Sunday, November 27, 2011

November '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Big Country (Fox/MGM)
William Wyler’s widescreen soap opera combines a sappy love story with an old-fashioned Old West adventure. There are memorable shots galore, but not many memorable scenes, mainly because the cast (save Burl Ives as the heavy) can’t overcome the two-dimensional characters: Gregory Peck as the hero is especially ill at ease. Blu-ray’s exceptional clarity shows off the stunning camerawork; the lone extra is a vintage featurette, Fun in the Country.

Carjacked (Anchor Bay)
This agonizingly routine thriller concerns a single mom whose car is hijacked with her son inside, and she manages to outwit the armed fugitive with blatantly obvious maneuvers that wouldn’t fool anyone. Although Maria Bello brings her usual intensity to the heroine and Stephen Dorff makes a plausibly nasty criminal, the movie spins its wheels for 90 minutes without much originality or excitement. The Blu-ray image is decent; the lone extra is an on-set featurette.

The Family Tree (e one)
A family living in the town of Serenity (get it?) has a chance to change its dysfunctional ways when the mother gets amnesia after hitting her head (while having sex their next- door neighbor, natch). Since no one in the family is enacted particularly interestingly by Dermot Mulroney (dad), Hope Davis (mom), Max Thierot (son) and Brittany Robertson (daughter), director Vivi Friedman and writer Mark Lisson’s manufactured tribulations don’t work; there’s at least amusing support by Gabrielle Anwar and Chi McBride. The movie has a solid hi-def transfer; extras include on-set footage and interviews.

Jungle Eagle, My Life as a Turkey, Radioactive Wolves (PBS)
This trio of PBS Nature documentaries explores the incredible animal world: the South American harpy eagle, a naturalist who raises 16 turkey chicks as their “mother,” and the amazing return of wolves and other animal and plant life to the desolate forbidden zone that came about due to Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Each 52-minute program gives an illustrative if far from comprehensive overview, and the eye-popping hi-def imagery illuminates these fantastic but true stories that are more bizarre than any fiction.

Sarah’s Key (Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s sentimental but gripping novel, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s drama is an occasionally affecting tragedy about France’s ambivalence toward French Jews killed by the Nazis. Kristin Scott-Thomas, elegant as always, outclasses the material as a journalist who uncovers the truth about a young girl who survived the German purge that destroyed her family. Despite the subject matter’s inherent power and Scott-Thomas’ presence, the movie--which looks tremendous on Blu-ray--is curiously disjointed. A more interesting watch is the bonus feature, a one-hour documentary that includes interviews with Rosnay, Paquet-Brenner and Scott-Thomas.

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co.)

Director Robert Rodriguez reboots his family-friendly franchise with this loony but funny adventure that stars a new spy kids family and the return of the original kids, now the grown-up Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. Although Rodriguez can’t sustain any momentum, with the help of game performers like Vega, Sabara and even Jessica Alba (who has rarely seemed so animated as the new kids‘ stepmother), his movie is a quick and painless 85 minutes. The often dazzling visuals have an extra vividness on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and a Rodriguez interview.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Fox/MGM)
Joseph Sargent’s taut 1974 thriller is a uniquely New York cops-and-robbers drama that moves at a breakneck speed that never overwhelms the well-thought-out story. As the bemused and amused detective who finds himself chasing three daring subway hijackers (Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo), Walter Matthau embodies the tough-as-nails atmosphere, especially in that memorable final freeze frame. The grungy mid-‘70s Manhattan locations are perfectly captured on Blu-ray.

These Amazing Shadows (PBS)
In 1988, the National Film Registry was formed to preserve “significant” American movies for the ages, and Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s documentary presents a straightforward account of the Registry’s workings and its 550+ choices over the past two of what constitute the most essential of American films. You might not agree with all of the picks (I certainly don’t: How the West Was Won and A Woman Under the Influence?), but historical and/or artistic importance of most films cannot be denied. The movie comprises mostly talking heads and old clips, so the visual quality is variable, but the Blu-ray looks acceptably good. Extras include additional scenes and interviews.

12 Angry Men (Criterion)
Sidney Lumet’s 1957 adaptation of Reginald Rose’s play stays in the jury room for 95 minutes as the dozen men fight through their prejudices to decide whether to convict the defendant for murder, but it contains so many good performances (Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and Jack Klugman are standouts) that it triumphs over essential staginess. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray has almost excessive grain which only accentuates Boris Kaufman’s gritty B&W cinematography; extras include interviews, featurettes and the 1955 television version of the play.

DVDs of the Week
The Adventures of Tintin: Season One
(Shout Factory)

The classic Belgian comic-strip character works best when he is animated (in both senses), and the 13 half-hour episodes on these two discs are a great introduction to one of the most beloved fictional characters ever--even if most Americans have never heard of him. At least until Steven Spielberg’s upcoming stop-motion adaptation, whose plot is actually taken from two of the stories in this set: The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. The lack of extras is irritating because providing pre-Spielberg context would seem to be mandatory.

The Green (Film Buff)
After a gay couple moves from New York City to a small town, teacher Michael is accused of inappropriate behavior with a student, compromising his relationship with his partner, caterer Michael. Instead of allowing their story to arise organically out of their characterizations, director Steven Williford and writer Paul Marcarelli impose strident melodramatics on it, resulting in a sadly missed opportunity. Still, excellent acting by Jason Butler Harner and Cheyenne Jackson as the couple, Julia Ormond as the lawyer they hire and Ileana Douglas as a close friend allows The Green to overcome these obstacles and emerge as a mature tale.

Making the Boys (First Run)
The Boys in the Band, the first unashamedly gay play, was a huge hit off Broadway in the late ‘60s and was made into a film by William Friedkin in 1970. Crayton Robey’s lovingly-made documentary explores playwright Mart Crowley’s background alongside the era’s unique dilemma for gay playwrights, in the process showing the play’s widespread influence on two generations of gay artists. Some of the interviewees include Edward Albee, surviving cast members like Laurence Luckenbill, Crowley and Friedkin, all honestly recounting their reaction to (and in some cases against) a now-classic play.

Robotech: The Complete Series (New Video)
This inventive Japanese anime series was a big hit when it first was shown in America in 1985 to 1987, and this jammed boxed set brings together all three seasons, otherwise known as the “Robotech Wars”--13 discs’ worth of 85 remastered episodes. In addition, there are another four discs that include a further 10 hours of bonus material, which ranges from a full-length making-of documentary and music videos to promotional reels, an hour of deleted scenes and an extended version of the series’ original pilot episode.

CDs of the Week
Andrea Bocelli: Concerto--A Night in Central Park

The beloved Italian tenor’s September performance was, despite subpar weather, obviously a labor of love for the singer and his loyal fans. Accompanied by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, Bocelli sings alone and in duets with Celine Dion, Tony Bennett and Bryn Terfel; guest musicians include the scintillating violinist Nicola Benedetti. The CD captures it all for posterity, and the bonus DVD features video of the entire concert for those who want to relive it or who weren’t there. (It’s also on PBS in December.)

The Christmas Story (Harmonia Mundi)
Based on the traditional English holiday service, Nine Lessons and Carols, Paul Hillier has programmed a superb compendium of Christmas music that features two excellent ensembles, the a cappella vocal groups Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen, both led by Hillier. The well-chosen music tells the story of the Nativity through works by Renaissance era composers William Byrd and Johann Eccard, and familiar carols like “We Three Kings,” “The Holly and the Ivy” and, as the joyful finale, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

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