Wednesday, March 13, 2013

March '13 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Ariane et Barbe-bleue
(Opus Arte)
In this 1907 operatic masterpiece by French composer Paul Dukas, the Bluebeard legend is given a thorough going-over, and in this 2012 Barcelona staging, the psychological penetrancy of Dukas’ powerful music is retained despite the Claus Guth’s overdone visualization. Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet is in tremendous voice as Ariane, the infamous wife killer’s final spouse; legendary Belgian bass-baritone Jose van dam plays Bluebeard. The Blu-ray image and surround sound are superb.

(Anchor Bay)
Lee Hirsch’s impassioned documentary ran into trouble with the MPAA ratings board when it got an R rating—now rated PG-13, the film still packs a literal and figurative wallop. As with many of today’s strong breed of advocacy documentaries, the film takes its message one step further, virtually demanding audience intervention. The Blu-ray image looks very good; extras include a shorter version suitable for younger children, deleted scenes and featurettes.

One of Buster Keaton’s lesser features is still pretty funny, with inspired sight gags—no surprise—wedded to a paper-thin scenario. This 1927 comedy contains priceless moments as Buster tries to woo his co-ed love by trying his hand at several sports on campus, which more than compensates for its flimsy structure. The Blu-ray image, as with all Kino Keatons, looks as good as could be expected for an 86-year-old silent; extras include a commentary by historian Rob Farr and a real curio: The Scribe, a 30-minute Canadian safety short from 1966 that was Keaton’s last filmed appearance.

The Intouchables
Based on a true story, this sentimental comedy follows the unlikely relationship between a wealthy white aristocrat and the black ex-con who becomes his caretaker and—of course—teaches him the real meaning of life. Writer-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s risible portrait, which traffics in stereotypes throughout, is saved by energetic performances by Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy. The Blu-ray image is immaculate; extras are deleted scenes.

Lay the Favorite
(Anchor Bay)
In Stephen Frears’ tasty comedy, Rebecca Hall makes a splendid bimbo with a mathematical mind who finds a lucrative job in shady Vegas betting. Hall transforms a character that on paper could have been a cardboard piece of white trash into a beautifully shaded protagonist who guides us through this fast-paced biopic, based on Beth Raymer’s memoir. There are nicely shaded portrayals by, of all people, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, with Vince Vaughan on hand with his usual lunacy. The hi-def image is first-rate; extras comprise deleted scenes.

The Nativity Story
Director Catherine Hardwicke’s studiously pageant-like nativity contains a few original touches that bring to mind, however fleetingly, better biblical films like Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Ermanno Olmi’s Genesis. Since it never sustains that high level, we must be satisfied with subtle performances by Ciaran Hinds as King Herod and Keisha Castle-Hughes as a luminous Mary. The hi-def transfer is glorious; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Hans Pfitzner’s sole operatic success, this slow-moving biography of the famous Renaissance composer sounds more like Richard Wagner’s music in its ponderousness than Palestrina’s own contrapuntal 16th century works. Would that Christian Stuckl’s 2009 Munich staging wasn’t so crudely color-coded: despite an heroic Christopher Ventris in the unyielding title role, Pfitzner’s stately pageant is reduced to a garishness that goes against the dramatic and musical logic of an epic opera. The Blu-ray visuals and sound are excellent; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Red Dawn
This is one of the most unnecessary remakes in awhile—at least John Milius’s dopey 1984 original took place during the Cold War, so a Russian invasion seemed plausible. But in our post-Sept. 11 century, North Koreans invading the U.S. until a ragtag group of redneck teens stem the tide is drama of a most ridiculous kind. It appears that director Dan Bradley believes it too, for his action vehicle runs out of steam after 87 minutes, with little energy or thought put into it The hi-def transfer looks fine; no extras.

Centered by a fearless Mary Elizabeth Winstead, this look at an alcoholic young schoolteacher is a scathing portrait of self-destruction and possible redemption. The good supporting cast—Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman and Aaron Paul as a confused husband—gives Winstead the room she needs for an indelible characterization. The Blu-ray image is quite good; extras include Winstead and director James Ponsoldt’s commentary, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Luis Bunuel’s brittle 1970 black comedy of a woman who slowly turns the tables on her seducer stars Catherine Deneuve and urbane Fernando Rey: though parts show the master surrealist sleepwalking, at least he doesn’t fall prey to the arbitrary surrealism infesting his final trio of overrated French films. The hi-def transfer gives Buñuel’s compositions a lovely filmic look, but the soundtrack situation is less good: Spanish and English audio is included but not French, meaning we don’t hear Deneuve’s own voice. Deneuve discusses this and other matters in an informative commentary; there’s also an interview with Bunuel scholar Peter William Evans and an alternate ending.

DVDs of the Week
In his first film as writer-director, Martin Donovan penned juicy parts for himself as a creatively blocked writer and David Morse as a wingnut neighbor who takes him hostage while they reminisce over booze. Although the story goes nowhere, the scenes between the men are immaculately performed glimpses of diametrically opposite lives. Extras are interviews with Donovan and Olivia Williams, who plays the writer’s old flame.

A Dark Truth
The honest truth is that this earnest drama about an international corporation’s ties to the military wing of the Ecuardoran government wastes good actors like Forrest Whittaker, Eva Longoria, Kim Coates and even Andy Garcia. As drama, there’s little urgency in Damian Lee’s film, and as propaganda there’s little of real substance. The lone extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The Flat
(Sundance Selects)
Memory and forgetting are the powerful weapons in Arnon Goldfinger’s documentary, in which he discovers, while cleaning out his deceased grandmother’s apartment, the extremely tortured history behind their survival as German-born Jews. As wartime secrets and lies go, this is as devastating as it gets, as the link between a Nazi official and his grandparents becomes disturbingly clear—and just as disturbingly murky.

In Search of Memory
Nobel-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel’s eventful life illuminates Petra Seeger’s documentary. Raised in Austria, his parents were murdered by the Nazis while he escaped to New York to become a scientist and start a family. The link between his groundbreaking brain research and his own difficult history converges as he revisits Vienna with his family to bring everything full circle.

(Arthaus Musik)
German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s opera from Sophocles’ play, which premiered in 1987, was broadcast on German TV. As always with Rihm, this is inaccessible but sometimes powerful drama; it helps immensely that Andreas Schmidt in the title role and Emily Golden as Jokasta are so fiercely committed. Equally interesting is the response at the end, when many audible boos are heard, particularly when Rihm takes his bows.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Although Maggie Smith got raves and a 1969 Oscar for her portrayal of the irrepressible girls’ teacher in 1930s Scotland in the film based on Muriel Spark’s novel and Jay Presson Allen’s play, this 1978 British mini-series is more satisfying. The main reason, in addition to its six hours fleshing out characters and their colorful era, is the presence of Geraldine McEwan, whose titanic performance as Miss Brodie will be the standard all others are measured by (and that includes Cynthia’s Nixon onstage in New York in 2006).

Salome and Jenufa
(Opus Arte)
Two towering actress-singers center this pair of classic operas which deal with beheading and infanticide. First, a 2007 staging of Richard Strauss’s Salome in Milan is given a real jolt by the high-voltage presence of German soprano Nadja Michael as the teenaged temptress who is served John the Baptist’s severed head on a platter. Then there’s a 2012 Swedish production of Leos Janacek’s tragic romance Jenufa, as Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegardh cuts an imposing yet sympathetic figure in the title role.

CDs of the Week
Alice Sara Ott—Pictures
Pianist Alice Sara Ott gave herself an imposing mountain to climb for this concert at the Mariinsky Concert Hall in St. Petersburg: but she dispatches Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with finesse, giving the lie to complaints that it’s an overplayed warhorse. And she doesn’t skimp on the recital’s second piece: Schubert’s D-major sonata, while not up to the trio of masterpieces he crowned his solo piano writing with in the last year of his short life, is a work of virtuosity made easy by Ott’s fleet playing.

Elgar—The Apostles
Saint-Saens—Le Deluge
These coincidental releases of rarely-heard biblical oratorios pair vocal works by England’s Edward Elgar and France’s Camille Saint-Saens. Elgar’s The Apostles has shining moments of great beauty, and the Halle ensemble’s performance, led by Mark Elder, has terrific soloists (Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves) and choirs. Saint-Saens’ The Deluge dramatizes Noah’s flood with admirable musical leanness; Alexander Burda’s conducting showcases the fine orchestra and chorus, and the superior soloists are Isabelle Muller-Cant, Carolin Strecker and Daniel Schreiber and Philip Niederberger.

Ginastera—3 Piano Concertos
To Argentine master Alberto Ginastera, pianist Barbara Nissman was one of his best interpreters: he even dedicated his final work, the Piano Sonata No. 3, to her. She returns the favor with scintillating performances of his three major piano concertos: the early Conceierto Argentino, never recorded before; and his two piano concertos, among the most inventive and original of any in the 20th century. Nissman’s playing leads the way, occasionally leaving conductor Kenneth Kiesler and the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra in the dust.

Spanish Songs
(Harmonia Mundi)
Several of Richard Strauss’s lesser-known songs—including the lovely cycle Kramerspiegel—are grouped together on this enticing disc by creamy-voiced soprano Elizabeth Watts; her superb accompanist is pianist Roger Vignoles. And on a disc doubling as a tasty Spanish sampler, shimmering soprano Sylvia Schwartz and accomplished pianist Malcolm Martineau give memorable readings of songs by Enrique Granados, including an aria from his opera Goyescas; and Catalan master, Xavier Montsalvatge, whose Five Canciones Negras is justifiably considered a masterpiece.

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