Monday, July 8, 2013

July '13 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Ruba Nadda’s tidy thriller follows a father returning to Damascus—which he left a quarter century earlier for a new life in Toronto—to find his missing adult daughter, aided by a Canadian embassy rep who knows her (there’s a good moment when they have to identify a body and the emissary says it’s not her because the corpse doesn’t have a tattoo “where a father can’t see it”). Alexander Siddig is strong as the distraught dad and Marisa Tomei terrific as the Syrian woman he left behind in this well-paced drama. The Blu-ray image is stellar; extras comprise Nadda’s commentary, deleted scenes and interviews.

Inspector Lewis—Series 6
This, the sixth series of crime-solving by the indomitable detective and his colleagues, consists of three episodes, “Down Among the Fearful,” “The Ramblin’ Boy” and “Intelligent Design,” all good Masterpiece Mystery fodder based on Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels. A suitably deadpan Kevin Whately is the no-nonsense title character, and he’s ably supported by Laurence Fox, Rebecca Front and Clare Holman, among many others. The Blu-ray image looks very good; no extras.

North Face
(Music Box)
This compelling 2008 adventure follows the brave and loyal Germans who, in 1936, try to become the first to scale the Alps’ most dangerous rock face: the Eiger. Director Philipp Stolzl understands that facts and good actors are needed to make a superior docudrama, and he confronts the Nazi era’s thorny politics with neither condescension nor jingoism. The superb cast features Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser as the climbers and Johanna Wokalek as their long-time friend and photographer. The Blu-ray image looks great; extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.

Le nozze di Figaro
(Opus Arte)
Mozart’s sublime comic opera works wonderfully, even in director Michael Grandage’s needless update at last summer’s Glyndebourne Festival in England. With a top-notch vocal cast acting up a storm—best is the always delightful American soprano Isabel Leonard as teenage boy Cherubino—and splendid conducting by Robin Ticciati, this Figaro flies by, despite Grandage’s silly staging. Blu-ray image and sound sparkle; extras are backstage featurettes.

Pusher and The Rambler
(Anchor Bay)
Pusher, Luis Prieto’s uninspired remake of the gritty movies by Nicolas Winding Refn hits the same buttons but Refn’s inventive direction is missed: Richard Coyle never convinces as the desperate drug dealer, and the supporting cast raises fewer hopes. Still, it’s Citizen Kane compared to The Rambler, Calvin Lee Reeder’s nonsensical would-be thriller that exists only to show off lots of gore, with copy-cat exploding heads lifted from Scanners and Dermot Mulroney looking confused throughout. The Blu-ray transfers are first-rate; Pusher extras comprise cast/crew Q&As and a making-of featurette.

6 Souls
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
What begins as a convoluted psychological thriller soon descends into unhinged horror in a tired attempt to get viewers to jump out of their seats at the slightest provocation, courtesy writer Michael Cooney and directors Mårlind and Stein. That this was made five years ago, released in England, had a title change and was dumped on video says it all. Poor Julianne Moore and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers probably prefer to forget this, as will anyone who watches it. The Blu-ray image is decent.

Die Soldaten
(Unitel Classica)
Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s unstageable opera—I saw it in Manhattan in 2008 and agree heartily—is dramatically diffuse and musically unwieldy, but its sheer audaciousness keeps one interested. (The composer killed himself in 1970 at age 52.) This 2012 Salzburg staging, on a long narrow stage with a lot happening at once, is muted since the camera can only show one thing at a time. Still, it’s handsomely designed and performed (American soprano Laura Aikin is especially forceful as the heroine Marie), and should be seen once in a lifetime. Blu-ray image and sound are fantastic.

DVDs of the Week
Constitution USA
Peter Segal’s four-part series sees him traveling the country to talk to constitutional scholars, judges, lawyers and laymen for their viewpoints on what makes the Constitution great—and less so—after 225 years. With an eye on the unbridgeable divide now in Washington (the do-nothing Congress, a stuck-in-mud Presidency and an ideologically divided Supreme Court—these programs provide a common-sense approach to both root causes and possible solutions.

Set in Seville but starring a cast of British actors, this diverting detective series is distinguished by picturesque Spanish locations, including the famous bull ring in Seville. The performances by a uniformly excellent ensemble are led by Marton Csokas’s hard-bitten but appealing Falcon, Emilia Fox’s sensual ex-wife and, in the first episode, Hayley Atwell’s luscious widow. The plots are a bit too violent and sadistic (the first victim’s eyelids being cut off is only the beginning), but fans probably won’t mind.

The Family Jewels
(Warner Archive)
Jerry Lewis’ 1965 comedy is a tour de force of sorts, since writer-producer-director Lewis plays five uncles of a young girl, one of whom she has to choose as her new guardian. The problem—as with most Lewis films—is that he is in such single-minded service to gags that, when they don’t work—which is often, since they are so long and drawn out that when they finally arrive, they are DOA—the movie just stops dead. If you love Jerry, you’ll love this; but if you don’t, it won’t change your mind.

Jupiter’s Darling
(Warner Archive)
If you ever wanted to see Esther Williams—the beautiful swimming actress who died last month at 91—swim around a pool filled with ancient Roman statues, then George Sidney’s otherwise routine 1955 epic is for you. Williams and Howard Keel (as Hannibal) aren’t a very romantic pair, but Marge and Gower Champion compensate with dazzling dances, and Williams is as gorgeous as ever. The widescreen transfer looks OK, but if it was restored, the colors would be as dazzling as Williams’ underwater routines.

CDs of the Week
Ailyn Perez—Poeme d’un jour
(Opus Arte)
This is my first time listening to young American soprano Ailyn Perez, and her engaging style and unfussy forthrightness is a pleasure to hear on this disc of French and Spanish songs about loves lost and found. In addition to familiar works like Manuel de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs and Gabriel Faure’s exquisite set of three songs which gives her CD its title, Perez also gives Reynaldo Hahn’s gorgeous melodies a spin, along with another Spaniard not heard nearly enough, Joaquin Turina. It’s all accompanied sensitively by pianist Iain Burnside.

Rautavaara—Missa a cappella
Now a spry 84, Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara should be on any intelligent music fan’s short list of Greatest Living Composer, his oeuvre comprising music that runs the gamut from chamber works to operas: several of his brilliant choral compositions are heard on this wonderful sounding CD. The Latvian Radio Choir, under its leader Sigvara Klava, performs with pious grace several Rautavaara works for unaccompanied choir, including the Missa a cappella, one of his towering works in that underappreciated genre. The shorter pieces on display might not have the Missa’s majesty, but anyone interested in great choir writing and singing should pick up this disc.

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