Sunday, August 12, 2012

August '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Blue Like Jazz
Based on Donald Miller’s memoir, this intermittently interesting drama dramatizes how a sheltered Texas Southern Baptist deals with attending a Portland liberal college. Although much of what happens is obvious (he sees that everyone’s a hypocrite, even his pious mother), there’s a refreshing candor and lack of condescension and smugness: despite their faults, everyone has redeemable features. The strong cast, director Steve Taylor and cowriters Miller, Taylor and Ben Pearson don’t hit viewers over the head with their clichés. The hi-def image is very good; extras include a commentary, making-of featurette, deleted scenes and other featurette.

Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film—made a dozen years before his death in 1999—is a dense, personal chronicle of young men being transformed into a military fighting machine. With Vietnam as a backdrop, Kubrick shoots many unforgettable images of that disastrous war, like Hue City and the Tet Offensive, but his main interest lies in the  philosophical underpinnings of the psychological damage the military apparatus inflicts. The first half’s clinical, detached look at basic training is exploded by the second half, in which boot camp’s precision degenerates into helter-skelter horrors on the battlefield. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras include a commentary, featurette and bonus DVD, an hour-long documentary about the master’s voluminous research, Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.

This sci-fi flick, set in the year 2079, has a space prison colony being overrun by prisoners—and the president’s daughter is a hostage. Enter a gnarly hero who must go in and save her. There’s no wasting time on anything other than action sequences—which are well done—so, by the time one thinks about the silliness of the premise, the movie’s over. It’s co-directed by Stephen Saint Leger and James Mather (two people were needed to helm this?), both disciples of Luc Besson, the empty-spectacle auteur, who is one of the producers. The movie looks first-rate on Blu; extras include making-of featurettes.

Kevin McDonald’s documentary about late, great reggae superstar Bob Marley may have been produced by family and friends of the singer, but this is no hagiography. Instead, over 145 minutes, the measure of the man and artist (who died at age 36 in 1981 of cancer) is taken, through interviews with wife Rita, girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare, members of his band the Wailers and many others who knew him. With excellent vintage video footage and photographs, along with audio interviews with the man himself, Marley is a hard-hitting, personal bio. The image, while soft at times, has appropriate grain; extras include additional interviews, MacDonald and Ziggy Marley’s commentary.

La Promesse and Rosetta
The Dardenne brothers have become the darlings of the international festival circuit over the past 15 years, even if their recent films (The Son, The Kid with a Bike) are pale imitations of their earlier gems; their first two features are on Blu-ray thanks to the Criterion Collection. 1996’s La Promesse and 1999’s Rosetta are two sides of the same coin, seen through their teenage protagonists’ eyes: the Dardennes present moral dilemmas in the guise of simply plotted stories that emphasize character over action. Criterion’s impeccable hi-def transfers highlight their gritty handheld camerawork; extras include Dardenne interviews and new interviews with the films’ principal actors.

Sebastiane and The Tempest
Derek Jarman’s early films show painfully slow growth. 1976’s Sebastiane, a biopic of the crucified saint, is a first feature (co-directed with Paul Humfress) whose ragged amateurishness shows, spoken Latin notwithstanding, while 1979’s The Tempest is a draggy Shakespeare adaptation with clever moments. Jarman was still finding his way; it wasn’t until 1986’s Caravaggio that he finally made a fully-formed feature. The 16mm prints of both films, upgraded to Blu-ray, allow a minimal advance in graininess and sharpness; Tempest extras comprise three Jarman short films.

DVDs of the Week
Casa de mi Padre
“From the gringos who brought you Anchorman” is the tagline for this inoffensive but insubstantial spoof that might have worked as a five-minute SNL skit. Will Farrell gamely speaks Spanish, but being Mexican is beyond him; stellar support comes from Gael Garcia Bernal and gorgeous Genesis Rodriguez, who between this and Man on a Ledge starts off her movie career with a bang. But the movie remains in a sort of suspended animation between amiable parody and Farrell’s usual stoopid shtick. Extras include a commentary, interview, making-of featurette, deleted scenes and music video.

Hindsight and No Mercy
(CJ Entertainment)
These thrillers are examples of Korean hit-or-miss genre flicks. Hindsight is a too-clever evocation of the old “boy meets gal, gal turns out to be hired killer” trope that was done better in Prizzi’s Honor. The performers are game, but they’re sunk by a soggy script. However, No Mercy is a tautly chilling cop drama with incisively drawn characters that keep one watching, even if it goes on for an overlong two hours. Extras include interviews and featurettes.

Mia and the Migoo
(e one)
The distinctive hand-drawn animation of French director Jacques-Remy Girerd highlights this environmentally conscious feature that parallels the great films of Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki. While not as profound or visually brilliant as Miyazaki’s Ponyo or Spirited Away, Mia has an offhand charm that make it watchable for the entire family. It would have been nice to have the original French language track; extras include a Girerd interview and making-of featurette.

(Cinema Libre)
Brian Malone’s documentary attempts to even-handedly dissect our damaged political system, but like Jon Stewart’s 2010 D.C. rally, it pretends that the right-wing noise machine and less truculent left-wing side are equal, when they obviously aren’t. Still, there’s valuable info and insight gleaned from talking heads on both sides of the aisle—including former Senator Alan Simpson, who gets directly to the heart of today’s madness—and, looking closely at footage from tea party rallies, it’s obvious that the right is the harbinger of this mess; an impotent left is the reason why there’s a stalemate instead of true progressive policies.

The Sinking of the Laconia
The Nazi sinking of the British passenger ship Laconia in 1942 is well-known in England but not here: but this superbly scripted and directed thriller about what happened before, during and after one of the most heinous actions of the war by either side should fill in the blanks for interested viewers. Marvelous physical trappings notwithstanding (and unavoidable soap opera qualities to the various stories), it’s the excellent acting by the likes of Brian Cox, Lindsay Duncan and Franka Potente to bring a human dimension to an epic survival tale. The lone extra is a half-hour doc about actual survivors’ stories.

CDs of the Week
Jean Francaix: Wind Chamber Music
Belgian composer Jean Francaix may have been a weird stickler about the pronunciation of his name (Fran-SEX, believe it or not), but his attractive and immensely tuneful music belies his offbeat personality. This disc of four of his wind chamber music works includes two wind quintets, a wind quartet and a Divertissement, all supremely confident and wonderfully beguiling. The Bergen Woodwind Quartet’s performances underscore Francaix’s sonic richness.

Bedrich Smetana: Dalibor
To most, Czech operas comprise Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and Dvorak’s Rusalka. This 1980 recording of another Smetana opera, this one based on Czech history, displays a wide-ranging musical palette encompassing chorales, marches and Wagner-like heaviness. This Brno State Opera performance, conducted by Vaclav Smetacek, is appropriately dramatic, and magnificent Czech singers like Vilem Pribyl, Vaclev Zitek and Eva Depoltova powerfully convey its musical might.

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