Sunday, February 24, 2013

February '13 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Atlas Shrugged, Part II
The second part of this interminable adaptation of Ayn Rand’s bloated novel at least does away with her turgid prose, replacing it with mediocrity in front of and behind the camera. It’s infantile pro-“job creator” propaganda that even fans of Sean Hannity (who appears briefly—and badly—as himself) can understand. If you enjoy seeing trains crash, then this is the movie for you: and there’s a reward for those who make it through all 112 minutes…the cliff-hanger introduction of the one and only John Galt. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are deleted scenes, making-of featurette, extended Hannity segment.

Special Forces
(e one)
This gritty thriller, set in war-torn Afghanistan, follows a French journalist (a strong Diane Kruger) kidnaped by the Taliban who’s rescued by an elite group of special forces (led by Djimon Hounsou and Benoit Magimel). While it goes on too long, Stephane Rybojadx’s drama is a real nail-biter, and the desert locales go a long way toward giving it an authenticity of time and place. The movie looks terrific on Blu-ray; extras include a making-of documentary as long as the actual movie and deleted scenes.

The Thief of Bagdad
(Cohen Media)
In this epic “Arabian Nights” fantasy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars as Ahmed, the dashing thief who becomes a hero to the princess whom he sweeps off her feet. Although Raoul Walsh’s 1924 silent has its share of dramatic longeurs amidst its 124 minutes, there’s never a dull visual moment, thanks to William Cameron Menzies’ amazing sets. And on Blu-ray, in a restored edition, it looks about as good as an 89-year-old movie is ever going to look. Extras include a commentary and featurette.

Ultimate Mars Challenge
PBS’s Nova series takes a behind-the-scenes look at the grueling and difficult path to Curiosity, which is the latest attempt by NASA scientists to build a probe that will be sent to Mars and discover whether or not life has ever existed there. Through a series of detailed experiments, we are shown how the probe—by far the most sophisticated robotic system ever sent to the Red Planet—is given a landing system that includes a massive parachute and crane whose jobs are to slow and touch down a probe coming in at 13,000 MPH. The Blu-ray image is ravishing.

(Weinstein/Anchor Bay)
Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s inspirational documentary (and last year’s Oscar winner) follows coach Bill Courtney, whose arrival at sad-sack Manassas High in North Carolina—where he found a pervasive losing mentality and culture—transforms the team after six difficult seasons into a winner, both on and off the field. There are manipulative moments, but mainly this is an uplifting look at teenagers doing positive things when they set their minds to it. The Blu-ray image is good; extras include deleted scenes, directors’ commentary and making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Quebecois director Denis Cote’s fascinating glimpse at a safari park outside Montreal is 70 minutes filled with wondrous shots of workers and visitors interacting with and being mesmerized by the vast park’s animal inhabitants. Bookended by evocative images—a young woman’s face in close-up and an elephant walking through a tree-filled landscape in long shot—the movie is, in a broad sense, reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s great documentaries. The lone extra is a Cote interview.

Chicken with Plums
It’s not surprising that the directors of the animated Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud) made a live-action romantic/tragic fantasy that resembles a cartoon: characterizations are secondary to the lively atmosphere in this story of a noted violinist who recounts his rich life while awaiting death. Mathieu Amalric is his usual solid self in the lead, Golshifteh Farahani is a ravishing specter of missed love, but the movie bumpily moves from seriousness to frivolity without melding them together. Extras include directors’ commentary and Tribeca Film festival Q&A.

Henry Ford
In this hard-hitting PBS American Experience documentary, the innovative auto giant is profiled with two hours of insights into his achievements and embarrassments. In addition to creating the automobile industry that ruled American labor for decades, Ford was also deeply racist and anti-Semitic, which might or might not disallow him from the annals of great Americans. Either way, this deeply flawed but fascinating man is worthy of this biography.

How to Survive a Plague
(Sundance Selects)
This devastating piece of cinematic advocacy powerfully documents AIDS activists getting the deadly epidemic into the sights of an inattentive government band and enabling themselves to survive despite the death sentence the disease gave them. Director David France extensively—and adroitly—intercuts vintage footage with new interviews with the MVPs in the fight by ACT UP (the most prominent AIDS victims’ group) over so many years of fighting disease and government. Extras include commentary with France and ACT UP activists, along with deleted scenes.

Small Apartments
In writer-director Jonas Akerlund’s black comedy, several non-descript—but oh so edgy—people interact with one another in a rundown apartment complex, including unexpected deaths. A non-all-star cast—comprising Matt Lucas, Juno Temple, James Caan, Saffron Burrows, Rosie Perez, Billy Crystal and even Dolph Lundgren—is game but can’t overcome the interchangeable weirdness that fails to distinguish these characters. Extras include a behind the scenes featurette.

CDs of the Week
Peter Maxwell Davies—Concertos
Peter Maxwell Davies’ concertos for trumpet, piccolo and piano—composed in 1988, 1996 and 1997, respectively—are ably conducted by the composer himself on these re-releases. His soloists—trumpeter John Wallace, piccolo player Stewart McIlwham and pianist Kathryn Scott—play splendidly; the trumpet concerto is certainly more astringent than the the lively piccolo concerto  and the dense, dazzling piano concerto. The other pieces on these discs (like Five Klee Pictures and his motet for orchestra, Worldes Blis) round out a compelling snapshot of this accomplished British composer.

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