Sunday, April 22, 2012

April '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
America Revealed 
Host Yul Kwon takes what initially seems a mash-up of themes about America in the 21st century--food, transportation, electricity, manufacturing--and, with the help of stunning aerial and HD photography, makes it compelling, necessary viewing. The technological advances shown are staggering to see and contemplate; the four episodes’ extraordinary footage from coast to coast looks particularly amazing on Blu-ray. Twenty minutes of bonus footage is composed of a featurette for each episode.

Baseball’s Greatest Games: 2011 World Series Game 6 
St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese’s dramatic HR in the bottom of the 11th to clinch last fall’s World Series in six games gave the team (and town) its second championship in six seasons. Anyone who’s even remotely a Cardinals fan will want to pick this up to re-live that immediate classic again and again. Even if you watched the Series on your HDTV, be prepared for more astounding clarity on Blu-ray.

Charlotte Rampling: The Look 
(Kino Lorber)
In her solid documentary about actress Charlotte Rampling, Angelina Maccarone employs an ingenious structure that avoids her movie becoming a mere career chronology: there are nine sections (with title cards like “Exposure” and “Love”), each with Rampling interacting with artist friends like author Paul Auster and photographer Peter Lindbergh, or her son, director Barnaby Southcombe. Maccarone also intercuts excerpts from some of Rampling’s many films to further illustrate her themes. The movie comprises mainly interviews and film clips, so the Blu-ray transfer is adequate without being stunning.

The Divide 
(Anchor Bay)
“The earth is ending again, ho-hum”: my thought while watching Xavier Gens’ stylish but repetitive and fatally overlong apocalyptic nightmare. Armageddon stereotypes are present and accounted for, and Gens relies on shock and mayhem, which fails, as witness the lovely final shots that seem out of another, more philosophically rich movie. But Gens isn’t Andrei Tarkovsky. The hi-def image, especially the darks and blacks, is first-rate; the lone extra is Gens’ and actors’ audio commentary.

                                                      Late Spring 
One of Yasujiro Ozu’s greatest films is this moving but slyly amusing 1949 tale of a widower who decides that his only daughter should marry. Ozu’s masterly restraint, which remains his singular trademark, is complemented by the touchingly effortless performances by his regular stars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara. The first of Ozu’s timeless classics to arrive on Blu-ray has noticeable wear and tear, but since these were the best elements available, it’s a stunning-looking 63-year-old movie. Extras include NY Film Festival head Richard Pena’s commentary and 90-minute Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders' 1985 documentary paean to Ozu.

(Miramax/Echo Bridge)
Robert Rodriguez has always made flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants flicks, and this 1994 made-for-cable road movie is one of his least memorable. It doesn’t help that the blank David Arquette is the leading man, and Salma Hayek--gorgeous, as always--is nearly as wooden. Even the action scenes and music interludes feel off, making this seem like Rodriguez’s most amateurish effort in a career littered with them. The movie receives a decent but unspectacular hi-def transfer; there’s a Rodriguez commentary and his 10-Minute Film School, both more fun than the movie.

Steve McQueen’s studied, stylized soap opera ruins the serious subject of sex addiction. A successful Wall Street dude jerks off at home and at work, hires hookers, picks up women at bars, and even hooks up for anonymous gay sex! But at least he’s a cultured pervert who enjoys Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This hysterically unconvincing melodrama even burdens the poor guy with a needy sister who stays at his apartment and walks in on him while he’s masturbating in the bathroom. Shame, indeed! Michael Fassbinder and Carey Mulligan are excellent in a less than hard-hitting character study. A ravishing, dream-like Manhattan still looks that way on Blu-ray; extras are five inconsequential featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Being Elmo 
(New Video)
Kevin Clash’s life story makes a fascinating documentary, and Constance Marks gets it right with her doc about how a kid from Baltimore who grew up loving puppets ended up rubbing shoulders with Jim Henson and turned the “Red Grover” into the most beloved Muppet. There’s lots of vintage footage--who was around to record some of these things before Clash became famous?--and interviews that shows that, sometimes, good guys can finish first. Extras include additional footage, interviews and a Sundance Q&A.

Bill Moyers: Capitol Crimes 
In the mid-90s, lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff’s dealings lined his pockets and the coffers of friendly Republicans in Congress with millions in stolen cash. Bill Moyers and his team’s hard-hitting expose shines a light on this sordid story of corruption, showing once again how the Republican party has become synonymous with hypocrisy. A bonus disc comprises Buying the War, an 83-minute expose of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq and the media’s complicity in it, along with interviews with historian Andrew J. Bacevich and Mother Jones magazine’s Kevin Drum and David Corn.

Garbo: The Spy 
(First Run)
Structured as a real-life thriller, Edmon Roch’s documentary tells the bizarre story of the ingenious double agent whose adventures--including a network of fake agents throughout Europe--fooled the Germans into thinking D-Day would happen on a different day and at a different location. Cleverly intercutting old spy movie footage with informative new interviews, Roch comes up aces. Extras include a half-hour interview with spy expert Nigel West and 27-minute WWII training film Sonic Deception.

The Getting of Wisdom 
(Kino Lorber)
Bruce Beresford’s beautifully realized adaptation of the classic Aussie novel by Henry Handel Richardson is among the underrated director’s very best films, a heartfelt yet humorous look at a young woman from the country (the magnificent Susannah Fowle) who refuses to become a proper Victorian lady. Don McAlpine’s exquisite photography gleams in this new transfer; a wonderful bonus is an hour-long documentary about the making of the film, including interviews with Beresford, Fowle, McAlpine and others.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life 
Director Jonathan Lee re-introduces an important figure in radical political history in this illuminating bio-doc of the unapologetic intellectual who might have been too brilliant for his--or any--time. Hearing his espousal of ideas that made the likes of William F. Buckley squirm--and watching their priceless exchange on Buckley‘s Firing Line program about American education--is worth the price of admission in itself. Interviews with family, friends and colleagues illuminate a towering figure of the American left. Extras include a Lee interview, deleted scenes and readings of Goodman’s poetry.

Secret War 
The clandestine--and largely successful--war against the Nazis by the British spy agency SOE (Special Operations Executive) is rivetingly recounted in 13 episodes on four discs. Among many others, there’s the group of heroic Norwegians who risked life and limb to destroy the building that was instrumental in developing an atomic bomb, there’s Hardy Amies, who later became a fashion designer following the war; there’s Polish super-agent Christine Granville, who came to bad end after surviving five dangerous war years; and there’s a French triple agent whose allegiance was continually called into question.

CD of the Week
Debussy/Ravel: Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Hearing another recording of this trio of early 20th century masterworks--Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s La Mere l’Oye and La Valse--might be a yawn for listeners, since there are plenty of worthy discs out there already. But these warhorses are also magnificent orchestral showcases, and conductor Myung-Whun Chung leads the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in energetic performances. The strings might sound thin at times, but overall the players acquit themselves well enough to wonder why this 54-minute CD doesn’t include another piece that the ensemble could flex its muscles with.

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