Sunday, November 20, 2011

November '11 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Being Human: Complete 1st Season (e one)
There once were three roommates: a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf. (The show’s title is “ironic.”) Despite a trio of attractive leads--led by Meaghan Rath as the female specter-- this Canadian drama strains to replicate the fantastic success of the Twilight saga on a weekly basis. Although the show does occasionally create an invitingly odd atmosphere, it doesn’t sustain the dramatics through this baker’s dozen worth of episodes. The Blu-ray image is excellent; bonus features include featurettes and interviews.

Bellflower (Oscilloscope)
A clumsy and confused attempt at exploring the misogynistic attitudes among young men today, writer-director-star Evan Glodell’s egomaniacal ride has intriguing performances (notably by actresses Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes) and Glodell’s own inventions like homemade flamethrowers and an impressive muscle car, but his self-indulgent film never develops anything remotely like an arresting or original point of view. The low-budget visuals look excessively grainy in hi-def; extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes, outtakes.

Farscape: The Complete Series (A&E)
In its four seasons, Farscape distinguished itself as intelligent sci-fi with a visual imaginativeness from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The innovative, indelible alien and outer space visuals are courtesy of an unbeatable combination of CGI effects, puppets and prosthetics--along with an excellent cast. All 88 series episodes sparkle in HD, and the 20 discs feature hours of extras: a new retrospective documentary, Memories of Moya: An Epic Journey Explored; a behind-the-scenes special, Farscape Undressed; other featurettes and documentaries; audio commentaries, deleted and alternate scenes.

Flypaper (IFC)
This incredibly stale comic caper tries to keep viewers on their toes by switching villains and allegiances every few minutes, but only ends up wasting appealing performances by Patrick Dempsey and Ashley Judd. This bank-robbery flick also allows actors like Tim Blake Nelson, Taylor Pruitt Vince, Jeffrey Tambor and Mekhi Phifer to ham mercilessly, making it more difficult to trudge through as it continues. Cleverness doesn’t automatically equal wit, as Flypaper mind-numbingly demonstrates. The hi-def image is decent enough; extras include cast interviews.

Main Street (Magnolia)
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that this meandering character-driven drama is a pale imitation of playwright Horton Foote’s piercing human stories. Instead, it is a Foote screenplay, and it’s been lacklusterly directed by John Doyle, wasting a solid cast led by Amber Tamblyn, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson and Colin Firth. Well-done individual moments aside, Main Street never coheres into involving drama. At least its small-town atmosphere is nicely etched. The movie looks terrific on hi-def; extras are deleted scenes and an on-set featurette.

Pound of Flesh (Odyssey)
Poor Malcolm McDowell is caught in this laughless black comedy about a beloved professor who pimps out his female students to fellow teachers. Aside from a bevy of gorgeous women and McDowell’s dry persona, Tamar Simon Hoffs’ movie is as forgettable and paper-thin as the previous film of hers I’ve seen: The All-Nighter (1987), which at least featured her then-famous daughter Susanna Hoffs in a bikini. The Blu-ray image looks muted; extras are McDowell interview, on-set featurette and outtakes.

The Rules of the Game (Criterion)
Jean Renoir’s best film, this scathing satire of French aristocracy on the eve of World War II flopped in 1939; now it’s rightly considered one of the greatest films ever made, its humor and humanity undimmed. The Criterion Collection’s brilliant Blu-ray release presents the movie in its gorgeous black and white splendor and keeps the extraordinary bonus features that made the original DVD release one of its most comprehensive: Renoir’s intro; audio commentary; interviews; excerpts from a French TV program and part of a BBC documentary; video essay on the film’s tumultuous history; and a comparison of its two endings.

Three Colors Trilogy (Criterion)
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy, based on the colors of the French flag, varies wildly in quality--austere Blue, clunky White, weirdly colorless Red--with each starring a young French/Swiss actress (Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irene Jacob). I prefer Kieslowski’s Polish films, culminating in the awesome Decalogue; contrarily, his fancy, elliptical French films are overrated misfires. The Criterion Collection, of course, gives the trilogy the deluxe treatment, from the splendidly grainy visuals to the plethora of extras (video essays/featurettes/interviews on each film and earlier Kieslowski shorts on each disc).

West Side Story (MGM)
The 1961 Oscar-winning Best Picture was this airborne adaptation of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic Broadway musical, which updates Romeo and Juliet to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Director Robert Wise smartly lets Bernstein’s buoyant score, Sondheim’s clever lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ scintillating choreography fill the screen unadorned. This hi-def edition scores with bright colors and film-like quality; extras, spread over two Blu-ray discs (a bonus DVD of the film is included), include Sondheim’s song commentary and several featurettes.

WWII in HD: Collector’s Edition (A&E)
This is an updated release of last year’s revelatory History Channel series that introduced stunning color footage rarely seen anywhere. The immersiveness of this intimate and brutal footage shot during the wars in Europe and Asia is as memorable as the classic World at War series. In addition to 10 outstanding hours encompassing the entire war, this Blu-ray set also features two new programs: The Battle for Iwo Jima and The Air War.

DVDs of the Week
Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero (PBS)
This hard-hitting Frontline episode from 2002 takes the measure of fallout from September 11’s horrors by examining belief in God. The absorbing two-hour program shows how the events of that day pulled people in different directions, from losing faith in a God who would let such things happen to reinforcing belief that good ultimately triumphs over evil. An epilogue presents discussion of the indelible image of a man and woman, holding hands, leaping from one of the towers, crystallizing beliefs either way.

It Takes a Thief: The Complete Series (e one)
Robert Wagner played the dashing thief who becomes an American intelligence agent in this classic spy series that ran from 1968-70. This ubiquitous 12-disc boxed set presents the complete series in 66 episodes, beginning with the engaging pilot, A Thief Is a Thief Is a Thief, starring Wagner and a beauteous bevy of international actresses: Senta Berger, Willi Koopman and Anita Eubank. Other noteworthy episodes include Susan Saint James, Bill Bixby, Joseph Cotton, Peter Sellers and Bette Davis as guest stars. Included are extras like a Robert Wagner interview, numbered frame of 35 mm film, set of coasters and collectible booklet.

Rio Sex Comedy (Film Buff)
Jonathan Nossiter’s revealing documentary Mondovino was about the wonderful world of winemaking; his latest feature, set in Brazil’s most spectacular city, amusingly chronicles the wonderful world of sexual exploits of people in Rio who get involved with one another and with locals. With a good international cast--Charlotte Rampling, Bill Pullman and a frequently nude Irene Jacob--Nossiter’s movie works as both sexy comedy and picturesque travelogue. Extras include 20-odd minutes of deleted scenes.

The Tree (Zeitgeist)
If overt symbolism is your thing, then Julie Bertuccelli’s diffuse account of a young widow whose life is literally uprooted by the huge fig tree that surrounds her and her children’s house is a movie for you. The Tree does make extensive use of splendid Australian outback landscapes, and the actors (especially Morgana Davies as a wise-beyond-her-years young daughter) are exceptional, but trowel-laden visual metaphors wear out their welcome, however superbly shot. Lone extra: 30-minute making-of featurette.

CDs of the Week
Helene Grimaud: Mozart (Deutsche Grammophon)
Many musicians return to the simple eloquence of Mozart after years of performing works by other composers, and French pianist Helene Grimaud (an incredibly youthful-looking 43) does just that on this wonderful disc of two of his greatest concertos: the sprightly No. 19 and more serious No. 23. Grimaud’s idiosyncratic technique works wonders with Mozart’s straightforward elegance, and she’s equally good with his tasty concert aria “Non temer, scordi di te?”, in an exquisite partnership with the lovely-sounding German soprano Mojca Erdmann.

Joyce Yang: Collage (Avie)
There’s something special about a pianist whose artistry is so formidably wide-ranging that she can make any kind of music her own. That’s what Joyce Yang does in her brilliant traversal of four centuries’ worth of keyboard masterpieces by Scarlatti (18th century), Schumann (19th century), Debussy (20th century) and contemporary composers Lowell Liebermann (late 20th century) and Sebastian Currier (21st century). Yang brings a superb balance of form and an improvisatory quality to all of these works.

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