Saturday, July 31, 2010

July Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week

Black Narcissus (Criterion)
The Red Shoes (Criterion)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—who teamed for several of the most memorable movies of the 1940s from I Know Where I'm Going and A Matter of Life and Death to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—reached their career peaks with 1947's Black Narcissus and 1948's The Red Shoes, two of the most ravishing color films ever made, thanks to the incomparable Jack Cardiff's cinematography. Black Narcissus, which takes place in a Himalayan convent, is the subtlest of horror films, while the ballet-set The Red Shoes is a glorious portrait of artists working together. Criterion's new Blu-ray releases come from a recent restoration, and the results are so spectacular that you may find yourself freeze-framing constantly during each film to savor the results. That's fine; works of art like these two films deserve to be studied over and over. Of the new extras (the rest come from the original Criterion releases), the best is French director Bertrand Tavernier's insightful comments about Powell's style on the Black Narcissus disc and an interview with Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, on the Red Shoes disc.

DVDs of the Week

The Art of the Steal (IFC)
Don Argott’s documentary about how the Barnes Foundation—which owns arguably the world’s greatest collection of post-Impressionist and modern-art paintings—has been torn down systematically since the death of its founder, Albert Barnes, in 1951, is an impressive cultural detective yarn with heroes and villains galore. What could have been a dry, academic exercise about art experts and politicians fighting over a collection worth billions becomes in Argott’s sensitive hands an intelligent exploration of the complex clashes between art and commerce, politicians and their constituents, foundations and trusts, and the law and what’s right. Argott crams a wealth of information, insight and analysis into 105 minutes—it’s obvious that he sides with those trying to preserve Barnes’ wishes and legacy, but allows the other side its story, however selfishly (but profitably) motivated. While it’s unfortunate that IFC didn’t include any supplements—additional interviews, updates, director commentary—Argott’s film is persuasively argued enough to stand on its own.

The Most Dangerous Man in America (First Run)
For their study of how Daniel Ellsberg became Nixon’s Public Enemy No. 1 after leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, directors Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith have made a standard talking-heads documentary dressed up by canny use of archival material such as photographs, video footage and priceless snippets from the Nixon tapes, particularly when the president laments (in his view) Ellsberg’s treason and the press aiding and abetting it. (And we thought that this kind of White House paranoia and name-calling began after September 11!) The filmmakers’ ace in the hole is Ellsberg himself, who narrates the film. The filmmakers also interview his wife Patricia, former Rand colleagues and journalists; even Nixon administration honcho John Dean chimes in. Why so many documentaries now show re-enactments of pivotal events (i.e., when Ellsberg and his children are nearly busted by L.A. police while copying classified materials) is mystifying; shoehorned in here, they threaten to drag the film down to the level of a melodramatic History Channel program. However, The Most Dangerous Man in America is a movie that all Americans should see: its hero is the real definition of patriotism. Extras include interviews with Woody Harrelson and Naomi Klein, and audio highlights from the Nixon tapes.

CDs of the Week
Billy Squier: Don’t Say No—30th Anniversary Edition (Shout Factory)
Billy Squier may have made better albums—Emotions in Motion, Signs of Life—but Don't Say No was both his breakout record and his biggest-seller, so it's a no-brainer that this 1981 recording gets the “special” treatment ahead of his later albums. (Actually, it's only the 29th anniversary, but why quibble?) Any record that opens with the 1-2-3 punch of “In the Dark,” “The Stroke” and “My Kinda Lover” is destined for cock-rock greatness; throw in “Lonely Is the Night,” “Too Daze Gone,” and “Whaddya Want from Me,” and you've got a guitar record for the ages. Squier has since been unfairly lumped into the “crappy 80s music” bin, but at his best, he combined energy, irresistible hooks and a versatile verbal facility into a hard-rocking package that has unfortunately gone completely out of fashion. Shout Factory's re-issue amps up Mack & Billy's original spacious production, and tacks on live cuts of “My Kinda Lover” and “The Stroke” from two 2009 concerts.

Leoncavallo: I Medici (Deutsche Grammophon)
That he's only known for his tragic first opera, I Pagliacci, makes Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo a one-hit wonder. But this splendid, first-ever recording of Leoncavallo's second opera, I Medici, gives us a chance to hear a more obscure work in the signature verismo style which he helped make famous, this time attached to the gruesome true story of the Pazzi Conspiracy, an assassination plot against the Medicis, rulers of Tuscany in the 15th century, which claimed the life of Giuliano, brother of co-ruler Lorenzo (who was merely wounded). Leoncavallo's libretto is filled with melodramatic excess, particularly in the tragically romantic subplots that include adultery and an illegitimate child. But his music is sufficiently dramatic to keep us interested until the bloody end, in which the legacy of the Medicis is cemented with a promise from Lorenzo to his dying brother. Alberto Veronesi conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of Florence's Maggio Musicale in an authoritative reading, along with an arresting cast of singers led by Placido Domingo (Giuliano), Carlos Alvarez (Lorenzo), Eric Owens (conspirator Monteseco) and Daniela Dessi (Giuliano's beloved, Simonetta).

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