Sunday, December 8, 2013

December '13 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Argo—Extended Edition
Director-star Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Best Picture dramatizes the so-strange-it-must-be-true story of U.S. embassy workers during the Iranian hostage crisis holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s house while the CIA concocted an elaborate rescue plan. The tension remains even though we know the outcome: it’s just too bad that Affleck can’t resist adding a phony “skin of their teeth” climax. This “new” edition features a 10-minutes-longer cut that looks superb on Blu-ray; new extras include featurettes, and “old” extras include Affleck and writer Chris Terrio’s commentary, several featurettes and a documentary about the hostages on the 25th anniversary of their rescue.

The Canyons
Bret Easton Ellis’ script about a group of vapid Hollywood types brooding and screwing and partying is even shallower than these people have any right to be, with laughable dialogue and nonexistent motivation. Even director Paul Schrader, who obviously tried to make this look professional, can do little with what Ellis handed him. Lindsay Lohan—who bares all—tries her hardest, but she’s undermined by Ellis’s script and costar James Deen’s invisibility. The Blu-ray transfer looks attractive; extras include brief featurettes.

Carmen Jones
Desk Set
In Otto Preminger’s excellent 1954 adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones (from Bizet’s classic opera), Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte give a clinic in star power and charisma as the ill-fated lovers whose destiny is intertwined in their fateful love affair. The inimitable duo of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy goes through its paces in the fitfully funny 1957 Walter Lang-directed comedy Desk Set about modernization in the office. Both Cinemascope films look virtually flawless on Blu-ray; Desk Set extras are a commentary and featurette.

General della Rovere
One of Roberto Rossellini’s most conventional films is this 1959 drama with fellow director Vittorio de Sica (who’s splendid) as an amoral Italian who becomes a Nazi collaborator and must decide whether morality is preferable to money. Shot in gritty B&W (which looks good, not great, in hi-def), Rossellini’s film straightforwardly explores his country’s decisions of conscience during World War II. The disc contains Rossellini’s 140-minute cut and the released 132-minute version; extras include interviews and a video essay about the film, Truth of Fiction.

This witlessly turgid thriller puts Ethan Hawke (as a race car driver) and Selena Gomez (his unwilling passenger) together to race through the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria at the behest of an unseen madman (Jon Voight) who kidnaped his wife. Lots of impressive stunt driving and car chases don’t compensate for incoherent, nearly unwatchable storytelling. The Blu-ray looks good; extras include featurettes.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Elio Petri’s splashy but gripping drama—which justly won 1970’s Best Foreign Film Oscar—showcases that great actor Gian Maria Volonte in his signature role as a police chief who murders his mistress then spends the rest of the movie daring his underlings to arrest him for the crime. Luigi Kuveiller’s photography and Ennio Morricone’s music are sublimely of a piece with the rest of the film, which brilliantly demonstrates the lost art of the intelligent, uncompromising political thriller. The hi-def transfer looks immaculate; an amazing array of extras includes a 90-minute documentary, Elio Petri: Notes about a Filmmaker (2005); a 2008 doc Investigation of a Citizen Named Volonte; a 2010 Morricone interview, archival Petri interview and scholar Camilla Zamboni interview.

The Perfect American
(Opus Arte)
For his 25th opera, Philip Glass takes on Walt Disney, one of the towering figures of the 20th century: this complex man—an innovative and beloved artist who was also deeply conservative and racist—was of his times, and Rudy Wurlitzer’s absorbing libretto takes his measure, even if Glass’s repetitive music never reaches similar heights. Phelim McDermott’s extraordinary production (at its January Madrid world premiere), gives the opera a visual gloss remindful of Disney at his best without slavish imitation. Christopher Purves is a strong acting and singing protagonist; Dennis Russell Davies conducts a lucid account of Glass’s underwhelming score. The hi-def image and sound are tremendous.

The Smurfs 2
Every kid’s favorite blue cartoon creatures return in this cute adventure set in Paris, where they fight off the evil wizard Gargamel, who tries creating Smurf clones through his original “naughties.” Even if it makes scant sense, kids won’t mind, even if its PG rating promises “rude humor and action.” Overall, though, it’s innocuous family entertainment. The Blu-ray image is crystal clear; extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

The Stone Roses—Made of Stone
Director Shane Meadows, a long-time fan, made this chronicle of the reunion of the Stone Roses after a 16-year split—which culminates with three concerts in the band members’ hometown of Manchester—that’s chockful of fly-on-the-wall moments, rehearsals, interviews and other goodies Stone Roses fans will enjoy. This insider’s portrait won’t create many new fans, but Meadows’ approach as unpretentiously chummy. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras include a commentary, behind the scenes footage and live performances.

DVDs of the Week
Buying Sex
Speak the Music
(First Run)
Teresa Macinnes and Kent Nason’s Buying Sex—which shows the effects of a debated Ontario court decision that basically made prostitution legal—even-handedly allows both sides their views despite quite emotional responses to a volatile (and intensely personal) issue. Veteran classical-music documentarian Allan Miller’s Speak the Music is a succinct, involving 60-minute portrait of violinist Robert Mann, one of the scions of chamber music in the United States, who comes off as witty and personable but eminently serious about his art.

The Hunchback
Young Catherine
(Warner Archive)
Peter Medak’s 1997 The Hunchback, a TV movie from Victor Hugo’s classic, stars a sexy young Salma Hayek as gypsy Esmeralda, Richard Harris as Don Frollo and the stunning transformation of Mandy Patinkin as Quasimodo: nearly unrecognizable under the makeup like John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Patinkin is nevertheless touching and real. In the three-hour 1991 mini-series Young Catherine, a young Julia Ormond gives a strong, sensual portrayal of the young German princess who became empress of Russia in the 18th century—terrific support comes from Vanessa Redgrave as her domineering mother-in-law and Christopher Plummer as her lone friend among the court.

(Music Box)
The bizarre but true story of Brandon Darby—left-wing activist turned FBI informant—is profiled in Jamie Meltzer’s matter-of-fact documentary, which is filled with interviews with Darby himself as well as former and current associates like late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who enthusiastically welcomed Darby to the Tea Party. Meltzer’s insightful film shows how, in the 21st century, the anti-terrorist state will use any means at its disposal to keep an eye on its citizens.

The ’83 US Festival—Days 1-3

This truncated overview of the second US Festival—a splashy California pop-and-rock event—presents 45-minute chunks of its three days: U2 and Stevie Nicks are represented with two songs each, The Clash and INXS get one song each, but long-forgotten Men at Work, Quarterflash and Berlin and hard-rockers Judas Priest, the Scorpions and Canada’s Triumph (which gets four songs, most by any artist!) are also included. Missing in action are any glimpses of the sets by Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Pretenders or David Bowie. Strangely, some songs have voiceovers that smother parts of them, thanks to interviews with MTV VJ Mark Goodman or the acts themselves, like Colin Hay of Men at Work. 

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