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Kevin’s Digital Week #4

Blu-Ray of the Week:
Rome: The Complete Series

One of HBO’s most expensive and expansive series, Rome From the costumes to the sets — much of the series was shot at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios—the viewer is thrown into the middle of the republic, whether it’s a slum area, a meeting of the senate or Julius Caesar’s vast villa. These 22 hour-long episodes introduce us to characters that run the gamut from the highest master to the lowest slave, with a pair of soldiers are guides through the stories of love and hate, friendship and betrayal, that escapes soap opera levels thanks to the superb production values, mostly competent filmmaking (the first three episodes were helmed by veteran director Michael Apted) and a superb cast of mainly British and Irish actors like Lindsey Duncan, Polly Walker and Ciaran Hinds, who plays Caesar.

The Blu-Ray release includes 13 audio commentaries by cats and crew, which give an overview of the epic scale of the production, as do several featurettes. An interactive feature that resembles VH1’s pop-up videos shows pertinent historical information onscreen while you watch the episodes. Historical inaccuracies aside, Rome—like Showtime’s The Tudors—is a costume epic worth immersing oneself in. recreates the great Roman Empire in so lavish a fashion that it seems to have been made specifically for the Blu-Ray format.

DVD of the Week:
Paul McCartney: Good Evening New York City

(Hear Music)
Paul McCartney’s concerts at Citi Field in New York City in July were the unquestioned musical highlights of the summer, and this release presents the concert in full: over 2-1/2 hours’ worth of some of the greatest tunes ever written, with a heavy emphasis on the Beatles (21 songs) over his solo work (14 songs), and a guest superstar, Billy Joel, who’s younger than Paul but looks several years older. A youthful 67 years old, the legendary McCartney still has a stage presence lacking in rockers and other pop idols less than half his age, whether he’s playing bass, guitar, mandolin, ukulele or piano. And his willingness to play his underrated and high-quality newer stuff—including two songs from last year’s Electric Arguments album by The Fireman and a pair from 2007’s Memory Almost Full—is a good sign, even though the second half of the concert is a torrid run-through some of the high points of his Fab Four catalog. And who else would be so brazen as to juxtapose the ultimate ballad, “Yesterday,” with the ultimate screaming rocker, “Helter Skelter”?

The DVD concert film includes a DTS 5.1 surround sound mix, which makes you feel like you’re back at CitiField the night of the show. (The two CDs also included also have the entire 35-song set, and if you buy a limited edition package, an extra DVD features a backstage documentary.) My lone quibble with all McCartney concert DVDs is their insistence on showing fans singing along, fooling around for the cameras, and other such nonsense. We get it, Paul: you were a Beatle and everyone loves you. But I’d rather see the musicians onstage all the time, and keep the cutesy visual gimmicks to a minimum.

Kevin’s Digital Week #3

Blu-Rays of the Week:

Monsters Inc.
directed by Pete Docter
directed by Pete Docter
I must admit that I’m not a big fan of the Pixar movies: dazzling computerized animation, coupled with talking creatures, doesn’t thrill me much. (I do enjoy The Simpsons and South Park, neither known for expertly-drawn visuals or anthropomorphic non-humans.) But after watching Up, the latest Pixar blockbuster, I could pinpoint why this story of an old man who literally flies away with his house to a world of adventure after his beloved wife dies left me cold. Up begins with a sweetly touching, wordless sequence detailing the couple’s long relationship, then almost immediately degenerates into predictable and obnoxious foolishness when chattering, unfunny animals and stock villains take over. Oh well.

Happily, Monsters Inc. is much more entertaining: it’s a hilarious, sentimental and unpretentious comedy. Visually, of course, these two Blu-ray releases are peerless, with an almost crystalline 3-D quality to the animation, and aurally they are up to Disney’s usual high standard as well.  Both Up and Monsters Inc. are available in four-disc versions, with separate discs of the Blu-Ray, the standard DVD, a digital copy and an extras disc, which include directors’ commentaries, pre-production and production featurettes, new Pixar shorts, games, etc.

DVD of the Week:

Death in the Garden
directed by Luis Buñuel
One of Luis Buñuel’s least-known efforts from his many years spent making films in Mexico doesn’t have the pedigree of classics Los Olvidados, Nazarin or The Exterminating Angel, but for those interested in Buñuel’s career arc, enough of his sardonic personality peeks through to help this 1956 melodrama overcome a lackluster script. In an unnamed South American country, a group of people flees a budding revolution into the jungle, only to fall prey to the inevitable (and fatal) back-stabbing and in-fighting. Shot in beautiful Technicolor—which, in this newly restored release, looks absolutely pristine—Death in the Garden is Buñuel-lite, with little of the subversiveness marking his best films from L’Age d’Or to Simon of the Desert.

The presence of terrific French actors like Michel Piccoli (who would go on to star in several more Buñuel films) and Simone Signoret is another plus. Extras-wise, there’s a nice assortment: new interviews with Piccoli and with Buñuel scholar Victor Fuentes and an audio commentary by another Buñuel expert, Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz, give necessary context for a forgotten work by an audacious filmmaking master.

Kevin's Digital Week

Blu-Ray of the Week

The Prisoner
The Complete Series (A&E)
For a series of only 17 episodes, it’s no exaggeration to say that The Prisoner is still among the most influential TV shows ever. With Patrick McGoohan playing a retired secret agent who awakes to find himself imprisoned in a mysterious place, The Village, where all inhabitants have numbers, The Prisoner embodies late-60s counterculture in film and television: a skeptical attitude toward authority and fearless experimenting with previously taboo subjects, e.g., hallucinatory drugs, mind control and indoctrination. The quality varies from episode to episode--some merely mark time in order to put “number six” through his weekly paces--and the large white balloon, the “Rover,” which tracked down those members of the village who tried to escape, remains rather silly. But overall, The Prisoner is an absorbing and quite surreal viewing experience.

The high-definition masters used for this Blu-ray release are gorgeous, with colors that literally pop out of the TV screen to make the show’s bizarre yet familiar setting more realistic, as does the newly remixed 5.1 surround sound track. The bonus disc of extras contains a feature-length documentary about the series, Don’t Knock Yourself Out; new featurettes, The Pink Prisoner and You Make Sure It Fits!; alternate edits of two episodes; audio commentaries on selected episodes; and much more.

DVD of the Week

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show! The Complete Series
(Shout! Factory)
In 1986, when Garry Shandling‘s first “sitcom“ appeared on a network called Showtime, there was nothing like it on TV--and, nearly a quarter-century later, it‘s still a unique series. Although I prefer The Larry Sanders Show to this--the later HBO series was more polished, more consistently funny, and had better supporting actors and guest stars--there‘s no denying the originality of Shandling and Alan Zweibel‘s conceit of a show about a comedian living the single life: Shandling constantly looks into the camera and talks to the studio audience (and us) and there are hilarious cameos from then-current celebs like Vanna White, Martin Mull, Rob Reiner, and Gilda Radner (whose last TV appearance this was).

The 72 episodes from the series’ four-year run are included in this 16-disc boxed set, beautifully packaged with a 36-page book that includes appreciations by Larry Gelbart and Judd Apatow; the image and sound quality are quite good. The bonus features that are scattered among the discs feature several audio commentaries by Shandling, Zweibel and other writers, six new featurettes about the series, and outtakes from selected episodes. 

Kevin's Week In Media

Blu-Ray of the Week
Whatever Works
directed by Woody Allen
starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson
Allen’s latest, with Larry David as his misanthropic surrogate, is one of the Woodman’s less ambitious movies, like his "short story" pictures -- The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Alice, and Mighty Aphrodite. This is a breezy take on a hypochondriacal lover of New York and young women who doesn’t appreciate friends and girlfriends, but has a redeeming sentimental streak. As uncomfortable an actor as David is, at least the movie is propelled by two wonderful actresses: Evan Rachel Wood as southern dumb-belle Melodie and Patricia Clarkson as her straitlaced mother Marietta.

Of course, it's sappily good-natured, but skewering one-liners that Woody puts in David’s mouth compensate, as does the lovely cinematography by Harris Savides, which makes the streets of New York glisten with romantic fantasies. Even though there are no bonus features—par for the course on all Woody Allen DVDs or Blu-rays—Whatever Works looks so ravishing in hi-def that I can’t wait until such classics as Manhattan, Zelig and Crimes and Misdemeanors finally find their way to the new format.

DVD of the Week
On the Road with Charles Kuralt
(Acorn Media)
For two decades from 1967-1987, newsman Charles Kuralt crisscrossed the country in a mobile home (actually, six of them by the time he was done) to record his impressions of everyday life in these United States. Kuralt’s On the RoadCBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, began as a segment on the then was spun off into a series of its own.

As this DVD set shows, Kuralt’s humane and humble vignettes of people who in other hands would be considered eccentrics at best and oddballs at worst are slices of Americana worth watching over and over. Each of the 18 episodes comprise several reports on ordinary citizens such as: the men who built the Golden Gate Bridge; a super shoe salesman; a man who uses his junk mail as kindling to heat his house year-round;  a family that owns a ginger-ale business. Kuralt also has time for short detours like showing a collection of rural mailbox posts made with everything from horseshoes to old farm plows, which celebrate America as it is, with no condescension of preconceptions. I look forward to future On the Road releases soon.

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