Tuesday, December 24, 2013

December '13 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
David Lowery’s ponderous, humorless drama about an outlaw and his wife separated by circumstances is as irritating as a movie can be without being outright terrible. The visuals (and story) are by way of Terrence Malick without Malick’s magisterial sense of juxtaposition and pacing; imitative camerawork, editing and shots of nature don’t automatically translate into insight and artistry. And, although Casey Affleck is always a watchable presence, Rooney Mara is always one-note. The Blu-ray image looks splendid; extras include Lowery’s debut feature St. Nick, deleted scenes and making of featurettes.

Boston Red Sox—2013 World Series Champions
This jam-packed boxed set comprises eight Blu-ray discs with every pitch, out and inning of every 2013 World Series game, as the Red Sox won its third world championship in 10 years doing what the team hadn’t done in nearly a century: clinch it on their home field, Fenway Park (in Game 6 against the St. Louis Cardinals). Of course, since sports was made for hi-def—and vice-versa—the action looks stupendous; extras include the clinching League Championship Game 6 and 11 regular-season game highlights.


Like his earlier District 9, writer-director Neill Blomkemp’s latest dystopian sci-fi adventure attempts social commentary in its depiction of a late 21st century world where the haves are separated from the have-nots by a rotating space station that houses the well-to-do, leaving earth as a destitute shelter for the less fortunate. Matt Damon’s properly snarly hero and fantastic set design can’t compensate for Blomkemp’s shrill soapbox filmmaking; at least District 9 had a story that could handle the blatant metaphorical baggage. The hi-def transfer is terrifically detailed; extras include interviews, featurettes and an extended scene.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car
(Anchor Bay)
This muddled drama, set in 1969, makes obvious points about America’s changing role in the world as a Southern clan hosts a British family whose matriarch—former wife of the Southern clan’s father—has die of cancer. The impressive cast features John Hurt, a magnificent Frances O’Connor and Ray Stevenson (the Brits) and Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Katherine LaNasa and writer-director Billy Bob Thornton (the Southerners). Interesting material butts heads with offbeat tangents that go nowhere, like Thornton wanting to masturbate while a naked O’Connor recites in her plumy accent—which we actually see. The Blu-ray image looks fine; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Justified—Complete 4th Season
Timothy Oliphant returns as crusading U.S. marshal Raylan Givens, who this time around decides to crack a three-decade-old cold case, which unsurprisingly unruffles more than a few feathers, leading to an unusually brutal (even for this show) finale. The storytelling is streamlined and a formidable supporting cast lends the entire proceedings some gravitas that Oliphant is missing. The Blu-ray image looks terrifically good; extras include commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, interviews and outtakes.

Museum Hours
(Cinema Guild)
Writer-director Jem Cohen adroitly handles the lost art of conversation in his absorbing study of two strangers—she a Canadian tourist, he an Austrian museum guard—who meet in Vienna’s art museum where he works and build a tentative bond as she stays in the city to visit her comatose cousin in a local hospital. Pithy observations on art and the people who look at it (there are glorious close-ups of dozens of the museum’s paintings including many astonishing Breughels) abound in this restrained glimpse at an unlikely friendship between lonely people that, while not sexual, is nonetheless intimate. The Blu-ray image is ravishing, especially in the paintings’ details; extras comprise a trio of Cohen short films: Amber City; Anne Truitt, Working; Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man).

The Nature of Genius
Michael Apted made two insightful documentaries about the mysteries of genius: Inspirations (1997) covers creative artists like musician David Bowie, painter Roy Lichtenstein, glass artist Dale Chihuly and choreographer Edouard Lock, while Me & Isaac Newton (1999) features several scientists, of whom behaviorist Steven Pinker is best known. Apted’s rigorous but unpretentious films show that what we call “genius” might be inscrutable, but it is definable and even discussable: Apted’s pointed interviews make things accessible without any dumbing-down. The grainy Blu-ray image befits both films; extras include an Apted intro and additional interview segments.

DVDs of the Week
The Angels’ Share
One of Ken Loach’s most lighthearted films has an undercurrent of seriousness: down-on-their-luck working stiffs—one of whom discovers he has a palate for discerning superior liquor—look to make a huge profit when a rare batch of whiskey comes up for sale. In this seemingly slight story, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty wring a good deal of their specialty, social conscience and realism, among the laughs of their crowd-pleasing comic drama that’s also a hard look at these economically difficult times. The lone extra is a selection of deleted scenes.

Berberian Sound Studio
(IFC Midnight)
In this paean to bloody thrillers put out in droves by the Italian film industry—Giallo films were made by directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava in the ‘60s and ‘70s—director Peter Strickland cleverly dramatizes their absurdity without reducing his film to a mere slavish parody or imitation. A perfectly befuddled Toby Jones plays a veteran British sound man who starts working in Rome to create sickening sound effects that stand in for pulverizing innocent women onscreen; there’s a wickedly black sense of humor, and there’s also has a real find, Romanian actress Tonia Sotiropoulou, as a sexy but sinister secretary. Extras include Strickland’s commentary, deleted and extended scenes and a making-of featurette.

Far from Vietnam
When this fiercely political documentary was released in 1967, the Vietnam war was escalating: the Tet Offensive was still months away, as was Nixon’s spreading the war to Cambodia. But five directors—William Klein, Alain Resnais, Jean Luc Godard, Joris Ivens and Claude Lelouch, with an assist from Chris Marker, who edited their wide-ranging footage—made this jumbled, often naive but scathing chronicle that appraises the imperial Americans’ fight against the sainted Communists. Nearly 50 years later, the footage of protestors and pro-war zealots on Manhattan streets still stings. Lone extra: Marker and Francois Reichenbach’s short film The Sixth Side of the Pentagon.

Frontline—League of Denial
The muckraking journalistic series Frontline’s eye-opening expose of the NFL’s culture of denial over brain injuries is one of its most damning exposes: that ESPN, which partnered with Frontline, pulled out after league pressure is all one needs to know about its dead seriousness. Based on Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada’s book of the same name, the two-hour episode devastatingly shows the prevailing incidences of injuries in deceased players’ brains and how the league kept throwing up roadblocks like colluding doctors who toed the party line and called out solid scientific findings. League of Denial  might put the NFL out of business if enough concerned parents watch it.

30 for 30—Season II, Volume I
After its highly successful debut 30 for 30 season that memorialized the greatest personalities, events and stories in sports, ESPN begins a memorable second season with another group of films that runs the gamut from profound to ridiculous. Among these 15 films are standouts like the moving and tragic Benji, about a highly regarded Chicago high school basketball player killed in gang war; Ghosts of Old Miss, tracing the last vestiges of racism in the old South; and the emotional Survive and Advance, chronicling beloved college basketball coach Jim Valvano. This set includes the Grantland Quarterly book, The Way They Were

CDs of the Week
Bartok/KodalyComplete String Quartets

(Foghorn Classics)
Hungarian masters Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly both "discovered" the rich folk music tradition of eastern Europe, which influenced and informed many of their compositions, including their chamber music. Kodaly's two quartets show the variety of the folk motifs that both men uncovered, but with a peculiarly original way of assimilating it into his music. Bartok, by contrast, took the same folk song idiom and went further: his six quartets are passionate, serious, playful, serene, troubled and irksome, together making up the richest, most brilliant cycle of quartets composed in the 20th century. Although many other ensembles have recorded these touchstones of Hungarian music, the Alexander String Quartet's readings are flavorful, impassioned and memorable.

Britten—A Festival of Britten (Delphian)
BrittenThe Turn of the Screw (LSO Live)
BrittenWar Requiem (Testament)
As the centennial year of Benjamin Britten's birth comes to an end, suddenly there arrives a flurry of new recordings of works by England's greatest composer (the appellation "20th century" is not needed). A Festival of Britten, which comprises two discs, demonstrates the composer's affinity for choral music: both short works and glorious longer pieces like the Yuletide Ceremony of Carols are lovingly sung by the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. The Turn of the Screw, from Henry James' story, is Britten's most compact and astringent opera, its ghostly qualities brought to vivid life in a London Symphony Orchestra performance, solidly conducted by Richard Farnes and sung with biting feeling by a top cast led by Andrew Kennedy and Sally Matthews.

Lastly, the 1962 world premiere performance of Britten's harrowing War Requiem is finally on CD: the mono sound muffles but doesn't erase the power of this exquisite wrought creation that speaks to its composer's pacifism. Britten's lover, tenor Peter Pears, soprano Heather Harper and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau beautifully articulate the text (which includes anti-war poems by Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I) alongside several choirs and two orchestras led by Meredith Davies and Britten himself, whose musical triumph this remains more than a half century later.

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