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Blu-rays of the Week
Matthew Robbins’ breathless 1978 comic romance stars Mark Hamill (fresh off Star Wars) as a high school mechanic who improbably sets out for Vegas when the beloved Corvette he was working on is stolen—and he meets a prostitute in training who (equally) improbably falls for him.
This forgettable concoction does have one thing in its favor: a truly delightful turn by Annie Potts as the would-be hooker with a heart of gold. The film looks fine on Blu.
The term “gaslighting” originated with this dated but entertaining thriller about a murderous husband driving his young wife insane by degrees; George Cukor’s 1944 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play hinges on the performances of Charles Boyer and Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman as the couple, along with memorable turns by 18-year-old Angela Lansbury as a saucy maid and Joseph Cotton as the detective pursuing the husband.
The restored hi-def transfer is superb; extras include the shorter 1940 British film version, 1946 radio version with Boyer and Bergman, Reflections on ‘Gaslight’ (featuring Angela Lansbury), reminiscence by Pia Lindstrom about her mother Ingrid Bergman, and 1944 Oscar ceremonies newsreel.
Claire Denis’ first foray into sci-fi is a typically diffuse tale of a group of criminals on the first spaceship to explore a black hole and how the power dynamics play out, as the mission’s doctor (Juliette Binoche) conducts unethical experiments that lead to a baby being born among the crew.
Surprisingly, Denis opts for easy conflicts and routine drama, and there’s not much room for the cast to shine: even Binoche—the lone highlight of Denis’ most recent failure, Let the Sunshine In—looks lost. There are a few arresting images, but these occur in a dramatic and thematic vacuum. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are making-of featurettes.
La Passion selon Marc—Une Passion après Auschwitz
The Passion According to Mark—A Passion After Auschwitz, by French composer Michaël Levinas, is an exceedingly dissonant work whose sounds are remindful of what happened to those millions who were killed by the Nazis.
Led by countertenor Guilhem Terrail (whose unearthly voice perfectly embodies the otherworldly music), this performance led by conductor Marc Kissóczy is unsettling to be sure, right up until soprano Marion Grange’s emotionally resonant singing at the finale. Hi-def audio and video are excellent.
The Tough Ones
In this prime example of mid-70s Italian poliziotteschi, director Umberto Lenzi follows cops who will do anything—ethical or not—to bring criminals to justice, whether they are gang-raping, killing or thieving. The cast is game, the Rome locales are happily unprettified and untouristy, and Lenzi’s direction is down and dirty.
It all looks great in a new hi-def transfer; extras include a disc of interviews, a documentary on Lenzi’s career and even a special surprise inside, like a Crackerjack box.
DVDs of the Week
Poldark—The Complete Collection
The original Poldark, shown on television in 1975-77, is in many ways a more faithful adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels about Ross Poldark and his ongoing adversarial relationship with his cousin Francis, who married Ross’ sweetheart Elizabeth, all while Ross begins a new life with his own bride Demelza.
There’s little of the swooning good looks of the current Masterpiece reboot’s cast, but these performers—led by Robin Ellis as Ross, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, Clive Francis as Francis and Angharad Rees as Demelza—may fit into their roles more snugly and believably. All 29 episodes of the original series (on five discs) are included in this set.
This story of a woman on a solo boat trip begins like another All Is Lost (with Robert Redford) or En solitaire (with François Clouzet) as a lone skipper against the elements, but director Wolfgang Fischer soon pivots it into a moral thriller about the implications of Europe’s migrant problem.
Fischer, his versatile star Susanne Wolff and Benedict Neuenfels’ technically impressive cinematography combine to create a tense, thought-provoking action movie. Extras are Fischer and Wolff’s commentary and a short, Ashmina, directed by Dekel Berenson.
CD of the Week
One of the most unabashedly tonal composers who came of age after World War II in Austria, Gottfried von Einem is best-known for his operas Danton’s Death, The Trial and The Visit of the Old Lady, all satisfyingly dramatic if musically old-fashioned.
That straightforward style is showcased on this disc of four of his orchestral works, from his 1944 Concerto for Orchestra to his 1981-2 Three Gifts. All of these works—always arresting if at times facile in their proficient polish—are given substantive readings by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the agile baton of Johannes Kalitzke.
War and Peace
Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive four-part film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling novel about Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s invading army in 1812 has attained mythic status by virtue of being seven hours long: but its sweeping vistas, stunning cinematography, flawless performances—led by the gifted Ludmila Savelyeva’s lovely heroine Natasha—and narrative clarity are the real reasons it’s a true classic.
Criterion’s two-disc set contains a sumptuous new hi-def restoration, two parts on each disc; extras are new interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky and Fedor Bondarchuk, filmmaking son of Sergei Bondarchuk; two 1966 making-of featurettes; 1967 TV profile of Savelyeva; and interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood about the film’s cultural and historical contexts.
Samuel Barber’s volcanically romantic opera—with a distinctively Hitchockian atmosphere of lost and new loves—has some of the composer’s most achingly melodic music, perfectly encapsulating how the women at the opera’s center (Vanessa, her niece Erika and the Old Baroness) react to the men in (and out of) their lives.
Keith Warner’s superb 2018 Glyndebourne, England production is buoyed by Jakub Hrůša’s precise conducting of the London Philharmonic, and further illuminated by the emotionally riveting performances by Emma Bell (Vanessa), Virginie Verrez (Erika) and Rosalind Plowright (Old Baroness). There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Das Wunder der Heliane/The Wonder of Heliane
Erich Korngold’s fantastical opera—which gets a rare staging at Bard Summerscape a couple hours north of Manhattan at the end of July—is filled with extraordinary music and absorbing if diffuse drama.
Christof Loy’s 2018 Berlin staging highlights Korngold’s dazzling dramaturgy and musical ambition, and has a phenomenal heroine in American soprano Sara Jakubiak, unafraid to take Korngold at his word and appear nude for the end of the first act. This fearless performer and magnificent singer holds together an opera that threatens to become unwieldy in its final act. Hi-def video and audio are impeccable; lone extra is a rare 1928 recording of the third act prelude.
This 1958 adaptation of the hit stage musical has dated badly, especially in the cheeky but toothless humor of the devil needing a sexpot to keep his baseball protégé in line.
Ray Walston is hammily unfunny as Mr. Applegate (i.e., the devil), while Gwen Vernon only shines in her—too infrequent—song-and-dance numbers, the best a goofy mambo with choreographer (and soon-to-be husband) Bob Fosse. Otherwise, directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s concoction may disappoint fans of both baseball and musicals. Still, this deserves a vibrant new hi-def transfer on Blu-ray.
Few actresses are as emotionally forthright as Anna Friel, and she lets it all hang out as Marcella Backland, a detective whose life is in a shambles, both personally and professionally.
It’s too bad, then, that the storylines cooked up to accompany her fragile mental state often approach risibility instead of plausibility, making a mockery of the character and the superlative actress playing her.
Marine Francen’s beautifully written, directed and photographed drama (based on a true story) set in the mid-19th century French countryside follows female villagers who, after the local men have been rounded up by the authorities, decide to share the next one who arrives: when this handsome stranger falls for the shy and unassuming Violette, it threatens to erode the women’s close relationships.
This exquisitely crafted exploration of sexual dynamics, tension and jealousy leads to a low-key but heartbreaking ending devoid of sentiment. Francen’s use of the near-square Academy framing adds a heightened claustrophobia to the proceedings, and her lead actress, Pauline Burlet, is a winning presence. Lone extra is Francen’s short, Les Voisins.
CDs of the Week
I called Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů among our most underrated when I reviewed a two-disc set of his violin and orchestra music earlier this year. Now we have two more excellent Martinů recordings. Czech cellist Petr Nouzovský teams with Swiss pianist Gérard Wyss for estimable readings of Martinů’s three sonatas for cello and piano, formidable works that should be more widely known.
Although Martinů was a prolific opera composer, his other vocal works are obscure, so this disc of his songs based on folk melodies is a welcome addition. Performed with delicacy by a Czech trio—soprano Martina Janková, baritone Tomáš Král, pianist Ivo Kahánek—these four song cycles show a tender side of this most talented composer.
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