Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July '14 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Aerial America—Southwest Collection
(Smithsonian Channel)
In the latest release from the invaluable series exploring this great land of ours, unforgettable aerial footage of five states (Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) is the star of this four-hour travelogue. Among their eye-popping scenic vistas and natural wonders, stand-outs are Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Nevada’s Hoover Dam, New Mexico’s Santa Fe and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Captured with pinpoint clarity by many hi-def cameras, these locations linger in the memory, thanks to the first-rate hi-def transfer.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn
The latest by Phil Alden Robinson (director of Field of Dreams and Sneakers) is a compact, intermittently satisfying black comedy about an angry man who, when told he has 90 minutes to live, runs all over Brooklyn hoping to make belated amends with his family. Robinson’s concise direction and pitch-perfect performances by Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Melissa Leo and Sutton Foster help disguise the fact that this is ultimately 84 shopworn minutes of material from Daniel Taplitz’s script. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are a making-of featurette and gag reel with not enough Williams craziness.

Ariadne auf Naxos
Don Carlo
(Sony Classical)
Although German tenor Jonas Kaufmann stars in both operas, he is less in his element in Strauss’s Ariadne than in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo, where he memorably plays the sympathetic nobleman in the Salzburg Festival’s 2013 staging, which matches the complexities in the libretto and masterly music. Ariadne is Salzburg’s 2012 staging of the unwieldy original, which Strauss wisely discarded before settling on the justly well-known version. Strauss’s women, as always, are front and center, and Emily Magee and Elena Mosuc come off best in a time-capsule work that has glorious music but bumpy dramaturgy. Hi-def visuals and audio of both operas are exemplary.

Love in the City
There was a plethora of omnibus films by notable European directors in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, and this engagingly lightweight 1953 ensemble feature was one of the first: despite comprising shorts by heavy-hitters near the beginning of their careers (Fellini, Antonioni) and other noteworthy filmmakers (Dino Risi, Alberto Lattuada), this is a scattershot film about romances and relationships. Still, anyone interested in these directors—particularly Antonioni and Fellini—will want to at least check out their favorites’ segments. On Blu-ray, the image looks OK if too digitized; extras include commentaries and interviews.

The Wind Will Carry Us
(Cohen Media)
Iranian Abbas Kiarostami’s dazzlingly formal 1999 study follows a group of engineers which arrives at a remote village to record the inhabitants’ mourning rituals preceding a 100-year-old woman’s death; when she doesn’t die, the men are forced to appreciate the slow pace of the people’s day-to-day existence. Before he turned into a pretentious purveyor of “reality or illusion” dramas—culminating in the colossally vacuous Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love—Kiarostami directed thought-provoking films with simple but stunning imagery, which come through unvarnished on Blu-ray. Lone extra is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s commentary.

DVDs of the Week
The French Minister
Bertrand Tavernier’s unabashed and witty satire of French—and, by extension, international—politics comes very close to becoming the distinguished and intelligent French director’s first foray into farce. But the over-the-top careenings of the characters and the absurd—but expressly realistic—scenarios remain plausible enough to make viewers uncomfortable while laughing out loud. This exhilarating highwire act comes perilously close to going over the edge into self-parody, but never does: pitch-perfect acting by Thierry Lhermitte, Raphael Personnaz, Anais Demoustier and Julie Gayet grounds their near-caricatures in Tavernier’s superbly rendered ultra-heightened reality. My lone quibble: why is this not on Blu-ray? Extras are brief featurettes.

Medical Center—Season 5
(Warner Archive)
For the popular hospital drama’s fifth season—which was televised in 1973-74—Chad Everett and James Daly’s doctors not only deal with their patients’ physical and mental issues, but also with thorny problems which were then plaguing and dividing the country, like homosexuality and the Vietnam War. Alongside the stars, some of the guests passing through the hospital’s doors on the six discs housing this season’s 24 episodes include Stefanie Powers, Stockard Channing, Jill Clayburgh, Julie Harris and even Celeste Holm.

Le Week-End
(Music Box)
Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan could scarcely be bettered as a middle-aged English couple trying to rekindle their long-dulled marriage by returning to Paris, scene of their long-ago honeymoon. But despite the deliciously believable relationship they create, director Roger Michel and writer Hanif Kureishi are unable to surround them with an arresting storyline or non-clichéd characters to interact with (typified by Jeff Goldblum’s vulgar caricature as an ugly American). Extras are director-producer commentary, featurettes and cast-crew interviews.

CD of the Week
John Mellencamp—Live at Town Hall, July 31, 2003
It was a long way from Johnny Cougar warbling “Hurts So Good” to a politically aware John Mellencamp performing the entirety of his then-current album, Trouble No More, a collection of blues and folk tunes that stingingly commented on the state of the nation when the Bush administration began its disastrous Iraq war in a 2003 concert that finally sees the light of day. Mellencamp’s maturity came in fits and starts in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but his scathing Trouble songs—played with controlled power by his terrific live band—are in another realm entirely, led by his re-writing of an old song, “To Washington,” mocking the sins of those in power. Renditions of his ‘80s hits “Small Town,” “Paper in Fire” and “Pink Houses”—in more folk-based arrangements—mark a straight line to the political charged tunes from Trouble No More.    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week

Cesar Chavez 
Diego Luna’s unexceptional biopic about the singular labor leader who, against all odds, gained widespread support for his strike actions against all-powerful corporations would be less than memorable if not for the compelling performance of Michael Pena in the title role. Solid support from Rosario Dawson and America Ferrara lends authenticity to a decent if flattened-out Hollywood version of an inspiring true story. The Blu-ray image looks superb; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Endeavour—Season 2 

In the second season of this entertaining prequel to the popular British series Morse, set in Oxford in the fraught decade of the 1960s, the young detective investigates several cases with the no-nonsense Chief Inspector Thursday (played by the inimitable Roger Allam of The Thick of It). Shaun Evans himself provides the necessary pluck, humor and intelligence in the title role, and these four 90-minute mysteries unravel grippingly. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.

Michael Palin’s Brazil 

Wherein the former Monty Python member continues his successful second career as a world traveler to remote and remarkable destinations, this four-part series follows Palin to what’s been in the news recently as the controversial home of the recent World Cup. But as Palin discovers (and shows), it is so much more, with some of the most wide-ranging cultures on the entire planet, from difficult-to-reach rainforest regions to full-to-bursting population centers Rio and Brasilia, where millions live in cramped quarters. It’s a splendid but thoughtful journey, with spectacular vistas rendered beautifully on Blu-ray.

Open Grave 

Pits filled with dead bodies, survivors suffering from amnesia, a plague that has seemingly killed off much of the world’s population—yes, it’s another apocalyptic thriller, although this one is somewhat cleverer than other recent entries. Director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and writers Eddie and Chris Borey keep things moving by keeping shock effects to a minimum, and the result is a watchable entry in this burgeoning genre, especially for those who are fans. On Blu-ray, the movie looks excellent; lone extra: behind-the-scenes featurette.


One of Robert Bresson’s 1950s masterpieces—along with A Man Escaped and Diary of a Country Priest—this 1959 classic leads up to, in Bresson’s usual austere and elliptical style, a young man’s eventual (and surprising) state of grace while working as a low-class criminal. This is yet another of Bresson’s transcendent explorations of humanity, as usual achieved with an eloquent economy of means. The Criterion Collection’s new hi-def transfer is spellbinding, as the film’s B&W images popping off the screen; extras include a commentary, intro, Bresson interview, and 2003 documentary feature The Models of Pickpocket, which profiles Bresson’s actors. 


It would be nice to report that the latest sci-fi film about artificial intelligence is smart, stylish and superlative entertainment, but no: Transcendence is draggy, laughably inert and trite through and through. Although from Kate Mara I don’t expect much, talented performers like Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany are hopelessly lost, and even Rebecca Hall, an actress who never strikes a false note, can’t overcome screenwriter Jack Paglen’s flimsy characters and motivation. Cinematographer turned director Wally Pfister creates gorgeous imagery but can’t make the plot transform itself into coherence. The Blu-ray looks terrific; extras are short featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Face of Love 

In this intimately-scaled drama about a widow who falls for a man that’s a dead ringer for her long-deceased husband, Annette Bening’s forceful and subtle performance (one of her best) towers over director-cowriter Arie Posen and cowriter Matthew McDuffie’s Twilight Zone knock-off. The very real chemistry between Bening and an excellent Ed Harris (as husband and new guy) is undermined by desperate melodramatic strategems that lead the movie to a sentimental denouement after spinning its wheels for 90 minutes. Extras include deleted scenes and interviews.

How the West Was Won—Complete 2nd Season 

Although it shares its title with the Oscar-winning, 1962 western epic, this 1977-79 drama series is a pale imitation of its big-screen brethren’s visual grandeur, and a top small-screen cast led by James Arness, Eva Marie Saint, Bruce Boxleitner and Lloyd Bridges can’t compensate. Of the 14 season two episodes housed on six discs, three are 2-1/2 hours long, approaching the length of the original without the Cinerama process that made the movie a true “event.”

Unni Lindell—The Cato Isaksen Mysteries, Sets 1 & 2 
(MHZ International Mystery)

Based on novels by Norwegian author Unni Lindell, these three-DVD sets of feature-length mysteries centers on homicide detective Cato Isakson, whose professionalism and brilliance at solving tough murder cases runs directly counter to his screwed-up home life (he has three kids by two women, for starters). Acted with conviction by Reidar Sorenson (Cato) and a formidable supporting cast, these two-part films—each running about three hours—are first-rate…and binge-worthy (the ultimate compliment nowadays).

Vicious—Season One 

Pairing Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen as aging queens who live together as they endlessly bicker comes off as a retrograde and desperate attempt at a sitcom that, sadly, is only in its first season: meaning there will be more of this. The two legendary actors do what they can with dated (and stupid) material, and their leading lady—the irrepressibly brilliant Frances de la Tour—is even better. But no one can save this. Extras comprise cast and crew interviews.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

July '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Gathering Swarms—Nature (PBS)
Hidden Kingdoms 
(BBC Earth)
Two television documentaries provide astounding views of the natural world, starting with Swarms, which dazzlingly chronicles the large (in many cases, extremely large) gatherings of many of the world’s creatures, from monarch butterflies to cicadas to mayflies to zebras and wildebeests. BBC’s Kingdoms, narrated by the ubiquitous Stephen Fry, comprises three fascinating episodes—Under Open Skies, Secret Forests, Urban Jungles—whose amazing camerawork brings viewers up close and personal with many small creatures like rodents who fend off larger (in many cases, extremely larger) predators. The Blu-ray images are splendidly realized on both discs; Kingdoms extras include an introduction, a making-of featurette for each episode and interviews.

Jodorowsky’s Dune 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Misguided visionary director Alejandro Jodorowsky never was able to adapt Frank Herbert’s unfilmable sci-fi blockbuster novel Dune in the mid-70s, and Frank Pavich’s 90-minute documentary explains what went wrong. As a short feature this might have passed muster, but weighed down by interviews with sycophantic reviewers and anecdotes of Jodorowsky meeting Dali or Mick Jagger, it’s padded beyond its slender interest—except for El Topo fans, of course. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras are over 45 minutes of deleted scenes.

Orphan Black—Complete 2nd Season 
If it’s possible, Tatiana Maslany gives new meaning to the term tour de force with her brilliantly realized performances as clones in this fever dream of a drama that wisely keeps her front and center while it travels an increasingly uninvolving road. But even if the plots are filled with holes you could drive an 18-wheeler through, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Maslany as she shows her stunning ability to make her clones individuals, which is much tougher than it seems at first. The Blu-ray transfer looks stellar; extras include deleted scenes and behind the scenes featurettes.

Under the Skin 
Jonathan Glazer’s latest faux-Kubrick feature is a disjointed and tedious sci-fi flick about an alien who takes over a young woman’s body and lures sex-obsessed men to their demise. Not erotic in the least, this unremarkable ET story has offbeat visuals and much nudity, but Scarlett Johansson’s zombie-like presence makes for a less than credible outer-space sex bomb. The hi-def transfer is superb; extras comprise making-of featurettes.

(e one)
In their latest extraordinary visual essay, Manufactured Landscapes directors Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky train their hi-def cameras on regions of our planet with and without water—and those people who are dependent on this vastly depleted resource. Ranging from China (where a new dam dwarfs our Hoover Dam) to Las Vegas (home of the Bellagio fountains) and Mexico (where the Colorado River basin has dried up), the film has crammed with striking imagery that displays the power of water—physically and even spiritually, On Blu-ray, the film looks spectacular; extras include a Baichwal and Burtynsky interview, making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Like Father Like Son 
(Sundance Selects)
Director Kore-eda Hirokazu has made an affecting, gently observed drama about two couples who, after discovering their sons were switched at birth six years earlier, must try and bond with their “new” sons while letting go of the ones they loved and raised. Although slightly overlong and flirting with sentimentality and melodrama, this touching and tender movie has the ring of truth thanks to emotionally authentic portrayals by the entire cast, from the parents to the boys.  

Spiral—Series 4 
(MHz International Mystery)
In what has become the most addictive drama I’m currently watching—with apologies to Orange Is the New Black and Masters of Sex—the fourth season of this fast-paced and riveting French police thriller again puts its complicated cops, magistrates, lawyers and criminals through their paces, with no let-up for 12 episodes. The excellent cast is led by Caroline Proust’s sympathetic detective, Philippe Duclos’s calculating magistrate and Audrey Fleurot’s ambitious, ambulance-chasing young lawyer; if you haven’t discovered it yet, find it and binge-watch all four seasons.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

July '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Blood Ties 
For his draggy remake of a 2008 French crime drama, director Guillaume Canet fumbles the ball by setting his version—which pits brothers (detective and career criminal) against each other—in 1970s New York. Despite authentic performances by Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the brothers and Marion Cotillard, Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis as their women, Canet (who co-wrote the melodramatic script with James Gray) relies on misused period songs and an atmosphere that never rings true; consequently, the movie fatally suffers. The Blu-ray transfer looks great; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Elton John—The Million Dollar Piano 
(Eagle Rock)
Despite the fact that his last really good album was nearly 40 years ago, Elton John has pleased more pop music fans that anyone else, and his second Las Vegas residency (named The Million Dollar Piano after a keyboard that doubles as a graphics/animation projector) continues his audience-drawing prowess. For nearly two hours, John and his crack band tear through 18 songs, including beloved standards (“Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer”), indelibly crafted smash hits (“Philadelphia Freedom,” “Bennie and the Jets”) and even rare album cuts (“Better Off Dead,” “Indian Sunset”). There’s a good hi-def transfer, and the concert’s DTS audio is stunning. Extras are a making-of featurette and five songs from a concert in Kiev, Ukraine.

In a straightforward drama turned into pretentious nonsense, Jake Gyllenhaal plays both a history teacher and an actor who are either doppelgangers or split personalities of the same cheating husband. Needlessly making convoluted psychological studies is director Denis Villeneuve’s raison d’etre—his other overwrought dramas include Prisoners and Incendies—and he consolidates that reputation here, while poor Gyllenhaal is unable to do anything with his character(s)’ disparate fragments. The Blu-ray looks fine; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Guns’n’Roses—Appetite for Democracy in 3D 
Shot during a 2012 Las Vegas residency, this nearly three-hour concert shows that Axl Rose, even without Slash, Duff, Izzy, etc., can fashion a reasonable facsimile of Guns’n’Roses by playing classics from Appetite for Destruction alongside later progressive-rock numbers like “November Rain,” “Estranged,” “Street of Dreams” and “This I Love.” Axl can still shriek and—usually—hit the high notes, and his band (which includes guitarists Bumblefoot and DJ Ashba) can shred with the best of them. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate, although the 3D shoot is merely gimmicky; extras include band member interviews (but not Axl).

I Vinti/The Vanquished 
Michelangelo Antonioni’s stark 1953 drama might pale in comparison to his stylistic masterworks from the 1960s, but this uncompromising account of casual murders committed by young men in Italy, France and England is still powerfully disturbing. The gritty B&W photography loses some luster on Blu-ray thanks to too much cleaning of the digital image, but the film remains essential viewing for Antonioni aficionados. Extras comprise the uncut version of the Italian episode, Antonioni’s 1953 short Tentato Suicido and producer and actor interviews.

Nymphomaniac—Volumes I & II 
Why director Lars von Trier is still taken seriously is a question worth pondering after sitting through his ponderous and shallow two-part drama that for four excruciating hours never makes its title heroine in the least dramatically or psychologically credible. Von Trier’s juvenile tricks—onscreen numbers counting each thrust of her sexual partners, obvious and unoriginal classical music cues, “shocking” carnal encounters—are as archaic in the internet era as your racist uncle complaining about Obama. The hi-def transfer is superb; short featurettes are extras.

DVDs of the Week
Arne Dahl—Complete 1st Season 
The detective novels of Swedish author Arne Dahl are compellingly dramatized without losing their original narrative flavor: the stories, including the fascinatingly dark two-part The Blinded Man, are stylishly filmed and acted with utmost conviction. The first season’s ten episodes are included on five discs, which translates into nearly 15 hours of gripping if relentlessly downbeat entertainment.

Cool Spaces! The Best New Architecture—Season 1 
Architect Stephen Chung engagingly hosts this behind the scenes look at the creation of several 21st century public, private, cultural and artistic buildings, along with interviews with the architects whose visions were realized. Among the “cool spaces” covered in this two-disc set are the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, the new Barnes Institute in Philadelphia, the sensational Seattle Public Library and the Barclays Center, Brooklyn’s new basketball and soon to be hockey arena.

Helix—Complete 1st Season 
Although there are echoes of earlier shows and movies during this tantalizing sci-fi drama about researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dealing with a quickly mutating, deadly virus (including an unfortunate zombie outbreak), the clever plotting keeps you on the edge of your seat as the stories play themselves out. The 3-disc set includes all 13 of the first season’s episodes; extras include commentaries, deleted scenes and four featurettes.

Six by Sondheim 
(Warner Archive)
James Lapine’s ingeniously structured tribute to The Greatest Living Broadway Composer uses interviews from various times of Sondheim’s life to stitch together a seemless portrait from his early days until now. There are also masterly musical examples of his work from theater luminaries like Laura Osnes—who needs to star in any Sondheim musical, pronto—that illuminate overlooked gems like “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

July '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Back to Front—Peter Gabriel Live in London 
(Eagle Rock)
Like most classic rockers, Peter Gabriel needed a gimmick for his latest tour, so he played his breakthrough 1986 album So in its entirety from beginning to end—or at least, in the order Gabriel wanted to play it. He stuck “In Your Eyes,” side two’s lead track, at the end, so the concert would finish with a rousing audience participation number rather than the bizarre novelty “This Is the Picture.” Filmed at last summer’s London shows, Gabriel and his crack band—the same men he toured with in ’86, when I saw him twice—tear through the nine So tunes and a dozen other Gabriel classics; the encore ends with the always emotional “Biko.” The Blu-ray image looks super, the sound is even better; lone extra is an interview with Gabriel and tour director Rob Sinclair.

The Lunchbox 
(Sony Classics)
This amiable romance, set in Mumbai, about a young wife who makes a daily lunch for her ungrateful husband and the widower who gets her delicious food by mistake, flirts with but never surrenders to cloying sentimentality. The winningness of the two leads—Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur—makes this lightweight but charming movie work. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; lone extra is writer/director Ritesh Batra’s commentary, which basically just describes what’s happening onscreen.

Operation Petticoat 
(Olive Films)
This tame, sniggering comedy might have been daring upon its release in 1959 (it even got a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination), but today, watching women and men in a submarine with innuendos galore is an embarrassment for all involved. Cary Grant always retains his dignity, which ends up looking ridiculous in this context, while Tony Curtis, Dina Merrill, Joan O’Brien and Dick Sargent at least seem in on the one-joke premise; director Blake Edwards would make better comedies later in his career. The hi-def transfer looks enticing.

Rob the Mob 
Based on a true story, this engrossing drama pits a couple which holds up Mafia social clubs (because guns aren’t allowed) against both the Mob and the FBI, along with a star reporter who puts himself into the story. Raymond De Felitta’s relaxed direction allows the stranger-than-fiction plot to unfurl entertainingly, and he coaxes standout performances from Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda as the movie’s Bonnie and Clyde. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras include deleted scenes and a director commentary.

The Unknown Known 
(Weinstein Co)
For his latest non-fiction feature, director Errol Morris takes on chronic dissembler and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who (as his own history makes clear) can be blamed for foisting Dick Cheney on an unsuspecting world. The intelligent and aware Rumsfeld parries with Morris over the disastrous Iraq War and other subjects, and if the result isn’t as memorable or intoxicatingly watchable as The Fog of War (about another Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara), it’s still a valuable document about the Bush presidency of mass destruction. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras include a Morris interview and commentary and 1989’s televised Secretaries of Defense roundtable.

DVDs of the Week
Anita—Speaking Truth to Power
(First Run)
More than two decades after she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, law professor Anita Hill talks about how necessary her bravery was—not that it helped, for Thomas was confirmed (barely)—since it paved the way for real discussion of workplace harassment. Hearing that Thomas’s own wife left a recent phone message for Hill that asked her to apologize for what she did is priceless—and typical. Extras include a 45-minute Hill speech and playwright Eve Ensler’s curated 92nd St Y performance.

The Boondocks—Season 4 (Sony)
The Bridge—Season 1 (Fox)
The FBI—Season 8 (Warner Archive)
Without creator Aaron MacGruder’s scaldingly funny talent, the animated series The Boondocks returns for a fourth season of 10 episodes’ worth of cutting-edge if hit-or-miss humor. The first season of the American The Bridge—which turns an engrossingly original series about Danish and Swedish police solving crimes along their border into a shrill and obvious US-Mexican border investigation—wastes the always watchable Diane Kruger.

For its eighth season (1972-3), The FBI again shows Efram Zimbalist and cohorts solving all manner of crimes, with and against guest stars ranging from then up-and-coming TV faces as David Soul, Mariette Hartley and Robert Urich to veterans like Dean Stockwell and William Windom. Boondocks extras are two featurettes; Bridge extras are featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes and a commentary.

Freedom Summer—American Experience 
Stanley Nelson’s absorbing two-hour chronicle of one of American history’s most volatile years (1964) recounts the important civil rights activism by both outsiders and locals in Mississippi to fight back against, and finally help eradicate, the great wall of segregation and white supremacy. They had to suffer violent intimidation from bombings to church burnings to outright murder, but the faces of those being interviewed—proudly defiant, even fifty years later—show that such tactics were no match for such patient and widespread organization.

It Started in Naples 
(Warner Archive)
Clark Gable and Sophia Loren paired together seems a no-brainer, except for the evidence of this forced would-be romantic comedy from 1960, directed with a supreme amount of leadenness by Melville Shavelson. Gable was at the tail end of a legendary career and Loren was at her zenith of sultriness, but even with their international star power and such picturesque Isles of Capri locales, this is a harmless but wasted attempt to squeeze laughs and love out of tired material.

Pandora’s Promise 
(Alive Mind)
The case for nuclear energy—the only clean form of energy in today’s world—is made by director Robert Stone in this one-sided screed that paints anti-nukes as either naïve rockers (there’s footage from 1979’s “No Nukes” concerts) or out-of-touch militants like the shrill Helen Caldicott, trotted out as representative of those against nuclear power. Too bad there’s precious little nuance here: defenders basically say, “Yeah, Chernobyl was bad but…” or “Fukushima was bad but…” or “Three Mile Island was bad but,” which is anything but reassuring to the rest of us. Extras comprise Stone’s interview by Michael Moore, pro-nuke James Hansen and Stephen Tisdale interviews and a Stone commentary.  

Two Lives 
(Sundance Selects)
In this jagged and complex historical puzzle, director Georg Mass dramatizes the true but unheralded cases of youngsters who were the offspring of Scandinavian mothers and Nazi fathers, and the attempts to sweep such embarrassments under the rug in ensuing decades. This story of a family’s bonds fraying when the truth finally comes out is richly and substantively told, with sublime acting from Liv Ullmann, Juliane Kohler and Ken Duken.

CD of the Week
20th Anniversary (UMe)
Although its best albums (Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger) were behind them, Seattle’s biggest and grungiest foursome made their smash popular breakthrough in 1994 with Superunknown, as singer Chris Cornell’s banshee wails, guitarist Kim Thayil’s nasty and heavy licks and the pummeling rhythm section of bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron coalesced on such classic tunes as “Fell on Black Days,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “Spoonman” and what has become the group’s signature tune, “Black Hole Sun.”

This two-disc expanded version of the album include the original 15 tracks and a bonus track from the original vinyl release, “She Likes Surprises” on the first disc; and an assortment of demos, rehearsals, B-sides, and alternate mixes on disc two. Some of these tracks have previously been released, but it's nice to have them all collected together. For those who are really into collectibles, there's a super deluxe edition that comprises 4 CDs and a Blu-ray disc.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Charming Charleston—The Spoleto Festival…and much more

Spoleto Festival USA
May 23-June 8, 2014
Charleston, SC

Fort Sumter Tours
Liberty Square and Patriots’ Point, Charleston, SC

Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC

The charms of Charleston—stemming from its dual role as a laidback southern city and bustling college town—make it the ideal setting for the annual Spoleto Festival, which presents dozens of concert, theater, opera and dance performances over two weeks each May and June.

The 39th edition of Spoleto Festival USA (May 22 to June 8) included operas by Leos Janáček, Michael Nyman and John Adams; theater from Ireland’s renowned Gate Theatre; various dance troupes; and concerts by Lucinda Williams, Bela Fleck, Michael Nyman and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.

Horne as Kát'a (photo: Julia Lynn)
Of the handful of Spoleto performances I caught, most memorable was a powerhouse staging of Janáček’s masterpiece, Kát'a Kabanova, based on Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm. As Kát'a, the young village wife whose true (and tragic) love is a young man who’s not her husband, American soprano Betsy Horne gave an all-encompassing portrayal far too rare on opera stages: she acted up a sensuous storm and sang with ringing clarity. Director Garry Hynes’ subtle staging, Anne Manson’s sensitive conducting and Jennifer Roderer’s ferocity as Kata’s domineering mother-in-law complemented Horne’s emotionally raw display that tore straight to the heart of the tragedy.

Conversely, it was difficult to sit through Facing Goya, Michael Nyman’s unlistenably tedious opera that—via Victoria Hardie’s impossibly pretentious libretto—combined the eponymous 18th century Spanish painter of genius, Nazi eugenics and modern science’s ability to play God, garbled together to no discernible point. I felt sorry for the talented quintet of singers, especially soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, who amazingly nailed some treacherously high notes; Nyman’s minimalist music, which can be quite diverting in the context of Peter Greenaway’s visually entrancing films, becomes unbearable when it pounds away unrelievedly for two-plus hours.

I sampled a recital from the Bank of America Chamber Music series, which is curated and introduced by the personable Geoff Nuttall. The hour-long afternoon program comprised Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, George Crumb’s bizarre Voice of the Whale—which must be seen to be truly appreciated—and Ottorino Respighi’s lush setting of a Shelley poem, Il tramonto, beautifully sung by mezzo Charlotte Hellekant and deftly played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, with Nuttall playing the first violin part.

I also caught an hour-long Intermezzi concert, consisting of Richard Strauss’s melodrama Enoch Arden: actor Stephen Brennan spoke the text to Tennyson’s narrative poem, accompanied by pianist Lydia Brown. Just getting the chance to hear Respighi’s and Strauss’s musical rarities performed on the same day at two splendid settings—the Dock Street Theater (built in 1809) and the Grace Episcopal Church (completed in 1848)—made attending Spoleto worth it by itself.

Yelland, Brennan in My Cousin Rachel (photo: Julia Lynn)
The versatile Brennan was also onstage for the Gate Theatre’s thrilling dramatization of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, which was as seductive as the eponymous title character. Shrewdly adapted by Joseph O’Connor and slickly staged by director Toby Frow, the drama kept its vice-like grip thanks to estimable acting across the board, led by Hannah Yelland as an Italian countess whose arrival at an Irish family’s estate won’t quash rumors that she was complicit in her husband’s suspicious death.

Checking out Charleston’s attractions was easy enough thanks to the layout of the eminently walkable city, whose narrow streets are lined by a ridiculous array of fine restaurants, high-end shopping, art galleries and historic buildings.

Fort Sumter (photo: Kevin Filipski)
For a history buff like me, a visit to Fort Sumter was a must. Located three miles offshore in Charleston Harbor, the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired can only be reached by boat, and Fort Sumter Tours provides several trips daily from two locations. I boarded at Liberty Square, right behind the Fort Sumter Visitor’s Center, and was treated to a leisurely ride and narrated tour of the area before reaching the fort, which—though only a ghost of its former formidable self—remains a treasured artifact of the inglorious War Between the States.

Named for James Shoolbred Gibbes, Sr., who bequeathed funds for its founding, the Gibbes Museum of Art (which opened in 1905, six years after Gibbes’ death) has a manageable and enticing collection of paintings, sculptures and photographs. Highlights are Italian sculptor Pietro Rossi’s stunningly detailed Veiled Lady, Childe Hassam’s voluptuous painting April (The Green Gown), and the gorgeous stained-glass rotunda dome, which looks like a gigantic Tiffany lamp hanging overhead.

Rossi's sculpture Veiled Lady (photo: Kevin Filipski)
Walking through Charleston’s streets is also an immersion in American history, with historic houses everywhere—several are available for tours—along with remnants of the original fortifications of the Colonial era walled city, which date back to the early 1700s. Walking through the old Unitarian Church cemetery—whose many gravesites, some centuries old, are grown over by mosses, trees and plants of all types—is a ghostly but do-not-miss detour; a walk through another cemetery yielded the grave of one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution, John Rutledge.

For art, culture and history (as well as scrumptious food), Charleston has few equals.