Sunday, May 5, 2013

May '13 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Broken City
If Sidney Lumet had made this New York City cop thriller, it would have been complexly entertaining—Allen Hughes’ not-bad movie pretty much hits familiar buttons without giving reasons to care about (or loathe) its characters’ one-upping one another. Mark Wahlberg again plays a lone wolf against the world, while hammy Russell Crowe is the crooked mayor: there must have been a clause in his contract to keep the stultifying debate sequence intact, because it kills the movie. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras are making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, alternate ending.

The Details
(Anchor Bay)
In this accumulation of absurdities masquerading as a black comedy, Tobey Maguire plays a seemingly happily married doctor who finds himself embroiled in adultery, blackmail and murder. Director Jacob Aaron Estes flails around but never finds the right tone: his desperation is most obvious in gifted Laura Linney’s rare misfire of a performance, ratcheted up way too high to be interesting. A few deadpan bits work, and the always appealing Elizabeth Banks and Kerry Washington partially compensate. The Blu-ray image is fine; extras are an alternate opening and ending.

Earth from Space
This NOVA special, an astonishing visualization of our planet from outer space, looks closely at how natural forces work on a regular basis. Earth-orbiting satellites provide data and photos that are transformed into dazzling hi-def imagery bringing us closer than ever to seeing, for example, the formation of a powerful hurricane. The Blu-ray image is, of course, spectacular: it’s a no-brainer to watch this on as large a screen as you can.

Friends—Complete Seasons 1 & 2
The first two seasons of the mega-sitcom are finally out, separately from the complete boxed set. But who wants to watch their favorites—Jennifer Aniston, Courtenay Cox, Lisa Kudrow and a trio of forgettable guys—fiddled with to fill out everyone’s widescreen TVs, instead of as they were originally shown on mid-90s standard TVs? The series looks decent in hi-def, despite the stretching and chopping at the top and bottom; extras include a commentary, featurettes and alternate episodes.

The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez
In his final screen appearance before his death last year, Ernest Borgnine goes out fighting as an ornery grandfather trying to improve the rest home he’s in, all the while driving his wife, daughter and granddaughter crazy. The flimsy concept makes for lukewarm drama, but Borgnine’s genuine likeability and the help of several actresses—led by Carla Ortiz as a caring nurse—make for a fond sendoff to a beloved Oscar winner. The Blu-ray image is OK; extras are director commentary and behind the scenes footage.

The Notebook—Ultimate Collectors’ Edition
This 2004 tearjerker beloved by teenage girls everywhere—I wonder if they feel the same way a decade later—stars Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling as ill-fated lovers. The watchability of this sappy adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ mega-seller stems from its cast, especially McAdams, whose easy charm and girl-next-door looks should have made her a big star immediately. The Blu-ray image looks immaculate; the special edition includes a collectible locket (ooh!), set of postcards and vintage journal.

DVDs of the Week
(Warner Archive)
Rory Kennedy—youngest of 11 Kennedy kids—made this intriguing documentary about her mother Ethel, whose husband Bobby was murdered in 1968 while on his way to (probably) becoming president. The movie strongly evokes a time when the Kennedys ran the machine to end all political machines, and comments from her siblings and Ethel herself—initially reticent to discuss some things but otherwise forthcoming—make this a valuable historical document. The lone extra is a conversation with Rory.

A Fine Romance and The Scarlet Pimpernel
A funny and smart Brit-com that ran from 1980 to 1983, A Fine Romance pairs real-life partners Judi Dench and Michael Williams as an initially reluctant couple who eventually—if hesitantly—find love and happiness among the potholes of their relationship. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Richard Donner’s sumptuous 1982 TV adaptation of the classic French Revolution tale, features a stunning-looking Jane Seymour, handsome Anthony Andrews and mischievous Ian McKellen in the lead roles.

Only the Young/Tchoupitoulas
In this welcome double bill, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ Only the Young follows a girl and two boys who bond together in a small California tow, while Bill and Turner Ross’s Tchoupitoulas follows an adolescent trio around New Orleans one night. These documentaries put American teenagers front and center with no condescension. Only extras include commentary, outtakes and the short Thompson, while Tchoupitoulas extras include outtakes and behind the scenes video.

Vito and Wagner and Me
(First Run)
First Run continues its first-rate documentary run with these intelligent studies of towering cultural personalities and their legacies. Jeffrey Schwartz’s sympathetic Vito is an honest look at gay rights activist Vito Russo, whose came to prominence in the age of AIDS—which killed him in 1990. In Wagner and Me, British actor Stephen Fry wittily deals with his own infatuation with Richard Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite, by asking the still-pertinent question: is Wagner’s music responsible for the jingoistic Nazi interpretation of it? Vito extras are interviews, commentary and excerpts from his Our Time TV program.

Walk Away Renee
(Sundance Selects)
In his sequel to Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette continues to explore his family’s mental illness, focusing on his troubled mother Renee, who’s been in and out of facilities for years. Alternating between his mom’s history with his own attempts to place her in a facility closer to his NYC home, this blunt movie never develops a true rapport between audience and the protagonists, unfortunately keeping our involvement on the surface.

Young and Wild
(Sundance Selects)
This explicit study of sexually precocious 17-year-old Daniela from a Chilean Catholic family never seems exploitative due to the amazingly authentic Alicia Rodriguez, who beautifully conveys the maturity and immaturity of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. She never loses our sympathy despite reckless behavior, and director Marialy Rivas and writer Camila Gutierrez (whose teenage blog was the film’s basis) smartly allow Rodriguez’s emotionally and physically naked presence to dominate from the start.

CDs of the Week
Stravinsky—The Rite of Spring 100th Anniversary
When The Rite of Spring premiered in 1913, the reaction from the audience was violent and visceral—like the pummeling ballet itself, whose influence remains enormous. This set collects six variously impressive recordings, from Pierre Monteux (1956) to Esa-Pekka Salonen (2006), which give a good impression of how conductors and orchestras attack such a canonical work. Also included is a bonus CD with an hour-long audio documentary by Jon Tolansky, who presents Rite in its historical and musical context.

York Bowen—Works for Violin and Piano
Turn of 20th century British composer York Bowen—who has gotten short shrift due to contemporaries like Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Bridge, among others—wrote conventional but accomplished music like his highly attractive pieces for piano and violin, played here with authority and precision by pianist Danny Driver (who has recorded other Bowen works for Hyperion) and violinist Chloe Hanslip. Bowen’s two violin sonatas are weighty without becoming ponderous; the other, mainly small-scale, works are skillfully wrought and delectable.

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