Monday, November 26, 2012

November '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
This 1989 stoner comedy helped make a star of Keanu Reeves, even if his co-star Alex Winter is just as responsible for this basically one-joke movie staying on its amusing course. In addition to the title pair, there’s also a great sardonic turn by George Carlin as their time-travel chaperone, and if the “historical” sequences (Billy the Kid, Socrates, Lincoln) are rather limply presented, the movie is so good-natured it’s easy to fall into its harmless groove. The Blu-ray image has natural graininess.

The Doobie Brothers—Let the Music Play
(Eagle Vision)
One of the most underrated American rock bands is profiled warts and all in a documentary that follows the group from its roots rocker origins to Michael McDonald’s hit-laden blue-eyed soul and, after the 1983 breakup, the many incarnations since. Interviews with everyone from Jeff Baxter, Patrick Simmons and McDonald to producer Ted Templeman distill a bumpy 40-plus years into an informative and—for real fans—enticing bit of rock history. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include 10 bonus live performances, including “Black Water,” “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “China Grove.”

The Dust Bowl
Ken Burns’ latest epic documentary relates the little-understood story of how the Dust Bowl—which turned the Great Plains into uninhabitable mounds of dirt during the Great Depression—was a man-made disaster that could have been avoided. It’s done in the usual Burns way, with Peter Coyote’s narration heard over indelible, brilliantly used photographs and vintage era film footage. The Blu-ray image looks spectacular; extras include additional scenes and interviews.

Empire of the Sun
(Warner Bros)
Steven Spielberg’s 1987 adaptation of JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel is one of his best, least appreciated films: with a minimum of his usual sentimentality, he explores the difficult years of a young British boy (Christian Bale in his film debut) in Shanghai, separated from his parents during the WWII Japanese occupation. Tom Stoppard’s elegant script, Allen Daviau’s sparkling photography and John Williams’ happily unbombastic score contribute to Spielberg’s epic vision. The film looks magnificent on Blu-ray; extras include a 50-minute making-of featurette narrated by Martin Sheen and a 45-minute special, Warner at War, narrated by Spielberg.

The Expendables 2
This yawn of an action yarn stars a bunch of has-beens: so if you’ve missed the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Demme, Lundgren, Willis and Jet Li, then this dopey adventure is for you. Despite slam-bang sequences, nothing is memorable in the least; the token females (Charisma Carpenter and Amanda Ooms) might as well be invisible with all the testosterone on display. The Blu-ray image is impeccable; extras are commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, gag reel.

FCA! 35 Tour—An Evening with Peter Frampton
(Eagle Rock)
35 years after his biggest success, Peter Frampton played the entire Frampton Comes Alive! album live. His fluid fretwork and songwriting chops are on display on hits “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way” and progressive-rock classics “Lines on My Face” and “Do You Feel Like We Do?” The rest of the concert, with songs from a checkered career, is highlighted by his blistering instrumental take on Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and son Julian singing on “Road to the Sun,” which they co-wrote. The hi-def image looks fine; lone extra is a featurette about Frampton reuniting with his lost Gibson guitar.

Hungarian Rhapsody—Queen Live in Budapest
(Eagle Vision)
On the band’s last tour in 1986, Queen played a concert in Budapest for the first time; recorded by a Hungarian crew, the show finally sees the light of day 26 years later. The world’s best live band was on fire, as usual, from the opening “One Vision” to closing “We Are the Champions.” Freddie Mercury’s unsurpassable showmanship made him the ideal frontman, and Brian May’s unique guitar sound, Roger Taylor’s skillful drumming and John Deacon’s tight bass round out the tightest, most disciplined rock quartet. The Blu-ray image and surround sound are excellent; bonus featurette A Magic Year recaps the 12 months from Live Aid to the final tour.

The Pete Walker Collection
Pete Walker, British purveyor of low-budget exploitation, is represented here by four of his representative ‘70s dramas, House of Whipcord (1974), Schizo (1976), Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) and The Comeback (1978). By far the most interesting is Die Screaming, mostly due to the superb acting by toothsome beauty Susan George as an innocent woman targeted because of her inheritance. The movies, while not campy, strain to distinguish themselves as bizarre but dark-humored classics, which they are not. The hi-def image is first-rate and grainy; extras include commentaries and Walker interviews.   

DVDs of the Week
The Day He Arrives
(Cinema Guild)
Hong Sang-soo’s self-reflexive movie about a director who returns home to strangely familiar experiences is brief enough (79 minutes) to not wear out its welcome. Too bad he does little with a played-out scenario that Fellini nailed in 8-1/2 but to which subsequent filmmakers have only added diminishing returns. This fitfully inspired cross between Groundhog Day (déjà vu) and Stardust Memories (B&W images) goes nowhere—which may be its lone point. Extras include an hour-long conversation at the British Film Institute and a short visual essay on the film.

The Island President
(First Run)
In this excellent doc, director Jon Shenk shows how the first democratically elected president of the Maldives—an Indian Ocean island chain which will be underwater soon if sea levels continue to rise—convinces other nations to sign a greenhouse gas protocol. President Nasheed does what he can to ensure his country won’t literally be flooded before than the rest of the world, and his crusade is shown in all its difficulty. That he was subsequently ousted by a military coup sympathetic to the country’s previous dictator answers a lot about the rightness of what he did. Extras include a Shenk interview.

Last Call at the Oasis
This is cinematic advocacy at an urgent clarion call that our water supply is finite, even in the economically rich United States, where a city of a few million like Las Vegas is at the mercy of Lake Mead drying up. Those sounding the alarm are soundly level-headed: activist Erin Brockovich (immortalized in the eponymous movie with Oscar-winning Julia Roberts) discusses how she helped the people of Midland, Texas, whose town is being poisoned like the California town she made her name with. Extras include a Brockovich interview and Jack Black commercial.

We Can’t Go Home Again/Don’t Expect Too Much
When Nicholas Ray made his 1973 experimental feature We Can’t Go Home Again, his career was already in eclipse (he’d die six years later). Now wife Susan Ray has gotten it restored and seen again, even if it’s more a curiosity than a successful film. But Susan succeeds in the new documentary, Don’t Expect Too Much, which straightforwardly explores Ray’s way of working with students on the earlier film. Interviews with acolytes Jim Jarmusch and Victor Erice give insight into Ray’s working methods. Extras include extended interviews and Ray featurettes.

CD of the Week
For Steven Spielberg’s reverential but engrossing biopic of our beloved 16th president, John Williams contributes one of his most restrained scores, which rarely sounds as out of place and needlessly anticlimactic as most of his film scores do. Although it’s too safe-sounding at times (there is Aaron Copland-esque Lincoln Portrait orchestration and traditional fiddle playing), it’s gratifying to hear this veteran composer realize the value of underplaying for the first time since an earlier important Spielberg epic, Schindler’s List. The Chicago Symphony plays exquisitely under Williams’ baton.

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