Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July '14 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Aerial America—Southwest Collection
(Smithsonian Channel)
In the latest release from the invaluable series exploring this great land of ours, unforgettable aerial footage of five states (Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) is the star of this four-hour travelogue. Among their eye-popping scenic vistas and natural wonders, stand-outs are Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Nevada’s Hoover Dam, New Mexico’s Santa Fe and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Captured with pinpoint clarity by many hi-def cameras, these locations linger in the memory, thanks to the first-rate hi-def transfer.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn
The latest by Phil Alden Robinson (director of Field of Dreams and Sneakers) is a compact, intermittently satisfying black comedy about an angry man who, when told he has 90 minutes to live, runs all over Brooklyn hoping to make belated amends with his family. Robinson’s concise direction and pitch-perfect performances by Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Melissa Leo and Sutton Foster help disguise the fact that this is ultimately 84 shopworn minutes of material from Daniel Taplitz’s script. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are a making-of featurette and gag reel with not enough Williams craziness.

Ariadne auf Naxos
Don Carlo
(Sony Classical)
Although German tenor Jonas Kaufmann stars in both operas, he is less in his element in Strauss’s Ariadne than in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo, where he memorably plays the sympathetic nobleman in the Salzburg Festival’s 2013 staging, which matches the complexities in the libretto and masterly music. Ariadne is Salzburg’s 2012 staging of the unwieldy original, which Strauss wisely discarded before settling on the justly well-known version. Strauss’s women, as always, are front and center, and Emily Magee and Elena Mosuc come off best in a time-capsule work that has glorious music but bumpy dramaturgy. Hi-def visuals and audio of both operas are exemplary.

Love in the City
There was a plethora of omnibus films by notable European directors in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, and this engagingly lightweight 1953 ensemble feature was one of the first: despite comprising shorts by heavy-hitters near the beginning of their careers (Fellini, Antonioni) and other noteworthy filmmakers (Dino Risi, Alberto Lattuada), this is a scattershot film about romances and relationships. Still, anyone interested in these directors—particularly Antonioni and Fellini—will want to at least check out their favorites’ segments. On Blu-ray, the image looks OK if too digitized; extras include commentaries and interviews.

The Wind Will Carry Us
(Cohen Media)
Iranian Abbas Kiarostami’s dazzlingly formal 1999 study follows a group of engineers which arrives at a remote village to record the inhabitants’ mourning rituals preceding a 100-year-old woman’s death; when she doesn’t die, the men are forced to appreciate the slow pace of the people’s day-to-day existence. Before he turned into a pretentious purveyor of “reality or illusion” dramas—culminating in the colossally vacuous Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love—Kiarostami directed thought-provoking films with simple but stunning imagery, which come through unvarnished on Blu-ray. Lone extra is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s commentary.

DVDs of the Week
The French Minister
Bertrand Tavernier’s unabashed and witty satire of French—and, by extension, international—politics comes very close to becoming the distinguished and intelligent French director’s first foray into farce. But the over-the-top careenings of the characters and the absurd—but expressly realistic—scenarios remain plausible enough to make viewers uncomfortable while laughing out loud. This exhilarating highwire act comes perilously close to going over the edge into self-parody, but never does: pitch-perfect acting by Thierry Lhermitte, Raphael Personnaz, Anais Demoustier and Julie Gayet grounds their near-caricatures in Tavernier’s superbly rendered ultra-heightened reality. My lone quibble: why is this not on Blu-ray? Extras are brief featurettes.

Medical Center—Season 5
(Warner Archive)
For the popular hospital drama’s fifth season—which was televised in 1973-74—Chad Everett and James Daly’s doctors not only deal with their patients’ physical and mental issues, but also with thorny problems which were then plaguing and dividing the country, like homosexuality and the Vietnam War. Alongside the stars, some of the guests passing through the hospital’s doors on the six discs housing this season’s 24 episodes include Stefanie Powers, Stockard Channing, Jill Clayburgh, Julie Harris and even Celeste Holm.

Le Week-End
(Music Box)
Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan could scarcely be bettered as a middle-aged English couple trying to rekindle their long-dulled marriage by returning to Paris, scene of their long-ago honeymoon. But despite the deliciously believable relationship they create, director Roger Michel and writer Hanif Kureishi are unable to surround them with an arresting storyline or non-clichéd characters to interact with (typified by Jeff Goldblum’s vulgar caricature as an ugly American). Extras are director-producer commentary, featurettes and cast-crew interviews.

CD of the Week
John Mellencamp—Live at Town Hall, July 31, 2003
It was a long way from Johnny Cougar warbling “Hurts So Good” to a politically aware John Mellencamp performing the entirety of his then-current album, Trouble No More, a collection of blues and folk tunes that stingingly commented on the state of the nation when the Bush administration began its disastrous Iraq war in a 2003 concert that finally sees the light of day. Mellencamp’s maturity came in fits and starts in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but his scathing Trouble songs—played with controlled power by his terrific live band—are in another realm entirely, led by his re-writing of an old song, “To Washington,” mocking the sins of those in power. Renditions of his ‘80s hits “Small Town,” “Paper in Fire” and “Pink Houses”—in more folk-based arrangements—mark a straight line to the political charged tunes from Trouble No More.    

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