Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Casual Vacancy 
(Warner Bros)
Based on J.K. Rowling's post-Harry Potter novel, this four-hour HBO miniseries is crammed with stellar performers like Michael Gambon, Rory Kiear, Julia McKenzie and Simon McBurney, but director Jony Campbell and writer Sara Phelps haven't summoned a sense of urgency about the various misdeeds, dilemmas and disasters surrouding everyone in the picturesque town of Pagford. I don't know if Rowling's underlying book suffers similarly (numerous changes were made), but the miniseries comes across as a vacuous but pretty-looking Masterpiece Theatre wannabe. The movie looks quite good on Blu; extras are three behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Child 44 
This '50s Cold War thriller, with its dark, dank Russian locations and murky secret-police operatives engaging in a widespread coverup of a series of killings, is Gorky Park-lite, even if it's based on Tom Rob Smith's first novel about agent Leo Demidov, played with steely-eyed resolve by Tom Hardy. Director Daniel Espinosa keeps things moving, and there's strong support from Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman, but the movie alternates between fast-moving sequences and meandering among its dreary characters and locations. The Blu-ray transfer is top-notch; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

(Warner Bros)
Joe Dante's  intermittently delightful 1987 comic fantasy, with amusing (and Oscar-winning) special effects, is too satisfied with its cleverness, which prevents its ever really taking off; it also pretty much coasts on Dennis Quaid's and Martin Short's screen personas, which moots the effectiveness of the entire inside-the-body experience. And unfortunately, there's also the usual dead space occupied by a tiresome Meg Ryan trying desperately to act. On hi-def, the movie's visuals are still eye-popping; the lone extra is a commentary by Dante and others.

War and Peace 
(Arthaus Musik)
Playing Czech composer Leos Janacek's first great tragic heroine in Jenufa, German soprano Michaela Kaune performs with sensitivity and intelligence, bringing Kristof Loy's flimsy production to surging life with help from conductor Donald Runnicles and the the Berlin Opera orchestra and chorus; hi-def video and audio are first-rate. In Sergei Prokofiev's masterly War and Peace, based on Leo Tolstoy's massive novel, 1000 pages of dense prose have been stunningly transformed into a stirring four-hour stage drama. The Kirov Opera's 1991 production by director Graham Vick has been transferred to hi-def with a disappointingly soft image; at least conductor Valery Gergiev and several Russian singers give Prokofiev's varied score a lively intensity. 

Madame Bovary 
Sophie Barthes is the latest director to take a crack at Gustave Flaubert's classic novel about a  young woman whose boredom as a country doctor's wife leads her to several affairs, disgrace and death; while Barthe gets the physical production's details right, her casting drags Flaubert's heroine down into superfluous melodramatics. Mia Wasikowska might be the right age for Emma, but she never gets past acting like a petulant teenager, while someone like Paul Giamatti is utterly too contemporary to play the local pharmacist; Henry Lloyd-Hughes fares better as Emma's husband Charles. The film does look sumptuous on Blu.

The Salvation 
Those who like their violence gruesomely nasty will find it in this western by Danish director Christian Levring, in which the perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen plays an immigrant whose just-arrived wife and young son are murdered by low-lifes whom he kills before facing the wrath of a vengeful widow and her brother-in-law. Whether one responds to its singlemindedness will depend on how much one cares about wall-to-wall, blood-filled revenge. Along with Mikkelsen, Eva Green makes the most of a thankless role as the mute widow and Nanna Oland Fabricius has a lovely if too-short presence as the ill-fated wife. The movie's spaciousness looks great on Blu; lone extras are behind-the-scenes and interviews.

Showdown in Little Tokyo 
(Warner Archive)
Why this loud but empty 1991 action flick is worthy of a Blu-ray upgrade over more worthy titles is even more mysterious than the goofy look on star Dolph Lundgren's face whenever he attempts to act or show emotion. Director Mark L. Lester has never met a cliche he didn't like, and fans of Tia Carrere will be disappointed to know that a body double did her nude scenes (although years later Carrere did pose nude for Playboy, for what it's worth). The hi-def transfer is good.

DVDs of the Week
Any Day 
(Anchor Bay)
What could have been a gritty study of an ex-con deal with the harsh realities of the post-prison world is turned by writer-director Rustam Branaman into a mawkish, sentimental drama cobbled together with the gracefulness and intelligence of a fourth grader's first book report. The sloppiness in Branaman's writing—every story arc is so predictable that it's easy to guess the risible twists and turns—destroys a game cast led by Sean Bean as the ex-con, Kate Walsh as his sister and Eva Longoria as an unlikely neighborhood beauty whom our hero meets grocery shopping. 

Every Secret Thing 
(Anchor Bay)
Amy Berg made the fascinating documentary West of Memphis; for her feature debut, she takes Nicole Holofcener's bumpy adaptation of Laura Lippman's novel—about two girls, who once caused a toddler's death, caught in another missing child controversy—and turns it into an occasionally gripping psychological mystery. Fine acting by Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, Abigail Breslin and Danielle Macdonald as the girl at the center of the case help smooth over a script that merely skims the surface of its serious themes. Extras comprise deleted scenes.

Viva Verdi—The La Scala Concert 
For the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi's birth, this 2013 concert at Milan's famed La Scala Opera House shows a different glimpse of the great opera composer with a selection of purely instrumental sections of his operas, played with verve by the Filharmonia della Scala orchestra and conductor Riccardo Chailly, all of whom have Verdi's music in their blood. The operas excerpted include Jerusalem, Nabucco, Giovanna d'Arco, I vespri siciliani, and La forza del destino, whose thunderous overture closes a triumphant performance of Verdi without any vocalists.

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