Sunday, October 2, 2011

October '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Edition (Warners)
William Wyler’s costume epic swept the 1959 Oscars with 11 wins, more than any other film before or since. Despite stretches of clunky exposition and dull characterizations, there are many breathtaking moments, like that still heart-stopping chariot race. Charlton Heston won Best Actor for his solid, workmanlike performance, but it’s the color photography, sets, costumes, editing and Miklos Rosza score that make it memorable. Warner has given Ben-Hur the deluxe Blu-ray treatment, with a splendiferous new hi-def transfer (smartly spread out over two discs), an extra disc of vintage and new features like a full-length Heston documentary and “personal journal,” the original 1925 silent film, and an attractive box that includes an illustrated 64-page book.

Carlos (Criterion)
Olivier Assayas’ 5-½ hour French TV mini-series concerns the infamous terrorist, an undeniably magnetic individual who charmed women and other terrorist leaders to get his way while leading attacks that made him a wanted criminal. The movie’s flaw is an almost unavoidable lack of omission: showing him frolicking with his child or sharing intimacies with his wife romanticizes evil. But the director never shies from the damage he caused, showing in a series of exciting sequences terrorism’s true effects. Edgar Ramirez is a magnetic Carlos, speaking several languages fluently and making us think we’re watching a documentary. Assayas’ precise visuals are wonderfully preserved on Criterion’s exquisite Blu-ray transfer. Extras include interviews with Assayas, Ramirez and cinematographer Denis Lenoir; featurettes; and related terrorism documentaries.

Fast Five: Extended Edition (Universal)
The whole gang reteams for another adventure that provides a few twists, eyebrow-raising stunt sequences and truly stunning shots of Rio (not to mention of Jordana Brewster, who should only be seen in hi-def). Acting, pacing and writing have never been the forte of the Fast series, so they’re easy to overlook--and viewers will revel in the explosive visuals that look even bigger and sound even louder on Blu-ray. Extras include a new interactive concept, Second Screen, along with on-set featurettes, interviews, a gag reel and deleted scenes. But only committed Fast fans will know what was added to an extended cut that’s a mere minute longer than what was seen in theaters.

Gettysburg (History)
History Channel docs include staged re-enactments of important historical events that, paradoxically, kills authenticity for me, partial as I am to Ken Burns’ documentaries. So this 90-minute chronicle, narrated by Sam Rockwell, loses points immediately, despite its use of expert talking heads to discuss the most pivotal battle ever fought on American soil. Still, it’s shot and edited cleanly--and the re-enactments look relatively authentic on Blu-ray--so for those who like that sort of thing, this is a no-brainer. That brothers Ridley and Tony Scott are executive producers might also be of interest to some.

Incendies (Sony)
Denis Villeneuve’s overwrought melodrama, based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play, ruins a workable premise as a grown brother and sister discover their father’s true identity after their mother’s death. Hard-hitting Middle East sequences are crosscut with stilted family showdowns in Canada as hard truths are discovered; but Villeneuve overdoes the many shocking moments of domestic horror, piling up implausibilities until this dramatic house of cards collapses. The Blu-ray transfer is luminous; extras include on-set featurettes and interviews.

The Ledge (IFC)
The premise of this ridiculous drama would barely pass muster as an average Twilight Zone episode; dragged out to 90 minutes, it becomes risible. After starting an affair with a religious man’s young wife, our hero must jump off the ledge of a building or the wife will die, as a downtrodden cop tries to talk him down. A game cast (Terrence Howard, Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Charlie Hunnam) is wasted by writer-director Matthew Chapman. The movie receives a good hi-def transfer; extras include cast interviews.

The Phantom Carriage (Criterion)
Victor Sjöström’s legendary 1921 silent film obviously influenced Ingmar Bergman, but as drama, it’s impossibly draggy. Sjöström himself plays the hero with little variety, and his death-soaked premise isn’t sufficiently original or deep enough to work. That said, this rare silent film release by the Criterion Collection still deserves close consideration, thanks to an excellent restored transfer and extras that include a commentary, two separate musical scores, a Bergman interview and The Bergman Connection featurette, studying how Sjöström’s film influenced the later master.

Visions of Europe (Acorn Media)
This six-disc set collects a dozen stunning-looking travelogues of some gorgeous and artistically important parcels of land: Italy, Germany, Austria, southern France, Greece and Europe’s great cities like London, Paris, Dublin, Prague, Budapest, Florence, Rome and Venice. These programs, which show buildings and other man-made artifacts from Stonehenge to the Roman Colosseum in superb hi-def caught from helicopter cameras, are hampered by annoying narration, but you can turn off the talking and just listen to the music for a more satisfying audio-visual experience. Extras include additional footage.

DVDs of the Week
Engineering Ground Zero (PBS)
The superb PBS series Nova explores the rebuilding project at Ground Zero, where the 9/11Memorial and a new tower are going up on the destroyed World Trade Center site. Interviews with tower architect David Childs, memorial architect Michael Arad, politicians, other luminaries and family members present an interesting insiders’ view of the difficulties in trying to juggle the needs of so many different groups in order to finally finish off a project that’s already a decade old.

Happy Endings, Season 1 (Sony); How I Met Your Mother, Season 6 and Raising Hope, Season 1 (Fox)
This trio of sitcoms comprises solid comedic writing and a good ensemble which makes for a diverting show (How I Met Your Mother) and shrill, obtuse writing that obscures an accomplished group of actors, whether in a story of an aimless young man stuck with a felon’s baby (Raising Hope) or a group of disaffected twenty-somethings dealing with an inability to commit (Happy Endings). Scattered insightful moments and the presence of Martha Plimpton (Hope) and Elisha Cuthbert (Endings) can’t cover up a basic vacuity in the two new series, while How I Met Your Mother scores thanks to its cast. Extras include bloopers, deleted scenes and commentaries.

Ordinary People (Global Film Initiative)
Director Vladimir Perisic’s disturbing Balkan War drama insightfully views soldiers quickly becoming numbed to the hideous carnage they partake in. A young Serbian (the scarily boyish-looking Relja Popovic) is recruited as part of a merciless firing squad; initially he resists, but soon indulges in it as if it’s his everyday job. Running a scant 80 minutes, Perisic’s movie narrows its focus to young men performing horrific deeds with no emotion or feeling and presents war’s horrors up close.

CDs of the Week
Aleksandra Kurzak: Gioia! (Decca)
This young Polish soprano is being positioned as a new Anna Netrebko, although it’s doubtful she gets the same hype the Russian star earned, despite another splendid voice, beguiling personality and stunning looks. Still, Kurzak’s vocal equipment is the star of this recording as she takes on familiar Bellini, Donizetti and Puccini works, along with a sparkling take on a wonderful Polish-language aria from Moniuszko’s Straszny dwor, making it all her own. Even the over-emotive “O mio babbino caro” sounds sweetly modest, and a La Traviata duet with Francesco Demuro shows what’s in store when she returns to the Met in December.

Franz Schreker, Der ferne klang (Ars production)
Austrian Franz Schreker wrote luscious operas dripping with stylish sounds, and his first major stage work, which premiered in 1912 but has rarely been seen since needs a feverishly committed performance to mesh an overcooked story and over-the-top music. This uneven recording by conductor Dirk Kaftan and Augsburg Philharmonic Orchestra has decent singing by Sally du Randt and Mathias Schulz, but glides over the opera’s surface; this criminally underrated work deserves better. The surround CD sound is the high point.

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