Sunday, December 4, 2011

December '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Another Earth (Fox)
This low-talent sci-fi fantasy stultifyingly attempts to turn a mumblecore movie into a credible psychological study; too bad co-writer/star Brit Marling and co-writer/director Mike Cahill aren’t up to that daunting task. A young woman tries making it up to the man whose life she ruined, while Earth 2--our planet’s mirror image--appears, populated by our doubles leading different lives. After studiously setting up the relationship and sci-fi premise, we’re left hanging with an obvious and clichéd final shot. The movie’s somber visual palette gets an appropriately low-key hi-def treatment; extras include deleted scenes, music video and making-of featurettes.

Beauty and the Beast: Enchanted Christmas (Disney)
One of Disney’s most beloved animated movies becomes this 1997 holiday special; the result is less enchanting than the original, mainly because the fairy tale must be shoehorned into the Christmas spirit. But Disney tries its best, and the supporting cast of living inanimate objects ends up giving off the most holiday cheer. This harmless family fun is filled with imagery that’s sharper than ever on Blu-ray; extras include behind-the-scenes features, a music video, and various musical bonuses.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (IFC)
Werner Herzog is the most schizophrenic director: his fictional features are invariably disappointing, yet his invaluable documentaries are memorable. His dazzling look at historically important cave paintings in Southern France--which Herzog was the lone filmmaker to gain access to (in 3-D, no less)--is continuously stimulating, even if Herzog desperately tacks on an unrelated epilogue that strikes the film’s only false note. The wondrous visuals look amazing on Blu-ray in 2-D and 3-D; the lone extra (Herzog’s 30-minute film about the music of Cave) is also excellent.

5 Days of War (Anchor Bay)
Director Renny Harlin’s account of the 2008 war between Russia and the republic of Georgia is almost entirely free of real feelings, content to simply check off atrocities that accompany a brutal war such as this. Harlin has made a well-intentioned screed with a lot of visceral power but extremely little nuance. Obviously, the Blu-ray’s visuals are stupendous, as are the awful sounds of warfare in surround sound; extras include Harlin’s commentary and deleted scenes.

The Lady Vanishes (Criterion)
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest classics, this 1938 comic mystery stars Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in the search for a missing old lady on a train across continental Europe. It’s razor-sharp, witty and immense fun, the first of many Hitchcock thrillers that made him the master of suspense. In the Criterion Collection’s superb new Blu-ray edition, the film looks better than it ever has, and its many extras come courtesy of the 2007 DVD re-release: historian Bruce Eder’s commentary; a 1941 adventure film, Crook’s Tour, with characters from this film; excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock; and Mystery Train, a Hitchcock video essay.

Mireille (Bel Air)
Charles Gounod, best remembered for his operas Faust (1860) and Romeo et Juliette (1867), also composed this 1864 tragedy, given a splendid production in Paris last year. The opera itself is a pretty pedestrian affair, with lovely choral singing and a long-suffering heroine (brightly portrayed by Inva Mula) who dies gloriously and is feted in paradise; Nicholas Joel’s ravishing staging looks wonderful on Blu-ray, and the surround sound gives Gounod’s music the extra “oomph” it needs.

Our Idiot Brother (Anchor Bay)
Jesse Peretz’s study of a goofy young man who can’t get his sh*t together has a gentle comic tone and a sweetly chiding attitude toward its cracked characters. But Peretz and sister Evgenia’s script feels the need to tie up loose ends with a happy ending, faltering badly. Luckily, the exceptional cast, which includes Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks and Zooey Deschanel as the sisters, helps; Paul Rudd, an most invaluable idiot, delivers the knockout punch: without him, the movie would fall apart. The Blu-ray has a first-rate transfer; extras include Peretz’s commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurette.

Point Blank (Magnolia)
French director Fred Cavayé’s thrill ride, which rarely lets up during its taut 85-minute running time, is in the Hitchcock tradition of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances: hospital nurse Samuel’s beautiful, pregnant wife Nadia is kidnapped before his very eyes, and he must deal with murderous crooks and police to track her down, finding his own moral boundaries tested throughout. Except for an over-explanatory sequence, the film’s momentum doesn’t flag: an exciting foot chase through the Paris Metro is followed by a satisfying finale. Elena Anaya (Nadia) and Gilles Lellouche (Samuel) are quite good as the leads. The Blu-ray image is tremendous; the lone extra is an entertaining 50-minute making-of documentary.

Smallville: The Final Season (Warners)
After 10 seasons, this series--the Superman legend as seen through the eyes of those living in the tiny burg Clark Kent called home before heading to Metropolis--calls it quits. Enacted by an attractive cast led by Tom Welling as Clark and Erica Durance as Lois, this charming show manages to overcome the rare bluntness of its final episodes, since understatement was its calling card. The Blu-ray transfer captures the show’s arresting visuals; extras include interviews, on-set footage and commentaries.

DVDs of the Week
Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven (First Run)
Sirrio Maccioni founded the four-star Manhattan restaurant Le Cirque, and this intimate documentary portrait recounts Maccioni and sons’ decision to close in 2004 for renovations, then re-open two years later with New York critics waiting to pounce. Maccioni, an old-world, old school boss, has an ebullient personality carries the movie, making the journey funny and even touching. Extras include deleted scenes.

Lulu (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alban Berg’s towering 12-tone operatic tragedy has a juicy soprano part, and Frenchwoman Patricia Petibon dives into the amoral, ambivalent anti-heroine with no compunctions: this fiery red-head is both splendid actress and wonderful singer, and her strong presence centers Olivier Py’s overly busy staging, which was captured in Barcelona earlier this year. Boldly colorful sets and costumes tip the production into cartoonishness, but Berg’s masterpiece survives thanks to Petibon’s assured performance.

The Smurfs (Sony)
The hit movie takes the tiny blue creatures to Manhattan for cute but increasingly wearying adventures. At 106 minutes, The Smurfs definitely wears out its welcome, unlike the recent Winnie the Pooh, which was a manageable 70 minutes. Still, there’s fun for kids and their parents who are roped into seeing it, and Neil Patrick Harris and Sofia Vergara keep their dignity while sharing the screen with the blue things. Extras include “Blue-pers” (cute), two commentaries, making-of featurette and games for the kiddies.

Women, War and Peace (PBS)
This memorable PBS four-part series has a quiet eloquence in its stories of women and war. Its four hour-long episodes, I Came To Testify (about Bosnian war atrocities), Peace Unveiled (showing Afghan women against the Taliban), The War We Are Living (Afro-Colombian women fight for their land) and War Redefined (which speaks for women’s increasing importance in waging war and peace), are narrated with appropriate gravity by Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Alfre Woodward and Geena Davis, respectively.

CDs of the Week
Patricia Petibon: Melancolia (Deutsche Grammophon)
French soprano Patricia Petibon sings beautifully on this enticing program of Spanish music that’s done with delightful flair. Obvious choices like Villa-Lobos’ Aria and Falla’s La Vida Breve excerpt are dispatched eloquently, while other distinguished composers are also included: Catalan master Xavier Montsalvatge is represented by two charming but too-brief songs, and there are worthy tunes by Granados, Turina and Castellanos. There’s also a new work by Nicolas Bacri, Melodias de la melancolia, which not only gives the CD its title but showcases Petibon’s velvety, sensual voice.

Poul Ruders: Volume 7 (Bridge)
The 62-year-old Danish composer, best-known for his operas The Handmaid’s Tale and Selma Jezkova, has also tried his hand at many instrumental genres, and this seventh volume of his compositions includes three of his most wide-ranging (but still typical) works. His Symphony No. 4, subtitled An Organ Symphony, is intensely dramatic and darkly colored, while the solo organ piece Trio Transcendentale is virtuosic in its brevity. Finally, the oddly titled Songs and Rhapsodies--performed by an ensemble of brass, winds and accordion--displays Ruders’ sharply honed eclecticism.

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