray image is appropriately grainy; extras include Villaronga interviews and three Villaronga short films.

Mutiny on the Bounty (Warners)
Lewis Milestone’s 1962 remake of the classic adventure creeps along for much of its three-hour length: only its shimmering visuals distinguish it. With a cast led by Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh and Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian, who leads the mutinous crew against Bligh (but not until the third hour!), there’s certainly much scenery chewing, but the movie is too bloated too much to work. The restored image looks first-rate on Blu-ray; extras include alternate prologue and epilogue and vintage featurettes.

Page Eight (PBS)
Playwright David Hare’s made-for-British-TV movie compellingly tackles the current post-Sept. 11 political climate with its story of a British agent who, being privy to secret documents that look bad for his country and the U.S., must make a decision based on ethics. With a terrific cast--Bill Nighy as the hero, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Judy Davis, Saskia Reeves, Marthe Keller, Rachel Weisz and Alice Krige--Hare’s cerebral thriller is gripping throughout. The Blu-ray image is flawless; no extras.

The River Why (Image)
From David James Duncan’s impressionistic novel, this coming of age story, set among monumental Oregon locations, follows a fly-fishing family, seen through the eyes of the oldest son (Zach Gilford). There‘s not much dramatic weight, although the girlfriend (a delightful Amber Heard) presents a nice distraction for the son and the viewer. The Blu-ray looks splendid; extras comprise cast and crew interviews.

13 (Anchor Bay)
This preposterous drama about men recruited (or forced) to play Russian roulette for bettors who watch tries to conjure suspense from a “who cares?” scenario. What in The Deer Hunter was a metaphor for war’s randomness is used here as a crutch to prop up senseless violence. An assortment of haggard actors (Mickey Rourke, Michael Shannon, 50 Cent, Ray Winstone, Jason Statham) lose out to shopworn material. The Blu-ray image is good; no extras.

Water for Elephants (Fox)
Based on Sara Gruen’s popular novel, this alternately gritty and shameless love story set in a traveling circus is distinguished by two performances: Robert Pattinson as the hero and Christoph Waltz as the villain. Too bad they’re hampered by a colorless Reese Witherspoon as the dastardly Waltz’s wife, who runs away with Pattinson. Two out of three ain’t bad, and an always colorful Jim Norton provides his usual boost as a circus employee. The sparkling Blu-ray image looks superior in every way, especially in its deep blacks; extras include making-of featurettes, interviews and an audio commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Crime of Love (Raro Video)
Luigi Comencini made this propagandistic romantic tragedy in 1974 to illuminate the appalling workers’ conditions in Northern Italian factories. Two workers (the sympathetic Giuliano Gemma and Stefania Sandrelli) fall in love and plan to marry--despite she being Sicilian and he Milanese, apparently as bad as the Capulets and Montagues or Hatfields and McCoys--until she’s stricken by a disease caused by the factory’s conditions. Comencini juggles his love story and agit-prop subplots with finesse, and when the movie becomes too strident, its two engaging stars are triumphant. Lone extra: film critic Adriano Apra interview.

Putty Hill (Cinema Guild)
Matt Porterfield’s artless portrait of a close-knit neighborhood on the outskirts of Baltimore has a truthful documentary feel. This meandering glimpse at people affected by a young man’s untimely death at least doesn’t condescend to them, although it feels padded even at 85 minutes. Extras include Porterfield’s commentary, deleted scenes, a 30-minute making-of documentary, and Porterfield’s first feature, 2006’s Hamilton, with deleted scenes included.

Rush: Time Machine (Rounder/Anthem)
On its last tour, during which the Canadian power trio played its entire 1981 classic album Moving Pictures, Rush showed it can perform with verve and energy even after 37 years together. In this 2011 Cleveland show, Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart perform 26 songs spanning their career from “Working Man” to the hard-hitting new tune “Caravan.” The nearly three-hour set features healthy doses of the band’s offbeat humor (like its hilarious skits of its alternate history as “Rash”). Only quibble: too many audience shots; I’d rather watch Peart play than anonymous fans air-drumming. The sound is spectacular, the bonus skit outtakes are also amusing.

The Sleeping Beauty (Strand)
Catherine Breillat’s unsurprisingly feminist take on Perrault’s classic fairy tale is similar to her adaptation of the fable Bluebeard: she takes liberties to have it conform to her own ideas. Like in Bluebeard, there are fascinating cinematic moments that elucidate her point of view. After Fat Girl, Breillat seemed to lose her way being provocative whether her material calls for it or not: after a few moribund movies, there’s something enervating about her breathing new life into familiar stories, regaining her form in the process.

CDs of the Week
Gabriel Faure, Complete Chamber Music for Strings and Piano (Virgin Classics)
This five-disc set collects all of Faure’s chamber works, composed over a half-century from his First Violin Sonata in 1876 until his final work, the autumnal, haunting String Quartet, composed in 1924 before his death at age 79. Played by veteran French musicians led by violinist Renaud Capucon, the exquisite refinement of Faure’s best works comes through loud and clear. I have rarely heard a more riveting performance of the Second Piano Quintet, which I know backwards and forwards. If you have other recordings of Faure’s chamber music, this is an essential addition; if you don’t (and why not?), this is as good a place to start as any.

Steve Reich, WTC 911 (Nonesuch)
If Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 quartet isn’t the last word on that devastating terrorist event, it uses a lot of last words in a striking sound collage that plays off the tensile sound of the Kronos Quartet and the electronically manipulated statements of people there on that fateful day (and shortly after). One of Reich’s most personal and emotional works is all the more powerful for its brevity. Also included are his Mallet Quartet (which works better on the accompanying DVD, since you can watch the four performers) and the slight Dance Patterns.

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