Sunday, May 13, 2012

May '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Adriana Lecouvreur
Francesco Cilea’s tragic romance was a huge operatic hit when first performed in 1904—and David McVicar’s staging at London’s Covent Garden is the first time it’s been performed there since 1906! Despite its long absence, several arias are among the most popular and memorable in the repertory, and Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann sing them passionately. The orchestra and chorus—led by conductor Mark Elder—are in good form. Visually, McVicar’s production has its peculiarities, with sets and costumes not of the period; the sound blasts out of the speakers. The lone extra is a making-of featurette.

In 1977, Robert M. Young directed this honest exploration of our “immigrant problem,” focusing on a Mexican laborer who, after sneaking over the border, hopes to earn enough for his family back home; nothing goes as planned, as the heartbreaking result shows. The Criterion Collection deserves accolades for bringing back this modest masterpiece: perhaps its subtle politics will register where didacticism won’t. The low-budget film looks excellent on Blu-ray; extras comprise Young and producer Michael Hausman’s commentary, a new interview with Edward James Olmos (who has a small role) and a short 1973 documentary by Young, Children of the Fields.

Bird of Paradise
Even by the standards of its day (1932), this David O. Selznick-King Vidor super-spectacular has badly dated and often risible. Still, compensations are the star power of Joel McCrea as a sailor and intoxicating Dolores del Rio as the gorgeous island native he falls in love with. Their chemistry—and some del Rio skin—help the bumpy 82-minute ride. The original 35mm print, courtesy of Rochester’s George Eastman House, has been satisfactorily upgraded, although there are inevitable visual blemishes.

Chuck—The Complete 5th Season
In its final season, the “everyman” spy comedy-drama faced an inevitable decline in quality, but there were more than enough moments when the semi-spoof/semi-serious show hit its bull’s-eyes. The cast is in top form throughout, there are solid one-liners and enough guest stars (Linda Hamilton and Carrie Ann Moss, most obviously) to make the 13 hit-or-miss episodes endurable. On Blu-ray, the series shines; extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and audio commentaries.

Joyful Noise
If joyful noise is what you want, then watch this shameless display of melodramatic uplift. Even with rousing gospel numbers and good solo turns from Dolly Parton and Jeremy Jordan, the story is nothing much—it ends at a big choir contest that might end badly for our guys and gals—but when the singers break into tunes every few minutes, including a gospel-inflected “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Jordan and the wonderful Keke Palmer, no one will mind. The movie has a decent hi-def transfer; extras include on-set featurettes.

Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
Humor is relative, but I doubt I so much as cracked a smile during this unnecessary 95-minute moviemaking spoof. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are tastes I’ve yet to—and probably won’t—acquire, and despite the fact that one of my favorite singers, Aimee Man, loves them, and despite cameos from the likes of Will Farrell, John C. Reilly, Robert Loggia and William Atherton, this ill-conceived vanity project is DOA. On Blu-ray, the movie looks better than it deserves; extras include a commentary, deleted/extended scenes, interviews and featurettes.

Underworld: Awakening
In the fourth installment of Underworld (it only feels like many more), Kate Beckinsale again dons her skintight outfit as sexy vampires Selene—and thank goodness, since the movie is a by-the-numbers affair, despite appearances by Charles Dance and Stephen Rea, among others. Directors Marlind and Stein’s action sequences have occasional visual pop, but the belabored attempts to make these characters mythic weighs down the plot. The extravagant set pieces translate well to Blu-ray; extras include music video, making-of featurettes, bloopers and a picture-in-picture accompaniment to the film.

(Anchor Bay)
In Madonna’s whitewash of the relationship between abdicating King Edward and American lover Wallis Simpson, these Hitler admirers become misunderstood celebrities, while a ridiculous non-story of a contemporary lonely married woman who admires Wallis is typical of Madonna and co-screenwriter Alek Keshishian’s ineptitude. Andrea Riseborough and especially Abbie Cornish completely outclass their material, but aside from savvy art direction and Oscar-nominated costuming (both come off best in hi-def), there’s little else to recommend here. The lone extra is a 20-minute featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Art 21: Season 6
Wide-ranging 21st century art is dissected in this four-part, four-hour series about artists in different media—from sculpture to performance art to video—and their relevance today. Among those profiled are Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who could not attend the unveiling of his sculptures in Manhattan because he was jailed as a dissident; Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic; and British painter Rackstraw Downes. All of the artists discuss how their provocative art challenges their audiences.

The Hitler Chronicles
(First Run)
The quartet of documentaries in this valuable boxed set reminds us of Hitler and the Nazis’ destruction of Germany and much of Europe. The Architecture of Doom brilliantly dismantles the Nazi ideology of art, which was followed to its fatal end; Dear Uncle Adolf recounts ordinary Germans’ affection for their Fuhrer with an illuminating look at letters written to him; Hitler: A Career succinctly sums up his life and politics in 150 minutes; and The Top Secret Trial of the Third Reich unveils the show trial of those conspirators in the failed assassination attempt of Hitler on July 20, 1944. 

The Kreutzer Sonata
Bernard Rose, who made the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved, returns to the composer’s title work, along with Tolstoy’s short story, which is the basis for this tale of a man raging impotently—and with unjustified jealousy—over his wife’s possible adultery. Danny Huston is not bad as the narrating anti-hero, but Elisabeth Rohm is simply outstanding as the wife, giving a rare American film performance filled of naked—in many ways—eroticism. She transforms this cardboard character into a full-blooded woman; all that matches her are excerpts of Beethoven’s chamber music.

Jane Campion’s sister Anna directed this heavy-handed 1995 thriller that tries to be sexy and scary at the same time, but despite a top-notch cast of then-attractive actors and actresses—including Thandie Newton and Catherine McCormack at the beginning of their careers—Anna’s movie is too ludicrous to be enjoyable. If you’re in the right mood, you might get a brief scare, but most viewers will be patently bored: and happy that several of the performers went on to bigger and better things.

Naughty Teen
(one 7)
This obscure 1978 Italian sex comedy is heavy on the sex, not so much on the comedy. Its main claim to fame is as the only starring role for Ursula Heinle, who disrobes early and often as a lecherous old man’s sexy niece. Since she never appeared in another movie, having only this on her resume is nothing to crow about. Still, collectors of soft-core flicks will find something here to sate their appetite.

This Is What Love in Action Looks Like
Morgan Jon Fox’s impassioned documentary shows religious extremists “curing” gay young men of their “disease.” Their “Love in Action” rehabilitation program was mentioned by teen Zach Stark on his blog after his parents forced him to go. Soon, thanks to grassroots campaigns and bad publicity, it all fell apart for awhile. The director talks with former “patients” and leaders of the program, letting them have their say; extras include a post-Memphis Film Festival screening panel and Fox’s onstage marriage proposal to his partner.

CDs of the Week
Magdalena Kozena: Love and Longing
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Czech mezzo Magdalena Kozena displays her intimate side and authoritative command of three languages with these exuberantly-sung 20th century cycles. Gustav Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder (German), Maurice Ravel’s Scheherazade (French) and Antonin Dvorak’s rarely done Biblical Songs (her native Czech) make a musically eloquent program that’s perfect for Kozena’s lustrous voice. Accompanied with equal parts finesse and power by Kozena’s husband, conductor Simon Rattle, and the Berlin Philharmonic, this live recording is crystalline-sounding.

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances
(LSO Live)
Sergei Rachmaninov’s last orchestral work isn’t as popular as his piano concertos and symphonies, but it may be his summit achievement: witty quotes from his own pieces are only one part of a brilliantly imaginative score. In the hands of conductor Valery Gergiev, the London Symphony Orchestra plays it for all its worth in a truly dazzling performance. Scarcely less good is their traversal through Igor Stravinsky’s pungent Symphony in Three Movements. Too bad another substantial work didn’t round out this excellent but too short (58 minutes) disc, whose Super Audio CD surround sound is impressive.

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