Tuesday, June 16, 2015

June '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Yet another perceptive coming-of-age exploration by French director Celine Sciamma—whose earlier wonderful movies about children, Water Lilies and Tomboy, are classics of a kind—Girlhood follows black teenagers living in the projects outside Paris, zeroing on Marieme, whose abusive older brother causes her to join a group of "cool" girls. The alternating exhilaration and confusion of adolescence is dramatized with liveliness and sympathy by Sciamma, and Karidja Touré’s Marieme is a protagonist of charming awkwardness that makes this another painfully truthful portrait by who now can be considered a major director. The Blu-ray image looks sharp; lone extra is a Karidja Touré interview.

A Master Builder 
My Dinner with Andre 
(Criterion Collection)
The pairing of playwright-actor Wallace Shawn and playwright-director Andre Gregory always fills me with dread, from their cinematic collaborations with Louis Malle to their New York stage work. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt with their latest, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Master Builder, gestating for 17 years and finally filmed by Jonathan Demme, who gives an otherwise risible production a professional gloss. Updating a problematic play provides no illumination, and Shawn himself is disastrous as the bitter aging architect; slightly better are Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce and Larry Pine.

Then there's My Dinner with Andre, the self-indulgent 1981 film directed by Louis Malle that brought Shawn and Gregory fleetingly into the cultural spotlight, recounting the men's catching up on old times and discussing topics of supposed intellectual heft. Some find it life-changing; I find little of interest. The Criterion transfers are superlative; extras feature new and vintage interviews. 

Run All Night 
(Warner Bros)
In this violent tale of revenge and honor killing, Liam Neeson plays a longtime hitman on the run one last time: he's killed the shady son of an old friend and mob boss and now tries to clear his own estranged son's name while taking the fall himself. Director Jaume Collet-Serra stylishly stages car chases and shoot-outs that border on the ludicrous; but despite the script's many holes, a committed cast brings it home: along with the usual laconic Neeson, there's Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Common and the criminally underused Genesis Rodriguez. The movie's nighttime grit transfers well to Blu-ray; extras comprise featurettes and deleted scenes.

Slash Live at the Roxy 
(Eagle Rock)
At the legendary L.A. club The Roxy, Slash and his band The Conspirators—which includes his own ace in the hole, singer Myles Kennedy—blast through 17 songs (13 in the main concert and 4 bonus tracks), many from the new album World on Fire with a couple from Velvet Revolver and the rest from a certain band Slash was in 20-plus years ago. With Kennedy's controlled banshee-like vocals leading the way (he can sound like Axl Rose without imitating him outright), and with Slash's memorable riffs and ultra-melodic solos, this is crushing hard rock at its best: standouts are "Rocket Queen" and "World on Fire." The Blu-ray image and sound are first rate, but obviously the bonus songs should be part of the concert proper.

Wild Tales 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Argentine director Damian Szifron's omnibus film comprising six exaggerated stories of vicious vengeance is not as clever as it thinks it is, as Szifron reverts to obvious Twilight Zone-hammering irony at every turn (including a real hammer at a pivotal point in one story), despite each self-contained episode being extremely well-shot and well-acted. The opening pre-credit sequence works superbly as a tasty intro, and the final demented wedding reception is hilariously nasty, but the other four are bludgeoning and shrill "ironic" tales of ordinary madness. The movie looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras are making-of and Toronto Film Festival footage.

DVDs of the Week
Generation Baby Buster 
(Cinema Libre)
As director Terra Renton notes, not every woman wants to get pregnant, and Renton’s very personal documentary explores the stories of some who've decided to do (or not do) just that, despite the still prevalent ostracizing by our society over such extremely private decisions. Renton talks with everyone from childhood experts to those, like her, who remain child-free, and it’s her presence, steely but willing to hear all sides, that makes this a most engaging documentary on a thorny subject. Extras comprise additional interviews.

King Lear 
Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen has written some of the most strikingly original operas of the past 40 years—notably his first two, The Horseman and The Red Line—and he continues his winning streak with his dramatically piercing adaptation of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy: unlike German Aribert Reimann's Lear (a notable example of atonalism), Sallinen writes in a thoroughly melodic if astringent musical idiom. His operatic equivalences of the Bard's poetically diabolical crushing of every possible light in the darkness is evident in the accomplished writing and performers like Matti Salminen as Lear, Lilli Paasikivi as daughter Cordelia and Aki Alamikkotervo as the Fool, which allow Sallinen's brave gamble to work brilliantly in this 2002 Helsinki world premiere production. 

180 Days—Hartsville 
In the second installment of a PBS series exploring the precarious current state of American education, Jacquie Jones and Garland McLaurin's two-part documentary spends a full year among students and faculty in Hartsville, South Carolina, to shine a light on a public school system that, despite a district that is in abject poverty, has a 92% graduation rate. Such an anomaly is not a one-off: despite the success of the local schools, the district’s new superintendent rightly worries about how students who are graded by standardized testing can survive in an increasingly non-standardized 21st century world environment.

CD of the Week
An American in Paris—Original Broadway Cast Recording 
(Masterworks Broadway)
What was really the best musical of the just-completed Broadway season (sorry, Fun Home), An American in Paris not only stars two dizzyingly talented triple-threat dancer-actor-singers Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, but also features George Gershwin’s glorious music, head and shoulders above anything being composed by today’s practitioners on the Great White Way. In addition to timeless tunes like “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “’S Wonderful,” there are the instrumental pieces like the classic title ballet, which showcases Rob Fisher’s arrangements and Christopher Austin’s Tony-winning orchestrations. Of course, since this is primarily a dancing show—Christopher Wheeldon rightly won the Best Choreography Tony Award but was robbed for Best Director—the music is only half of what makes it such a masterly musical, but that half is touched by pure genius.    

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