Saturday, April 14, 2012

April '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Conversation Piece

Luchino Visconti--the Italian director whose best films (Bellissima, La Terra Trema) were smaller-scaled than his more celebrated, but less good, operatic ones (Rocco and His Brothers, Death in Venice, The Damned)--made this 1974 chamber drama, his penultimate film. In this clash between a strident Italian family and a retired American professor living in Rome, Burt Lancaster looks lost throughout, and the relationships are strictly soap-opera. The movie’s intimacy is served well on Blu-ray, with pleasingly muted colors. There’s an option to watch in English (with Lancaster’s real voice) or dubbed in Italian. The lone extra is an interview with critic Alessandro Bencivenni.

The Darkest Hour
Director Chris Gorak’s alien invasion thriller interests if only due to its insane premise and superb locations. The lethal invaders can vaporize any living being quickly, so the only hope is to get behind glass (because the monsters can’t see through it). Moscow is a wonderfully photogenic city, and Gorak makes the most of it, using the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the massive Gum department store as backdrops for the grisly goings-on. The splendid effects and settings look spectacular on Blu-ray; extras include a new short, Survivors, making-of featurette, deleted/extended scenes and commentary.

Into the Abyss
(MPI/Sundance Selects)
Werner Herzog’s evenhanded, relentlessly probing documentary about prisoners on death row isn’t a cut-and-dried anti-capital punishment screed; instead, Herzog--as always in his non-fiction films--digs deeply by bringing in everyone affected by a triple murder in Texas: the killers and their families, the victims’ families, even a priest and executioner who have attended many state-sanctioned killings. Since the movie is mainly interviews (Herzog’s inimitable voice asks the gently probing questions), the hi-def transfer is adequate, nothing more. No extras, but four episodes of On Death Row (a program on the Investigation Discovery network) are brilliant pendants to this full-length exploration.

The Iron Lady
(Weinstein/Anchor Bay)
Meryl Streep’s tour de force (and Oscar-winning) portrayal of Margaret Thatcher dominates Phyllida Lloyd’s Cliff Notes summary of the former British prime minister as the most polarizing politician of her time. Lloyd and screenwriter Ari Morgan fumble the strands of their protagonist’s controversial life, but their star brings them to forceful, purposeful life. Streep even overcomes the urge to engage in her usual self-indulgences: the harrowing close-ups of an elderly Thatcher--beaten down, tired and lonely--are unusually intimate, rather than a way for the actress to show off her formidable technique. The Blu-ray image is as flawless as Streep; extras include on-set featurettes.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Marlon Brando's incendiary Stanley Kowalski is best remembered in Elia Kazan's blistering adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play, but he's really just one-quarter of a sublime ensemble: Karl Malden is a terrific Mitch, Kim Hunter an enchanting Stella and Oscar winner Vivien Leigh a sad and sympathetic Blanche DuBois. Despite censorship constraints, Williams' classic stage work retains its power, abetted by stunning B&W photography and Alex North's jazz-inflected score. On Blu-ray, the scrubbed-clean film loses none of its clarity and power; extras include featurettes on Brando, Kazan, Williams and North, and a commentary featuring Malden and two film historians.

DVDs of the Week
The Commander, Series 2
(Acorn Media)
Hoping that lightning would strike again, Prime Suspect creator Lynda LaPlante created another strong female detective, but—on the evidence of the four 90-minute mysteries in this set—misses this time. Amanda Burton is a persuasive Clare Blake, whose willingness to try unusual methods to crack cases is controversial, and there’s a crack supporting cast, but these people and their investigations rarely engage on an emotional level, a far cry from LaPlante’s earlier hit, when Helen Mirren shook things up as Jane Tennyson.

King of Devil’s Island
(Film Movement)
Stellan Skarsgard’s typically intense portrayal as the cruel head of a Norwegian reform school dominates director Marius Holst’s dramatic reenactment of a true story about a group of young men who are pushed to the brink of rebellion by a series of horrible mistreatments. Holst’s film builds to an emotionally stirring climax, and its excellent young actors--mostly amateurs, but all unfamiliar to these eyes--heighten its authenticity. Holst’s eye is unerringly true throughout; the lone extra is Al Mackay’s short, Bale.

Logan’s Run: The Complete Series
The 1976 futuristic movie with Michael York and Jenny Agutter is now a cult item, but the 1977 TV series it spawned was a bomb: only 11 episodes ever aired. But with this DVD release, all 14 episodes—the final three have never before been seen--can be reappraised by discriminating (or even undiscriminating) fans. Gregory Harrison broods handsomely, Heather Menzies is his adorable sidekick and Donald Moffat appropriately bemused as the smarter-than-everyone android. The laughably miniscule special effects budget is a big reason why the show approaches campiness. But is that its intention?

Sleeping Beauty
Emily Browning is a nubile actress: that’s the take-away from Julia Leigh's plodding, pretentious and unsexy character study about an intelligent young woman who works for an agency where she sleeps naked in bed as brutish men paw her, slap her around, even burning her with a cigarette. The movie is ravishing to look at (like its star), but this knock-off of Eyes Wide Shut’s orgy sequences is so misconceived that viewers may wish they were asleep like the leading lady, blissfully unaware of what’s happening.

CD of the Week
Martin, Honegger, Schoeck: Cello Concertos

Although the three enticing concertos by Swiss masters Frank Martin, Arthur Honegger and Othmar Schoeck are too infrequently heard to make lists of the best 20th century concertos, this disc’s performances by Swiss soloist Christian Poltera and the Malmo Symphony Orchestra under the subtle direction of conductor Tuomas Hannikainen may, one hopes, change minds. The combination of Martin’s supremely melodic and dramatic work, Honegger’s elegant, concise style and Schoeck’s huge emotional range is a joy to hear on an intelligently-programmed disc that deserves many repeat playings.

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