Monday, April 18, 2011

April '11 Digital Week III


Blu-rays of the Week

Antarctic Mission and The Last Continent (e one)

These two documentaries about the French ship Sedna IV’s expedition to Antarctica were shot in high-definition, so the first selling point of these Blu-ray discs is obviously the stunning imagery of the bluish ice and even more deeply blue sea, and the amazing array of life in this remote and frozen tundra. But both films, which show the scientific crew’s explorations while there for over a year, are intensely dramatic films in their own right, showing how ongoing climate change is affected the landscape and the wildlife which has adapted to such a remote and isolated continent.


Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey (PBS)

This sad and sobering true story of the life and death of a young Bengal tiger is recounted by cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson and his local guide Salim Ali, who spent nearly two years tracking and recording the movements of Broken Tail and his family, until his disappearance one day. When they find out that he was killed more than 100 miles away, the two men embark on a dangerous journey to learn what happened to him and why. This exquisite wildlife documentary not only has a visual luster that looks breathtaking on Blu, but also provides evidence of the diminishing of the tiger population in India. The lone extra is additional footage.


De-Lovely and Much Ado about Nothing (Fox)

A pair of new-to-Blu releases: De-Lovely (2004), a by-the-numbers Cole Porter biopic, contains Kevin Kline’s unmannered acting in the lead and a visual luxuriousness that belies director Irwin Winkler’s stiffly literal direction; Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado glories in Shakespeare’s verbal wit (best spoken by Brits Branagh, Emma Thompson and Kate Beckinsale, rather less so by Americans Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton) and the magnificence of the Tuscan villa where it was shot. Needless to say, both movies look better than ever in hi-def; Much Ado’s lone extra is a short making-of featurette, while De-Lovely includes commentaries by Kline, Winkler and writer Jay Cocks, deleted scenes and various on-set featurettes.


Kes (Criterion)

Ken Loach’s 1969 drama was the first of his films depicting hardscrabble, ordinary lives to be internationally recognized. If he has made other genuinely great films in the decades since (including gems Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe and Sweet Sixteen), Kes may be the quintessential Loach film, a story of a teenager, lonely among bickering family and bullying schoolmates, who befriends a kestrel (a bird similar to a falcon). Eschewing sentimentality, Loach’s intimately, poignant character study is beautifully shot, edited and enacted by a group of amateurs. Criterion has once again rescued a glorious film from oblivion with a superlative new transfer; the superb extras include a 1993 British TV feature on Loach, a new documentary with interviews, and Loach’s 1966 TV film Cathy Come Home, nearly as important to Loach’s career as Kes itself.


DVDs of the Week

How I Won the War (MGM)

Richard Lester’s absurdist anti-war screed, which famously flopped in 1967, is best known for its brief mention in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”—“a crowd of people turned away” by ignoring it in theaters. John Lennon (who wrote those lines) is typically sardonic in his first non-Fab Four film appearance, but the movie never coheres, one redundant scene after another showing the lunacy of war and the expendability of the men who die in it. The movie is finally getting released on DVD, albeit in an obviously inferior and unrestored print with no contextual extras. Still, Lester and Lennon completists will snap it up.


Plastic Planet (First Run)

This German documentary is not simply another one-sided polemic shrieking about our “age of plastic”: instead, director Werner Boote has made a fascinating, literate film which explains how plastic has invaded our lives and even our bodies (our blood contains it), evolving into something that threatens the very survival of our planet. Through interviews and worldwide snapshots that show the far-flung reaches of this seemingly bland material, Boote has fashioned one of the better “alarmist” docs, sounding an alarm while remaining impartial and never condescending. Extras include four bonus short films.


Ricky (IFC)

Francois Ozon takes what in other hands would be whimsical or tragic and fashions a disappointingly unimaginative muddle out of a terrific story. An unmarried mother has a child who sprouts wings: is he an angel, a devil or a mere freak of nature? Ozon never explores anything with any depth, content to show scenes where the kid “escapes” and flies around—on obvious wires—until one day, he flies away and doesn’t return. The director’s half-baked, one-note movies have a cult following; too bad Ozon wastes good actors, including in Ricky an emotionally resonant performance by Alexandra Lamy as the mother.


The Third Reich: Rise and Fall (History)

The eternal fascination of the Nazis is such that books and documentaries are still being produced about the horrors they created. This two-part three-hour chronicle of Hitler’s hold on Germany in the absence of common sense distinguishes itself by its graphic scenes: vintage and archival footage include many glimpses of atrocities that were committed during the war that go beyond the usual piles of corpses in the concentration camps. Half-eaten horses, dismembered soldiers and murdered civilians are shown, but never in a sensationalistic way. There might be anything new uncovered here, but it’s well-paced and intelligently put together.


CDs of the Week

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2; Lyadov: The Enchanted Lake (EMI Classics)

Sergei Rachmaninoff's massive second symphony, 60 minutes of gorgeous tunes that are heard in concise but lengthy movements, is given a brisk reading by conductor Antonio Pappano, who leads the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma, the antithesis of what could happen to this daunting work in the wrong hands. Instead of sounding overwrought and disjointed, the work’s structure is respected, allowing its intricate beauties to shine through. The disc’s opener is fellow Russian Anatoly Lyadov’s gossamer six-minute The Enchanted Lake, Debussy-like in its impressionistic coloring.


Symphonic Sgt. Pepper (RPO)

Orchestral versions of Beatles songs rank high on my list of unnecessary recordings, even if, as here, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—one of the band’s most heavily orchestrated albums—sounds fairly faithful to the original. But that’s the problem for this Beatles fanatic: I have the original, so why bother with something else? Producer Mike Townend’s arrangements avoid being too lush, but the use of a chorus (Metro Voices) to sing only some lyrics is jarring throughout. Nick Davies conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and it sounds as if everybody’s having a blast; bonus tracks include three other Beatles’ classics from 1967, “Penny Lane,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need Is Love.” It's well-done for what it is: but what is it, exactly?

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