Saturday, March 10, 2012

March '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Disclosure and Striptease
Back in the mid 90s, Demi Moore tried to resuscitate a moribund career by starring in Andrew Bergman’s Showgirls-like disaster, Striptease (1996), in which a sullen Moore sleepwalks through a risible melodrama about a single mom turned stripper. Moore fares better in 1994’s Disclosure, Barry Levinson’s crackling adaptation of Michael Crichton’s hot-button bestseller about reverse sexual harassment, which co-stars Michael Douglas. Both movies look quite good on Blu-ray.

Elite Squad
From the maker of Bus 174 comes an equally taut cop drama which dismantles the notion that kid gloves are the best way to deal with Brazil’s rampant crime wave. Director Jose Padilha dives into the muck of police corruption and political inefficiency with vividly shot and edited action sequences that showcase an unraveling society that makes ours look spotless. The Blu-ray looks spectacularly sharp; the lone extra is an hour-long making-of featurette.

Tarsam Singh Dhandwar uses CGI to hide storytelling and character deficiencies in his unoriginal telling of ancient mythology, with fantastical episodes flying by so quickly that any initial excitement wears off and a pall takes over. Also, the movie is so dark that it’s hard to discern just what’s going on, which takes away the luminousness of his Phaedra (a gorgeous Frieda Pinto) and the chiseled warriors (played by Henry Cavill and Stephen Dorff, among others). At least there’s Mickey Rourke’s hamminess as King Hyperion for occasional laughs. The hi-def image looks slightly artificial thanks to so many special effects. Extras include a making-of, deleted scenes, alternate opening and ending.

Jack and Jill
I’m no Adam Sandler fan, so two Sandlers--a “normal” Adam and one in drag--is too much to take in this would-be comedy. Playing twin brother and sister, Sandler is unfunny and unappealing as ever. Even with cameos by Norm Macdonald, David Spade, Christie Brinkley, Dana Carvey, Shaquille O’Neal and Johnny Depp and with an always likeable Katie Holmes as his wife, its 90 minutes are nearly unendurable. The only reason to watch is Al Pacino’s over-the-top but amusing work as himself: his ranting on a cell phone onstage while playing Shakespeare is the best scene by far. The Blu-ray image is good; extras include featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes and bloopers.

This fast-moving, flimsy Spanish thriller stars Marko Zaror as a hired killer as good with the ladies as he is knocking guns out of enemies’ hands with fancy footwork. Despite the silliness, Zaror and Celine Reymond (as the beautiful daughter of his intended target) together have a frisky sex appeal that perks up a movie otherwise bent on endless routine showdowns between our antihero and the even badder guys. With an excellent Blu-ray transfer, the disc’s extras are making-of featurettes.

9-1/2 Weeks
Adrian Lyne’s 1986 study of a lonely art dealer degrading herself in a sexual relationship with a walled-off Wall Street broker isn’t nearly as naked psychologically as it is physically. Lyne’s gauzy, Vaseline-lensed style doesn’t lend itself to gritty filmmaking, but thanks to Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke’s immersion in their characters and down-and-dirty, mid-80s Manhattan, the movie succeeds at showing the depths of sexual depravity. The image--with the perfect amount of grain--is very film-like.

If you like Stone Cold Steve Austin, be warned that not only has he dropped the first half of his moniker, but he proves that his acting is also “stone cold.” Although he’s amazingly stiff as a bounty hunter against an array of sleazy bad guys, the relentless action and colorful support by Danny Trejo as his wife and child’s killer and the bright, sexy Serinda Shaw as the woman he protects. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include a making-of featurette, interviews and deleted scenes.

Scarlet Street
(Kino Classics)
One of his best American films, Fritz Lang’s 1945 character study stars the always reliable Edward G. Robinson as a company cashier embroiled in a dead-end love affair with a streetwalker (Joan Bennett at her alluring best). Lang creates an unnerving atmosphere of undeniable dread and uncontrollable destiny on stage bound Manhattan streets. The movie, despite the flickers of age in the print, has an immediacy and vibrancy on Blu-ray; extras are commentary and photo gallery.

DVDs of the Week
Above Suspicion
This commanding British TV series combines the talents of writer Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect), director Gilles MacKinnon and outstanding acting by Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly, who comes into her own as the novice detective who learns on the job. The tension between Hinds and Reilly isn’t exclusively sexual, but their plausibly fraught relationship compels us to keep watching as the cases they’re working on become gorier and stranger. MacKinnon’s sharp direction holds the stories together as his actors create nuanced characters. Extras include on-set footage and interviews.

London River
(Cinema Libre)
This touching and intimate study of two parents desperately trying to uncover information about their missing children after the 2005 London bombings is distinguished by director Rachid Bouchareb’s refusal to sentimentalize, even as the story--Guernsey mom and African dad slowly come to an understanding after piecing together that her daughter and his son were in love--settles for inflated melodrama. Great acting by Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyate contribute to making this modest soap opera a must-watch.

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
At its Nuremberg “home,” Wagner’s lone comic opera--all 4-1/2 hours of it--gets a spacious staging by director D. Mouchtar-Samorai and an excellent musical performance by orchestra and chorus under the baton of Marcus Bosch. In such a lengthy opera, stamina is all--it always is in Wagner--and the leads give it their best, despite the occasional vocal hiccup: Albert Pesendorfer (Hans Sachs), Jochen Kupfer (Beckmesser), Michael Putsch (Walther) and Michaela Maria Mayer (Eva) are superb singers all.

The Myth of the American Sleepover
(MPI/Sundance Selects)
David Robert Mitchell’s sometimes incisive glimpse at American teenagers, circa the 1970s, deals with a group of school kids dealing with one another on the last night before the school year begins. It’s too bad Mitchell’s script starts to meander after awhile; the early, funny yet melancholy and intimate scenes succumb to wishful thinking by the end. Still, it’s well-acted by a cast of mostly unknown young performers, and so worth seeing.

Octubre and The Sky Turns
(New Yorker Video)
These distinctive films give a good impression of what revamped New Yorker Films has to offer. Peruvian directors Daniel and Diego Vega’s Octubre is a quietly droll character study with shades of Bresson and Jarmusch in its deadpan style; in The Sky Turns, Mercedes Alvarez eloquently records her impressions of the Spanish region she returns to after 35 years away, and finds her small village literally disappearing: only 14 people remain. Both films look striking in their transfers; bonuses include earlier short films (on both discs) and an interview with Daniel Vega (Octubre).

CDs of the Week
Penderecki: Sinfoniettas

Polish master Krzysztof Penderecki, now age 78, has been through several stylistic changes in a lengthy career; this disc concentrates on his string music spanning 35 years, from 1963’s baroque-influenced Three Pieces in Old Style to the modernist intensity of 1997’s Serenade. In between, Sinfoniettas 1 & 2 (1992, 1994) are captivating orchestrations of chamber works, while the Capriccio for Oboe has a lightheartedness atypical of the usually overwrought composer. Antoni Wit conducts the fine Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, and soloists Artur Pachlewski (clarinet) and Jean-Louis Capezzali (oboe) shine in the spotlight.

Rautavaara: Cello and Percussion Concertos

The greatest living composer (he’s 83) is a vital Finnish modernist, and this disc premieres two recent compositions and a revised early work. The moody, introspective but vibrant Cello Concerto No. 2 has a perfect advocate in soloist Truls Mork; the propulsive Percussion Concerto, titled Incantations, is played by another Rautavaara advocate, soloist Colin Currie. 1957’s Modificata, with an opening movement added in 2003, bridges his early 12-tone work and his later, staunchly post-romantic style. Conductor John Storgards ably leads the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

Zwicker: Death and the Maiden
(Musiques Suisses)

Obscure Swiss composer Alfons Karl Zwicker wrote this opera based on Ariel Dorfman’s play--and subsequent Roman Polanski movie--about an Argentine woman revisiting her earlier torture when the man who was behind it shows up on her and her husband’s doorstep. Cleverly interpolating Schubert’s famous string quartet into his aggressively dissonant score, Zwicker never stoops to sentimentality but fails to find the drama underlying the material. The cast of three and choir perform exceptionally well.

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