Sunday, February 5, 2012

February '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Apartment
Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar-winning Best Picture takes a sleazy plot--up-and-coming junior exec allows his superiors to use his place for their trysts, then falls in love with one of their gals--and makes it tartly funny. Along with his and IAL Diamond’s snappy dialogue, Wilder has two comedic performers at their peak: Shirley MacLaine and the incomparable Jack Lemmon. On Blu-ray, Joseph LaShelle’s B&W cinematography looks marvelous; extras are a commentary and featurettes on Lemmon and the film’s making.

The Double
Michael Brandt’s tricky spy thriller falls all over itself trying to keep the twists going to keep viewers off-guard, resulting in a slick but ultimately disappointing action flick. Richard Gere and Topher Grace have little to do except chase villains and look surprised when new revelations are unveiled, but they (and Martin Sheen and Odette Yustman) are defeated by shopworn material. The movie has an excellent hi-def sheen; extras comprise a commentary and on-set featurette.

The granddaddy of Japanese monster movies is not the tenth-rate, cardboard shocker everybody remembers it as: it’s a relatively sober (if silly) cautionary tale about how the nuclear age could wipe out humanity. In its original 1954 form (the re-edited 1956 U.S. version featuring Raymond Burr, is also included), the movie remains an effective thriller with a message. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray gives both versions the deluxe treatment although print damage is extensive. There are also contextualizing extras: commentaries, featurettes and new and vintage interviews with cast and crew members.

In Time
Andrew Niccol has made imaginative sci-fi like Gattaca and Simone, but In Time trips over its plot line about a near-future where the “aging gene” ends at age 25, and desperate people try to horde or steal more time for themselves. Niccol’s exceptional visual imagination is hobbled by an uncharismatic leading man, Justin Timberlake, unable to muster any believability as a dashing hero. His costars Amanda Seyfried, Olivia Wilde and Cillian Murphy act rings around him, unfortunately. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras a making-of featurette and deleted/extended scenes.

Malcolm X
(Warner Bros.)
Spike Lee’s ambitious 1992 biopic of the controversial Nation of Islam leader has Lee’s defects in abundance (the forced attempts at humor and his own lackluster presence as Malcolm’s sidekick). But, anchored by Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett’s performances as Malcolm and wife Betty Shabazz, the movie flies by despite its three-plus hour running time. Lee also superbly stages Malcolm’s assassination: too bad he then falls into the propaganda trap which culminates with the real Malcolm onscreen, showing up Washington as a mere impersonation. The Blu-ray image is faultless; extras include Lee’s commentary, deleted scenes, Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X and a bonus DVD of the 1972 documentary Malcolm X.

Notorious, Rebecca, Spellbound
This trio of Hitchcock classics, which have finally arrived on hi-def, look as astonishing as the films themselves are. 1940’s Rebecca is a masterly mystery with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, 1945’s Spellbound superbly combines psychoanalysis, a noted Dali dream sequence and Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, and 1946’s Notorious pairs Bergman and Cary Grant in a perfect espionage thriller. Extras on all three discs include audio commentaries, vintage and retrospective featurettes, Hitchcock audio interviews and radio plays based on the same material.

(Arthaus Musik)
Richard Strauss’s still-electrifying one-act opera, from Oscar Wilde’s play, rises or falls on its leading lady, and in this 2011 Berlin staging, German soprano Angela Denoke is more than up to the task. She plays the teenage temptress with such a fiery single-mindedness that the finale--Salome singing to John the Baptist’s severed head--creeps us out more than usual. The fine-tuned orchestra is led by conductor Stefan Soltesz; Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s appropriately garish production certainly fits the story. The Blu-ray image is good; the music is a blast in surround sound.

Texas Killing Fields
(Anchor Bay)
Michael Mann’s daughter, Ami Canaan Mann, makes an auspicious directorial debut with a flavorful if familiar murder mystery set in small towns near a Texas marsh known as “the killing fields.” There’s much authentic flavor from a cast led by Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jessica Chastain as homicide detectives, and Mann shows a real eye for balancing weirdness with feelings; would that the story wasn’t so turgid. The hi-def image is splendid; the lone extra is a writer/director’s commentary.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning portrayal of small-time lawyer Atticus Finch dominates this immensely effective adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel. Director Richard Mulligan has all the emotional pieces in place, including the charged theme of Southern racism, but it’s Peck’s climactic courtroom speech that still resonates. On Blu-ray for the first time in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, Russell Harlan’s B&W photography is crisply delineated. Several meaty extras include a commentary, a Peck interview and a making-of documentary.

DVDs of the Week
Eat This New York
(First Run)
Andrew Rossi’s 2003 documentary illuminates the myriad hoops anyone steely (or foolhardy) enough to attempt to open a restaurant in New York must jump through. Following two friends, Billy Phelps and John McCormick, and their unforeseen challenges opening an eatery in Brooklyn, Rossi also features interviews with restaurateurs like Danny Mayer and Daniel Boulud, who candidly discusses the trials and errors they went through before succeeding in the Big Apple. Extras comprise two hours‘ worth of additional interviews.

The Other F Word
I never thought a documentary about punk rockers dealing with their lives as fathers could be as fascinating as Andrea Blaugrund Nevins has made this one. Several musicians (like Flea, Jim Lindberg, Mark Hoppus) talk about their roles as dads while still being expected to uphold their younger rebellious attitude, especially with fans and childless band mates, who don’t comprehend their new roles. Nevins has made an eye-opening account of how nonconformist morphs into conformism. Extras include a festival Q&A with Nevins and cast, commentary, outtakes, additional performances and music videos.

Styx: “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” Live
(Eagle Vision)
The current version of Styx performs The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight in their entirety before an enthusiastic Memphis crowd in 2010. With Dennis DeYoung gone (replacement Lawrence Gowan, a decent sound-alike, has an annoying stage presence), the focus is on guitarist-singers Tommy Shaw and James Young, and their songs come off best. Shaw’s “Fooling Yourself,” “A Man in the Wilderness,” “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade” and Young’s “Miss America” and “The Great White Hope” rock hardest. Video footage of a young fan putting each album on a turntable and flipping them over is amusing; extras: Putting on the Show featurette, the entire performance on two CDs.

The Woman
(Bloody Disgusting)
This coarse allegory about an egotistical husband and father who captures a wild female in the woods and attempts to “civilize” her, needless to say, shows that his intentions go horribly wrong: but not nearly as wrong as Lucky McKee’s film. He lays on the message with a trowel, at the same time reveling in his titillating situation. The actors do persuasive work, given the material, which is blunt-edged but disappointingly obvious. Extras include deleted scenes, making-of featurette and a short film.

CDs of the Week
Johannes Moser: Shostakovich and Britten
(Hanssler Classics)
The prodigiously talented German cellist performs two dramatically compelling 20th century cello concertos, both originally premiered by the Russian cello master, Mstislav Rostropovich. Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto is handled with awesome technical facility, while Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony--a brilliantly conceived give-and-take between soloist and orchestra--is performed with agility by Moser and the Cologne Symphony Orchestra under the guidance of conductor Pietari Inkinen.

Franz Schreker: Orchestral and Piano Works
This unsung Austrian composer was banned by the Nazis because of his lusciously lyrical music (he died in 1934): this three-CD set is an excellent introduction to his skillfulness in many genres. Disc one comprises his impressive Symphony No. 1, dramatic melodrama The Wife of Intaphernes and choir work Psalm 116; several orchestral works and arrangements of Hugo Wolf songs fill disc two; and piano transcriptions of his orchestral works round out disc three. The uniformly good vocal and instrumental performances provide a well-rounded portrait of an unjustly neglected composer.

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