Sunday, January 22, 2012

January '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Age of Heroes
(e one)
This crackerjack World War II adventure has a familiar story of heroic soldiers taking risks to defeat Hitler’s army, whose melodramatics take over, especially in the climactic battle scenes. Still, with a swarm of good actors and dazzling location shooting, the movie comes across as authentic, which is enough. The Blu-ray transfer delivers a solid visual experience; extras include cast and director interviews, deleted scenes, bloopers and bonus footage.

The Black Hills and the Badlands
and The Everglades (Mill Creek)
The awesome and--for now--unspoiled beauty of America’s National Parks is shown on these releases, which showcase the varied terrain and wildlife within two of our most remarkable park areas. The Black Hills and the Badlands features the distinctive landscapes that have filled visitors with awe for more than a century; The Everglades looks at the subtropical paradise that lives on in the state of Florida. Of course, both of these parks look amazing in hi-def, even if that’s no substitute for actually visiting them.

Carmen
(Teatro Real)
The art of flamenco is displayed in masterly fashion in dance maven Antonio Gades’ and film director Carlos Saura’s stylish production, which is visually reminiscent of classic Spanish painters Goya and Vel├ízquez. Vanesa Vento is a vivacious and vibrant Carmen, the gypsy whose love for two men leads to her inevitable death; alongside Bizet’s familiar music, there’s much rhythmic flamenco music by various Spanish composers. The entire staging looks spectacular on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a short making-of featurette.

Dead Poets Society and
Good Morning Vietnam (Touchstone)
Two of Robin Williams’ Oscar-nominated performances are the calling card of these hi-def releases: Good Morning Vietnam features “funny Robin” as an outlandish DJ entertaining U.S. troops in Barry Levinson’s slight 1987 comedy; “serious Robin” appears in Dead Poets Society, the much-loved but pretentious 1989 Peter Weir drama. Both movies look excellent on Blu-ray; Vietnam extras include a production diary and uncut Williams monologues; Poets extras include a retrospective featurette with interviews (no Williams, however), featurettes and commentary featuring Weir, writer Tom Schulman and cinematographer John Seale.

Division III
(Image)
If you’ve ever wanted to see comedian Andy Dick as a hard-nosed, tough-guy college football coach, then here’s your chance. Be warned, however: the negligible movie’s attempts at humor are even less convincing than Dick himself in the lead. The football team’s nickname is the Blue Cocks, and the comedy goes downhill from there. There’s a good Blu-ray transfer; extras include a Dick and director Marshall Cook commentary, outtakes and deleted scenes.

George Gently, Series 1
(Acorn)
This absorbing crime drama stars a rock-solid Martin Shaw as a hard-bitten London detective (and widower) who begins work in the hardscrabble northeastern part of England during the volatile 60s, and begins butting heads with colleagues as well as criminals. With lovely locations and a fine supporting ensemble, George Gently is a must-see for anyone interested in these rapidly proliferating--and mostly superior--British crime series. The Blu-ray image is splendid; no extras.

Traffic
(Criterion)
Steven Soderbergh won a Best Director Oscar for this multi-layered 2000 dramatization of the Herculean task of fighting the drug war: we watch multiple plots about smugglers, users, sellers and law-enforcement officials. A superlative ensemble featuring Michael Douglas, Erika Christensen, Benecio del Toro, Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman give the movie needed realism, but it’s Soderbergh's guiding hand that builds the stories so powerfully. The color-drenched visual palette can be savored on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray; extras include three commentaries, 25 deleted scenes with commentary, unused footage and demonstrations of editing, dialogue editing and film processing.

DVDs of the Week
Bombay Beach
(e one)
Alma Har’el’s fascinating non-fiction study of the dead community now surrounding California’s Salton Sea--which was once a promise of America’s unparalleled greatness in the 1950s--goes beyond the bounds of documentaries. Her gracefully structured film includes much dance-like movement (choreographed wonderfully by Paula Present) and an eye for details that go a long way toward telling the story of lost souls living their lives far from the American dream. Extras include selected scene commentary, Har’el’s music videos and deleted scenes.

Dirty Girl
(Anchor Bay)
Writer-director Abe Sylvia’s sentimental tale of a sexually confused teenage boy and a sexually promiscuous girl from his high school is shallow and lazy filmmaking. Needless to say, opposites attract, as they help each other out of their varied (and myriad) difficulties. Still, despite the lameness of the humor and 1980s song cues, the movie’s worth watching for the acting of newcomer Jeremy Dozier and Juno Temple, who create an unlikely but lively pair. Support by Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw and Milla Jovovich also helps, even if Sylvia’s apparently autobiographical portrait remains uninspiring. Extras include Sylvia’s commentary and deleted/extended scenes.

Night and Day
(Zeitgeist/KimStim)
Korean director Hong Sang-soo has made an impressively sober but lightly comic drama about a Korean artist who, after a breakup, goes to Paris without knowing anything of the language and eventually befriends two younger expatriate Korean women. Leisurely paced at two hours and 24 minutes, Hong’s film nevertheless has a bracing balance of talk and immaculate silences, a remarkable drama that has sympathy, eroticism and insight in abundance.

Special Treatment
(First Run)
In this not very interesting S&M drama by director Jeanne Labrune, Isabelle Huppert plays a high-class call girl whose professional life has an emotional wrench thrown into it when she begins an offbeat relationship with her psychotherapist. That their professions are, in some ways, similar gives the movie its singular kick, but Labrune does very little with what could have been a probing psychological study. Even Huppert, who gives it her all, cannot overcome the thinness of the premise and its lack of resolution.

CD of the Week
Beatlesmania
(Naive)
Although the Beatles’ songs never received better performances than their own, there are many superb cover versions, and this two-disc set from France compiles some of them on the first disc: classic renditions like Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Got to Get You into My Life,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” and Al Green’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are wonderful interpretations. The second disc, however, comprises newer takes on the Beatles’ catalog by 20 artists whose techno versions sound similar--but inferior--to Paul McCartney’s own forays into experimental electronica. If nothing else, hearing Tamara Kaboutchek’s “Sun King,” Studio Paradise’s “I Am the Walrus” or others shows that, even if their covers are unmemorable, the Fab Four’s musical influence is widespread and enduring.

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