Blu-rays of the Week
The Night of the Hunter (Criterion) – Though often overheated and wincingly awful in its bludgeoning obviousness, Charles Laughton’s lone directorial effort (made in 1955 and an immediate flop upon release) has acquired such a growing cult that it’s now routinely considered a “classic.” It’s far from that, although Robert Mitchum has some over-the-top fun as the preacher who preys on lonely and wealthy widows—too bad he’s up against Laughton’s hammy handling of the other actors and the blatant symbolism of his good vs. evil parable. Criterion’s two-disc Blu-ray release (which gives Stanley Cortez’s black-and-white compositions a shimmering look for the first time on home video) is typically loaded: a commentary, several retrospective featurettes and interviews are on disc one, while disc two is given over to a thorough 160-minute documentary, Charles Laughton Directs, with fascinating outtakes and on-set footage.
The Sondheim Birthday Concert (Image) – To celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday last March, the New York Philharmonic pulled out all the stops for a star-studded trip down memory lane, with highlights from a career still going strong after a half-century. David Hyde Pierce is our delightful host, Paul Gemignani conducts the Philharmonic in gorgeous renditions of Sondheim’s music (sounding splendid in DTS-HD audio), and veterans of Sondheim’s classic shows from West Side Story and Company to Sunday in the Park with George and Follies, perform the songs that made him an American original: Karen Olivo high-steps alluringly during “America,” George Hearn and Michael Cerveris “duet” with Patti Lupone on “A Little Priest,” and a sextet of glamorously red-gowned divas (Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Lupone and Elaine Stritch) belt out several signature songs. Sondheim appears at the end, appropriately humbled by this outpouring of affection and artistry.
DVDs of the Week
Bill Moyers: Genesis—a Living Conversation and On Faith and Reason (Athena) – These two boxed sets illuminate among the most compelling issues of our time: the first book of the Bible and our post-Sept. 11 world. Genesis consists of Moyers leading discussions with dozens of people, from deep-thinking scholars to ordinary men and women, in how the stories of the Bible affect the modern world; Faith finds Moyers interviewing renowned writers such as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood about the seeming gap in the 21st century between religion and science. Both sets are formidable (Genesis takes up more than nine hours, while Faith runs for nearly seven hours), but that’s appropriate considering the weighty subject matter.
The Boondocks: The Complete Third Season (Sony) – The no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach of this animated comedy, based on Aaron McGruder’s politically incorrect comic strip told from a black point of view, continues in this series’ third season, available in a three-disc set filled with special features like commentaries and episode introductions as irreverent as the shows themselves. Of the 15 episodes included (all of them are uncensored so that every “n” and “f” word is heard, unlike during their TV showings), the highlight is the very first one, “It’s a Black President, Huey Freeman,” which takes aim at the responses from the white and black communities to Obama’s election, couched in subtle satirical jabs at the documentaries of German director Werner Herzog (who, in on the joke, appears as himself, along with Bill Maher).
CDs of the Week
Darius Rucker: Charleston, SC 1966 (Capitol Nashville) – After the demise of Hootie and the Blowfish, singer Darius Rucker found an improbable second career as a popular country artist: his first CD was an unexpected hit, leading to this new recording. Although it’s more of the same, mostly upbeat country tunes that are distinguished by Rucker’s characteristically burnished vocals, there are a couple of keepers: “I Don’t Care” is a fun, politically incorrect duet written and sung with Brad Paisley), while the tongue-in-cheek “Southern State of Mind” takes off from Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” to unapologetically state Rucker’s case: “I could be up in Ohio or back home in Caroline/No matter what state I’m in, I’m in a Southern State of Mind.”
Sondheim on Sondheim: Original Broadway Cast Recording (PS Classics) - Sondheim on Sondheim wedded the Broadway composer‘s own words, in pre-recorded interviews, with renditions of his greatest songs, along with obscure and rarely-heard ones (and even a new one, the aptly-titled “God“). Although this CD misses director James Lapine’s visually dazzling stage sleight-of-hand, the remarkable voices that make up the show are present and accounted for, led by the always-delectable Vanessa Williams, who makes “Good Thing Going” from Merrily We Roll Along her own, and who teams with legend Barbara Cook for a wonderful duet of “Losing My Mind” (from Follies) and “Not a Day Goes By” (also from Merrily). And Cook herself gives a beautifully reticent rendition of Sondheim’s greatest hit, “Send in the Clowns.”