Saturday, March 31, 2012

March '12 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Corman’s World
(Anchor Bay)
Alex Stapleton’s engaging documentary about the “King of the B Movies,” producer-director extraordinaire Roger Corman, is as straightforward and unpretentious as its subject, who made trashy fun like The Little Shop of Horrors, The Trip and Jackson County Jail. Most remarkable about this affectionate paean is how beloved Corman is, as heartfelt reminiscences from Ron Howard and Joe Dante to Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson (at one point he breaks down, overcome by emotion) show. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray, even if the older film clips show their age; extras include extended interviews and “special messages” to Roger.

David Lean Directs Noel Coward
This quartet of classics, combining the talents of renaissance man Coward and director Lean, are masterpieces in miniature that predate the gargantuan epics Lean is known for. In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944) are world-class melodramas, Blithe Spirit (1945) a charming ghostly fantasy and Brief Encounter (1945) the ultimate tragic romance. The films received British Film Institute restorations for Lean’s centenary and look sparkling; the Criterion Collection’s voluminous extras include a 1971 British TV Lean documentary, short making-of docs, interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day and a 1969 discussion between Coward and Richard Attenborough.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer’s dizzying, unconventional Sept. 11 novel becomes an occasionally touching but mainly annoying melodrama by director Stephen Daldry. Despite good acting by Thomas Horn as the young hero and Max von Sydow in a thankless role as a mute widower who helps the kid find what his dad--killed in the terrorist attacks--left him, the movie is cloying and obnoxious rather than affecting and offbeat. Daldry’s fairy-tale Manhattan is transferred to Blu-ray with its high gloss intact; extras include featurettes on the film’s making, Horn, von Sydow and tenth anniversary of Sept. 11.

In the Land of Blood and Honey
Rather than a vanity project, Angelina Jolie’s writing-directing debut is a tough, at times tentative drama set during the Bosnian war. Made from the female point of view, it’s unsurprising that the men are caricatures; Zana Marjanovic gives astonishing, emotionally and physically naked performance in Jolie’s insightful, psychologically penetrating portrait of people caught up in war’s horrors. The film looks vivid and focused in hi-def; one can watch in either the original Balkan languages or in English. The extras are deleted scenes, making-of featurette and Jolie and actress Vanesa Glodjo Q&A.

A Night to Remember
Roy Ward Baker’s modest but compelling account of the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage is far more satisfying than James Cameron’s overblown, inexplicably boring Oscar-dominating epic version of the same story. By keeping the tragedy on a human scale--something Cameron could never do even if he cared to--Baker has fashioned a memorable cinematic experience. The 1958 black-and-white drama looks stunningly film-like in its grain on Blu-ray; the Criterion Collection extras include the 2006 documentary The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic, short 1962 and 1993 documentaries, a survivor interview and an audio commentary by Titanic experts.

(Unitel Classica)
In Robert Carsen’s modern staging of Richard Wagner’s operatic fable, the subtext of suppressed sexuality--in the guises of sensual goddess Venus and virgin Elisabeth--is brought blatantly to the surface, subtlety be damned. Luckily, Carsen’s cast puts its all into the characters, which helps arrest lingering silliness: Peter Seiffert’s Tannhauser is persuasively pitched between Beatrice Uria-Monzon’s vivacious Venus and Petra Maria Schnitzer’s endearing Elisabeth. Carsen’s contemporary interpretation is visually striking on Blu-ray, and Wagner’s enveloping music explodes out of the speakers.

After pointed, political animation like Fritz the Cat, Ralph Bakshi made this strange, inert 1976 fantasy that seems, in retrospect, to be a run-through for his animated The Lord of the Rings two years later. Wizards might not have hobbits and wizards, but this post-apocalyptic adventure has the same sense of dread as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Bakshi’s unique style, combining traditional animation and drawn-over live-action footage, has a soft look on Blu-ray. Extras are Bakshi’s commentary and 30-minute career overview.

DVDs of the Week
Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage is a trite but rip-roaring entertainment about two civilized New York City couples who hash out their sons’ differences and end up at each other’s throats…like the kids. On Broadway, James Gandolfini, Marsha Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis made Reza’s comedy explode. That’s missing from Roman Polanski’s reenactment: Jodie Foster outclasses a miscast John C. Reilly, shrill Kate Winslet and weirdly out-of-place Christoph Waltz. By beginning with the boys, Polanski wrongly erases ambiguity; by moving his camera around shrewdly in tight spaces, he also reveals the material’s shallowness. Extras include cast interviews, Reilly/Waltz Q&A.

A Dangerous Method
At 99 minutes, David Cronenberg’s study of the professional relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud--based on Christopher Hampton’s talkily literate play--comes across as Psychoanalysis 101. Still, with terrific acting by Michael Fassbinder (Jung), an unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen (Freud) and a no-holds-barred Kiera Knightley (Jung’s patient-turned-lover Sabine), this is Cronenberg’s most entertaining movie in ages, even with moments (a close-up of post-sex blood on the sheets) where it’s obvious that one of cinema’s least subtle directors is at work. No matter: these people’s sexuality is on the surface anyway. Extras are Cronenberg’s commentary, interview and making-of featurette.

I, Claudius
Robert Graves’s classic novels about debauchery and ambition in ancient Rome became high-class television viewing in 1976, as a plethora of top British actors and actresses (Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Sian Phillips, John Hurt and Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Margaret Tyzack) sink their teeth into those leading Rome through its rise and fall. Director Herbert Wise smartly marshals this expressive epic through 11-plus hours, every minute riveting. Extras include extended episodes; I, Claudius: A Television Epic, a feature-length documentary; The Epic That Never Was, a vintage documentary about the failed 1937 film adaptation; a Jacobi interview; and stars and director’s favorite scenes.

Red Persimmons
This 2001 film--ostensibly about workers in a Japanese village who grow, pick, dry and peel the bright-colored title fruit but really about the dying out of traditional ways of life--was begun by director Shinsuke Ogawa and finished after his death by Peng Xizolian. The eye-opening footage, which looks seamless, is both invigorating and depressing, since its delicate imagery may be the last we see of such human invention. A bonus feature, A Visit to Ogawa Productions, is a 60-minute documentary of directors Ogawa and Nagisa Oshima discussing their careers and work together.

The Women on the 6th Floor
In this frivolous, far-fetched farce from director Philippe Le Guay, the always resourceful actor Fabrice Luchini makes us believe that a respectable middle-aged stockbroker would fall head over heels for his lovely young Spanish maid (the delectable Natalia Verbeke) under the not-so-watchful eye of his preoccupied wife (Sandrine Kiberlain). Though he is asked to do many foolish things that are both comic and melodramatic, Luchini never falters, making the movie far funnier (and even romantic) than it has any right to be.

CDs of the Week
Schnittke: 12 Penitential Pslams
(Hanssler Classic)
Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke wrote 12 Penitential Psalms for unaccompanied, mixed chorus for the 1000th anniversary of Russia’s Christianization in 1988. This exceptionally dense work showcases Schnittke’s genius for using simple means to create complex, otherworldly sound worlds. 1972’s four-minute Voices of Nature, which concludes the disc, is a mournful, minimalist ode; the Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble is in fine form throughout.

Weinberg: Complete Piano Works 1
(Grand Piano)
Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (who died in 1996) has been rediscovered recently, on CDs and even a DVD/Blu-ray of his mesmerizing opera The Passenger. His piano music, played persuasively by Allison Brewster Franzetti, runs the gamut from a Satie-esque Lullaby to the unabashedly dissonant Sonata No. 1. His second sonata has a Romantic-era feel, as do the early Two Mazurkas from 1933, while another Sonata--a 1978 revisiting of a 1951 piece--seamlessly blends his mid-period and later styles.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Nanni Moretti Retrospective and His Latest, "We Have a Pope"

In his new film, We Have a Pope, Nanni Moretti plays Brezzi, a psychoanalyst called on by a desperate college of cardinals to convince the reluctant Holy Father-elect (a magnificently befuddled Michel Piccoli, above) to accept his new position. In typically understated Moretti style, the good doctor--a divorced unbeliever, unsurprisingly--never gets to the heart of the former Cardinal Melville’s difficulties, instead organizing a Vatican volleyball tournament that’s suspended before the finals when the group has to return for another conclave. Melville, meanwhile, discovers the small pleasures of real life when he briefly escapes his handlers after briefly seeing Brezzi’s ex-wife for another therapy session, which may or may not have to do with his ultimate decision in front of the throngs at St. Peter’s Square.

A one-joke movie, We Have a Pope (opening April 6) is minor Moretti, but it contains more gently satiric insights into the endearing absurdity of human nature that mark a career now spanning three decades and several feature films, all part of the current IFC Center series, La Vita è Cinema: The Films of Nanni Moretti (through April 5).

Moretti became a film festival favorite stateside with 1994’s Caro Diario, an incisively funny and personal film-essay starring the writer-director-actor as himself in a trio of vignettes that culminate with his cancer diagnosis. Moretti’s unsentimental, self-effacing persona was on display in that film, along with another huge festival--and art house--hit, 2001’s The Son’s Room, a devastating account of a family pulled apart by the death of a beloved teenage son. Moretti unselfishly allowed that remarkable actress Laura Morante (below, with Moretti) to steal the film as his wife, literally stunned by her loss and unable to cope with it.

Not only are several of Moretti’s rarely-seen films--forget about DVD or Blu-ray--being shown during the series, but all will be screened in 35mm prints, from his debut, 1976’s I Am Self-Sufficient to his great political films, 1985’s The Mass Has Ended and 1990’s Palombella Rosa. Never shying from controversy or skewering those in power, Moretti created a bitter portrait in 2006 of Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, The Caiman; I don’t remember it being shown in New York before, possibly because it deals so intimately with the state of politics in Moretti’s own country. But the recent success of the film Il Divo proved that intelligence and intrigue can compensate for lack of specific knowledge about Italy’s inner workings, so maybe The Caiman’s time has come.

A welcome antidote to the hyperbolic Roberto Benigni, Nanni Moretti artfully blends the personal, political and universal, as La Vita è Cinema shows.

La Vita è Cinema: The Films of Nanni Moretti
March 28-April 5, 2012
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY

We Have a Pope
Starring, written and directed by Nanni Moretti
Opens April 6, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Laura Osnes Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein (Again!)

Pipe Dream
Starring Laura Osnes, Will Chase, Leslie Uggams, Tom Wopat
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Richard Rodgers
Directed by Marc Bruni
Performances March 28-April 1, 2012
City Center, 151 West 55th Street, New York, NY

The Sound of Music
Starring Laura Osnes, Tony Goldwyn, Brooke Shields, Stephanie Blythe
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Richard Rodgers
Performance on April 24, 2012
Carnegie Hall, 7th Avenue and 57th Street, New York, NY

Since 2007, when she won the lead role of Sandy in the Broadway revival of Grease on the reality show You’re the One That I Want, Laura Osnes has become one of the most sought-after young musical performers in New York.

After winning Grease’s only raves for her fetching portrayal of the good girl gone bad, Osnes stepped into Kelli O’Hara’s Tony-nominated shoes in Lincoln Center Theater’s South Pacific, where she charmed audiences (and Paulo Szot) as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s heroine Nellie Forbush. Since then, she’s gone on to further musical success as the sweet ingenue Hope Harcourt in the current smash revival of Anything Goes and bank robber-turned-killer Clyde Barrow’s irresistible paramour in the short-lived Bonnie and Clyde.

Now, the 26-year-old Minneapolis native returns to Rodgers and Hammerstein for her next two projects. She’s co-starring with Smash's Will Chase in Pipe Dream, an obscure R&H musical that is the next Encores! production at City Center from March 28 to April 1. Then, on April 24, in a one-night only concert version of The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall, Osnes will sing one of her most coveted roles: Maria von Trapp.

During her busy Pipe Dream rehearsal schedule, Osnes spoke about her whirlwind New York career so far.

Will Chase and Laura Osnes in Pipe Dream at Encores! (photos by Ari Mintz)
Kevin Filipski: You were in South Pacific at Lincoln Center, now you’re rehearsing for Pipe Dream at Encores!, then you do a one-night concert of The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall. How is it singing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic songs again and again?
Laura Osnes: It’s always fun to visit their repertoire! Singing South Pacific and The Sound of Music is wonderful, but it’s also great to hear some of their “new” music. Pipe Dream is clever and quirky, with some of the songs sounding beautiful but random, I have to be honest. There are songs about octopuses and tide pools and other strange things. Our cast is wonderful, so even these quirky, weird songs are believable in the world of this show. Singing these songs sometime reminds me of other songs of theirs: it’s definitely flavored with the R&H touch. I also did a reading of their Cinderella, so I can’t complain that this has been a Rodgers & Hammerstein year for me!

KF: Has it been difficult adapting to the Encores! style of performing as semi-readings, with books in hand and minimal sets and costumes?
LO: We’re going to try and do this with the books, but how much we’re going to have to use them is still a question, since we just began rehearsals. Encores! shows used to be known as glorified workshops but now they’ve become kind of full-blown productions. We’ve going full out, full-scale for seven performances! We have a beautiful set with different signs and storefronts telling us where we are. It’s not elaborate, but it sets the scene nicely. As an actor, it’s so much more freeing to not use the book. It’s nice to hold it, if only to show people that we only had 10 days to put this together, but it’s also hard to be engaged in a scene with another actor by looking down at your book!

KF: How disappointed were you that Bonnie and Clyde didn’t succeed on Broadway?
LO: To be honest, that was the most fulfilling, rewarding project of my career so far. Getting to create something new is every actor’s dream. It’s like nothing else. I’d been part of that project for three years, and the character morphed around who I am instead of somebody else. It’s incredible as an artist to be part of that collaborative process where I can speak my mind about the character and how she’s being brought to life. A lot of people were shocked that I wasn’t the blonde Bonnie from the movie, but a redhead. The original Sandy in Grease was a brunette on Broadway, and in real life Bonnie was a strawberry blonde who dyed her hair red to appear different. We tried to stay true to who she really was, and she definitely was no blonde. I read four books on them: it seems that everybody who was around them then wrote a book about them. It was so much fun to get to play a real person and have the research to back my characterization up.

KF: Will you find it easy to step into some gigantic shoes to sing the role of Maria in The Sound of Music, if only for one night?
LO: In a way it will be easier, but it will also a little more intimidating, because as you say I have big shoes to fill. With Pipe Dream, nobody knows it, so there’s no real expectation, but with The Sound of Music it’s very different: everybody knows it--including me, of course--so it’s hard for me to start singing it without a British accent. I have a lot more to live up to as Maria, but I’m so excited and honored to do it. It’s a role I always dreamed about playing, but I didn’t see it coming at this time, so even singing it for one night will be amazing.

KF: It’s been five years since you won the reality-show competition to sing Sandy in the Broadway revival of Grease. How has this ride been?
LO: It’s all exceeded my expectations. I did that audition by flying out to Los Angeles with the hope that I could do it: otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted the time and money to go out there. I had a sense of peace throughout that competition, despite the competitiveness and the high stakes. I thought to myself: “If this works out, amazing, it’s my dream come true. But if not, I’ll go back to Minneapolis and someday get to New York.” When I won, I was overjoyed, but I felt that it helped me that I didn’t allow it to be life and death. But I’m grateful that it opened a lot of doors for me. There’s definitely been the stigma of the reality show that I had to prove that I could go beyond: thankfully, South Pacific happened and I was able to move on. Now I am my own entity and not just “the girl from the reality show.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

March '12 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
B-52s with the Wild Crowd
(Eagle Rock)
The biggest band from Athens, Georgia, pre-REM, reunited last year for this raucous 90-minute 34th anniversary hometown concert. With performances of its biggest hits and most durable songs--like “Roam,” “Love Shack” and of course “Private Idaho” and “Rock Lobster”--the quartet, which comprises Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland, shows it’s still in peak form. The HD cameras and audio are excellent; a lengthy interview with the band is the lone extra.

A Lonely Place to Die
This ludicrous horror film has a premise in questionable taste--hikers find a scared little girl and are picked off one by one by snipers paid to kidnap her--and simply sets up the innocent victims as ducks in a shooting gallery without attempting to garner any legitimate suspense from their plight. It’s well-made, and has razor-sharp editing, but your mileage may vary on how much gratuitous violence can make you enjoy it. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray.

Lost Keaton
While nowhere near the sustained level of hilarity of his early silent shorts and classic features, the 16 Buster Keaton shorts collected on these two discs from the sound era (mid-1930s) have their moments, notably when Buster’s physical comedy genius is allowed to run riot, i.e., during disc one’s opener, The Gold Ghost. Keaton is on less firm ground with dialogue and interacting with the other stiff performers. But when he’s on--infrequently as he is here--he’s still unbeatable. The hi-def transfer enhances these beat-up prints, but at least they’re watchable.

The Muppets
Jason Segal is not my idea of a leading man or talented scriptwriter--so his fingerprints all over the new Muppets movie is cause for concern. The plot and jokes are so simplistic that one yearns for the lamest episodes of The Muppet Show, and if the humans other than Segal and a too-perky Amy Adams--there are appearances by Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones and Jack Black, and, if you don’t blink, James Carville and Dave Grohl, among others--make the most of the silliness, the Muppets themselves are rarely amusing, for once. It all looks good on Blu-ray; extras are featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary.

Director Michael Cuesta explores the lives of people on society’s fringes again in this familiar drama in which Jimmy--long-time Blue Oyster Cult employee--returns to Queens and pretends to be a successful songwriter and producer. A delicious Jill Hennessey is an old flame building her own music career and Bobby Cannavale paints a warm, funny portrait of a loser with dreams of grandeur, but Ron Eldard is a wanly unconvincing Jimmy, preventing the movie from reaching its modest aims. The image is very good; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Sitter
If you thought American comedies couldn’t become cruder or more infantile than The Hangover or Bridesmaids, this will prove you wrong. Watching Jonah Hill in anything (even Moneyball) is not my idea of a good time, and watching his one-note persona alongside a trio of irritating kids he’s babysitting--which of course goes horribly, unfunnily awry--is the least fun imaginable. Why charming actresses like Ari Graynor and Kylie Bunbury got mixed up in this mess is depressing. The Blu-ray looks decent enough; the usual extras comprise deleted scenes, alternate ending, featurettes and a gag reel.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John Le Carre’s methodical Cold War spy thriller was brilliantly adapted for British TV in 1979 with Alec Guinness as a peerless George Smiley, which had the luxury of leisurely lingering over the convoluted plot and relationships. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation has much to recommend it--great locales, superlative acting by Gary Oldman (Smiley), Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Colin Firth, et al, in subordinate roles--but tailoring Tailor to two hours is both too much and far too little. The Blu-ray image is superior; extras include cast/director interviews and an Oldman/Alfredson commentary.

The War Room
D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ impressive fly-on-the-wall documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign both opened eyes to down-and-dirty American politics and made stars of Clinton’s campaign managers, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, polar opposites visually and temperamentally. The original 16mm footage looks sharper in its upgrade to hi-def; the Criterion Collection’s typically packed Blu-ray edition includes new interviews with several principals and 2008’s retrospective, Return of the War Room.

DVDs of the Week
In the Garden of Sounds, Little Girl, Monsenor
(First Run)
This trio of typically intriguing First Run titles is led by In the Garden of Sounds, Nicola Bellucci’s fascinating documentary about a man who lost his sight to an hereditary disease and who gives “sound therapy” to disabled children. Little Girl, from directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, unsentimentally shows a group of hard-scrabble circus people who must care for an abandoned baby; and the clear-eyed Monsenor is a hard-hitting documentary about the life and violent death of Oscar Romero, the heroic archbishop who was murdered trying to help the less fortunate in El Salvador in 1980.

Mister Rogers and Me
Cristofer Wagner’s personal documentary presents his own story about Fred Rogers, one of the most popular--and easily satirized--television personalities in the medium’s history. This engaging portrait earnestly shows how Rogers’ self-effacing and honest approach not only benefited millions of children (and their parents) for decades, but was exactly how the man lived his life off-camera as well. Extras include a commentary, Q&A, interviews.

Moses and Aaron
(New Yorker)
Arnold Schoenberg’s lone opera--intense (but problematic) musically--is dramatically stiff, so the decision of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet to keep their 1975 film visually static is a smart one. The actors’ lip-synching doesn’t mesh with their arch performances, but strangely, that disconnect contextualizes a problematic 20th century opera telling an ancient story. It’s not an enervating experience, but it is an audacious one. The lone extra is the directors’ minimalist adaptation of Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene.

The grit and grime of London’s inner city are the stars of this 1978 British TV mini-series, which stars an impressive Tom Bell as a jailbird who returns to his old stomping grounds after eight years up the river and finds it both the same and irrevocably changed. Skillfully written by Trevor Preston and directed by Jim Goddard, this five-hour drama memorably evokes the seediness of criminals without romanticizing them, and features a stunning turn by Brian Cox as a deadly mob boss. Extras include audio commentaries.

Director Gustavo Taretto’s romantic comedy is too clever by half: by bypassing his charismatic stars--Javier Drolas and the Pilar Lopez de Ayala--for amusingly droll but cloying segments, Taretto overwhelms the humanity at the heart of his machinery. But thanks to his two stars--especially Ayala, a spectacular and little-seen actress who, in a just world, would be more popular than Penelope Cruz--the movie is watchable, even if it skimps on depth or insight.

Snow White: A Deadly Summer
This tame, PG-13 thriller dangles its tantalizing premise--troubled teen may or may not be targeted by her evil stepmother--in front of viewers but offers little payoff aside from a twist ending. The actors can’t do much with a well-worn storyline, and Shanley Caswell, in the lead role, isn’t allowed to do much more than look cute. Teenagers--the obvious audience for this--will also be unimpressed with a routine, mostly unscary horror film. The lone extra is an audio commentary.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Films in Brief: "Free Men"; "4:44 Last Days on Earth"; "The Deep Blue Sea"

The history of the French resistance, which comprises thousands of worthy stories, was most recently treated most compellingly by director Robert Guédiguian in 2009’s Army of Crime. The latest attempt, Free Men, presents the resistance through a different lens: the setting is the Paris Mosque, where it was historically documented that the Muslim community protected and assisted Jews to escape the Nazis.

Director Ismael Ferroukhi’s fictionalized version revolves around his Algerian-born hero Younes who, after being coerced by the Vichy-controlled police force to inform on Muslims suspected of being freedom fighters, almost accidentally becomes transformed from an uninvolved immigrant to a committed resistance member. This remarkable change occurs after Younes discovers that the young and talented Algerian singer Salim--whom he has befriended--is Jewish; soon after, he helps hide two Jewish youngsters whose parents were taken away, and his new career has begun.

Despite melodramatic touches, Ferroukhi builds tension without sacrificing credible psychology as Younes becomes politically--and morally--engaged. Tahar Rahim (above, right), who was so memorable as the protagonist in Jacques Audiard’s prison drama A Prophet, plays Younes as an innocent naïf, remaining a blank slate for the director to fill in the character’s interior complexity. At times, Rahim is too much his director’s pawn, so detached he seems. But no matter: Free Men believably chronicles the multi-faceted Vichy atmosphere through the eyes of people we’ve rarely encountered onscreen: Muslims putting their lives on the line to defeat Hitler.

Abel Ferrara’s movies come off as unhinged rantings, which result in stillborn messes like the recent Go-Go Tales or his latest, 4:44 Last Days on Earth, which explores the final hours for a group of Manhattan city dwellers as the countdown to (an unexplained) Armageddon begins.

There are interesting moments here--particularly when protagonist Willem Dafoe (above, right) screams from his building’s rooftop at neighbors and others still wandering the neighborhood--but Ferrara never develops anything coherently. The relationship between Dafoe and a wooden Shanyn Leigh as his wife never gives us any reason to care about the impending demise of non-entities. Aside from the woeful Leigh, the cast works hard, but Ferrara lets them (and the end of the world) down.

For his first fiction film since The House of Mirth in 2000, British director Terence Davies tackles Terence Rattigan’s dated play, The Deep Blue Sea, in which Hester, an unsatisfied young wife, finds solace in the arms of another man; since these are the conservative 1950s, her older husband--an upstanding judge--refuses to divorce her, committing her to a life of unhappiness.

Rattigan--a closeted homosexual at a time when it was a crime--originally wrote Sea with gay characters, but he knew it could never be produced during his lifetime, so he made the protagonist female, which further simplifies an already simplistic story without gaining emotional or psychological weight. Davies--also a homosexual--doesn’t change too much, diving head-first into Rattigan’s drenching sentimentality. The result is at the same time remote and syrupy.

Rachel Weisz (above) suffers dutifully as Hester, first seen recovering from a suicide attempt; she looks and sounds perfect, yet her character’s inner life remains unexplored. Tom Hiddleston (lover) and Simon Russell Beale (husband) are fine. Davies’ eye for period detail is unerring, but his ear needs work: by smearing Samuel Barber’s aching, yearning, ecstatic Violin Concerto over everything, he fails too urgently dramatize Hester’s (mostly) unspoken longings and feelings.

Beautiful as Barber’s music is, it’s forced to carry the bulk of the drama’s burden, which Davies usually--and impeccably--avoids. But with Barber an easy shortcut, The Deep Blue Sea ends up treading water.

Free Men
Directed by Ismael Ferroukhi
Opens March 16, 2012

4:44 Last Days on Earth
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Opens March 23, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea
Directed by Terence Davies
Opens March 23, 2012

Saturday, March 17, 2012

March '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Descendants
Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth, Sideways) makes movies that aren’t as substantial as he thinks. The Descendants is no different: a superbly befuddled George Clooney plays a Honolulu lawyer who discovers--once she’s in a coma--that his wife cheated on him, so he gathers his two daughters to track down her lover. What begins as a nicely observed adult comedy about dealing with everyday disasters switches gears, and spins its wheels, once the race is on to find the adulterer. Payne builds to a satisfyingly melancholic ending, but too often finds easy, sitcom laughs a la James Brooks. The Blu-ray has a first-rate image; extras are featurettes on casting, Hawaiian locations, the real family behind the story, music videos and conversation between director and star.

Killer’s Moon and Virgin Witch
(Redemption/Kino Lorber)
This pair is the latest in Redemption Films’ attempt to redeem schlocky guilty pleasures. Alan Birkinshaw’s Killer’s Moon (1978) follows mental patients gleefully killing off teenage girls and their strait-laced chaperones; Ray Austin’s 1972 Virgin Witch follows innocent wannabe models discovering the agency is a front for a murderous witches’ coven. They’re both as silly as they sound, but with plentiful gore and nudity, there’s definitely a built-in--and unfinicky--audience. The movies retain blemishes on hi-def but look good enough; Moon extras include director and star interviews.

The Last Temptation of Christ
Martin Scorsese’s deeply personal adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel was labeled anti-Christian to those who obviously never saw it; watching it in the Criterion Collection’s glorious hi-def version is a treat. Shot on authentic Holy Land locations and propelled by Peter Gabriel’s otherworldly score, the film even overcomes some questionable casting with tremendously committed performances by Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Harvey Keitel (Judas) and Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene). Michael Ballahus’ cinematography shines on Blu-ray; extras include a Paul Schrader/ Dafoe/Jay Cocks commentary, Gabriel interview and Scorsese-shot location footage.

Ham-fisted and relentlessly clumsy--narratively, psychologically and metaphorically--Lars von Trier’s latest provocation begins with a ponderous wedding sequence that plays like a slack-eyed parody of The Deer Hunter, and his leaden dramatics are on display for a mind-boggling 135 minutes. Kirsten Dunst is fatally hamstrung by her character’s essential shallowness: this depressive’s troubles are small potatoes compared to the title planet (who named it?) moving toward earth. Trier even repeats trite effects: Antichrist’s slo-mo Handel opening returns, as Armageddon is here scored to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. On Blu-ray, Trier’s clever imagery gets its digital due; extras are four featurettes.

My Week with Marilyn
(Anchor Bay)
Michelle Williams’ gently affecting portrayal of Marilyn Monroe dominates Simon Curtis’ incredibly thin biopic that does little with a great subject: the battle royale between Marilyn and Lord Olivier on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. Despite Kenneth Branagh’s excellent Olivier impersonation, the movie never livens up, with bland scenes between Williams and Eddie Redmayne as the lowly assistant whom MM gloms onto (at least according to his memoir) mere filler. The movie looks strong on Blu-ray; extras include a Curtis commentary and making-of featurette.

This lengthy (three hours!) Peter Pan prequel does Spielberg’s Hook one better by actually fleshing out characters and leaving the big-names to Keira Knightley’s voice (as Tinkerbell). Despite occasional dawdling and repetition, Neverland scores in the person of Anna Friel, a delightfully frisky, criminally underused actress who steals scenes as a pirate any man would love to be the enemy of. The rest of the cast and effects are fine, but some story streamlining would have helped. No qualms about the Blu-ray image, which is fantastic; the extras comprise commentary, cast interviews and special effects featurette.

The Search for One-Eyed Jimmy
(Kino Lorber)
This 1993 Brooklyn-shot indie by Sam Henry Kass (remember him? I didn’t think so) has the dubious distinction of casting future stars of film, stage and screen--Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi (and Jennifer Beals and Ann Meara for good measure)--and letting them flounder with an unfunny script and non-story that would bore any shaggy dog. The movie looks decent in its leap to hi-def; no extras.

The Three Musketeers
In this lukewarm swashbuckler, Paul W.S. Anderson puts a middling cast (Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovavich, Logan Lerman, Luke Evans) through its paces, but never approaches the grand fun and swordplay heroics of earlier adaptors Richard Lester and Bertrand Tavernier. The movie looks gorgeous--Anderson’s refusal to use more green screen than in-camera effects is refreshing for an action director today--especially on Blu-ray. Extras include filmmakers’ commentary, deleted scenes with commentary and scene-specific featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Bellissima and La terra trema
(e one)
Before such luscious, opulent spectaculars as The Leopard and The Innocent, Italian director Luciano Visconti made small, neo-realist pictures, and two of his classics return, superbly restored. 19428’s magnificent Trema was shot on Sicilian locations with non-professional actors, while 1951’s Bellissima stars Anna Magnani as the most overbearing stage mother ever; here Visconti uses neo-realist techniques to great effect, not least in the unaffected acting of young Tina Apicella. Would that those annoying yellow subtitles didn’t detract from the near-pristine black and white pictures.

House of Pleasures
Bertrand Bonello’s unerotic turn-of-the-century character study about prostitutes in a high-class Parisian brothel is more successful at relationships than sex, even if dividing screen time among several women robs them of their individuality, despite their compelling stories, like one whose mouth has ghastly scars from a crazed john and a teen whose “career” is off to a rocky start. Costumes, sets and lighting are exquisite, but Bonello--as in his other films--takes a good idea then does little with it. Extras include casting and making-of featurettes.

In Their Own Words
These fascinating, informative BBC documentaries do more than save the words and voices of the 20th century’s prominent writers and intellectuals: they intelligently and learnedly place them in context so one can appreciate their achievements in art, science, politics and economics. The first program features seven decades of British writers from Virginia Woolf to Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie; the second chronicles thinkers from Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead to cultural attaches from the BBC and others.

My Joy
(Kino Lorber)
Sergei Loznitsa’s astonishing debut feature makes little narrative sense: if you don’t pair the first half’s clean-shaven truck driver with the bearded man of the second, you’ll be lost during a corrosive series of unsettling vignettes showing the anarchic society that Putin’s Russia has become. But Loznitsa is in total command of the frame: rarely has widescreen seemed so terrifying, especially the breathtaking final shot on a snow-bound road in near-total darkness. Too bad there are burnt-in subtitles, no extras and no Blu-ray.

Savage Sisters, Sinful Davey, Timbuktu
Three decades are represented in this latest trio from MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, on DVD-Rs instead of official DVDs. There’s Jacques Tourneur’s vaguely ludicrous sand epic, 1958’s Timbuktu, starring Victor Mature and Yvonne DeCarlo in a romantic adventure set in the French colony in 1940. John Huston’s 1969 Sinful Davey, a Tom Jones retread, is as forced and hollow as the earlier film was witty and relaxed; John Hurt’s performance as the title rogue is wasted. And 1974’s Savage Sisters is a weak attempt at a T&A epic set in an unnamed jungle nation, as three buxom heroines get caught up in a disastrous coup attempt. The films look decent on DVD, at least; no extras.

CDs of the Week
Marlis Petersen: Goethe Lieder
(Harmonia Mundi)
German soprano Marlis Petersen--whose torrid Lulu at the Met a few years back introduced her New York audiences in a big way--sings a well-programmed recital of songs by 16 composers on texts by Goethe about the “eternal feminine.” With excellent pianist Jendrik Springer along for her adventurous ride, Petersen begins with Ernst Krenek’s epic “Stella’s Monologue” and performs 18 more songs, from Schumann, Wagner and Liszt to rarities by Walter Braunfels and a new work by Manfred Trojahn, all in a crystalline voice conveying the varied moods of Goethe’s unreachable, ideal females.

Massenet: Don Quichotte
Jules Massenet’s grand opera, loosely based on Cervantes’ classic novel, has the requisite rousing choral numbers and vivid orchestral passages that give a sense of the mock-grandeur of literature’s most absurdly heroic buffoon. But intimate scenes between Don and sidekick Sancho Panza or Dulcinea, the woman of his dreams, lack comic and romantic fire. At least that’s what we get in this workmanlike 2011 Mariinsky Theater performance--the indefatigable Valery Gergiev leads orchestra, chorus and his academy’s young singers in a dutiful, occasionally inspired interpretation of a twilight work from the French composer.