Sunday, June 17, 2012

June '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
(Anchor Bay)
Since the guys behind American Pie are behind Demoted, it’s no surprise that the new movie fails to reach that film’s gross-out heights of humor. Not coincidentally, it also fails to find any cleverness in its work situations as did Office Space. Do we really need to see a naked Robert Klein cavorting with strippers? The cast is definitely able, but the material is just not there, and comedic desperation sets in early and never leaves. At least there’s a decent hi-def transfer; no extras.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 
Since Nicolas Cage has pretty much surrendered his career to bizarre script choices, this sequel actually seems less crazy than it should be. The pluses of this ludicrously plotted movie are that directors Neveldine/ Taylor throw caution to the wind and concentrate on superb set pieces that make one forget—at least momentarily—the lunacy of what’s happening onscreen. Unfortunately, the ending promises another sequel, which is definitely unnecessary. The overly digitized action has a less-than-warm look on Blu-ray; extras include featurettes and interviews.

The Gold Rush 
One of Charlie Chaplin’s immortal comedies is as humane and affecting as his other classics The Circus, Modern Times and City Lights. The set pieces—the dance of the rolls, the Tramp eating his shoe—are as ingenious as ever; the only quibble is that Chaplin’s inferior, re-edited 1942 talkie version is now considered definite. Luckily, The Criterion Collection includes both versions on this invaluable release, which are quite stupendous-looking on Blu-ray; extras include Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance commentary, interviews with Vance and historian Kevin Brownlow about restoring the 1925 version; and a 2002 featurette about the film’s importance and legacy.

In Darkness 
Director Agnieszka Holland pulls few punches in her real-life account of WWII Jewish refugees hiding in sewers under the Polish town of Lvov and a sewer worker keeping them from the Nazis. The film unflinchingly shows the awful conditions under which these desperate people survived; laced with bitter humor—especially its depiction of an unsaintly hero (a marvelous Robert Więckiewicz)—it also allows characters their humanity. The film is splendidly monochromatic (thanks to Joanta Dylewska’s photography, Michael Czarcecki’s editing and Erwin Prib’s production design); on Blu-ray, this brilliantly muted color scheme remains illuminated. Extras include a Holland interview and discussion between Holland and one of the real-life survivors.

Lina Wertmuller Collection: The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, All Screwed Up 
(Kino Classics)
It’s hard to believe, but in the mid-‘70s, Italian director Lina Wertmuller was considered among the world’s great filmmakers, culminating in her being the first woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar for her 1976 masterpiece, Seven Beauties. Too bad that brilliant, one-of-a-kind classic isn’t in this set (neither is her intelligent battle of the sexes comedy, 1975’s Swept Away…), but these three films give a good overview of this gifted artist’s singularly feminist point of view. The Seduction of Mimi (1972) and Love and Anarchy (1973)—starring her favorite screen couple, the extraordinary versatile Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato—are superior, blackly comic dramas; 1974’s All Screwed Up is much less interesting but still a worthy comedy. All three movies, despite less-than-optimal materials, have authentically film-like grain; unfortunately, no extras.

Machine Gun Preacher 
Gerard Butler’s committed portrayal of Sam Childers, a biker and criminal who becomes a preacher selflessly helping children in the dangerous areas of Sudan is reason enough to see Marc Forster’s compelling if preachy melodrama based on a true story. Accomplished turns by Michelle Monaghan (wife) and Michael Shannon (friend) back up Butler’s first-rate star turn. On Blu-ray, the movie looks stunning, particularly the African sequences; extras include a Forster interview, making-of featurette and video of Chris Cornell’s closing-credits song, “The Seeker.”

Bill Murray’s film debut, this cornball 1979 comedy was shot as he was making it big on Saturday Night Live. Ivan Reitman’s sketchy humor shows throughout the goofy summer camp story, while Murray does what he can: but even he hadn’t fully formed his onscreen persona, so the movie is heavy-going even for his biggest fans. The Blu-ray transfer, while soft, has a decent amount of grain; the lone extra is Reitman and writer Dan Goldberg’s commentary.

Sherlock Holmes: 
A Game of Shadows 
Guy Ritchie’s redundant sequel to his unnecessary—but profitable—reboot of the British detective franchise consolidates Holmes as a superhero, moving so far from whom Arthur Conan Doyle created and the rest of us envisioned that it’s no use getting upset over such a cynical film series this is becoming. Robert Downey and Jude Law keep their dignity, and it’s fun to see Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams, however ill-used; but Ritchie’s routine action sequences kill his stars’ momentum. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras are Downey’s video commentary and on-set featurettes.

Vec Makropulos/The Makropulos Affair 
(Unitel Classica)
Leos Janacek’s masterly opera is a weird sci-fi tale about 300-year-old Emilia Marty—one of opera’s great soprano roles, here superbly enacted and sung by German soprano Angela Denoke—nearing the end of what should have been immortality. The knotty but affecting music is dramatically played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s graceful baton. But Christoph Marthaler’s 2011 Salzburg staging pointlessly adds to Janacek’s terse libretto, bloating its taut structure. Still, Denoke, Salonen and Janacek ultimately triumph. The hi-def transfer gives added visual definition, while surround sound gives Janacek’s extraordinary music the breathing space it deserves.

DVDs of the Week
This French soft-core feature has naked bodies and body parts galore: but when it comes to relationships, the clinical filmmaking is anything but triumphant. Laurent Bouhnik’s film attempts to explore the active sexuality of young men and—especially—women, but since he’s a trite psychological director, there’s lots of nudity and simulated sex but little else. Of course, the cast is terrifically attractive—particularly leads Déborah Révy and Helene Zimmer —but they don’t get to do much other than shed their clothes and inhibitions: the characters themselves remain wooden.

Don’t Go in the Woods 
What might have been a clever slasher movie parody instead is, in novice director Vincent D’Onofrio’s hands, lumbering and obvious. A rock band goes to the woods to write new material—we hear their new songs in between being terrorized by a killer—and that’s about it. At 83 minutes, the movie is barely credulous, and Sam Bisbee’s songs are derivative and humorless, the opposite of what’s needed to make this a memorable parody. The young cast seems camera-shy, and D’Onofrio doesn’t distinguish himself behind the camera. Extras include a D’Onofrio interview and making-of featurette.

Queen of Hearts 
(Film Movement)
This relentlessly cutesy rom-com-cum-musical is the brainchild of writer-director-star Julie Donzelli, a capable actress but less than thrilling filmmaker. She also cast her-then boyfriend, the lumpish actor Jeremie Elkaim—playing not one but four of the heroine’s boyfriends—and none of the performers is able to carry off this subtle feat very well, and the film soon turns leaden instead of whimsical, and fey rather than charming. The bonus short, Luis and Marta Work Together, made in the United Kingdom, is in Portuguese.

CDs of the Week
Alfredo Casella: 
Orchestral Works 
Another unsung 20th century Italian composer (alongside Lidebrando Pizzetti and Luigi Dellapiccola), Alfredo Casella was a master at atmospheric, colorful orchestral works, as this superlative disc—wonderfully  performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda—shows. The premiere recording of the solidly tuneful Concerto for Orchestra leads things off, followed by a piano concerto in all but name, A note alta, with scintillating soloist Martin Rosoce. Rounding out this satisfying foray into Casella’s music are two series of Symphonic Fragments from 'La donna serpent,' a Casella opera.

Dead Man Walking 
(Virgin Classics)
Jake Heggie’s first opera, which premiered in San Francisco in 2000, receives an emotional recording by Houston Grand Opera from 2011. Based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book (adapted by Tim Robbins for his 1995 Oscar-winning film), Heggie’s opera adroitly uses spirituals, gospel numbers and other American musical genres. With a formidable cast led by Joyce DiDonato as Prejean and Philip Cutlip as death-row inmate Joseph De Rocher, the tragic work—ably conducted by Patrick Summers—makes its case as a top American opera of the past 20 years.

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