Friday, January 25, 2013

January '13 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Downton Abbey—Complete Season 3
The masters and servants enter their 3rd season in Julian Fellowes’ savvy Upstairs Downstairs rewrite with high drama in each episode: will the Earl of Grantham lose the estate? Will his daughter Sybil survive childbirth? Will valet Bates be released from jail? Along with the impeccable cast led by Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, Shirley MacLaine arrives as the latest fish out of water: mother of the Earl’s wife, played by Elizabeth McGovern. The show sticks to the tried and true, but wonderful production values (highlighted on Blu-ray), superb acting and writing keep it moving. Extras include a 45-minute making-of and featurettes about MacLaine, the show’s men and the year 1920.

Ivan’s Childhood
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 international breakthrough is a passionate study of a teenage boy dealing with the inhumane and incomprehensible during wartime. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov’s sparkling B&W compositions—which have incredible detail in the Criterion Collection’s usual high-standard hi-def transfer—present a lion’s den of haunting images. Extras include interviews with historian Vita Johnson, actor Nikolai Burlyaev (who played Ivan as a remarkable 15-year-old) and Yusov.

Keep the Lights On
(Music Box)
Ira Sachs mined his own life for this personal look at a long-term, off-and-on relationship between a documentary filmmaker and a closeted lawyer with a drug problem. Sachs savvily uses Manhattan locations as a backdrop to a volatile love affair, and the fairly explicit sex scenes are not in the least gratuitous. But what keeps the movie from becoming a memorable character study is the wooden acting of leads Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth, who look right but never convey the myriad emotions in Sachs’ and Maricio Zacharias’s impressive script. The Blu-ray image is good and grainy; extras include a Sachs commentary, deleted scenes, a making-of and actors’ screen tests.

Officer Down
(Anchor Bay)
Brian A. Miller’s routine thriller features Stephen Dorff, huffing and puffing as a rogue cop who discovers his crooked chief (a scenery-chewing James Woods) is out to get him. Dorff always seems winded from straining to emote—luckily, a colorful supporting cast (Woods, Stephen Lang, Annalynne McCord, Elisabeth Rohm) partly compensates, although director Miller can do little with standard cop movie clichés. The Blu-ray image looks fine.

Taken 2
You would think Liam Neeson would make sure that his family would never go abroad again after Taken showed his daughter kidnapped in Paris, where he had to mow down dozens of bad guys in the original. But no: he, his ex-wife and daughter take to the streets of Istanbul for more…and they get it. There’s enjoyable action from director Olivier Megaton, but the premise is so eye-rolling that it hurts the brain to watch, despite a game trio of Neeson, Famke Janssen (his ex) and Maggie Grace (his daughter). The hi-def transfer looks stellar; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and an 25-minute alternate ending that’s very different from what we got.

Won’t Back Down
Maggie Gyllenhaal reprises her trashy but spunky single mom from Sherrybaby to play a trashy, spunky single mom who hooks up with disgruntled teachers to start a new Pittsburgh school to help her dyslexic daughter. Writer-director Daniel Barnz has his bleeding heart in the right place, but despite the best efforts of his actresses—there’s also Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez and Marianne Jean-Baptiste—his movie lacks substance: and the final spoken word, “hope,” is too naked an Obama reference. The Blu-ray image looks super; extras are deleted scenes, director commentary and featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Abolitionists
In this three-hour journey through the often unsung heroes and heroines who guided our country to the abolishment of slavery, the roads—literal and figurative—taken to arrive at the final nail in slavery’s coffin (the Civil War) are interesting to watch even if history buffs will find nothing new here. And, even though I still have doubts about the effectiveness of the reenactment mania that’s overcome more and more documentaries, it’s used wisely and well.

Birders—The Central Park Effect
(Music Box)
Jeffrey Kimball’s affectionate documentary follows individuals dedicated to following the dazzling array of colorful bird species that migrate to and inhabit Central Park, New York’s sprawling but magical urban oasis. Showing the interrelationship between humans and nature, Kimball is amazingly able to present many people (including author Jonathan Franzen) who adore these winged marvels without condescension—but also not without humor. Extras are additional interviews and a video bird guide.

In actor Karl Markovics’s directorial debut, a lonely teenager who lives in a juvenile detention center begins working at a new job: the local morgue. After he sees a dead body that has his last name, he decides to track down his real mother, with whom he begins a distant but enlightening relationship. Although Markovics tries too hard to be detached—there are many long, static shots—his protagonist (played by the intense Thomas Schubert) is singular enough to be worth 90 minutes of our time.

Joan Rivers—Don’t Start with Me
(e one)
Those who only know Joan Rivers from her snarky comments about celebrities on TV’s Fashion Police may be shocked to discover that, in her latest stand-up special, she kills it with snarky comments that go way beyond even cable TV. Rivers enters the blue territory of Redd Foxx with her liberal sprinkling of “F” words and other unapologetically adult material. Rivers is uncensored and irrepressible—but the “shock” of her potty mouth palls before she ends with nastiness about Jennifer Aniston.

Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis
(Anchor Bay)
Proving that not only do the French love Jerry Lewis’ juvenile comedy, Gregg Barson’s hagiography gathers comedians—from Carl Reiner to Jerry Seinfeld—to wax eloquently about Lewis’s career from his days with Dean Martin through his series of adroitly physical comedy features. But it’s Lewis himself, who reminiscences thoughtfully about his life from working with his parents in vaudeville at a young age to his many inspired movie gags, who comes across as a mature, revered comic artist. There are film clips galore, along with glimpses of Lewis still at work onstage with his loving audience.

Searching for Sugar Man
In this entertaining documentary, director Malik Bendjelloul tracks down Rodriguez, a late 60s/early 70s folk singer with a cult following, especially in South Africa. His music, which fits in with the era’s acoustic singer-songwriters (Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Don McLean), hit a chord with fans, as witness those who discuss his songs on camera. His three daughters also speak, and the “mystery” of his supposed death after his disappearance from the industry is also touched on. Extras include Bendjelloul and Rodriguez’s commentary and interview, a making-of featurette and music videos.

CD of the Week 
Piano Duets—Christina and Michelle Naughton 
Piano-playing twins Christina and Michelle Naughton are dazzlers in a genre that’s by definition limited: works for piano four-hands and two pianos. This supremely confident recording moves from Mendelssohn’s four-hands Allegro brillant to Mozart’s classic two-piano sonata to a rollicking two-piano version of Ravel’s invigorating La Valse. But it’s the seemingly throwaway pieces—a four-hands version of the First Spanish Dance from Falla’s opera La vida breve and Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini—where the sisters’ artistry comes to the fore: these short works have the same vitality as their performances of the larger pieces, which is what makes them so thrilling to listen to.

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