Sunday, June 30, 2013

June '13 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Call the Midwife—Complete Season 2
(BBC Home Entertainment)
In this series’ second season, more babies are born as midwife Jenny Lee continues doing God’s work in the poorest areas of London. This is a show that’s unafraid to be sentimental and melodramatic, but even if it leaves me cold, the acting is of such high caliber that it works to a point as soap opera. What I found most shocking is the appearance of Jenny Agutter as a middle-aged nun: this is the same actress who 30 years ago was the sexy girlfriend in An American Werewolf in London! Oh well—my teenage fantasies are blown. The Blu-ray image looks impeccable; extras are on-set interviews.

The Cunning Little Vixen
(Opus Arte)
Leos Janacek’s delightful opera, appropriate for all ages since it features animals—the title vixen, Sharp Ears, is a female fox—has a dark undercurrent symbolizing the “circle of life” long before The Lion King (it also predates the 1994 Disney movie by 70 years). This 2012 Glyndebourne staging, handsomely designed by Tom Pye and directed by Melly Still, features Janacek’s wondrous score admirably sung by Lucy Crowe (Vixen) and Emma Bell (Fox) and the Glyndebourne Chorus, with the orchestra sensitively led by conductor Vladimir Jurowski. The Blu-ray looks great; lone extras are interviews.

Fringe—Complete Season 5
In the final season of the cult sci-fi series, the earth’s rulers, The Observers, have become even more oppressive, and a revolution is brewing to return the planet to humans. The writing tries too hard to be twisty and original, hurting the show’s sheer entertainment value,  and the performances fluctuate wildly between on the mark and widely off. Of course, your mileage may vary. The Blu-ray image is stunningly good; extras include interviews, commentary, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

The Gambler
Whether or not Russian operas are best done by Russian companies, this 2012 staging at St. Petersburg’s fabled Mariinsky Theater of Sergei Prokofiev’s early work makes for riveting drama. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novella, the opera is filled with Prokofiev’s blistering orchestral barrage and unforgettable melodies, its hard edge matching the obsessives at its center. Temur Chkheidze’s stylish directing, Valery Gergiev’s propulsive conducting and Vladimir Galuzin’s and Tatiana Pavlovskaya’s precise portrayals combine for a potent two hours. The Blu-ray image and sound are great.

Great Zebra Exodus
This illuminating Nature documentary—which follows a zebra herd migrating annually through  Africa—has eye-opening insights into these unique-looking animals (as one wag put it, “are they black horses with white stripes or white horses with black stripes?”). Among the memorable moments is a difficult-to-watch sequence of a male killing a calf after instinctively realizing it’s not his: his mate was with another male before he came along, and it’s chilling stuff. The program’s exquisite photography radiates on Blu-ray.

Peter Grimes
(Opus Arte)
Benjamin Britten’s most assured opera (neck and neck with his final masterpiece Death in Venice), gets a bumpy production at Milan’s famed La Scala. I don’t know why, but Britten’s brilliantly—and proudly—English drama has been given short shrift by director Richard Jones. That said, the music sounds glorious played by the orchestra under Robin Ticciati’s baton and in the leads, John Graham-Hall (Grimes) and Susan Gritton (schoolteacher Ellen Orford) are outstanding. On Blu-ray, the opera looks and sounds superb. Extras comprise interviews.

(Criterion Collection)
Claude Lanzmann’s monumental nine-hour Holocaust film is remarkable for showing no archival footage of the camps, bodies or anything else about the Nazi atrocities. Instead, this 1985 classic is about remembering and allowing witnesses to talk—surviving Jews and Nazis—in interviews that are a necessary record of unspeakable inhumanity. The Criterion Collection’s edition comprises three Blu-rays, which cramp the visuals a bit: an extra disc would allow Shoah and supplements (three more Lanzmann films, 1999’s A Visitor from the Living; 2001’s Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.; and 2010’s The Karski Report; and Lanzmann interviews) more room. Still, it’s a massive, important package.

The first American film by Korean Park Chan-wook—known for meretricious shockers Lady Vengeance and Oldboy—looks impressive but its drama lacks interest thanks to Wentworth Miller’s script, which substitutes crude shocks for biting wit. The story of a family’s ongoing murderous psychosis has a certain cleverness undone by blatant plot twists and a ridiculous ending. Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode look their parts, but Miller and Park—who combine pretentious posing and portentousness—ruins them. The hi-def image is excellent; extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Upside Down
After Melancholia and Another Earth, another sci-fi drama featuring a dual planetary system makes it three obvious metaphors too many. Mirror image planets house affluent and lower class societies, respectively: of course, poor Adam falls for rich Eden (Eve would be too obvious a name). Although his visuals are voluptuous, writer-director Juan Diego Solanas’s simplistic allegory hamstrings Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst, who are reduced to attitudinizing poses. The 2-D and 3-D Blu-ray imagery is splendidly realized; extras include interviews and making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
As Luck Would Have It
Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia (whose last film was the crude Francisco Franco allegory The Last Circus) might bemoan our 24/7/365 wired-in culture in his typically satirical flick, but—despite the engaging Jose Mota and Salma Hayek as a married couple dealing with his tragic accident being beamed to billions worldwide—there’s little insight or bite to this one-note tragicomedy. This shallow, repetitive movie might have made a diverting short if its director hadn’t stretched it out beyond its meager means.

Borgen—Complete Season 2
(MKV Networks)
The first season of Borgen—showing the behind-the-scenes machinations of Danish politics—was one of the most compellingly acted, written and directed TV dramas ever: and this second season might be even better. The directing-writing teams and creator Adam Price’s vision are in lockstep throughout, and formidable acting by Sidse Babett Knudsen (Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female prime minister), Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (go-getting journalist Katrine Fonsmark) and Pilou Asbaek (the PM’s trusty spin doctor Kasper Juul)—alongside dozens of prime supporting performances—makes these 10 episodes powerfully gripping, individually and in toto.

The Human Factor
(Warner Archive)
Otto Preminger’s final film—despite a Tom Stoppard script from Graham Greene’s novel and a cast comprising the cream of British acting from John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson to Derek Jacobi and Nicol Williamson—is a curiously sterile affair about treason in the British secret service. Model Iman made her stiff debut in this lifeless 1979 drama that might be worth checking out for fans of Preminger, Greene or Stoppard.

Understanding Art—Hidden Lives of Great Masterpieces
In this five-part series based on the Louvre’s art holdings, works by history’s greatest painters are studied, up close and personal, by a trove of experts and historians. For each artist—Raphael, Rembrandt, Poussin, Leonardo and Watteau—their paintings are taken off the museum walls and out of their frames and put on easels and are discussed at lengths. The conversations lead to new insights, and each 50-minute episode becomes an informative overview of how these artists’ reputations have changed over the centuries.

CD of the Week
Aleksandra Kurzak—Bel Raggio
Charming Polish singer Aleksandra Kurzak performs arias from Gioachino Rossini operas on this enjoyable disc. Her bright, creamy soprano perfect for tackling these technically fiendish pieces, Kurzak maneuvers between the classic comedy of The Barber of Seville to the downbeat tragedy of the lesser-known Sigismondo. Her intense “S’allontanano alfine!” from William Tell shows that there’s much more to that opera than “The Lone Ranger” theme. Ably accompanying Kurzak are the Warsaw Chamber Choir and Sinfonia Varsovia under conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi.

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