Sunday, January 30, 2011

January '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Color Purple (Warners) – Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s tough but sentimental novel also alternates between saccharine and vinegar: sequences as powerful as anything Spielberg has ever directed butt heads with some of his most sugary scenes (usually accompanied by Quincy Jones’ bombastic musical score). Allen Daviau’s sublime color photography, however, has no such drawbacks, and on Blu-ray, the film’s visual achievements are brilliantly reinforced. The acting from then-unknowns as Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery is excellent across the board, which makes The Color Purple an overwhelming emotional experience, despite my reservations. Extras, ported from the DVD release, include interviews with Spielberg, Walker, cast and crew.

Secretariat (Disney) – This inspirational true story of possibly the greatest Triple Crown-winning horse and his owner, whose faith in the people she hired to train him, is a first-rate family movie. The performances are fine all around: Diane Lane the tough-as-nails owner Penny Chenery, John Malkovich the flamboyant trainer Lucien Laurin, and Nelsan Ellis the sweetly-dispositioned groom Eddie Sweat. Director Randall Wallace authentically recreates Secretariat’s famous races with a genuine sense of excitement by the time we get to the 1973 Belmont Stakes. This straightforward, pleasant movie looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray, and the extras comprise deleted scenes and interviews with the filmmakers, cast members and the real Penny Chenery.

DVDs of the Week
Downton Abbey (PBS) – The latest PBS “Masterpiece” offering is this six-hour mini-series written by Julian Fellowes. Like his script for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, Fellowes’ teleplay for Downton Abbey meticulously recreates the insular worlds of both masters and servants on a British estate. Set before the start of World War I (the final scene actually heralds the declaration of war on Germany in 1914), the multi-part series is a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs for a new generation, with international stars like Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville playing the gentrified family members whose own domestic dramas are played out at the same time their servants’ own lives undergo scrutiny. The DVD set contains the complete six-hour British version, and there are two bonus featurettes: Making of Downton Abbey and A House in History.

Inspector Bellamy (IFC) – The late Claude Chabrol remained spry to the very last, as he showed with his final film, an intriguing mystery in which he collaborated for the first time with another French film legend—the masterly Gérard Depardieu, who plays a famed but worn-out detective interrupting a vacation to deal with a murder and his deadbeat brother’s return. Director Chabrol and actor Depardieu are unafraid to show the inelegant ravages of age on their over-the-hill hero, who huffs and puffs merely to keep up appearances. The DVD’s lone extra is a doozy: an hour-long on-set feature that includes much humorous interplay between the master director and his superstar actor.

CDs of the Week
Joyce DiDonato: Diva, Divo (Virgin Classics)
– I’m not a fan of “recital” discs when the works are simply small chunks of complete operas. But when the singer not only a big, distinctive voice but also a personality to match, listening to the CD becomes a pleasure, not a chore. American mezzo DiDonato has had much success in trouser roles like those (Cherubino, Romeo) included here, along with a too-truncated excerpt as the Composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf naxos. Most ear-opening are lesser-known parts in DiDonato’s repertoire, like Gluck’s La clemenza di Tito—Mozart’s better-known version is also excerpted—and a trio of Massenet operas, Cherubin, Cendrillon and Ariane, all of which stack up well with their more popular counterparts by Mozart, Rossini and Strauss.

Gabriela Montero: Solatino (EMI Classics) – Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is always adventurous at the keyboard: not only does she perform works by a half-dozen South American composers on this disc, but she continues the improvising she’s explored in earlier concerts and recordings. From Cuban Ernesto Lecuona to Argentine Alberto Ginastera—whose masterly first Piano Sonata Montero plays scintillatingly—these composers wrote fiery, mercurial piano music, and Montero is in her element throughout. Her improvisations are the equal of much of the music they’re inspired by. Montero, who banished red from this release’s EMI logo to protest Hugo Chavez’s regime, happily doesn’t let political commentary distract from her artistry.

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