Tuesday, January 24, 2017

January '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Bad Day at Black Rock
(Warner Archive)
In John Sturges’ tense 1955 thriller clocking in at a perfectly paced 81 minutes, Spencer Tracy plays a wounded war vet whose arrival in a remote western town sets off the locals in a spirited and ugly campaign to be rid of him. The widescreen photography by William C. Melor is spectacular, Andre Previn’s effective music matches the nerve-wracking mood, and although Tracy is too old for the lead, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing his role. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a commentary by film expert Dana Polan.

(Warner Archive)
The Battle of the Bulge—the final nail in the Nazi war machine’s coffin—was still recent history when William A. Wellman’s searing 1949 dramatic recreation was made, and it remarkably lacks both melodramatics and sentimentality (with barely any music heard and patriotic marches left until the final credits). Despite the constraints of its era, it remains a tough testament to war’s harshness and the bravery of the men who fight. The B&W film looks luminous on Blu-ray; extras comprise a vintage cartoon and vintage featurette.

Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! 
One of the least inspired of Bob Hope’s vehicles, this weak 1966 comedy concerns a desperate real-estate broker who lucks into prosperity when a runaway Hollywood megastar stays at his lone property. Hope is game but looks lost, Elke Sommer is beautifully befuddled as the screen queen, and Phyllis Diller ridiculously wasted as Hope’s housekeeper in this frantic but dated attempt to be “with-it.” There’s a fine hi-def transfer.

Come and Find Me
Writer-director Zack Whedon’s crime drama is an exceedingly slow burn, as our hero searches for his missing girlfriend who he soon discovers was not whom he thought she was: liberally mixing in flashbacks, Whedon loses his way in a mess of false leads and ends up strangling what might have been an interesting mystery. Attractive lead performances by Aaron Paul and Annabelle Wallis somewhat compensate. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include featurette and commentary.

The Light Between Oceans 
Derek Cianfrance’s unapologetically grand, old-fashioned tragic romance from M.L. Stedman’s novel about a lighthouse keeper, his wife and the baby that improbably washes ashore in their remote location is greatly enhanced by luminous widescreen compositions awash in natural light. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are perfectly cast as the couple; Rachel Weisz does wonders with the underwritten role as a widow who haunts them. On Blu-ray, Adam Arkapan’s photography comes to ravishing life; extras are Cianfrance’s commentary and two featurettes.

The Man Who Fell to Earth
Nicolas Roeg’s inscrutable 1976 sci-fi story hasn’t aged well: if anything, its visual dazzle has been further eclipsed by its thematic and narrative incoherence, along with David Bowie’s zombie-like screen presence. On Blu-ray, Tony Richmond’s creative camerawork remains the main focus; extras include an archival Bowie interview (from French TV), featurette about the music, interviews with Roeg, Richmond and actress Candy Clark (whose performance is the best in a film that also wastes Rip Torn and Buck Henry), poster and 72-page booklet.

The Men’s Club 
This frivolously sexist 1986 drama about a group of men whose whiny get-together is followed by a night of debauchery in a brothel was adapted by Leonard Michaels from his own book without much conviction: the movie is filled with boring monologues, clichéd conservations and implausible relationships. Peter Medak likewise directs without much distinction; amazingly, his next three films would be top-notch: The Krays, Let Him Have It and Romeo Is Bleeding. Estimable actors—Roy Scheider, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella, Richard Jordan, David Dukes, Craig Wesson—are outclassed by the women, however badly written their characters are: an uncredited Helen Shaver steals her lone scene, and Penny Baker, Marilyn Jones and Gwen Welles run circles around their male counterparts. There’s a good, grainy transfer.

Barely a feature at 67 minutes, Harold Young’s 1939 espionage drama fails to wring suspense out of its flimsy plot of a plant worker accused of sabotaging work done there, thereby causing the plant’s closure and deaths of three test fliers. Wooden acting by Charley Grapewin, Gordon Oliver and Arleen Whelan, along with stolid writing and even flimsier directing, relegates this to the realm of the forgettable; with so many older films begging for hi-def release, why put this out?

DVDs of the Week 
The Free World
This downbeat drama, which strains for significance but ends up trumpeting its own incoherence and thinness, follows a man just released from prison for murders he didn’t commit: while working at a dog shelter, he befriends a beaten-down wife, whom he helps flee when she kills her abusive policeman husband. Typical of writer-director Jason Lew’s film is its bludgeoning insistence that being out of his prison as is bad as being in, as well as equating our protagonist with the canines he’s entrusted with. Boyd Holbrook and Elisabeth Moss do what they can to make their characters believable, but are defeated in the end.

(Omnibus/Film Movement)
What begins as an intriguing conceit—a multi-character study of dozens of Queens neighbors, none of whom came to the aid of Kitty Genovese when she was brutally (and fatally) attacked late one night in 1964—soon degenerates into an exploitive mishmash of melodrama and fake climaxes, all of which come to a head during that fateful evening. Writer-director Puk Grasten builds up “suspense” at the dying woman’s expense, and providing little insight into his characters, whose problems happened to come to a head at the exact time they could have helped a victim in dire need.

CDs of the Week
Mstislav Rostropovich—Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon 
One of the foremost cellists of the second half of the last century, Russian Mstislav Rostropovich had a long and winding career that not only encompassed the standard repertoire but also many modern composers who wrote works that he championed. In addition to his characterful cello playing, he was also an accomplished piano accompanist and a sensitive conductor, and this superlative 37-CD boxed set of everything he recorded for Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Philips from 1950 to 2004 encompasses this renaissance musician’s oeuvre, whether with his bow, at the keyboard or on the podium. There are recordings of Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn and—lots of—Beethoven, especially the latter’s chamber works; three equally graceful recordings over a period of 10 years of Schubert’s sublime String Quintet; concertos by Schumann, Dvorak, and Brahms; and even two full-length operas he conducted, Puccini’s Tosca and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

But it’s in 20th century music that these discs come to fiery life: Shostakovich and Prokofiev (too little of the latter, but still); Messaien and Bernstein; and, above all, Benjamin Britten, who composed the weighty Cello Symphony for Rostropovich and the latter returns the favor by giving marvelous performances of that, Britten’s Cello Sonata and two cello suites. Lastly, there are two unusually fine discs of Rostropovich accompanying his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, in Russian songs from Glinka and Rachmaninov to Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, closing a terrific-sounding and beautifully-packaged summary of one man’s life filled with music. 

No comments: