Tuesday, December 8, 2015

December '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
In this 45-minute IMAX film about the Holy Land’s most sacred city—which lays claim to being the origin point of the world's three most popular religions—hi-def cameras display the natural and man-made wonders awaiting anyone who visits or lives there, from the Great Mosque to the Wailing Wall to the great city's breathtaking surroundings, along with introducing a trio of teenagers (Christian, Jew and Muslim) calling it home. Benedict Cumberbatch narrates this focused, visually sumptuous portrait whose imagery, in both 2D and 3D on Blu-ray, is sublime; extras comprise two commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.

Mississippi Grind 
Gamblers befriending each other and joining up together has been a movie staple for decades—Robert Altman’s 1974 California Split was a memorable example—and directors-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s own drama is, while hardly original, a quality entry in the genre, aided by complementarily satisfying portrayals by Ben Mendelssohn and Ryan Reynolds. If the movie meanders for too long (its last act is contrived sentimentality of the worst sort), its engaging leads and stellar support from Sienna Miller (who's taken to playing American women in her last several appearances) make this highly recommended. The Blu-ray has a sharp transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Mistress America 
The pairing of director Noah Baumbach and his paramour, actress Great Gerwig, reaches its artistic nadir with this labored chronicle—which both wrote—of two young women in Manhattan who are future stepsisters: the older (Gerwig) has the younger (Lola Kirke) under her sway: or does she? Baumbach's directorial crudeness is equaled only by his inability to have anything interesting to say, and Gerwig is not gifted enough to plausibly bring off her character’s ridiculously arbitrary behavioral swings. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras are short featurettes.

(Anchor Bay)
She was a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, but Ukrainian-French babe Olga Kurylenko now gets her own starring vehicle as a criminal who avenges the demise of her gang at the hands of a criminal mastermind and his henchmen (and woman) in this fast-paced if astonishingly illogical thriller by first-time director Stephen Campanelli. While the script does itself no favors by giving us the dumbest five-year-old in movie history among other inanities, the violent endings of everyone else at the hands of Kurylenko (who's photographed lasciviously while wearing little, which shows that pulchritude in movies is alive and well) make this worth it for some 007 fans out there. There’s a solid hi-def transfer; lone extra is making-of featurette.  

The Passenger 
(Arthaus Musik)
Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s shattering 1968 opera about the Holocaust’s devastating emotional fallout among survivors received an excellent 2010 production at Austria’s Bregenz Festival, as Weinberg’s rawly dramatic music exposes the post-war wounds of precisely rendered characters taken from Zofia Posmysz’s novella (also the basis of Polish director Andrzej Munk’s last film, which he left incomplete upon his death in 1961). David Poutney’s stealthy staging intercuts camp flashbacks with the present; video director Felix Breisach cleverly renders the visuals for Blu-ray, while the playing and singing are equally top-notch. Included is a half-hour documentary, In der Fremde, about Weinberg and his opera. 

Sinatra—All or Nothing at All 
(Eagle Rock)
This two-part, four-hour documentary about the most famous singer to come from Hoboken, New Jersey celebrates the legendary singer's 100th birthday (he died in 1998 at age 82) by adroitly marrying voluminous biographical details—many heard in Frank’s own voice—with vintage footage of him both onstage singing and on screen acting, along with a plethora of talking heads, admirers, contemporaries, colleagues, showbiz friends and showbiz historians, all of whom give him pride of place in 20th century America's cultural firmament. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras include additional interviews.

Under the Dome—Complete 3rd Season 
I never thought this cheesy adaptation of a less than original Stephen King story idea (which showed up in The Simpsons Movie first, for what it's worth) would ever be a television hit, let alone make it through three seasons' worth of episodes, but here we are. This show may be the ultimate in guilty pleasures, or even in hate-watching, but it's admittedly entertaining in a car-wreck kind of way, at least for a few episodes anyway. There's an excellent Blu-ray transfer; extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

DVDs of the Week
In screenwriter Eskil Vogt's gutsy directorial debut, a blind young woman is shown in all her emotional and physical nakedness, from her dismal relationships to her increasingly fertile fantasy life, smartly blended so that there’s often a question about what’s real and what’s imagined. Although Vogt doesn't keep up his precarious balancing act for the entire film, he raises interesting questions about perception, privacy and—well—blindness, and actress Ellen Dorrit Pettersen's fearless performance keeps it watchable whenever it threatens to become risible. 

An En Vogue Christmas
Here's a holiday movie no one ever thought they needed: a reunion of the ‘90s soul group, En Vogue, in a contrived piece of holiday baggage about a club about to be shuttered until the gals get together to keep it alive. It's fluff, to be sure, but the spunky trio—only two of the original four, Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron, remain, and newcomer Rhona Bennett fills in nicely—does a few hits, while David Alan Grier is properly cranky as the semi-villain of the piece. It's not that Christmassy when all is said and done, but it's harmless enough.

The Girl King
(Wolfe Video)
We haven't heard much from Mika Kaurismaki, brother of Finnish wunderkind director Aki Kaurismaki, in awhile, but here he is with a new biographical epic about Queen Kristina, Sweden's 17th century monarch who assumed the throne at age six and reigned for 22 years (she died at age 63 while still a virgin). It's crammed with the usual biopic clichés, especially the sin of cramming far too much into a two-hour running time, which gives short shrift to a game multilingual cast: there are fine performances by Malin Buska as Kristina, Michael Nykvist as her duplicitous right-hand man and Sarah Gadon as the surprising object of the Queen’s affection, and even if Kaurismaki's direction is heavyhanded, this is a commendable attempt to resurrect the costume drama. 

CDs of the Week
Henri Dutilleux—Tout un monde lontain 
(Harmonia Mundi)
Dutilleux—Metaboles, etc.
(Seattle Symphony Media) 
One of the great composers of the 20th—and 21st—century, Frenchman Henri Dutilleux (who died in 2013 at age 97) had a style of emotionally refined modernism, and these two discs feature some of his most characteristic works. First, cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand torridly plays the spare Trois Strophes for solo cello and the amazing cello concerto, a work whose rigor is richly underscored by conductor James Gaffigan and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra. (Debussy's Cello Sonata, with pianist Pascal Amoyel, admirably rounds out this valuable disc.) On the second disc, the Seattle Symphony, under the steady baton of Ludovic Morlot, performs a trio of Dutilleux's most flavorful and dazzling large-scale works—Metaboles; the Violin Concerto, L'abre des songes (with sensational soloist Augustin Hadelich); and the exceptional Second Symphony, entitled Le double, and one of the great post-war symphonic statements—on the ensemble’s second formidable foray into a composer whose music exudes its own kind of beauty and poetry.

Krzysztof Penderecki—Magnificat
Penderecki—A sea of dreams did breathe on me 
For an avant-garde composer, Krzysztof Penderecki composes a lot of religious music, but that’s not too surprising, considering he's a Polish Catholic: these two Naxos discs are thick with his often brilliant, occasionally banal (and utterly unorthodox) vocal writing, especially the first disc's juxtaposition of the strikingly guttural voices on the 1973-4 Magnificat and the more recent (2009), more romantic-era Kadisz. The second disc, comprising the hour-long 2010 vocal and orchestral work, A sea of dreams..., set to Polish poetry, is in Penderecki's gentler mode; despite arid patches, it excitingly moves from fierceness to gentle serenity. Antoni Wit ably conducts the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra and the singers are excellent across the board.

No comments: