Monday, February 10, 2014

February '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The Artist and the Model 
(Cohen Media)
In Francesco Trueba’s wistful drama—similar in story to the recent French film Renoir, about the last days of the French impressionist—a French sculptor’s late career gets a boost by an unexpected arrival: a nubile young model. Jean Rochefort’s sly, understated portrayal of an elderly artist whose entrenched ideas of art and life are unbalanced by a new girl is complemented by Aida Folch’s sultry muse; Italian screen siren Claudia Cardinale gives strong support as his sympathetic wife. Trueba’s unerring eye and Daniel Vilar’s luminous B&W photography are illuminated by an exemplary hi-def transfer. Lone extra is a short Trueba interview.

This mildly appealing comedy parodies Jane Austen fandom in the guise of Jane Hayes (always adorable Keri Russell), so smitten with her favorite author, her heroes and heroines that she leaves everything behind in America to visit England and live out her fantasy: it doesn’t go as planned, obviously. Diverting but incredibly lightweight, this trifle breezes by on Russell’s natural winningness; too bad it also relies on Jennifer Coolidge’s bull-in-a-china-shop persona. The Blu-ray looks very good; extras include a commentary and cast Q&A.

(e one)
This biopic is, almost unavoidably, chintzy soap opera, even if director Oliver Hirschbiegel tries taking the high road and avoid the tabloid gutter. The problem is that Princess Di’s sad story is tabloid fodder no matter how you tell it. Naomi Watts gives an honorable performance even if she’s never quite able to show us the inside of Diana’s obviously tortured psyche. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras comprise cast/crew interviews and fashion booklet.

The Jungle Book
The last Disney feature made while Walt was still alive, this wondrous 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling book about the orphan boy Mowgli is a rare instance in which everything—the dazzling animation, the immensely hummable songs, even the Disney-fying of Kipling’s dark story—coalesces into a family friendly classic. And on Blu-ray—in a terrific hi-def transfer—one of Disney’s true classics looks as good as ever. Extras include commentary, interviews, alternate ending and intros.

(Anchor Bay)
Annalynne McCord, as a vengeful girlfriend getting back at her man and best friend—who’ve been carrying on behind her back—gives an explosive performance that goes so gleefully over the top that director/cowriter Mark Jones or cowriter Sadie Katz’s crude revenge picture seems better than it is. Viva Bianca makes an appealing other woman, Billy Zane is a blank as the adulterer, but McCord gives her all and keeps things watchable even as it careens further into ludicrousness. The Blu-ray looks good.

Successive Slidings of Pleasure
The films of Alain Robbe-Grillet—an experimental novelist best known for his screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad—are interesting more for their narrative games-playing than any psychological or dramatic coherence; 1966’s Express and 1974’s Slidings are the first of his films to be released on Blu-ray. Although some find depth in them, mainly they are attractive-looking, self-referential larks helped by the presence of Jean-Louis Trintignant and the gorgeous actresses Marie-France Pisier, Olga Georges-Picot and Anicee Alvina. The hi-def transfers are splendid; extras are amusing Robbe-Grillet interviews.

The White Queen 
(Anchor Bay)
Although this handsome production about the internecine 15th century Wars of the Roses copies what distinguished series like The Tudors and The Borgias—including plentiful sex and royal intrigue—it pales in comparison to those. An accomplished cast that includes Rebecca Ferguson, Amanda Hale and Janet McTeer works hard and often effectively, but often at the service of subpar storytelling: it’s a pity, considering the drama inherent in the source material. The hi-def images look spectacular; extras include behind the scenes and background featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Dallas—Complete Season 2
The second season of this seminal evening soap opera’s reboot had to deal with the death of Larry Hagman, who created the venerable villain JR Ewing. But the writers wrangled an intriguing plot out of Hagman’s (and JR’s) death, and the result is an entertaining guilty pleasure, even if holdovers like Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy are better at this sort of thing than newcomers like Josh Henderson and Jesse Metcalfe. Extras include commentary, extended episode, deleted scenes, featurettes and Hagman/JR appreciation.

Miss You Can Do It  
A beauty pageant in Kewanee, Illinois, which features young girls who have physical disabilities, was created by Miss Iowa 2008 Abbey Curran to allow those with special needs (like Curran) to be appreciated for themselves. Ron Davis’s heartwarming documentary gets up close and personal with Curran, several pageant contestants and those who love and support them; despite its laudable lack of sentimentality, it will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who sees it.

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight
Stephen Frears’ docudrama about Muhammad Ali’s four-year battle to avoid going to Vietnam, which went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1971, matter-of-factly dramatizes how eight white justices (the lone black judge, Harry Blackmun, recused himself for non-racial reasons) dealt with this controversial and symbolic case. Frears smartly shows the real Ali in interwoven film clips, and the story itself is reenacted persuasively by the likes of Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, Harris Yulin and Fritz Weaver. It’s not earthshattering but shows us an important piece of our recent history.

The Summit 
K2 mountain has attracted fearless mountain climbers precisely because it’s so dangerous to conquer—and this impressively mounted documentary explores how and why some survived (or didn’t) a particularly trying climb in 2008: 18 climbers reached the summit but only 7 survived to tell their stories. Director Nick Ryan and writer Mark Monroe inventively juggle archival footage, emotional interviews and even hair-raising reenactments—that last is always a dicey proposition—to create a profound, even moving exploration of why certain people risk their own (and others’) lives for a thrill.

CD of the Week
Ottorino Respighi—Violin Sonatas
(Brilliant Classics)
Famous for his hugely popular Roman orchestral tone poems—The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome and the Roman Festivals—Italian composer Ottorino Respighi also composed attractive chamber music, and this disc displays the melodic gracefulness that Respighi had in his bones. His two youthful sonatas and six pieces for violin and piano, all sheerly pleasurable works, are performed by violinist Fabio Paggioro and pianist Massimiliano Ferrati with finesse and muscle.

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