Sunday, December 9, 2012

December '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Ai Weiwei—Never Sorry
(Sundance Selects)
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei—the compelling subject of Alison Klayman’s smart, incisive documentary—is not placed on a pedestal but shown as an actual person (with a family) who causes consternation among Chinese officials. There’s an enormous amount of revealing footage of him both in and out of China: when he disappears for awhile at the hands of the authorities, real life usurps art. Never Sorry aptly illuminates how our wired 21st century world is helping to buckle the last remaining Communist regime. The Blu-ray image shimmers beautifully; extras are a commentary, deleted scenes and interviews.

(The Criterion Collection)
Terry Gilliam’s dystopian vision was made in 1985, but its bleak look at a society crushed by an oppressive government is as relevant today. Despite its subject matter—our hero is literally crushed like the bug at the beginning that sets everything in motion—the movie is awash with the brilliantly original visuals that made Gilliam one of our premier cinematic stylists. The hi-def image is superlative looking, and the three-disc Criterion Collection Blu-ray ported over numerous extras from the 1999 DVD set: Gilliam’s sparkling commentary; on-set documentary What Is Brazil?; The Battle of Brazil, a one-hour documentary about the friction between Gilliam and Universal Studios; and Universal’s 94-minute, mercilessly butchered “Love Conquers All” version of the film.

(Anchor Bay)
Like the classic Smile and frivolous American Dreamz, Butter shows America in microcosm: here, it’s a small town butter-carving contest. Too bad the satire’s obvious with characters not drawn sharply enough to draw blood—just a few nicks. A game cast (Jennifer Garner, Rob Corddry, Ty Burrell, Alicia Silverstone) trails two wonderfully drawn portraits: Yara Shahidi’s 10-year-old butter-carving prodigy symbolically named Destiny, and Olivia Wilde’s stripper wanting $600 a cheating husband owes her. The Blu-ray image looks decent; extras include deleted scenes, extended scenes and a gag reel.

The Dark Knight Rises
In his third overstuffed but underwhelming Batman film, Christopher Nolan again tries to raise a comic book movie to art but ends up with a 165-minute farrago littered with yawn-inducing action sequences, flimsy characterizations and a sense of humor that, when not simply juvenile, becomes infantile. Christian Bale is a blanker slate than Michael Keaton or George Clooney, Anne Hathaway—as Catwoman—is no Michelle Pfeiffer, and Michael Caine, Matthew Modine, Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard look embarrassed. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; an extra disc has on-set featurettes.

Godzilla vs. Biollante
(Echo Bridge)
This 1992 sci-fi entry—pitting the terrifying giant lizard against, of all things, a massive but peaceful plant created from Godzilla cells (don’t ask)—is as silly as the series’ other films, so your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for cheap-looking Japanese monster movies. Too often, it comes off like outtakes from Woody Allen’s satirical What’s Up Tiger Lily, and far less entertaining. The movie looks equally cheesy in hi-def, which might be a good thing here; extras are two making-of featurettes.

Hope Springs
This familiar but likable comedy about a long-term couple perking up their marriage through counseling works, thanks to Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, both slumming but enjoying themselves. Less good is Steve Carell in the rather bland role of their “genius” counselor. But since it’s Meryl and Tommy’s show, Carell’s dullness doesn’t hurt. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras include director David Frankel’s commentary, featurette and gag reel.

Lady Antebellum—Own the Night World Tour
(Eagle Vision)
America’s hottest country band not only has top-charting hits and albums and a handful of Grammy Awards but also sells out arenas worldwide. This 90-minute performance—of the final show of its 2011 tour in Little Rock, Arkansas—shows the trio on top of its game, as well as offstage glimpses of the members’ humble demeanor with fans and the concept of mega-fame. The hi-def footage is top-notch; extras include bonus song selections and offstage/backstage footage.

(Warner Bros)
The ultimate edition of Zach Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of the famous graphic novel, on special edition Blu-ray, should please the movie’s fans: Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino’s appearances should please others too. The set comprises the directors’ cut on Blu-ray (215 minutes), an hour of extra features on Blu-ray, and theatrical cut on DVD. There’s also a stunning hardcover of the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Gibbons. The Blu-ray image seamlessly combines live-action and animated footage.

World Without End
Director Michael Caton-Jones’ six-hour sequel to the successful The Pillar of the Earth, based on another massive Ken Follett novel, is less involving only because of the truism that sequels are inferior to the original. The cast—Cynthia Nixon, Miranda Richardson, Ben Chaplin and Charlotte Riley—is fine, as are the set design and costumes; all are shown to their best advantage on Blu-ray. The lone extra is a making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
(Kino Lorber)
Greek director Yorgos Yanthimos, who garnered undeserved praise for his attitudinizing Dogtooth in 2009, returns with another pretentious drama about people who help grieving family members by assuming the personalities of their dead loved ones. The intriguing premise, as in Dogtooth, is ruined by a horribly inconsistent technique, stiffly inept acting and a willful obscurantism that ill-serves the plot’s allegorical aspects.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Novice director Benh Zeitlin—who wrote the script with the original play’s author, Lucy Alibar—has his heart in the right place, but his fantasy about a spirited young girl living in the bayou with her sickly but domineering father is ruined by his condescension and sledgehammer directing. Still, Zeitlin deserves praise for casting five-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in the lead: she responds with a natural, winning portrayal that towers over the movie. The lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Another Andre Téchiné film of interlocking stories dramatizing life’s unavoidable messiness, this drama convincingly dissects a middle-aged couple’s seemingly perfect relationship. Téchiné, exploring society’s moral compass through a cross-section of characters, has a technique that—as in his best films My Favorite Season and Strayed—subtly serves his complex, involving characterizations. His masterly direction—subtly elliptical editing compressing long periods of time, camerawork evocatively fading to white during moments of emotional intensity, and effectively sparing use of Max Richter’s chamber music—makes the script’s symbolic  coincidence organic.

CDs of the Week
Carter and Elgar Cello Concertos
Composed 82 years apart in vastly different musical eras and cultures, these masterly concertos are, as played by the remarkably talented cellist Alisa Weilerstein, undeniably powerful and even emotionally gripping. Although the Elgar concerto is an overplayed warhorse, its haunting themes resonate in Weilerstein’s hands (and bow); Carter wrote his concerto at age 92 in 2001, and its technical difficulties are smoothed out by Weilerstein and the Berlin Staatskapelle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

Hitchcock—Original Soundtrack
(Sony Classical)
Danny Elfman’s score for Sacha Gervasi’s biopic of the great director is a patchwork quilt resembling the music that propelled the Master of Suspense’s classic films. The pastiche of Elfman tunes on the soundtrack nicks the sounds of Bernard Herrmann, Hitch’s most formidable composer. Overall, this brief CD is neither here nor there: it’s pleasant enough, but you’re better off listening to—and watching—the real thing.

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