Friday, April 30, 2010

April Blu-rays

Acis and Galatea (Opus Arte) - In Wayne McGregor’s beautifully staged production of Handel’s elegant opera at London’s Royal Opera House last year, the excellent American soprano Danielle DeNiese makes an exhilarating heroine, Galatea. Although superb Royal Ballet dancers perform as the main characters, the lithe, stunning DeNiese proves, particularly in the finale’s exquisite movements, that good opera singers can also be good actors and dancers. Of course, it helps that McGregor is an even more accomplished choreographer than director, so the entire production is built upon the union of music and movement. With Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Handel’s score is in safe hands; on Blu-ray, the sound and visuals combine to create a perfect marriage rarely heard and seen on opera recordings. The lone extra is a short interview with McGregor about staging the work.

Armageddon (Disney) - If you want to blame someone for the dopey big-budget disaster films proliferating in recent years, look no further than director Michael Bay, whose 1998 blockbuster spawned a perennial wedding song by Aerosmith and revived the dormant careers of Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck. That’s a lot of baggage for an essentially two-and-a-half-hour contrivance about racing to save the earth from an asteroid larger than the state of Texas. Armageddon is a movie made for Blu-ray, because men love to watch and hear big explosions in their home studio TV and speaker set-ups. The movie actually looks a little soft, though is in no way a visual disaster; the lone extra is the video for Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”

The Baader Meinhof Complex (MPI) - Director Uli Edel’s absorbing real-life drama about Germany’s homegrown terrorists in the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s is an alternatively riveting and contemplative study of terrorism’s roots and government responses. Edel shows the private lives and relationships of the Baader Meinhof Group alongside the actions of police, led by quietly dynamic Horst Herold (played by Bruno Ganz). Anchored by an electrifying performance by Martina Gedeck as one of the group’s leaders, Edel’s film is an explosive, relentless look at tactics on both sides that remain pertinent today. The first-rate Blu-ray transfer retains the film’s original grain, and a second disc of extras includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with Edel, the producers, writer and actors.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (First Look) – Teaming director Werner Herzog and actor Nicolas Cage in post-Katrina “Big Easy” had all the earmarks of a “so bad it’s good” disaster. But this strangely muted drama about an addicted detective’s hellish life following in the footsteps of his beloved city is disappointingly tame. There are good sequences along with nicely-turned supporting performances (Eva Mendes especially deserves better); a few throwaway shots say a lot about our country’s state in the 21st century (even obvious shots of a lizard are priceless). Overall, though, instead of a firecracker, Bad Lieutenant is a dud. The Blu-ray transfer looks quite good; the extras comprise behind-the-scenes footage and brief interviews.

The Basketball Diaries (Palm Pictures) – This 1995 adaptation of Jim Carroll’s tough-minded autobiography has young star-wattage power, notably Leonardo DiCaprio, then fresh off an Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? His promise there is fulfilled in this, his first starring role. Without any prettifying, DiCaprio is engrossingly real as the teen at the center of this sex, drugs and sports saga, with estimable support from Mark Wahlberg, Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco. Director Scott Calvert helms with passion if occasional slips into cliché; still, this is a well-made character study. The Basketball Diaries is nothing to write home about visually, but the Blu-ray transfer has a good amount of grain. The extras include interviews with cast, director and author.

Doctor Zhivago (Warners) - David Lean was a master at making sweeping epics that also dramatized characters audiences cared about, from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) through A Passage to India (1984). If Doctor Zhivago (1965) isn’t his best film--that honor goes to Lawrence of Arabia, with the earlier Hobson’s Choice a close second--it remains his most popular and, possibly, enduring. Based on Boris Pasternak’s novel about lovers during the volatile Russian Revolution, Zhivago combines eye-catchingly expansive vistas and glorious cinematography with movie-star charisma from Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Oh, and there’s that music by Maurice Jarre which is impossible to shake. Needless to say, Warners has done a bang-up job with Zhivago on Blu, as Lean’s painterly compositions literally jump off your TV screen. Along with a new documentary about the film’s legacy, the extras that make up the second disc are identical to the last DVD release.

Falstaff (Opus Arte) - Verdi’s final opera is also his greatest, a scintillating comic romp with tunes that stick in your head for days and a heartily sophisticated sense of humor that may even outdo Shakespeare’s original play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Richard Jones’ production (from England’s Glyndebourne in 2009) unnecessarily updates the action, but it’s also an excuse for colorful costumes and sets, meticulously recreated on Blu-ray. British baritone Christopher Purves has a blast musically and comedically as the corpulent, skirt-chasing soldier, the supporting cast does also, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus in a boisterous account of Verdi’s rich score, the best opera based on Shakespeare (even better than Vaughan Williams’ similar Sir John in Love).

Sherlock Holmes (Warners) – If you’ve always wanted to see Sherlock Holmes as the forerunner to James Bond or Jason Bourne, here’s your chance. Guy Ritchie’s slam-bang action includes ridiculously over-the-top chases that try to outdo Mack Sennett and Harold Lloyd. Of course, Ritchie’s sense of timing is lacking, and his two-hour movie is often leaden, especially in sequences in between the action. Luckily, Robert Downey and Jude Law are in on the joke—if it is a joke—and make Holmes and Watson full-bodied sleuths, with or without the extra testosterone force-fed on them. Rachel McAdams is always a lovely presence, and the film looks splendid on Blu-ray, even if—and this is a recurring complaint—the computerized effects look too fake, especially the cliffhanging finale. The extras include a 30-minute making-of featurette and Ritchie’s virtual walk-through of the film.

Tombstone (Disney) - Of the competing Wyatt Earp films from 1993, Lawrence Kasdan’s slow moving “epic” starring Kevin Costner was DOA, while journeyman George P. Cosmatos’ more standard rendition with a superior ensemble cast still holds up as an entertaining western. Kurt Russell as Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday are excellent, while support from Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Dana Delaney, Joanna Pacula and then-unknowns like Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Priestley and Billy Zane help Cosmatos’ sometimes slack pacing. The Blu-ray transfer looks soft at times; the lone extras are director’s storyboards and a making-of featurette.

Les Troyens (Opus Arte) - Hector Berlioz’s mammoth two-part opera about the Trojan War is a difficult undertaking for any opera company, but the Paris Chatelet opera house’s 2003 production was adroitly staged by Yannis Kokkos and incisively conducted by Sir Elliot Gardiner with the Chatelet Theatre Chorus Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. The stunning cast’s voices are a testament to the necessity for casting these roles with splendid singers from top to bottom. Susan Graham is an amazing Dido, Anna Caterina Antonacci an equally good Cassandra, and Gregory Kunde a virile-voiced Aeneas. This visually sumptuous Troyens nearly equals Berlioz’s fantastic score, so it’s disappointing that the Blu-ray transfer has too much softness, even though it was shot in hi-def. Still, it’s better than the DVD, and the sound is knockout. A terrific hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary is included.
originally posted on

No comments: