Friday, May 17, 2013

May '13 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week

Beautiful Creatures
(Warner Brothers)
This pretty-looking but dramatically languid hybrid of Twilight and The Witches of Eastwick is caught between Scylla and Charybdis by trying to appeal to young females who made the vampire franchise a megahit and mature audiences that want their supernatural movies less Generation Y-ish. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese does a decent balancing act for awhile, but when plot mechanisms clash with the obstreperous characters haunting the old mansion, something has to give, and the movie falls apart, despite able performers (Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum) doing what they can. The hi-def image is enticing; extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

Cloud Atlas
(Warner Brothers)
David Mitchell’s mind-bending novel, thought unfilmable thanks to dozens of characters cross-cut among many centuries and to tell an epic series of stories of immortality, has been brought to the screen by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, with daring but middling results. Now that they’ve come to grief distilling it into a two-hour, fifty-minute movie, it’s obvious that the book should remain just that. There are incidental pleasures like gleaming photography and the chutzpah of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and even Hugh Grant to hide behind tons of makeup in multiple roles, but nothing builds to a climax or even a point, and the end result lies there, however beautifully The Blu-ray image looks marvelous; extras include interviews and featurettes about film and novel.

Full Frontal
(Echo Bridge)
One of Steven Soderbergh’s “experimental” films—made after the slick blockbuster Oceans Eleven—this 2002 drama follows several Hollywoodites through their alternately boring and exciting lives until they meet at a mutual friend’s birthday party. The movie, while largely scripted, has an offhand and improvised feel, not necessarily a good thing, since some actors can do it better than others: whenever Mary McCormack, David Hyde Pierce or—I can’t believe I’m writing this—Julia Roberts is onscreen, the movie perks up. The Blu-ray transfer isn’t bad by Echo Bridge standards; extras include deleted scenes, cast/Soderbergh interviews, and an alternate cut with Soderbergh’s commentary.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
Roman Coppola’s shallow look at an obnoxious actor tries—and fails—to laugh at and with its protagonist (boorishly played by Charlie Sheen); sensing this,  Coppola indulges himself with dull set pieces that do little but pad a (still thankfully) short running time. The appealing Katheryn Winnick, as Swan’s erstwhile lover, sticks out in a suffocating, insular world that even makes the usually indestructible Bill Murray look embarrassed. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray; extras include Coppola’s commentary and featurettes.

Iphigenie en Aulide/Iphigenie en Tauride
(Opus Arte)
Christoph Gluck’s tragic operas depicting Greek King Agamemnon’s ill-fated daughter Iphigenie are rarely staged (let alone together), and this disc has recent productions from the enterprising Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. I’m no fan of baroque music, but the compactness of these short works ups the dramatic quotient, especially when the title roles are sung so powerfully by Veronique Gens (Aulide) and Mireille Delunsch (Tauride). Marc Jankowski conducts forcefully, and Pierre Audi’s directing is riveting. The hi-def image and surround sound are strong without being overpowering.

Jersey Girl
(Echo Bridge)
After making a career out of scatology—Clerks is best, Chasing Amy worst and Mallrats and Dogma in the middle—Kevin Smith went wimpy in 2004 with this soggy rom-com starring Ben Affleck as a widower (Jennifer Lopez dies early on) who falls for local gal Liv Tyler. Presence of the first “Bennifer” notwithstanding, this watchably forgettable movie is stolen by George Carlin, of all people. The Blu-ray image is OK; extras include Smith and Affleck’s commentary, another commentary with Smith and Jason Mewes (“Jay” from other Smith movies, but not this one), making-of and interview featurettes.

The Oranges
A tale of two suburban Jersey clans—the title is an in-joke—Julian Farino’s film gets mileage out of Ian Helfer and Jay Weiss’s script about friendships and family ties breaking down when one family’s daughter has an affair with the other’s father. The movie deals persuasively if comedically with the shocking revelation’s fallout: at least until the wronged wife runs over Christmas lawn decorations in her car. Throughout, Hugh Lurie, Leighton Meester, Allison Janney, Oliver Platt and even Catherine Keener are superb, as is the Blu-ray image; extras include making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Clandestine Childhood
(Film Movement)
Benjamin Avila’s gripping account of the terror Argentines lived under during military junta rule is through the eyes of a teenager who must keep his parents’ secret that they are part of a guerrilla group. The cast of unknowns is splendid from top to bottom, the daily fright of not knowing what or whom is around every corner is unnerving present, and even becoming a teenager—especially in such trying times—is explored sensitively. The lone extra is Avila’s shattering short, Veo Veo, a run-through for the feature.

Liz and Dick
(e one)
Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor is nowhere near the unmitigated disaster everyone was hoping she would be—she’s no Liz, to be sure, but neither is she that laughably bad in the role (which would have made her closer to Liz’s own acting). Still, there’s no denying that Lohan and Grant Bowler (her Richard Burton) are bland together, only giving an approximation of the great movie couple of the 60s and 70s. Extras include interviews with the cast and crew.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
(Warner Archive)
Tony Richardson’s 1962 film, from screenwriter Alan Sillitoe’s own short story, concerns a young man (a magnificent Tom Courtenay) who finds running a great release from his troubled life. The last word in kitchen-sink realism, this psychologically nuanced portrait occasionally lays things on a bit too thickly, but all of the acting and Walter Lassally’s gritty B&W photography are unimpeachable. Too bad a restoration isn’t available yet.

The Secret Garden
(Warner Archive)
Fred M. Wilcox’s 1949 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved childrens’ novel smartly cast Margaret O’Brien—from the earlier Meet Me in St. Louis—as the headstrong girl who discovers the magical title place which helps heal all wounds, physical and psychological. The movie cleverly borrows from The Wizard of Oz by having its garden sequences in Technicolor, with the rest of the film in stark black and white.

She Cat and Female Teacher Hunting
(Impulse Pictures)
These are the latest entries in the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection. She Cat follows a woman in the crosshairs of hired killers who want her erased because of her sordid past (which she is desperately trying to outrun)—if lesbian shower scenes are your thing, then check this out. Female Teacher Hunting traces a bizarre relationship between a na├»ve teacher and a brutal male student: it’s still amusing to see blurred-out shots that block the movie’s most sordid couplings, but your mileage may vary on how erotic they are.

CD of the Week
Kaija Saariaho—La Passion de Simone
This is by far Finnish composer Kaija Sarriaho’s most trenchant work: I’ve been cold to much of her other music, which combines electronics and acoustic instruments in less than compelling, often gimmicky ways. But this oratorio about Jewish freedom fighter Simone Weil (who died in 1943)—which was recorded live last fall in Helsinki—features impassioned singing by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Tapiola Chamber Choir and blazing support from the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s baton, all clearly articulating Saariaho’s most emotionally direct piece.

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