Sunday, August 5, 2012

August '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
This thriller’s dumb premise comes courtesy of the writer of Buried, which was about a man trying to break out of a coffin. But that plot was positively Proustian compared to this one about two men and a woman trapped in an ATM by a maniac: even when it’s obvious they can break free, they do something stupid. Director David Brooks handles the risible premise as well as possible, but that’s small consolation—ATM is for easy-to-please genre fans only. The Blu-ray image is fine; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Beautiful Planet: England/The Low Countries and Germany/Austria
(Echo Bridge)
These engaging hi-def travel programs comprise various locations throughout England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, specifically Old Town Bamberg in Germany, Austria’s Schonbrunn Palace, London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Belgium’s historic city of Bruges and Holland’s famed windmills. The video footage, while tremendous, has iffy hi-def resolution: it looks somewhat grainy and not as sharp as the best HD does. And there’s also insufferable narration, which doesn’t help matters any.

Cracking the Koala Code
This informative if overly frivolous PBS Nature program tracks the lives of several koala bears that make their home among the humans living in Australian suburbs. The superbly detailed camerawork follows the koalas up close and personally, whether they are mating or marking their territory against unwanted interlopers; the scientific explanations for their behavior are fascinating to hear, but the program too often falls into the “aren’t they cute?” rut. The Blu-ray images are excellent.

The Faculty
(Echo Bridge)
Director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kevin Williamson (creator of Scream, a debit of a credit if there ever was one), joined forces for this amusingly hokey 1999 horror spoof about a suburban high school overrun by aliens which are entering the bodies of the faculty members. The movie, which stars the likes of Jon Stewart, Josh Hartnett, Famke Janssen and Jordana Brewster, ricochets between full-on gory effects and over-the-top silliness. The movie has a decent if unspectacular transfer; surprisingly, considering other Rodriguez DVDs, there are no extras.

Forever Marilyn
Cinema’s ultimate goddess gets her own hi-def boxed set on the 50th anniversary of her death, and the seven films included are among Monroe’s most celebrated roles. Marilyn’s best film appearance, in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), and her disappointing pairing with Clark Gable in John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) were previously released on Blu-ray, but the other five are new to the format: There’s No Business Like Show Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, River of No Return, The Seven Year Itch and How to Marry a Millionaire make this one of the most memorable boxed sets yet to appear on Blu-ray. Each of the films—particularly those shot in Cinemascope, which means all of them except Gentlemen—looks superb, and several of the discs include vintage featurettes, commentaries and deleted scenes.

Grand Illusion
Jean Renoir’s second best film—after The Rules of the Game—is an all-time masterpiece: his explosive 1937 anti-war tract about French prisoners during WWI remains a grimly realistic but humane psychological study. Stellar acting by Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim and gritty B&W photography by Christian Matras add to its status as a true classic. On Blu-ray, the movie looks nearly flawless, which is amazing for a 75-year-old film; extras include interviews, featurettes and a look at the restoration.

Le Havre
The important theme of illegal immigration is turned by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki into something as relevant as last year’s almanac. Kaurismaki’s familiar deadpan style has worn thin and his expressionless actors ruin a potentially powerful premise. The city of Le Havre, while no cultural French jewel, surely deserves better than this lazy effort; aside from a few ‘90s gems (La Vie de Boheme, Juha, Drifting Clouds), Kaurismaki’s uninspired films have been providing more meager returns. Criterion, of course, gives the film a superior Blu-ray transfer; extras include interviews and bonus footage.

DVDs of the Week
The Beat Hotel
(First Run)
Alan Govenar’s documentary about the little-known and run-down Parisian hotel that was ground zero for the beat generation is an interesting historical glimpse at a fertile period for literature and art that began in the City of Light’s Latin Quarter. In addition to amusing anecdotes about or interviews with several of its famous players (Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs) and the hotel’s proprietress Madame Rachou, the movie is also visually arresting, thanks to Harold Chapman’s vintage photographs and Elliot Rudie’s drawings. Extras include short films and a deleted scene.

Caged Fury and The Children of Times Square
These Burn On Demand releases are nearly forgotten B movies, starting with Caged Fury (1990), starring the beautiful Roxanna Michaels as a tough gal who helps break her friends out of a prison populated with crooked guards. The Children of Times Square (1986), made by Curtis Hanson long before hitting pay dirt with L.A. Confidential, is a spotty portrait of 42nd Street’s denizens before it was cleaned up and Disneyfied that works better as a time-capsule glimpse than as a compelling drama.

Dreams from My Real Father
(Highway 61)
This fictional “documentary” pretending to tell the truth about Barack Obama’s real father—he wasn’t Kenyan but an American Commie—fails to connect dots that are unconnectable. Inept director Joel Gilbert even compares photos of Obama and supposed dad, Frank Marshall Davis, neither of whom resembles the other: such patently offensive nonsense is another example of the systematic lowering of America’s collective IQ. In this latest “Obama Is Not a Legitimate President” screed, there’s not a shred of evidence; instead, crazy-quilt theories are raised and accepted as “fact”: as long as one screams “Marxist,” “Communist” and “Socialist,” some will respond as red meat to rabid dogs.

Director Joseph Cedar ingeniously dissects the competitiveness of father and son Talmudic scholars who find themselves on opposite sides when the important Israel Prize is announced. Cedar wittily keeps things moving with flashbacks, cross-cutting, onscreen titles and persuasive performances that sympathetically display the continuously shifting father-son dynamics in an unapologetically intellectual milieu. Extras include a Cedar interview and making-of featurette.

Institute Benjamenta
The Quay brothers, cinematic purveyors of fanciful weirdness, made their debut feature in 1994; the quirkiness is encapsulated in its subtitle, Or These Dreams We Call Human Life. This bizarre drama stars Mark Rylance as a man who enrolls in a weird boarding school and becomes involved the owner’s wife (Alice Krige). The B&W images look stunning on DVD (too bad there’s no Blu-ray release, as there was in England); extras include on-set footage and the brothers’ 2007 short, Eurydice: She So Beloved.

The Kent Chronicles
The first three of John Jakes’ colorful series of American history novels—which I devoured as a teenager—were turned into TV mini-series in 1978 and ’79 that featured fictional characters meeting many historical personages. In The Bastard, young Philippe Charboneau meets Lafayette and Ben Franklin; in The Rebels, Philippe, now Philip Kent, fights alongside George Washington, Sam Adams and Paul Revere against the Redcoats; in The Seekers, son Abraham fights the War of 1812. Andrew Stevens (Philip), impossibly beautiful Kim Cattrall (wife Anne) and ‘70s relics Tom Bosley (Franklin), William Shatner (Paul Revere), Peter Graves (Washington), Don Johnson, Delta Burke and Olivia Massey co-star, with a scene-stealing William Daniels as Samuel Adams.

CDs of the Week
Bliss Conducts Bliss
Sir Arthur Bliss, a truly unsung 20th century British composer, was also an accomplished conductor of his own music, which these recordings triumphantly show. A Colour Symphony, one of Bliss’s most characteristic orchestral works, begins the disc with its sparkling virtuosity, followed by Music for Strings and Introduction and Allegro; all are brilliantly paced by Bliss, who leads two formidable ensembles, the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestras, in these performances from 1955 and 1956.

Saxophone Concertos
Alexandre Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto is the go-to classical sax work that has attracted the likes of Branford Marsalis, so it’s no surprise it leads off John-Edward Kelly’s exploration of 20th century saxophone concertos that was recorded in 2000. Kelly, who also conducts the Glazunov work, has the style and pacing down, along with playing his own cadenza; contemporary works by Nicola LeFanu (1989) and Krzysztof Meyer (1993) are less impressive musically but contain enough technical challenges for Kelly to make them sound significant. Micha Hamel conducts the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic in the two other works.

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