Thursday, August 26, 2010

August Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Ajami (Kino) Ajami is an Arab ghetto on the outskirts of the Israeli town of Jaffa populated by Palestinian immigrants, Christians, Arabs and Jews, all living in close proximity. In Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s tense crime drama, these people continually butt heads, extracting revenge for the pettiest—or most vicious—of slights, and bloodshed is the usual result. Never wallowing in its display of this endless cycle of violence, Ajami unflinchingly—and, ultimately, heartbreakingly—shows the best and worst of humanity, often seen side by side. Don’t hold last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination against it: Ajami is certainly unsettling, but it’s also an edge-of-your-seat thriller detailing minute-by-minute survival. This brutally frank glimpse at quotidian reality in the Middle East was shot on digital video and transferred to film, so the clarity of the images is given a harshness by the grain so essential to its quasi-documentary quality. The extras include a half-hour featurette, The Story of the Actors, and a substantial 23 minutes of deleted scenes.

City Island (Anchor Bay)
Writer-director Raymond De Felitta studies a dysfunctional—but ultimately lovable—family living on a Bronx island most people think of solely as a place to eat fresh seafood. Although these characters are fashioned out of clich├ęs (smart daughter goes bad, mixed-up teenage son horns in on chubby neighbor, mom suspects dad of cheating, etc.), De Felitta and his cast let us care about their them, even when they act stupidly or are stuck in a familiar subplot (Dad, a corrections officer, is also an aspiring actor, which his wife would never understand). Andy Garcia and Julianne Margulies as the parents, Dominik Garcia-Lirido and Ezra Miller as their kids, Steven Strait as the father’s son from another relationship, and Emily Mortimer as an actress befriending dad—all are authentically New Yawkers without resorting to caricature. The hi-def image is excellent, and the extras include a De Felitta/Garcia commentary, deleted scenes and a conversation among director and cast at a City Island restaurant.

DVDs of the Week
Temple Grandin (HBO)
In Mick Jackson’s biopic, Claire Danes gives the kind of transformative performance as a real-life autistic woman who became our greatest advocate for humane livestock treatment that we usually associate with Meryl Streep. Danes throws herself into her role with such fervor that we experience Grandin's incredible and difficult journey to overcome a disability and an uncomprehending society. Julia Ormond gives an equally affecting portrayal as Grandin’s sturdy mother, whose own strength obviously helped her daughter succeed. David Straithairn and Catherine O’Hara round out an excellent cast, yet whenever Danes is onscreen, she dominates the movie like she never has before. It’s heartening to watch Danes (and Ormond) show the ferocity needed to do justice to Grandin’s inspiring story. Extras include Grandin's own audio commentary and a short making-of.

Visions of Israel (Acorn Media)
Another in the impressive Visions of... series, this time the overhead aerial cameras roam over the cities, countryside and stunning natural wonders of Israel. We see the sprawling capital, Tel Aviv, along with the biggest city, Jerusalem, by day and at night; outlying areas like the one that houses an ingenious irrigation system that literally turned the desert green; and awe-inspiring ancient relics like the hilltop fortress at Masada. With narration that’s by turns jocular and serious by renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a soundtrack that features the often jaunty rhythms of Klezmer music, Visions of Israel is another winner in this travel series: too bad it’s not on Blu-ray like some of the other episodes are. The bonus feature (an extra 23 minutes of superlative footage that weren't used in the 55-minute program) includes sights as breathtaking as what’s in the original program.

CDs of the Week
Pizzetti: Chamber Works (Naxos)
Ildebrando Pizzetti is no household name, not even in Italy, where this underrated composer lived from 1880 to 1968. His music, while conservative, is original and attractive, and many of his works should be heard in the concert hall, where they would undoubtedly win new converts. Instead, Pizzetti is getting his partial due on CDs, and the Naxos label has been at the forefront of releasing his orchestral and chamber music for a fresh hearing. This new recording features three of Pizzetti's most appealing chamber works, two quite substantial and one, Tre Canti, a buoyant 10-minute bauble in three short movements. The two large-scale works (each about 30 minutes long) are the Piano Trio and Violin Sonata, and the superb musicians—violinist Leila Rasonyi, cellist Laszlo Fenyo and pianist Alpalsan Ertungealp—acquit themselves admirably, particularly in each work’s slow movement, in which yearning tones and gorgeous melodies intertwine.

Shostakovich: The Lady and the Hooligan (Delos)
Dmitri Shostakovich didn’t write many ballets—only three in a long composing career—but those three are masterpieces: The Golden Age, The Bolt and The Limpid Stream. The delightful The Lady and the Hooligan (a choreographic novel from 1962) is instead a pastiche patched together from his earlier works, like the latter two ballets, Ballet Suites and Cello Sonata. If you didn’t know better, you'd think Shostakovich composed a familiar-sounding but lovely new ballet. The Delos recording features the Minsk Symphony Orchestra under Walter Mnatsakanov’s baton, and if there’s roughness in some of the orchestral playing, the weightiness needed to make it all work comes through, particularly in the tragic finale. Also included is his Ballet Suite No. 2, which contains Shostakovich's characteristic eclecticism in spades.
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