Blu-rays of the Week
Amarcord (Criterion) – One of Fellini's most beloved and popular films, this 1974 sentimental journey returns to his hometown of Rimini during the reign of the Fascists. Although he borrows from his earlier, better films, his eye for the circus-like aspects of life remains. Nino Rota's beguiling score, Danilo Donati's fantastic set and costume design and Giuseppe Rotunno's expressionist cinematography all contribute to another Fellini magical mystery tour that Criterion's Blu-ray makes a must-see with its incredibly sharp-looking transfer. Extras include an audio commentary, deleted scene, archival audio interviews and Fellini's Homecoming, a 45-minute featurette about the director's complicated relationship to his hometown.
Army of Crime (Lorber) –Robert Guédiguian’s complex wartime epic, a true story of foreign French Resistance fighters led by an Armenian poet Guédiguian grew up idolizing, humanizes them without robbing them of their bravery. This bold, intelligent drama explores wartime psychology as they try to hobble, if not destroy, the Nazi war machine. Guédiguian’s collaborators painstakingly recreate wartime Paris, which looks especially striking on Blu-ray; a uniformly strong cast of unknowns (except glamorous Virginie Ledoyen) adds to the stunning authenticity. Guédiguian, who augments Alexandre Desplat's music with well-chosen Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi works, honors the courage of ordinary men and women who fought and died for a country not even their own. Extras are interviews with Guédiguian, Ledoyen and co-star Simon Abkarian.
Life as We Know It (Warners) – Hollywood movies try desperate stratagems to get their rom-com stars together: killing off best friends (who went the unlikely route of making the stars their baby daughter's guardians, even though they loathe each other) is among the strangest Still, after this stretch of a set-up, there are laughs and even touching moments along the way, and Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl have an undeniable chemistry. Heigl has made worse movies, which sounds like faint praise, but if she wants she can be the new Julia Roberts, coasting on charm alone. The Blu-ray transfer is solid; extras are on-set featurettes and additional scenes.
Thelma and Louise (Fox) – In 1991, Ridley Scott's feminist road movie was sensational and controversial. Two decades on, it's lost some of its luster, but remains a touchstone for American movies, not least by making stars out of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, who invest as much authenticity as possible into Callie Khouri's groundbreaking but oddly diffuse script. There's also Brad Pitt’s first big role and Scott's visual grandeur, which makes the American southwest’s towering vistas even more impressive, especially on this superb hi-def transfer. Extras include a one-hour retrospective documentary, commentaries by Scott and by Sarandon, Davis and Khouri, deleted and extended scenes, and even (God help us) a Glenn Frey music video!
DVDs of the Week
America America (Warners) – Writer-director Elia Kazan dramatizes his ancestors’ immigrant journey in this heartfelt but clunky widescreen epic from 1963 of a Greek laborer hoping to make it to New York harbor. Shot in immaculate B&W by Haskell Wexler, the movie bogs down in lengthy scenes of humdrum lives further deadened by stiff amateurs. At least the striking lead actor Stathis Giallelis can carry a nearly three-hour movie. Still, Kazan's emotional saga is only hinted at onscreen, with bravura sequences of arriving in America compensating for listlessness in this worthy but flawed version of Stanley Kramer lite. The lone extra is a good contextual commentary by film historian Foster Hirsch.
The Girl, Riot, WUSA (Olive Films) – Olive Films, which specializes in obscure titles unavailable on disc, has released three this month: Riot, a gritty if routine 1969 prison drama with Gene Hackman, Jim Brown and Gerald S. O'Laughlin (remember him from “The Rookies“?); WUSA, a muddle-headed political tract from 1970, directed by Stuart Rosenberg and starring Paul Newman and Joann Woodward; and the low-key 2009 Swedish character study, The Girl, with a remarkable performance by young Blanca Engstrom. Although the actual films are hit-or-miss, Olive Films is performing a valuable service by putting out many of these unheralded or even forgotten titles.
CDs of the Week
Getty: Orchestral Works (Pentatone Classics) – Gordon Getty, the 77-year-old San Francisco-based composer, composes facile but propulsive music, to which this CD makes a good introduction. In the space of 12 minutes, the delectable overture to his opera Plump Jack, based on Shakespeare's immortal Falstaff, creates a juicy musical characterization of the Bard’s unforgettable fat man. The discs’ other works, which include the Ancestor Suite and the Homework Suite, have the same attractive qualities as the overture, and they are all played robustly by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner.
Schulhoff: Complete Violin Sonatas (Hyperion) – Erwin Schulhoff is most remembered for his jazz-tinged works like the Hot Sonata and Piano Concerto, but this disc of violin sonatas shows another side of this accomplished Austrian composer murdered by the Nazis in 1942. The sprightly and inventive Suite, Schulhoff's Op. 1, is the work of a precocious 17-year-old; two years later, his first Violin Sonata, a substantial chamber work, followed. There are also two expert 1927 works: the Solo Violin Sonata and second Violin Sonata. Played by the formidable team of violinist Tanja Becker-Bender and pianist Markus Becker, who handle this modernist music’s many virtuosic flights and more subdued melodic moments with ease.