Sunday, July 29, 2012

July '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
An admittedly ingenious story device—Secret Service agent trapped in a car trunk must figure out a D.C. terrorist plot before bombs burst in air—is ruined by a twist stolen from the very first Twilight Zone episode. Then, as if admitting to the theft, writer Timothy Mannion unveils another dastardly twist, which falls flat. Since nearly the entire 90-minute movie takes place in an enclosed box, Stephen Dorff must be commended for his controlled hysterics and apparent lack of claustrophobia. Director Gabe Torres cleverly keeps viewers from suffocating; on Blu-ray, the movie’s visuals look sharp. Extras are a Torres commentary, music video and making-of featurette.

Famed British detective Inspector Morse had to begin somewhere, and Endeavour shows where, as the green but aggressive rookie tackles the case of a teenage schoolgirl gone missing near Oxford. With assorted characters that have something to hide—including a former opera singer, whom the young Morse adores, whose husband may have been mixed up with the unfortunate girl—Endeavour is a worthy addition to the Masterpiece Mystery family. Solid acting by Sean Lewis, Roger Allam and Flora Hemingway complements a satisfying script; the hi-def transfer is excellent.

Get the Gringo
If Mel Gibson is really looking to rehabilitate his image, he should pick better scripts than this one by Apocalypto co-writer Adrian Grunberg, also making his directing debut. Favoritism is one thing, but this idiotic adventure about an American jailed in Mexico who must save himself and others before bad guys get them balances flavorful dialogue with ridiculously thin characters. Gibson gets by on his natural charisma, but the others are close to offensive caricature (although with that title, it’s not surprising). The movie has a good Blu-ray transfer; extras include a making-of featurette and music video.

The Last of England
Derek Jarman’s angry screed against his country being destroyed from within by Thatcher’s conservative government has lost none of its visceral power since its 1987 release and contains indelible visuals, especially those featuring then-muse Tilda Swinton, only a blip on Hollywood’s radar back then. Still, Jarman’s ranting rarely coheres into something tangible, as it does far more strongly in his next film, the AIDS paean, The Garden. In this fine hi-def transfer, England etches a specific time and place.

On the Inside
(Anchor Bay)
Writer-director D.W. Brown’s unconvincing prison drama fails in its attempt to create a sympathetic character in a killer sentenced to a psych ward with men crazier and more psychopathic than he. And while Nick Stahl makes a fairly credible protagonist, both Dash Mihok and Pruitt Taylor Vince are too obvious as his prison foils, and the always appealing Olivia Wilde is totally wasted in a silly “romantic” role. The movie does have a top-notch hi-def transfer, however.

Peter Gabriel: Secret World Live
(Eagle Vision)
This film of Peter Gabriel’s 1994 tour supporting his Us CD finally gets the spectacular hi-def treatment. The upgraded DTS-HD sound is impressively enveloping: every nuance of Gabriel’s vocals and his ace backing band’s playing clearly heard. The 16mm film has also gotten a thorough visual restoration. Of course, the concert’s a knockout musically, and Peter’s duets with backing vocalist (and soon to be hitmaker) Paula Cole on “Come Talk to Me,” “Blood of Eden” and “Don’t Give Up” are among his most impassioned. Extras include “Red Rain” (why isn’t it part of the film?), a Gabriel interview, behind-the-scenes footage and “Rhythm of the Heat” from his 2010 orchestral tour.

Queen & Country
Trevor McDonald’s four programs about how the British see their queen in her Diamond Jubilee Year and, by extension, the institution of the monarchy itself, is a fascinating cultural history lesson. The quartet—London: Royal City, Royal Visit, The Queen’s Possessions and Traveler—is narrated by McDonald, who interviews people ranging from one of the queen’s photographers to a “Beefeater” (queen’s guard). The show was shot in splendid hi-definition, which includes glimpses of the picturesque Channel Islands, where inhabitants think of themselves as part of but separate from their country.

They Made Me a Fugitive
Alberto Cavalcanti—then known simply as Cavalcanti (take that, Sting and Madonna)—directed this bleak film noir in 1947, and it remains amazingly modern. Amid the usual noirish trappings, Trevor Howard superbly plays a war veteran hardened by work in the criminal underworld. Otto Heller’s marvelous black and white photography has so many shades of gray, reminding us that nothing’s either black or white in this sordid world; the movie looks terrific on Blu-ray.

DVDs of the Week
Black Butterflies
(Tribeca Film)
Deserved winner of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Actress award, the Netherlands’ Carice van Houten fearlessly portrays South African poet Ingrid Jonker, an unforgettable performance that overshadows the rest of Paula van der Oest’s biopic. Some good, intense sequences visualize Jonker’s tortured psychology, but too often Butterflies falls into the melodramatic trap of similar screen biographies. But Houten is so shattering that it rarely matters. Extras include van der Oest and van Houten interviews.

(e one)
In Nacho Vigalondo’s smart sci-fi thriller-cum-romantic comedy, a lovely young woman, her boyfriend, a one-night-stand and a nosy neighbor wonder whether any of the others is one of “them”: aliens that have landed on earth. The tongue-in-cheek humor makes up for lazy exposition as each person’s suspicions don’t pan out. The performances (notably by knockout Michelle Jenner) keep Vigalondo’s intriguing but one-note concept amusing for 90 minutes. Extras include three Vigalondo shorts and a making-of featurette.

Finding Your Roots
Henry Louis Gates Jr’s genealogy series continues with episodes that enlighten celebrities of their lineage—with surprises such as when married couple Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick learn that they are ninth cousins. Others interviewed are musicians Harry Connick and Branford Marsalis, actors Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and politicians Condoleezza Rice and Cory Booker. Gates’ chronicles are historically relevant and engaging to watch as famous people become emotional while discovering their ancestors.

Missing and Scandal
These new ABC drama series revolve around immensely likeable leading ladies: Missing stars Ashley Judd as a former CIA agent who takes it upon herself to find her kidnaped son in Europe, while Revenge stars Kerry Washington as head of a crisis management agency that uses its expertise to hush up possible scandals in Washington D.C. While both shows unabashedly traffic in implausibilities, good writing, acting and a quick pace compensate. Extras are interviews and behind the scenes snapshots; Missing also includes deleted scenes.

Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow
(First Run)
This remarkable documentary presents the history of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, one of the Berkshire’s summer jewels. For 80 years, renowned choreographers and performers descend upon Jacob’s Pillow to perform cutting-edge, controversial, thought-provoking modern and classical dance works. Narrated by choreographer Bill T. Jones, Ron Honsa’s film includes interviews with Suzanne Farrell and Mark Morris, and succinctly summarizes the place’s historical and artistic importance. Extras include a brief Merce Cunningham interview and additional performance snippets.

Patagonia Rising
(First Run)
Brian Lilla’s urgent expose of a massive dam project threatening Chile’s Patagonia region is cinematic advocacy at its most revelatory. The project, comprising five dams along two rivers, purports to help millions receive needed electricity, but experts insist it will destroy one of the world’s most fragile eco-systems, and that alternative forms of energy are preferable. Lilla methodically covers both sides, even though it’s obvious where he sits. The project’s PR mouthpiece comes off slick and rehearsed, but more troubling are sincere but naive comments from people who live in Santiago, who feel the dams are needed for their well-being (needless to say, most are young adults).

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