Sunday, May 12, 2013

May '13 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week

Finally here’s a filmed record of Christopher Plummer’s enchantingly witty interpretation of another great actor, John Barrymore, in William Luce’s one-man (but two-voice) play—for which Plummer won the 1997 Best Actor Tony Award. Director Erik Canuel keeps the focus tightly on Plummer, whose juicily idiosyncratic performance is a glorious capper on an unrivaled career. The Blu-ray image is excellent; Backstage with Barrymore, an hour-long making-of documentary, is the lone extra.

The Grifters
(Echo Bridge)
Stephen Frears’ wickedly black 1990 comedy, with a superb script by Donald Westlake from Jim Thompson’s novel, follows a trio of con artists pitted against one another. The dream cast comprises Angelica Huston and John Cusack as estranged mother and son and Annette Bening, hilarious and erotic as a sexpot who shed allegiances more quickly than her clothes. Too bad that Bening’s marriage to Warren Beatty derailed her career for awhile. The Blu-ray image, as on all Echo Bridge releases, is underwhelming; extras are Frears’ commentary and on-set interviews.

The Hoax
(Echo Bridge)
Lasse Hallstrom will never return to the sublime heights of his 1985 masterpiece My Life as a Dog; but of his American films, this 2007 comic drama comes closest with its tongue-in-cheek look at Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes forgeries, with little of the sentimentality that marred even The Cider House Rules. Richard Gere gives a rare unbridled performance as Irving, and the supporting cast—Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Alfred Molina—is equally good. The movie looks decent on hi-def; extras comprise Hallstrom’s commentary, deleted scenes, making-of footage.

The Rabbi’s Cat
(New Video)
The new animated feature by the creator of the uneven biopic Gainsbourg shows off director Joann Safr’s visual ideas at their most playful and pure. The earlier film’s best bits were surreal puppetry; this story of a feline who begins to talk after eating a parrot has visuals that are the equivalent of the irreverent cat’s profane but philosophical musings, which shock everyone with their religious and moral provocations. The Blu-ray’s bright colors look exquisite; extras are a making-of and featurette on Safr.

Safe Haven
After My Life as a Dog, Lasse Hallstrom left Sweden for crass work in Hollywood, where he’s become a go-to director for potboilers and melodramas (with the odd witty entry like The Hoax, above), and this silly Nicholas Sparks adaptation is yet another. Julianne Hough, not a serious—or even semi-serious—actress, provides a credibility hit, but Josh Duhamel’s presence is more on the romantic mark. The Blu-ray image looks good enough; extras include alternate ending, deleted scenes and featurettes.

(Music Box)
Sean Baker’s well-meaning but amateurish character study about an unlikely bond between a young porn actress and an elderly lady remains trite, despite Baker’s obvious empathy for his characters. His heart is certainly in the right place, but a game cast (led by Dree Hemingway, Mariel’s daughter, and Besedka Johnson in the leads) can’t make this flat-footed drama any more affecting. Stella Maeve makes an indelible impression as a drugged-out porn failure. The Blu-ray image, while soft, looks pretty good; extras include Baker’s commentary, featurettes, behind the scenes footage and interviews.

Upstream Color
(New Video)
Actor-turned-director Shane Carruth has been watching too much Kubrick and Malick, if this second feature, a willfully obscure—but exceedingly preposterous and quite quickly ponderous—sci-fi feature is any indication. In his familiar-looking drab world where the heroine is implanted with a worm that places her under another’s control, Carruth confuses portentousness with pretentiousness. This melancholy romance and lament for our alienated society is too simplistic, and Carruth relies on other, better directors’ movies to make his not so original points. The Blu-ray looks immaculate.

DVDs of the Week
Broadway Musicals—A Jewish Legacy
The history of the American musical, with a few exceptions, overflows with the talents of Jewish lyricists and composers, which this 90-minute documentary sketches intelligently and entertainingly. Moving from the Gershwins to Jerry Herman, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, Broadway Musicals (narrated by Joel Grey) is crammed with interviews, old and new, with many luminaries, and generous clips from shows like Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof. This trip down memory lane doesn’t skimp on the historical and cultural significance of these creators. An extra disc has more interviews and musical selections.

The Great Gatsby—Midnight in Manhattan
In anticipation of the new Gatsby movie (rather ludicrously shot in 3D), this 2000 documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel gets re-released. Narrated by Tara Fitzgerald and including interviews with biographers and literary experts, the 47-minute doc abridges the novel's genesis, a video equivalent of Cliffs Notes about Fitzgerald’s classic work. An extra is a BBC version of the play Private Affairs: A Dream of Living, about Fitzgerald, wife Zelda and Ernest Hemingway, with David Hemmings.

Lincoln Chronicles and Shadows of the Reich
(Mill Creek)
These DVD sets illuminate a great 19th century martyr and the most evil 20th century dictator. The Reich set comprises 10 Charlton Heston-narrated documentaries, the most interesting being Hitler’s Last Days. The 10-disc Lincoln Chronicles is dominated by Sandberg’s Lincoln, a five-hour 1974 mini-series with a forceful Hal Holbrook in a far subtler and wide-ranging portrayal of Honest Abe than Daniel Day Lewis in Spielberg’s biopic. Beware: the order of Sandberg’s Lincoln episodes is jumbled. D.W. Griffith’s epic 1930 feature, Abraham Lincoln, is also included.

Private Practice—Season 6 (Warners) and
The Roman Holidays—Complete Series (Warner Archive)
The final season of the current hit medical drama Private Practice—starring Kate Walsh and Benjamin Bratt—is wrapped up on a three-disc set that includes all 13 episodes and extras like deleted scenes and bloopers. The often cringingly unfunny The Roman Holidays—a Flintstones/Jetsons rip-off that’s set in ancient Rome—is on a two-DVD set that contains all 13 episodes of its first (and only) season, which was in 1972.

Steel Magnolias
Robert Harling’s humane if occasionally sappy play—which I saw in its first-rate off-Broadway incarnation in 1989—first became a saccharine movie with Julia Roberts. The new version, which features an all-black cast (Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard), is played more for laughs like the play was—but without the original’s perfect balance—but it provides the requisite tears of a movie on the Lifetime network.

CDs of the Week
Art Nouveau
Romanian soprano Teodora Gheorghiu and pianist Jonathan Aner pair up for this sparkling recital of songs from the early 20th century, when expressionism, modernism and romanticism coalesced. Two ravishing Richard Strauss cycles—including the Ophelia Lieder—and a charming Alexander Zemlinsky set give way to several elegant melodies by Maurice Ravel, followed by Ottorino Respighi’s lovely Deita Silvane, as Gheorghiu moves easily from German to French to Italian.

Janine Jansen—Schoenberg and Schubert
It must be nice to call five friends who are world-class musicians to play sublime music: but that’s what violinist Janine Jansen did for this exceptional disc of chamber masterpieces from the beginning and end of the 19th century. Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, which started clearing the path to modernity in 1899, is played with pungency and refinement, while Schubert’s String Quintet—a towering work written just before the 31-year-old Schubert died in 1828—is given has the essential balance of weight and melancholy, particularly that draining marathon first movement.

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