Saturday, January 7, 2012

January '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week

Steven Soderbergh’s nail-biting suspense drama realistically paints a horrifying portrait of the outbreak of an unknown disease that engulfs much of the planet. In a series of plausibly shot, edited and acted sequences, the movie scarily shows what our globally connected 21st century world might look like. A superb ensemble cast, from Matt Damon and Kate Winslet to Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle, make this a most entertaining but truly frightening film. On Blu-ray, Soderbergh’s stark, documentary-like style is preserved; the extras comprise featurettes about the film and the science behind it.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

In keeping with cowriter Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic obsessions, this semi-frightening thriller features a young child terrorized by monsters only she can see--and it appears that the adults can do nothing about it. Eerie and suspenseful moments are negated by the too-literal appearances of tiny creatures who are lethal except when it’s convenient that they’re not. Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are wasted, but young Bailee Madison is a rip-roaring screamer of the first order. The movie’s hi-def image is very good; extras include a three-part making-of featurette.

The Guard
If you want to see the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson knock heads with our very own Don Cheadle, then don’t miss John Michael McDonagh’s uproarious, pitch-black comedy about an unorthodox Galway cop who teams with a visiting FBI agent to bust a cabal of international drug smugglers. The maniacal Gleeson, on the same wavelength as the acidic script, expertly demonstrates how to walk the overacting tightrope without falling off. The Blu-ray image is super; extras are McDonagh’s short, The Second Death; deleted scenes/outtakes; and McDonagh, Cheadle and Gleeson’s commentary/film festival Q&A.

I Don’t Know How She Does It
(Anchor Bay)
He once made the better 2006 Truman Capote movie, Infamous, which did not have Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance; now Douglas McGrath is reduced to helming an inoffensive but forgettable rom-com (from Allison Pearson’s novel) with Sarah Jessica Parker as the ultimate career woman who’s destroying her family. Parker is always one-note, but an appealing supporting cast--Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Kelsey Grammer, Christina Hendricks and Olivia Munn--makes the 90 minutes palatable. The movie has a decent hi-def image; lone extra is a conversation with Pearson.

(Miramax Echo Bridge)
David Auburn’s magnificent drama--2001 Tony and Pulitzer Prize Best Play winner--reached the screen in 2005 to mediocre results, thanks to John Madden’s uninspired direction and a dull cast: Anthony Hopkins never convinces as Gywneth Paltrow and Hope Davis’s father, they are not believable sisters and poor Jake Gyllenhaal looks confused. If they kept the original stage cast, it would have worked far better: but Larry Brygmann, Ben Shenckman, Johanna Day and the incomparable Mary Louise Parker are apparently not big enough names. The muted Blu-ray image is an acceptable improvement over the original DVD release; no extras.


This compelling, strange-but-true story follows a lawyer (Chris Evans, who’s excellent) that’s also a drug addict, and whose personal-injury firm takes a case involving contaminated needles. Adam and Mark Kassen directed, and Mark plays Evans’ partner, giving the whip-smart attorneys a believable rapport. The movie is low-key for the most part, so its scenes of drug taking--culminating in a final, fatal instance--become that much more powerful. The hi-def image is solid; unfortunately, there are no extras.

Shark Night
A tongue-in-cheek shark-attack movie was done with far more wit and style than David R. Ellis’ cheesy 3-D mock-thriller: of course, I’m talking about Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, 36 years ago. Here, Ellis is stuck with a goofy premise, cardboard characters and a need to have stuff fly at the camera to induce 3-D effects for viewers. The lone time it works is the final shot; otherwise, the killings--and technique--stale quickly. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray even without the 3-D effects; extras are four behind-the-scenes featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Eames: The Architect and the Painter
and Jane’s Journey (First Run)
Two terrific documentaries take the measure of three of the most important people in their respective fields in the past 50 or so years: Eames chronicles the extraordinary lives and artistry of designer Charles and his wife, painter Ray; Jane’s Journey is a straightforward portrait of beloved chimpanzee expert/activist Jane Goodall. Both intelligently made films include insightful interviews with their subjects, colleagues and close friends. Eames’ extras include deleted scenes; Jane’s extras include Angelina Jolie interview.

I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive

Veteran director Claude Miller and son Nathan’s thoroughly absorbing character study features a splendid cast of unknown faces in a true story about a young man, whose mother gave him and his little brother up for adoption, who tracks her down and begins an unsettling relationship with her and his half-brother. This sober, reflective tale is made all the more remarkable by the performances of its leads, Vincent Rottiers (son) and Sophie Cattani (mother),who lend an authenticity and immediacy that bigger stars would obviously lack.

Justified: Season 2

After shutting down a criminal family’s ruthless reign, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (a perfectly-cast Timothy Olyphant) returns to battle another menace to society in the form of Mags Bennett (splendid Emmy-winning performance by Margo Martindale). This fast-moving, very entertaining crime drama justifies its existence by equaling the taut short story by Elmore Leonard on which it is based. All 13 episodes are included on 3 discs; extras include outtakes, deleted scenes and on-set featurettes.

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic fantasy opera needs a first-rate staging. In this 2008 production from Sardinia, Italy, it’s only partly forthcoming: director Eimuntas Nekrosius cleverly evokes the Russian folk tale about a city that miraculously holds off Mongol invaders but does not visualize all the story’s riches. Still, Rimsky-Korsakov’s glorious music is well-played by the orchestra under conductor Alexander Vedernikov and the vocalists, led by soprano Tatiana Monogarova and bass Mikhail Kazakov, are luminous. One quibble: the video and audio are not synched on disc one.

Transform Your Body with Brooke Burke

40-year-old Dancing with the Stars winner Brooke Burke is a mother of four, and these two workout DVDs display how she keeps her amazing figure. Each disc contains three separate workouts, so by getting both Tone and Tighten and Strength and Conditioning, women will have a half-dozen chances to try and look like Brooke, while husbands and boyfriends will have a half-dozen chances to look at Brooke. Extras include interviews with Burke and workout guru Greg Joujon-Roche.

CD of the Week
Reger, Violin Concerto

Max Reger’s Violin Concerto is, at 56 minutes in length, the ultimate in Romantic era music (Reger died at age 43 in 1916). Its surging strings and emotional washes of sound provide a sturdy orchestral base for the formidable solo lines for the showcase violinist, and this recording has a superb soloist in Tanja Becker-Bender, who dispatches this uneven but eminently worthy work with ease. Also on this disc are Reger’s Two Romances for violin and orchestra, played beautifully by Becker-Bender and the Berlin Concerthouse Orchestra under conductor Lothar Zagrosek.

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