Thursday, September 2, 2010

September Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
9th Company (Image)
The former Soviet Union’s quagmire in Afghanistan, which preceded our own by some 20 years, contributed to its ultimate demise. That it was also Russia’s Vietnam is undeniable, and Fyodor Bondarchuk’s 2005 drama is the first Russian film we’ve seen in America that equates their lost war to ours, mainly by aping American war movies set in Vietnam, like Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Apocalypse Now. It’s remarkable that, for all its war-movie clichés, 9th Company is a gripping, 140-minute thrill ride: it’s no surprise this was a hit back home. A large, impressive cast carries out the company’s impossible mission; the movie, though patriotic to a fault, knows enough to praise soldiers over unseen Kremlin leaders. The first-rate Blu-ray presentation is complemented by an extra DVD of interviews with cast, writer, director and actual veterans who are, unsurprisingly, highly emotional after seeing the film.

The Simpsons: The Complete 13th Season (Fox)
Compared to how terrific Season 20 looked in its Blu-ray incarnation—it was the first season of the long-running Fox series to be shown in HD—older seasons of The Simpsons are at a disadvantage. Happily, though, the 21 episodes that make up Season 13 (from 2001-2) have a sharper look than I would have expected from them; worth noting are the fun interactive menus in full HD. As to the series itself, 13 is another uneven Simpsons season, with guest stars Pierce Brosnan, REM, Paul Newman, Phish, N'Sync and U2 muddling their way through some lazy storylines and even lazier jokes. Still, let’s face it: The Simpsons on auto-pilot is better than pretty much everything else on TV. The extras include a Groening intro, deleted scenes and commentaries, and a few negligible featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Cinevardaphoto (Cinema Guild)
French director Agnes Varda has had a bumpy feature-film career: for every classic like Vagabond, there's a dud like Kung Fu Master. But her shorts and documentaries are another matter. Her recent autobiographical essay, The Beaches of Agnes, was among the best non-fiction films of recent years, and this new disc collects several short works that reinforce Varda's reputation as one of our most valuable and insightful directors. Cinevardaphoto is a triptych of shorts showing the staying power of photographic images, whether an exhibit of vintage pictures, each of which includes a teddy bear; an old photo Varda reexamines three decades later; or hundreds of pics that Varda herself shot during the early, heady days of Castro's Cuba. In addition to these incisive historical and psychological portraits, the disc includes a half-dozen other Varda shorts and a 20-minute featurette in which she self-effacingly discusses her cinematic artistry.

Selling Hitler (Acorn Media)
The 1981 scandal of the Hitler Diaries hoax is the focus of this hilarious but tellingly real dissection of the journalists and historians who were taken in by an obvious forger in one of the biggest-ever journalistic fiascos. This 1991 British mini-series stars an exemplary cast led by Jonathan Pryce as German reporter Gerd Heidemann, always looking for the next big scoop, who spend millions of Stern magazine’s money to ensure no one else could scoop the “scoop” of the century. Giving Pryce strong support are Barry Humphries, Alison Doody, Alan Bennett and Alexei Sayre; directed adroitly by Alistair Reid from Howard Schuman's teleplay, Selling Hitler’s five fast-moving episodes only rarely degenerate into surrealistic but silly Wagnerian parody. The lone extra is an onscreen update about the major players involved—too bad there’s no documentary that sketches in the historical background.

CDs of the Week
Martinu: Cello Sonatas (Chandos)
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), one of the 20th century’s greats, composed two cello concertos and a cello concertino, along with three cello sonatas, all heard here—along with two short sets of variations (on Slovak and Rossini themes)—in this beautifully performed recording by cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Huw Watkins. Although both sets of variations are charming, the meaty sonatas are the disc’s real treats. In the first sonata, composed in Paris in 1939, you can hear the ominous rumblings of the war to come; the second, composed in New York in 1942, has the nervous energy of an artist starting anew; the light-hearted third, composed in France in 1952, has Bohemian folk songs at its root. Although other recordings of these essential pieces exist, this is among the best.

Tyberg: Symphony No. 3; Piano Trio (Naxos)
Composers whose careers—and even lives—were snuffed out by the Nazis have become an entire cottage industry: Decca’s invaluable Entartate Musik CD series in the ‘90s unearthed much chamber/orchestral music and operas that were forgotten; more recently, conductor James Conlon has led works by composers like Braunfels, Zemlinsky and Schreker to critical acclaim. Now add to this list the name of Marcel Tyberg, an Austrian Jewish composer who died in Auschwitz on New Year’s Eve in 1944. A Buffalo doctor came into possession of some Tyberg scores and gave them to Buffalo Philharmonic conductor JoAnn Falletta, who led the world premiere of Tyberg’s Symphony No. 3, which, along with his Piano Trio, are heard here. Tyberg’s music shimmers glossily, but ultimately doesn’t measure up to Braunfels, Zemlinsky or Schreker. Although attractive and well-played—the slow movements of both works sound particularly lovely on this recording—they are not the unearthed masterpieces we hoped for. Yet to hear Tyberg’s music at all is a treat, so thanks are due to Naxos, Falletta and her Buffalo musicians.

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