Sunday, March 13, 2011

March '11 Digital Week II


Blu-rays of the Week

Au Revoir Les Enfants (Criterion) - Louis Malle’s best film is a beautifully observed 1988 drama of friendship and betrayal in a French Catholic boarding school during the Nazi occupation: young boys enjoy true bonding until the inevitable occurs. Often, Malle’s choice of material drove whether the film was successful: here, every frame is suffused with emotion but no trace of sentimentality. The splendid young actors are a testament to Malle’s subtle handling of performers. The muted visuals, in keeping with the melancholy, eventually tragic subject matter, are precisely rendered in Criterion’s estimable hi-def treatment; the extras, from Criterion’s Malle boxed set, include interviews with Malle’s widow Candice Bergen and his biographer Pierre Billard, a profile of the character of Joseph, a 1988 Malle audio interview, and Chaplin’s classic short The Immigrant (seen in the film).


Excalibur (Warners) - John Boorman’s personal adaptation of the legend of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table finally made it to the screen in 1981. While visually impressive, with shots and entire sequences of the most exquisitely articulated grandeur (helped by Wagner’s music from The Ring and Parsifal, no doubt), much of the film is dramatically remote, even inert at times. This despite a classy cast comprising Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Cherie Lunghi, Nicol Williamson and youngsters Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson. For its 30th anniversary, Warners has treated Excalibur to a fine hi-def transfer, although the lone extra is Boorman’s chatty, informative and quite comprehensive audio commentary.


The Next Three Days (LionsGate) - Russell Crowe plays an ordinary college professor whose life is turned upside down when his wife (the always charming Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for murder in this standard thriller with plot holes the size of the SUV its star drives. Writer-director Paul Haggis leaves far too much dangling, sacrificing credible tension for nonsensical excitement that’s typified by a head-scratching climax. It’s all faintly ludicrous, with the furrow-browed Crowe outshined by Banks, the fine Ty Simpkins as their son and Olivia Wilde, who brightens the stock part of a young mother who helps (but doesn’t sleep with) Crowe in his time of need. The movie receives an excellent hi-def transfer, while the extras include an audio commentary, making-of featurettes, and deleted and extended scenes.


DVDs of the Week

The Clowns (Raro Video) - Federico Fellini’s homage to the circus of his youth was made for Italian TV in 1970, which may be why it never got a DVD release in the U.S. until now: for that, thank the Italian company Raro Video, making its stateside debut as a home video distributor. Self-indulgent, impish and nostalgic by turns, this is Fellini at his most innocuous…but even second-tier Fellini has its magical moments. Raro has added enticing extras to the mix, since the print of the film (although supposedly restored) looks only somewhat better than a VHS tape: there’s an early Fellini short, 1953’s The Marriage Agency; a visual essay by Adriano Apra, Fellini’s Circus, 42 minutes of alternating interesting and redundant info; and a superb 50-page booklet that includes Fellini’s own notes and delightful drawings.


A Film Unfinished (Oscilloscope) - Yael Hersonski’s documentary may be the last word in Holocaust films, since it utilizes raw footage shot by the Nazis in 1942 of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. This footage was first thought authentic when first uncovered, but is now seen as mostly staged for propaganda purposes; the film goes through a tangled mass of multiple meanings to sort out truth from fiction. We also see reactions of survivors who were no more than children then and are in their 80s now, ranging from horror to sorrow and everything in between. This important historical and artistic document is reinforced by contextual extras: interviews with Holocaust researcher Adrian Wood and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, and Death Mills, a 1945 film shot by Billy Wilder and distributed by the U.S. government to show Germans the realities of the concentration camps.

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Paula-Paula and The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff (Intervision) - Spanish director Jess Franco’s soft-core forays into murder and madness have earned him a cult following as a master of Euro-sleaze, and these two films show that not much has changed in his lengthy career: 1973’s Sinister Eyes is a ludicrous horror movie about a cripple young woman at the mercy of the nutty title doctor, while 2010’s Paula-Paula is a nearly plotless erotic fantasy that consists mostly of two nubile young woman dancing and pawing each other in front of the camera for our (and Franco’s) amusement. If you like this sort of thing, you already know you‘re going to watch: if you’re even the tiniest bit unsure, you should probably stay away. Both releases include interviews with Franco.


CD of the Week

Strauss: Orchestral Lieder (Virgin Classics) - In this aural embarrassment of riches, Diana Damrau wraps her lovely soprano voice around 22 songs by Richard Strauss accompanied by the first-rate Munich Philharmonic under the sensitive direction of conductor Christian Thielemann. We already know from his operas that Strauss was a master of the orchestra, as the swelling, sobbing, melting and emotional sound worlds of Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Daphne, and Capriccio, among others, has proven. Here, we hear some of his best and most gorgeous songs, from “Morgen!” and “Cacilie” to all six of the Brentano-Lieder, given the voluptuous deluxe treatment by the orchestra and Damrau, whose impassioned interpretations are something special.

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