Sunday, December 25, 2011

December '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Birth of a Nation and
Way Down East

These D.W. Griffith classics are more historically than artistically admirable, especially 1915’s Nation, with its rampagingly racist view of the Ku Klux Klan; 1920’s East, by contrast, is a relatively sober melodrama. Griffith was a master of composition and editing, if not depth or complexity; his films are large-scale curios important beyond their shortcomings. Kino’s restored hi-def transfers (East comes courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art) are excellent if not as stunning as its Buster Keaton entries. Nation’s two discs of extras include a making-of and the full 1993 restoration; East includes a short ice-floe sequence from a 1903 film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin which inspired Griffith.

A grizzled, bearded Sam Shepard plays a retired Butch Cassidy whiling away the remainder of his days in Bolivia in director Mateo Gil’s laidback western. Lovely photography that makes terrific use of the widescreen format is its calling card; despite Shepard’s authoritative presence, Butch comes across as a cipher, not good in a film ostensibly about him. The Blu-ray transfer is glorious; extras include interviews, featurettes and 22 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes.

Branded to Kill and
Tokyo Drifter

Seijun Suzuki’s remarkably brash thrillers are among the most entertaining of their time (1967 and 1966, respectively): these beguiling mash-ups of gangster movie, romance and musical--shot in splendid B&W and color--introduce a series of appealingly nutty characters whom Suzuki’s stylishness makes endlessly fascinating. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray editions give these films a shocking visual jolt that’s unmatched; extras include new and vintage interviews with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu and an interview with Branded star Joe Shishido.

Catch .44
(Anchor Bay)

I had a crushing sense of déjà vu while watching Aaron Harvey‘s second-rate thriller: its insistence on following various characters through story threads that collide with and converge on one another--some even die then return in flashbacks--is solely Quentin Tarantino’s fault, since he made it acceptable for anyone with a script and camera to make a slick but empty flick. Though the actors can do little with their stereotypes, Bruce Willis, Nikki Reed and Forrest Whitaker look like they’re having fun, and Malin Akerman--bless her--very nearly makes the heroine sympathetic. The film looks quite good on Blu-ray; lone extra is a Harvey commentary.

If there’s any justice in Hollywood--which, as we know, there isn’t--Zoe Saldana would be a superstar: she’s a compelling, charismatic actress who can do drama, comedy, action, whatever. Instead we’re stuck with the likes of overrated, one trick ponies Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johannsen, Kate Hudson and Kristen Bell. Rant over: Saldana makes this forgettable action flick fly furiously, even making us feel for a young woman--trained as an assassin after her parents are brutally murdered--who’s calmly killing dozens of people. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include several featurettes.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Director Tsui Hark’s incomprehensible costume fantasy-drama has its share of amazing visuals, but the story’s incoherence and the characters’ distance from the viewer--even the title sleuth and his princess--keeps this ultra-stylish diversion at arm’s length. On Blu-ray, the movie literally blasts off the screen, and for many fans of this type of movie, that will definitely be enough: all others have been warned. Extras include on-set featurettes.

Dolphin Tale

This heartfelt, inspirational story chronicles an injured dolphin’s battle to survive without a tail and the two young children who are there to help. Sentimental and syrupy for sure--but when it’s done so guilelessly, the result is a sweet family film without many annoying diversionary tactics. On Blu-ray, the movie looks best in the many underwater sequences; extras include a deleted scene, gag reel and behind-the-scenes featurettes.


Not all vintage splatter movies are classics: case in point is1989’s Intruder, which is only partly intentionally inept. Despite a willing cast, director Scott Spiegel just doesn’t have fellow director Sam Raimi’s style and pacing, and the movie degenerates into repetitious and boring gore scenes once the killer has established himself in the local grocery store. Even the cheesy special effects aren’t especially memorable. The movie looks as good as it’s going to look on hi-def; extras comprise new cast and crew interviews, screen tests and bonus scenes.

Margin Call

This tense look at the 2008 financial meltdown through the eyes of traders and bosses--all trying to figure out how to weather what they know will be a damaging storm once the bottom drops out--arrives courtesy of debut writer-director J. C. Chandor, who obviously knows the milieu (his dad worked for an investment firm). The characters, from the firm’s CEO to the young trader who deciphers complex numbers to arrive at the foregone (and ominous) conclusion, are enacted with precision and even sympathy by Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci and Zachary Quinto. The movie looks sharp on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes with commentary, director/producer commentary and on-set featurettes.

Seven Chances

This inspired and classic piece of Buster Keaton lunacy crams more awesome hilarity and stuntwork into 52 minutes than movies twice as long. As always, Keaton builds the rollicking humor to a thrilling crescendo, in this case a most dazzling chase scene as Keaton tries to outrace rolling rocks and boulders in an enervating finale. Another in Kino’s superb series of hi-def Keaton releases, Seven Chances looks clean and spotless; extras include a Three Stooges short based on this movie’s plot, a 1904 short that inspired Keaton’s final chase and a location featurette.

Stars and Stripes Forever

Named after John Philip Sousa’s most famous march--inspired titling, that!--this standard 1952 biopic is a nice if undistinguished overview of the “march king’s” career from his army band to his composing “Stars and Stripes Forever” after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War. Clifton Webb is a stiff Sousa, but Ruth Hussey (wife), Robert Wagner (protégée) and Debra Paget (protégé’s wife) enliven things a little, as does lots of Sousa’s irresistible music. The restored film has a vibrancy on Blu-ray that helps elevate the lagging dramatics; extras include featurettes on the film and Sousa’s music.

DVDs of the Week
Burke & Hare

John Landis’ first feature since 1998’s double disaster of Susan’s Plan and Blues Brothers 2000 is another crude comic effort that’s doubly disheartening since it’s based on a true story of grave robbers who must keep a fresh supply of cadavers for a dissecting doctor. A top-notch British cast is led by Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Ilsa Fischer and Tom Wilkinson, and an appropriately dark Sweeney Todd mood envelopes the proceedings, but Landis’ farcical instincts fail him: a firmer, subtler guiding hand is needed. Extras include interviews, outtakes and deleted scenes.

The Overcoat
(Raro Video)

Alberto Lattuada’s 1952 adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story is one of the underrated Italian director’s best films. Famed for collaborating on Fellini’s debut feature Variety Lights, Lattuada had a sardonic comic sense all his own that’s found in spades in this satire of bureaucracy and fascism centered around a beautifully modulated performance by Renato Rascel as a lowly clerk who longs for a new overcoat…and unfortunately gets what he wished for. The film has gotten a sparkling restoration; extras are commentary by two Italian film historians, an interview with director Angelo Pasquini and deleted scenes.

CD of the Week
Natasha Paremski, Brahms/Kahane/Prokofiev
(Arioso Classics)

This scintillating 25-year-old Russian pianist--who won the 2010 Young Artist of the Year award from the Classical Recording Foundation--daringly pairs three composers on her debut recital disc: Johannes Brahms, Sergei Prokofiev and Gabriel Kahane, whose 2009 Piano Sonata was commissioned for Paremski, who makes short work of its imposing passages. She plays Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 2 with warmth and sensitivity, and Prokofiev’s technically and emotionally demanding Piano Sonata No. 7 finds her in her element, thrillingly tracking the composer’s unique blend of playfulness and tragedy.

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