Sunday, September 23, 2012

September '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Children of Paradise
Les Visiteurs du Soir 
Marcel Carne's best films are unique amalgams of visual and verbal poetry that combine incredible acting with Jacques Prevert's sublime scripts. Children of Paradise (1945), one of the all-time great films, is an abject lesson in performance and the last word in cinematic romance. Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942) is a scarcely less wondrous fantasy about two envoys sent by Satan to Earth during the Middle Ages to cause havoc but instead find love. The exquisite-looking B&W compositions have been restored to a new vitality on these Criterion discs, even if Children has noticeably soft sections. Both films include a 2009 making-of documentary; Children also has two commentaries, Terry Gilliam intro, featurettes, interviews and its own 2009 making-of doc.

The Crossing Guard/The Human Stain  
These double-feature Blu-rays pair character-driven dramas and routine thrillers. The first has Robert Benton's Human Stain, which flattens Philip Roth's haunting novel by having Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman go through the motions, and Sean Penn's downbeat Crossing Guard, which features an emotionally constricted Jack Nicholson performance. The other has Darkness, a haunting thriller with Anna Paquin and Lena Olin, and Below, set in a submarine, which wastes Olivia Williams, among others. The movies have decent hi-def transfers; extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

Ed Wood 
Tim Burton's best movie remains this affectionate 1994 biopic about the world's worst moviemaker, with Johnny Depp delightfully camping it up as Ed, who thought he was making art when he was truly the bottom of the barrel. Sly turns are handed in by Bill Murray, Martin Landau (a perfect Bela Lagosi), and even Sarah Jessica Parker, who for once is believable as an inept actress. The exquisite B&W photography looks sumptuous on Blu-ray; extras include a commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

Another eccentric family does eccentric things, all the while speaking the most clever and witty rat-a-tat dialogue to one another—I feel like I've seen this movie 100 times in the past few years, and it's getting really tiresome. Goats at least has a solid cast led by David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga and Justin Kirk, although the always appealing Keri Russell is criminally underused. The movie receives a top-notch Blu-ray transfer; extras include a making-of, deleted scenes and home movies.

Modern Family—Complete Season 3 
In the third season of the most-honored network sitcom of the past few years—winning even more Emmy awards this weekend—the extended family's misadventures continue for two dozen more episodes, propped up by the superb comic portrayals of Emmy winners Julie Bowen and Eric Stonestreet, with the voluptuous Sofia Vergara on hand to ensure that it's worthwhile watching the show on Blu-ray. The extras comprise featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

The Navigator  
One of Buster Keaton's lesser features, this 1924 comic adventure finds him negotiating his way around a huge steamship as he also tries to negotiate his way around the young woman stowed away on the boat. There are splendidly realized scenes of Buster's own brand of inimitable physical comedy, but the 60-minute movie feels like a short stretched to a feature. Still, Keaton fans will still love it. The Blu-ray image improves on the DVD, but print damage is still quite noticeable. Extras include a featurette and commentary.

October Baby 
This earnest but hopelessly muddled drama dramatizes a 19-year-old woman's reaction to the news that her mother not only gave her up at birth but that she was actually an abortion survivor. You know you're in amateurish hands when the movie begins with a pop song montage that so many TV shows end with—and the dull tunes keep popping up throughout as shorthand for actual conflict. The cast has little to do, although Rachel Hendrix transforms heroine Hannah into someone who deserves our sympathy. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras include a commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers, music video and interviews.

Der Ring des Nibelungen 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
In the Metropolitan Opera's latest staging of Wagner's insanely ambitious Ring cycle—comprising Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung—Canadian director Robert Lepage uses the technological wizardry at his disposal to present the fantastic epic tale of gods and goddesses, Rhine maidens and dragons, and the ring which binds them all together. If Lepage's concept is mere gimmickry, there's no quibbling with the musicianship. There's the redoubtable Met Orchestra and Chorus under the batons of James Levine and, for the last two operas, Fabio Luisi; and there are world-class singers like Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Eric Owens (Alberich) and Eva-Maria Westbrook (Sieglinde). The hi-def images are splendidly realized, the music sounds great in surround sound, and an extra disc includes Wagner's Dream, Susan Froemke's documentary about this production's genesis.

Supernatural—The Complete Season 7 
In the seventh season of this popular prime-time soap opera, brothers Sam and Dean take on demons of all stripes, from none other than Lucifer down to their own personal crises; the set comprises 23 episodes over four discs, and the hi-def images are excellent. Extras include an exclusive Blu-ray interactive featurette, three commentaries, a gag reel, deleted scenes and interviews.

Umberto D 
Vittorio de Sica's masterly portrait of an elderly retiree and his beloved dog trying to survive in postwar Italy is one of the greatest of all neo-realist films: and this glorious Blu-ray release is the perfect present for this classic film's 50th anniversary. Actor Carlo Battisti and canine Napoleone's naturalistic performances go beyond acting, and DeSica and co-writer Cesare Zavattini have created a painfully tragic, heartbreaking and immortal tale. The Blu-ray image is immaculate; extras include That's Life, a 55-minute doc about de Sica's career and a 2003 interview with actress Maria Pia Casilio.

The Victim 
(Anchor Bay)
Actor Michael Biehn's inauspicious writing/directing debut is a sleazy, exploitative flick about a young woman, escaping a pair of crazy men in the woods, who runs into a recluse (Biehn) who helps her out. It's a flimsy plot stretched weakly to feature length: Biehn, who has an impressive screen presence, isn't much of a writer or director; Jennifer Blanc is too shrill as the heroine, but Danielle Harris gives an appealing performance in her too-brief screen time as the victim. The hi-def image is good; extras are a making-of featurette and Biehn/Blanc commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Army Wives—Season 6, Part 1 
Body of Proof—The Complete Season 2 
The first half of the sixth season of the emotionally charged drama Army Wives—13 episodes' worth—finds the women (and men) of Fort Marshall dealing again with matters of both national and personal security. The 20 episodes of the second season of Body of Proof, which stars the ageless Dana Delaney (who looks even better than she did on China beach more than two decades earlier), follow her investigating team as it solves case after case. Extras on both sets include deleted scenes, interviews and gag reels.

Death and the Civil War 
America and the Civil War 
Death, Ric Burns' devastating account of how the Civil War changed Americans' view of death and how the government dealt with military men dying on battlefields, succinctly summarizes Drew Gilpin Faust's remarkably researched book The Republic of Suffering. The usual Burnsian stew of narration, voice-over, historian commentary and vintage photographs is present and accounted for. America collects several classic PBS series about the War Between the States: explorations of Gettysburg, John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid, the iron-clad Union ship Monitor, the black regiment that inspired the movie Glory and a two-parter about Reconstruction.

Tanya Wexler's mild comedy-drama about the invention of the first vibrator has tittering scenes of women being treated for the title malady in Victorian London by manual genital manipulation juxtaposed with an unlikely romance between a young doctor and his mentor's lively, independent (read “hysteric”) daughter. Maggie Gyllenhall is plucky as said daughter, but Hugh Dancy is too stolid as the doc. The movie unfolds decently enough, but Sarah Ruhl's 2009 play In the Next Room is a more plausible—not to mention funny—take on the same subject. Extras include a commentary, deleted scenes and making-of featurette.

The Mentalist—Complete Season 4 
In the fourth season (which comprises 24 episodes), our favorite mentalist—who is played with elan by Simon Baker—is on the run after killing who he thought was his nemesis, while his investigative partners (played by Robin Tunney, Tim Kang, Amanda Righetti and Owain Yeoman) continue to back him up as the show progresses. The lone extra is a featurette of real-life “mentalists.”

Understanding Art: Impressionism 
Women of the Impressionist Movement  
(Arthaus Musik)
In Understanding Art, art critic Waldemar Janusczak's four-part, four-hour 2011 documentary made for British TV, the impressionists regain their immediacy and unique artistic contributions through Janusczak's upbeat presentation and on-location reporting; extras include full-length profiles of Edouard Manet and Vincent van Gogh. Women is Rudij Bergmann's slickly-made 45-minute overview of female Impressionist painters, including Frenchwoman Berthe Morisot and the most famous and talented of them all, American Mary Cassatt.

CD of the Week
The Master—Original Soundtrack 
Jonny Greenwood's music for Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood channeled the dissonant early works of Krzystof Penderecki so successfully that Penderecki himself gave Greenwood a thumps-up, most likely because Penderecki got new fans out of the deal. For Anderson's new film The Master, Greenwood again provides a score that has hints of Penderecki, but also touches on other modernist composers like Berg and Ligeti, and even Stravinsky and Janacek. For listeners unaware of what it is, they'd likely think it's a 20th century classical compilation, save for the scattered period songs like Ella Fitzgerald's “Get Thee Behind Me Satan.”

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