Monday, November 12, 2012

November '12 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
(Electric Pictures)
Richard Strauss’ glorious opera doesn’t get the attention it deserves, even if luminaries Lisa Della Casa, Kiri te Kanawa and, more recently, Renee Fleming have made it an essential part of their repertoire. In this sturdy 2012 Vienna staging, Emily Magee—a fine if less than scintillating performer—tackles the vocally and dramatically daunting title role, and there are moments where the beauty of one of Strauss’ most feminine creations shines through. Conductor Franz Welser-Most and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus provide sterling support. The Blu-ray image and sound are top-notch.

Color of Night/Playing God
(Mill Creek)
This double-feature set includes Playing God, a forgettable thriller with David Duchovny, Tim Hutton and a young—and indisputably alluring—Angelina Jolie. Then there’s Color of Night, a bizarre murder mystery by The Stunt Man director Richard Rush, his first film in 14 years after he made that 1980 classic. Although the story is wretched and the supporting characters cartoons, the relationship between psychiatrist Bruce Willis and gorgeous femme fatale Jane March is weird enough to make this overlong (140 minutes) thriller watchable. And March’s steamy nude scenes make a fine hi-def bonus.

Fire with Fire
In this wildly implausible crime drama, a fireman—in witness protection after witnessing two murders—fights for his life after being tracked down. Despite bravura moments (bullet POV shots, anyone?), director David Barrett is all style over substance, so his cast—comprising Josh Duhamel, Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson and, in another creepy killer role, Vincent d’Onofrio—is secondary to explosions, gunplay and a conflagration finale. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include commentaries and interviews.

The Muppet Christmas Carol
This entertaining adaptation of Dickens’ holiday perennial is fun for two reasons: Muppets play various roles, from Kermit (Cratchitt) and Miss Piggy (his wife) to grumpy old men Statler and Waldorf (Marleys); and Michael Caine is an immensely charming Scrooge. Director Brian Henson balances Muppet comedy and Dickens’ moralizing perfectly, while the story’s bittersweet coda is paralleled by the death of Jim Henson before the film’s 1992 release. The Blu-ray image is appropriately grainy; extras include audio commentaries, blooper reel, and featurettes.

The Night of the Devils
Giorgio Ferroni’s creepy 1972 thriller has its share of howlers—thanks to the less than capable cast and a script that glides over glaring flaws—but its single-minded attempt to turn a slow-moving story of sex and violence into blood-curdling horror is worth watching. The makeup effects are cheesy but effective, the movie looks decent on Blu-ray, and extras comprise a couple of interviews.

Rescue 3 D
Real-life first responders in this hard-hitting documentary deal with the world’s danger zones—notably Haiti following its devastating earthquake. Men and women of our armed forces become the front lines in response to disasters both natural and man-made. In addition to training footage, there are incredible—and heart-wrenching—shots of what they are up against in Haiti. One shot from the air of a centuries-old cathedral crumbling before our very eyes will linger for a long time. The Blu-ray images in 3D and 2D are stupendous; the extras are interviews with the responders.

Ruby Sparks
This is yet another cutesy, self-delusional look at 20-somethings in the internet era, whose problems of romance and finding themselves are of the “who cares” variety. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris simply enable star Zoë Kazan’s annoying script, in which not one word, situation or character is believable. Kazan’s also not much of an actress, real-life boyfriend Paul Dano is weak as well, and amazingly, they have zero onscreen chemistry. The hi-def image looks good; extras are several featurettes.

War Requiem
(Arthaus Musik)
Benjamin Britten’s powerful pacifist musical statement had its premiere in 1962 at Coventry Cathedral in the English midlands, and this May 30 Coventry performance—exactly 50 years later—is strongly paced by conductor Andris Nelsons, who leads the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, Youth Chorus and a trio of stellar soloists: Erin Wall, Mark Padmore and Hanno Muller-Brachmann. The music remains soul-stirring, and—with his operas Peter Grimes and Death in Venice—is the peak of Britten’s theatrical work. The Blu-ray image looks fine; the sound is extraordinarily detailed.

Your Sister’s Sister
In the sad tradition of “mature” American movies, writer-director Lynn Shelton’s exploration of the tense dynamic among sisters and the guy one screws but the other loves is a shallow rather than deep drama: unfunny asides and farcical elements blunt an insightful look at characters interestingly etched by Emily Blunt and Rosemary DeWitt. Too bad that Mark Duplass is a huge black hole that drags down the plausibility of this family/relationship dynamic. The Blu-ray image is excellent; extras comprise a pair of commentaries.

DVDs of the Week
Love and Valor
Director Charles Larimer presents the moving story of his great-great-grandparents, a Union soldier in the Civil War and his wife in Iowa with their children. Despite clichéd use of reenactments, the couple’s letters to each other retain a genuine immediacy. Brian Dennehy, who is credited with the narration, is barely heard; Larimer himself does most of the voiceovers. Extras include brief featurettes.

The Miners’ Hymns
Bill Morrison’s provocative, dream-like reminiscence comprises restored British Film Institute footage of coal miners working deep below the earth and their families celebrating what was an unassailable way of life. The evocative imagery shows what remains of the mine locations today and glimpses a hard-working generation that gave its lives in a dangerous, and thankless, occupation. Extras include three Morrison shorts: Release, Outerborough and The Film of Her.

Rec 3
When a lethal virus races through a wedding reception and guests turn into murderous zombies, it’s up to a chain-saw toting bride to help fend them off. That it’s a “found-footage” movie is ridiculous, but since it’s lunatic from the start—blood and guts are smeared across the screen—hackneyed filmmaking doesn’t matter. Leticia Dolera makes a rivetingly crazy heroine, and the risible “tragic” ending is a hoot. Extras include 23 minutes of deleted scenes and the usual outtakes.

Sesame Street—Old School, 1979-1984, Volume 3
The beloved PBS show has been on over 40 years—and will continue thanks to Mitt (anti-Big Bird) Romney’s crushing electoral defeat. This volume of the Old School series, which covers 1979-1984, includes classic characters as Telly Monster and Snuffleupagus and skits like “Monsterpiece Theater.” The three discs include five full episodes and two hours of extra features: behind-the-scenes footage, commentary, interview and the emotional Goodbye to Mr. Hooper, after the death of beloved actor Will Lee.

Wolf Lake—The Complete Series
(e one/CBS)
In 2001, this werewolf-cop mystery series flopped after its post-September 11 premiere. I guess it was ahead of its time, for its mix of romance, mystery and monsters anticipated Harry Potter and Twilight: though it’s not very good, it had the scent of novelty which has since worn off. A decent cast includes the wasted but always delectable Mia Kirshner. Extras include a making-of featurette and unaired pilot episode with commentary.

CDs of the Week
Elina Garanca: Romantique
(Deutsche Grammophon)
The romantic-era arias on this recording show off Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca’s lovely voice, whether it’s Marguerite's yearning in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust or the heroine's emotional roller coaster in Saint-Saens' Samson and Dahlia. Garanca moves easily among these characters to create full-bodied portraits, most ably accompanied by Bologna Philharmonic under the baton of Yves Abel.

Henze: In Lieblicher blaue
German composer Hans Werner Henze—who died recently at age 86—mastered many orchestral genres, from symphonies, ballets and operas to, as this superlative new disc makes clear, chamber music. The works here are highlighted by settings of Friedrich Holderlin's poems, Kammermusik 1958, which alternates aching instrumental interludes for string ensemble or guitar with vocal passages of unrivaled beauty sung by tenor Clemens C. Loschmann with tact and precision. The shorter works—1948’s Apollo et Hyazinthus and 1982’s Canzona—also demonstrate Henze’s unique musical idiom that combines gorgeous Romanticism with unapologetic modernity.

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