Sunday, December 11, 2011

December '11 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Becoming Jane
(Echo Bridge)

Anne Hathaway’s breakthrough performance in Julian Jarrold’s biopic about how a young Jane Austen became a beloved author highlights a refreshingly lighthearted costume drama filled with strong characterizations by James Cromwell, Maggie Smith and Julia Walters--only James McAvoy as Austen’s beau is too lightweight. With richly detailed sets and costumes, the movie’s visuals are ripe for a hi-def upgrade, and the excellent Blu-ray has the right amount of grain; extras include a commentary, deleted scenes and an on-set featurette.

Design for Living

One of Noel Coward’s wittiest plays was transformed by director Ernest Lubitsch into a charming 1933 romantic comedy minus the acerbic Coward wit. With the trio played by Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper and Frederic March, this Design is amusing if surprisingly superficial. Dazzling-looking black-and-white visuals are courtesy of the Criterion Collection’s superb Blu-ray transfer; extras comprise scholar William Paul’s commentary, Joseph McBride interview about Ben Hecht’s adaptation, and a superior British TV condensation of the play introduced by Coward himself.

Friends with Benefits

Traversing territory recently trod by Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached, this routine comedy pits another charming and sexy actress--Mila Kunis--against a charmless Justin Timberlake, who again shows his glaring inability to enact a real character. Like the other movie, there’s nasty dialogue galore, and it’s fun to hear a beautiful actress spit out tart dialogue, but the game Kunis is wasted next her costar. The Blu-ray release sports a solid transfer and extras that include a commentary, outtakes and deleted scenes.

The Help

Kathryn Stockett’s mega-bestseller about racism in 1960s South is transferred to the screen with minimal fuss and its basic tear-jerking mechanisms intact, courtesy of writer-director Tate Taylor. This story of black servants stoically retaining their dignity during Jim Crow is one that most audiences can watch and feel good about from a safe distance, while those who don’t connect can still admire the unfussy acting by Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek and Viola Davis. (The others are too broad in their characterizations.) The picture is excellent on the Blu-ray transfer; extras include deleted scenes and an on-set featurette.

Life, Above All

Oliver Schmitz’s heartfelt drama about superstition and disease in a small African village is an emotionally wrought tragedy that’s lined with a sliver of hope. In this story of a teenage girl who tries to reverse a stigma that’s attached itself to her family when her infant sister dies, there are moments of melodramatic excess, but for the most part, the film is gripping, stark and brilliantly acted. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

(e one)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s typically idiosyncratic adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy, which stars ill-at-ease opera diva Maria Callas in the title role, is highlighted by intriguing visuals despite a modest budget. These include the centaur and splendid use of Turkish and Italian locations, including Pisa’s Field of Miracles that refrains from showing the famous Leaning Tower. On Blu-ray, the film looks especially good despite the limitations of the film stock. The lone extra is Tony Palmer’s fine 90-minute documentary about Callas.

Now and Later
(Cinema Libre)
Bring together a Wall Street whiz kid running from the law and a spiritual (and sexual) Latina who takes him under her wing and you have this partly interesting, mostly ludicrous Last Tango in East L.A. If you tune out the tin-eared dialogue--much of which sounds like New Agey outtakes--there’s lots of sex--some of which doesn’t look simulated--to keep one’s interest. Even if their line readings are mainly wooden, James Wortham and Shari Solanis handle the physical intimacy deftly. Hi-def doesn’t really help the movie’s low-budget look; extras include deleted scenes and cast interviews.

Tora! Tora! Tora!

In honor of the 70th anniversary of American sailors’ heroism at Pearl Harbor, this 1970 fictional reenactment of the prelude to and consequences of the Japanese attack resurfaces in hi-definition. Meticulously showing Japanese belligerent planning and the U.S. defensive posture, the movie has almost unavoidable and plodding sanctimony, but it’s still a worthwhile recreation of historic events. The Blu-ray release has an overload of film-like detail; included are both the U.S. and the Japanese versions (which includes an additional 10 minutes), with loads of extras including new and vintage featurettes and interviews.

2011 World Series Champions

When the St. Los Cardinals won its 11th championship in October, it was a fitting end to the season for baseball fans sick of hearing about the dominance of the league’s richest teams, the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, none of whom got very far. This highlight-rich retrospective--narrated by Mad Men star (and St. Louis native) Jon Hamm--shows off the team’s season-long run, which culminated in those amazing final weeks when the Atlanta Braves’ epic collapse allowed the Cards to clinch a playoff berth on the final day. Shot in hi-def, the World Series games look stunning; included among a bunch of extras is the clinching NLCS Game 5 against the Phillies in its entirety.

Vietnam in HD

On the heels of its excellent release WWII in HD comes this two-disc set containing four hours of hi-def footage from the most divisive U.S. war of the 20th century. With so much film footage--well-known or barely seen, much of it quite shocking--at their disposal, the filmmakers have made a thorough overview of the war from 1964 to 1975’s fall of Saigon, with several soldiers and family members’ own stories woven into the rich fabric. Even in its often ragged state, this color footage is extremely powerful in HD, and it gives the resulting document a “you are there” immediacy for viewers.

DVDs of the Week
Come Have Coffee with Us
(Raro Video)

Nearly forgotten Italian director Alberto Lattuada--who co-directed Fellini’s debut, Variety Lights, and also made the unforgettable 1964 comedy Mafioso--helmed this frisky 1970 comedy that stars the irrepressible Ugo Tognazzi as a man who gets involved with three spinster sisters after their rich father dies: predictably, amorous adventures ensue. Although the movie is not much different than other erotic Italian comedies of its era, Lattuada’s light touch and Tognazzi’s presence distinguish it. The lone extra is an interview with film critic Adriano Apra.

Inside Hana’s Suitcase
(Menemsha Films)

This unbearably moving documentary is yet another Holocaust story--but since so many will never be told, this one must be. When a young Jewish victim’s suitcase surfaces at Tokyo’s Holocaust Museum, its director and her students attempt to piece together its history. They discover that she died at Auschwitz as a teenager, but her older brother survived and now lives in Toronto. Director Larry Weinstein’s re-enactments--which normally don’t work for me in documentaries--are so restrained they snugly fit in the film. When Hana’s brother goes to Japan to meet the kids who have “resurrected" his sister, it’s so rawly emotional that I dare any eyes to stay dry in the movie’s final reels.


Robert Kramer’s epic study of Americans trying to come to terms with their disillusionment over their lost 60s idealism, Milestones is an epic snapshot of our nation at a specific point in time in a brilliant and original mash-up of documentary and fiction. This 200-minute masterwork of reportage--made over a period of years and finished in 1975--gets its first DVD release some dozen years after the filmmaker's death; also included is Kramer’s espionage-paranoia meditation, Ice (1969), which is more relevant historically than artistically.

CDs of the Week
Britten, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Benjamin Britten’s 1959 opera based on Shakespeare’s fantastical play of sprites, fairies, mechanicals and lovers is given a superlative hearing in this 2006 recording from England’s summer Glyndebourne festival. The orchestra positively shimmers during the nocturnal interludes, while countertenor Bejun Mehta (as fairy king Oberon) and soprano Kate Royal (as one of the lovers, Helena) head a terrific cast, with an inspired group of youngsters making up the impish fairies’ chorus.

Honegger, Orchestral Works
(LPO Live)

The masterly Swiss composer Arthur Honegger was a member of Les Six, a group of French-based composers from the first half of the 20th century. This recording of live performances by the illustrious London Philharmonic Orchestra under the steady baton of conductor Vladimir Jurowski--highlights Honegger’s brilliant orchestral work, from the shimmery Summer Pastoral and propulsive Symphony No. 4 to the glorious chorale of his final composition, the seasonally apt Christmas Cantata.

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