Monday, August 26, 2013

August '13 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
(Sony Classics)
In Michael Haneke’s unflinching drama, an elderly Parisian couple deals with the wife’s incapacitating stroke. That they are cultured—former music teachers, they attend her former student’s Schubert recital the night before she starts her downhill spiral—is unsurprising, since the cynical Haneke would argue they suffer more due to such refinement. Still, Amour works forcefully due to the utterly persuasive Jean-Louis Trintignant (husband) and especially Emmanuelle Riva (wife), who gives a devastatingly subtle portrayal that sidesteps her director’s mistakes (a trite dream sequence, two (!) symbolic pigeons). Although incapable of sentiment or warmth—Trintignant and Riva provide that—Haneke is smart enough to play to his strengths. The Blu-ray image is immaculate—you can even read CD and LP spines on the shelves; extras comprise a 25-minute on-set featurette and a 35-minute Haneke interview.

Cat 8
Super Storm
(Anchor Bay)
Two middling films deal with possible ends to our world. A fatal government gaffe must be righted by an on-the-outs scientist (Matthew Modine) in Cat 8, a three-hour made-for-TV movie that sacrifices originality for a slow pace and (too much) detail. The low-budget sci-fi Super Storm dramatizes how the disappearance of Jupiter’s red spot causes powerful storms on earth, which only a small town has the apparent ability to stop. Neither of these is an essential genre flick; the hi-def images look OK. Cat extras include cast interviews.

Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal
and Hatchet III
(Dark Sky)
Cinematic gore is so commonplace that to show it satirically makes your movie stick out, like these (partly) tongue-in-cheek slasher flicks. Eddie follows the title killer and a painter who befriends him with increasingly bloody results; there’s less wit than writer-director Boris Rodriguez thinks. More graphic are the ridiculous amounts of severed limbs and heads in Hatchet III, which sprays geysers of blood for 90 minutes; but only those who actually enjoyed I and II might get any fun from a third go-round. Blu-ray transfers are fine; extras include on-set footage and interviews.

The Killing Season
(Anchor Bay)
Mark Steven Johnson’s action thriller about an ex-NATO soldier and the Serb he shot during the Bosnian war—old wounds, literal and figurative, resurface as they meet years later in the American woods—sets up its ludicrous situation somewhat plausibly. But it soon goes off the rails as the men miraculously fighting after getting wounds that would stop lesser men—not to mention rolling jeeps! John Travolta’s Serb is a well-meant caricature, Robert De Niro is always De Niro, and the stunts are impressive, but the movie is too far-fetched to provide a rooting interest. The Blu-ray image is excellent; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Odd Angry Shot
This 1979 Australian feature was swamped by the first wave of Vietnam-set films like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, but writer-director Tom Jeffrey’s straightforward drama about a group of Aussie soldiers who discover how difficult it really is fighting a war they have no rooting interest in (except that their home was much closer than America) is compelling and well-acted. The Blu-ray image looks exceedingly grainy, to the film’s credit; extras include Jeffreys’, producer Sue Milliken’s and actor Graeme Blundell’s commentary and a stunts featurette

Matteo Garrone’s follow-up to his organized crime epic Gomorrah is this bizarre turn into Felliniesque grotesquerie, as a small-time crook and family man (the remarkable Aniello Arena) sees his life slowly going to pieces as he hopes he’ll be cast in the Italian version of TV’s Big Brother. Garrone’s camera bemusedly follows the bizarre parade of eccentrics, but his sledgehammer stylization (which Fellini did better even in lesser films like Ginger and Fred) does little more than provide nearly two hours of cartoonishness. The movie’s bright colors are aptly rendered on Blu-ray; extras include Garrone and Arena interviews, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Robert le Diable
(Opus Arte)
Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera was a huge mid-19th century hit, and this 2012 Royal Opera production shows why: the combination of larger-than-life characters, emotional arias, gripping choruses and fantastic ballet interludes shows why opera was then considered the sum total of all arts. Committed portrayals by singers Bryan Hymel, Patrizia Ciofi, John Relyea and Marina Poplavskaya highlight Laurent Pelly’s dynamic staging; Daniel Oren conducts a flavorful account of Meyerbeer’s score. On Blu-ray, the hi-def image and surround sound are exemplary; the lone extra is a short featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Don’t Stop Believin’—Everyman’s Journey
This audience-pleasing documentary introduces singer Arnel Pineda, literally plucked off the streets of Manila—after being seen by Journey band members on YouTube singing karaoke songs—to become the new lead singer of the cheesy rockers following beloved frontman Steve Perry’s departure. Ramona S. Diaz’s surprisingly in-depth exploration of the vagaries of rock stardom is a winning portrait, even if you don’t need to hear the title song ever again. Extras are deleted scenes, interviews and featurettes.

The Good Wife—Complete 4th Season
What began as a show with a gimmick—a wronged political wife dusts herself off and begins her professional and personal lives anew—has remained solidly entertaining for one reason: Julianna Margulies, who gives the concept enough intelligence and allure to gloss over the show’s clichéd aspects. Support from the likes of Christine Baranski, Archie Panjabi and Josh Charles also helps. All 22 episodes from the fourth season are included on six discs; extras include featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

NCIS—Complete 10th Season and
NCIS: Los Angeles—Complete 4th Season (CBS)
The tenth season of the original NCIS and the fourth season of the surprisingly successful L.A. spinoff each put 24 season episodes on six discs: Mark Harmon continues to lead the original team, while LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell front those out on the West Coast. Your mileage will vary depending on your mood for the minutiae of undercover military investigative work; extras include interviews, commentaries, featurettes and, on NCIS10, deleted scenes.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
(Warner Archive)
Vincente Minnelli’s bizarre time-travel 1970 musical—savaged upon release—features a mis-cast Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand and Jack Nicholson, all looking embarrassed and confused. Not by Alan Jay Lerner’s songs, which are derivative but tuneful, but by the script and directing, both ridiculously ham-fisted, ensuring that the audience knows nothing and cares for no one onscreen. Streisand sounds fine while singing, but Montand (Nicholson’s lone song was cut) smartly didn’t star in other musicals with Babs. The widescreen image looks decent on this Warner Archive release, but would look better on Blu-ray.

Post tenebras lux
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas moves further into his own insular world with this inscrutable (and ugly-looking) film whose tenuous links between scenes have little discernible point. The idea for the film (whose title is Latin for “Light after darkness”) apparently came to him while alone in the mountains, but he obviously didn’t have a revelation about how to explore that idea without pretentiousness. The movie’s obnoxious visual style might come off better on the smaller TV screen than it did in the theater.

CD/DVD Set of the Week
Richard Wagner—Ring Cycle
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Richard Wagner’s gigantic operatic tetralogy is rarely released in new recordings, probably because cost is so prohibitive: it’s likely easier to film existing productions for DVD and Blu-ray (as DG did with the Metropolitan Opera’s new staging). But this recording by Christian Thielemann and the Vienna State Opera does it the old way: 14 CDs of the four operas in superlative digital sound, along with two DVDs of four one-hour documentaries about the genesis, legacy and genius of Wagner’s masterpiece(s).

Thielemann and his Vienna forces sound luminous on the Ring's orchestral highlights, like the gorgeous E-flat opening of Rheingold, the Magic Fire Music from Walkure and the ecstatic climax to Gotterdammerung. The musical coherence allows only a few of the dozens of singers to stand out: notably Albert Dohmen’s Wotan and Anna Larsson’s Erda. The DVDs' semi-scholarly approach might be too much for novices and not enough for aficionados. This isn't a benchmark Ring, but it has its moments.

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