Sunday, October 21, 2012

October '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Au Pair Girls 
A lot of the late 60s-early 70s T&A movies are guilty pleasures, but this doesn’t even reach that exulted level. From its ear-splittingly awful title tune, this hackneyed flick follows the unarousing London exploits of a quartet of young women just arrived from the continent. Even by the era’s low standards, Girls never rises to the occasion, despite ample nudity during many compromising positions. The Blu-ray image, obviously from a bad source, also disappoints.

The Barrens 
(Anchor Bay)
Set in New Jersey woods, this would-be creepy thriller channels superior movies like The Hills Have Eyes (setting) and The Shining (father goes insane) without approaching either in quality. While his cast is adequate—although it’s off-putting to see Mia Kirshner in a drab stepmom role—writer-director Darren Lynn Bousman never figures out how to make the horror real rather than risible. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras are a director/cinematographer commentary and a deleted scene.

The American Musical  
Michael Kantor’s six-part historical overview of America’s great contribution to theater spans its beginnings in 1893 to 2004, when this film was originally shown on PBS. Crammed full of amazing excerpts from classic musicals and interviews with the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Carol Channing, this monumental undertaking is narrated by Julie Andrews—a British singing superstar at home on the American stage throughout her career. The Blu-ray image is decent; voluminous extras include three hours of additional interviews and a featurette, Wicked: The Road to Broadway.

A Cat in Paris
Chico and Rita 
(New Video)
These foreign animated features prove there is life left in the non-computerized cartoons we’re used to. Paris is a charming adventure about a feline who takes off for the rooftops of the world’s most beautiful city each night, while Chico is a romantic glimpse at the Cuban and American music scenes before and after Castro, and by extension savvily political. Both films’ hand-drawn animation look eye-poppingly good on Blu-ray; Paris extras include a short film, and Chico extras include a making-of featurette, directors’ commentary and soundtrack CD.

Chernobyl Diaries 
When dumb American tourists visit Pripyat, the town near the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, they get more than the thrills they bargained for: after the van breaks down, they are attacked by mutants and are picked off one by one. This might have made a diverting little thriller if it wasn’t yet another “found-footage” feature, a gimmick that seems never ending. The ending is particularly yawn-inducing; an alternate ending, included among the extras along with a deleted scene and featurette about Chernobyl itself, is more clever. The graininess of the “shot cheaply” look lends itself well to Blu-ray.

Fear and Desire 
Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 debut, though far from auspicious, contains the seeds of his later, superior war films Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. An otherwise naïve effort, it’s unsurprising Kubrick never wanted it from being shown. That now, years after his death, it reappears is due to the Kubrick estate’s ignoring his wishes, an about face from immediately after his death. All the better for fans, I suppose. The B&W movie is undistinguished in every way except visually, and the Blu-ray transfer is strong enough to make fans happy they’ve finally seen Kubrick’s worst film. The lone extra is 1953’s The Seafarers, Kubrick’s 28-minute short about merchant seamen, most interesting as Kubrick’s first foray into color.

(Opus Arte)
Although Modest Mussorgsky’s epic opera details 17th century Russian history—a rebellion against Peter the Great’s western reforms—Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2007 Munich production instead updates it with modern dress that makes the drama nonsensically absurd. It’s too bad, for the singers (led by John Daszak and Valery Alexejev) and Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra, led by conductor Kent Nagano, stirringly perform what the composer himself described as a “national music drama.” The static visuals do look clear in hi-def, and the music sounds fantastic.

Little Shop of Horrors
Whatever Happened to Mary Jane 
Based on the campy Broadway musical, Frank Oz’s 1990 Little Shop tries to be scary and funny simultaneously, but the creaky, low-brow material trips it up: only Steve Martin escapes with his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a nasty dentist (which owes something to his Maxwell in the botched Sgt Pepper movie). Robert Aldrich’s 1962 camp fest, Mary Jane, smartly trains its cameras on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and lets them go at it. Both movies have top-notch hi-def transfers; extras include Oz’s commentary on Shop, and a commentary and Davis and Crawford featurettes on Baby.

Mad Men—Complete Season 5 
In the fifth season of the perennial Best Drama Emmy winner, the divide between  protagonist Don Draper and the ‘60s becomes more pronounced, visualized by his pulling the needle on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”: Draper doesn’t get it….get it? Despite its production sheen and committed acting by a large and interesting cast, Mad Men isn’t as brilliantly groundbreaking as defenders claim: its originality is more a case of nostalgia for a bygone era, which it captures well. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras include interviews, featurettes and commentaries.

Produced by George Martin 
(Eagle Vision)
Best known as the Beatles’ producer, George Martin’s storied career before and after his amazing Fab Four studio work is chronicled by his son Giles, who asks him about his time at EMI and afterwards, with Martin engagingly and modestly discussing his work with comedy legends like Peter Sellers and the Goons, and what he did when he wasn’t in the studio with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Paul and Ringo also sit down with Martin, and the mutual respect among the men is obvious even while they joke around together. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include 52 minutes of additional interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Bill Moyers—Great Thinkers 
Brave New World 
Yet another set of Bill Moyers’ excellent interviews has the PBS host speaking with famous intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Jonas Salk and movie producer David Puttnam. Brave New World is an intelligent British series featuring Stephen Hawking, who introduces episodes of fantastic scientific breakthroughs that may well change our very lives, like cars that drive themselves and wheelchairs motored by the occupant’s brain power.

The Lovers’ Guide—
Original Collection and Essential Collection 
(True Mind)
These quintessential sex-ed DVD releases feature explicit but clinical footage of couples as narrators explain how men and women can enjoy better sexual experiences. The two five-disc sets, the Original Collection and the Essential Collection, summarize basic and advanced lessons for those who want to improve their sex lives. There’s also a one-disc primer, Sexual Positions, for those whose budget doesn’t allow picking up either (or both!) of the collections.

Nazi Collaborators 
Dramatizing the horrific stories of those inhuman collaborators who willingly helped the Nazi regime murder their fellow citizens, comrades, friends and even families, this four-disc set deals with dozens of such people, from the Polish Jew Chaim Rumkowski to traitors from Belgium, Croatia, Greece, Holland, even Germany. Each one-hour program lucidly tells one story, interviewing surviving witnesses and showing compelling footage that underline unbelievable but true tragedies.

Olmsted and America's Urban Parks
This hour-long PBS documentary—narrated by Kerry Washington and with Kevin Kline as Olmstead—about American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted informatively provides biographical bits and glimpses of grandest creations, starting with Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I know there are dozens of his glorious spaces spread across the country, but not even mentioning—let alone giving any face time to—his incredible achievement designing Buffalo’s linked park system is a crime.

30 Beats
Writer-director Alexis Lloyd’s tired look at ten New Yorkers’ roundelays during a steaming hot day is an unnecessary update of Arthur Schnitzler’s classic drama La Ronde. There’s a sense of arbitariness to the structure, which a better director would more interestingly tease out; with few exceptions—Condola Rashad in the first and last episodes most particularly—there’s little insight nor, for those so inclined, any titillation.

2016—Obama’s America 
This mostly fact-free documentary hopes to scare us about President Obama’s Otherness. What’s surprising is that Dinesh D’Souza is an outsider himself, so his pointing out Obama’s foreignness bumps up against out-of-context insinuations that are easily refuted, like a Winston Churchill bust taken out of the White House not because Obama hates imperialism, but because it was returned after a loan. The casual linking of Obama to anti-Americanism—because a friend of his father has such ideas, so must Obama by implication—is most troublesome. D’Souza flies around the world, but 2016 is no travelogue: this slapdash doc is so ideologically rigid and pandering that only those who already hate Obama will fall for it.

CDs of the Week
Alison Balsom: 
Sound the Trumpet 
(EMI Classics)
Trumpeter Alison Balsom returns with a beguiling disc of works by Handel and Purcell. Although the baroque music world is one I return to far less often than others, Balsom’s assured technique on historically correct valveless trumpets carried me through excerpts from works like Handel’s Water Music and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Superior cameos by singers Iestyn Davies and Lucy Crowe don’t overshadow Balsom, who has the last word with a technically astonishing performance of Handel’s Oboe Concerto, modified for her triumphant trumpeting.

Bedrich Smetana: 
The Bartered Bride 
(Harmonia Mundi)
Smetana’s perennial folk-opera favorite—and the breakthrough Czech opera that anticipated Dvorak and, later, Janacek—gets a glistening performance by a group of mainly Czech artists, beginning with Jiri Belohlavek (who conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra with brio) and extending to such wonderful singers like Dana Buresova, Tomas Juhas and Jozef Benci. From the famous overture’s irresistible opening, Smetana’s masterly melodic music sweeps the listener away for over two enjoyable hours.

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