Monday, June 28, 2010

June Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week

Showgirls (Fox)
No one sane would call Showgirls a classic, but it's become a cult movie since being released to universal derision in 1995. Attempts to resuscitate Paul Verhoeven's campy melodrama about a small-town girl who becomes a top-notch Vegas stripper never take, simply because its limitations -- bad acting, dialogue and directing -- remain front and center. Still, there's a certain fascination watching such an onscreen train wreck, especially seeing Sin City in all its late 20th century glory. On Blu-ray, Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' epic bleeds off the TV screen, as the Vegas strip's garish colors, along with the garishness of the strippers' performances, are given a superior hi-def treatment. Many extras--super-fan David Schmader's snickering commentary and several tongue-in-cheek featurettes--were included on the last DVD release. Bottom line: if you think Showgirls is the last word in “guilty pleasures” or just want to see Elizabeth Berkeley and Gina Gershon naked, then you already know what you're in for.

Mary and Max (IFC)
Adam Elliot's breakthrough animated feature follows two misfits, feeling left out of their respective worlds--a lonely Aussie gal and a middle-aged male New Yorker--who become unlikely lifetime friends through the letters they write to each other over the years. With freshness and wit, Elliot brings this relationship to life and fashions an uplifting, heartbreaking story given further humanity from the terrific voice acting by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette as Mary, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max, Eric Bana (Mary's husband) and Barry Humphries (narrator). Elliot's stunning stop-motion and claymation look tremendous on Blu-ray. The extras are often appropriately cheeky, including a tongue-in-cheek "making-of" (featuring Bana complaining about his relatively small part), a real making-of, two deleted scenes, Whitmore's audition and Elliot's own Oscar-winning animated short, Harvie Krumpet, about a man whose life is punctuated by various diseases -- a perfect precursor to the emotionally rich Mary and Max.

DVDs of the Week

Red Desert (Criterion)
When Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni's first color film came out in 1966, it was the last word in color symbolism: indeed, the director supposedly had rocks, trees and grass painted to achieve the effects he wanted. This story of a woman (Monica Vitti) teetering on the edge of sanity is another penetrating Antonioni study of contemporary alienation that's underscored by his detailed use of different shades of color to visualize his protagonist's state of mind. Red Desert remains powerful and ultimately moving, as Antonioni's world of isolation run amok still obtains today. In Criterion's new transfer, the colors look more naturalistic than I remember them being: it looks as if the colors have been cranked down a notch, which results in (to my eyes) a less pleasing color palette. Still, Antonioni's visual artistry can be seen in every frame, and the many contextual extra--an audio commentary, vintage interviews with Antonioni and Vitti, two short Antonioni docs, even dailies from the original shoot--round out an important release of a classic film.

World Cup Soccer in Africa: Who Really Wins? (Disinformation)
If there was ever a timely DVD release, this is it: Craig Tanner's muckraking documentary takes aim at the fallacy that the current World Cup in South Africa will be good for the country in the long run. As Tanner sees it, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to build brand-new stadiums in cities and towns to host World Cup games could have been better spent to help with the disastrous infrastructure of a nation that has a high murder rate, unemployment rate and increasingly bad news about AIDS victims. Tanner allows both sides to tell their stories: those who are pro-World Cup say that it will help pull everyone up by their bootstraps, while others -- who aren't against the tournament per se -- see the irony in building huge stadiums that will probably never be used again by other sports teams or by the people who live near them. Tanner eschews nuance, showing everything in black and white , but he makes some challenging assertions that needed to be brought up. Extras include additional interviews.

CDs of the Week
Old World--New World: Emerson String Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon)
Most people only know Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony, based on themes from his stay in America. However, he composed other works related to his time in the U.S., including the magnificent American string quintet, a highlight of the Emerson String Quartet's impressive three-disc set championing Dvorak's chamber music. Violist Paul Neubauer expertly plays the quintet's additional viola part, while the Emersons handle the rest of this immediately appealing music by themselves. In addition to splendid performances of four of Dvorak's mature quartets, the Emersons also pull out of mothballs his Cypresses, wonderfully evocative songs originally composed for piano and voice that are given added emotional shading in this attractive arrangement.

Brahms: Complete Songs Volume I (Hyperion)
After releasing superb complete editions of songs by such great composers as Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Gabriel Faure, the Hyperion label now ventures into the world of Johannes Brahms, whose vocal works are less immediately appealing than those aforementioned masters, but who also penned several gems. In this first Brahms volume, Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager is teamed with her frequent recital partner, British pianist Graham Johnson, who are well-suited to these melodically lovely lieder. Kirchschlager, in her element with these German-language songs, sounds especially beguiling on this disc's most famous song cycle, the Sieben Lieder. Other, more obscure tunes include several charming works based on folk tunes. Johnson is not only a sensitive piano accompanist, but also contributes informative program notes which add immeasurably to the listening experience.

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