Tuesday, November 24, 2015

November '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Code Unknown 
Austrian director Michael Haneke—the enfant terrible of contemporary European cinema—made this extraordinarily unsettling and prescient drama in 2000, and its premise about unmoored refugees in Europe still resonates, perhaps even more so now than it did in a pre-Sept. 11 world. Although Juliette Binoche is top-billed—and magnificent, as always—this is an ensemble cast in every sense of the word, whose relative unfamiliarity gives Haneke's film an authentic quasi-documentary look. The Criterion Blu-ray’s sharp image is marred by artifacts; extras include a Haneke intro, two Haneke interviews and an on-set documentary.

Deep in My Heart
Passage to Marseille 
(Warner Archive)
One of the more unheralded Hollywood musicals of its time, 1954's Deep in My Heart tells the life story of Broadway composer Sigmund Romberg (Jose Ferrer), cramming no less than 22 of his tunes into Stanley Donen’s sturdy musical biopic like the title song; but best of all are great song-and-dance numbers by Gene Kelly and his brother Fred, and by Ann Miller, who positively kills it on "It." In Michael Curtiz’s 1944 Passage to Marseille, Humphrey Bogart plays a French resistance fighter who leads a group of escaped prisoners from French Guiana. This nail-biting drama, a reunion of the star and director of Casablanca, daringly utilizes the flashbacks-within-flashbacks technique of the novel it’s based on. Both films have superlative hi-def transfers, Deep in color and Passage in B&W; extras include vintage cartoons and shorts.

(Arthaus Musik)
The Tsar's Bride 
(Bel Air Classiques)
Benjamin Britten's grandest opera, Gloriana premiered for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, dramatizing the fraught era of Her Majesty's earlier namesake: this glittery 1984 staging complements the laser-like focus of Sarah Walker as Elizabeth I. Britten's dramatic instincts rarely fail him, even if some of his music here is less than his best. The Tsar's Bride, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's classic 19th century opera, is transformed by director Dmitri Tcherniakov into a pointless Eurotrash exercise that needlessly modernizes a drama inextricably linked with Russian history. The amazing soprano Olga Peretyatko impresses in the title role, at least. Both operas look and sound good on hi-def.

No Escape 
(Anchor Bay)
Poor Owen Wilson and Lake Bell have to pretend to be interested as they implausibly dodge all manner of southeast Asian terrorists and other villains, all while managing to protect their two young daughters from most of the mayhem. Pierce Brosnan, who shows up periodically as a shadowy British secret agent, is fun as a kind of gruff 007, but whenever he’s not onscreen, the movie just goes through the action-movie motions. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise a commentary, deleted scenes and interviews.

Director Carlo Lizzani’s 1967 spaghetti western stars Lou Castel—who made such an impression in Marco Bellocchio’s extraordinary debut 1965’s Fists in the Pocket—as a gunman who helps rid a Wild West town of a cartel of bad guys. Castel gives a solid performance, and even director Pier Paolo Pasolini shows up as a priest, while Lizzani showed that there’s more to the then-revived western genre than the Sergio Leone epics that are most remembered. The new Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras include interviews with Lizzani and Castel.

Ricki and the Flash 
One of Jonathan Demme's most inconsequential films stars Meryl Streep as a has-been rocker whose vagabond lifestyle screeches to a halt when she returns to her adult children's lives after decades. Demme's offhand style keeps things going even when little happens—which is often—but even though Streep finds some depth in Ricki, Diablo Cody's script has so little conflict that there's more drama over what song Ricki and her band (including a game Rick Springfield) will do next. Kevin Kline and Audra MacDonald shine as Ricki's ex and his new wife, while Mamie Gummer (Streep's real-life daughter) plays her onscreen daughter with little persuasiveness or charm, unfortunately. The movie looks good on Blu; extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.

The Voyeur 
(Cult Epics)
That unapologetically sleazy Italian director Tinto Brass made this quasi-pornographic 1994 drama that at times cleverly (and at other times ineptly) shows a married man sexually dealing with his gorgeous but unhappy young wife and his elderly—but still virile—father’s sexy and seemingly willing nurse. There’s a fine line between erotica and porn that Brass nonchalantly criss-crosses, and there are genuinely erotic moments, mostly involving Katarina Vasilissa as the voyeur’s young wife. Lone extra is a Brass interview.

DVDs of the Week
Exhibition on Screen—The Girl with the Pearl Earring 
Exhibition on Screen—The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them 
(Seventh Art)
These succinct 90-minute documentaries illuminate the background of some of the most famous artworks ever painted: and the often elusive geniuses behind them, from the Vermeer masterpiece hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands, to the French masters' works in such institutions as Paris' Musee d'Orsay. One quibble: since these amazing paintings need high-definition to do justice to their unique use of color, it's too bad that these are DVDs and not Blu-rays, which would further show off their every nook and cranny. But for anyone who loves art—and Dutch and French art in particular—these are most informative overviews.

Gone with the Wind—The Remarkable Rise and Tragic Fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd
The fast rise—and horrific fall—of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of the best Southern rock bands of the 1970s, is chronicled in this almost too exhaustive documentary that includes tasty archival footage of the band performing some of their best songs from “Sweet Home Alabama” to “Gone with the Wind,” and interviews with surviving members, producer Al Kooper and music experts. That the band proper ended in 1977 with the plane crash that killed charismatic frontman Ronnie Van Zandt and others is inarguable, despite a band claiming to be Skynyrd that's still touring: but the band's legacy remains great songs. Extras are additional interviews.

Stations of the Cross 
(Film Movement)
Director Dietrich Bruggemann's austere drama follows troubled teenager Maria, whose family belongs to a morally strict church, and who slowly realizes that maybe not everything in the world is evil, causing rifts at home and at school. Bruggemann's formal style—14 chapters mimicking the stations of the cross at Jesus’ death—is equally strict, although it isn't hard to decipher how it ends, but his intelligence and rigor, coupled with Lea van Acken's astonishing portrayal of Marie, makes this a must-see movie that's not easily forgotten. Extras are a director's commentary and Bruggemann's short, One Shot.

The Wind in the Willows 
(Warner Archive)
In this 1987 Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass’s adaptation of the beloved children’s story by Kenneth Grahame, an amusing cast led by Charles Nelson Reilly, Roddy McDowell, Jose Ferrer and Eddie Bracken  voice the animals who play out the wise and timeless tale. With a half-dozen tuneful numbers sung by the likes of Judy Collins (who handles the title song), Willows has the typically basic Rankin-Bass animation, but for those looking for pleasant if not particularly compelling family fare, you could do worse.

CDs of the Week
Carl Nielsen—Symphonies and Concertos 
New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert has made it his mission to record the most important orchestral works of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and this four-disc set brings together his six symphonies and concertos for violin, flute and clarinet. The orchestra's playing on the symphonies—especially the masterly Fourth, the Indistinguishable—is energetic and expressive, and the concerto soloists—violinist Nikolai Znaider, flutist Robert Langevin and clarinetist Anthony McGill—acquit themselves admirably; these live performances provide a valuable glimpse of a composer often overshadowed by his Nordic contemporary Jean Sibelius.

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