Monday, September 3, 2012

September '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
This unlikely board game adaptation looks like a stultifying Transformers sequel. The eponymous ship battles malevolent aliens who morph into various guises—although lookers like the brilliantly-named Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker and Rhianna star, their vapidity is emphasized by Peter Berg's noisily empty spectacle that's more concerned with ubiquitous special effects which outdo even stalwart Liam Neeson. The excessive CGI at least looks more plausible than the stiff actors thanks to Blu-ray's added clarity; extras comprise featurettes, interviews and an alternate ending.

(Kino Lorber)
Despite Schindler's List's obvious preeminence in the world of Holocaust films, three years earlier, in 1990, Polish master Andrzej Wajda made this simple, stark but equally harrowing film that's based on a true story about a doctor who bravely went to his death at Auschwitz with the young “children” surrounding him from the camp. Wajda's mastery is as devastating as Steven Spielberg's was throughout this understated black and white classic; Robby Muller's extraordinary images look brilliant on Blu-ray.

Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season 
This series takes place in Storybrooke, Maine, where Snow White and Prince Charming's daughter put up her young son for adoption, which triggers the plot mechanicsm. Although this fantasy is quite diverting, it too often attempts to be hip or stay one step ahead of the audience, but nowadays, the audience has seen everything, so nothing is surprising. The show returns to ABC for a second season at the end of September. The hi-def imagery looks great; extras include audio commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews and bloopers.

Piranha 3DD 
(Anchor Bay)
This thriller-spoof is one of the most gimmicky movies ever: it's not in 3-D, but 3-DD, which stands for—what else?—chesty bimbos jiggling befoe the camera for startling 3-D effects. The rest of the movie comprises shoddy production values, irredeemably stupid characters and so much ineptitude that cameos by mugging has-beens Gary Busey, Christopher Lloyd and David Hasselhoff, or an appearance by “30 Rock” babe Katrina Bowden, who fires off one of the raunchiest lines ever heard in a non-porn movie, look good by comparison. The 3-D hi-def image is decent; extras include a commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes and Busey's blooper reel.

Sons of Anarchy: Season 4 
The outlaw motorcycle club's ongoing peregrinations and conflicts continue during the drama series' fourth season. Although it's basically a one-note concept, the show is blessed with a solid cast—that comprises, among others, Charlie Hunman, Ron Perlman, Kim Coates and the great Katey Segal—which makes the characters full-bodied, well-rounded, plausible people. All of the fourth season's 14 episodes are included in this set, and the Blu-ray image looks terrific; extras include extended episodes, featurettes, commentaries.

Les Vampires 
(Kino Lorber)
One of the first movie serials, Louis Feuillade's silent-era Les Vampires is a seven-hour extravaganza that follows the exploits of a journalist turned detective and his partner who are tracking down a shadowy group of criminals. Despite its age, the film (made in 1915-6) contains terrific action and intimate sequences; and, although that intertitles are not in the original French might put off purists, it won't matter to most viewers. Considering it's nearly a century old, it's amazing how cleaned-up it looks.

The Walking Dead: Season 2 
(Anchor Bay)
In the second season of this high-concept dramatic series, the survivors of the deadly apocalypse which begat zombies (called “walkers”) attempt to not only survive periodic attacks but also learn to survive alongside one another, which—as we know—is almost impossible under ordinary circumstances. The drama is well-acted and filmed, but its originality factor lessens with each episode—still, for those unfinicky about such things, it provides considerable entertainment. All 13 episodes are included, and the hi-def image is excellent; extras include featurettes; audio commentaries; 6 webisodes; deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
The Barnes Collection 
Businessman/philanthropist Albert Barnes' life and legacy are recounted in this hour-long program that carefully avoids the mess created by the decision to relocate his superlative collection from suburban Philadelphia to the city proper. Although this is an interesting overview of the man who built an imposing collection of art—including 181 paintings by Auguste Renoir—one needs to watch The Art of the Steal for a fair assessment of the thievery that took place by relocating expressly against Barnes' stated wishes.

Darling Companion 
Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan is no stranger to sentimental, multi-character stories, but what worked well in The Big Chill and partially in Grand Canyon provides diminishing returns. This story about a doctor's unhappy wife and her faithful new dog (whom she found—improbably—on the side of a highway) includes intersecting stories too cutesy to be plausibly filled out. Despite the best efforts of Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Richard Jenkins, Dianne West, Sam Shepard and the amazing canine Casey, Kasdan and wife Meg's script can't be elevated above a soap opera. Extras are featurettes.

(Raro Video)
From Andy Wahrol's stable of zonked-out zombies, Joe Dallesandro stolidly plays (with help from a dubbed Italian voice) an escaped killer who tracks down his nemesis, only to find him holed up with two very willing young women, both of whom give our hero a piece of the action. Director Fernando di Leo, a master of the Bloody Italian Cinema of the 70s, phones in one of his lesser efforts: the bloodletting is cheesy and the sex scenes (which are plentiful, including below-the-waist nudity) are risible in the hands (and other body parts) of his amateurish cast.

Revenge: Season 1
The first season of this Hamptons-set Dallas type soap opera among the rich adroitly sets up its young heroine's (Emily van Camp) vengeful plan amidst the usual assortment of stock scheming wives, cheating husbands and endless double-crossing. The affluent setting, of course, is the show's real draw, and the performers—including the welcome return of Madeleine Stowe as the rich bitch antagonist—do their best to keep things moving. Extras are a commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers, featurettes and interviews.

Der Rosenkavalier 
(Opera Australia)
Although Richard Strauss' masterly comic opera—his grandest achievement, what with its endlessly inventive melodies, wonderfully realized characters and opera's greatest trio finale—is done fairly well at the Sydney Opera House in Brian Fitzgerald's production, there's something, a spark, missing. The orchestra, under Andrew Litton's baton, is fine, and leading ladies Cheryl Barker, Catherine Carby and Emma Pearson acquit themselves nicey. But this all-time classic is so-so when it should be a scintillating staging.

Two and a Half Men—Season 9 
We know who's missing from this season: the Sheen who shall not be named. Ashton Kutcher has come in to do a decent job replacing the other guy, even though the sitcom's entire dynamic between the men has shifted, and not for the better. Still, the show was already declining, but it's doubtful that it will improve any time soon, even though Kutcher and his co-stars, Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones, are engaging together. The three discs comprise all 24 episodes; extras include featurettes and a gag reel.

CDs of the Week
Montsalvatge, Piano Music 
Ullmann, Complete Piano Sonatas 
(Steinway & Sons)
Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge died in 2002 at age 90 and Viktor Ullmann died at the hands of the Nazis in 1944. Despite divergent paths, they each wrote some of the most compelling and intensely personal piano music of the 20th century, as these discs show. Montsalvatge's eclecticism is on display in the third disc of Jordi Maso's exploration of the composer's keyboard music, and he's joined by Miquel Villalba on choice works like the jazzy Barcelona Blues and bouncy Three Divertimenti. Jeanne Golan performs Ullmann's seven piano sonatas with formidable intensity, particularly the final three, which alternate between terseness and a buoyancy that belies their being written while he was incarcerated in a concentration camp.

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