Sunday, February 19, 2012

February '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
America in Primetime
This informative four-part PBS series comprises episodes that deal with archetypal characters that have been part and parcel of television sitcoms and dramas since the beginning: Man of the House, The Independent Woman, The Misfit and The Crusader. Alongside classic clips from seminal shows like The Honeymooners and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to more recent specimens of supposed TV ingenuity like The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, this thorough series includes interviews with show creators like Tom Fontana, Diane English, Norman Lear and Carl Reiner to the stars like Edie Falco, Julianna Margulies, Larry David and Felicity Huffman. The hi-def image, consisting of new interviews and vintage footage, is quite good; no extras.

The Dead
(Anchor Bay)
This zombie movie distinguishes itself by setting an apocalyptic story in a new place: equatorial Africa, where the hot sun, endless deserts and dangerous landscapes are as difficult to navigate as the hordes of the undead. The Ford Brothers, who wrote and directed, inventively place new obstacles in front of their targeted human protagonists, including a pulse-pounding pair of finales set among craggy rocks and inside the humans’ last resort of survival. The extremes of sun and nighttime are beautifully accentuated on Blu-ray; extras include a deleted scenes and making-of featurette.

Human Centipede II: Full Sequence
(IFC Midnight)
Beware, for auteur Tom Six returns with an even grosser gross-out about a copy-cat sicko that makes the original seem like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We must thank the inept and turgid Six for shooting II in black and white, a simple act of human mercy that prevents it from being the most repellent movie ever made. As it stands, II is an unnecessary horror/gore contraption, even for the undiscriminating teens who groove on its ilk. The Blu-ray image is, unfortunately, excellent; extras include Six’s commentary and interview, deleted scenes and making-of featurette.

The Interrupters
A year in the life of gang violence-ridden Chicago is chronicled in Steve James’ principled and idealistic documentary, which follows people who join forces in a concerted effort to rid the city of gang-related violence and present more positive values as an alternative to such a fatalistic mind-set. There are shocking moments of real-life killing, but these are justified by the context of showing what these good--but not sainted!--individuals are up against. The Blu-ray image is good; extras include an hour of deleted scenes and featurette on the musical score.

Nude Nuns with Big Guns
With a fantastic title like this, who cares if the movie’s a botch? And that’s pretty much what we get here, as the provocative--but misleading--title (there’s a lone nude nun) masks a series of dull set pieces that combine sexual exploitation and extreme violence to no discernible end. At the beginning, the eye-filling rape scenes are unexpected, but soon a pall spreads over the proceedings, as the filmmakers have obviously run out of meager ideas and resort to the kitchen sink. There’s a certain visual panache in hi-def; the original four-minute short of the same name (the lone extra) has it all over the movie.

Three Outlaw Samurai
Hideo Gosha’s samurai spectacular, which quickly builds to a fantastic climax, is 93 minutes of purely economical plotting and characterization alongside superbly paced and choreographed sword fighting. Even though he is no Kurosawa or Kobayashi, Gosha is a superior craftsman whose sense of visual proportion (and B&W camerawork) is often dazzling. The Criterion Collection, which presents this as one of its barebones titles--there are no supplements--gets the hi-def transfer right, as always.

Tiny Furniture
One of the most polarizing of all of the Criterion Collection titles is this bland, shallow and unfunny “comic” portrait of a college graduate drifting through life with an unspoken sense of upper-class entitlement, who returns home to live with her mom and teen sister. Lena Dunham, who wrote, directed and stars, has little talent for writing, directing or acting; the few decent one-liners are swallowed up by her derivative mocking of and affection for entitled 20-somethings. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is fine; extras include a Dunham interview with Nora Ephron and Paul Schrader appreciation (talk about gilding by association), four Dunham shorts and her first feature, Creative Nonfiction.

DVDs of the Week
The Debt
The original 2007 Israeli thriller is more tense and gripping than the 2011 remake--a solid action flick with Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain--helped by a tighter, tauter pace. In a fleet 97 minutes, parallel storylines are kept spinning, action percolate and moral dilemmas unwind. It doesn’t hurt Assaf Bernstein’s film that authentic Germans and Israelis speak their own languages, and an accomplished cast’s anonymity greatly contributes to its plausibility. An intriguing 24-minute making-of featurette is the lone extra.

(Cinema Libre)
Woody Harrelson narrates Pete McGrain’s diffuse documentary about making meaningful--and positive--change in a corrupt society led by government machinery that’s complicit in letting the one percent rule us economically. Interview snippets include the usual suspects from Noam Chomsky to Howard Zinn; if the finished product is less than the sum of its “make a difference” parts, moments of true insight about how the process has been ruined are numerous. Too bad those who would benefit from watching this--namely, the titans in industry and their enablers in Washington--won’t bother.

Far from the Madding Crowd
This 1998 British television adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic romantic novel isn’t as visually memorable as John Schlesinger’s 1967 film, since it lacks both Nicolas Roeg’s splendid cinematography and Julie Christie’s unique beauty. Still, at 3-½ hours, Nicholas Renton’s version is far more faithful to Hardy’s story of a woman who chooses wrongly among a trio of men, and has a solid cast: Paloma Baeza as Bathsheba and Nathaniel Parker, Nigel Terry and Jonathan Firth as the men in her life.

Take Shelter
Although Michael Shannon received deserved accolades for his forceful performance as a man who feels that his world is literally crumbling around him, Jessica Chastain, in an affecting portrayal of his sad and confused wife, is the emotional anchor of Jeff Nichols’ incisive character study. Although the movie crumbles at the end by literalizing the metaphorical horror, it remains the rare American movie that handles an adult subject with, for the most part, maturity and tact. Extras include Nichols and Shannon’s commentary, interviews, making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

CDs of the Week
Danielle De Niese, Beauty of the Baroque
The Australian-by-way-of-New Jersey soprano scintillatingly sings a set of baroque arias ranging from John Dowland and Monteverdi to Bach and Handel. Throughout, De Niese sings with dramatic purpose and a beguiling clarity: Henry Purcell’s mournful Dido’s Lament has rarely been sung with such emotional directness. There are a few cameo appearances by countertenor Andreas Scholl, while conductor Harry Bicket and the musicians of The English Concert are the accompanying calm to De Niese’s vocal storm.

Nicola Benedetti, Italia!
It’s no surprise Nicola Benedetti decided to record Italian baroque pieces since so many of them (Vivaldi, Tartini) are already violin showstoppers. She utilizes her formidable technique to bow brilliantly through show-off showcases like Tartini’s Devil’s Trill and Vivaldi’s Summer section from The Four Seasons. Now that she’s gotten it out of her immensely talented system, let’s hope she performs 20th century Italian works that need advocacy like those by Respighi, Casella and Rota. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Christian Curnyn are up to the task of following Benedetti’s shimmering lead.

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