Blu-rays of the Week
America’s National Treasures (Mill Creek) – On the cover of this enchanting seven-hour exploration of America's official National Monuments is Devil's Tower in Wyoming, which became our first National Monument when President Theodore Roosevelt signed a new law in 1906. But Devil's Tower is only one of dozens of these national—and natural—treasures, strewn throughout the South, the Great Plains, and the Western states, shown in all their beauty and scientific and historical importance in this 12-part series, presented by actor Bo Svenson (remember him?). High-definition cameras catch the splendors of these monuments from all angles, making this two-disc set worth the price. In addition to basking in such noble beauty, there are chapters about the history, ecology and geology about the monuments, including discussions by National Park rangers, which makes this not only one of the cheapest travelogues around, but also one of the most enriching.
King Kong (Warners) - The original 1933 monster-movie classic about the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is one of cinema’s timeless love stories, although Fay Wray and the big gorilla never consummate their “affair” atop the biggest phallic symbol of them all, the Empire State Building. That exciting climax aside, however, King Kong is pretty rote in the filmmaking department, with an exceptionally mediocre cast—Wray screams effectively, at least—consistently coming in behind the primitive special effects which, for their time, were quite innovative, particularly Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation. None of these criticisms matters, however: King Kong will always have a soft place in movie buffs' hearts—and having two disastrous remakes in 1976 and 2005 only helps its reputation. Warner’s Blu-ray transfer shows the limitations of upgrading an 80-year-old film to HD quality, although it's often breathtaking to see when one remembers how awful it looked in 16mm prints and on TV all these years. Voluminous extras include a 36-page digibook, a 2-1/2 hour documentary about the film's making, history and influence, an audio commentary, and interviews with Fay Wray and Merian C. Cooper.
DVDs of the Week
The Law (Oscilloscope) – Seediness is in every pebble of Porto Manacore, the Italian fishing village that's the setting of Jules Dassin's 1959 romantic crime drama which reveals the corruption inherent in all relationships, whether professional or personal. An elderly Mafia Don, his sexy housekeeper, a local thug and a handsome newcomer attempt various power plays against one another, culminating in the title drinking game, which brings loathing and budding romance to a head. A fantastic cast, led by the highly-charged erotic pairing of Gina Lollobrigida and Marcello Mastroianni, compensates for Dassin's heavy-handed mishandling of the dicey material, even if there are beautiful black and white compositions by cinematographer Otello Martelli of the eminently photogaphable Mediterranean region. Oscilloscope's two-disc set, highlighted by a superb transfer of the original French-language version, includes a commentary by reviewer David Fear, alternate ending, vintage French TV interviews with director and cast and a new documentary, L'ultima osteria, about the game “the law” still being played today.
Suck (E1) – The title refers tongue-in-cheekly to how rock'n'roll vampires stay alive in this low-budget horror comedy, but also—there's no getting around it—it succinctly describes how big a misfire this movie is. Rob Stefaniuk not only directed but also stars as a member of a talentless rock band whose lead singer becomes a vampiress, helping them stumble into fame and fortune. What seemed amusing on paper as a spoof of both the music biz's absurdity and the Twilight series falls nearly flat onscreen, despite some great rock-star cameos. There's Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, Moby and Rush's Alex Lifeson (hilarious as a U.S.-Canadian border guard), all doing their best to look unembarrassed, but Stefaniuk isn't up to the overwhelming task of finding real humor in horror. All he can do is stage parodies of album covers from Abbey Road to The Kids Are Alright to Born in the USA, and in the process wastes game performers as Jessica Pare, who in a better movie would make a funny and sexy blood sucker, and the indestructible Malcolm McDowell as a vampire hunter. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette with interviews, audio commentary and music video.
CDs of the Week
Orff: Carmina Burana (DG) – Do we need still another recording of Carl Orff's choral masterpiece, which remains a thrilling and powerfully visceral experience even with its overexposure in sundry movies, TV shows and commercials over the years? Certainly, especially one as intelligently wrought as this, led by British conductor Daniel Harding, who whips his orchestra and singers into an indescribable frenzy when necessary but also calms things down to better show off Orff's magisterial control in a work in which manipulation and subtlety are in perfect balance. Everyone knows the opening and closing movements, “O Fortuna”; but it's the middle movements—in which these “secular songs” display their true colors as medieval music in a modern setting—that Harding and his forces prove their mettle. This live performance, recorded in Munich this past spring, packs a punch, which is what ultimately we want from any Carmina Burana worth its salt.
Sabine Grofmeier: Clarinet Tales (Ars Produktion) – This nicely-programmed recital of 19th century music for clarinet and piano is sweetly played by German clarinetist Sabine Grofmeier and her musical partner, pianist Tra Nguyen. Except for Robert Schumann and Carl Maria von Weber, none of these composers is anywhere near a household name, but that doesn't hinder enjoyment of these pieces, which are brisk, light works that bear repeated listening. Schumann's Three Romances (originally written for oboe) and Weber's Silvana Variations (based on a theme from one of his own arias) are pleasant and graceful, but it's the more obscure composers who make their mark here. The opening Three Fantasy Pieces by August Hendrik Winding boast eloquence and wit in equal measure, while the closing Duo Brillant by Carl Gottlieb Reissiger is aptly-named: 15 minutes' worth of music of utmost delicacy, dispatched by Grofmeier and Nguyen with poise and aplomb. The Super Audio CD includes a bonus track, an Adagio by Heinrich Joseph Baermann.