Saturday, March 31, 2012

March '12 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Corman’s World
(Anchor Bay)
Alex Stapleton’s engaging documentary about the “King of the B Movies,” producer-director extraordinaire Roger Corman, is as straightforward and unpretentious as its subject, who made trashy fun like The Little Shop of Horrors, The Trip and Jackson County Jail. Most remarkable about this affectionate paean is how beloved Corman is, as heartfelt reminiscences from Ron Howard and Joe Dante to Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson (at one point he breaks down, overcome by emotion) show. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray, even if the older film clips show their age; extras include extended interviews and “special messages” to Roger.

David Lean Directs Noel Coward
This quartet of classics, combining the talents of renaissance man Coward and director Lean, are masterpieces in miniature that predate the gargantuan epics Lean is known for. In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944) are world-class melodramas, Blithe Spirit (1945) a charming ghostly fantasy and Brief Encounter (1945) the ultimate tragic romance. The films received British Film Institute restorations for Lean’s centenary and look sparkling; the Criterion Collection’s voluminous extras include a 1971 British TV Lean documentary, short making-of docs, interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day and a 1969 discussion between Coward and Richard Attenborough.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer’s dizzying, unconventional Sept. 11 novel becomes an occasionally touching but mainly annoying melodrama by director Stephen Daldry. Despite good acting by Thomas Horn as the young hero and Max von Sydow in a thankless role as a mute widower who helps the kid find what his dad--killed in the terrorist attacks--left him, the movie is cloying and obnoxious rather than affecting and offbeat. Daldry’s fairy-tale Manhattan is transferred to Blu-ray with its high gloss intact; extras include featurettes on the film’s making, Horn, von Sydow and tenth anniversary of Sept. 11.

In the Land of Blood and Honey
Rather than a vanity project, Angelina Jolie’s writing-directing debut is a tough, at times tentative drama set during the Bosnian war. Made from the female point of view, it’s unsurprising that the men are caricatures; Zana Marjanovic gives astonishing, emotionally and physically naked performance in Jolie’s insightful, psychologically penetrating portrait of people caught up in war’s horrors. The film looks vivid and focused in hi-def; one can watch in either the original Balkan languages or in English. The extras are deleted scenes, making-of featurette and Jolie and actress Vanesa Glodjo Q&A.

A Night to Remember
Roy Ward Baker’s modest but compelling account of the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage is far more satisfying than James Cameron’s overblown, inexplicably boring Oscar-dominating epic version of the same story. By keeping the tragedy on a human scale--something Cameron could never do even if he cared to--Baker has fashioned a memorable cinematic experience. The 1958 black-and-white drama looks stunningly film-like in its grain on Blu-ray; the Criterion Collection extras include the 2006 documentary The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic, short 1962 and 1993 documentaries, a survivor interview and an audio commentary by Titanic experts.

(Unitel Classica)
In Robert Carsen’s modern staging of Richard Wagner’s operatic fable, the subtext of suppressed sexuality--in the guises of sensual goddess Venus and virgin Elisabeth--is brought blatantly to the surface, subtlety be damned. Luckily, Carsen’s cast puts its all into the characters, which helps arrest lingering silliness: Peter Seiffert’s Tannhauser is persuasively pitched between Beatrice Uria-Monzon’s vivacious Venus and Petra Maria Schnitzer’s endearing Elisabeth. Carsen’s contemporary interpretation is visually striking on Blu-ray, and Wagner’s enveloping music explodes out of the speakers.

After pointed, political animation like Fritz the Cat, Ralph Bakshi made this strange, inert 1976 fantasy that seems, in retrospect, to be a run-through for his animated The Lord of the Rings two years later. Wizards might not have hobbits and wizards, but this post-apocalyptic adventure has the same sense of dread as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Bakshi’s unique style, combining traditional animation and drawn-over live-action footage, has a soft look on Blu-ray. Extras are Bakshi’s commentary and 30-minute career overview.

DVDs of the Week
Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage is a trite but rip-roaring entertainment about two civilized New York City couples who hash out their sons’ differences and end up at each other’s throats…like the kids. On Broadway, James Gandolfini, Marsha Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis made Reza’s comedy explode. That’s missing from Roman Polanski’s reenactment: Jodie Foster outclasses a miscast John C. Reilly, shrill Kate Winslet and weirdly out-of-place Christoph Waltz. By beginning with the boys, Polanski wrongly erases ambiguity; by moving his camera around shrewdly in tight spaces, he also reveals the material’s shallowness. Extras include cast interviews, Reilly/Waltz Q&A.

A Dangerous Method
At 99 minutes, David Cronenberg’s study of the professional relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud--based on Christopher Hampton’s talkily literate play--comes across as Psychoanalysis 101. Still, with terrific acting by Michael Fassbinder (Jung), an unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen (Freud) and a no-holds-barred Kiera Knightley (Jung’s patient-turned-lover Sabine), this is Cronenberg’s most entertaining movie in ages, even with moments (a close-up of post-sex blood on the sheets) where it’s obvious that one of cinema’s least subtle directors is at work. No matter: these people’s sexuality is on the surface anyway. Extras are Cronenberg’s commentary, interview and making-of featurette.

I, Claudius
Robert Graves’s classic novels about debauchery and ambition in ancient Rome became high-class television viewing in 1976, as a plethora of top British actors and actresses (Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Sian Phillips, John Hurt and Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Margaret Tyzack) sink their teeth into those leading Rome through its rise and fall. Director Herbert Wise smartly marshals this expressive epic through 11-plus hours, every minute riveting. Extras include extended episodes; I, Claudius: A Television Epic, a feature-length documentary; The Epic That Never Was, a vintage documentary about the failed 1937 film adaptation; a Jacobi interview; and stars and director’s favorite scenes.

Red Persimmons
This 2001 film--ostensibly about workers in a Japanese village who grow, pick, dry and peel the bright-colored title fruit but really about the dying out of traditional ways of life--was begun by director Shinsuke Ogawa and finished after his death by Peng Xizolian. The eye-opening footage, which looks seamless, is both invigorating and depressing, since its delicate imagery may be the last we see of such human invention. A bonus feature, A Visit to Ogawa Productions, is a 60-minute documentary of directors Ogawa and Nagisa Oshima discussing their careers and work together.

The Women on the 6th Floor
In this frivolous, far-fetched farce from director Philippe Le Guay, the always resourceful actor Fabrice Luchini makes us believe that a respectable middle-aged stockbroker would fall head over heels for his lovely young Spanish maid (the delectable Natalia Verbeke) under the not-so-watchful eye of his preoccupied wife (Sandrine Kiberlain). Though he is asked to do many foolish things that are both comic and melodramatic, Luchini never falters, making the movie far funnier (and even romantic) than it has any right to be.

CDs of the Week
Schnittke: 12 Penitential Pslams
(Hanssler Classic)
Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke wrote 12 Penitential Psalms for unaccompanied, mixed chorus for the 1000th anniversary of Russia’s Christianization in 1988. This exceptionally dense work showcases Schnittke’s genius for using simple means to create complex, otherworldly sound worlds. 1972’s four-minute Voices of Nature, which concludes the disc, is a mournful, minimalist ode; the Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble is in fine form throughout.

Weinberg: Complete Piano Works 1
(Grand Piano)
Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (who died in 1996) has been rediscovered recently, on CDs and even a DVD/Blu-ray of his mesmerizing opera The Passenger. His piano music, played persuasively by Allison Brewster Franzetti, runs the gamut from a Satie-esque Lullaby to the unabashedly dissonant Sonata No. 1. His second sonata has a Romantic-era feel, as do the early Two Mazurkas from 1933, while another Sonata--a 1978 revisiting of a 1951 piece--seamlessly blends his mid-period and later styles.

No comments: