Saturday, February 11, 2012

February '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Roland Emmerich’s preposterous “Shakespeare was too dumb to write plays” fantasia is a train wreck that keeps on giving: idiocies to history or common sense occur frequently. That respectable names enact screenwriter John Orloff’s ludicrous tale of Edward de Vere (real author) and the Bard (mere Beard) stems from the fact that some--like Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance--are rabid anti-Stratfordians. Despite stylish sets and costumes, this risible foolishness will entertain only if you turn your brain off. The Blu-ray image is top-notch; extras are Emmerich and Orloff’s commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes that twist director, writer and cast into pretzels trying (and failing) to legitimize de Vere.

The Big Year
David Frankel’s comedy about obsessive bird-watchers is a pleasant surprise, although how much is due to lowered expectations, I can’t say. But getting Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson to underplay is a feat in itself; adding a dry John Cleese as our narrator, solid support from Rashida Jones, Brian Dennehy, Dianne Wiest and JoBeth Williams and beguiling (if often digitized) feathered friends only helps. The movie lopes along, if uneventfully, at least agreeably. On Blu-ray, the birds look especially dazzling; extras include deleted scenes, gag reel and making-of featurette.

Downton Abbey, Season 2
This series’ dramatic first season is surpassed by the latest installments--still showing on PBS--with compelling storylines and vivid characterizations underscored by the First World War, which touches everyone, male or female, servant or master/mistress. Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Iain Glen and Michelle Dockery--among many others--are even more marvelous than they were previously. The stunning physical production looks flawless on the stellar hi-def release. Extras include a full-length Christmas at Downton Abbey, and on-set featurettes.

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection
(Raro Video)
Italian crime master Fernando Di Leo, a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, can be forgiven for that: this quartet of exciting, action-packed, unsubtle flicks is a real treat to watch. Caliber 9, The Italian Connection, The Boss (which make up a trilogy) and Rulers of the City show the seamy underbelly of organized crime, as crooks and cops alike end up bullet-riddled or blown apart (lots of car explosions throughout). On Blu-ray, the films’ images vary, from copious amounts of detail to a softness that probably stems from the source material. Hours of extras include a host of featurettes about Di Leo’s directing style and reminiscences from his casts and crew.

La Jetee/Sans Soleil
Chris Marker, cinema’s most valuable essayist, sees his best-known and most fully-realized films in hi-def thanks to the Criterion Collection. 1963’s La Jetee--vastly influential on films like 12 Monkeys and even music videos--is a tragic sci-fi tale told entirely through still photographs; 1983’s Sans Soleil, by contrast, is a wide-ranging travelogue of our simultaneously vast and small world. Both films’ hi-def transfers are magnificent; the extras--culled from the original 2005 DVD release--include interviews and featurettes that discuss Marker’s influence and legacy as a singular film artist.

The Phantom of the Opera: 25th Anniversary Concert
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit musical, based on Gaston Leroux’s classic novel, celebrates its 25th anniversary at London’s storied Royal Albert Hall with a lavish staging based on the original production (still running on Broadway). The excellent cast is led by Sierra Boggess, who with Laura Osnes proves that young, talented American stage performers are alive and well. Webber himself appears for a well-deserved curtain call, as do his original stars, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, the latter performing an encore. The Blu-ray transfer is good, the music impressive in surround sound; no extras.

The Rebound
This rote romantic comedy about a middle-aged woman who divorces a cheating husband and finds true love with a younger “manny” babysitting her kids is DOA thanks to a complete lack of chemistry between stolid Catherine Zeta-Jones and game Justin Bartha. Writer/director Bart Freundlich can’t flesh out his couple with any originality; the result is a dull replay of other rom-coms of years past. The hi-def transfer is decent; extras comprise interviews with Zeta-Jones, Freundlich, Bartha and costars Art Garfunkel and Joanna Gleason (they play Bartha’s parents).

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas
(Warner Bros)
Another unnecessary sequel in what’s become a comic franchise places our dopey heroes in increasingly ridiculous--and unfunny--situations, including a Russian mobster’s teenage daughter’s party and a Christmas tree store run by stereotypical ghetto dudes. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson desperately ramps up the farcical elements by turning the movie briefly into claymation and dragging in an always fun Neil Patrick Harris for brutally obvious gay jokes. But it’s all for naught. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray even without 3D effects; extras include deleted/extended scenes and a claymation featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Janie Jones
This low-key character study, filled with heartbreaking scenes between an estranged dad and the teenage daughter he never knew about--he’s a fading rock star, she’s the offspring of a trysts--benefits from the honest interplay between Alessandro Nivola (dad) and Abigail Breslin (daughter), well on her way to becoming a major actress. Wonderful support from Elisabeth Shue (mom), Peter Stormare, Frances Fisher and Frank Whaley helps writer-director David M. Rosenthal keep things percolating between moments of musical and personal intimacy that brim with truth. This small-scale gem has extras comprising interviews and an audio commentary.

The Jazz Singer
Here’s a real curio: Jerry Lewis takes the Al Jolson role in this hour-long adaptation seen only once on TV in 1959. Lewis clowns around too much (no surprise), but he’s quite strong in the dramatic showdown between father and estranged son. The actors surrounding Lewis are even better: Alan Reed as his dad the Cantor, Molly Picon as his heartbroken mother and sexy Anna Maria Alberghetti as a famous singer who asks Jerry to join her entourage, exacerbating the rift between him and his family. The film can be watched in B&W or color; the lone extra is a look at the restoration by Jerry’s son Chris.

Karen Cries on the Bus
(Film Movement)
With an exceptionally moving performance by Colombian actress Angela Carrizosa at its center, Gabriel Rojas Vera’s chronicle of a woman escaping a failed marriage transcends its familiar territory. The director allows Karen the dignity of beginning a new life and developing a new romance without pity or condescension, and Carrizosa’s amazing performance is shot through with emotion and inner strength. An Australian documentary short, Lessons from the Night, is included.

Tom Tykwer’s sprawling melodrama bounces around its characters’ complicated relationships with one another: a woman, her boyfriend, and the man they are each seeing, unbeknownst to the other. To be sure, she becomes pregnant (twins!) and doesn’t know who’s the father: her one-ball beau (he had testicular cancer) or her new stud. Tykwer’s split screens, multiple narrators and other sleight of hand obscure that 3, while fancy to watch, is pretty superficial underneath; the solid cast can’t overcome the ludicrous roles.

CD of the Week
Paul McCartney, Kisses on the Bottom
Now nearly 70, Paul McCartney pays homage to the songs he grew up with; unlike Run Devil Run, his energetic look back at 50s rock’n’roll, the new CD plumbs even further, to songs his father played that were Paul’s introduction to memorable tunesmiths. Songs by Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Harold Arlen bump up against one another in deliberately casual but playful arrangements that might be incorrectly labeled “light jazz”: that pianist Diana Krall and her crack band appear throughout seconds that notion.

But McCartney isn’t merely playing it safe: he’s in exemplary voice, whether in the opening “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” (which gives the album its cheeky title), the daringly languid “Bye Bye Blackbird” or the straightforward “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.” Paul’s own contributions--”My Valentine” (with Eric Clapton on guitar) and the closing “Only Our Hearts” (with Stevie Wonder on harmonica)--are of such a piece with the rest that I had to check the liner notes to see which are the originals.

Paul has always had a soft spot for this kind of old-fashioned music, from the Beatles‘ “Your Mother Should Know” and “Honey Pie” to Wings’ “You Gave Me the Answer” and “Baby’s Request,” so it was inevitable he’d make an album of this material. If he was simply coasting like Rod Stewart, I’d be worried; but he’s so natural, unaffected and convincing that it’s just Paul being Paul. Now on to that real rock album he’s promising.

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