Blu-rays of the Week
American Epic (PBS)
Digging deep into our country’s musical past, this three-hour documentary narrated by Robert Redford recounts how ordinary people with extraordinary talent had their music recorded and preserved for the first time. All three episodes are crammed with great songs and rarely-seen (and rarely-heard) archival footage. The second disc, The American Epic Sessions, comprises 90 minutes of joyous music-making as various contemporary artists record new tunes using the only surviving piece of working recording equipment from the 1920s; among them are Elton John, Los Lobos, Nas, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, and Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Arrow Academy)
Italian giallo master Dario Argento made his debut in 1970 with this tense murder mystery about an American writer in Rome who, after witnessing an attempted murder, is swept up by a serial killer on the loose. Tony Musante (from TV’s Toma) is perfectly cast as the American out of his element, and Argento suggests without being explicit, which he later frequently abandoned. Bonuses are gritty cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and a modernist score by Ennio Morricone. Arrow’s hi-def transfer is sensationally good and grainy; extras include an audio commentary, new interviews with Argento and actor Gildo di Marco, archival interview with actress Eva Renzi and video essay on Argento’s films.
King Lear (Opus Arte)
This 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s most shattering tragedy stars an overripe Antony Sher as the monarch who gives away his kingdom only to fall prey to insanity and mortality. Director Gregory Doran does nothing egregiously wrong, but never allows the Bard’s taut drama to cohere. There are scattered gems among the cast, notably Antony Byrne’s Kent and Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar; Natalie Simpson is a pleasing Cordelia, but sisters Regan and Goneril are embodied without much distinction by Kelly Williams and Nia Gwynne. The staging is shown in sharp hi-def; extras are Doran’s commentary, Sher interview and costume featurette.
The Marseille Trilogy (Criterion)
Marcel Pagnol, one of the greatest writers in early French cinema—along with his work for the stage and on the page—created a classic cinematic trilogy in the 1930s: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936), the first directed by Alexander Korda, the second by Marc Allegret and the last by Pagnol himself, whose humanity, and love for both life and ordinary people is shot through all three films, which feature wonderfully vivid acting by Pierre Fresnay (Marius), Orane Demazis (Fanny) and Raimu (Cesar). Criterion’s magnificent new transfers show off the pristine B&W compositions by three different cinematographers; extras include an ingratiating intro by Bertrand Tavernier; interview with grandson Nicolas Pagnol; segments of a 1973 documentary series Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux choisis; Marseille, a 1935 documentary short produced by Pagnol; and archival interviews with Fresnay, Demazis and Robert Vattier.
Moses und Aron / New York City Ballet in Paris (Bel Air Classiques)
Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal opera Moses und Aron is pretty static dramatically, which is why Romeo Castellucci’s 2015 Paris Opera staging spends much of its time concentrating on offbeat, even bizarre visuals, including the sight of an actual ox standing onstage for several minutes (without being sacrificed). Philippe Jordan conducts orchestra and chorus to a perfect 12-tone maelstrom; the leads are enacted vividly by Thomas Johannes-Mayer and John Graham-Hall. A record of the company’s 2016 tour to the City of Lights, New York City Ballet in Paris dazzlingly shows off several classic Balanchine dances set to music by French masters Gounod, Ravel and Bizet, played boisterously by the Orchestre Promethee led by Daniel Capps. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.