Sunday, April 29, 2012

April '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Sebastian Faulks’ panoramic novel about the doomed relationship between a British soldier and married French woman during World War I becomes another sophisticated “Masterpiece” entry from PBS, but without the book’s framing device, taking place 70 years after these events; that omission loses what made Faulks’ story compelling and touching. Still, this sumptuous production has fine lovers in Eddie Redmayne and Clemence Poesy, and the equally good Marie-Josee Croze as her sister. The nearly three-hour film’s nude scenes aren’t typical PBS fare, so if that’s what you’re after, by all means watch. The excellent-looking Blu-ray includes three making-of featurettes.

One of the clunkiest movie musicals ever made, this three-hour behemoth of Lerner & Loewe’s Broadway hit stars two unlikely stars: Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, both out of their element as a singing Arthur and Lady Guenevere. But their discomfort is the least of it: the movie’s visual dullness (which the added clarity of Blu-ray accentuates even more) and L&L’s routine songs drag the whole thing down. We do get to hear the prelude, entr’acte and end music, which is nice; extras include vintage featurettes.

Mark Wahlberg has been in too many mediocre action movies like this tired chase flick about a retired smuggler roped into a last dangerous job to help his sad-sack brother-in-law. Unorthodox setting of a container ship at port notwithstanding, the movie’s reduced to laughably “tense” scenes as when Marky Mark and a sidekick must close the container doors before they’re spotted. Whew!  Kate Beckinsale is completely wasted as Mark’s wife, while Giovanni Ribisi makes a standard-issue crook. The film looks decent on Blu-ray; extras include commentary, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Dark Tide
How the mighty have fallen: Oscar winner Halle Berry is reduced to this lukewarm Jaws rip-off about a shark expert who, after a colleague is killed by a great white on her watch, hangs up her flippers, then is talked into a last dangerous—but lucrative—dive. Despite amazing underwater photography and shark footage (and Halle in a bikini top), John Stockwell’s drama features characters whom you don’t care if the get eaten. On Blu-ray, the ocean sequences positively glisten; no extras.

The Fields
(Breaking Glass)
Writer Harrison Smith and directors Tom Mattera and David Mazzoni have made an unsettling thriller about a boy haunted by what may be lurking in the fields near his home. With a wonderful performance by young Joshua Ormond in a deceptively difficult role, The Fields even has nuanced acting from Cloris Leachman (grandmother) and even Tara Reid (mother). The genuinely creepy movie—nothing is overdone—works even better on hi-def; extras include on-set featurettes, footage and interviews.

The Red House
(HD Cinema Classics)
Delmer Daves—a proficient director of entertaining genre movies in the ‘40s and ‘50s like 3:10 to Yuma—made this decently acted, technically sound but forgettable thriller. Edward G. Robinson is surprisingly subdued as a man leery of his daughter’s new beau, but this abandoned-house-in-the-woods tale is too stale to be in any way absorbing. The 1947 B&W film looks good on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a commentary.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Alec Guinness’ performance as George Smiley, Cold War spy extraordinaire, is unforgettable precisely due to its understatement (contrarily, in the current movie version Gary Oldman works too hard for it to be effortless). Watching John Irvin’s six-hour masterpiece—which may be even better than John Le Carre’s original novel—in hi-def is a treat. While the 1979 British mini-series doesn’t look appreciably better on Blu-ray, the format’s added clarity fits the cerebral story. Included are the same extras as on the DVD (Irvin and LeCarre interviews, deleted scenes).

Written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park and more recently Downton Abbey), this dutiful three-hour reenactment of the legendary ship’s demise concentrates on how the boat’s class system may have contributed to many needless deaths. The crowded cast, which comprises mainly character actors, features good work by Linus Roache and Maria Doyle Kennedy. While far better than James Cameron’s white whale, this four-part mini-series is not nearly as memorable as the 1958 classic A Night to Remember. The superior production design and special effects nearly jump off the screen on Blu-ray; extras are several featurettes and a commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Eclipse 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave
The six films in this essential box set are only the tip of a large iceberg making up the legendary if undervalued Czech New Wave cinema of the late ‘60s. Although the most famous title, Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, is a dated curio easily surpassed by its maker’s later films, the others are unimpeachably superlative. The omnibus Pearls of the Deep combines humor and horror as only Soviet-era Eastern European cinema can, and the others must-watch features (Jan Nemec’s A Report on the Party and Guests, Jiri Menzel’s Capricious Summer, Jaromil Jires’ The Joke, Evald Schorm’s Return of the Prodigal Son) brilliantly explore the rigid Communist system with wit and bravery.

The Man on the Train
This unnecessary remake of Patrice Leconte’s equally vapid crime drama with Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort pairs a past-his-prime Donald Sutherland and U2 drummer Larry Mullen as a dying professor and a tough-guy bank robber who form an unlikely bond. Mullen provides an atmospheric score, which outclasses his acting. Writer/director Mary McGuckian’s low-key style is fatal for a film that has little in the way of surprises or nuance. The lone extra is a deleted scene.

Miss Bala and The Hidden Face
(Fox World Cinema)
These stylish Spanish-language thrillers approach their horrors in opposing ways. Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala thrusts its unwitting heroine—a beauty pageant contestant, no less—into the midst of Mexico’s extreme gang-related violence, while Andi Baiz’s The Hidden Face twists itself into a pretzel keeping a hoary clichĂ© afloat for 95 minutes, when The Twilight Zone could have done it in a third of the time. The women are each in their own way compelling: Stephanie Sigman in Miss Bala is especially one to watch.

(e one)
Linda Cardellini’s poignant portrayal of a wife and mother whose return home from Iraq is more disastrous than the time she spent there—she falls into boozing, neglecting her husband and kids, even sleeping with a Vietnam vet whom she feels a kinship with—is the main reason to see writer-director Liza Johnson’s disjointed character study. There’s not much tragic thrust because Johnson is too coy about her protagonist’s plight, but Cardellini and the supporting cast (Michael Shannon, John Slattery, Rosie Benton) provide enough dramatic fireworks. Extras include a director/cinematographer commentary and deleted scenes.

Stony Island
(Cinema Libre)
Sixteen years before his hit remake of The Fugitive in 1993, director Andrew Davis made this gritty if slight slice of life among denizens on Chicago’s south side. Despite a game cast—including a newcomer named Dennis Franz and lovely teenagers named Rae Dawn Chong and Susanna Hoffs, future Bangle and daughter of the movie’s co-writer, Tamara Simon Hoffs—the movie meanders for 95 minutes and ends where it began: nowhere. Extras include a making-of retrospective and alternate ending.

Strange Fruit: The Beatles’ Apple Records
Although the Beatles’ Apple label has gotten plenty of ink in the 44 years since it was created (only to implode due to mismanagement a few years later), this informative two-plus hour documentary summarizes how its idealistic communism caused its demise. Through interviews with journalists and artists from the label (including members of Badfinger, one of its bigger successes) and archival footage of young Apple artists like James Taylor and Mary Hopkin, this doc illuminates one of the Beatles’ few failures.

CD of the Week
Peter Gabriel: Live Blood
(Real World)
When I saw Peter Gabriel on his 2010 orchestral tour, the concert’s first half comprised cover songs from his album Scratch My Back, followed by a set of Gabriel’s own songs. But the concerts recorded (in 2011) for this immaculate-sounding live CD feature an artist who heavily reduced the covers (only 4 of the original 12 are heard) and added more of his own songs, which is what most Gabriel fans want anyway. His take on Lou Reed’s “The Power of the Heart” is achingly personal, but new interpretations of his own classics like “Wallflower,” “San Jacinto” and “Biko” are stunningly direct. The New Blood Orchestra, conducted by Ben Foster, sounds magnificent; Gabriel’s own daughter Melanie sings beautifully with her father on “Mercy Street” and “Blood of Eden.”

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