Sunday, April 7, 2013

April '13 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Cold Warriors—Wolves & Buffalo
This edifying PBS Nature program documents how these imposing, endangered creatures—wolves and buffalo—co-exist as mortal enemies on the vast lands of Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada. Filmmaker-naturalist Jeff Turner (who also narrates) has shot incredible footage of these remarkable beasts in their natural habitats; needless to say, the hi-def transfer is outstanding.

Little Fugitive
This freewheeling drama stars a wonderfully natural Richie Andrusco as a 7-year-old who runs off for Coney Island after thinking he caused his older brother’s death. Shot cinema-verite style by a trio of directors (Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley), the 1951 film is a candid look at childhood that retains its fresh spontaneity. The restoration, overseen by the Museum of Modern Art, makes it look incredible on Blu-ray; its extras—Engel’s insightful commentary and two shorts by his daughter Mary Engel, one about him and one about her mom, co-director and photographer Orkin—are nice additions.

On Approval
Playwright Frederick Lonsdale’s pre-Noel Coward comedy about upper-crust Brits was adapted by Clive Brook, who also directed and stars in this fun but minor 1944 film version. The cast, led by Brook and Beatrice Lille, gives Lonsdale’s snappy dialogue the bite that it needs to keep the shenanigans afloat. The B&W hi-def transfer is well done; extras include Jeffrey Vance’s commentary and an interview with actress Googie Withers.

The Sandlot
The 20th anniversary edition of this sweetly unassuming baseball tale brings back a movie that, unlike Field of Dreams and Bull Durham, shows how kids loved America’s pastime. This diverting story of childhood friendship is nicely acted by a group of youngsters like Tom Guiry as Scotty, whose parents are played by Karen Allen and Denis Leary—there’s even a small turn by James Earl Jones in a pivotal role. The Blu-ray image is good; too bad there are no new extras to supplement the vintage featurette.

The Sweeney
(e one)
Despite the presence of tough guys like Ray Winstone and Damian Lewis (the antihero of Homeland), Nick Love’s convoluted action flick fails at being clever and ends up crashing cars and shooting up characters we neither care nor know anything about. Haley Atwell, who’s already proven herself a gifted actress, should have been given far more to do in this hollow knockoff of any crime movie you care to name. The Blu-ray image is impeccable; extras include a commentary, featurettes and storyboards.

To the Arctic
Polar bears, like penguins, are irresistible onscreen fodder, as this IMAX film—shot in glorious high-definition—shows. Narrated by Meryl Streep and with tunes by a former Beatle named Paul, the film beautifully evokes an area of the world where climate change has done supreme damage: the icy habitats of bears and other arctic creatures. This isn’t simply cinematic advocacy but terrific entertainment. The Blu-ray, of course, looks stupendous—so watch it on the largest TV screen you can. Extras are several featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
This gripping 10-hour Danish mini-series skillfully straddles the line separating politics from personal lives—with endless mixing of the two. In a surprising election, the moderate party’s Birgitte Nyborg becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister, and the fallout is dramatized with incisive awareness of the realities of our virtual world. With a peerless cast led by Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte, this is unforgettable television; beware of the inevitable American remake, which will surely be vastly inferior.

The Carol Burnett Show—This Time Together
(Time Life)
This latest six-disc compilation of The Carol Burnett Show comprises 17 full-length episodes from the memorable 11-season run of the best TV variety show (on the air from 1967-78). Each episode features a guest star from the era, like the Pointer Sisters, Sammy Davis, Peggy Lee, Dick van Dyke or the immortal Madeleine Kahn; but what makes the shows rewatchable is Carol’s exceptional repertory company, which comprised Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and the always underrated star herself. Extras include a cast reunion, interviews and a designer Bob Mackie featurette.

Hey Good Lookin’ and
Second-Hand Hearts
(Warner Archive)
Two nearly forgotten 1981 films, the latest releases on the Warner Archives label, are dumped onto DVD with tolerable but subpar transfers. Hey Good Lookin’, Ralph Bakshi’s clichĂ©d-ridden, anti-Happy Days exploration of the 1950s; despite eye-catching animation, the movie and its songs are forgettable. Second-Hand Hearts, director Hal Ashby’s biggest commercial failure, is a surprisingly lifeless look at an offbeat romance between Robert Blake and an actress who was usually indestructible, Barbara Harris.

Hitler’s Children
(Film Movement)
In this important addition to our Holocaust knowledge, Israeli director Chanoch Ze’evi interviews descendants of infamous Nazis, from Himmler and Eichmann to Goering and Amon Goeth, the sadistic camp commandant so memorably played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. These men and women, who have spent their lives simultaneously running away from and coming to terms with their family’s stained legacies, deal with the fates they have been handed in varying ways. It’s an eye-opening and emotional journey. The bonus short, Kun 65, concerns a painting with roots in the Holocaust.

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s engaging documentary is about baseball’s most misunderstood pitchers, of whom there is one left in the majors: former Met R. A. Dickey, now with Toronto. Interviews with Dickey, Tim Wakefield (who retired in 2011) and other knucklers like Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough provide insights into being a baseball pariah and how difficult it is breaking into the big leagues with what everybody considers a trick pitch. Hours of extras feature more interviews and featurettes.

Pioneers of Television—Season 3
This set’s programs—Funny Ladies, Superheroes, Miniseries, Primetime Soaps—are excellent overviews of network TV programming from the ‘50s to ‘70s. Superbly-chosen clips from I Love Lucy, Carol Burnett Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Batman, Wonder Woman, Roots, Thorn Birds, Dynasty and Dallas are complemented by interviews with Burnett, Moore, Adam West, Lynda Carter, LeVar Burton, Ed Asner, Rachel Ward, Donna Mills and Larry Hagman, to name a few. Extras include added scenes.

CDs of the Week
Dvorak: Piano Trios
(Artistled and Bridge)
Although Antonin Dvorak composed four piano trios, two new recordings unsurprisingly pair his most popular: No. 3 in F minor (from 1883), his first mature work in the genre; and No. 4, the E minor "Dumky" Trio, which has become an undisputed classic trio since its 1891 premiere. On the Artistled disc, pianist Wu Han, violinist Philip Setzer and cellist David Finckel draw out the grandeur and drama of both trios, particularly No. 3; its reading of the "Dumky" trio—whose six movements are relatively short compared to the earlier work's four—is bracing in its relatively quick pace. On the Bridge CD, the Trio Solisti plays the F minor trio with straightforward elegance, while the "Dumky" Trio is given more breathing space than on the other disc. Both approaches work admirably.

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