Tuesday, December 1, 2015

December '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
American Ultra 
This fast-paced spy movie spoof—in which mild-mannered stoner-convenience store clerk Jesse Eisenberg discovers he's a sleeper CIA agent, to the shock of girlfriend Kristen Stewart, who has secrets of her own—fails to hide the strained goofiness at its center, with excessive cartoon violence that palls quickly, while the plot itself is so exaggeratedly silly that it immediately falls apart. Still, Stewart and Eisenberg are good sports in the lead roles, and Connie Britton is ferocious and funny as an ass-kicking CIA boss. The movie has a good Blu-ray transfer; extras are a commentary, featurettes and a gag reel.

Asif Kapadia's documentary about Amy Winehouse—the singer whose hit "Rehab" became an ironic commentary after her 2011 drug-overdose death—recounts her brief but meteoric rise in the music biz and even faster tragic fall with access to video footage, home movies and audio interviews with family, friends and colleagues. The movie is a despairing cautionary tale that would have been stronger had it been shorter—two-hours plus equals unneeded repetition that slows it down. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include unaired performances, deleted scenes, additional interviews and a commentary.

Possibly Akira Kurosawa's most emotionally charged film—at least until the touchingly sentimental finale of his penultimate feature Rhapsody in August—this profound 1952 dissection of one man's discovery that he has terminal cancer is among the profoundest cinematic statements on mortality without the preachiness that marred August. Takashi Shimura is exquisitely stoic and, finally, heartstoppingly moving in the lead, while Kurosawa himself reaches heights of humane expression rarely shown onscreen. The Criterion Blu-ray transfer is typically excellent; extras include audio commentary, documentaries and interviews.

Katy Perry—Prismatic World Tour 
(Eagle Rock)
I'm no Katy Perry fan, and the supposed charms of "Roar" and "Firework"—her two biggest hits and, not coincidentally, the first and last songs she performs in concert—continue to elude me: but I can see why millions of non-discerning fans adore her, since her concerts pump out those interchangeable hits and more. Her high-energy performance keeps fans' eyes filled with everything—dancers and lighting and acrobats and other tricks—throughout what's a far more successful visual than aural experience. The Blu-ray follows suit, with top-notch image and sound; extras include behind the scenes material.

Martha Davis and the Motels—Live at the Whisky a Go-Go 
It's been 30 years since I saw Martha Davis and the Motels in concert, so this concert at the L.A. club Whisky a Go-Go in honor of its 50th anniversary is my own celebratory return to hearing one of the most original female voices in rock music. Davis' own return with her band's current lineup finds her piercing, clear and emotive voice still ringing through on songs like "Take the L," "Suddenly Last Summer: and "Only the Lonely," which sound as immediate as ever. Too bad there's nothing from the underrated 1985 album Shock, but that's a small quibble. Both film and music are presented in first-rate hi-def; extras include interviews.

Quay Brothers—Collected Short Films 
The identical twin American brothers who have been creating short films—and two features so far—in the past three decades show off their playfulness, visual inventiveness and mordant sense of humor in the 15 electrifying shorts in this collection. The best of these mixtures of stop-motion and puppetry are the early The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer and Street of Crocodiles and the recent Maska, which co-opts the same startling Penderecki composition, Da Natura Sonoris No. 1, that Stanley Kubrick used so brilliantly in The Shining. The hi-def transfers of the Quay films—and Christopher Nolan's own short, Quay, eight minutes of the brothers at work—are for the most part mesmerizing, and six films include Quays' commentaries.

Queen—A Night at the Odeon 
(Universal/Eagle Rock)
Very slowly, we are finally getting legit releases of Queen's legendary 1970s performances, and this hour-long London concert on Christmas Eve in 1975 (shown on TV's The Old Grey Whistle Test), is one of the most sought-after, capturing Queen at its musical and theatrical best. Freddie Mercury stalks the stage with more confidence than ever and guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon sound tight, taut and terrific: check out the pummeling "Ogre Battle," just one of many highlights, for proof. The video is nothing special, even on Blu-ray, but the sound is explosive. Extras are three songs from a 1975 Tokyo concert and new interviews with May and Taylor.

Roger Waters The Wall 
Roger Waters has ingeniously morphed his Pink Floyd magnum opus from an anti-war, anti-audience rant in the group's 1979-80 concerts to political symbolism in 1990 Berlin to the current multi-media extravaganza: state-of-the-art sound and visuals allow Waters to turn The Wall into an arena rock spectacle without parallel. But even with the incredible hi-def sound and video, this release has equally necessary extras for real fans: there's a collection of brief Facebook films (nearly an hour's worth) about the tour, as well as extracts from the 2011 London concert when David Gilmour joined Waters onstage for his incendiary and emotional "Comfortably Numb" guitar solos, followed by a reunion of Waters, Gilmour and Nick Mason, joining Waters' current band for the record's finale, "Outside the Wall." 

DVDs of the Week
Captivated—The Trials of Pamela Smart 
The star of the first gavel-to-gavel TV coverage of a murder trial, the infamous Pamela Smart was convicted in 1991 of coercing several teens (including the 15-year-old with whom she was having sex) into killing her husband: the blonde, photogenic 20ish wife became the devil incarnate, and the entire trial led to a foregone conclusion, at least according to Jeremiah Zagar's documentary. Zagar brings up questions about what happened in and out of that courtroom a quarter-century ago, raising a few doubts about whether she was convicted in the media even before the trial began. The lone extra is a director Q&A.

The Dinner 
(Film Movement)
Whenever Giovanna Mezzogiorno is in a movie, make sure to watch: her exceptional, true, lived-in performances show off as natural an actress around today, from her breakthrough in The Last Kiss to her brilliant turn as Mussolini's mistress in Marco Bellocchio’s great Vincere. She does it again in a film that becomes melodramatic at every turn despite a central subject so unsettling—did the spoiled teenage children of brothers (a respected doctor and infamous defense attorney) really commit a horrific crime?—that it compels continued viewing. Despite his missteps, director Ivano de Matteo has assembled an accomplished cast, with Mezzogiorno's portrayal of a mother who tries to comprehend what her son may have done indelibly filled with pain, heartache and even humor. Lone extra is an on-set featurette.

Grace of Monaco 
(Weinstein Co./Anchor Bay)
This biopic about Princess Grace, concerning a few months in 1962 when her marriage and adopted country of Monaco were in fraught peril, was slickly directed by Olivier Dahan, who does what he can with Arash Amiel's script, which only skims the surface of Grace's personal and public lives. Although Nicole Kidman isn't embarrassing, her sort of Hollywood glamor is light years from Grace Kelly's natural beauty both on and offscreen, while Paz Vega—horribly miscast as Maria Callas—is far too beautiful to be a plausible stand-in for the famous singer.

Latin Lovers
The Merry Widow
(Warner Archive)
Lana Turner, one of the grandest of Hollywood leading ladies in the 1950s, oozed sex appeal effortlessly; Latin Lovers, Mervyn Leroy's decent 1953 romantic comedy, stars Turner as a successful corporate woman who has trouble finding and keeping men, until she finds Ricardo Montalban while vacationing in Brazil. More entertaining is the third cinematic go-round (made in 1952) of The Merry Widow, Franz Lehar's classic operetta, with Turner as the irresistible title character who finds romance with the Count, played by Fernando Lamas. Both movies have spectacular color, which would look far better on Blu-ray instead of these MOD (manufactured on demand) discs.

CDs of the Week
Magnard—Piano Trio & Violin Sonata
Weinberg—Violin Concertino, Rhapsody, Symphony No. 10 
French composer Alberic Magnard's music is barely remembered; he's known—if at all—for how he died: foolishly if bravely defending his home from German soldiers at the start of  World War I. But his meager musical output (some 20 or so surviving works) is impressive: his four symphonies are as sturdy and memorable as Brahms' or Schumann's, while his heroic opera Guercoeur has many passages of unsurpassed beauty. Happily, enterprising musicians and labels make occasional recordings, and the latest, comprising two substantial chamber works, is worth seeking out. Both of these monumental pieces, a 37-minute piano trio and 41-minute violin sonata, receive vigorous workouts, and their originality, somewhere between the French tradition and Wagner, makes one lament that Magnard labored so long over his works, taking a year or more to finish one, robbing us of even more.

Another composer affected by war, Mieczyslaw Weinberg—whose Jewish family was destroyed by Nazis during World War II—died in 1996; afterward his music finally began catching a foothold. He also wrote a powerful opera—The Passenger, about a concentration camp survivor—and raging, ironical and exasperated music in several genres, reminiscent of one of his biggest influences, Dmitri Shostakovich. This recording comprises three intense orchestral works, all given magnificent performances: Ewelina Nowicka plays the lyrical solo part of the haunting Violin Concertino along with arranging and playing on the attractive Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes; and Anna Duczmal-Mroz conducts the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio in the shattering Symphony No. 10 for string orchestra.

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