Saturday, May 26, 2012

May '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Certified Copy
(Criterion Colllection)
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s self-reflexive, self-serving story follows a couple—that may or may not be married—meeting in photogenic Tuscany for what might or might not be their anniversary. Incidental travelogue pleasures can’t compensate for not caring about these people. Juliette Binoche (Cannes Best Actress) has a wonderfully expressive face and speaks French, English and Italian equally well, but shows off her art’s primary colors (sneering, crying, laughing, yelling) instead of creating a credible character. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras include a Kiarostami interview, hour-long making-of documentary and an early Kiarostami feature, 1977’s The Report.

(Anchor Bay)
Shakespeare’s stark tragedy about a disgraced Roman general joining the enemy is torn from its ancient setting to a war-ravaged present by director-star Ralph Fiennes. Rome is a contemporary region resembling the Balkan conflict, but modern technology—24-hour TV news explains what goes on to unfamiliar audiences—undercuts the dialogue, notably when mother and wife await news of Coriolanus: why don’t they just turn on the TV? Fiennes effortlessly makes Shakespeare’s words sound conversational even when confrontational; too bad he doesn’t trust his writer more. The gritty imagery is retained on Blu-ray; extras include and on-set featurette and Fiennes’ commentary.

Lethal Weapon Collection
(Warner Brothers)
I always felt one Lethal Weapon was enough, but obviously no one agrees: this four-film series is the most profitable buddy-cop franchise ever. Blame the 1987 original for spawning the wisecracking but deadly policemen, but the formula worked, as director Richard Donner, stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover (and, later, Rene Russo, Joe Pesci and Chris Rock) joined forces again and again. The 1989, 1992 and 1998 sequels are far more annoying than the merely forgettable original. The movies look good enough on Blu-ray; a fifth disc houses retrospective featurettes that include many interviews.

Perfect Sense
David Mackenzie’s portentous allegory is uncomfortably reminiscent of other—and mostly better—films like Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch, Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. As a disease robs people of their senses, scientist Eva Green meets chef Ewan MacGregor; their brief affair leaves a mark on them and, maybe, the human race. Mackenzie literalizes how the couple’s relationship parallels a crumbling world. Too bad Green and MacGregor, charismatic performers both, are unable to do little more than inject emotional and physical nakedness into a movie starving for it. The Blu-ray image is splendid; lone extra is a two-minute featurette.

Racing Dreams
Marshall Curry’s documentary perceptively shows how fast today’s children grow up—literally in the case of Annabeth (11), Josh (12) and Brandon (13), who drive their karts at speeds up to 70 MPH in a race series that spawned NASCAR drivers. Curry’s sympathy is obvious as he documents the kids trying to grow up normally while facing a lot of—often self-inflicted—pressure to become winners and, maybe, famous drivers. This PBS doc looks superb on Blu-ray; extras are deleted scenes, kids update, director Q&A and behind-the-scenes featurette.

The Secret World of Arrietty
For many, the name Studio Ghibli conjures happy memories, knowing that its quality animation equals—or even surpasses—Pixar and Disney. Sure enough, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s beguiling adaptation of the beloved child’s book The Borrowers is filled with eye-popping imagery from first frame to last. Arrietty is a wondrous entrance into another world by another talented protégé of Hayao Miyazaki. Extras are an English-language version (stick with the original!), original storyboards and music videos.

Simply Red: Live at Montreux
(Eagle Eye)
Fronted by the soulful voice of Mick Hucknall, the British band Simply Red performs a scintillating set before an enthusiastic 2003 Montreux Jazz Festival crowd, including a captivating cover of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and its smash hit, “Holding Back the Years.”. Along with the 18-song performance, seven songs from the band’s 2010 concert—all unplayed seven years earlier—are included. The Blu-ray image is flawless; the surround sound is wonderfully enveloping.

This Means War
If you’ve ever wanted to see Reese Witherspoon—an actress I’ve never found particularly charming—pretend she’s in an action comedy like the abortive Brangelina vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith, then by all means watch. Otherwise, despite car chases, fight sequences and other ridiculous sequences, director McG can’t breathe life into a hoary plot: two CIA agents fight for the right to win Reese, with a real criminal in hot pursuit. The movie has a good hi-def transfer; extras include an extended version, deleted scenes, alternate endings, gag reel and McG commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Air and Space Collection
Of the quartet of informative programs on this two-disc set, a pair remains in the atmosphere while the other two blast off into outer space. America’s Hangar summarizes flight’s first century beginning with the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, while Concorde: Flying Supersonic chronicles the only passenger jet that flew at the speed of sound, including a wrenching account of the horrible 2001 crash that also killed off the airline. Lastly, History in HD: America in Space and Space Shuttle: Final Countdown glimpse the checkered history of our country’s space program.

Carol Channing: Larger than Life
(e one)
There’s only one Carol Channing, and this aptly named documentary shows the nonagenarian Broadway legend irrepressibly leading a tour of her eventful life and career, from her San Francisco childhood and classic Tony-winning performance in Hello, Dolly! to finding love with a man she hadn’t seen in 70 years, Harry Kujilian, whom she married in 2003. Dori Bernstein’s affectionate portrait of the ultimate—and unique—Broadway baby is 83 minutes of pure bliss. Included are 15 additional scenes, including Carol’s reminiscence about singing at Joan Crawford’s wedding and Barbara Walters speaking touchingly about Carol’s friendship with Barbara’s older, sickly sister.

Junkyard Dog
(Bass Entertainment)
This exploitative shocker comes off as a slavish Silence of the Lambs imitation. But director Kim Bass is no Jonathan Demme, so any attempt at horror by suggestion rather than by sledgehammer is lost. Instead, we’re left to mourn the fall from grace of Vivica A. Fox, a graceful actress stuck in a stock role of an FBI agent in a movie whose literally explosive ending is a last-gasp desperation move. The lone extra is a jokey “interview” between producer Deanna Shapiro and the movie’s canine star.

(Strand Releasing)
Austrian writer-director Marcus Schleinzer learned from the master of creepy understatement, Michael Haneke, so it’s no surprise that Schleinzer’s debut treads the same unsettling ground. This detached character study follows a normal-looking man with a normal insurance company job who just happens to keep an abducted young boy down in his basement, whom he allows to eat, play and watch TV. He also occasionally sodomizes him. A remarkably controlled study of aberrant and abhorrent behavior, Michael nevertheless omits important details—we never learn why, among any number of questions, he does what he does. And the final shot is morally questionable at best.

The River—The Complete 1st Season  
From the mind of Oren Peli, director of that shabby thriller Paranormal Activity—and executive producer Steven Spielberg—comes this contraption about strange goings-on aboard a boat on the Amazon filled with people searching for a famous TV scientist who went missing. The cleverness on display can’t cover up the premise’s hokiness, and despite top-notch production values and a game cast, the show (now cancelled) is hampered by its overreliance on the tired trope of found footage. Extras include audio commentaries, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

The Thomashefskys
Obviously a labor of love for conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, this evocative program recreates the beginnings of Yiddish Theatre in America—where Thomas’ grandparents were big stars in that traditional art form. Using original songs, excerpts from diaries, letters and performances, Thomas, his talented singers and musicians have made a love letter to a once-thriving art form. Extras include a Thomas interview and full-length versions of some of the music.

CDs of the Week
Britten: War Requiem
(LSO Live)
Benjamin Britten’s powerful pacifist plea is a remarkable oratorio and one of his greatest achievements: this 2011 live recording from London’s Barbican brings together a superlative trio of soloists—tenor Ian Bostridge, baritone Simon Keenlyside and soprano Sabina Cvilak—with the London Symphony Chorus, Choir of Eltham College and London Symphony Orchestra under the guiding hand of conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The Requiem’s wide emotional arc makes sweeping generalities useless. I had just listened to the original recording with Dietrich Fischer-Diskeau after hearing of his death; although not up to that defining performance, this new version comes near enough.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7
(Deutsche Grammophon)
I’ve always found the symphonies of Anton Bruckner to be ersatz Wagner: what in Wagner’s operas is intensely dramatic is in Bruckner merely ponderous. And so it is with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony which, amid moments of transcendent beauty are longeurs that drag the entire four-movement structure to the ground. Even with Daniel Barenboim sympathetically leading the superb Berlin Staatskapelle, I felt every second of the work’s 67 minutes, which kept me at arm’s length from its occasional tragic beauty.

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