Sunday, February 26, 2012

February '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Anatomy of a Murder
Otto Preminger’s methodical adaptation of Robert Traver’s novel raised hackles in 1959 due to its racy subject matter: despite talkiness and visual monotony, estimable actors like Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, Ben Gazarra and Lee Remick (an underrated actress and sex symbol) make the movie a gripping drama. The Criterion Collection again outdoes itself with a superb hi-def transfer of exacting clarity; terrific extras include new interviews, on-set footage, Firing Line excerpts with Preminger and William F. Buckley, behind the scenes photographs, and still-unfinished making-of, Anatomy of ‘Anatomy.’

Blank City
(Kino Lorber)
Celine Dahnier’s exhilarating chronicle of the “No Wave” New York film scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s not only interviews virtually everyone of consequence from that time--directors Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe and performers Lydia Lunch, Ann Magnuson and Deborah Harry, for starters--but is also a valuable time capsule of an artistically freewheeling era. The exceedingly grainy footage is greatly enhanced on Blu-ray; extras include a Dahnier interview, deleted and extended scenes and interview outtakes.

5 Star Day
(Breaking Glass)
Writer-director Danny Buday’s clever idea--a skeptic (played by Cam Gigandet) discovers the wonders of the horoscope--could have been a decent short, but here it’s stretched to an interminable 95 minutes. The protagonist meets people born on the same date and at the same place as he, in order to understand fate: the story grows stale, even with attractive support by Jena Malone and Brooklyn Sudano. The Blu-ray image is quite good; extras include a Buday short and commentary, making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood’s sepia-toned biopic, from Dustin Lance Black’s uneven script, is dominated by Leonardo DiCaprio’s fiercely committed performance as the man who built the FBI into what it is today over a span of a half-century. DiCaprio’s remarkably full account of Hoover the man and myth overshadows Eastwood and Black, who sweat the minor details and lose panoramic focus. Still, this unconventionally conventional biography has muted visuals--by cinematographer Tom Stern--that look superb on Blu-ray. Too bad the lone extra is a brief making-of featurette.

London Boulevard
This gritty actioner might not win awards like writer-director William Manaham’s last major project, The Departed, for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar--but his thugs’ machinations are shown with an eye toward authenticity, not condescension. The cast, including Colin Farrell, Ray Winstone and Ben Chaplin to Keira Knightley and Anna Friel, is top-notch; London locations are splendidly utilized. The movie looks especially exciting on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Son of No One
(Anchor Bay)
Dito Montiel’s twisty cop film, set on authentic Queens and Staten Island locations, has a story--cover-ups and rogue cops--that’s too familiar to solidly score. There’s a good cast: Channing Tatum as the righteous cop, Katie Holmes as his wife, Al Pacino and Ray Liotta as corrupt head officers, Juliette Binoche as a muckraking reporter and Tracy Morgan in a rare dramatic role. But it all feels underwhelmingly slight. Perhaps some deleted scenes could have been edited back in to pad the 93-minute running time. The movie looks sharp on Blu-ray; there’s a commentary by Montiel and his editor.

A Star Is Born
(Kino Classics)
The original--and in many ways--best version of the classic “she’s on the way up and he’s on the way down” tale, William A. Wellman’s 1937 romance features Janet Gaynor and Frederic March as star-crossed lovers. Although supremely melodramatic, it at least avoids the 1951 remake’s bombast and the megalomania of Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version. This early example of Technicolor has a solid hi-def transfer that shows the limitations of available elements; the lone extra is a brief costume test.

DVDs of the Week
American Teacher
and Pianomania
(First Run)
American Teacher, narrated by Matt Damon, documents the difficulties for today’s teachers who put together lesson plans, balance home lives and do what’s right for kids in the classroom while under enormous pressure; facts and figures of the state of education in America prop up this intimate look at dedicated professionals. The documentary Pianomania introduces Stefan Knupfer, master tuner for Steinway pianos in Vienna, who deals with world-class musicians’ quirks as he ensures tip-top tuning and playing quality of these enormous instruments. Teacher extras include additional interviews.

The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela and
Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle
The remarkable journey of Nelson Mandela--from outlaw to prisoner to president of South Africa--is chronicled in these two superb PBS documentaries. Long Walk is a riveting portrait from his days as a radical to his arrival as elder statesman, including interviews with friends and enemies of various stripes. Reconciliation shows the pivotal moments leading to the beginning of a peaceful and fair democracy in South Africa. Both films are perfect commemorations of Black History Month.

Slavery by Another Name
Sam Pollard’s engrossing documentary, based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s groundbreaking book of the same name, gives voice to post-American Civil War blacks sentenced to involuntary servitude for (usually trumped-up) charges well into the 20th century. Narrated by Laurence Fishburne and featuring scholars, historians and descendants of many people--white and black--who were involved in this intolerable practice after slavery supposedly ended, the film is a necessary reminder of our not always sterling history. Extras include a Blackmon interview and making-of featurette.

The Woman with the 5 Elephants
(Cinema Guild)
This documentary about an 85-year-old Ukrainian woman--the most important contemporary translator of Russian literature--is riveting, thanks to director Vadim Jendreyko’s empathy and intelligence. The pachyderms making up the film’s title are five of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novels, difficult works dominating Svetlana Geier’s life for the past 20 years. Jendreyko subtly transforms his documentary from an engaging look at an indomitable spirit plying her trade into an illuminating treatment of a life deeply affected by sadness and tragedy. Extras include deleted scenes and a short film, Portrait.

Woody Allen: A Documentary
Robert Weide’s three-hour documentary about America’s greatest comic writer/director holds no surprises or revelations for anyone who’s followed Woody’s career since he began stand up in the ‘60s. Despite its familiarity, there’s plenty to enjoy, from classic clips to interviews with co-stars, collaborators and family members and discussions with the notoriously camera-shy Allen, who reminisces about his life and career. Bonus features include more interviews, a director Weide interview and 12 questions for Woody.

CDs of the Week
Granados, Goyescas
(Hyperion and Mirare)
Enrique Granados’ piano masterpiece Goyescas, from 1911--an amazingly picturesque tribute to the ultimate Spanish artist, Francisco Goya--appears on new discs in equally compelling performances by Garrick Ohlsson (on Hyperion) and Luis Fernando Perez (on Mirare). Perez--who also plays the Intermezzo from Granados’ opera about Goya (also called Goyescas) as part of the cycle--takes a slower tempo on most movements than Ohlsson, but both pianists convey the shining artistry of painter and composer. Ohlsson also performs two short Granados works, while Perez tackles the dreamy Valses Poeticos.

Rota, Cello Concertos
Known for his Fellini scores and music from The Godfather, Nino Rota was also a prolific orchestral composer: his two cello concertos show a mastery of form and memorable melodies, along with an admirable balance of solo instruments and orchestral players. Cellist Friedrich Kjleinhapl, who takes the solo part, alternates between intensity and levity; Dirk Kaftan ably conducts the Augsburg Philharmonic Orchestra, which also performs Rota’s beguiling orchestral suite, Ballabili.

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