Friday, May 6, 2011

May '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Blow Out

Brian DePalma’s 1981 thriller about a movie sound man’s accidental recording of aBlow_Out presidential candidate’s death owes much to Blow-Up but lacks Antonioni’s elegant construction and subtlety. DePalma is all surface, and Blow Out has too many sophomoric recreations of cheesy slasher movies; that the final punch line is an unfunny joke at its heroine’s expense is typical of this director. John Travolta is a charismatic hero and John Lithgow a properly creepy villain, but Nancy Allen is a poor femme fatale. Although DePalma’s usual visual slickness helps, the big car chase is as ludicrous as they come. As always, Criterion has given the film a loving hi-def upgrade; extras include new DePalma, Allen and Steadicam operator Garrett Brown interviews and DePalma’s 1967 experimental film, Murder a la Mod.

GleeGlee Encore

If you’re a Gleek who can’t get enough of the hit TV show’s alternately tongue-in-cheek and painfully earnest cover versions of various pop songs, then this 77-minute compilation (with 35 song-and-dance routines) is definitely for you. For those who find Glee mainly an irritant can treasure the enormous vocal gifts and stage presence of Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison, both Broadway veterans who can even make goofy renditions of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “Somebody to Love,” and various forgettable Journey and Madonna anthems momentarily pleasurable. The Blu-ray upgrade makes the show look sharper than before; there are no extras.

The Green Hornet

Michel Gondry’s big-screen take on the latest superhero has an appropriately silly attitudeGreen toward its subject, the least likely superhero imaginable, and Gondry has a skewed visual sense that doesn’t take itself too seriously either. But there’s a big “but”: Seth Rogen is an absolute disaster in the lead, a non-actor who thinks that snarling his dialogue makes him seem tough. The supporting cast is on Gondry’s wavelength, but with such a black (green?) hole at the center, The Green Hornet doesn’t have much sting. Sony’s top-notch Blu-ray release has several extras: making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and Gondry’s commentary.

The Holy Mountain and El Topo
(Anchor Bay)

Cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s entire reputation is based on his 1989 Santa SangreTopo and these two films, from 1973 and 1970, respectively. In both, the director himself plays the strange anti-hero, first The Alchemist and then a gunslinger. Besides being bizarre dramas in their own right, these nearly inscrutable movies are also the ultimate head trips, with surreal sequences and symbolic imagery butting heads throughout. Anchor Bay’s superb transfers give both movies an extra colorful “pop,” so even if you don’t know (or care) what the hell’s going on, you can still savor the outlandish visuals. Extras include Jodorowsky commentaries, interviews and deleted scenes.

Rabbit Hole

RabbitJohn Cameron Mitchell’s film of David Lindsay-Abaire’s overrated Pulitzer Prize-winning play about marrieds Becca and Howie coping with their son’s death consists of scenes like dumb bombs trained on single targets, exploding after making their point. Mitchell’s subdued sledgehammer direction uses soft lighting to make the movie look like an episode of “Army Wives” and slow motion after Becca’s flashback to the fatal accident. Nicole Kidman’s somnambulant Becca pales next to Aaron Eckhart’s intense Howie, and the other actors—Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller and Sandra Oh—are given scant opportunity to become three-dimensional in a flimsy psychological study that makes a foolproof dramatic subject maudlin. While the hi-def image is excellent, the flimsy extras comprise Mitchell‘s commentary and two deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
(Cinema Guild)

Mark Hogancamp’s ingenious, self-administered therapy after a vicious beating left him in a coma has been documented by director Jeff Malmberg in a startling portrait of a man living two lives, both in Kingston, NY and Marwencol, the fictional Belgian town he recreated in his backyard. The movie asks a probably unanswerable question: which town is Hogancamp’s “reality”? Hogancamp might have been turned into a kind of freak by a filmmaker with less sympathy, so Malmberg must be commended for exhaustively recording the steps that to mark Hogancamp’s painful recovery process. With impressive journalistic evenhandedness, Marwencol the movie transforms Marwencol the fictional town into a multi-layered real-life adventure. Extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

Stonewall Uprising

In this engrossing documentary, several of the participants in the seminal June 28, 1969 Stonewallriot of gays at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, following systemic targeting by the police, recount the events that led to this breaking open of the dam of equal rights for homosexuals. Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner include interviews with men who were in Manhattan to find an atmosphere more amenable to their lifestyle, only to discover that they were still considered lawbreakers (homosexuality was still illegal), along with then-city councilman Ed Koch, journalists and a retired detective. Interspersed with archival footage that places us front and center in that historic era, Stonewall Uprising is another informative chronicle from PBS’s American Experience.

20th Century with Mike Wallace: America at War

20thTaken from the 1995 “History Channel” series, this three-disc set collects reporter Mike Wallace’s incisive episodes about America’s involvement in 20th century wars, primarily Vietnam, which takes up all four episodes of disc one, with classic footage like Wallace’s own incursions into enemy territory and Morley Safer’s damning on-location shoot that showed uncaring U.S. soldiers ill-treating Vietcong civilians and interviews with U.S. officials and authors like Neil Sheehan, who wrote the ultimate Vietnam book A Bright Shining Lie. The other two discs include episodes on Korea, the first Gulf War, women in the military, America‘s elite forces and military debacles. This set is a memorably evenhanded journalistic approach to how wars were waged and covered in an era when everything could be (and was) caught on film.

CDs of the Week
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique/Cleopatre

Although we don’t need another recording of the Symphonie fantastique, there’s much toBerlioz recommend this disc. First, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra alternates power and finesse under Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s sturdy baton, even making familiar passages like the final movement’s “Dies Irae” sound fresh. Second, there’s another Berlioz work, the lyrical scene Cleopatre, 20 minutes of shimmering beauty sung by soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. And third, it’s been released on a splendid-sounding Super Audio CD on the BIS label, which continues its commitment to first-rate audio in an age of MP3s.

Stockhausen: Piano Music
(Scandinavian Classics)

StockhausenThis re-release of a 1999 recording by a fine contemporary music interpreter, Hungarian pianist Elisabeth Klein (who died in 2004 at age 93!), spotlights the piano music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Although famous (or infamous) for his groundbreaking and demanding orchestral and stage works, Stockhausen also composed equally revelatory keyboard works, which Klein demonstrates in her strategically-chosen program, from the opening Tierkreis to two separate versions of the seminal Klavierstuck XI, one of which closes this epic recital.

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