Monday, January 27, 2014

January '13 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Bonnie and Clyde
Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 film with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the infamous gangster-lovers will never be touched, but director Bruce Beresford brings a veteran’s competence to this three-hour TV mini-series that might be short on original touches but has atmosphere and colorful characterizations in spades. Emile Hirsch and especially Holliday Granger make a sexy young team, and there’s excellent support from William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Elizabeth Reaser. The movie’s hi-def transfer looks first-rate on Blu-ray; extras include featurettes and interviews.

Benjamin Britten Operas
Gloriana (Opus Arte)
Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach (Arthaus Musik)
The Rape of Lucretia (Opus Arte)
This trio of opera releases makes the end of 2013’s Britten Centenary Celebration anything but anticlimactic. Gloriana, composed for Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation, is a beautifully constructed historical opera that never forsakes depth for pageantry; last summer’s Royal Opera House staging is somewhat crude but effective.

Peter Grimes, Britten’s first and most famous opera, is set by the sea in the region he was born and lived in; director Margaret Williams's film, shot on the beach at Aldeburgh—where the composer began a music festival that continues to this day—shows the opera’s expressive power, especially as played by the Britten-Pears Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford. The problematic  Lucretia is a chamber opera with some of Britten’s most memorably thorny music; the English National Opera makes this demanding work worthwhile. Seeing and hearing these classics on hi-def is a must; extras include interviews.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
This amusing sequel to the original movie and book about an invention that turned water into food which caused weather reports like the title, is cleverer than it should be. The animation and comic riffs are delicious (sorry) and rarely as overbearing as in Disney and Pixar flicks. It’s nothing earthshaking, but well-crafted fun for the family. The Blu-ray looks perfect; extras include four mini-movies, deleted scenes, commentary, music video and featurettes.  

Downton Abbey—Complete Season 4

For his smash series’ fourth season, writer-creator Julian Fellowes has gone down an even tragic road (including last season’s shocking killing-off of a main character), and mixing in an unexpected interracial romance with an African-American jazz singer is added spice. As in the previous seasons, the high bar of acting, writing, directing, set design and photography coalesce beautifully; the redoubtable cast includes Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton. On Blu-ray, it all looks great; extras include featurettes and interviews.

Dracula 3-D
(IFC Midnight)
Italian horror maven Dario Argento, still going strong at age 73, has made a flamboyant but surprisingly entertaining take on the Transylvanian neck biter, with a jokey mix of blood and boobs that keeps the lulls of a bloated 110-minute running time to a minimum (20 minutes cut out would also help). Argento’s crazed eye hasn’t faltered him, and his eye for women—especially the voluptuous Miriam Giovanelli as a country bride turned vampire—is unerring, whether in 3-D or 2-D. The Blu-ray image is terrific; extras are an hour-long making-of featurette and music video.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Bob Rafelson’s remake of the classic noir film (from James Cain’s novel), panned upon release, bombed at the box office as a result. Three decades later, it’s still a mixed bag, but the animal heat on display between Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange—in one of the most primal sex scenes ever in a mainstream movie—is definitely memorable, as is Lange’s first great screen performance. David Mamet’s script is typically spare, while Rafelson’s direction and Sven Nykvist’s photography are striking. The Blu-ray image is good and grainy; lone extra is a Rafelson, Nicholson and Mamet commentary.

DVDs of the Week
The African-Americans—Many Rivers to Cross
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s thorough multi-part exploration of black men and women in America, from slavery—when they were brought over on African ships—to today, is devastating. The earlier chapters, in which Gates brings their history alive, from early settlements to the Civil War, are more powerfully evocative, but the immediacy of the later chapters (MLK, civil rights, Obama) is also compelling. These six hours of American history are necessary viewing.

Borgen—Complete Season 3

For the third and final season of this exceptionally well-observed drama about the inner machinations of Danish politics and media, the characters are even more sharply drawn and their interactions strike sparks that reverberate far beyond each of the 10 riveting episodes. As in the previous seasons, the two brilliant actresses playing the former prime minister and TV journalist turned political operative—Sidse Babett Knudsen and Birgitte Hjort Sorsensen—are magnificent; but the entire supporting cast is nearly as superb. Don’t wait for the inevitable American TV remake: it will be a major letdown.

Concrete Blondes
(Inception Media)
At first, this fast-paced, goofy thriller has fun with its trio of bimbos who find themselves in the middle of a drug war after they steal millions in Canadian money after a drug deal gone wrong becomes a bloodbath. But director/co-writer Nicholas Kalikow overplays his hand, failing to turn the outrageously fake-looking gore and intentionally dumb plot twists and characters into a winning B-movie formula: despite the tongue-in-cheek performances by Carly Pope, Samaire Armstrong and Diora Baird, these Blondes fall flat.

Dark Touch

A Perfect Man
In Touch, a turgid little horror movie by director Marina de Van, a young girl is followed by a malevolent being that caused the deaths of her family—and may do more of the same to her newly adopted one. Occasionally eerie, it’s mostly foolish and, by its end, regrettably risible. Likewise, Man wastes Live Schreiber and especially an underrated Jeanne Tripplehorn in Kees van Oostrum’s self-indulgent drama about a philanderer and the wife who finally wises up after one affair too many. At least Amsterdam looks nice.

Forward 13
(Cinema Libre)
When Patrick Lovell lost his home in the 2008 financial crisis, he decided to make a film documenting what’s happened to the American dream for most of us who don’t work on Wall Street. Even though it trods familiar ground, Lovell’s documentary is packed with equal parts anger and honest commentary, so there are intriguing discussions of our banking system, government’s inefficiency and the Occupy movement: all germane to any intelligent 21st century American.

Garibaldi’s Lovers

(Film Movement)
Silvio Soldini’s comic drama about modern life in Italy has moments of satiric bulls-eyes, but all too often Soldini takes the easy way out by combining cheap parodic humor and sentimentality into an unsteady brew. But despite the unevenness—talking statues recur to lessening returns, while the protagonist’s dead wife keeps returning, more and more nonsensically—it’s made more than watchable by levelheaded performances by Valerio Mastandrea and Alba Rohrwacher as alienated people whose lives change when they unexpectedly meet. Lone extra is Anete Melece’s short, The Kiosk, from Switzerland.

CDs of the Week
Philip Glass—Galileo Galilei
(Orange Mountain Music)
Perhaps to belatedly catch John Adams—who turned President Nixon’s visit to China, the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the creation of the atom bomb into viable operatic subjects—Philip Glass has also composed musical theater works on historical subjects, like Appomattox, Kepler, the recent Perfect American (about Walt Disney), and this 2002 opera about revolutionary scientist Galileo. Too bad Glass’s music lacks the forward propulsion needed to give dramatic momentum to an essentially static story. The usual arpeggios and repetitions are in place, but they’re not varied or memorable enough to keep interest for 90 minutes, despite it being well-performed by the Portland Opera Orchestra led by Anne Manson with the strong-voiced Richard Troxell in the title role.

Rick Stotijn—Basso Bailando

(Channel Classics)
Dutch double bassist Rick Stotijn shows off his virtuosity and versatility in this imaginative program of works by Astor Piazzolla, Manuel de Falla and Nino Rota, whose irresistible Divertimento Concertanto is the disc’s attractive centerpiece, a splendid concoction that ranks as one of the Italian composer’s most characteristically tuneful works. Rounding out an enticing recording are spirited arrangements for double bass of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and Manuel de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs, where Stotijn’s soulful bass playing is complemented by violinist Malin Broman (Piazzolla) and harpist Lavinia Meijer (Falla).

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