Saturday, September 25, 2010

September Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week

Ondine (Magnolia) – Neil Jordan's fantasy about a fisherman who finds who he believes to be a mermaid off the shore of an Irish fishing village is an alternately lovely and brutal romance, in keeping with the director's usual m.o. (The Crying Game, Company of Wolves, The Butcher Boy). The divorced fisherman and his crippled daughter's belief in the new gal's miraculous appearance is tempered by the murderous roughnecks on her trail. Colin Farrell exudes surprising authenticity as the fisherman, Alicja Bachleda is the kind of mermaid most men would glad catch in their nets and young Alison Barry has a precociousness that's never cloying. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle's misty, hazy visuals—which combine the worlds of the fantastic with harsh reality—are perfectly recreated on Blu-ray, giving the film a healthy sheen that abets Jordan's intriguingly magical conceit. The lone extras are two short making-of featurettes that include interviews with Jordan, Farrell, Bachleda, Barry and co-star Stephen Rea (who plays an irrepressible priest).

Seven (New Line) – This grim thriller put director David Fincher on the map back in 1995, and it remains one of his signature films, alongside Fight Club and Zodiac. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman track down a serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who is offing people according to the Seven Deadly Sins—the climactic scene, when we discover the identity of his final victim, is still one of the most shocking denouements of any movie. Fincher's equally grim color palette—the film is full of rainy days and grayish, washed-out visuals—is a tricky one to transfer to hi-def faithfully, but this is a terrific-looking Blu-ray disc that merits repeat viewings. The huge amount of extras (four commentaries, extended/additional scenes, alternate endings, etc.) is complemented by a 32-page, full-color digibook.

DVDs of the Week

Ellery Queen Mysteries—The Complete Series (E1) – One of my favorite TV series while growing up was this hour-long detective drama that pitted a mystery writer and his father, a New York City detective, against murderers and other criminals. Although the series inexpicably never caught on—it was cancelled after two seasons (1975-76)—it's one of the most entertaining and lighthearted TV dramas ever, featuring excellent acting by the late Jim Hutton, Timothy's dad, as Ellery and David Wayne as his father. This set collects all 22 episodes on six discs, so one can enjoy once again everything about this smart, witty series: guest stars include great character actors as Ray Milland, Kim Hunter, John Hillerman, Don Ameche, Anne Francis, Robert Loggia, and a (relatively) young Betty White. A bonus interview with co-creator William Link is included.

Middletown (Icarus Films) – Peter Davis—best-known for his wrenching documentary about Vietnam, Hearts and Minds—created this illuminating six-part series for PBS in 1982, which shows the “heart” of America, the midwestern town of Muncie, Indiana, through vignettes of ordinary people living their everyday lives. Davis only directs Second Time Around—a thoughtful look at a couple of divorcees contemplating a second marriage—but his fingerprint of thoughfulness, thoroughness and evenhandedness is present in every episode: The Campaign, about a mayoral race; The Big Game, about the all-important high school sport of basketball; Community of Praise, about devout fundamentalist worshippers; Family Business, about a mom-and-pop pizza enterprise; and Seventeen, about local high school kids. A skittish PBS never aired Seventeen, because of its eye-opening look at interracial dating and teenage pregnancy; this set brings together all six films, necessary viewing in their own right and a monumental achievement in toto. There's a new interview with Davis included as an extra.

CDs of the Week

Higdon/Tchaikovsky Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon) – Jennifer Higdon's violin concerto was written for Hilary Hahn, who plays it with dazzling dexterity: the lyrical solo lines, energetic runs and imaginative three-movement structure might be Higdon's, but Hahn dispatches the work with such expressiveness that it will be difficult to hear another musician take it on. (It was composed for Hahn, a former student of Higdon's.) Tchaikovsky's warhorse concerto is an interesting choice to pair with a new work, but Hahn's passionate playing—complemented by the sensitive accmpaniment of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Vasily Petrenko—makes a case for a musical connection, however tenuous, between these two large-scale works, composed over a century apart.

Walton: The Symphonies (BIS) – William Walton composed his two symphonies nearly three decades apart: the first was written by a brash young composer excited by his newly-acquired musical powers, the second by a veteran composer with nothing to prove except prove his continued worth as one of the great 20th century British composers. This stunning-sounding Super Audio CD recording by the Orchestre National de Lille (under conductor Owain Arwel Hughes' baton) makes a striking juxtaposition between these two masterworks: the first symphony's dashing, celebratory, jubilant tone versus the second's more measured, less optimistic but equally enthralling mood. There are other superb recordings of these two symphonies available, but the new one is a worthy addition to anyone's Walton collection.

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