Monday, March 26, 2012

March '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
B-52s with the Wild Crowd
(Eagle Rock)
The biggest band from Athens, Georgia, pre-REM, reunited last year for this raucous 90-minute 34th anniversary hometown concert. With performances of its biggest hits and most durable songs--like “Roam,” “Love Shack” and of course “Private Idaho” and “Rock Lobster”--the quartet, which comprises Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland, shows it’s still in peak form. The HD cameras and audio are excellent; a lengthy interview with the band is the lone extra.

A Lonely Place to Die
This ludicrous horror film has a premise in questionable taste--hikers find a scared little girl and are picked off one by one by snipers paid to kidnap her--and simply sets up the innocent victims as ducks in a shooting gallery without attempting to garner any legitimate suspense from their plight. It’s well-made, and has razor-sharp editing, but your mileage may vary on how much gratuitous violence can make you enjoy it. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray.

Lost Keaton
While nowhere near the sustained level of hilarity of his early silent shorts and classic features, the 16 Buster Keaton shorts collected on these two discs from the sound era (mid-1930s) have their moments, notably when Buster’s physical comedy genius is allowed to run riot, i.e., during disc one’s opener, The Gold Ghost. Keaton is on less firm ground with dialogue and interacting with the other stiff performers. But when he’s on--infrequently as he is here--he’s still unbeatable. The hi-def transfer enhances these beat-up prints, but at least they’re watchable.

The Muppets
Jason Segal is not my idea of a leading man or talented scriptwriter--so his fingerprints all over the new Muppets movie is cause for concern. The plot and jokes are so simplistic that one yearns for the lamest episodes of The Muppet Show, and if the humans other than Segal and a too-perky Amy Adams--there are appearances by Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones and Jack Black, and, if you don’t blink, James Carville and Dave Grohl, among others--make the most of the silliness, the Muppets themselves are rarely amusing, for once. It all looks good on Blu-ray; extras are featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary.

Director Michael Cuesta explores the lives of people on society’s fringes again in this familiar drama in which Jimmy--long-time Blue Oyster Cult employee--returns to Queens and pretends to be a successful songwriter and producer. A delicious Jill Hennessey is an old flame building her own music career and Bobby Cannavale paints a warm, funny portrait of a loser with dreams of grandeur, but Ron Eldard is a wanly unconvincing Jimmy, preventing the movie from reaching its modest aims. The image is very good; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Sitter
If you thought American comedies couldn’t become cruder or more infantile than The Hangover or Bridesmaids, this will prove you wrong. Watching Jonah Hill in anything (even Moneyball) is not my idea of a good time, and watching his one-note persona alongside a trio of irritating kids he’s babysitting--which of course goes horribly, unfunnily awry--is the least fun imaginable. Why charming actresses like Ari Graynor and Kylie Bunbury got mixed up in this mess is depressing. The Blu-ray looks decent enough; the usual extras comprise deleted scenes, alternate ending, featurettes and a gag reel.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John Le Carre’s methodical Cold War spy thriller was brilliantly adapted for British TV in 1979 with Alec Guinness as a peerless George Smiley, which had the luxury of leisurely lingering over the convoluted plot and relationships. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation has much to recommend it--great locales, superlative acting by Gary Oldman (Smiley), Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Colin Firth, et al, in subordinate roles--but tailoring Tailor to two hours is both too much and far too little. The Blu-ray image is superior; extras include cast/director interviews and an Oldman/Alfredson commentary.

The War Room
D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ impressive fly-on-the-wall documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign both opened eyes to down-and-dirty American politics and made stars of Clinton’s campaign managers, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, polar opposites visually and temperamentally. The original 16mm footage looks sharper in its upgrade to hi-def; the Criterion Collection’s typically packed Blu-ray edition includes new interviews with several principals and 2008’s retrospective, Return of the War Room.

DVDs of the Week
In the Garden of Sounds, Little Girl, Monsenor
(First Run)
This trio of typically intriguing First Run titles is led by In the Garden of Sounds, Nicola Bellucci’s fascinating documentary about a man who lost his sight to an hereditary disease and who gives “sound therapy” to disabled children. Little Girl, from directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, unsentimentally shows a group of hard-scrabble circus people who must care for an abandoned baby; and the clear-eyed Monsenor is a hard-hitting documentary about the life and violent death of Oscar Romero, the heroic archbishop who was murdered trying to help the less fortunate in El Salvador in 1980.

Mister Rogers and Me
Cristofer Wagner’s personal documentary presents his own story about Fred Rogers, one of the most popular--and easily satirized--television personalities in the medium’s history. This engaging portrait earnestly shows how Rogers’ self-effacing and honest approach not only benefited millions of children (and their parents) for decades, but was exactly how the man lived his life off-camera as well. Extras include a commentary, Q&A, interviews.

Moses and Aaron
(New Yorker)
Arnold Schoenberg’s lone opera--intense (but problematic) musically--is dramatically stiff, so the decision of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet to keep their 1975 film visually static is a smart one. The actors’ lip-synching doesn’t mesh with their arch performances, but strangely, that disconnect contextualizes a problematic 20th century opera telling an ancient story. It’s not an enervating experience, but it is an audacious one. The lone extra is the directors’ minimalist adaptation of Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene.

The grit and grime of London’s inner city are the stars of this 1978 British TV mini-series, which stars an impressive Tom Bell as a jailbird who returns to his old stomping grounds after eight years up the river and finds it both the same and irrevocably changed. Skillfully written by Trevor Preston and directed by Jim Goddard, this five-hour drama memorably evokes the seediness of criminals without romanticizing them, and features a stunning turn by Brian Cox as a deadly mob boss. Extras include audio commentaries.

Director Gustavo Taretto’s romantic comedy is too clever by half: by bypassing his charismatic stars--Javier Drolas and the Pilar Lopez de Ayala--for amusingly droll but cloying segments, Taretto overwhelms the humanity at the heart of his machinery. But thanks to his two stars--especially Ayala, a spectacular and little-seen actress who, in a just world, would be more popular than Penelope Cruz--the movie is watchable, even if it skimps on depth or insight.

Snow White: A Deadly Summer
This tame, PG-13 thriller dangles its tantalizing premise--troubled teen may or may not be targeted by her evil stepmother--in front of viewers but offers little payoff aside from a twist ending. The actors can’t do much with a well-worn storyline, and Shanley Caswell, in the lead role, isn’t allowed to do much more than look cute. Teenagers--the obvious audience for this--will also be unimpressed with a routine, mostly unscary horror film. The lone extra is an audio commentary.

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