Sunday, January 15, 2012

January '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Anna Bolena
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Anna Netrebko might have sung Anne Boleyn at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time this season, but she was already a veteran in the title role, as last April’s Vienna staging makes clear: her ravishing presence and singing are on display throughout this bel canto classic, as are the equal talents of costar Elina Garanca as her rival for the British throne, Jane Seymour. Eric Genovese’s directing gets to the heart of this historical soap opera; Evelino Pido conducts the Vienna Opera Orchestra and Chorus for maximum effectiveness. Extras include Garanca’s charming German-language plot synopsis.

Belle de Jour

Luis Bunuel’s sardonic 1967 study of a prim housewife (a brilliantly typecast Catherine Deneuve) who spends her afternoons as a high-class prostitute makes its points too obviously, but Bunuel’s masterly control helps keep things intentionally off-balance. The Criterion Collection release features a superb new hi-def transfer--this is the first Bunuel film on Blu-ray--but the extras disappoint: unilluminating video essay, brief interview with co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere and excerpt from a French TV program featuring Deneuve and Carriere interviews.

Finding Life Beyond Earth

This fascinating two-hour Nova program takes a tantalizing look at the possibilities of life on other planets through interviews with scientists and other experts along with glimpses at alien words via telescopic images and CGI effects. In addition to visiting far-flung places to test for conditions that might sustain life in what might be considered inhospitable environments, the show also speculates on the possibilities of even primitive life forms in our galaxy and throughout the universe. The Blu-ray image is, happily, spectacularly good; there are no extras.

Higher Ground

Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut is an unsentimental study of a closely-knit religious community thrown for a loop when one of their own begins questioning her faith. Farmiga herself plays the lead, a character based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir. There’s a terrific ensemble cast of New York theater actors: Donna Murphy, Norbert Leo Butz, Nina Arianda, Jack Gilpin and Dagmara Dominczyk. The movie, which was shot on the Hudson River around Kingston, NY, has a believable small-town vibe and a big beating heart. The Blu-ray image is solid; extras include commentary, deleted/extended scenes, outtakes and making-of featurette.

The Poolboys
(e one)
This would-be soft-core comedy stars Matthew Lillard and Brett Davern as cousins who hope to get rich quick off a scheme involving prostitution. Needless to say, it soon goes off the rails, but not before they become good at pimping. The humor is coarse and--most damagingly--unfunny, while the women are lovely but simply window dressing and the acting is pretty much non-existent. The movie at least looks decent on Blu-ray; extras include a making-of featurette.

Sid and Nancy
Alex Cox’s 1986 paean to Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungeon--whom he killed before committing suicide--unsettlingly mixes hero-worship and a cautionary tale. Despite Cox’s confusion over whether to excoriate or laud the couple, there’s no quibble with the acting: Gary Oldman’s Sid is dead on-target, while Chloe Webb--in a performance now seen as obvious typecasting (she was never as good in anything else)--is a sensational Nancy. Cox’s striking visuals look superb on Blu-ray; extras comprise two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Sinners and Saints
(Anchor Bay)

This hard-hitting if derivative cop flick follows an unorthodox New Orleans detective whose tactics uncover a vast conspiracy pitting local gangs against violent mercenaries. Many violent scenes in this gritty picture might make some viewers look away, but despite the derivativeness, there’s decent acting and an energy level that helps gloss over the many shortcomings. The Blu-ray image is good; extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and deleted scenes.

What’s Your Number?

This witless, crude sex comedy has an extremely dumb premises: before getting to 20 guys that’s she slept with in her life, a young woman decides to pick from the previous 19 to settle down and not be labeled “whore.” Anna Faris tries to make this absurd plot work, but even she can’t overcome outright inanities like playing a game of strip horse basketball or jumping naked into a harbor at night. Amazingly written by two women, this laughless comedy makes you wonder what gets green lighted in Hollywood. On Blu-ray, the movie looks sharp; extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel.

DVDs of the Week
(Cinema Guild
The slow accumulation of ordinary events to gradually reveal the underbelly of Romanian society worked in Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), but not here. For three hours, the antisocial protagonist (played by the taciturn director) goes about his menial business, rarely connecting with other. An hour in, there’s a murder, and the movie soon becomes risible. It’s daring of Puiu to choose mundane subjects to develop his singular style. (There are apparently four more films to come, snippets of life in Bucharest.) Long takes interrupted by startling cuts can either mesmerize or stupefy: Lazarescu did the former, Aurora the latter. Batting .500, Puiu is still a director to watch. The lone extra is Puiu’s 2004 short, Cigarettes and Coffee.

The Man from London

Based on, of all things, a swift-moving Georges Simenon mystery, London plays like a flatfooted Bela Tarr parody: Mihaly Vig’s ominous music repeats itself ad nauseum, the actors (including a dubbed Tilda Swinton) spit out minimal dialogue, and those oh-so-slow camera moves are simply an exercise in lugubriousness. Tarr’s visual sense was borrowed from compatriot Miklos Jancso, who used elaborate camera choreography to more dynamic dramatic and psychological effect. But Jancso, the master, has moved on to recent films that are carefree and playful, unlike Tarr, who recently called it quits after his most recent film, The Turin Horse.

(Film Mov
Marek Najbrt’s handsomely mounted drama explores how Czechoslovakia dealt with the 1938 Nazi annexation preceding WWII. Emil (perfect everyman Marek Daniel), a Prague radio reporter with a familiar voice, is married to movie star Hana (subtle Jana Plodkova), who initially doesn’t blink when the Nazis come. But since she’s Jewish, she soon loses her status…and career. Najbrt understands Czech cultural history by smartly showing how Nazis utilized celebrities depending on their ability to be useful propagandists. The title has multiple meanings: “Protektor” (which refers to Emil as well as a murdered Nazi leader) can also be read as “Protect Her.” The lone extra is a touching animated short by Canadian director Ann Marie Fleming, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.

The Windsors from George to Kate

This matter-of-fact overview of the current British Royal Family is a treasure trove of archival footage of coronations, weddings and even--in the case of Edward VIII--abdication. Narrated by Brian Blessed, the 105-minute documentary includes original voiceovers from vintage newsreels, and takes viewers swiftly from Georges V and VI to Queen Elizabeth II and her offspring--son Charles and grandsons Harry and William, whose recent marriage to Kate Middleton closes out the program. Valuable extras include footage of George VI’s visit to FDR in Washington, DC and William and Kate’s wedding.

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