Thursday, July 15, 2010

July Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week

Everlasting Moments (Criterion)

Directed by Jan Troell — who is, at age 78, a true grand master of cinema — Everlasting Moments is both a heartening example of artistry distilled to its very essence and a riposte to the frantic shrillness of empty crowd-pleasers like Avatar and Slumdog Millionaire. With acute insight, Troell paints a loving portrait of an early 20th century woman becoming a photographer in a difficult era for her gender’s place in society. Maria Heiskanen’s subtle, nuanced portrayal creates a headstrong Maria whose picture-taking liberates her from household drudgery, even if she never fully comprehends its meaning in her life. As she takes pictures, Troell moves between comedy and tragedy, the latter in a haunting sequence of a dead girl’s mother requesting photos to remember her by. Once, at the end, Troell uses a freeze-frame to visualize a photo, and this moment—in lesser hands, a mere platitude—has great power and effectiveness. Remarkable, too, is the sepia-soaked cinematography which appears to catch light in half-tones, as it were—the shadows dancing on these very human faces provide a visual wonderment that can’t be reproduced by any other director. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer preserves the excess grain and muted color palette of the original 16mm shoot, a miracle in itself. Extras include cast and crew interviews, an hour-long documentary about Troell’s underrated career, and a nine-minute featurette showing Maria‘s real photos.

The White Ribbon (Sony)

Michael Haneke’s 145-minute melodrama about the roots of fascism is, like all his films, meticulously shot and impeccably acted: it’s also written and directed by a world-class sadist. That’s not necessarily a criticism because, as one of today’s most talented cinematic provocateurs, Haneke makes intelligently disturbing movies. The White Ribbon is of a piece with his earlier work, showing how a German village on the eve of World War I becomes prey to unexplainable atrocities, from injuring the local doctor (and killing his horse) to blinding a retarded boy. As usual for Haneke, the quite horrific sadism is primarily psychological, but from the director of Benny’s Video, Funny Games, and Cache, we expect that. Still, it’s a spellbinding allegory about instilling the roots of the Third Reich in children who would grow up to yell “Heil Hitler!” The White Ribbon is photographed in immaculate black and white, recreated brilliantly on Blu-ray: indeed, this may be the best-looking hi-def transfer yet. Extras include a Haneke interview, footage from the film’s Cannes premiere and a thorough, involving making-of documentary.

DVDs of the Week

The Greatest (E1)

Carey Mulligan again paints an indelible portrait as memorable as her Oscar-nominated turn in An Education: she plays Rose, a young woman who insinuates herself into the grieving family of her boyfriend, who was killed in a freak accident that left her — and their unborn child — alone. Mulligan’s incisive, thought-through characterization gives this well-acted soap opera the charge it needs to overcome its mawkishness. Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon give intelligent performances as the parents reacting to their son’s surviving girlfriend and carrier of their grandchild, and Johnny Simmons is exceptionally good as their younger son. But it’s Mulligan who is the backbone of Shana Feste’s well-intentioned but frustratingly uneven exploration of grief and its aftermath. Extras include brief interviews with Feste and her cast.

Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (Acorn Media)
Originally broadcast on PBS in 1975, Jennie is a supremely entertaining British mini-series about the life of Winston Churchill’s American-born mother, who is fabulously embodied by a luminous Lee Remick. Writer Julian Mitchell drew on the Churchill family’s private letters and papers, and the result — while not completely melodrama free—is a fascinating portrait of a unique and quintessentially American woman, whom Remick plays with wit, flair and stylishness. The supporting cast of Jennie comprises top-notch British actors—including Warren Clarke, Christopher Cazenove, Siân Phillips and Jeremy Brett—who perfectly complement Remick’s winning portrayal. Presented on four discs, the seven-hour mini-series is another winner from Acorn Media, which happily seems to be releasing every storied and obscure British television program in existence.

CDs of the Week

The Excursions of Mr. Broucek (Supraphon)

Several towering tragedies by the great Czech opera composer Leos Janácek (Jenufa, Kata Kabanova, The Makropulos Case) are regularly performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and his delightful The Cunning Little Vixen will be staged by the New York Philharmonic next season. But his experimental comic opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is barely known hereabouts, possibly because this Eastern European absurdist work is, for all its musical beauties, seriously disjointed, since its protagonist journeys to the moon in Act I and back in time to the 15th century in Act II. Happily, a recording this good (from 1962, with superb Czech singers and players) allows the listener to bypass the clunky libretto and concentrate on Janácek’s mesmerizing way of creating compelling drama and comedy out of simple musical materials. The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is not Janácek’s best opera by a long shot—not with so many other indisputably fine ones to choose from—but it shows off a great composer’s complete mastery of his medium.

Les Noces/Oedipus Rex (Mariinsky Label)
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev recently led an Igor Stravinsky Festival with the New York Philharmonic, and the concerts were filled with alternately exasperating and revelatory performances of much of Stravinsky’s orchestral and choral output. Although the
players on this recording are Gergiev’s hometown Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus, the musical outcome is the same.The Russian composer's dance cantata Les Noces (The Wedding), which features the Mariinsky Chorus, soloists and percussionists, contains much impressive banging, while the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex stars several leather-lunged Russian singers, along with actor Gerard Depardieu speaking the narration in Jean Cocteau’s original French (here in New York, Jeremy Irons intoned E.E. Cummings’ English translation). Gergiev’s patented intensity brings each work to a shattering climax, although neither performance—however beautifully recorded—would be considered truly definitive by Stravinsky aficionados.

originally posted on

No comments: