Sunday, May 6, 2012

May '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
ExistenZ/Malevolent/B Monkey
A trio of forgettable thrillers comes to Blu-ray: David Cronenberg’s mad eXistenZ (1999) stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law in a convoluted ride through a lethal video game; Malevolent (2002) is a mild cop flick with Lou Diamond Phillips and the always welcome Kari Wuhrer (whatever happened to??) as a detective and an exotic dancer caught up in a murder spree; Michael Radford’s B Monkey (1999) is a vehicle for Asia Argento as a sexy thief—but her irritating, smug presence is a fatal drawback. The movies have been decently transferred to hi-def.

The Innkeepers
(Dark Sky)
Ti West’s shaky psychological thriller is definitely not The Shining reborn: two employees of an historic inn about to close its doors for good are beset by terrors of the mental kind, but when it’s been painstakingly established that the young woman has been gravely damaged, West pulls out the rug from under his own movie by ending it with a crude shock effect a la Paranormal Activity. It’s too bad, for Sara Paxton and Pat Healy give solid performances, and there’s a palpable sense of dread—for awhile, at least. A good Blu-ray transfer helps; extras include a making-of featurette and two commentaries.

The Man Nobody Knew
(First Run)
Carl Colby’s very personal documentary about his dad William—CIA head during a volatile era—is an impactful account of a man variously considered hero or warmonger. Interviews with Carl’s mother and William’s colleagues Seymour Hersh, Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Woodward and more make the case for this complicated character. That he died under mysterious circumstances only adds to the legend of a man whose career is a microcosm of our nation’s foreign policy for the past half-century. Since the movie comprises talking-head interviews, it’s a surprise First Run released it on Blu-ray, but it does look excellent; extras include additional interviews and scenes.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel was once turned into a marathon Broadway musical; this new PBS “Masterpiece” adaptation runs a mere two hours, but a committed cast brings across much of the flavor of this final work. Matthew Rhys (Jasper), Freddie Fox (Edwin), Tamzin Merchant (Rosa) and Rory Kinnear (the Reverend) all jump off the page onto the screen, how persuasively they nestle in director Diarmuid Lawrence’s sumptuous Victorian-era setting, splendidly recreated on Blu-ray, while the multi-layered story (adapted by Gwyneth Jones) has been equally well-realized.

New Year’s Eve
Garry Marshall hit it big with his crude ensemble romantic comedy, 2010’s Valentine’s Day, so he’s at it again with an even larger ensemble in another crude romantic comedy set in Times Square on December 31. Despite its cast—led by a bevy of actresses from Michelle Pfeiffer and Halle Berry to Jessica Biel and Lea Michele—the movie has little humor and even less romance, as stars and director go through the motions. Pfeiffer’s role is particularly embarrassing; this resourceful actress can do little with it. Manhattan glistens, however, on Blu-ray; extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes and interviews.

The Organizer
Mario Monicelli’s 1963 account of late 19th century Italian laborers striking for better working conditions is a rediscovered classic. A finely wrought, subtle Marcello Mastroianni as a socialist professor who eggs on the workers in their fight against their bosses—which devolves into tragedy when one of their own is killed—is the center of this intelligent piece of agit-prop. The Criterion Collection edition, while skimpy on extras (Monicelli’s 2006 introduction predates his death in 2010 at age 95), gives the black and white film its due with a superlative, grainy hi-def transfer.

The Wicker Tree
(Anchor Bay)
Nearly 40 years after The Wicker Man, director Robin Hardy returns to the story that made his reputation, but his belated and misbegotten sequel has nothing on the original—and still-shocking—film. Despite a few scenes of frisky sexuality and black humor, Tree has none of the unsettling horror of Man, and the brief appearance of Christopher Lee is a sad reminder of what’s missing from the new film. The picturesque Scottish locations are enticing on Blu-ray; extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Cirkus Columbia
Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, who returned to his homeland to explore the days before post-Communist Yugoslavia was torn apart by a devastating civil war, deals unflinchingly with how petty personal vendettas metastasized into lethal nationalism. Working from his and novelist Ivica Djikic’s script, Tanovic has created a pungent metaphor for how quickly tiny frictions blow up into outright killing and the worst atrocities since Hitler. The title refers to a local “circus”—more a cheap amusement park with beat-up children’s rides—whose temporary youthful idyll is replaced by the sight and sound of shells exploding as the war finally arrives.

The Double Hour
(New Video)
Giuseppe Capotondi’s sexy thriller is set in photogenic but not overused Turin: widower Guido meets mysterious Sonia at a singles club and falls for her, unaware of her secret past and present. With true chemistry between leads Filippo Timi and Ksenia Rappoport, the movie moves through many twists and turns, and if Capotondi loses his way (devolving into a semi-twist ending), his movie retains its adultness and interest. Extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

From the Other Side/South
Belgian director Chantal Ackerman uses are interest in other cultures to make these chronicles of lives beset by inherent difficulties. 2002’s From the Other Side is an account of desperate existences in a Mexican border town and dreams of life in America; 1999’s South presents the meager lives of inhabitants of small-town America. Akerman’s directorial eye is better than her ear, as there are precious few piercing truths about her subjects that we haven’t heard before.

Phil Collins: Live at Montreux
(Eagle Eye)
In 2004, Phil Collins performed at Switzerland’s fabled Montreux Jazz Festival for two hours of hits and progressive rock-cum-jazzy forays. The show begins with a smashing drum duet-turned-trio, then moves through radio smashes “Against All Odds,” “Don’t Lose My Number,” “In the Air Tonight” and “Take Me Home.” A second disc houses Collins’ 1996 Montreux concert, a big band affair in which his crack band plays revamped versions of his songs and even “The Los Endos Suite” by Genesis; he welcomes special guest stars Tony Bennett, saxophonist David Sanborn and conductor Quincy Jones.

Who Do You Think You Are—Season 2
This NBC reality series, based on a British program of the same name and similar to PBS’ Faces of America, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., chronicles several celebrities’ ancestries to uncover surprising—and even shocking—episodes from their families’ past. Included in this two-disc set’s eight episodes are Vanessa Williams, Kim Cattrall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lionel Richie, Tim McGraw, Rosie O’Donnell, Ashley Judd and Steve Buscemi, all reduced to silence and even tears at the revelations they discover.

CDs of the Week
Renee Fleming: Poemes
Although primarily associated with Mozart and Richard Strauss operatic roles, reigning American soprano RenĂ©e Fleming also sings contemporary music, as the works by 96-year-old master Henri Dutilleux on this all-French disc show. Dutilleux’s modern but accessible idiom is on display in his early Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou (1954) and more recent Le Temps L’Horloge (2007), both of which sound exhilarating sung by Fleming. Two other cycles—Ravel’s Sheherazade (1904) and Messaien’s Poemes pour mi (1936)—are also excitingly performed by Fleming and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, led by Alan Gilbert, and Orchestre National de France, led by Seiji Ozawa.

The Soviet Experience, Volume 2: Pacifica Quartet
The 15 string quartets of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich are the 20th century’s most important chamber music cycle and the Pacifica Quartet continues its traversal of them with exacting performances of the four earliest. The quartets’ juxtaposition of real emotion and bitter sarcasm needs to balance the bombast and subtlety, and the Pacifica’s members come through in spades. Rounding out this excellent set is fellow Soviet master Sergei Prokofiev’s second quartet, sounding as personal and painful as Shostakovich.

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