Saturday, March 17, 2012

March '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Descendants
Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth, Sideways) makes movies that aren’t as substantial as he thinks. The Descendants is no different: a superbly befuddled George Clooney plays a Honolulu lawyer who discovers--once she’s in a coma--that his wife cheated on him, so he gathers his two daughters to track down her lover. What begins as a nicely observed adult comedy about dealing with everyday disasters switches gears, and spins its wheels, once the race is on to find the adulterer. Payne builds to a satisfyingly melancholic ending, but too often finds easy, sitcom laughs a la James Brooks. The Blu-ray has a first-rate image; extras are featurettes on casting, Hawaiian locations, the real family behind the story, music videos and conversation between director and star.

Killer’s Moon and Virgin Witch
(Redemption/Kino Lorber)
This pair is the latest in Redemption Films’ attempt to redeem schlocky guilty pleasures. Alan Birkinshaw’s Killer’s Moon (1978) follows mental patients gleefully killing off teenage girls and their strait-laced chaperones; Ray Austin’s 1972 Virgin Witch follows innocent wannabe models discovering the agency is a front for a murderous witches’ coven. They’re both as silly as they sound, but with plentiful gore and nudity, there’s definitely a built-in--and unfinicky--audience. The movies retain blemishes on hi-def but look good enough; Moon extras include director and star interviews.

The Last Temptation of Christ
Martin Scorsese’s deeply personal adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel was labeled anti-Christian to those who obviously never saw it; watching it in the Criterion Collection’s glorious hi-def version is a treat. Shot on authentic Holy Land locations and propelled by Peter Gabriel’s otherworldly score, the film even overcomes some questionable casting with tremendously committed performances by Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Harvey Keitel (Judas) and Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene). Michael Ballahus’ cinematography shines on Blu-ray; extras include a Paul Schrader/ Dafoe/Jay Cocks commentary, Gabriel interview and Scorsese-shot location footage.

Ham-fisted and relentlessly clumsy--narratively, psychologically and metaphorically--Lars von Trier’s latest provocation begins with a ponderous wedding sequence that plays like a slack-eyed parody of The Deer Hunter, and his leaden dramatics are on display for a mind-boggling 135 minutes. Kirsten Dunst is fatally hamstrung by her character’s essential shallowness: this depressive’s troubles are small potatoes compared to the title planet (who named it?) moving toward earth. Trier even repeats trite effects: Antichrist’s slo-mo Handel opening returns, as Armageddon is here scored to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. On Blu-ray, Trier’s clever imagery gets its digital due; extras are four featurettes.

My Week with Marilyn
(Anchor Bay)
Michelle Williams’ gently affecting portrayal of Marilyn Monroe dominates Simon Curtis’ incredibly thin biopic that does little with a great subject: the battle royale between Marilyn and Lord Olivier on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. Despite Kenneth Branagh’s excellent Olivier impersonation, the movie never livens up, with bland scenes between Williams and Eddie Redmayne as the lowly assistant whom MM gloms onto (at least according to his memoir) mere filler. The movie looks strong on Blu-ray; extras include a Curtis commentary and making-of featurette.

This lengthy (three hours!) Peter Pan prequel does Spielberg’s Hook one better by actually fleshing out characters and leaving the big-names to Keira Knightley’s voice (as Tinkerbell). Despite occasional dawdling and repetition, Neverland scores in the person of Anna Friel, a delightfully frisky, criminally underused actress who steals scenes as a pirate any man would love to be the enemy of. The rest of the cast and effects are fine, but some story streamlining would have helped. No qualms about the Blu-ray image, which is fantastic; the extras comprise commentary, cast interviews and special effects featurette.

The Search for One-Eyed Jimmy
(Kino Lorber)
This 1993 Brooklyn-shot indie by Sam Henry Kass (remember him? I didn’t think so) has the dubious distinction of casting future stars of film, stage and screen--Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi (and Jennifer Beals and Ann Meara for good measure)--and letting them flounder with an unfunny script and non-story that would bore any shaggy dog. The movie looks decent in its leap to hi-def; no extras.

The Three Musketeers
In this lukewarm swashbuckler, Paul W.S. Anderson puts a middling cast (Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovavich, Logan Lerman, Luke Evans) through its paces, but never approaches the grand fun and swordplay heroics of earlier adaptors Richard Lester and Bertrand Tavernier. The movie looks gorgeous--Anderson’s refusal to use more green screen than in-camera effects is refreshing for an action director today--especially on Blu-ray. Extras include filmmakers’ commentary, deleted scenes with commentary and scene-specific featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Bellissima and La terra trema
(e one)
Before such luscious, opulent spectaculars as The Leopard and The Innocent, Italian director Luciano Visconti made small, neo-realist pictures, and two of his classics return, superbly restored. 19428’s magnificent Trema was shot on Sicilian locations with non-professional actors, while 1951’s Bellissima stars Anna Magnani as the most overbearing stage mother ever; here Visconti uses neo-realist techniques to great effect, not least in the unaffected acting of young Tina Apicella. Would that those annoying yellow subtitles didn’t detract from the near-pristine black and white pictures.

House of Pleasures
Bertrand Bonello’s unerotic turn-of-the-century character study about prostitutes in a high-class Parisian brothel is more successful at relationships than sex, even if dividing screen time among several women robs them of their individuality, despite their compelling stories, like one whose mouth has ghastly scars from a crazed john and a teen whose “career” is off to a rocky start. Costumes, sets and lighting are exquisite, but Bonello--as in his other films--takes a good idea then does little with it. Extras include casting and making-of featurettes.

In Their Own Words
These fascinating, informative BBC documentaries do more than save the words and voices of the 20th century’s prominent writers and intellectuals: they intelligently and learnedly place them in context so one can appreciate their achievements in art, science, politics and economics. The first program features seven decades of British writers from Virginia Woolf to Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie; the second chronicles thinkers from Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead to cultural attaches from the BBC and others.

My Joy
(Kino Lorber)
Sergei Loznitsa’s astonishing debut feature makes little narrative sense: if you don’t pair the first half’s clean-shaven truck driver with the bearded man of the second, you’ll be lost during a corrosive series of unsettling vignettes showing the anarchic society that Putin’s Russia has become. But Loznitsa is in total command of the frame: rarely has widescreen seemed so terrifying, especially the breathtaking final shot on a snow-bound road in near-total darkness. Too bad there are burnt-in subtitles, no extras and no Blu-ray.

Savage Sisters, Sinful Davey, Timbuktu
Three decades are represented in this latest trio from MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, on DVD-Rs instead of official DVDs. There’s Jacques Tourneur’s vaguely ludicrous sand epic, 1958’s Timbuktu, starring Victor Mature and Yvonne DeCarlo in a romantic adventure set in the French colony in 1940. John Huston’s 1969 Sinful Davey, a Tom Jones retread, is as forced and hollow as the earlier film was witty and relaxed; John Hurt’s performance as the title rogue is wasted. And 1974’s Savage Sisters is a weak attempt at a T&A epic set in an unnamed jungle nation, as three buxom heroines get caught up in a disastrous coup attempt. The films look decent on DVD, at least; no extras.

CDs of the Week
Marlis Petersen: Goethe Lieder
(Harmonia Mundi)
German soprano Marlis Petersen--whose torrid Lulu at the Met a few years back introduced her New York audiences in a big way--sings a well-programmed recital of songs by 16 composers on texts by Goethe about the “eternal feminine.” With excellent pianist Jendrik Springer along for her adventurous ride, Petersen begins with Ernst Krenek’s epic “Stella’s Monologue” and performs 18 more songs, from Schumann, Wagner and Liszt to rarities by Walter Braunfels and a new work by Manfred Trojahn, all in a crystalline voice conveying the varied moods of Goethe’s unreachable, ideal females.

Massenet: Don Quichotte
Jules Massenet’s grand opera, loosely based on Cervantes’ classic novel, has the requisite rousing choral numbers and vivid orchestral passages that give a sense of the mock-grandeur of literature’s most absurdly heroic buffoon. But intimate scenes between Don and sidekick Sancho Panza or Dulcinea, the woman of his dreams, lack comic and romantic fire. At least that’s what we get in this workmanlike 2011 Mariinsky Theater performance--the indefatigable Valery Gergiev leads orchestra, chorus and his academy’s young singers in a dutiful, occasionally inspired interpretation of a twilight work from the French composer.

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