Sunday, September 1, 2013

September '13 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Being Human—Season 5
(BBC Home Entertainment)
The original BBC series—the basis for the Canadian remake airing on Syfy network—ends a fifth season of new relationships and friendships. By concentrating on the characterizations, the ludicrousness of the premise (even in such an obvious fantasy setting) is mitigated, and the unaffected performances by an attractive cast help sustain viewer interest in their tribulations. The Blu-ray image is impeccable; extras include interviews and featurettes.

The Life of Muhammad
This three-hour exploration of the life of the Muslim prophet Muhammad is divided into three parts—The Seeker, Holy Wars, Holy Peace—each of which develops the biography of one of the most widely influential men who ever lived, despite him being barely known to (and misunderstood by) billions of non-Muslims. Narrated by Rageh Omaar, who journeys to Mecca, Jerusalem and other locales, the series buttresses Muhammad’s story with analysis from scholars and religious experts. The Blu-ray image is first-rate.

Prime Suspect—The Complete Series
Although always good in numerous movies—including her Oscar-winning Elizabeth II in The Queen—Helen Mirren’s greatest triumph is police inspector Jane Tennyson. When the series debuted two decades ago, little did we know we’d watch with increasing awe and admiration how Tennyson transformed into an exciting, new kind of detective, and applaud her ability to solve crimes, work on an unfulfilling personal life and tame male partners’ sexist attitudes. This set contains all seven Prime Suspects—which, along with Mirren’s brilliance, showcase superb acting by a pre-Schindler's List Ralph Fiennes, Peter Capaldi and Tom Wilkinson. These sublimely crafted crime dramas look good in hi-def; extras are a behind-the-scenes Season 6 featurette and a 50-minute series making-of.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s ricocheting post-9/11 novel about a Pakistani who rises to the heights of capitalist Manhattan before returning to his roots and becoming suspicious in the CIA’s eye is a skillfully made and breathless exploration of the cultural divide after that infamous day in 2001. Well-acted and explosively filmed, Nair’s drama wears its heart on its sleeve more than the more cynical book, but it’s one of the few movies to treat this delicate subject with empathy and intelligence. The hi-def image looks great; a 30-minute making-of featurette makes a substantial lone extra.

Santana & McLaughlin—Invitation to Illumination
(Eagle Rock)
When two of the world’s great guitarists perform together, there better be cameras rolling, and this 2011 reunion of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin—nearly 40 years after their lone collaborative effort, 1973’s Love Devotion Surrender—was recorded for posterity. Onstage at the famous Monteux Jazz Festival, the pair trades riffs and solos and alternates leads in a selection of songs from that album and inspired covers of “Stairway to Heaven” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” This event looks and sounds great in hi-def.

Scary Movie V
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein)
A few decent ideas float around this latest scattershot movie/pop culture parody—like the opening Lindsay Lohan-Charlie Sheen mash-up, which is better in theory than execution. But since little of this fifth brainless go-round is funny on its own terms (the endless references cause little more than a smile of recognition), even this mercifully short 80-minute regurgitation of the same old one-liners, tasteless jokes and movie parodies palls quickly. The Blu-ray image looks good enough; extras include deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Frank Riva and Inspector Vivaldi
(MHZ Networks)
Two more European television series are released by the enterprising MHZ Networks. Former French movie heartthrob Alain Delon plays against type as a grizzled, middle-aged undercover cop in Frank Riva, whose six entertaining episodes follow his return to duty 25 years after his retirement. The equally good Inspector Vivaldi stars Lando Buzzanca as an aging Italian detective juggling his personal and professional lives as he solves crimes with his younger partner—who also happens to be his gay son.  

Neil Barsky’s documentary about the cantankerous NYC mayor (who ironically died the day the film opened) is an indelible picture of a long career of public service. While sympathetic to its chatty subject, it’s not mere hagiography: corruption, slow response to AIDS and the closeted homosexual rumor are all presented. This vivid picture of NYC from the time Koch got into politics though his dozen years as mayor to his later years as commentator and lionized city icon, we see how he remade his beloved city in his image: a no-nonsense, prickly, pugnacious survivor. Extras include Barsky’s Witnesses NYC, a 29-minute doc about NYC in the ‘80s; Barsky and Koch interviews.

1939 Battle of Westerplatte
(e one)
Although the Polish army was annihilated by Hitler’s Nazi Blitzkrieg to begin World War II, this fine historical drama finds heroism and courage in even the losingest battle. The story’s overwhelmingly epic scope is well defined along with the personal stories of the commanders—are they heroic or foolhardy or suicidal?—in a war film that’s engrossing despite having little real suspense about its outcome.

Stuart Saves His Family
(Warner Archive)
While watching this mildly amusing 1995 spin-off of yet another Saturday Night Live character who didn’t deserve a full-length movie, it’s hard to believe that, 18 years later, star-creator-scriptwriter is a U.S. senator from Minnesota running for re-election. Al Franken is in good-natured form but his broad comedy is stretched so thin that it wouldn’t make a decent ten-minute sketch on the late-night show. Laura San Giacomo, Vincent d’Onofrio and Harris Yulin are wasted by the silliness.

CD of the Week
Benjamin Britten—The Masterpieces
During the 100th anniversary year of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the greatest 20th century English composer is represented on his “home” label by a four-disc set that’s a terrific overview of his musical genius in instrumental and vocal works from chamber music to opera. Most of the 15 pieces on these discs show off Britten’s mastery of different vocal forms, whether solo voice, choirs, or his famous “church parables" (a sublime Noye’s Fludde is included). Among his best orchestral works, the Frank Bridge Variations and Violin Concerto (with soloist Janine Hansen) are included, but the equally fine Piano Concerto is missing. Of course, quibbling about what’s not here is par for the course, but no one can go wrong with what’s here—and in first-rate versions (many by Britten himself).

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