Monday, June 3, 2013

June '13 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Despite its reputation as one of the biggest bombs in movie history—tens of millions spent with very little bang for those bucks—Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s four-plus hour ancient Egyptian epic (with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton sleepwalking through their roles as the beautiful queen and her lover Marc Antony) at least shows all of its money onscreen. This widescreen spectacular has eye-opening sets and costumes but is dragged down by molasses-slow onscreen dramatics. On Blu-ray, the movie looks fantastic; extras comprise a commentary and several featurettes.

A Common Man
(Anchor Bay)
Routine would be too kind a word for this lazy thriller about a terrorist who, after planting several bombs, forces local authorities to accede to his demands. Despite the presence of both Ben Kingsley and Ben Cross, neither of whom seems to believe in what he’s saying or doing—the movie never approaches anything remotely resembling thrills or edge-of-the-seat suspense. The movie does look good in hi-def; no extras.

Dark Skies
(Anchor Bay)
This combo of Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity shows less originality, a tall order since Paranormal was lame already. A mom and dad, after strange happenings in and around their home—like hundreds of birds committing suicide against their windows—visit a crazed loner who tells them gobbledygook about “the greys.” It takes a lot for Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton (parents) to not laugh out loud at such silliness; otherwise, this horror contraption is no more (or less) risible than other recent entries. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras are deleted scenes, alternate ending and commentary.

JFK—A New World Order
(Mill Creek)
Eight half-hour documentary shorts make up this interesting overview of the political career of John F. Kennedy, from his Congressional beginnings to that fatal 1963 day in Dallas. Historian talking heads give context, while archival footage—much seen elsewhere, but some less familiar, including speeches—rounds out this decent presidential portrait. On Blu-ray, the age of the vintage footage is obvious, but it’s an upgrade over the standard DVD. There’s another DVD with bonus JFK footage.

Medium Cool
During the 1968 Democratic Convention riots in Chicago, gifted cinematographer Haskell Wexler cannily shot footage which he then attached to a fictional story of a photographer’s busy personal and professional life in disarray: the result is one of the most fascinating, smart and adroit American political movies ever made. Robert Forster, Peter Bonerz and Verna Bloom’s acting melds seamlessly with amateurs, giving even greater authenticity. The Blu-ray image looks satisfyingly of-the-moment; extras are Wexler’s own commentary, reminiscences and look at the Occupy Wall Street movement, along with excerpts from a documentary about Wexler.

My Dog Tulip
(New Yorker)
This touching tale of an elderly man and the dog for whom he grudgingly develops affection—becoming a trusted, indispensable companion—is so beautifully done that it’s a rare animated feature of real emotions. The lovely illustrations of directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger notwithstanding, the heart of the movie is the depth of the voice work by Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini. The movie’s visuals look wonderful on Blu-ray; extras include a production featurette and other featurettes.

My Neighbor Totoro
Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s early effort, this 1988 feature has a rough-hewn charm that distinguishes it from later, expansive fables like Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. Animation that transforms cartoons into art is at the heart of Miyazaki’s success, as is the title character: a sort of giant cat (with a Cheshire grin) that can morph into various shapes to protect the children who befriended it. The Japanese audio is preferable to the English one, but the latter is obviously more kid-friendly. The Blu-ray image is amazing; extras include storyboards and short featurettes.

The Rolling Stones—Crossfire Hurricane
(Eagle Rock)
There’s no way director Brett Morgen can cram 50 years of Stones history into a 110-minute documentary, but it’s to his credit that he doesn’t even try. He goes up to the mid-70s, then skips to the present day to show that the “boys” are still going strong: his other coup is that he interviews all surviving Stones, who speak openly and humorously about events in their career—off-camera. This helps keep the focus on the voluminous archival footage shown, which is a half-century of rock’n’roll legend. The hi-def image is OK, considering the old footage; extras include vintage performances and Morgen interview.

DVDs of the Week
Detective De Luca
(MHZ Networks)
In Mussolini’s fascist Italy, a lone detective solves cases revolving around Il Duce’s inner circle, putting his reputation and own neck on the line again and again. Alessandro Preziosi’s detective has matinee-idol looks—he reminds me of Giancarlo Giannini in Lina Wertmuller’s classic Seven Beauties—so it’s no surprise he beds willing high society women who wouldn’t otherwise glance at him (like the beautiful Polish actress Kasia Smutniak in episode 1).

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Based on the illuminating exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, this intelligent summary of Russian music impresario’s Serge Diaghilev’s brilliant career and his famed Ballet Russes troupe examines his relationships with the artists who made their names through working with him: composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Satie, choreographers like Nijinsky and Balanchine and painters like Picasso and Matisse. Tilda Swinton narrates a concise hour-long portrait that introduces one of the 20th century’s most innovative artistic collaborators.

El Sicario Room 164
In this frightening documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, a Mexican hitman—on payroll of a drug cartel and member of the police who murdered, tortured and kidnaped hundreds—is interviewed in his hotel room with a hood covering his head to conceal his identity. This morbidly fascinating movie shows the man crudely drawing on a pad to accentuate specific points; although after 45 minutes, it starts repeating itself, it only lasts another 35 so it’s not a fatal flaw.

Queen Victoria’s Children
(BBC Home Entertainment)
Three one-hour programs shed light on a complicated, dysfunctional family dynamic: that of Queen Victoria, her German husband, King Albert, and their nine children, whom they tried to mold in their image. Episode 1, Best Laid Plans, concentrates on the marriage of the king and queen; Episode 2, A Domestic Tyrant, covers their five daughters—whom the queen, following her beloved’s death at age 42, wanted to keep under her thumb; and Episode 3, Princes Will Be Princes, covers the four sons. Although drily presented, the shows delve into relationships among Victoria’s family in a new way.

Red Widow—Complete 1st Season
Radha Mitchell’s plucky portrayal of a small-time mobster’s wife—absolutely clueless as to his dealings when he’s first killed—who takes over for him to protect her children highlights a familiar drama that probably won’t keep the pace of its abbreviated first season (this mid-season replacement televised eight one-hour episodes). Extras include interviews, deleted scenes and bloopers.

CD of the Week
Laura Osnes—If I Tell You: The Songs of Maury Yeston
(PS Classics)
Tony nominee Laura Osnes, one of musical theater’s brightest new lights, has already shown her fondness for Rodgers & Hammerstein (she’s already done South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Pipe Dream and Cinderella, which is now on Broadway), and this entrancing disc of 17 songs by Maury Yeston—best known for his musical Nine—shows that that she can also make other composers’ work her own. Osnes’ bright, high soprano is beautifully showcased throughout: and when she shows off her technical prowess on the stunningly long note held at the end of the delightful “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree/I Want to Go to Hollywood,” it’s not the self-satisfied over-singing of today’s pop divas but a perfect-sounding expression of unbridled joy.

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