Blu-rays of the Week
Aerial America—The New England Collection
The Smithsonian Channel’s marvelous Aerial America series comprises hour-long programs covering each state by air, as HD cameras fly over landmarks, monuments, cities, beaches, and whatever else is historically or culturally important. This disc highlights Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut: 4-1/2 hours of gorgeously-shot images of the entire New England area, from Katherine Hepburn’s home to Robert Frost’s farm. One quibble: jamming so much HD footage onto one Blu-ray disc results in a slight loss of visual quality.
Richard Strauss’ sublime comic opera sounds glorious in this 2006 Zurich production, but Claus Guth’s ludicrous staging—his concept turns the mythical fabled isle into a fancy restaurant—makes one want to stop watching and just listen. Luckily, Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting the orchestra and chorus and American soprano Emily Magee’s beautiful-sounding Ariadne make this worth hearing with one’s eyes closed. The Blu-ray image and sound are first-rate.
Director Taika Waititi’s diverting glimpse at a young boy coming of age in New Zealand, circa 1984, is also clear-eyed, but the anecdotal approach wears thin: 30 minutes of repetitiveness could have been cut. James Rolleston is unaffectedly natural in the lead, and the entire cast of unknowns acquits itself admirably. The Blu-ray image looks outstanding; extras are a Waititi interview, on-set footage and short Two Cars, One Night.
Walter Hill, ace veteran action director, makes a comeback of sorts with this slick but boneheaded flick about a hit man and cop who take down the men who offed their partners. Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang are a bizarre team, Sly playing Sly and Sung a sullen stick figure: happily, Sarah Shahi (Sly’s tattooed daughter) and Jason Momda (their ultimate nemesis) provide needed flavor, along with New Orleans locales. Too bad Hill’s visceral skill can’t cover plot holes or a plethora of killings can’t cover up lack of characterization. The Blu-ray image is bulletproof; lone extra is an on-set featurette.
Dror Moreh’s exemplary documentary features interviews with the heads of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet, talking honestly about their determinations about terrorism in an area of the world where nothing is black and white. Such complicated decisions (just as often emotional as rational) are shown against a backdrop of Israel’s history since occupying Gaza during the 1967 war, including the Dayton Peace Accord with Palestine and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. The hi-def image is very good; extras comprise Moreh’s commentary and Q&A.
Last summer, Tanglewood—the venerable summer festival in western Massachusetts—celebrated its diamond anniversary with a star-studded concert that looked back at its history and forward to its future. Along with an array of pop (James Taylor) and classical (Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax) big names performing the Great American Songbook and works by Haydn and Tchaikovsky, conductors John Williams, Keith Lockhart, Stefan Asbury, David Zinman and Andris Nelsons lead the Boston Pops, Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in works by Bernstein, Copland, Ravel and Beethoven. The hi-def image looks excellent; extras comprise two festival featurettes.
Several recent movies are less about the characters’ sadistic impulses and more about that of their filmmakers: Django Unchained and Human Centipede, two obvious examples, are joined by this risible “torture porn” entry. What on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone series would have made a strong 30-minute episode becomes, in director David Guy Levy’s clumsy hands, a callow, shallow, twisted tale that saves its last piece of nastiness for its heroine for the very end. The Blu-ray image is solid; lone extra is Levy’s commentary.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
“Documentary” insufficiently describes Andrei Ujica’s remarkable study of the Communist leader who ran Romania from 1967 until his 1989 ouster. Without any commentary of his own, Ujica lets Ceausescu’s personal footage speak for itself in what could be considered an unauthorized authorized autobiography. From hobnobbing with Presidents Nixon and Carter and other Communist leaders to defending his supporters’ actions as his government collapsed, everything you would want to know about President Ceausescu is shown in this unique three-hour examination of hubris.
Thanks to immigrants unwanted by “real” Germans, ultra-right wingers are getting louder and more violent, and writer-director David Wnendt’s finger is on this society’s pulse with his extraordinarily detailed study of two young women—20-year-old tattooed racist Marisa and 14-year-old wannabe Svenja. Brilliant performances by Alina Levshin Marisa) and Jella Haase (Svenja) give chilling plausibility to this pair: at least until the too melodramatic ending. The lone extra is a Levshin interview.
In Daniel Petrie’s flimsy 1976 character study, Sam Elliott is a likeably lunkheaded lifeguard juggling a teenage fling, a divorced high school sweetheart and his inability to decide his own future. Although it’s essentially a forgettable soap opera, Elliott’s amiable presence—and the amazing Kathleen Quinlan (teen) and Anne Archer (divorcee) as the females in his life—makes it watchable.
Doctors Joe Gannon (Chad Everett) and Paul Lochner (James Daly) keep saving lives throughout the 24 episodes of this popular medical drama’s third season: if, unlike me, you can get past Everett’s happenin’ sideburns (this is 1971, after all), you’ll find a galaxy of guest stars that run the gamut from has-been movie stars to up-and-comers. Those include Stefanie Powers (less good-looking as a blonde), Sheree North, Howard Keel, Ida Lupino, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Douglas and Vera Miles.
Director Michael Apted continues his monumental exploration of several British men and women by checking up on them every seven years: in 56 Up, into middle age, they speak convincingly and truthfully about their lives and what they perceive as the fairness (or unfairness) of this snapshot of them as a microcosm of The Entire Human Experience. This is rich, humane filmmaking that can be purchased alone or in a boxed set containing the other seven films, all essential viewing. Too bad extras are sparse: 42 Up contains an Apted commentary, and 56 Up contains a Roger Ebert-Apted interview, shot after 49 Up.
French Piano Concertos
The exciting German pianist Florian Uhlig plays a quartet of great late 19th/early 20th century French concertos, comprising a warhorse (Ravel), two that should be warhorses (Poulenc, Debussy’s Fantasie) and a perfect masterpiece in miniature (Francaix’s Concertino). Uhlig’s magnificent performances are superbly accompanied by the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra led by conductor Pablo Gonzalez.