Tuesday, May 6, 2014

May '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Art of the Steal
(Anchor Bay/Starz)
The targets in Jonathan Sobol’s caper flick—the Guttenberg Bible and a Seurat painting—are not the usual Hollywood fluff, although the zany motley criminal crew led by Matt Dillon and Kurt Russell as double-crossing half-brothers is. With Terence Stamp and Jason Jones making an amusingly ragtag Interpol team, the adversaries are offbeat enough to keep this 90-minute heist movie afloat, even if it evaporates from memory when it ends. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include making-of featurettes and director commentary.

Hit the Deck
(Warner Archive)
This colorful 1955 musical directed by Roy Rowland might not be an obvious winner in the era of Guys and Dolls, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, but its killer cast (Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell and Ann Miller) performs songs like “The Lady from the Bayou” and “More Than You Know” while hoofing it up to Hermes Pan’s choreography. This musical about sailors may not be On the Town, but it’s endless Technicolor fun all the same. The movie looks splendid on Blu-ray.


Director Eric Rochant’s breakneck thriller features The Artist Oscar winner Jean Dujardin, typecast as a suave Russian double agent in Paris who falls for his latest mark, played by a stunning Cecile de France. There are enough dizzying double crosses to make the viewer forget the many inconsistencies that are par for the course in the spy genre, and Tim Roth and John Lynch provide solid Anglo support. On Blu-ray, the fantastic locales and glamorous stars look their hi-def best; extras include interviews.

Mr. Jones
(Anchor Bay/Starz)
The storyline of this found-footage horror film—a couple looking for peace and quiet stumble upon an infamous sculptor whose malevolent works start terrifying them to within an inch of their lives—is acceptable. Too bad that, after a strong set-up, the payoff has scant originality or scares, even if Sarah Jones and Mark Steger are a credible couple and director Karl Mueller stretch this out to 80 watchable (if forgettable) minutes. The hi-def transfer looks fine.


(Sony Classical)
(Arthaus Musik)
In his reverent Metropolitan Opera staging of Richard Wagner’s final, ethereal opera Parsifal, director Francois Girard has a formidable cast—Jonas Kaufman as Parsifal, Rene Pape, Katarina Dalayman and Peter Mattei—performing vocal magic under conductor Danielle Gatti’s sensitive baton. Richard Strauss’ still biting Salome, from Oscar Wilde’s play about the teenager who danced for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, has a sexy Salome in Swedish soprano Erika Sunnegardh in Gabriele Lavia’s otherwise adequate 2010 production. Both operas look and sound smashing on Blu-ray; Parsifal extras include backstage interviews.

Toto—Live in Poland: 35th Anniversary Tour
(Eagle Rock)
Who knew that Toto—a band whose last hit was in 1982—was still performing for fans around the world? Based on the Polish crowd’s fervent response to this 2013 concert, apparently Toto is still a big deal. Hits “Africa,” “Rosanna” and “Hold the Line” get huge responses, of course, but surprisingly so do deep album cuts like “Hydra” and “St. George and the Dragon”; original members David Paich and Steve Lukather (whose blistering guitar solos are the highlights of the show) are well-augmented by an army of session men and vocalists. The concert looks and sounds impeccable in hi-def; extras are interviews with band members.

Veronica Mars

I know I’m not the target audience for this by-the-numbers comic mystery based on a TV series I never watched, but Rob Thomas’s overlong movie version moves at a snail’s pace, has little dramatic urgency and true comedy, and is populated with cardboard characters, lazy plotting and phoned-in performances. Many fans signed up to fund this through Kickstarter; let’s hope that they feel they got their money’s worth. The Blu-ray image is top-notch; extras include interviews and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
The Address
In his new 90-minute PBS documentary, director Ken Burns shows how the most famous speech in American history—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—endures for each generation, as seen at a Vermont school for boys with learning difficulties, as the students create their own sense of self-worth and accomplishment by memorizing and reciting it. By also allowing several students to narrate the speech’s historical context, Burns once again brings American history alive for a new generation. Lone extra is Steven Spielberg reciting the speech.

China Beach—Complete Season 3

The third season of this groundbreaking Vietnam War television drama—about the unsung women who served our country—was originally shown during 1989-90. Once again, the show owes its success to stars Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger and the many period songs that evoke both nostalgia and emotion, from Cream’s “White Room, “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Strange Brew” to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” Extras are interviews, commentaries, gag reel and deleted scene.

Falling in Love
Islands in the Stream
(Warner Archive)
Falling in Love, Ulu Grosbard’s saccharine 1984 romance with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep as marrieds who meet on their way to work each morning and fall in love, has little chemistry between its stars, which allows Dianne Wiest and Harvey Keitel to steal the movie. In Franklin J. Schaffner’s musty 1976 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, George C. Scott gives a characteristically crusty portrayal of the flawed hero in a hackneyed story about family, art and war.

The Story of the Jews

Simon Schama, author of numerous books and host of television documentaries about art history, returns with his multi-part exploration of a most expansive subject: the history of the Jewish people. A mere five hour-long episodes can’t hope to convey the fullness of that rich history, but Schama invests the subject—dealing with European anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages to the Holocaust—with his animated and deeply personal touch, which makes the series an intelligent and powerful viewing experience.

Suzanne Vega—Solitaire Standing
This 2003 Rome concert, comprising a baker’s dozen of Suzanne Vega’s classic songs, lasts barely an hour: Vega also recites four of own poems, which her friend Valerio Piccolo translates for the audience. Vega is in fine form throughout, especially on her best songs like the opening “Marlene on the Wall,” “The Queen and the Soldier” and “Solitude Standing,” the title track from her 1987 breakthrough album that featured her two biggest hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” (which she saves for last, of course). The lone extra is a Vega interview.

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