Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
(First Run)
Surreal Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s thrilling 1988 take on Alice in Wonderland is crammed with his singular visual inventiveness, showcasing his genius for dazzling stop-motion images. Although it might be too offbeat for children, it’s a must-see for anyone who ODed on Disney’s more sanitized version. Although the movie looks enticing on Blu-ray, First Run dropped the ball by omitting the original Czech audio and forcing the child-friendly English track on viewers. There are also no extras, unlike the British Film Institute release.

The Bletchley Circle—Season 2
Our quintet of intrepid female code breakers—who cracked Nazi spy codes to turn the tide of WWII—return for more post-war London sleuthing in these two entertaining full-length features. Although the plotting is only intermittently arresting, it’s the women themselves—played by Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Sterling, Hattie Morahan, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham—that hold our interest throughout. The Blu-ray image looks solid if a little soft; extras include interviews.

A lesser-known Civil War conflict is featured in Ron Maxwell’s static, occasionally gripping study of men on opposite sides of Lincoln’s declaration of war against the Southern states: Copperheads (named after the snakes) were against this obviously “just” war. Although a handsomely mounted account of an obscure bit of American history, the movie creeps along for many of its 120 minutes, often undermining its potential power with derivative direction and lackluster performances. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.

Death in Venice
(Opus Arte)
Porgy and Bess
Benjamin Britten’s final opera, 1973’s Death in Venice, receives a musically accomplished if dramatically inert 2013 revival by director Deborah Warner in London for the composer’s birth centenary; John Graham-Hall is persuasive as Aschenbach, the dying writer. In San Francisco Opera’s 2013 staging of the Gershwins’ immortal Porgy and Bess, Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell are histrionically and vocally imposing in the iconic title roles, highlights being “Bess, You Is My Woman” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” Both Blu-ray look impressive and sound even better; Porgy’s extras are interviews.

The Invisible Woman
(Sony Classics)
Ralph Fiennes plays novelist Charles Dickens as a Victorian-era rock star: an incredibly popular writer and speaker, Dickens lives for the adoration of his (mostly female) fans, and—even though he’s contentedly married with ten children—he embarks on an affair with a tempestuous young teacher, played with gusto by Felicity Jones. Although Fiennes’ direction tends toward the undistinguished, the lush physical production surrounding two meaty lead performances helps make this unexciting soap opera watchable. The Blu-ray’s visuals look superb; extras include Fiennes’ and Jones’ commentary, interviews and Toronto Film Festival press conference.

The Pawnbroker
(Olive Films)
In Sidney Lumet’s heavily symbolic but powerful 1965 character study of a Jewish concentration camp survivor struggling in his new life as a Harlem pawnbroker—as he deals with people as emotionally adrift as he—Rod Steiger gives an understated performance, surprising coming from an actor not known for subtlety. But despite Lumet’s uneven directing that culminates in a forced series of false climaxes, Steiger creates a psychologically credible portrait. Boris Kaufman’s moody B&W photography retains its grittiness on Blu-ray.

William Friedkin’s 1977 adventure has received a critical reappraisal as a lost classic, but it’s anything but: instead it’s a wrongheaded if technically accomplished remake of  H.G. Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear (Friedkin even dedicates his film to Clouzot). There are tension-filled sequences, especially with the truck on a bridge, but since the characters all remain ciphers, there’s no one to root for in this this two-hour slog through the jungle. Tangerine Dream’s electronic soundtrack is alternately effective and overdone, like the film itself. On Blu-ray, the movie looks stunning.

DVDs of the Week
La Maison de la Radio
(Kino Lorber)
Nicholas Philibert’s latest fly-on-the-wall documentary follows the daily interactions of dozens of employees at Radio France, the state-run Gallic equivalent of the BBC or NPR. Talk-show hosts, news readers, weather forecasters, sports announcers, singers and performers, technicians and people behind the scenes are seen informing, entertaining and giving the news to millions of listeners, and Philibert films it all in his inimitable way, showing the teaming mass of humanity inside the radio conglomerate’s recognizably circular headquarters in the heart of Paris.

Russia’s Open Book—Writing in the Age of Putin
Juliet Stevenson narrates this hour-long account of Russian authors surviving and even thriving despite the black marks on their reputations in Vladimir Putin’s supposedly democratic Russian regime. Instead of criticizing their fearless leader outright, Russian’s Open Book allows writers from Anna Starobinets to Vladimir Sorokin to speak for themselves, both in interviews and in excerpts from their provocative books, read here by the show’s host, British actor Stephen Fry.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali
(Kino Lorber)
In Bill Siegel’s arresting documentary, the world’s most famous man—known as much for his brash mouth as his pummeling fists—is shown as a polarizing cultural and political figure: from changing his name to joining the Nation of Islam, Ali’s very public mistakes and successes outside the ring are as important as his boxing achievements. Interviews with Ali’s brother, daughter and ex-wife are touching, while others like Louis Farrakhan come off as self-serving: but all paint a fuller portrait of a complicated man. Extras are four deleted scenes, audio commentaries and a mock trial by school students.

Wrong Cops
(IFC Midnight)
Writer-director Quentin Dupieux’s heavy-handed, ineffectual comedy about cops abusing their standing in the community—we see them sell drugs and force a woman to provide her phone number in the first few minutes alone—is the kind of unfunny spoof that might have the crew in stitches on the set, but does little for an audience. Good performers like Agnes Bruckner and Roxane Mesquida are mercilessly wasted; when Marilyn Manson doesn’t even register onscreen, it’s hopeless. Lone extra is a Manson featurette.

CDs of the Week
Joyce Yang—Wild Dreams (Avie)
and Tchaikovsky (Bridge)
Exuberant pianist Joyce Yang demonstrates a prodigious keyboard talent on these discs. On Wild Dreams, her easy facility for a wide range of solo piano music from Robert Schumann to Bela Bartok is highlighted by her impassioned playing of two Sergei Rachmaninoff works and Paul Hindemith's deceptively difficult passages. On the Tchaikovsky orchestral disc, Yang dispatches one of the concerto genre’s true warhorses by showcasing the composer’s generous lyricism. Conductor Alexander Lazarev and the Odense Symphony Orchestra provide solid support and give an appropriately stormy reading of the tone poem The Tempest.

Shani Diluka—Road 66
Sri Lankan pianist Shani Diluka’s programming idea for this recital disc is to play various pieces by American composers as complements to Jack Kerouac’s fragmented writings. That Kerouac’s work directly correlates with the music is questionable, but Diluka’s tremendously precise playing—particularly on unheralded gems like Copland’s Piano Blues No. 1, Samuel Barber’s Pas de Deux and even Philip Glass's Etude No. 9—makes the program secondary to the glorious musicmaking. She’s also joined by soprano Natalie Dessay for the bittersweet finale: Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Is Love?"

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