Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Elvis on Tour (Warners)
This documentary follows Elvis Presley during his spring 1972 tour of America, when he performed in 15 different cities in 15 days. The worship he receives from his awestruck fans is truly something to behold: though the King was in his glitzy Vegas phase, he knew how to entertain his audience, and the songs we hear throughout Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge’s film—including such Elvis standards as “Love Me Tender” and “Burning Love” as well as inspired covers of “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Proud Mary” and “An American Trilogy”—showcase an artist still able to enthrall his audience. The movie gives us glimpses of Elvis backstage and offstage which are interspersed with the onstage songs and patter thanks to then-hip devices like split screens (obviously borrowed from Woodstock). The Blu-ray transfer brings it all into sharp focus, and the clean-sounding uncompressed audio may return those who remember to the final glory days of a legend who would be dead a mere five years later. There are no extras; the package is housed in an attractive 40-page digibook with photos from the era.

Mother (Magnolia)
Bong Joon-Ho’s follow-up to his overrated monster movie The Host is an excellent way to rebound: with the right material, Bong can craft an intriguingly ambivalent character study far removed from the cartoonish foolishness of The Host. Hye-ja Kim gives a tremendously controlled performance as an overbearing, domineering mother who goes too far to protect her mentally challenged son wrongly accused of murder. Bong’s visual mastery is much in evidence: there are many shots and sequences that initially seem merely beautiful or glibly clever but which reverberate after the film ends, particularly in the stunning Blu-ray transfer. If there’s a glitch, it’s Bong’s script: his visual ideas are much more credibly thought through than his philosophical or psychological ones. A multitude of extras include a 90-minute making-of documentary, deleted scenes and interviews with Bong and his cast.

DVDs of the Week
Sweetgrass (Cinema Guild)
The simply amazing footage in this documentary of Montana sheep herders over a period of three years makes any quibbling about what might be considered a “mundane” subject moot. Directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have artists’ keen eyes for both the details and the big picture as they follow the herders from the fields in this expanse of Big Sky country to the barns where their sheep are sheared. There are many astonishing moments recorded of sheep being born and fed milk, while the men who have done this work for generations are shown without condescension. If you get a chance to see this on a big screen, by all means do so. Otherwise, the DVD of Sweetgrass will be a more than acceptable substitute, thanks to a superb digital transfer and enticing extras that include a directors’ commentary and 30 minutes of additional scenes.

Towards Zero (KimStim)
Films from Agatha Christie whodunits are hit-or-miss, with director Pascal Thomas’ attempt more miss than hit. Moved from the British coast to Brittany, the essential murder mystery remains intact. Thomas’ brisk direction helps it move along effectively, but the lead-up to the killing is bungled by broad acting and unsurprising revelations. The uneven acting includes glamorous Laura Smet chewing the scenery; an almost catatonic Chiara Mastroianni; the always delightful (and 90-ish) Danielle Darrieux, a true grand dame of French cinema; and Francois Morel as an ingratiating inspector. The lovely Brittany locations remain the best reason for moving Christie’s indestructible story south of the English Channel. There are no extras.

CDs of the Week
Philip Glass: Orphée
(Orange Mountain Music)
The 1993 opera Orphée was the first of three Philip Glass based on French director Jean Cocteau films (Beauty and the Beast and Les Enfants Terribles followed). I was at its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was unimpressed by Glass’s setting Cocteau's screenplay to those ubiquitous stuttering arpeggios. The Portland Opera Company CD doesn't change my first impression, but at least we’re spared any redundant visuals (watching Cocteau's classic film is already a dreamlike experience by itself). Anne Manson conducts persuasively and a stellar cast headlined by Philip Cutlip (Orphee), Georgia Jarman (Eurydice) and Lisa Saffer (La Princesse) does what it can with Glass's melodically and dramatically deficient score. Glass's setting of the French language pales in comparison with the great French song and opera composers—Berlioz, Faure, Chausson, Debussy, among others. There are two booklets (one for each act, with libretto in French and English) with cast and production photos.

Handel: Berenice (Virgin) Another long Handel opera about a fantastical ancient world—Alexandria in 80 BC is the setting for this drama about a queen who must choose between two men, one of whom loves her sister—Berenice also can test the patience of listeners who must sit through so many repetitious arias. (It might be my limitation, but I find such baroque conventions tedious.) Still, with Handel vet Alan Curtis—who has already conducted six other Handel opera recordings on Virgin Classics—on the podium, and the magical voices of sopranos Klara Ek and Ingela Bohlin, mezzo Romina Basso and countertenor Franco Fagioli at the ready, even the most curmudgeonly listener will find himself transported back two millennia to a miraculously romantic Egypt.

No comments: