Sunday, September 25, 2011

September '11 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Le beau serge, Les cousins
(Criterion Collection)

Claude Chabrol, remarkably spotty through 52 years of filmmaking before his 2010 death at age 80, began with these character studies from 1958 and 1959, shot on location both in the village where he grew up and in a bustling Paris. Both films are loaded with atmosphere, and two magnificent actors, Jean-Cluade Brialy and Gerard Blain, reverse roles in the films, giving more substance to Chabrol’s spotty scripts and laconic direction. Criterion has given both films typically excellent transfers (the B&W photography sparkles); extras include commentaries, vintage interviews and retrospective featurettes.

Dumbo (Disney)
For this 70th anniversary release, Disney has pulled out all the stops: maybe not extras-wise (although there are a commentary, a deleted scene, a deleted song, a making-of featurette and animated shorts), but in the actual Blu-ray transfer. Simply put, Disney’s beloved classic has never looked better, with bright colors that pop off the screen and a detailed clarity to the images that belies the fact that this movie was made in 1941. Dumbo remains one of Disney’s very greatest masterpieces, an emotional rather than sentimental experience, unlike a lot of the films that followed.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert (MVD)
This reunion concert by this bloated prog rock trio shows that, although the musicians are a little grayer and a little heavier, their undeniable chops are still there: Carl Palmer’s propulsive drumming, Keith Emerson’s keyboard wizardry and Greg Lake’s unique bass and voice. The concert, shot in splendid hi-def, has equally superb surround-sound which gives the music an extra oomph, notably the classical “cover” of Pictures at an Exhibition. The lone extra is an interview with all three group members.

Glee: The Complete Second Season, Modern Family: Complete Second Season (Fox)
These hit series enter their third seasons this fall, and these releases collect all of the episodes of their bumpy sophomore seasons. Although it still hits highs like the Britney/Brittany and New York City episodes, Glee is still too self-consciously cutesy for its own good. Modern Family, helped by its estimable comic ensemble, usually gets away with superficial scripts that look for cheap laughs too often. Blu-ray’s clarity enhances the visual experience; extras include featurettes, interviews and music videos.

Inspector Lewis: Series 4 (PBS)
This collection of four full-length mysteries from the most recent season of yet another Masterpiece Mystery winner (based on a series of novels by Colin Dexter) stars a superb actor, Laurence Fox, as the thorough British detective who always tracks down the killers he is up against. Strong support comes from Kevin Whatley, Rebecca Front and Claire Holman; the episodes have a strong sense of visual and narrative unity, considering they were each written and directed by a different team. This Blu-ray release features stunning photography, but there are no extras.

Lourdes (Palisades Tartan)
This low-key study centers on Christine, a young woman confined to a wheelchair, who goes on a pilgrimage to Lourdes to see if a cure awaits for her condition. After something seemingly miraculous occurs, Christine heartbreakingly discovers that life hasn’t become any easier. Sylvie Testud gives a nuanced and subtle portrayal in the lead, and writer-director Jessica Hausner allows her characters to live and breathe as ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary. Subdued visuals are complemented by stunning shots of Lourdes, all faithfully reproduced on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a short director interview.

Nostalgia for the Light (Icarus)
Patricio Guzman’s powerful documentary shows luminous outer-space explorations at an observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert and ongoing explorations by family members looking for remains of their loved ones, “disappeared” by dictator Pinochet. Contrasting heavenly viewing with body excavation might seem contrived, but Guzman’s sensitive touch keeps his film from being cloying as it alternates between awe-inspiring and down-to-earth. Interviews with astronomers and relatives complement each other perfectly; Guzman’s camera catches the beauty and terror of infinity and mortality. Needless to say, this is one sumptuous-looking Blu-ray; extras comprise five Guzman short films.

The Strange Case of Angelica (Cinema Guild)
Now 102 years old, Manuel de Oliveira has finally made a watchable but still unsatisfying film: a ghostly romance about a photographer haunted by a beautiful but dead young woman. True to form, Oliveira makes this serviceable tale a bizarre shaggy-dog story with extraneous bits to stretch its running time. Portuguese locations (shown to gorgeous advantage on Blu-ray) and Chopin soundtrack music work best, but stiff, robotic acting and static visual style make this ultimately disposable: still, Oliveira keeps earning near-universal raves. Extras include Oliveira’s first feature, the 1931 silent Douro, Faina Fluvial; director interview; commentary; and 1992 documentary about his career.

DVDs of the Week
Angel of Evil (Fox)
Michele Placido’s kinetic study of an infamous Milanese criminal of the 70s and 80s showcases not only physical violence (and there’s a lot of it) but also much emotional violence, which in this context is even more unsettling than the bloody sort. A thoughtful performance by Kim Rossi Stuart as the film’s anti-hero gives Placido’s character study an emotional jolt that lasts far beyond mere shooting or stabbing. This is the first release of the Fox World Cinema series, which is off to a good start with this exciting crime drama. Extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Art of the Western World (Athena)
Historian Michael Wood’s extraordinarily detailed 6-½ hour series encompasses western art from the Greeks and Romans until today (it was made in 1983). Shot in artistically and historically important locations from Athens to Rome to Chartres to Salisbury, Wood narrates but also smartly cedes the floor to other historians, whose expertise gives viewers even more illuminating insights. The nine episodes are valuable art history lessons as well as close-up glimpses at hundreds of classic works of art from the Parthenon and Florence’s Duomo to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.

Bridesmaids (Fox)
This crude comedy from the pen of SNL’s Kristen Wiig and producer Judd Apatow is the female Hangover or Knocked Up: an overlong exercise in comic self-indulgence that doesn’t know when to quit, nearly every scene belaboring its lone point hammer and tongs (bantering between Wiig and Rose Byrne, ending with “That’s What Friends Are For” duet or Wiig getting pulled over by a friendly Irish cop). Then there’s the gross, unfunny puking/diarrhea bridal shop scene. I’ll stop right there: too bad Wiig and company didn’t. Extras include commentary, gag reel, deleted and extended (!!!) scenes.

Wishful Drinking (HBO)
In her one-woman show, an amusingly cynical look at celebrity in-breeding padded with personal anecdotes, Carrie Fisher tosses off self-effacing quips about surviving her career, addictions and failed relationships while dishing about her famous parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Although there are plenty of gossipy laughs, Fisher’s attempts to endear herself to a loyal audience by spilling her guts about her foibles seem too calculated by half. Extras include three deleted scenes and a lengthy (and intriguing) interview with Reynolds.

CDs of the Week
Kristin Chenoweth: Some Lessons Learned (Sony)
Luminous Broadway singer-actress Kristin Chenoweth foregoes her bread and butter to return to her first love: country music. Unfortunately, the mixed results on this slick disc of Bob Ezrin-produced tunes are due to Diane Warren, who penned 5 of 13 faceless songs and whose “commercial” spirit pervades this toothless record. Chenoweth finds sentiment in ballads like “Fathers and Daughters,” but it’s the faux tough attitude of the single “I Want Somebody (Bitch About)” that underscores a purely commercial product.

Music by Kurtag, Nono, Trojhan, Weinberg

The latest contemporary-music releases from an enterprising label include the Athena Quartett playing the complete string quartet works by Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag; two edgy electronic compositions by Italian Luigi Nono (who died in 1990); the Henschel Quartett doing Austrian Manfred Trojahn’s quartets; and, in a moving performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir, unheralded Polish master Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s emotional Requiem, set to texts by writers like Federico Garcia Lorca (Weinberg died in 1996). Whatever one’s preference for modern music, these discs give one a taste of works outside the mainstream (if there is such a thing any more).

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