Friday, January 18, 2013

January '13 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Anger Management—Complete 1st Season
After being dumped from Two and a Half Men when he went publically postal, Charlie Sheen returned to TV with this slick sitcom that cast him as a man with anger issues—if that sounds like an unfunny joke based on his unhinged persona, the show itself is even less funny. Sheen garners a few laughs with in-jokes that trade off on his meltdown, but the show quickly goes downhill, and there’s little left but just another bland comedy. The hi-def image is adequate; extras include on-set interviews and a gag reel.

Farewell My Queen
(Cohen Media)
This distaff costume drama has few insights into a familiar subject: the last days of Marie Antoinette as French queen. Its teenage heroine, a quietly dutiful handmaiden who becomes Marie’s favorite, is so colorless as to be a blank slate, severely hampering director Benoit Jacquot’s attempt to chronicle the chaos surrounding the storming of the Bastille and its aftermath. On familiar ground, at least Jacquot doesn’t approach Sofia Coppola’s insipid Marie Antoinette. Diane Kruger’s Marie and Virginie Ledoyen as her BFF are fine, but LĂ©a Seydoux is hampered by a dull part. The film is certainly pleasing to the eye—it was partly filmed at Versailles—and the Blu-ray image is luminous; extras include interviews.

The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis
On the basis of the trio on display, these films—the inept and unappealing Ecstasies of Women, Linda and Abilene and Black Love—should have remained “lost.” For the era (1969-72), they may have been a breakthrough, thanks to plentiful nudity and unabashed sexuality, but even the hardcore sequences of Black Love are not particularly arousing. The acting is amateurish, the writing and directing even more so—unless you’re interested in film history, don’t bother. The hi-def transfers are decent if unexceptional

The Man Who Knew Too Much
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 drama—at 75 minutes, his tightest thriller—is superior to his own 1956 remake with James Stewart and Doris Day. Here, Peter Lorre’s slimy villain stalks innocent couple Leslie Banks and Edna Best after they stumble into a murder plot. Hitchcock’s pinpoint direction stuns throughout, and the B&W image—thanks to the Criterion Collection’s hi-def transfer—looks superlative. Extras include a Guillermo del Toro appreciation, archival Francois Truffaut audio interview, archival Pia Lindstrom and William K. Everson video interviews, and historian Philip Kemp’s commentary.

Mrs. Miniver and Grand Hotel
Two ancient Best Picture Oscar winners finally arrive on hi-def: 1932’s Grand Hotel and 1942’s Mrs. Miniver. Hotel, which was the first multi-storyline hit, is most notable for the presence of Greta Garbo, while Miniver triumphs by Greer Garson’s sensitive portrayal of a stoic Londoner who fights back in her own way against the German blitz. Both melodramas, while flawed, are historically interesting. The Blu-ray images look wonderful for such old films; extras include featurettes, shorts and a Hotel commentary.

Sleep Tight
(Dark Sky)
Jaume Balaguero’s dark drama strains to make plausible crazed concierge Cesar’s one-man band of nastiness and outright evil against an innocent young woman who lives in his apartment building. Unfortunately, the movie falls off the cliff early—when Cesar is caught hiding under her bed as she returns with her boyfriend—and the last half is spent ratcheting up ham-handedn implausibility. Luis Tosar makes Cesar’s lunacy captivating—almost. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras include deleted scenes and a making-of documentary that’s longer than the movie itself.

To Rome with Love
Woody Allen’s episodic comedy is as scattershot as anything he’s made since What’s Up Tiger Lily?: at least Midnight in Paris had the cleverness of his best short stories, while Rome is tired and familiar. Hamstrung by hammy Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni and Penelope Cruz, the movie scores as a travelogue and a witty subplot about a man who can only sing in the shower—the one time the movie approaches the surrealistic banter of Woody at his literary best. The Blu-ray image magnificently shows off Darius Khondji’s photography—and the glories of Rome itself; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

War of the Dead
Most zombie movies, despite their ridiculousness—which is there by definition—have a minimal amount of energy that allows indiscriminate viewers to enjoy the crazy ride. However, this World War II action flick never rises to the giddiness of something like Osombie, instead wallowing in boring talk that’s rarely transcended by the bloody violence these movies are supposed to provide in spades. The Blu-ray image looks OK.

DVDs of the Week
Battle for Brooklyn
This impassioned piece of cinematic advocacy follows one of a group of Brooklyn residents fighting city hall—and New York State and billionaire developers—in their attempt to prevent the building of new sports arena. The case spans several years, and although the outcome is never in doubt—I’ve been to Barclays Arena, so I know it’s been built—the near-impossibility of dealing with the Goliaths of Big Business and Government together is painstakingly shown. Extras include actress Annabeth Gish’s intro and filmmaker interviews.

King…a Filmed Record—Montgomery to Memphis
(Kino Lorber)
One of the most important documentaries ever made—and the only reason it lost the 1970 Best Documentary Oscar is because of a juggernaut called Woodstock—has been restored to its original three-hour running time, which still feels short considering the amount of historical import in every frame. Showing Martin Luther King’s very public life from 1955 to his 1968 assassination, King is essential viewing for anyone interested in our country’s checkered past, but also as a bracing reminder that racism is no ancient, shopworn concept.

Francesca Annis is breathtaking as Lillie Langtry, a celebrated Englishwoman of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, an independent, worldly who rubbed shoulders (and much more) with many artists, businessmen, politicians and royals of her time. This 10-hour mini-series (made in 1978) is about as thorough an account of her life as we’re going to get. Annis, from teenage to old age, is persuasive throughout; the leading men—from Oscar Wilde to James Whistler—are not up to her standard, but that’s a minor quibble.

30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  
As the title implies, this is the latest in a long line of kitchen-sink movie parodies, with several recent hit thrillers being lampooned mercilessly—and, for the most part, unfunnily. The one-note jokes and infantile send-ups fly byfast and furiously, but the basic premise of found-footage movies is silly to begin with, so this comedy has little bite. The lone extra is a brief-making-of featurette.

The Turn of the Screw
(Fra Musica)
Benjamin Britten’s tense chamber opera, from Henry James’ classic ghost story, is one of the most chilling stage dramas ever composed, and Jonathan Kent’s 2011 Glyndebourne, England staging treats the material as the eerie tragedy it is. Statuesque Swedish soprano Miah Persson makes a formidable governess who battles over her two charges with the spirit of Peter Quint (a properly scary Toby Spence). Jakub Hrusa conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra with tact; extras comprise two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

CDs of the Week
Lisa Batiashvili—Brahms and Schumann
Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili plays one of the most well-worn warhorses in the repertoire: her take on the Johannes Brahms’ concerto sounds lovely but adds little to the numerous recordings already out there. Instead of performing such safe works, it would be nice to hear something different—like the nine-minute tease we do get, a Clara Schumann chamber piece that’s played with enthusiasm by Batiashvili and pianist Alice Sara Ott. More would be welcome, especially on a disc with another half-hour to fill.

Zodiac Trio
(Blue Griffin)
This trio—clarinetist Kliment Krylovskiy, pianist Riko Higuma and violinist Vanessa Mollard—plays repertoire, both familiar and unfamiliar, that sounds resonant in their hands. Bookended by animated readings of Igor Stravinsky’s charming La Histoire de Soldat suite and Bela Bartok’s magnificent Contrasts (originally written for Benny Goodman), the trio also performs Nicolas Bacri’s A Smiling Suite, a lighthearted foray through various styles, and Galina Ustvolskaya’s Trio, a serious piece that never becomes oppressive.

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