Sunday, June 10, 2012

June '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Act of Valor
Made not only with the Navy Seals’ blessing but with several of its members in starring roles, this story of terrorists being tracked down by our best and bravest is extremely slow-going, with painfully earnest performances, cookie-cutter dramatics and dreary dialogue butting heads with explosive action sequences. The impressive physical production deflects the jingoism, but there are better ways to honor our brave male and female warriors. The Blu-ray transfer is flawless; extras include directors’ commentary, deleted scenes, Seals interviews and several on-set featurettes.

This tidy thriller about a young woman who can’t convince cops that her sister has gone missing at the hands of a psycho (she supposedly cried wolf when it previously happened to her) makes effective use of Portland locations, including the greenery of nearby Forest Park. Director Heitor Dahlia and writer Allison Burnett rely too much on the Silence of the Lambs formula (young woman overcomes male assailant and skeptics) but Amanda Seyfried is appropriately spunky in the lead. The hi-def transfer is excellent.

This likably flaky comedy about an unlikely hockey player stars Seann William Scott, perfectly cast as a huge fan who becomes his beloved team’s enforcer. Despite Goon’s similarities to the far superior Slapshot, director Michael Dowse and writers Jay Baruchel (also in the film) and Evan Goldberg are canny enough to assemble a super ensemble including Liev Schreiber as the league’s reigning bad guy, Allison Pill as our goon’s gal and Eugene Levy and his incredulous dad. The movie looks quite good on Blu-ray; extras include interviews, on-set antics, and commentary.

Grand Canyon: A Wonder of the Natural World
and Yosemite: The High Sierras
(Mill Creek)
These documentaries showcase the geological wonders at two of our grandest national parks through interviews with experts, discussions of the parks’ history and significance and, of course, astonishing views of the amazing vistas that visitors encounter every day. In addition to the two major parks, other national monuments are also mentioned, giving an overall sense of the National Park System’s great breadth. The hi-def visuals are breathtaking, even if they are no substitute for an actual visit to any of these places.

John Carter
Andrew Stanton’s much-maligned adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantastic sci-fi novel about a criminal from Earth who becomes a hero on Mars has its faults—notably an slavish fidelity to the book—but there’s much to admire. In addition to the fabulous array of sets and inventive Martian creatures, there’s an appealing performance as the Martian princess Dejah by Lynn Collins; too bad our John Carter, the aptly named Taylor Kitsch, is as stiff as a board. On Blu-ray, Stanton’s expansive visuals are spellbinding; extras include deleted scenes, bloopers, featurettes and Stanton’s commentary.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
(Warners/New Line)
In this uninspired Journey to the Center of the Earth sequel, Dwayne Johnson takes over for Brandon Fraser, an even trade-off, methinks. Michael Caine shows up midway through and provides first-class hamming, while Vanessa Hudgens continues to look terrific without doing much acting. Special effects are the order of the day, from a miniature elephant to monstrously large lizard eggs—and an even more monstrously large mother protecting them. It’s decent enough and, at 94 minutes, doesn’t ask much of your and your kids’ time. The Blu-ray image is excellent but sterile—all that CGI, obviously. Extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes and an interactive map.

Man on a Ledge
This ludicrously-plotted thriller uses the title character as a front for a revenge heist—to give away more would ruin its few diversions. A game bunch of actors does what it can, although Elizabeth Banks and Sam Worthington look faintly embarrassed, a slumming Ed Harris is stuck in a ridiculous role and newcomer Genesis Rodriguez was seemingly cast to fit her lithe frame into more tight outfits than Catwoman. The movie has a decent Blu-ray transfer; extras include a featurette and Banks commentary.

Shogun Assassin—5-Film Collector’s Set
Shogun Assassin and its four “sequels” (the films’ istory is rather complicated) are considered must-see samurai films, but—at least in the versions on these two Blu-ray discs—they are far from essential. The first film, truncated from the original Japanese (and dubbed badly in English), isn’t the classic revenge adventure it could have been; the subsequent quartet at least has lots of bloodletting. The five films have a few visual problems in hi-def but are generally fine.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
(HD Cinema Classics)
In 1946, Lewis Milestone—who won Oscars early on for Two Arabian Nights and All Quiet on the Western Front—directed this pitch-black film noir about an heiress whose horrible childhood marks her adult life and her broken relationships. Colorful acting by Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin and, in his film debut, Kirk Douglas keep the melodrama from meandering. The classic B&W imagery is clear and crisp on Blu-ray; extras include a commentary and restoration demo.

DVDs of the Week
L’incoronazione di Poppea
(Virgin Classics and Opus Arte)
Italian Claudio Monteverdi composed the very first operas, and his crowning achievement, first performed in 1642, is this powerful drama about ancient Rome’s ruthless Poppea, Nero’s mistress. These two productions show how much ambiguity is contained in the characters: the Virgin Classics disc, filmed in Madrid in 2010, stars the defiantly alluring American soprano Danielle deNiese; the Opus Arte disc, from Barcelona in 2009, has the regal Swedish soprano Miah Persson. Both women navigate the role’s tremendous dramatic demands, while Monteverdi’s music is well-served by conductors William Christie in Madrid and Harry Bicket in Barcelona.

New Tricks—Season 7
A big hit on the other side of the pond, this amusing police drama about a group of unorthodox, nearing-retirement detectives isn’t the most original, but its dryly humorous, poker-faced cast led by Amanda Redman (the boss), James Bolam, Alun Armstrong and Dennis Waterman (the boys) make these murder mysteries particularly savory. If you enjoy this set, there are also a half-dozen previous ones to dive into. Extras include behind the scenes featurette and blooper reel.

Pretty Little Liars—The Complete 2nd Season
(Warner Bros)

Those horrible high school hotties cause more trouble in this ABC Family series’ sophomore season. At the end of these 25 episodes, Hanna, Aria, Spencer and Emily—who are terrorized by “A,” who knows all of their secrets—will finally discover the identity of this mysterious person. It’s all risible, of course, but its key demographic will love the show and the gals (played by Ashley Benson, Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell and Troian Bellisario). Extras include deleted scenes and on-set featurettes.

Washington: Behind Closed Doors
Coming on the heels of Nixon’s disgrace and resignation from Watergate, this 1976 mini-series fictionalizes then-current political machinations—presidential paranoia, anti-war protests, power-hungry minions—and marries them to a superb cast in this eminently watchable mini-series. A who’s-who of 1970s TV stars—Jason Robards, Andy Griffith, Cliff Robertson, Stefanie Powers, Robert Vaughn, Lois Nettleton, John Houseman—make this six-part program’s nine hours enjoyable; but melodramatic flattening prevents this from being a paranoid classic like The Parallax View and All the President’s Men.

CD of the Week
French Piano Trios: Trio Chausson
A fine young French ensemble, Trio Chausson—named after the eloquent late 19th century French composer—plays with elegance and precision on this disc of piano trios by other Frenchmen and women. Although Claude Debussy’s seminal trio is a classically French work (it sits alongside Ravel’s and Faure’s), it’s a pair of unfamiliar works that Trio Chausson really takes to: Cecile Chaminade’s beautifully wrought trio and—an even more obscure gem—Rene Lenormand’s vaguely exotic, thoroughly melodic work.

Joe Walsh: Analog Man
For his latest solo album, Joe Walsh—jokester and guitarist extraordinaire—keeps those talents on the backburner to concentrate on Joe Walsh, happy husband and family man. The bland result includes earnestly sappy tunes (“Lucky That Way” and “Family Way”), the title track with lame lyrics like “Turn on the tube/watch until dawn/100 channels and nothing on,” and a tongue-in-cheek nod toward his past in “Funk 50,” which only reminds us how hard-rocking Walsh was way back when. I didn’t expect a sequel to his underrated 1985 gem, The Confessor, but Analog Man lacks punch.

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