Sunday, March 4, 2012

March '12 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Amish
David Belton’s absorbing documentary, part of PBS’s American Experience, fair-mindedly chronicles Amish history and lifestyle apart from other Americans since the 17th century. Not allowed to show them on camera, Belton talks with historians, experts and former Amish--and we do hear Amish voiceovers as they go about their daily routines. Aside from its cultural, historical and sociological value, the film also records that horrible day in 2006 when 10 Amish schoolgirls were shot by a non-Amish madman (five were killed): that tragedy takes on a poetic turn when we hear how the Amish community responded. The Blu-ray looks splendid; lone extra is a brief making-of featurette.

La Boheme
(Opera Australia)
Giacomo Puccini’s operatic warhorse remains affectingly melodramatic, especially when such talented young leads star in this refreshingly straightforward Opera Australia production: tenor Ji-Min Park is a good Rodolfo, but Takesha Meshe Kizart as Mimi is the real deal, with acting ability, sensuality and a booming voice in equal measure. There’s a solid pit performance from the orchestra and conductor Shao Chia-Lu, but Kizart--whose first video this is, with many more surely to come--runs away with it.

The Cinema of Jean Rollin
(Redemption/Kino Lorber)
The five films collected here--all available separately on Blu-ray--show the macabre talent of the French director who combined Hammer horror with soft-core titillation. With titles like The Nude Vampire (1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), The Iron Rose (1973), Lips of Blood (1975) and Fascination (1979), you know what you’re getting: B-movie thrillers with copious amounts of blood and sex. Rollin’s unique style looks realistically grainy on Blu-ray. Extras include interviews and deleted scenes.

Clint Eastwood’s downbeat--and overlong--western was 1992’s Best Picture Oscar winner, combining old-fashioned revenge with blatant moralizing about it. Although he’s a clearheaded director, Clint is nevertheless as stiff as always onscreen as the aging cowboy; at least he gets colorful support from Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Morgan Freeman. The new Blu-ray release features a clear, sharp picture; extras include various featurettes and a commentary by critic Richard Schickel commentary.

(New Video)
Our 21st century world must deal with the inevitable overcrowding of cities, particularly in slum-laden places like Asia’s Mumbai. Gary Hustwit’s documentary account of what should be done is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of the widescreen space and added clarity of the Blu-ray image. This visual tour de force with an important message includes interviews with city planners, urban designers and architects, who mostly come to the same conclusion: our very lives--and futures--are affected by the designs of cities. Extras include over an hour of additional interviews.

Vanya on 42nd Street
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya doesn’t translate to Mametian language and downtown New York theater acting, as Louis Malle’s loving 1994 record of Andre Gregory’s flaccid “staging” starring Wallace Shawn as the least likely Vanya ever. There are non-embarrassing performances by Larry Pine, Brooke Smith and Julianne Moore, but the delicate balance of tragedy and human comedy at the heart of Chekhov’s art is missing; at least the crumbling Amsterdam Theater--now renovated and housing Disney’s Mary Poppins--looks spectacularly rundown. The film looks decent on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a featurette containing new interviews with the principals (sans Malle, who died in 1995)

World on a Wire
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s three-hour sci-fi epic, made for German TV in 1973, is as deadpan and cerebral as his other films, which is good or bad, depending on your point of view. For those who don’t genuflect before every piece of celluloid Fassbinder shot, Wire has its mind numbing stretches, as the low-key drama often enters the realm of camp. The film has gotten a superior upgrade to Blu-ray, looking as clean as it can considering the 16mm source. Bonus features include a documentary on the film’s making and an interview with film scholar Gerd Gemünden.

One of the silliest low-budget horror movies ever follows a mutant monster--half-man, half-fish--that terrorizes unsuspecting victims. The directorial, writing, acting, makeup and special effects ineptitude is truly something to behold--and obviously why it’s become a cult fave over the years, akin to the wretched celluloid by Ed Wood. Even with a thorough restoration, the movie’s cheapness still shines through. Extras include a commentary, radio interview and restoration demo.

DVDs of the Week
French Fields: Complete Collection
(Acorn Media)
The Fields, a perfectly respectable middle-aged couple living in suburban London, decide to move across the Channel to France for hubby William’s new job with wife Hester keeping house at the new home. Their adventures with their new Gallic neighbors make for a pleasantly engaging Britcom. Anton Rodgers and Julia McKenzie are a devastatingly funny couple, and the British-French stereotypes are good fodder for humor that’s done fairly restrainedly without many obvious or cheap laughs.

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlos & Vilmos
(Cinema Libre)
Two influential cinematographers--Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond--are profiled in this entertaining, even touching documentary that follows their friendship in Communist Hungary (from which they escaped following the failed 1956 revolution, which they filmed) through their superbly successful careers in Hollywood. Along with discussions with both men (Kovacs died in 2007), there are ample film clips and welcome comments from colleagues like Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson, Mark Rydell, Owen Roizman, Sharon Stone and Peter Fonda, who all hold them in awe. Extras include added interviews.

That Show with Joan Rivers
In 1968, Joan Rivers hosted an interesting half-hour New York-based talk show in which she discussed a topic with an expert and a celebrity. The results, based on the 18 episodes on three discs, are a funny insider’s look at what was going on in the late ‘60s. The first episode, Nudism, features Johnny Carson, who later banned Joan from The Tonight Show after she began her own talk show. Other guests include Steve Lawrence, Carol Lawrence, Soupy Sales and Shecky Greene, all quite popular back then. This entertaining time capsule is also historically enlightening.

Tim Marlow at the Courtauld and
Marlow Meets…Series One

(Seventh Art)
British TV host Tim Marlow’s pair of timeless “art appreciation” entries first walks viewers through the wonderful Courtauld Gallery in London for a three-part series showing its rich holdings from Botticelli to Van Gogh. He then meets a handful of celebrities in various disciplines, from Michael Palin and Mike Leigh to Tony Bennett and Renee Fleming, at different art museums to discuss their love for certain paintings. Fleming at New York’s Neue Gallerie is the standout in a series of provocative episodes.

Track 29
One of Nicolas Roeg’s most risible concoctions is this 1987 black comedy, which makes mincemeat of Dennis Potter’s script about a young man who befriends a lonely, unhappy married woman and announces that he’s her long-lost son. Gary Oldman and Theresa Russell do what they can--not much--but Roeg’s mania for time scrambling makes no psychological or narrative sense, and his movie remains blissfully unaware of--or simply ignoring--the juiciness in Potter’s clever script.

CDs of the Week
Anne Akiko Meyers, Air: The Bach Album
(e one)
Like all the best violinists, Anne Akiko Meyers finds her way--after playing modern and romantic music--back to Bach. This CD features her luminous tone and eloquent phrasing on the master’s two Violin Concertos, which alternate between heartbreaking loveliness and quick-paced rhythms. A trio of “bagatelles” comprises the famous “Air,” the “Largo” from the F minor Harpsichord concerto (Woody Allen fans remember it from Hannah and Her Sisters) and a mash-up of Bach and Gounod’s arrangement of “Ave Maria.” Meyers is superbly backed throughout by the English Chamber Orchestra under Steven Mercurio.

Gershwin: Concerto in F, etc.
Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) pulsated to George Gershwin sounds lushly played by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; over 30 years later, conductor JoAnn Falletta leads the current Buffalo ensemble in more scintillating Gershwin, with pianist Orion Weiss the nimble-fingered soloist in the brilliant Piano Concerto. Falletta’s fine forces also charge through the delectable Rhapsody No. 2 and I Got Rhythm Variations. You can almost see the smiles as they perform Gershwin’s lustrous merging of popular and “serious” music.

Honegger, Melodies et Chansons
Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, despite success in orchestral and chamber music, was at his considerable best in vocal forms, whether large scale--like his masterpiece, 1938’s oratorio, Joan of Arc at the Stake--or small scale, like the songs and cycles that make up this enticing two-CD set. Soprano Claudia Patacca and baritone Sinan Vutal pass Honegger’s elegant melodies back and forth, including poem cycles by Jean Cocteau, Paul Claudel (Joan’s librettist) and Guillaume Apollinaire, along with settings of Shakespeare texts from The Tempest and Psalms from the Bible. Pianist Nick Ross is their prime collaborator, but there are estimable contributions by violinists Jana Ross and Nicholas Szucs, violist Joseph Nigro and cellist Wesley Baldwin.

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