Sunday, November 18, 2012

November '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Billy Bathgate/Blaze
(Mill Creek)
Robert Benton’s adaptation of Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow’s vivid historical novel about 1920s New York organized crime, looks great but is dragged down by sleepwalking Dustin Hoffman as “godfather” Dutch Schultz, Nicole Kidman as his moll Drew and Loren Dean as Dutch’s protégé who has an affair with Drew. Blaze, Ron Shelton’s lively biopic of the stripper who enthralled Louisiana Governor Earl Long, has a blazing performance by Paul Newman as Long and starmaking debut by Lolita Davidovich in the title role (she later became Shelton’s wife). Both movies have not-bad hi-def transfers.

Although this Pixar animated feature was a huge hit, it’s little more than another Disney flick with a brave young woman at its center. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s little that’s exciting or memorable, and the computerized animation—not nearly as good as classic hand-drawn animation—doesn’t help. The Blu-ray image is top-notch, both in 3-D and 2-D; extras include featurettes, extended scenes and a commentary.

Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical’s energetic 2011 New York Philharmonic revival has well-cast performers like Martha Plimpton, Stephen Colbert, Christina Hendricks, Anika Noni Rose and even Neil Patrick Harris, whose smugness is kept to a minimum. Then there’s Patti Lupone, who gives the showstopper “The Ladies Who Lunch” its grandest ride since Elaine Stritch. The orchestra sounds extraordinary led by Paul Gemignani, and Lonny Price’s staging works well. The hi-def image and sound are crystal clear.

(New Video)
Gary Hustwit, director of the visually lush chronicle of modern cities, Urbanized, made this equally fascinating 2009 design exploration. Through interviews with designers and experts and showing inventions from toothbrushes to new-fangled tech gadgets, Hustwit provides an inventive overview of modern civilization marching forward. The Blu-ray image looks superb; extras include additional interviews.

(Anchor Bay)
In Amy Heckerling’s tired vampire spoof, Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter play bloodsuckers navigating a wild, wooly new world. Along with Heckerling’s game actresses—Ritter especially plays kooky far more charmingly than Zooey Deschanel—her movie also wastes Sigourney Weaver as a crazed vampiress and good comic actors Justin Kirk, Wally Shawn and Richard Lewis. The movie looks striking in hi-def.

The Watch
The least of this lame comedy’s problems is its pre-release tie to last spring’s Florida  ‘neighborhood watch’ tragedy: worse are the combined non-talents of Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill and co-writer Seth Rogen to create this flimsy attempt at a raunchy, violent sci-fi spoof. Even Vince Vaughan (on autopilot) and his dry line readings can’t help. Faring best are Rachel DeWitt as Stiller’s wife and Billy Crudup as a weird neighbor. The hi-def image is excellent; extras are deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes. 

In 1967, Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic fantasy about civilization’s end came out of that era’s political and social upheaval; in 2012, it’s as relevant as ever. Although the extended take of an endless automobile crash is still stunning, more astonishing is that Godard—the ultimate hit-or-miss artist—never falters in this seething attack on literally everything. Raoul Coutard’s magnificent photography, with its mix of fantastically popping colors, shines on Criterion’s Blu-ray; extras include interviews with Coutard, actress Mireille Darc, actor Jean Yanne and assistant Claude Miller and a vintage featurette.

DVDs of the Week
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye
(New Yorker)
In Marie Losier’s sympathetic portrait of a couple that hoped to—literally—merge as one (Genesis had several surgeries to look like Lady Jaye), a relationship that begins as lust turns to love and, finally, partners for life (cancer tragically killed Lady Jaye at age 39 in 2007). Losier digs into what some might consider an aberrant lifestyle with compassion and understanding, and beautifully uses home movies and other valuable footage. Extras include interviews, outtakes and short films.

A Burning Hot Summer
Philippe Garrel has an undeserved reputation as one of France’s greatest directors with films like Regular Lovers and this stale, stilted account of a crazed young man (Garrel’s untalented son, Louis) whose unraveling marriage to a gorgeous movie star (Monica Bellucci) causes him to take his own life. Missing from this dreary drama are any insights into his characters’ behavior; even the shimmering photography doesn’t help.

Corpo Celeste
(Film Movement)
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s startling debut insightfully chronicles an adolescent girl’s difficulties at home and school. The film, set in southern Italy, is shot through with religious guilt that could smother anybody: as Marta prepares for her confirmation, she can’t handle the hypocrisies among adults and her peers. Rohrwacher humorously presents Marta’s troubles without condescension and, coupled with Yle Vianello’s marvelously unaffected performance, creates a truthful comedy that explores teenage life in ways far removed from the sentimentality and cheap laughs of American movies and TV shows. German director Max Zahle’s short, Raju, is the lone extra.

Dark Horse
(Virgil Films)
Todd Solondz again purports to make an unflinching look at society’s ills, but actually makes yet another sitcom crammed with clueless caricatures indistinguishable from one another. The casual racism and misogyny that mars his other films isn’t as overt here, but if your idea of a good time is seeing Chris Walken in stupid-looking shirts or Mia Farrow in a bad wig and glasses, then you may get more out of it than I did.

Half the Sky
In this four-hour documentary, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and his wife Sheryl WuDunn recruit a half-dozen Hollywood actresses to explore the horrible conditions so many women around the world must deal with, even in the 21st century. Eva Mendes travels to Sierra Leone, Meg Ryan goes to Cambodia, America Ferrera to India, Olivia Wilde to Kenya, Diane Lane to Somaliland and Gabrielle Union to Vietnam: their (and our) eyes are opened by other women fighting such reprehensibly regressive policies. Extras include extended interviews and scenes.

CDs of the Week
Janine Jansen: Prokofiev
Great violinists cut their teeth on Sergei Prokofiev’s first concerto, ever tuneful and buoyant, even if it’s frightfully difficult to play. Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, however, tackles the less well known if equally fiendish second concerto, dispatching it with such ease it seems she’s making up Prokofiev’s brilliantly articulated runs on the spot. And, to show off the musical depths of Prokofiev—still grievously underrated, for he’s one of the 20th century’s greatest composers—Jansen also plays his Sonata for Two Violins (with Boris Brovstyn) and the exceedingly dark Violin Sonata, both chamber masterpieces.

Rolling Stones: Grrr!
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the self-styled “world’s greatest rock’n’roll band,” here are 50 of their biggest hits, from early tunes “Come On” and “Not Fade Away” to new rockers “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot,” which are better than anything they’ve done since 1981’s Tattoo You. There are strange omissions—“She’s So Cold” doesn’t appear, but “She Was Hot” does—and some tunes are the edited radio versions. But there’s much good stuff: the sixteen songs on disc two, from “Jumping Jack Flash” to “Fool to Cry” (with “Wild Horses,” “Street Fighting Man” and “Angie” in between), are the Stones’ real greatest hits.

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