Sunday, October 7, 2012

October '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Annie (Columbia)
It was considered a bomb in the summer of 1982, and if the ensuing decades haven’t been kind to John Huston’s adaptation of the beloved Broadway hit, it’s a sturdy, glossy example of the kind of musical they don’t make any more. Albert Finney and Carol Burnett are not up to their usual shining excellence (Burnett hams unfunnily, Finney tries too hard to be a musical comedy charmer, which he isn’t), 11-year-old Aileen Quinn is a decent Annie and there’s good support by Ann Reinking, Bernadette Peters and Geoffrey Holder. The Blu-ray image isn’t bad; extras include Quinn’s reminiscence.

Cinderella (Disney)
One of Disney’s classics receives an overdue Blu-ray upgrade. This 75-minute gem from 1950 looks splendid, as its hand-drawn animation has it all over the antiseptic computer-generated visuals that have been de rigeur for the past couple decades. The gloriously simple visuals are enhanced by hi-def, and if the extras leave something to be desired—featurettes, alternate opening, unneeded new short, Tangled Ever After—it’s the original film that counts.

Dark Shadows (Warners)
Tim Burton’s hokey, jokey reboot of the TV series has a color-coded schema that has bled most colors out except black and white, with blood red a striking if obvious contrast. The intentional early 70s cheesiness—Love Story, the Carpenters, Alice Cooper playing himself in concert—is one thing; the lame story and characters are another. Michelle Pfeiffer and Johnny Depp come off best; Eva Green, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter and talented young Chloe Grace Moritz are wasted. Subtle color changes look terrific on Blu-ray; extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.

Gary Moore—Blues for Jimi (Eagle Vision)
Guitarist Gary Moore—best known for his work in Thin Lizzy, he died prematurely, aged 58, last year—played a scorching 2007 Jimi Hendrix tribute show in London. Moore and a blistering rhythm section tear through a dozen classic Hendrix tunes, from the opening “Purple Haze” to the encore “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which features Jimi’s bandmates Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass. The hi-def image is clear, the surround sound audio is exemplary.

Headshot (Kino Lorber)
Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s stylish thriller doesn’t make much sense, but his unorthodox camerawork complements this slow-moving drama of a cop whose world literally turns upside down after being seriously wounded. For those viewers who favor pulchritude, one of the most glamorous actresses I’ve ever seen, Chanokporn Sayoungkul, shows off her ample histrionic talents. The hi-def transfer is stunning; there’s an English language dub.

Hoffa (Fox)
In this engrossing if by-the-numbers biopic about the most famous Teamster whose body has never been found, Jack Nicholson gives a rare performance in which he keeps his “Jack” charm in check. The prosthetic nose helps, but Nicholson plays Hoffa as a real man, not a “character,” and the film—whose epic scale is handled well by director Danny DeVito, who also decently enacts Hoffa’s right-hand man—is all the better for it, despite a draggy 140-minute running time. There’s a good hi-def transfer; extras include DeVito’s commentary, interviews, deleted scenes and DeVito’s 2011 Teamsters convention speech.

Nikita—Complete 2nd Season (Warners)
In the wild world of covert operations, the realities of the post-9/11 decade has definitively surpassed fiction. So the 23 episodes in the second season of this action-packed drama smartly balance the kinetic and personal as Nikita and cohorts aim their guns at the company they once worked for. The dark, shadowy visuals have been faithfully transferred to Blu-ray; extras include interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes, audio commentary and gag reel.

People Like Us (Disney)
Based on a true story, this manipulative but disarming movie stars Chris Pine as a self-centered jerk whose life changes forever when his estranged dad dies—he returns home to deal with broken relationships with his mom and girlfriend, and discovers he has a half-sister with an 11-year-old son. As the movie marches to a predictably happy conclusion, the actors led by Pine, Michelle Pfeiffer (mom) and Elizabeth Banks, fantastic as his half-sister keep things percolating despite a morass of clichés. The Blu-ray image is quite good; extras include deleted scenes, gag reel, audio commentary and making-of featurette.

Portlandia—Complete Season 2 (Video Serv)
Here’s more indie-film spoofing in this series of skits by Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein, neither as funny or pointed as they think. It’s a relief they are enamored of skits, because—like SNL—if one doesn’t work, it ends soon and another begins. It’s too bad, because they take on subjects ripe for parody, like self-absorbed hipsters. The guest star quotient is less interesting than the previous season: the likes of Kristen Wiig and Eddie Vedder don’t cut it. The hi-def image is solid; extras include featurettes, commentaries and director’s cuts of episodes.

The Samaritan (IFC)
Samuel Jackson is a man released from prison after a 25-year sentence who slowly drifts back into the grifting life in this taut if too familiar action flick. Spiced up by formidable acting by Jackson, Tom Wilkinson as a chilling head gangster and Ruth Negga as the gal helping Jackson escape his former life, David Weaver’s movie is recommendable, even if it’s ultimately the same wine in new bottles. The hi-def image is excellent.

DVDs of the Week
Adventures in Plymptoons
Beatles Stories (Cinema Libre)
Plymptoons engagingly profiles unorthodox animator Bill Plympton—whose bizarre visuals came to prominence on MTV—with many interviews and examples of his often strange and surreal work. Beatles, director Seth Swirsky’s pet project, includes interviews with celebrities about their brush with greatness—meeting one or more of the Beatles. Aside from the usual suspects (producer George Martin and engineer George Smith), fond memories from the likes of Henry Winkler, Susanna Hoffs, Ben Kingsley and Art Garfunkel are included. Plymptoons extras are deleted scenes and featurettes; Beatles extras are additional interviews.

Damsels in Distress (Sony) Whit Stillman’s stillborn comedy, which follows obnoxious coeds who unfunnily act superior to everyone around them, are put on pedestals by Stillman, which makes them more annoying, while indie darling Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming a third-rate Chloe Sevigny. If you love his films, your mileage may vary, but I sat glassy-eyed and slack-jawed during Barcelona, Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, and find Stillman an instant cure for insomnia. Extras include a commentary, Q&A, deleted scenes, outtakes and a making-of featurette.

Gossip Girl—Complete Season 5 (Warners)  Stars Blake Lively and Leighton Meester—charming and personable throughout—have Manhattan and Hollywood covered in the 24 episodes of the series’ fifth season, which all have punning titles based on movies, e.g., Yes, Than Zero, G.G. and The Return of the Ring. Extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.
Hart of Dixie—Complete Season 1 (Warners)
If you believe that all-American girl Rachel Bilson can plausibly play a doctor who begins a practice in the deep south after a Manhattan falling out, then this show—which skirts caricature—is for you. Throughout the 22 episodes, Bilson contends with Southern stereotypes of the laziest sort; she’s adorable as always; Jobeth Williams and Nancy Travis and Tim Matheson and Jaime King compensate. Extras include gag reel, deleted scenes and interviews with cats and creators.

How I Met Your Mother—Complete Season 7 (Fox)
Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segal, Allyson Hannigan, Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor are a well-oiled comedy machine, and the seventh season’s 24 episodes show that, even with subpar material, they come up aces in the laughs department. Hilarious cameos by Katie Holmes as the slutty pumpkin and Chris Elliott as Allyson’s father help. Extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes and a gag reel.

My Trip to Al Qaeda (Docurama)
Based on The Looming Tower, a readable Middle East volume, author Lawrence Wright first made a compelling one-man theater experience out of his exploration of the historical and cultural roots of Al Qaeda, then teamed with director Alex Gibney for an immersive cinematic experience. For anyone with an open mind, Wright explains our own complicity in the rise of fundamentalist terrorism, but only points fingers at those killing in the name of jihad.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Surviving Progress (First Run)
Pink is an eye-opening expose about how the ubiquitous pink ribbon—for decades a symbol of fighting against breast cancer—has become a way for unscrupulous corporations and others to make money off the deadly disease. Surviving is an eye-opening expose about our planet’s ability—and possible inability—to sustain life for billions of people. Both documentaries are, despite their explosive content, even-handed and sober explorations. Extras include interviews.

Tight (Wild Eye)
While too long—30 minutes could be shaved—this amusing mockumentary chronicles the bumpy formation of an all-female rock band comprising four porn performers. The music is negligible, but personality clashes provide priceless entertainment, and Bree Olson, the band’s porn star manager—and infamous paramour of Charlie Sheen—is a true on-camera star, and makes up for a loathsome cousin who becomes Tight’s assistant manager. Extras include videos, concert footage, and deleted scenes.

Vexed (Acorn)
This giggly crime drama about mismatched detectives—she unhappily married, he unhappily single—almost sabotages itself at the start as the pair haggle about a splendid apartment, now vacant because its occupant lies dead in a pool of blood. Although Lucy Punch and Toby Stephens have good back-and-forth chemistry, the show is otherwise routine, and efforts at clowning are more in bad taste than punchy black comedy. The first series comprises three episodes; Punch left after it finished, so Stephens gets another partner for the next season.

The Woman in the Fifth (Flatiron)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s low-key romantic drama makes fine use of atmospheric Parisian locations as an American loner (Ethan Hawke), who has trouble with his ex-wife, new landlord and police, has an affair with a mysterious woman that threatens to destroy his entire world. Hawke is fine in a bilingual role and Scott Thomas is always superb, but the movie—a mere 85 minutes—is less fully-realized than a barebones outline. The lone extra is a making-of featurette.

CD of the Week
Bach—The Well-Tempered Clavier (ECM)
Pianist Andras Schiff—who, like all musicians, returns to the music of J.S. Bach to cleanse his artistic palette—makes the most of his second stab at recording Bach’s seminal The Well-Tempered Clavier. The two books of keyboard pieces, even more so than The Art of the Fugue and The Goldberg Variations, are a veritable encyclopedia of Bach’s easy mastery of different styles. Schiff plays with authority, and his balance of majestic sweep and intimate feel brings out these immortal works’ innate musicality.

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