Saturday, November 20, 2010

November Digital Week III

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Blu-rays of the Week

The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure the Sierra Madre (Warners) – Two of the all-time classic American movies are these first-rate collaborations between Humphrey Bogart and writer/director John Huston. Bogie plays detective Sam Spade in Huston’s enduring mystery (made in 1941) about the hunt for an elusive jewel-encrusted falcon, while playing against type as a low-life drifter searching for gold in Mexico in Huston’s Mexican-shot adventure (from 1948). Considering their ages, both movies look absolutely dazzling on Blu-ray, showing off the power of black-and-white and Academy aspect ratio in the hands of a master director as Huston. And Bogie, of course, has never been better than in these two films. Extras include commentaries, historical featurettes and a documentary abut Huston’s career.


Modern Times (Criterion) – One of Charlie Chaplin’s most beloved films was his last silent feature and the last featuring his indomitable Little Tramp: it’s also a masterpiece that, with The Gold Rush and City Lights, is the peak of Chaplin’s formidable silent-film output. Chaplin’s priceless sight gags, peerless physical comedy and still-pertinent social commentary ensure the movie’s status as a classic; Criterion’s splendid Blu-ray release makes it nearly impossible to believe that the film was made in 1936, considering that the film-like clarity is so incredible. And that’s before even mentioning the terrific set of extras that Criterion has typically come up with: audio commentary, visual essays, interviews, deleted scenes, sound and visual effects segments, even a Chaplin short, 1917’s The Rink. Thanks again, Criterion, and keep those Chaplins coming!


DVDs of the Week

Theater of War (Lorber) – The 2006 Central Park staging of Brecht’s anti-fascist parable Mother Courage and Her Children was a starry affair: Tony Kushner adapted, George C. Wolfe directed, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline starred. John Walker filmed rehearsals and interviewed the principals, and the result is a fascinating look at politics in the theater. Walker speaks with Jay Cantor, a novelist who teaches Brecht and Marxist theory; Carl Weber, a Brecht assistant; Oskar Eustis, Public Theater head; Brecht’s daughter Barbara; Wolfe, Kushner and Streep, who enlighteningly discusses her approach to acting. Too bad Kushner, Eustis and Cantor speak in generalities about Brecht, war, Marxism and theater with precious little insight. Walker nicely utilizes footage of the play’s original production and of Brecht himself making the House Un-American Activities Committee look foolish. The lone extra is Michael Moore’s enthusiastic audio commentary.


Winnebago Man (Kino Lorber) – Jack Rebney became famous when outtakes from his 1980s’ RV commercials, filled with colorful expletives, showed up on YouTube. Ben Steinbauer’s documentary follows his journey to track down Rebney and find out what he’s up to. He discovers a frail near-recluse who, after initial prodding, becomes quite talkative and vocal about his own fame and the state of the country today. Rebney is a true character who could never have been made up by a writer; his final scenes, as a rediscovered celebrity fawned over by fans who watched his work and heard him discuss it, poignantly show the meaning (or meaninglessness) of fame in today’s digitized world. Extras include 25 minutes of unseen footage from the infamous commercial shoot and a featurette covering the NYC premiere.


CDs of the Week

Claremont Trio: Beethoven and Ravel (Tria Records) – The Claremont Trio, comprising sisters Emily and Julia Brushkin (violin and cello) and Donna Kwong (piano), plays two standard Trios on this appealing disc. The first is Beethoven’s early C Minor Trio, filled with grace notes and muscular flexibility, and hinting at the later chamber music he would compose, like the “Archduke Trio.” Maurice Ravel’s lone Trio is a composition of extreme delicacy, and the sisters and Kwong have the perfect feel for its gossamer textures and often elusive rhythmic qualities. This disc makes a great introduction to three superb musicians, and serves to whet the appetite for their upcoming performance at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan on November 29.


Alice Sara Ott: Liszt and Tchaikovsky (Deutsche Grammophon) – This 22-year-old pianist has already released acclaimed recordings of Chopin and Liszt solo works; for her new disc, she collaborates with the Munich Philharmonic and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock for a rock-solid rendition of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto which, despite its relative brevity (20 minutes), is as fiendishly difficult to negotiate as much of the composer’s keyboard work. Then there’s Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, probably the most overplayed in history: do we need another version when there are dozens (or hundreds) to choose from? Ott’s fleet playing shows off her enthusiasm for a work that clearly means a lot to her, but I hope that next time she strays farther off the beaten path.

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