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July '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Virgin Spring 


Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1960 chamber film is a stark drama based on a medieval folk tale about a young woman whose rape-murder prompts a fresh-water spring to appear where she was killed. Somber and brutal, but in Bergman’s masterly hands, it’s also an intelligent and perceptive look at guilt and revenge, with the usual forceful acting by such superlative Swedes as Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson.




The new Criterion hi-def transfer makes Sven Nykvist’s B&W photography even more transfixing; extras are a commentary, Ang Lee intro, 2005 interviews with Lindblom and Pettersson and a 1975 Bergman audio interview.


La Campana Sommersa/The Sunken Bell 


Italian master Ottorino Respighi composed his dramatically diffuse but musically succulent opera in 1927, and like his other stage works, it’s rarely performed; happily, this 2016 Cagliari (Italy) production lets us reevaluate the stageworthiness of one of his most beautiful scores.




Conducted by Donato Denzetti, who superbly leads the Cagliari Theater orchestra and chorus, this bizarre, surreal work has exemplary lead performances and attractive colors in the music and Pier Francisco Maestrini’s staging. The hi-def audio and video are excellent.







Lucio Silia 

(BelAir Classiques)

One of Mozart’s earliest operas to keep a tenuous hold in the repertoire is this tragic historical drama set during the Roman Empire. In his elegant 2017 Madrid production, director Claus Guth keeps things moving with studied elegance, which helps the musty plot keep its hold on viewers.




Conductor Ivor Bolton impressively leads the Teatro Real orchestra and chorus, and the top-notch performers are led by Patricia Petibon, a fiery soprano who sings eloquently and acts with sheer verve. The hi-def video and audio are also impressive.



(Warner Archive)

Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation classic is definitely of its era, set in a rundown Harlem where a drug dealer looks for one last score so he can retire. Despite (because of?) its un-P.C. rawness, it works handily, thanks to Ron O’Neal in the lead and Sheila Frazier as his faithful girlfriend.




On the soundtrack is Curtis Mayfield’s classic soul—Mayfield and his band even have a scintillating club performance cameo. A grainy period look dominates on Blu-ray; extras are a commentary, interviews and retrospective making-of documentary.










Titus Andronicus 

(Opus Arte)

Often considered Shakespeare’s worst play, this early effort has more eyes-look-away gore and gruesome imagery than his other works combined; still, it usually provides a visceral jolt in the theater, as Blanche McIntyre’s 2017 modern-dress production from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows.




The lopping off of limbs, tongues and heads and the cannibalistic pies remain, but the modern dress contrasts jarringly with such brutal goings-on. Of the actors, Hannah Morrish keeps her dignity as the unfortunate Lavinia and David Troughton makes a stentorian Titus, but the juiciest parts—evil queen Tamora and even more evil moor Aaron—are played indifferently by Nia Gwynne and Stefan Adegbola. The Blu-ray has solid hi-def video and audio; extras are McIntyre’s commentary, cast and crew interviews.


Tommy Shaw—Sing for the Day 

(Eagle Rock)

The Styx guitarist and singer performed with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland in 2016 and the infectiousness is there in the kids’ smiles as they play instruments and sing backup to Shaw and his acoustic (and occasional electric) guitar.




Shaw, at age 63, is in fantastically good voice: he hits all the notes on Styx staples “Fooling Yourself,” “Boat on the River,” “Sing for the Day,” “Man in the Wilderness” and “Renegade,” and he even throws in non-Styx tunes like “Girls with Guns” and “High Enough.” Both hi-def audio and video are first-rate; lone extra is audio of four additional songs.










Tristan und Isolde 

(Unitel/C Major)

This 1981 concert of Richard Wagner’s mournfully romantic opera has Leonard Bernstein (this release commemorates the 100th anniversary of his birth) leading the Bayerischen Rundfunks orchestra and chorus in a gripping performance.




If Peter Hoffman’s Tristan lacks depth and weight, Hildegard Behrens’ Isolde is the real deal, saving her most powerful singing for the finale (which is when we want it). It’s not perfect, but it’s typical of Bernstein’s impassioned performances, when he is sweating bullets by the end. The hi-def video and audio are acceptable enough, considering the aged source material.


2 Weeks in Another Town 

(Warner Archive)

Another Hollywood behind-the-scenes exposé from director Vincente Minnelli and star Kirk Douglas (following 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful), this 1962 drama moves the action to Rome for an intermittently absorbing exploration of backstabbing on and off the set.




Kirk Douglas does well as the has-been star intent on making a comeback, and then-ingenue Daliah Lavi is a delight as the young actress he falls for, but veterans like Cyd Cherisse, Edward G. Robinson and James Gregory aren’t given a chance to do much with their hollow characters. The widescreen hi-def transfer looks sumptuous.


DVDs of the Week 

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life 

(Seventh Art Productions)

Narrated by Brian Cox, this informative and visually stunning overview of Cezanne’s life and art—with particular emphasis on the Cezanne Portraits exhibition that closes this weekend at Washington’s National Gallery of Art—is a solid appreciation of one of the 20th century’s most important (and still misunderstood) artists.




As always with these Exhibition on Screen entries, the visuals are entrancing—and disappointing: the back cover touts this as being shot in 4K, but that this is only available on DVD defeats the purpose of shooting it in ultra hi-def.


Ismael’s Ghosts 


The latest from French director Arnaud Desplechin—whose films are so crammed with detail, incident, characterization and location that they resemble cinematic versions of long novels—centers on a director making a film about his estranged (and politically shady) brother, and brilliantly and effortlessly moves along separate but equally absorbing paths, both real and fake.




The intrigue is especially delicious served up by a formidable cast headed by Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg—who gives what may be her best screen performance as our hero’s current love. It’s just too bad that such a rich, rewarding and rewatchable film is only available on DVD. Isn’t it 2018?

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