Monday, March 28, 2011

March '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
All Good Things
Based on the troubling true story of a notoriously unsolved murder, Andrew Jarecki’s moody drama is more character study than character assassination—although the ambiguity in the characterizations and plotline might frustrate for viewers who are never sure where real evidence ends and conjecture begins. Still, Jarecki’s solid direction, the formidable performances of Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst and Frank Langella, and a pervasive atmosphere of high-toned dread make the film worth a look, especially on Blu-ray, whose crisp, clean image underlines the story’s tragic trajectory. Extras include a Jarecki interview, making-of featurette, deleted scenes and a glimpse at the killing that the movie’s based on.

Fair Game

For the story of CIA spy Valerie Plame and diplomat husband Joseph Wilson’s outing by the Bush administration in a fit of pique over the “yellowcake in Niger” scandal, director Doug Liman uses his Bourne Identity tropes: shaky hand-held camera and quick cross-cutting to keep us off-balance. The movie works as both cautionary tale and global conspiracy thriller with bad guys that are mostly unseen. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn’s intelligent performances as Plame and Wilson are complemented by real footage: Liman smartly ends the film by cutting from Watts in front of a congressional committee to Plame’s actual testimony. Fair Game might not be an eye-opener at this late date, but remains a necessary reminder of government’s duplicity. The lone extra is a commentary by Plame and Wilson, adequate but much too little for such an historically important film.

Topsy Turvy and The Mikado
I’m not a Gilbert & Sullivan fan, so the these films are not my cup of tea. At least Mike Leigh has made G&S’s music, while indisputably present, secondary in his excellent 1999 biopic Topsy Turvy, concentrating instead on the backstage and offstage relationship of the collaborators, families and colleagues. In the lead roles, Jim Broadbent (Gilbert) and Allen Corduner (Sullivan) are peerless; Leigh’s exacting writing and direction is his best, and the sumptuous production design and cinematography is given a fabulous sheen by Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer. Extras include interviews, deleted scenes, Leigh’s informative commentary and his delicious 1992 short, A Sense of History, starring and written by Broadbent. The Mikado, a 1939 film of G&S’s operetta (also shown in Leigh’s film), looks terrific thanks to the hi-def transfer, and includes a deleted scene and contextual interviews: but there’s still that annoying G&S musical patter!

DVDs of the Week
Antony and Cleopatra and Soylent Green
In 1972, Charlton Heston directed himself in his own adaptation of Shakespeare’s glorious tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, but despite splendid visual asides, neither he nor his Cleo (Hildegard Neil) extracted much tragic passion from the material. Richard Fleischer directed the flashy but grim 1973 sci-fi cult flick Soylent Green, in which Heston plays a jaded detective who discovers an awful secret about the title food substance. Heston plays the protagonists in both of these films in his typical heroic style, a slightly more upscale Clint Eastwood. Antony’s lone extra is an interview with Heston’s assistant director son; the Soylent Green Blu-ray (which retains the film’s grainy early-70s look) includes a commentary by Fleischer and actress Leigh Taylor Young and two vintage featurettes.

Around a Small Mountain
(Cinema Guild)
Jacques Rivette’s monumentally frivolous divertissement follows the denizens of a traveling circus and a mysterious Italian (an embarrassed-looking Sergio Castellitto), his presence both diversion and difficulty, notably for the circus founder’s daughter Kate (a sleepwalking Jane Birkin). The behind-the-scenes circus machinations are surprisingly dull, as Rivette continually crosscuts among unfunny acts doing their thing—the clowns are particularly hammy and unoriginal—and their offstage lives. Prettily photographed by Irina Lubtchansky, 36 Vues du Pic Saint-Loup (to at least give the film the benefit of its French title) evaporates in a haze as soon as it ends—with a shot of the moon being enveloped in a haze. Extras include an audio commentary and a Birkin interview.

Silent Naruse
(Criterion Eclipse)
One of the greatest (if most obscure) of the Japanese masters, Mikio Naruse was the equal of Kurosawa and Ozu and superior to the overrated Mizoguchi. Criterion has already released his best-known film, the insightful study When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, and this bare-bones Eclipse collection of his five extant silent features from the early 1930s (he made some two dozen, but the others are lost) should cheer any Naruse fan. From the delightful short Flunky Work Hard to the masterly drama Street Without End, the Silent Naruse set plugs a giant gap in the education of anyone even slightly interested in one of the true—and truly unheralded—Masters of Cinema. The prints, while slightly ragged, are in more than adequate shape, and will most likely be the best we see of these rich films, complete with optional musical scores.

CDs of the Week
Mahler: Resurrection Symphony
(EMI Classics)
Gustav Mahler’s massive five-movement choral symphony is a difficult balancing act for any conductor, but Simon Rattle, in this inspired performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, very nearly pulls it off. While temporarily losing himself during the transition from the orchestral to the vocal/choral movements—splendidly handled by soprano Kate Royal; the conductor’s wife, mezzo Magdalena Kozena; and the choir, the Rundfunkchor Berlin—Mahler’s huge structure is held in place. The result is that this 2010 concert recording remains the most recommendable of recent Mahler 2 releases.

Vilde Frang: Violin Sonatas
(EMI Classics)

Young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang certainly doesn’t skimp on her debut recital disc: with accomplished pianist Michail Lifits, she plays two of the second half of the 19th century’s most romantic works: Edvard Grieg’s first and Richard Strauss’s E-flat sonatas. Both composed by men in their early 20s (as Frang is), they positively shimmer with the bloom of youth, and the violinist cuts an imposing figure playing their exhilarating, lyrical music. The other work, Bela Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin, can leave the player exposed, but Frang dispatches it with care and easefulness, remarkable considering that its commissioner, the legendary Yehudi Menuhin, first thought it was unplayable.

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