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Kevin's November Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
America Lost and Found: The BBS StoryBBS
BBS (Bert Schneiderman, Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner) released some of the most ambitious, adult films of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This boxed set comprises seven of its titles (Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Drive He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show and The King of Marvin Gardens) which, while hit-or-miss artistically, are an interesting snapshot of American cinema four decades ago. The MVPs are Jack Nicholson, who stars in four films, wrote one and directed one; and Rafelson, who directed two and wrote one.
Criterion’s set, with a superb booklet of historical and contextual essays, also features first-rate transfers and lots of extras, including audio commentaries and both new and vintage interviews and footage. Even if the films don’t make the grade individually, this important compilation chronicles one of the great game-changing periods in film history.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed Alice Creed
(Anchor Bay)
This inventive thriller starts out with a misdirection as we see a young heiress being kidnapped by two men and taken to a soundproof room. The rest of J. Blakeson’s film tensely depicts the shifting dynamics among Alice and her kidnapers, and even throws a few wrenches into the mix that, while implausible, keep our interest as Alice shows that she doesn’t plan to play the helpless victim.
Exciting young actress Gemma Atherton (also terrific in Tamara Drewe) literally throws herself into this physically punishing role, baring herself literally and figuratively; Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston are excellent as her kidnappers. Extras include extended and deleted scenes with director commentary and a storyboard featurette.

DVDs of the Week
The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Series
(Time Life)
The bionic man became one of the most popular TV characters during the mid 70s in a country that, paranoid after Vietnam and Watergate, was mistrustful of the government. The Six Million Dollar Man, an instant classic, brought together man and machine, law and order and conspiracy theories in one action-packed hour-long drama.
Lee Majors’ Steve Austin was a new type of hero, with Richard Anderson as his slippery boss and Lindsay Wagner as his lovely romantic interest who got her own spin-off, The Bionic Woman. This massive (and heavy!) boxed set comprises all 100 episodes on 40 DVDs, wiWINNINGth 17 hours of extras including new interviews with Majors and Anderson. The set is available for purchase exclusively at
The Winning Season
Before it turns into a feel-good, sappily uplifting melodrama, this story of a down-and-out single father picked to coach the low-wattage local high school girls’ basketball team juggles offbeat insights into the male-female dynamic with an intriguing look at a beaten man trying to pick himself up off the mat.
Sam Rockwell gives another of his subtle portrayals in the lead role, and there’s superb support from Rob Corddry as the principal and Emma Roberts, Rooney Mara, Emily Rios, Meaghan Witri, Shareeka Epps and Melanie Hinkle as his team. Writer-director James C. Strouse has an ear for truthful dialogue, but lets sentiment to creep in toward the end, which is too bad. No extras.

CDs of the WeekMehta
Bejun Mehta: Ombra Cara—Handel Arias
(Harmonia Mundi) 
One of today’s premier countertenors, Bejun Mehta tackles a nicely-chosen selection of Handel arias that are designed to show off the male soprano voice. Mehta makes it sound easy, giving these vocal excerpts from several Handel operas the needed power and finesse, with highlights from Agrippina and Orlando the most memorable.
Smartly paired with the always sympathetic conductor Rene Jacobs (who leads the Freiburger Barockorchester), Mehta is in superbly controlled voice throughout. Also included is a bonus DVD with a making-of featurette about this fine recording.

Luigi Nono: Intolleranza 1960
The uncompromising Italian modernist composer Luigi Nono (who died in 1990) composed his first stage work in 1960 (the pemiere came in Venice the following year) in his own singular musical idiom. Intolleranza 1960, a rabidly anti-fascist work that includes documentary texts by Bertolt Brecht and French poet and resistance fighter Paul Eluard, has an atonal sound, but amazingly Nono coaxes drama out of what could have been merely dry didacticism.
This 1995 recording, performed by the Stuttgart State Orchesta in Germany, features soloists and a chorus sympathetic to Nono’s sounds, led by conductor Bernhard Kontarsky in what is one of the major achievements in opera from the second half of the 20th century.

Kevin's November Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week Night of The Hunter
The Night of the Hunter
Though often overheated and wincingly awful in its bludgeoning obviousness, Charles Laughton’s lone directorial effort (made in 1955 and an immediate flop upon release) has acquired such a growing cult that it’s now routinely considered a “classic.” It’s far from that, although Robert Mitchum has some over-the-top fun as the preacher who preys on lonely and wealthy widows—too bad he’s up against Laughton’s hammy handling of the other actors and the blatant symbolism of his good vs. evil parable.
Criterion’s two-disc Blu-ray release (which gives Stanley Cortez’s black-and-white compositions a shimmering look for the first time on home video) is typically loaded: a commentary, several retrospective featurettes and interviews are on disc one, while disc two is given over to a thorough 160-minute documentary, Charles Laughton Directs, with fascinating outtakes and on-set footage.

The Sondheim Birthday Concert Sondheim Birthday Concert
To celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday last March, the New York Philharmonic pulled out all the stops for a star-studded trip down memory lane, with highlights from a career still going strong after a half-century. David Hyde Pierce is our delightful host, Paul Gemignani conducts the Philharmonic in gorgeous renditions of Sondheim’s music (sounding splendid in DTS-HD audio), and veterans of Sondheim’s classic shows from West Side Story and Company to Sunday in the Park with George and Follies, perform the songs that made him an American original.
Karen Olivo high-steps alluringly during “America,” George Hearn and Michael Cerveris “duet” with Patti Lupone on “A Little Priest,” and a sextet of glamorously red-gowned divas (Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Lupone and Elaine Stritch) belt out several signature songs. Sondheim appears at the end, appropriately humbled by this outpouring of affection and artistry.

DVDs of the Week
Bill Moyers: Genesis—a Living Conversation and On Faith and Reason Bill Moyers: Genesis
These two boxed sets illuminate among the most compelling issues of our time: the first book of the Bible and our post-Sept. 11 world. Genesis consists of Moyers leading discussions with dozens of people, from deep-thinking scholars to ordinary men and women, in how the stories of the Bible affect the modern world; Faith finds Moyers interviewing renowned writers such as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood about the seeming gap in the 21st century between religion and science.
Both sets are formidable (Genesis takes up more than nine hours, while Faith runs for nearly seven hours), but that’s appropriate considering the weighty subject matter.
The Boondocks: The Complete Third Season
The no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach of this animated comedy, based on Aaron McGruder’s politically incorrect comic strip told from a black point of view, continues in this series’ third season, available in a three-disc set filled with special features like commentaries and episode introductions as irreverent as the shows themselves.
Of the 15 episodes included (all of them are uncensored so that every “n” and “f” word is heard, unlike during their TV showings), the highlight is the very first one, “It’s a Black President, Huey Freeman,” which takes aim at the responses from the white and black communities to Obama’s election, couched in subtle satirical jabs at the documentaries of German director Werner Herzog (who, in on the joke, appears as himself, along with Bill Maher).
Darius Rucker
CDs of the Week
Darius Rucker: Charleston, SC 1966
(Capitol Nashville)
After the demise of Hootie and the Blowfish, singer Darius Rucker found an improbable second career as a popular country artist: his first CD was an unexpected hit, leading to this new recording. Although it’s more of the same, mostly upbeat country tunes that are distinguished by Rucker’s characteristically burnished vocals, there are a couple of keepers.
“I Don’t Care” is a fun, politically incorrect duet written and sung with Brad Paisley), while the tongue-in-cheek “Southern State of Mind” takes off from Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” to unapologetically state Rucker’s case: “I could be up in Ohio or back home in Caroline/No matter what state I’m in, I’m in a Southern State of Mind.”

Sondheim on Sondheim: Original Broadway Cast RecordingSondheim on Sondheim
(PS Classics)

Sondheim on Sondheim wedded the Broadway composer‘s own words, in pre-recorded interviews, with renditions of his greatest songs, along with obscure and rarely-heard ones (and even a new one, the aptly-titled “God“). Although this CD misses director James Lapine’s visually dazzling stage sleight-of-hand, the remarkable voices that make up the show are present and accounted for.
There's the always-delectable Vanessa Williams, who makes “Good Thing Going” from Merrily We Roll Along her own, and who teams with legend Barbara Cook for a wonderful duet of “Losing My Mind” (from Follies) and “Not a Day Goes By” (also from Merrily). And Cook herself gives a beautifully reticent rendition of Sondheim’s greatest hit, “Send in the Clowns.”

The Mariinsky Orchestra Performs six of Gustav Mahler's symphonies

Under the baton of the indefatigable Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Orchestra presented an amazingly ambitious series of six of Gustav Mahler's symphonies in five concerts spread over eight days beginning on October 17th, 2010, at Carnegie Hall. Gergiev will return in February to conduct the balance of the Mahler symphonies -- Valery Gergiev Conducting the Mariinsky Orchestrathe Third, the Seventh, and the Ninth  -- with the London Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall.

I was unable to attend the first program, Mahler's majestic Sixth Symphony, although I was fortunate to hear this work a couple of weeks before, played by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Alan Gilbert. Despite considerable unevenness in the playing, I appreciated all these concerts very much.

On Wednesday, the 20th, the Orchestra performed the monumental Second Symphony, the "Resurrection", heard at Carnegie Hall last spring in a powerful account by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. Wednesday's performance had an astonishing opening but some subsequent roughness compromised the total impression of the first movement.

Similar difficulties diminished the second movement as well, but there were many beautiful passages. The effect of third movement was more forceful while in the fourth, I would have liked more assurance from the mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. However, Gergiev did achieve a stupendous finale aided by the forces of two choirs, the Choral Arts Society of Washington and Orfeón Pamplonés, along with Borodina, more impressive here, and the soprano Anastasia Kalagina, also excellent. However, the deployment of offstage horns was less effective in this hall than at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine last spring, where I heard the same work played by the orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music -- improbably enough, on the day before the San Francisco Symphony performance.

On Thursday, the same two choirs returned with the Orchestra assisted by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy and eight vocal soloists to undertake the gargantuan Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand". Part One was played with admirable restraint and fluency while Part Two balanced robustness with grace.

Friday's concert consisted of the relatively smaller-scale Fifth Symphony and was possibly the most satisfyingly played in the series. The first movement was wrenching but controlled while the second achieved great force. After a vibrant Scherzo, the Adagietto proved haunting. The finale was perhaps too violent but not without character.

The final concert in the series was devoted to the shorter Fourth and First Symphonies.

The playing of the Fourth was inconsistent throughout with delicate accentuation periodically undercut by awkwardness; Kalagina sang with poignancy but fell short of the gorgeous renditions of the same music sung by Miah Persson and Susan Graham, both heard at Lincoln Center recently.

The First Symphony was an improvement. The first movement was less cohesive than the tuneful second, while the celebrated third movement had an admirable clarity. The boisterous finale was memorable.

I look forward to Gergiev's arrival in February.

CD Reviews: Going Back with Lennon, Collins & Cohn

Rock ‘N’ Roll
John Lennon
2010 marks both what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday and, tragically, the 30th anniversary of his senseless murder outside his apartment building on Manhattan’s West Side. To mark these milestones, the Weinstein Company has just released in theaters the critically acclaimed Nowhere Boy, about Lennon’s Liverpool childhood with Aaron Johnson playing the lead. BBC Films is about to release Lennon Naked on DVD, a chronicle of his peak years with the Beatles; British actor Christopher Ecclestone plays John. And Capitol Records has remastered Lennon’s entire solo career album catalog.
One album that's been reissued is Rock ‘N’ Roll which was originally released in 1975. At the time, critics hoped for fresh songs, so they panned the LP because it was comprised entirely of covers of Lennon’s personal favorite 45 rpm singles.
Rock ‘N’ Roll was far from a masterpiece. Lennon clearly phoned it his draggy renditions of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and Larry Williams’ “Bony Moronie.” On the other hand, he clearly gave his all on Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop-A-Lulla,” Lloyd Price’s “Just Because,” and Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” When Lennon recorded it in 1974, “Stand By Me” was just another golden oldie and had not yet become the pop chestnut it's now considered. And Lennon’s update on Ben E. King’s fine work 14 years earlier helped cement the song in the public’s mind.
Going Back
Phil Collins   
Like a lot of us, Phil Collins always had an affinity for Motown songs. His take on the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” was a Top 10 hit in November 1982 and he has enjoyed throwing in a Motown song or two at most of his concerts.
Freed from the pressure of making a hit album of new songs, Collins returned to the studio for the first time in years and turned out his latest album, appropriately titled, Going Back. As expected, Collins relies quite a bit on the Berry Gordy catalog as he puts his stamp on Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack,” and “In My Lonely Room;” the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone;” Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” and “Uptight,” which sounds as if Phil stole the Motown Funk Brothers orchestration; the Miracles’ “Going To A Go-Go;” the Four Tops’ “Standing In The Shadow Of Love”; and Kim Weston’s “Take Me In Your Arms (And Rock Me”), a tune that the Doobie Brothers made their own. Ironically the only Supremes song here is “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone.” Just as Michael McDonald did a few years ago, Phil Collins shows why these Motown tunes are ageless.

Not every song on Going Back hails from Detroit. Collins also channels another Phil -- Spector that is -- on his faithful effort on the Ronnettes’ “Do I Love You,” and his salute to Dusty Springfield with “Some Of Your Lovin’” may be the best cut on the album. Collins' long player is a very pleasant ride on the Nostalgia Express.

Listening Booth: 1970
Marc Cohn
(Saguaro Road)
Marc Cohn is yet another victim of the “Best New Artist” Grammy Award jinx. As has happened all too many times with “Best New Artist” recipients, Cohn never had another Top 40 hit after winning the award in 1991 for his delightful song “Walking In Memphis.”
Despite his failure to come up with another big record, Cohn remained a popular concert performer over the years. But in August 2005, it was shocking to learn that he had been shot in the head as the victim of a carjacking after a concert in Denver. Happily, Cohn made a full recovery, and his new album, Listening Booth: 1970, is ample proof of that.
The first reaction when reading the song lineup is tat no way has been 40 years since these tunes debuted on AM radio. Hearing these old friends makes me think that I should be reporting to Russell Sage Junior High tomorrow!
Cohn sounds remarkably like Cat Stevens on “Wild World” while his relaxed take on “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a vast improvement on Paul McCartney’s early post-Beatles hit. Cohn’s throaty vocals mesh nicely with John Leventhal’s acoustic guitar playing on Bread’s “Make It With You,” Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” and Joe Cocker’s “The Letter.” Let’s hope that Cohn can transport his listening booth to another great year.

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