Friday, February 8, 2013

February '13 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The Ballad of Narayama
Shohei Imamura’s masterly 1983 film is the definitive version of the classic Japanese fable about a remote place where the elderly are shipped off to a nearby mountain to die when they reach age 70, but Keisuke Konoshita’s 1958 adaptation is a potent drama in its own right. Brilliantly shot in expansive widescreen color on stunningly designed studio sets, Konoshita’s luscious visuals—especially the deep greens and oranges of his dream-like landscape—are artfully rendered on Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer, which (since there are no extras) is definitely this obscure release’s calling card.

Here Comes the Boom
Kevin James and MMA fighting sounds like a bad idea for a movie, and it is: he plays a teacher who enters the ring to raise money to save the music department—along the way he has an improbable romance with a gorgeous colleague. James is game for such silliness and Henry Winkler and Salma Hayek are capable comic and romantic foils, but the movie’s insipidness is lowlighted by a Vegas food fight. The movie looks OK on Blu-ray; extras are a gag reel, deleted scenes, interviews and featurettes.

A Late Quartet
Yaron Zilberman’s drama about chamber music gets much right—his script makes the musical and personal interactions among a long-running quartet’s members believable—but bogs down in gratuitous subplots. (That’s not even mentioning the senior member’s Parkinson’s diagnosis forcing his retirement.) Strained metaphors equate musicmaking with life’s messiness; it doesn’t help that Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken are at sea as master musicians. Mark Ivanir (the quartet’s fourth member) and Imogen Poots (Keener and Hoffman’s violinist daughter) partly compensate. The Blu-ray image is perfect; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Peter Pan
One of Disney’s all-time animated classics arrives on hi-def: the 1953 adaptation of JM Barrie’s beloved children’s story, one of Walt’s own favorites, has been painstakingly restored for Blu-ray. The movie’s colors pop vividly, and there’s so much detail that many fans will feel like they’re watching it for the first time. Extras include a 40-minute featurette, Disney’s Nine Old Men, about the children of Walt’s original animator collaborators; deleted scenes and songs; and other kid-friendly games.

Side by Side
(New Video)
As filmmaking moves on from celluloid to digital, director Chris Kenneally and producer Keanu Reeves interview dozens of creators about the pros and cons of both: from directors Martin Scorsese and David Fincher to cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Vittorio Storaro. Along with showing hundreds of movie clips from Casablanca and Manhattan to The Social Network and Che, Kenneally and Reeves develop a healthy respect for the new—and fast-changing—digital technology without losing the necessary fondness for film. On Blu-ray, both film and digital clips look amazing (the rest is talking-heads footage); extras include additional interviews.

A Star Is Born
Barbra Streisand’s egotistical 1976 vanity project was roundly—and justifiably—trashed by reviewers as the least of the three versions of A Star Is Born; her less-than-zero chemistry with romantic interest Kris Kristofferson is the least of its offenses. A ridiculous script, corny dialogue and forgettable songs (except for Oscar winner “Evergreen”) add up to a bloated 140 minutes. On Blu-ray, the movie has an appropriate mid-‘70s grainy look; Streisand’s commentary—when she’s not quiet for long stretches—is amusing and informative, and there are 20 minutes of deleted scenes and wardrobe tests (with more Streisand commentary).

Yelling to the Sky
Zoe Kravitz, Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet’s daughter, has a memorable screen presence as a teenager in an interracial family whose weak mother is at the mercy of a drunken and abusive husband. Writer-director Victoria Mahoney avoids most melodramatic traps, and her actors—Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke as the father and Antonique Smith as Zoe’s older sister are nearly as good as Kravitz—provide sympathetic characterizations. The movie looks fine in hi-def; extras include Mahoney interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Above Suspicion 2
This taut mystery from Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect creator) follows two detectives—played with gruff charm by Ciaran Hinds and the underrated Kelly Reilly—tracking down a murder plot and international drug ring. The three-episode series sometimes bogs down in subplots that do little to advance the story and hinder the complicated relationship of the protagonists. But Hinds and especially Reilly—whose final closeup is unforgettable—are so good that it remains a watchable, near-guilty pleasure. Extras are interviews with cast and La Plante.

This visually beautiful documentary masks a serious subject—the psychological and physical deterioration of once booming Detroit—with elegant photography that blurs the line between paean and elegy. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s elegant film, necessary viewing for everyone from the 1% to the 99%-ers—and our elected officials, of course—eloquently documents those affected by the current 9and ongoing) economic downturn. Extras include 90 minutes of deleted and extended scenes.

The Dynamiter
(Film Movement)
In this modest but compelling study, the nuanced and winning William Patrick Ruffin plays a teenager balancing issues in his life—absent mom, criminal older brother, mentally slow younger brother—while trying to keep his head above water. Director-cowriter Matthew Gordon and cowriter Brad Inglesby’s drama never wallows in sentimentality, showing this young man’s situation with brutal honesty. Extras are an on-set featurette and The Roundup, a short by Stefan C. Schaefer.

My Worst Nightmare
This paper-thin romantic comedy pits Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Poelvoorde in an obvious opposites-attract situation as a posh businesswoman and working-class lob who are thrown together when their teenage sons become friends. Director Anne Fontaine—a usually incisive and intelligent filmmaker—is obviously slumming, so the fact that the movie lopes along agreeably is due to its two leads, who make this frustratingly scattershot comedy watchable even when the script scrapes the bottom of comedic barrel.

Paul Williams—Still Alive
Stephen Kessler’s engaging documentary traces his obsession with songwriter Williams (ubiquitous presence on Carson, 70s game shows and variety specials), whom he thought died years ago. When Kessler tracks him down, an uneasy trust develops, as Williams is shown trying to finesse his long-ago heyday with his current loving wife and current tour of clubs. Extras are five bonus songs in concert by Williams.

CDs of the Week
Barbra Streisand—Classical Barbra
(Sony Masterworks)
In 1976—when she made her vanity project A Star Is Born (see Blu-ray review above)—Barbra Streisand released her least commercial album: a full-throated classical set, with art songs in German, French and Italian sure to mystify many Top 40 record buyers. Re-released in superbly updated sound, Classical Barbra shows that, despite onscreen and musical missteps, she could still be a serious artist. If her interpretations of these dozen lovely lieds, melodies and arias by the likes of Hugo Wolf, Gabriel Faure, Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert—the greatest songwriters of all time—don’t approach the sublime sounds of, say, Irmgard Seefried or Angelika Kirchschlager, they do display a sensitive vocal artist at her most accomplished. Most notable are two extra tracks, Schubert masterpieces sweetly sung by Barbra and accompanied on the piano by her collaborator—and conductor of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on the orchestral songs—Claus Ogerman.

Benjamin Grosvenor—Rhapsody in Blue
British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, barely out of his teens, plays with the authority and confidence of someone decades into his career. Although the main selling point is Gershwin’s glorious Rhapsody in Blue—which he performs with a welcome lightness and grace—there are also two meaty French works on the program. Ravel’s G-major concerto dances along sizzlingly, and Saint-Saëns’ Second Concerto—which in lesser hands can sound messy—hits all the right notes from Grosvenor, conductor James Judd and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

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