Saturday, April 7, 2012

April '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Angels Crest
Strong performances distinguish Gaby Dellal’s relentlessly downbeat drama, based on Catherine Treischmann’s novel about the accidental death of a toddler thanks to his young father’s carelessness. But despite its cast (Lynn Collins as the boy’s distraught, alcoholic mother, Thomas Dekker as the unfortunate dad and Kate Walsh and Elizabeth McGovern as a pair of lovers), the movie can’t escape the melodramatic trappings. The stunning mountain landscapes--shot in the Canadian Rockies--are equally so on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes, an alternate ending (much stronger than what we ended up with), interviews with Dekker and Mira Sorvino, and a brief making-of.

Chasing Madoff
(Cohen Media Group)
When the hero of Jeff Prosserman’s documentary about the Bernie Madoff scandal, Harry Markopolos, discusses being worried that Madoff might come after him, there’s a palpable sense of fear. But Prosserman jazzes up his story of criminal behavior of historic proportions with unnecessarily silly reenactments like those seen on the History Channel. Still, this cautionary tale of government indifference and personal malfeasance (another symptom of the 2008 global economic collapse) is important viewing. The movie--mainly comprising talking-head interviews--looks decent on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes, alternate ending and filmmaker commentary.

Great Expectations
Charles Dickens’ beloved novel gets the Masterpiece treatment via the BBC and PBS: while his three-hour adaptation is sumptuous and more thorough than David Lean’s now-classic 1945 version (a mere two hours long), director Brian Kirk bogs down in sundry characters and plot threads, losing focus at crucial times. Gillian Anderson plays the immortal Miss Havisham to the hilt, but her fatal self-immolation scene--not in the novel--comes off as mere melodrama. No matter: on Blu-ray, the movie looks superb.

(Opus Arte)
The least of Giuseppe Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas--the masterly Otello and Falstaff came much later--is dramatically and musically middling, although the composer rises to the occasion for the weird sisters’ and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scenes. In Phyllida Lloyd’s sharp staging, Simon Keenlyside is a formidable Macbeth, and Liudmyla Monastyrska a stinging Lady Macbeth. Visually, Lloyd’s production has fine sets and costumes; under Antonio Pappano’s baton, the Royal Opera House orchestra and chorus sound flawless.

Madonna: Truth or Dare
In 1991, in another example of prizing commerce above artistry, Madonna and her acolyte director Alek Keshishian made this self-serving documentary about the pop star backstage and onstage during her 1990 world tour. If you ever wanted to see the Material Girl curse like a sailor or mock then-boyfriend Warren Beatty (another opportunist if there ever was one, so they made the perfect cynical couple for a few months), here’s your chance. Much of the footage is intentionally grainy, so the Blu-ray transfer isn’t particularly eye-popping; no extras.

That 70s Show: Season One
(Mill Creek)
The first sitcom originally shown on TV in standard-definition and the boxy 4x3 aspect ratio to be released on Blu-ray in 16x9 widescreen is this funny but frivolous show with soon-to-be-stars Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace and Mila Kunis. It’s initially weird to watch it in widescreen, especially since what’s on the left and right of the screen is mostly empty space, but since it looks good in hi-def, who’s to complain? All 22 episodes are included; extras include short interviews and on-set clips.

War Horse
Steven Spielberg’s unabashedly sentimental drama literalizes the conceit that made the stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book a visceral rush: the wondrous puppets that became living, breathing horses onstage. Using real horses, no matter how gorgeous and stately, makes this a pretty pedestrian affair. That said, it’s directed, photographed (by Janusz Kaminski), edited (by Michael Kahn) and acted (by Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and Niels Arestrup, among others) to a tee: but can Spielberg stop using John Williams’ nauseatingly omnipresent music? On Blu-ray, the film looks fantastic; there are excellent on-set extras, including interviews with Spielberg and principal cast and crew.

We Bought a Zoo
Based on Benjamin Mee’s book about events in his own life, Cameron Crowe has made a cute little movie that too often stumbles into cutesiness for its own sake. That’s almost a given considering we’re dealing with children and animals, but even Crowe--who shows restraint at times, welcome at that--can’t resist rubbing our noses in the adorableness on display. Too bad, for Matt Damon is acting as if he’s in a serious character study about a man rebuilding his life and that of his kids after the death of his wife. The hi-def image is clear and cleanly delineated; lots of extras include a long, making-of featurette, on-set interviews, 37 minutes of deleted/extended scenes and other featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Jeff Healey Band Live in Belgium
(Eagle Rock North)
Canada’s Jeff Healey--who died too young at 41 from cancer in 2008--headlines a barnstorming performance of his band during its 1993 European tour. Healey--blind from age one due to a rare eye cancer--plays his instrument uniquely, almost like a slide guitar, and its personal stamp is heard on his radio hit “Angel Eyes” and excellent covers of “Roadhouse Blues” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” There’s also a CD included of the entire show.

At the start of actor Paddy Considine’s writing/directing debut, the hero kicks a dog to death: can we sympathize with this monster? Yes, since he’s played by the great Peter Mullan, owner of cinema’s craggiest, well-worn face. Never stooping to caricature, Mullan creates a credible portrait of a lonely man flailing out at a world that left him behind. The incremental steps he takes toward connecting with others allow us to, if not forgive him, at least understand his actions. Although Mullan is the chief reason to see the film, there’s estimable support by Olivia Colman as a woman who changes his life.

CD of the Week
Ute Lemper: Paris Days Berlin Nights
(Steinway & Sons)
In a welcome addition to her already impressive catalog, German chanteuse Ute Lemper returns to the Weimar years--between the end of WWI and the rise of Hitler--for a stirring collection of songs made famous by Edith Piaf, Kurt Weill, Hans Eisler and Astor Piazzolla. The acerbic Weill and Eisler songs set off the elegance of handful of French chansons, with the rollicking, masterly tangos of Piazzolla rounding out the slate. Lemper, in fine voice throughout, though not without unnecessary over-ornamentation, ends on a high note with Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas.” Ably accompanying are the energetic Vogler Quartet and multi-instrumentalist Stefan Malzew.

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