Monday, December 17, 2012

December '12 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Bill Cunningham New York
This engaging chronicle of the New York Times’ legendary photographer shows Cunningham’s unique work ethic as he navigates the busy New York streets for decades. Cunningham is eccentric but appealing, and his photographs—which are still published every Sunday in the Times’ Style section—wittily balance the fashion and everyday worlds. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include additional scenes and interviews.

La Boheme
(Deutsche Grammophon)
In Puccini’s beloved perennial, Anna Netrebko, as tragic heroine Mimi, provides her usual nuanced characterization with her magnificent vocal cords. As Roldofo, Piotr Beczala makes a good match, and their duets drip with the emotion Puccini put into his notes. Too bad Damiano Michieletto’s 2012 Salzburg production has a modern setting, which neither ruins nor illuminates the story. Danielle Gatti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic and Salzburg Choir well; the Blu-ray image is immaculate.

Dick Tracy
Warren Beatty’s 1990 live-action cartoon about the legendary detective has such eye-popping visuals—the extravagance of Richard Sylbert’s sets, Milena Canonero’s costumes, John Caglione’s makeup and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography—that the uneven movie suffers by comparison. Beatty himself, while too old, is a decent Tracy, and Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman have a blast hamming it up as freakish villains. But the women—bland heroine Glynne Headley and unsexy “sexpot” Madonna—are hilariously awful. The Blu-ray image perfectly showcases the shining, brilliant colors.

Finding Nemo
The most sheerly delightful picture from Pixar’s stable deservedly won the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Film, and has two strong voice performances: Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres give perfect, tongue-in-cheek portrayals. The visuals are cleverly presented, lacking the self-conscious humor Pixar would later fall into the trap of. The visuals look striking on Blu-ray; extras include featurettes, interviews and an alternate opening.

This History Channel series ambitiously explores how civilization has moved forward through millennia, from ancient Egypt to the present, including fascinating parallels that might have eluded most of us, such as China’s thriving while Europe crawled through the Dark Ages. Although I’m not a fan of the reenactment mania that has hit many documentaries, here it works, along with dazzling CGI that brings so many historical eras to vivid life. The hi-def image is excellent.

Nixon in China
John Adams’ 1985 opera about Richard Nixon’s visit to Red China had its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2010 in Peter Sellars’ staging, his most lucid directing job ever. James Maddalena is a tremendous President Nixon, Janis Kelly an equally compelling Pat Nixon and Richard Paul Fink a stunning Mao; but Adams’ dramatic music—conducted by the composer himself—makes this a stage work for our times. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include interviews with Sellars, Maddalena, Kelly, Fink and others.

(e one)
I’m embarrassed to admit I watched this in its entirety: not that it’s bad—it’s watchably mediocre—but it’s a freaking zombie movie! Check that: it’s a zombie movie set in the Middle East as U.S. soldiers fend off al Qaeda zombies led by bin Laden himself. The movie opens with a humorous take on Osama’s killing, as his body is dumped into the sea and he returns as a murderous member of the undead. The remaining 90 minutes become boring, with endless scenes of soldiers blowing heads off the walking dead. It’s likely a better time for 17 year old males. The Blu-ray image is very good.

Silent Night
(Anchor Bay)
I’m usually immune to the flagrant gore that’s risen exponentially in recent horror movies, but this tacky, “Santa Claus is Killing in Town” flick is reprehensible. Despite the game Malcolm McDowell and Jaime King as sheriff and deputy tracking down the insane St. Nick, they’re defeated by murder scenes that go above and beyond, including a nasty sequence when a poor, nude bimbo is eviscerated in a tree shredder. The hi-def image is decent enough; extras include deleted scenes and an on-set featurette.

Titanic—Blood and Steel
In Titanic’s centenary year, the focus has been on that damn iceberg: this mini-series instead concentrates on what happened before the ship sank. Michael Caton-Jones lucidly directs this epic prologue, in which Cunard officials, wealthy industrialists and backbreaking workers battle as the ship is built before its fateful voyage. While interesting historically—giving a needed sense of balance to the tale—the series is too long: do we need 10-plus hours to tell these stories? The Blu-ray image looks terrific; extras include making-of featurettes.

Why Stop Now
There’s not much to this character study about a young man, on the day of his piano audition for a prestigious music school, who takes his drug-addicted mother to her dealer so she can score before being admitted to rehab. It’s as strained as it sounds, and the detours taken are less amusing than co-writers-directors Philip Dorling and Ron Nyswaner think. But the excellent cast (Jesse Eisenberg, Melissa Leo, Tracy Morgan—guess who is whom?) wrings laughs and even pathos out of a clichĂ©d situation. The hi-def image is good; extras include featurettes and a Morgan interview.

DVDs of the Week
Big Tits Zombie
(e one)
The title tells all: a bunch of strippers try and fend off a bunch of bloodthirsty zombies with their physical assets, and gory hilarity ensues. There are a slew of bad, punning lines that occasionally sound funny in the crappy English dub (which again brings up What’s Up Tiger Lily?), so if you want to see it, skip the Japanese soundtrack. The movie is shown in both 2D and 3D, if spurting blood and scantily-clad stripper close-ups are your thing. Also included is a making-of featurette.

Dreams of a Life
The sad case of Joyce Vincent—whose skeleton was found in her apartment with the TV on a full three years after the 38-year-old died—is taken up imaginatively by writer-director Carol Morley, who intersperses recreated events from Joyce’s life with emotional interviews with people who knew her. This fiction-documentary hybrid works quite well, even if it doesn’t (or can’t) answer the question of why no one noticed her missing before police discovered her after a lot of unpaid back rent. The lone extra is a 30-minute making-of featurette, Recurring Dreams.

The Ghost Sonata
(Arthaus Musik)
German composer Aribert Reimann likes to tackle serious literature in his operas—he set Kafka’s The Castle (1992) and Shakespeare’s King Lear (1978), his masterpiece—and he did it again with August Strindberg’s play The Ghost Sonata. This recording, made during its 1984 Berlin premiere run, is yet another intensely dramatic Reimann opera whose modern idiom is an acquired taste. But those who take the plunge are rewarded with a compact (85 minute) and scalding musical ride. The singers are tremendous and the orchestra plays Reimann’s difficult music superbly under Friedemann Layer’s baton.

I Love It from Behind and Sex Hunter—Wet Target
There’s little subtlety in these “classic” Japanese cult flicks. Behind follows a young female collector of penis prints who wants to get her 100th and last before getting married; she meets up with a man who can go at it for 24 hours without finishing, and she must do something about that. Sex is a bloody flick about a man who avenges his sister’s rape/murder at the hand of a group of American soldiers. Not for everyone, obviously, but for those so inclined, they’re entertaining in spite of their risible deficiencies.

The Point
Singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson—creator of hit tunes and friend of the Beatles—created this amusing animated 1971 film about a young boy in the land of pointy-headed people whose round noggin makes him an outsider. The obvious premise makes a decent children’s story, Nilsson’s songs (like “Me and My Arrow”) are instantly hummable, the animation harkens to the visual stew of Yellow Submarine, and Ringo Starr provides laconic narration. Extras include four featurettes about Nilsson’s career and the film.

CDs of the Week
Respighi: Marie Victoire
Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, best known for glorious orchestral scores Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Three Botticelli Pictures, composed equally ravishing operas. However, this hidden gem about Marie Antoinette—finished in 1913, it premiered in 2004, 68 years after Respighi’s death—boasts a meaty soprano role, taken in this 2009 recording by charismatic Takesha Meshe Kizart, who explodes with compelling emotion. Respighi’s richly melodic music is in good hands as Michail Jurowski conducts the Berlin Opera chorus and orchestra.

Schoenberg: Gurre-lieder
Although he had already begun composing atonal works, Arnold Schoenberg premiered this great, gargantuan vocal masterwork in 1913; this 90-minute cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra has a lushness and sweep reminiscent of Wagner and Mahler. This recording, by the Israeli Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta’s direction, is flavorful if not completely gripping, although the quintet of soloists, speaker and Prague Philharmonic Choir acquit themselves admirably. Also included is a nicely paced account of the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s seminal sextet Verklarte Nacht.

No comments: