Saturday, January 28, 2012

January '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Annie Hall, Manhattan
Woody Allen’s recent films have made it to Blu-ray, but these are his first classics to be released on hi-def: Annie Hall, his 1977 mainstream breakthrough, showcases Diane Keaton’s charming Oscar-winning acting; and 1979’s Manhattan--even more cohesive and assured--has Gordon Willis’ magnificent B&W widescreen photography and then-teenager Mariel Hemingway’s precocious, persuasive performance. On Blu-ray, Annie Hall (with wonderfully filmic grain) and Manhattan (with fabulous New York City vistas), are miles ahead of the previous DVD releases. Of course, there are no extras.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sympathetic portrayal of a 20-something slapped in the face by cancer smoothes over rough patches in Will Reiser’s script (based on his own life), which often--thanks to director Jonathan Levine and costar-producer Seth Rogen--falls into unfunny Judd Apatow territory. Too bad a wooden Rogen goes for cheap laughs, which tramples the emotion in Gordon-Levitt’s performance. The women--Anjelica Huston (mom), Bryce Dallas Howard (girlfriend), Anna Kendrick (unlikely therapist)--are also handled poorly, but Philip Baker Hall is bravura as a patient who befriends our hero. The image quality is fine; extras include commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

Happy Happy
This fresh Norwegian comedy traces the falling apart and patching together of two marriages with good humor and insight by director Anne Sewitsky and her accomplished cast led by Agnes Kittelsen, who plays a mother and unhappy wife who begins a fumbling affair with her next-door neighbor with a winning combination of naiveté and strength. Rural Norway’s wintry landscapes are not overused as metaphors, and the Blu-ray image sparkles; no extras.

Hell and Back Again
This powerhouse documentary--just nominated for an Oscar--tells the story of a U.S. soldier, wounded in Afghanistan, who returns home to be helped by his loving wife. Director Danfung Dennis--a veteran war photographer--has brilliantly photographed the horror of war and the horror of returning home, adroitly crosscutting between the two. On Blu-ray, Dennis’s photography is splendidly recreated; extras include a Willie Nelson music video, Dennis’s camera primer and deleted scenes.

The Moment of Truth
Francesco Rosi, one of the greatest obscure directors, made this remarkable 1965 quasi-documentary about bullfighting that’s complete with actual footage of the running of the bulls and violence in the ring. The movie is not for the squeamish, so prepare yourself if the sight of dead animals (and people) bothers you. Rosi’s extraordinary eye transforms his raw material into a compelling and detailed character study that stars real-life bullfighter Miguel Mateo. The movie’s ultra-realism is perfectly rendered on The Criterion Collection’s grainy transfer; the lone extra is a 14-minute Rosi interview.

The Rake’s Progress
(Opus Arte)
Igor Stravinsky’s blissful 1951 neo-Mozartean opera was revived in 2010 at England’s Glyndebourne Festival, with all its salient virtues in place. Artist David Hockney’s whimsical designs, John Cox’s inventive directing, Miah Persson, Topi Lehtipuu, Matthew Rose and Elena Manistina’s strong singing and Vladimir Jurowski’s sensitive conducting add up to a superlative musical experience. Hockney’s visuals pop off the screen on Blu-ray; Stravinsky’s music is all-encompassing in surround sound. Extras include backstage featurettes.

Real Steel
This 21st century crowd-pleaser is not only “Rocky with Robots”--as the cover blurb has it--but it’s robots fighting as men outside the ring “punch” as if they’re playing a boxing video game in front of their TV. This might work as a video game, but a two-hour movie with over-the-top dramatic crescendos and climaxes--with sentimental blackmail in the form of a “tough boy and childish dad” plot--alongside metallic bludgeoning is hard to take. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras include on-set featurettes, deleted scenes, “second screen” app featuring director Shawn Levy and bloopers.

The Whistleblower
Rachel Weisz’s sturdy portrayal of Kathryn Bolkovac, small-town U.S. cop in Bosnia to help with the inhumanities occurring during the protracted civil war, centers this true story. Well-crafted but ultimately preaching to the choir, the film does little that’s compelling except to show that a) war is bad and b) government bureaucracies are bad. We knew that coming in, so even if those facts need constant restating, it isn’t enough. The Blu-ray image is solid; the lone extra is a brief interview with the real Bolkovac.

DVDs of the Week
The Bed Sitting Room, Hannibal Brooks, A Small Town in Texas
These three movies are part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection‘s latest release slate. Richard Lester’s absurdist, episodic The Bed Sitting Room (1969), starring Dudley Moore, Spike Mulligan and Peter Cook, has some moments of comic inspiration; Michael Winner’s Hannibal Brooks (1969) is a bizarre but uninvolvingly war movie starring Olive Reed and an elephant; and A Small Town in Texas (1976) has local flavor and Susan George’s sexy presence, but clichéd writing and directing hurt. The movies look acceptable; there are no extras.

Eclipse Series 31: Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin
These non-fiction films will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Gorin’s agitprop documentaries he made with Jean-Luc Godard in the late 60s/early 70s. Based in San Diego, Gorin went on to record some remarkable--and remarkably ordinary--lives. The last of them, 1992’s My Crasy Life, is a rote examination of Samoan gangs, but 1986’s Routine Pleasures provides a memorable forum for critic/painter Manny Farber and model train fanatics, while 1980’s Porto and Cabengo (at 73 minutes, the most succinct of these occasionally incoherent documents) is a fascinating study of six-year-old twins and their supposedly made-up language.

Essential Killing
(Tribeca Film)
Jerzy Skolimowski’s visceral adventure about a Taliban insurgent (Vincent Gallo, in an intensely physical--and mute--performance) who escapes from U.S. clutches is superbly shot and edited but tends to ramble rather pointlessly. Still, there’s much to admire in the artistry of the film’s often pungent visuals, and Skolimowski’s closing shot--though far too metaphorical--is a beautiful and memorable image. The lone extra is a five-minute Skolimowski interview.

This exciting thriller about a rich father extracting revenge from kidnapers who murdered his daughter flies by with nary a moment to catch one’s breath. Famed action filmmaker Johnnie To is the producer, and director Law Wing Cheong follows his boss’s style with unsparing brutality and a sense of doom that is hanging over every character’s neck. It’s too bad that, in the final reels, the movie goes off the rails and loses its way. Extras include short on-set featurettes.

CDs of the Week
Schubert: Piano Trios
(Eloquentia and Bridge)
In the last year of his short life (he died at age 31 in 1828), Franz Schubert penned two piano trios that are among his masterpieces. The B-flat major trio is sprightly and effervescent; the E-flat major trio stately and elegant. On the Bridge CD, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio plays these weighty works with finesse, their stylish playing coalescing in the march-like tragic hymn of the E-flat major trio’s second movement. On the Eloquentia CD, Trio Latitude 41 finds musicality and whimsy within the E-flat major trio’s daunting framework and imposing length. Each ensemble also performs other Schubert chamber works.

No comments: