Blu-rays of the Week
DaVinci’s Demons—Complete 1st Season
In this clever evocation of Renaissance Italy, Leonardo DaVinci is shown as a genius tortured both inwardly and outwardly as he goes about his artistic and scientific pursuits including the inventions that still surprise and delight today. The mini-series shows how DaVinci frightened those in power, both religious and secular, and his response; as history, it’s not much, but as guilty-pleasure drama, it works handily. The hi-def image looks fantastic; extras include commentaries, featurettes and deleted scenes.
Wolfgang Mozart’s greatest opera gets an intriguing 2010 outdoor production at the summer festival in Aix-en-Provence, France, featuring a seductive Don Juan played by Bo Skohvus with almost manic intensity. Of the women he beds and casts off, Marlis Petersen and Kristine Opolais come off most sympathetically; Dmitri Tcherniakov’s adroit staging is complemented by Louis Langree’s sensitive conducting. On Blu-ray, the opera looks and sounds superb; a 30-minute featurette is the lone extra.
This sadistic horror flick finds a group of Russian soldiers near the end of WWII coming up against a foe greater than the regular Nazi army: a horde of metal-and-flesh creatures made by a deranged scientist with the familiar family name. As such grotesqueries go, Richard Raaphurst has made a diverting if difficult to watch piece of gruesomeness; despite not going overboard with the gore, the entire gimmicky machinery grinds to a halt halfway through. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
From Up on Poppy Hill
This ravishing Studio Ghibli animated feature is not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but his son Goro (Dad co-wrote it): the familial legacy is apparent in an ability to dance on the line of succumbing to sentiment—but never crossing it. The ridiculously gorgeous visuals are as breathtaking as ever on Blu-ray, where they look absolutely stunning. Extras include full-length storyboards, music video, featurettes, interviews and the option of the (preferred) original Japanese version or the dubbed English-language one.
This eerie mystery series, based loosely on Stephen King’s story “The Colorado Kid,” follows FBI agents Audrey Parker and Nathan find themselves involved in nefarious dealings in the small Maine town of Haven, thanks to the return of “The Troubles,” which continue to affect the townspeople. The plotting is rarely credible, but even at its most outlandish, agreeable performances make this an honest to goodness guilty pleasure. The hi-def image is unsurpassable; extras include a documentary featurette, audio commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes and a blooper reel.
Deep Purple’s keyboardist (who died last year) composed this sprawling work in 1969, and this recording—by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Paul Mann’s baton—is an all-star affair, with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson (vocals), all-star session man Guy Pratt (bass), Darin Vasilev, Jon Bonnamassa and Steve Morse (guitar), and Lord himself (organist). At 45 minutes, this otherwise listenable mash-up of rock and orchestral music goes on way too long. The Blu-ray has the Concerto in 5.1 surround audio, a 50-minute documentary and interviews with Mann and Marco de Goeij.
In the bloody conclusion to an epic mini-series, Spartacus’ slave uprising threatens the Roman republic, and only the sheer outnumbering strength of the Roman army might be able to stop it. This swords-and-sandals remake is definitely (and defiantly) not like Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus: there’s a lot of brutality, violence and sex that couldn’t have been shown onscreen back in 1960. The Blu-ray looks marvelous; extras include featurettes, extended scenes and commentaries.
This 2009 debut film by then 20-year-old Quebecois director Xavier Dolan is a heartfelt but crudely sentimental exploration of a gay teenager’s complex relationship with his overbearing mother. Although Dolan is awkward onscreen, he smartly allows his film to be dominated by Anne Dorval’s indelible portrait of a matriarch in a love-hate tug-of-war with her son.
Judi Dench narrates this moving documentary about how thousands of Jewish children were rescued from the Nazi threat and sent to England for the duration of the war. Director Mark Jonathan Harris grippingly chronicles the amazing true story of the Kindertransport, which includes rarely-seen archival footage and interviews with survivors, who recount their own emotionally wrenching tales of goodness in the face of ultimate evil.
Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s sly novel might have seemed racy and daring in 1965, but half a century has dulled its edge and muted its satiric depiction of Southern California as a land of shallow slickness, compared to more cultured Old World of Europe. The movie is best seen as a time capsule (complete with Haskell Wexler’s exquisite B&W photography) that features cameos by stars of the day from Jonathan Winters and John Gielgud to Liberace and Milton Berle. Again, being relegated to Warner Archive, blunts the effectiveness of Wexler’s widescreen compositions; a lone featurette is an extra.
Even in its truncated form (it clocks in at a mere 69 minutes), John Huston’s 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War story is a vivid look at war’s effect on young soldiers. Harold Rosson’s B&W photography strikingly nods to Matthew Brady’s photographs, and Huston gets top-notch portrayals by Audie Murphy and Bill Maudlin as the men at war. It’s too bad this classic film has been relegated to Warner’s on-demand burn service.
This 1995 concert by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple band was filmed in Dusseldorf, before a raucous German crowd that enthusiastically approves of every famous guitar lick and riff from Blackmore’s axe. Although vocalist Doogie White is no Ronnie James Dio or David Coverdale, the sturdy songs are the real deal, including the all-time classic “Smoke on the Water.” There’s even a vocal appearance by Blackmore’s wife Candice White, who provides ethereal vocals on “Ariel."