Monday, April 4, 2011

April '11 Digital Week I


Blu-rays of the Week

Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection (MPI)

All 14 films that Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made as Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective Sherlock Holmes and sidekick Dr. Watson are in this five-disc set, from the 1939 classic The Hound of the Baskervilles to 1946’s Dressed to Kill. A dozen of the films have been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the results are stunning: the deep blacks and blinding whites are complemented by natural graininess. Not all the movies are up to snuff, which isn’t surprising, since they made on average two films each year. But Rathbone and Bruce are never less than compelling onscreen, and with six audio commentaries, archival Doyle footage and an interview with UCLA’s Robert Gitt, this is one of the best “classic film” Blu-ray releases yet.


Made in Dagenham (Sony)

Sure, it’s nothing more than a British version of the Oscar-winning Norma Rae, but this true story of striking female auto workers in a small English town in 1968 is inspiring in its own right, even as it travels down familiar character and plot paths. Sally Hawkins is as rousingly good in the lead as Sally Field was, and there’s estimable support by Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Geraldine James and Rosamund Pike. Nigel Cole’s conventional but always entertaining drama comes to Blu-ray in another first-rate transfer from Sony, and the extras include a Cole audio commentary, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes.


The Resident (Anchor Bay)

Proving that a two-time Oscar winner in the lead is no guarantee of quality, this blah thriller wastes Hilary Swank as a divorced doctor who finds more than she bargains for after moving into a “perfect” Manhattan apartment. Why this intelligent and sophisticated woman (who looks amazing while running or taking a bath, considering how director Antti J. Jokinen lingers over Swank’s toned body…and her body double’s) never notices what’s going on is only the most blatant head-scratcher in this competently made but rarely unnerving chiller. Christopher Lee’s appearance and horror legend Hammer Films’ moniker don’t help either. The hi-def transfer is excellent, but there are no extras.


Tangled (Disney)

This riff on the fairy tale of long-tressed Rapunzel is strictly by-the-numbers, from the stiff-looking computerized animation and lame one-liners to stock romantic leads and villains and no memorable songs. Although no disaster, Tangled never untangles itself to become a true Disney classic, but obviously even Disney has its misses. The Blu-ray release has no such problems: the movie looks great in hi-def, with extras including deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, original storybook openings, and a standard DVD copy of the film for families not yet Blu-ready or that watch in the car or the kids’ room.


DVDs of the Week

America’s Wars (Mill Creek)

This 12-disc set is an embarrassment of riches for anyone interested in American history: there are 50 hours’ worth of 93 documentaries to give a comprehensive view of the wars that the United States has fought from 18th century colonial days to post-9/11. The eight-episode American Soldier, narrated by George Kennedy, is an overview of three centuries of our military conflicts; also included are the multi-part documentaries WWI: The War to End All Wars; WWII Remembered: A Complete History; Victory by Air; Korea: The Forgotten War; and Vietnam War Stories. At any price, this would be an unbeatable deal: at the massively discounted price, it’s a must.


Any Human Heart (PBS)

From the novel by William Boyd, this 4-½ hour British mini-series chronicles the amazing life of Logan Mountstuart, born in the first decade of the 20th century and dying in the last. Nearly 100 years of fascinating history are seen through the eyes of one man—played variously by three excellent actors, Sam Claflin, Matthew Macfadyen and Jim Broadbent—who lives through world wars and depressions and high and low cultural touchstones. The women in Mountstuart’s life are beautifully played by Hayley Atwell and Kim Cattrall; too bad that this visually sumptuous epic drama (among the best on PBS recently) doesn’t receive a Blu-ray release. Enticing extras include deleted scenes, an on-set featurette and interviews with the cast and author Boyd.


IMAX: Hubble (Warners)

This astonishing journey of the Hubble space telescope, from near-sightedness to taker of breathtaking images millions of light years from earth, is shown in this 40-minute IMAX feature narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Much time is taken up by footage of astronauts performing emergency “surgery” to “correct” the telescope’s vision, and the images we see leave us speechless and breathless. Even if the DVD visuals can’t compete with the original IMAX release, a Blu-ray version would give a better approximation—oh well. The lone extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.


The Restaurateur (First Run)

Watch restaurant owner Danny Meyer as he plans his latest blockbuster eateries, then deals with the day-to-day decisions that include unplanned problems at the restaurants he opens in Manhattan’s elegant Madison Square Park area. Featuring illuminating interviews with Meyer and his chefs before and after the New York Times famously gives Eleven Madison Park the coveted four-star rating—The Restaurateur presents an intimate portrait of Mayer over a period of 12 years. The 27-minute bonus “epilogue” tells us what happened to Mayer’s restaurants after the cameras stopped shooting.


CDs of the Week

Shostakovich Film Series, Volume 5 (Delos)

Dmitri Shostakovich’s film scores rarely approach his chamber music, symphonies and concertos, and the fifth volume in Delos’ series follows suit. The frisky, sarcastic sounds from Golden Hills, The Tale of the Priest and His Worker Balda and Adventures of Korzinkina are pleasant but lack bite. Shostakovich probably thought that, since these films might have wide audiences, his scores had to be as inoffensive as possible At least his music for The Silly Little Mouse, heard here as a 15-minute one-act opera, is whimsically charming. Completists will want this; others may not.


Slovenija! (Harmonia Mundi)

Adventurous Argentine mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink teams with her brother, bass-baritone Marcos Fink, for an ear-opening recital comprising music of several Slovenian composers (Bernarda and Marcos’ parents are from Slovenia). The disc, comprising 32 songs by ten 19th and 20th century composers, features the Finks in fine form, both alone and in three lovely duets. The songs, which rarely stray from the strict romantic tradition, are highlighted by eight from Benjamin Ipavec (1829-1908) and six by Lucijan Marija Škerjanc (1900-1973), putting them head and shoulders above their compatriots. Still, this brother and sister act, with pianist Anthony Spiri’s fine accompaniment, honestly presents a musical heritage heretofore barely acknowledged.

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