Sunday, December 15, 2013

December '13 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
(Anchor Bay)
Made in 2006 but just getting released for obvious reasons, Jonathan Levine’s film begins as a teenage psychodrama but soon reveals itself as another slasher flick with a lame twist. The early atmosphere of dread as high school cliques are dramatized realistically gives way to generic horror; but, as long as the ultra-photogenic Amber Heard is onscreen, Mandy Lane (the movie and the character) is never less than watchable. The Blu-ray image looks fine; Levine’s commentary is the lone extra.

Big—25th Anniversary Edition
Tom Hanks’ smart comic performance (which earned him his first—and most deserved—Oscar nom) anchors Penny Marshall’s cutesy, one-note 1988 comedy about a young boy who morphs into an adult and must deal with the grownup world with just a pre-teen brain. This clever but thin conceit is helped by, along with Hanks, a delicious comic turn by Robert Loggia and the wonderful presence of Elizabeth Perkins, who somehow was never a huge star. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras include a documentary, featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes with Marshall intros.

Drinking Buddies
Mumblecore purveyor Joe Swanberg hits the big time, sorta: the low-budget writer-director of vapid millennial chronicles graduates to (almost) stars with his vapid rom-com about a young woman, working with men at a beer plant, who’s interested in a co-worker as her own relationship fails. It’s as dull as it sounds: not even a delightful Olivia Wilde as the heroine can save it, while sleepwalking costars Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston and an expressionless Jake Johnson drag her down further. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras comprise interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes/outtakes and commentary.

Futurama—Volume 8
The latest release of Matt Groening’s dementedly futuristic animated series comprises 13 episodes, and if the show’s humor remains hit-or-miss, its audacious visual imagination is always something to enjoy—which is unsurprising from the creator of The Simpsons. The hi-def imagery is crisp and clear; extras include episode commentaries; three-part animation featurette, Futurama University; and a writing featurette, Inside Futurama.

The Hunt
Thomas Vinterberg can be an intelligent provocative filmmaker, but his story of a beloved schoolteacher whose career and life are ruined when a young girl in his class says that he molested her begins realistically before degenerating into outright implausibility as characters act more and more stupidly. Despite an increasingly imbecile script, Vinterberg directs persuasively and Mads Mikkelsen gives an impassioned portrayal of the wronged man; but it’s ultimately for naught. The Blu-ray transfer is luminous; extras are a making-of featurette, deleted/extended scenes and alternate ending.

Mary Poppins—50th Anniversary
OK, so Disney jumped the gun (the original release was 1964), but this is a true classic: the immortal Julie Andrews’ original supernnany swoops in and makes everything better—with a spoonful of sugar, natch—arrives on Blu-ray in fine style, its beloved tale and classic Sherman Brothers’ songs intact. Of course, this being Disney, there’s cross-marketing: a neglible interview featurette with Richard Sherman by that non-actor Jason Schwartzman, who plays him in the new movie Saving Mr. Banks. Other extras include a making-of, interviews and a deleted song; it all looks fantastic on Blu-ray.

Touchy Feely
Clever title aside, Lynn Shelton’s restrained comedy about a masseuse who suddenly can’t stand the touch of other people plods along seemingly content with its one-idea story: a subplot about her dentist brother and fellow masseuse just clutter the movie with less than scintillating padding. The acting saves it, sort of: Rosemary Dewitt as the heroine, Ellen Page as her sister, Allison Janney as the fellow masseuse and Josh Pais as her brother. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras include outtakes, interviews, making-of featurette and commentary.

DVDs of the Week
American Bomber
This paranoiac post-9/11 drama follows its homegrown title character who goes to New York to do his deadly deed, but writer-director Eric Trenkamp disappointingly falls back on a hackneyed faux-documentary structure with unimpressive actors intoning about the antagonist. Michael C. Freeland’s bomber is pretty much a blank slate, which may be the point, but it doesn’t make him any more credible or intriguing; Rebekah Nelson’s love interest is endearing, and if she had had more to do, the movie might have been more engrossing. Extras include post-screening Q&A, director commentary and outtakes.

The Deflowering of Eva van End
(Film Movement)
Dutch director Michiel ten Horn’s absurdist comedy follows the eponymous young girl whose life—at home and at school—is a typical pre-teen shambles. At times uncomfortably reminiscent of Welcome to the Dollhouse, ten Horn’s film has its own point of view, and a skewed but sympathetic perspective—coupled with deliriously surreal performances by Vivian Dierickx (Eva) and Jacqueline Blom (Mom)—makes this worth a look. Extras include a ten Horn interview and two shorts, Basta and Arie.

Men at Lunch
(First Run)
It’s a legendary photo: 11 construction workers, blithely sitting on a steel beam 80 stories above Manhattan, having lunch as if on a Central Park bench. That photo is one of the most studied and talked-about ever, but questions persist: is it genuine? Who took it? Who are the men? Sean O’Cualain’s to-the-point 65-minute documentary actually digs up two of the workers, who were immigrants from Shanaglish, Ireland, a place whose people are proud of their larger- (and higher-) than-life native sons. Narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, O’Cualain’s slice of history uncovers a couple of the mysteries attached to the pic since it was taken in 1932. Extras include featurettes.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
(Kino Lorber)
91-year-old director Alain Resnais’ continued vitality is shown in this deeply personal take on the cinematic tug of war between reality and artifice: a dozen performers come together for an offbeat version of Jean Anouilh’s play Eurydice, with three couples portraying the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. At first, the triplings seem sterile actors’ exercises, but Resnais’ peculiar rhythms soon find their footing and become a showman’s percolating display of the art of acting (Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson), underacting (Michel Piccoli and Hippolyte Girardot) and overacting (Resnais’ wife Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi). As rugs are pulled out from under the viewer, Resnais’ 60-year cinematic sleight of hand still astonishes. It’s too bad there’s no Blu-ray release.

CDs of the Week
Benjamin Britten—War Requiem
Britten’s stirring 1962 masterwork combines the Latin Requiem Mass, Wilfred Owen’s WWI poems, consecration of a new Coventry Cathedral after the original was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid and the composer’s pacifist stance into a sprawling 80-minute oratorio that, especially in this forceful performance, is physically and emotionally draining. Britten himself ably conducts, and his extraordinary trio of soloists—his partner Peter Pears, Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—provide a vivid vocal presence alongside the men’s, women’s and boys chorus. This remastered re-release of the original Decca recording sounds gorgeous and full, especially on the Blu-ray audio disc; a bonus CD contains illuminating rehearsal excerpts that give fascinating glimpses of Britten in the studio conducting his own work.

Bebe Neuwirth—Stories…in NYC
Sierra Boggess—Awakening
(Broadway Records)
Two Broadway leading ladies—one a veteran force of nature and the other a rising superstar—display varied talents on CDs recorded at the Theater District’s intimate 54 Below. Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith in Frasier and scene-stealer in Chicago) sings an enjoyable program of story songs by Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Kander and Ebb and Tom Waits and provides engaging commentary along the way. The sparkling-voiced Sierra Boggess displays an easy charm and beguiling stage manner while showing off an astonishing vocal range in songs from her first Broadway show The Little Mermaid through an hilarious mash up of Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes—as if they were sung by overbearing pop and opera divas—to two La Boheme arias, and sounding radiant on everything.

The Sound of Music
(Sony Masterworks)
Although her acting as Maria in NBC’s live performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved Broadway musical was roundly (and rightly) criticized, Carrie Underwood has a pristine voice that sounds right at home on classics like “Do Re Mi,” “So Long Farewell” and the title tune, so listening to the CD will suffice for those who missed the broadcast. The superb Tony-winning stage veterans (who give novice Underwood estimable support) include Audra MacDonald, whose Abbess belts a formidable “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”; and Christian Borle and the always delectable Laura Benanti, whose “How Can Love Survive?” and “Something Good” are the show’s undeniable high points.  

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