Wednesday, November 2, 2016

November '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Body Snatchers
(Warner Archive)
Abel Ferrara’s 1993 “reboot” of Invasion of the Body Snatchers adds a further level of paranoia by involving the U.S. military—but this crude, single-minded story doesn’t really get going until the final reels (it took three screenwriters to think this up?). As the heroine, Gabrielle Anwar has a striking presence: it’s still surprising that she (Scent of a Woman notwithstanding) never became a star. Overall, this isn’t bad, which for Ferrara is pretty good. The hi-def transfer is decent.

Forces of Nature
For this latest scientific eye-opener via PBS and the BBC, four 60-minute episodes parse the unique beauties of nature through the often unfathomable rules that science tries to make understandable; the episode titles tell all: Color, Elements, Motion and Shape. The genuinely eye-popping hi-def photography, coupled with instructive commentary about what makes our universe go round—from forces of gravity to movement of animals—make this a must-watch: all four hours of it. The hi-def visuals look simply spectacular on Blu.

The ID 
(Hutson Ranch Media)
A middle-aged woman living with her elderly father attempts to break free from his dire influence—with devastating consequence—in this sometimes frightening thriller by director Thommy Hutson and writer Sean H. Stewart. Patrick Peduto is a bit too on the nose as the father, but Amanda Wyss—known to horror audiences for A Nightmare on Elm Street—gives a fiercely committed performance as the daughter. The hi-def transfer is impressive; extras comprise a making-of featurette, Hutson/Wyss commentary, deleted/alternate scenes and audition clips.

Men & Chicken
(Drafthouse Films)
This scattershot but amusing misadventure follows two half-brothers who are out to find their birth dad after the man they thought was their father confesses he isn’t in a video he makes for them before his death. The Hunt’s Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik head a marvelous cast in this flat-out insane look at strange family relationships, even if writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen goes too far with his yen for vomiting and violence, however slapstick it is. The Blu-ray image is solid.

Norman Lear—Just Another Version of You 
One of television’s towering geniuses, 92-year-old Norman Lear—creator of, among others, All in the Family, Good Times, Maude and The Jeffersons—is profiled in this informative documentary about his life and career—and, most important, his influence on American culture far beyond the boob tube. Lear discusses his own political and social viewpoints (which obviously informed his shows), and there are new interviews from some of his actors and vintage interviews with those—like Carroll O’Connor—who are unfortunately no longer around. Too bad it’s only 90 minutes: it could easily go on for another hour or so. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are deleted scenes.

Ugly, Dirty & Bad
(Film Movement)
Italian director Ettore Scola won Best Director at Cannes in 1976 for this grotesque, at times trenchant but mostly wallowing comic study of a large poor family near Rome and their newly wealthy patriarch, who decides to spend his money on an obese prostitute he loves. As the father, Nino Manfredi makes the unlikeable protagonist likeable, but for nearly two hours, Scola rubs our noses in the grime of this family’s immorality, all to diminishing returns by his film’s end. The restored transfer is sharp and detailed; the lone extra is an informative Richard Pena commentary.

DVDs of the Week 
Casella—La Donna Serpente
Elgar—The Dream of Gerontius
(ICA Classics)
Alfredo Casella, an accomplished mid-20th century Italian composer, penned his lone opera, La Donna Serpente, in 1928; this 2014 staging in Martina Franca, Italy, highlights its attractive and eminently singable music, but also the silly libretto which keeps it from being anything more than an entertaining curiosity. Edward Elgar, England’s most famous 20th century composer before Benjamin Britten, was known for Big Statement works like the Enigma Variations or Pomp and Circumstance; The Dream of Gerontius is a massive choral work: this 1968 performance, filmed in the famous Canterbury Cathedral, has an array of brilliant forces, from conductor Sir Adrian Boult to singers Peter Pears, Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk, which give it a professional veneer. A second Elgar disc includes an hour-long 1989 BBC Boult profile.

Eva Doesn’t Sleep
(Film Movement)
Pablo Aguero’s potent piece of speculative fiction sprinkled with fact takes the measure of one of the 20th century Argentina’s most seminal historical events—the death of Eva Peron in 1952—and covers episodes over the next quarter-century surrounding her body’s burial. With a giddy mixture of dramatization and documentary footage, Aguero shows how explosive were the clashes between opposing political factions following the death of a 33-year-old president’s wife who embodied the hopes and fears of millions of her countrymen and women.

One Day Since Yesterday 
(Warner Archive)
Peter Bogdanovich’s career—recounted in Bill Teck’s sympathetic 2015 documentary—began inauspiciously with Targets, then flew into orbit with The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon before thudding back to earth with duds Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon (the latter unmentioned here). There’s an inordinate amount of time spent on the mild 1981 romantic comedy They All Laughed, which the likes of Quentin Tarantino champion; the 980 murder of its star, Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend, gives a tragic twist to an otherwise undistinguished screen career. Bogdanovich, a chatty interview subject, has ties to cinematic greats like John Ford and Orson Welles, which will probably outlive his cinematic achievements, such as they are.

CD of the Week
Bohuslav Martinu—Ariane/Double Concerto
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s one-act opera Ariane—one of his final compositions before he died in 1959 at age 68—is a captivating dramatic work that leads up to a marvelous final aria for the heroine, sung here with absolute control and poise by Slovakian soprano Simona Saturova. Conductor Tomas Netopil and the Essen Philharmonic, who do wonders with Ariane, sound similarly muscular with Martinu’s masterly Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani, an overpowering work composed on the eve of World War II, and whose three movements are bursting with intensity and dramatic vividness, especially in the passages played by piano soloist Ivo Kahanek.

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