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Film and the Arts

Actor Turned Director Diego Luna Celebrates "Cesar Chavez"

Photo by B. Balfour

Born on December 29, 1979 in Mexico City, Diego Luna Alexander lost his mother in a car accident when he was only two. So Luna became immersed in his father's passion for entertainment as Mexico’s most acclaimed living theatre, cinema and opera set designer. From an early age Luna began acting in television, movies and theater. Once he achieved international recognition, he expanded his resume to include writing, producing and directing as well.

This producer-actor-director’s full bio includes such highlights as big budget sci-fi thriller Elysium (2013),  the Oscar-nominated Milk (2008), Tom Hanks starrer The Terminal (2004), and provocative Y Tu Mamá También (2001). But his most recent directorial effort Cesar Chavez not outlines a slice of the famed civil rights leader and labor organizer’s life (powerfully played by Michael Pena) but also chronicles the birth of a modern American labor movement. The film also tells the story of a man torn between family duties as a husband and father and his commitment to the fight for a living wage for farm workers. 

Passionate but soft-spoken, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in this struggle to bring dignity to his community and disenfranchised people in general. Chavez inspired millions of Americans who hadn’t worked on a farm or been to California to fight for social justice. His journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one person’s ability to change the world.

Buttressed by two incredibly strong women — wife Helen (America Ferrara) and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) — Chavez presciently foresaw the impact the Latino American community would have on this country as he drew attention to this long disenfranchised sector.

chavez posterQ: Once you got this idea, how long did it take you to do this film? 

DL: At the beginning I didn’t know I had to do it; I would’ve quit had I been told this was going take four years and a half of my life. When I started I thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that there’s no film about Cesar Chavez. But this is so powerful and comes in time for many reasons, and  since this community’s growing, everyone’s going to want to do this film.” 

I went out and started shopping as is done with films. You go to studios and sit down with executives and everyone gave us a chance to sit down which sounded like, “Okay it’s happening,” then they said, “Wow, this is great, we love that you’re doing this, we’re not going to join but once you have a film, come and show it to us and probably we’ll be part of it,” and we’re like, “No! We need the money to do it!” 

It’s not like I’m just going out and doing it. I heard things like, “Can you make it more sexy?” and I was like, “How can I make it more sexy? If it was sexier, farm workers would probably be living a different reality today.” 

They said, “What about A-List actors? Can you have Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem in it?” And I’m thinking, the man existed, there are pictures, there’s murals! You cannot just say, “Well now it’s just going to look like something else…” This is about a Mexican-American, a guy who was born in Arizona. Anyway, we found no support in this country. But by that point, I promised the family that I was going to deliver a film.

I promised that it was happening and then invested a year of my life into it at that point. We were working on the script with Keir Pearson, so I said to my partner Pablo Cruz, “Let’s go to Mexico and finance it the way we do in film.” 

We went to Mexico and in a week and a half we found the money. At least 70% that allows the comeback for the other 30%. Then we came back and found the perfect partners, Participant Media and Pantelion Films, two different kind of film [studios], but they’re both doing films that would be perfect for this market — one that we’re trying to prove exists. That’s how everything started in terms of putting it together. 

We wanted to come to the States and open a company and office here, so we said that we have to do a film that mattered on both sides of the border. It would allow us to work here but still do stories that connect us with where we come from and the community we belong to, to the point that my son who was born here, in the States, so he’s knows he’s a Mexican-American. In fact, he had an American passport before the Mexican one.

In a way, this was an attempt to tell a story that he would be able to use to find out where he comes from and what needed to happen for him to be where he is at the moment. That’s how everything started.

Q: Do you hope this film will change society’s perception of Latinos and the issues that concerns this community?

DL: There’s something that’s happened here before which is that all us Latinos, we have to learn from these guys that if we organize, if we’re united, we have the strength to change the world. That’s definitely a reality, because I don’t think we’ve been so well organized since then. Yes, there’s a lot of complaints that we have to this country, as a community, but I would start looking at ourselves in the mirror and [ask] why we haven’t done [anything]? 

We have a chance to send that message on the opening week, March 28th, which is, “We want these films to be out. We want our stories to be represented. We want our heroes to celebrated in film.” 

There’s two things that matter here. As Cesar said and showed us, one is that our strength is in our numbers, and they’re growing. So I don’t know why we, as a community, haven’t experienced that feeling of power [that] we actually have in hand. The other is that the film confronts you, not just us Latinos, but everyone in this country, with a reality that’s very uncomfortable, that today in the fields, the conditions still aren’t great. 

The struggle continues and consumers have also not been aware of what they’re part of when they buy a product since then. The amazing thing they did as a community, is that they connected with consumers, the rest of America, a community they didn’t think they had a connection with. They found a way to say, “Our story matters to you.” 

When you buy a grape, you’re supporting child labor. Moms listened to that, when a mother was in a store in Chicago, she found a farm worker saying, “When you’re buying that product, you have to remember that behind that product is the work of my six year-old. ” 

Mothers stopped buying grapes. So it’s about connecting, finding out what connects us, not what separates us. I think that’s a beautiful message about the film, and that applies not just for America, but for the world. It’s a nonviolent movement that said it’s about the responsibility of knowing we’re not here alone. The work of many has to happen so we can experience the life we have. It’s just being aware of that — that’s what matters. 

Q: Was it tough for actor Michael Peña to have this on his shoulders?

DL: I was walking coming with Rosario from having lunch, and she told me, ”It’s unbelievable how much Michael changed for this role. He’s just nothing close to what he portrayed here.” 

I always told him, “Michael, we have to be aware. We cannot do the Hollywood way, you know? We cannot say suddenly that Cesar was a great speaker, and the Martin Luther King kind of leader.” 

But he wasn’t. He was very humble and timid. As a result of the amount of urge he had for change to happen, he had to become the leader. If he would’ve had a chance to stand back and stay behind, he would have done it. He was a great listener. 

That’s why he could organize these people, because he came and took the time to listen to everyone’s story. This is a community that has been ignored for so long, that suddenly someone arrived that cared about their story and said, “Your story matters.” 

In fact, Mark Grossman, who traveled a lot through rallies and was Cesar’s PR person — he wrote the speeches for him — was very close to him and we worked a lot with him. He told me [that] the rallies were painful because he would stay until nine, 10 pm, and people left, and he was still talking to a woman in the back. He had time, he nothing else to do but this, and everyone realized he was giving his life. We have to remember, this is a man that got out of living in the city. He changed his life, he was wearing a suit, he had a job. But he said, “No, we have to go back to the fields, we have to change things from the inside. It’s not going to come from the outside.” 

He went back and sacrificed not just his reality but the reality of his family. I love when Fernando asks, “Who plays in Delano? You’re not taking me to a place that doesn’t have a major league baseball team, right?” And [Cesar] goes, “Yeah, we’re all going to sacrifice here, and we’re all going to go back to where we come from.” 

Q: You showed how he sacrificed his relationship with his older son. You spent more than four years working on this movie. How much did it affect your relationship with your own children?

DL: It does, it does. I’ve never had to go so far as he did. I was in Chicago on Friday, took the red eye, spent Saturday and Sunday with my kids, and I’m here on Monday. I would never give away the weekend, and stay for another interview. I think that’s what makes him heroic. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. 

Q: How old are your kids now?

DL: Five and three. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. These guys left for months. Besides everything we’ve talked about, the film is about a father and a son. To me, the reflection I’m making here is [that] there’s a sacrifice we fathers do. I did not understand until I had a baby. It changed the way I looked to my father. When I had a baby, I went back and said, “Damn, dad. You’ve done all of this?” 

My mother died when I was two, so my father had to play both roles and work and it’s that very unfair part of life where you know you have to do it. I do film because of my kids, I think about them every moment of my life. Every decision I make, they’re involved. Probably, they won’t know this until they have their own. 

That’s the gap that sometimes... Hopefully in life you have the time to bring it back together, but not many times it happens. For these characters, it took a long a long time. They had eight kids. Dolores Huerta had 11 kids. Imagine that and they managed to do all this as well. 

Q: Was it a conscious choice that you avoided his childhood? 

DL: The first script I got, [went] from the day he was born until the day he died. You can do that in a fictional film, it doesn’t matter, but with the life of someone I think that’s very unfair. It’s impossible in an hour and 45 minutes to tell of someone’s 64-year journey. I thought, “I’m going to concentrate in one achievement.” 

That’s the boycott was to me. I said, “If I can explain how the boycott happened, and why the boycott happened, and what [it brought] to the community, I’ll be sending the right message.” 

I didn’t want to do a film just about this community. I wanted to do a film about how this community managed to connect with the rest of the country. Because to me, the powerful message here is that if change ever comes, it’s because we get involved and we people connect with others. 

We find those who are out there and what connects us with them. So to me, that was the thing I wanted to focus on -- the personal struggle of a father. It’s the first film done about Cesar and the movement, so it’s unfair to ask one film to fill the gap of so many years where there was no film talking about it. Because if I was here, and there were another three films, I could focus in on a specific thing that none of the other films [did], but you cannot ask a film to tell everything that hasn’t been told. Hopefully this will [stimulate] curiosity and awareness so that people will go and investigate a little more about who they are and what’s behind them. 

Q: Why was the movie shot in Mexico instead of where the events happened? Did that have to do with where you found the money? Being a movie about a syndicated movement, with the actors’ unions very strong here, don’t know how it is in Mexico, but how much of the actors and the crew were unionized?

DL: We shot in Mexico because of two reasons. One, the film was financed in Mexico, so a lot of the financing came as support. We first went to California, but even if we would have shot in the States, we would not have shot in California, because the actual places have changed dramatically since the ’60s. So you cannot shoot there, you’d have to recreate the [conditions]. 

We found in Sonora that the fields there have that immensity. Sonora is the state that produces 80% of the table grape of Mexico. Mexico is a huge country, so the feeling when you’re there, it’s the same feeling you have in the valley in California. You really are a dot in the middle of nowhere. There’s this immensity, the feeling that those fields are feeding a world, 

In terms of the union, there’s no way to do a film this big non-union in Mexico. Every actor was paid through SAG; we also have a union in Mexico of actors and technicians. It would be very stupid to do a film about a union without the support of unions [laughs]. But you know what happened…? There was a whole debate on the extras. 

The extras are farm workers. That doesn’t mean they didn’t get paid. The point is, I wanted to work with real farm workers. You know those faces? There’s no way to put makeup on a face and make it look like they’ve been under the sun for so many years, under that condition of dust and wind. Those faces tell you the story. Just by looking at the face, you get many things that can’t be said in dialogue. 

Q: Were these farm workers from the area where you shot?

DL: Many farm workers joined. By the third day they realized that film isn’t glamorous and that the experience was as miserable as working in the fields [laughs]. Because we were in the fields, we put every penny we had in front of the camera, so the conditions we were shooting under were rough compared to the cliché of how Hollywood filmmaking is. 

Q: Did the workers themselves teach you anything, something that you never knew?

DL: The only thing is that they reminded me every day of why the film needed to be done. It just still makes no sense to me that those who are feeding this country can barely feed their families. And by listening to their stories, I got the necessary energy to keep going. No matter what our issues were, they don’t matter. I am lucky to be able to choose where I work, who I’m around, what I do, what stories I tell, I can’t complain. It was a great reminder on why this needs to be out. 

Q: The film deals with social issues. Is that also part of the marketing?

DL: Definitely, and we’re focusing a lot in kids. Before the proper promotion started, we did two weeks of going to high schools and universities. We went to Harvard, Berkeley, Irvine, UCLA, then we did a screening in the RFK High School. It was like a system. We did a screening where they taped it and then that’s going to be shown to kids around California. 

We’re pushing to do tons of little videos in social media and everything to raise awareness about Cesar Chavez and what the movement [stood] for. That’s where Participant comes in. They have an amazing reach in terms of a call-to-action. 

As part of our film, we are also making a petition to President Obama about making a Cesar Chavez National Day of Service. As the campaign goes, if you guys participate, it’d be great. There’s a page called takepart.com/cesarchavez and you can sign. If you sign the petition, we need a hundred thousand signatures to go to Obama. 

Film should be the beginning of something bigger. This film should trigger, hopefully, the curiosity of people to find out exactly what this movement was about. It’s difficult to inform in an hour and 45 minutes about everything they did and still entertain but it is pertinent to talk about this because the issues today in the field are even more complicated [than ever]. 

We thought also about a day of celebration... A few states today celebrate Cesar Chavez day, but we thought that a national day of service would be the way he would like to be remembered, a day where you work and give something back to your community, which is what they did from beginning to end. 

There [are] so many things happening at the same time, and there are so many things happening in Latin America. Because if few people know here the story of Cesar Chavez, you’ll go to Latin America and everyone thinks he’s a boxer. No one knows, and it’s something that hopefully the film, and everything happening around the film, might be able to change. Also, the foundation is working really close. 

Dolores Huerta has been promoting the film with us, and every time she grabs the microphone, she talks about it and the 10 other things that matter to her. If film can work for that to happen, if film can bring attention to the work of those that are still in the struggle, still out there, I’ll be very proud. But it’s definitely about kids.

You know an amazing thing that has been happening is that today there’s many Latinos in key positions and many have the chance to actually choose what they want to do in life. They have businesses and so many of these people are buying out theaters and giving them away to schools. 

For the first weekend, someone said, “I would like to share this film with every high school kid of the community I come from” which is an amazing thing. The distribution company Pantelion is getting these calls and managing to actually make it happen, where you basically buy out a theater and fill it with kids that normally wouldn’t go watch it, or will probably watch it two years later on their phone while doing another 20 things, which is how kids now watch films... so that’s also happening. People like Henry Moreno — he was the first one. 

Q: Is he one of the producers?

DL: No, no, no! He’s just a guy that cares about this. I was at an event in Washington, and Moreno talked about this, he was doing a show and he told me, “I’m buying out theaters to share with the kids, and this is happening, people are starting to react.” 

That’s fantastic. I did this film because I think I have some distance to the story. Generationally, I wasn’t around when this happened, so also that gives me some objectivity, I guess. But the angle which I’m telling this, it’s the perfect angle for people who don’t know the story, to listen [to] it for the first time.

Q: What did it teach you about yourself as a father, as a director, as an actor? 

DL: You know, I found a connection. It was through telling personal stories that they managed to bring the attention to something bigger. It was about a mother going out, as I said, a mother going out of a grocery store and telling another mother, “Behind that grape, there’s the work of my kid. Are you sure you want to be part of that?” 

Then that mother got hit so badly and so profoundly, that she’s gonna turn into an advocate for the movement. But it’s by telling personal stories that you can trigger that, and I think film has that power. Today, if I was sitting in a board meeting of this movement, I would say, “Let’s do short documentaries about each other’s experiences and get them out, because that’s the way to get people’s attention.” 

We do the same thing, in a way. At least film is capable of doing what these guys did. That was a connection that I found on the way. When I was out and everyone was like, “Oh, you’re doing the film about Cesar Chavez! I gotta tell you something. My grandfather, one day, he grew up and blah blah blah…” 

If I do a documentary where I tell you, “More than a 100,000 have been killed in the last eight years in my country because of the war on drugs that our president started, our former president started…” You’re going to go, “Oh, that’s a big number.” 

But if I tell you the story of a kid who lost his father and now has to work and had to get out of school to support his mother, and how the life these four people changed dramatically, not just his but his brother and his sister... The next day you’re going to care about the war we’re living there. So by telling personal stories you can trigger that attention and that’s something they were doing that was way ahead of us. 

 

"The Girls in the Band" Honors Music's Unsung Heroines

How many female jazz musicians can you name? Judy Chaikin's new documentary The Girls in the Band can help. By the time the credits roll, you will have met three generations of distaff players, composers, arrangers and GreatDayinHarlemconductors reaching back to the 1920s. Names like saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert, trumpeters Clora Bryant and Billie Rogers and drummer Viola Smith will roll off the tongue as readily as those of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

Read more: "The Girls in the Band" Honors...

September '21 Digital Week IV

4K/UHD Release of the Week 
A Clockwork Orange 
(Warner Bros)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic remains as unsettling and provocative as it was when released 50 years ago. With a spectacular physical performance from Malcolm McDowell as the ultimate anti-hero, Kubrick revs up his sardonic sense of humor and dazzling visual and aural bravura (the soundtrack is one of the most eclectic yet appropriate ever cobbled together, from electronically enhanced Beethoven to McDowell’s seminal take on “Singing in the Rain”) to make the ultimate adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ cautionary novel.
 
 
This anniversary release’s UHD upgrade looks spectacular; extras on the accompanying Blu-ray disc include several retrospective featurettes ported over from the 2011 40th anniversary release, but both the feature-length career overview Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures and the documentary about McDowell have been dropped.
 
 
 
 
 
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
Chernobyl 1986
(Capelight/MPI) 
If it’s possible to make a sentimental melodrama about the horrific happenings at Chernobyl—site of the nuclear disaster that was criminally covered up by the Soviet government—then actor-director Danila Kozlovsky has done so: his film centers on Alexey, a local fireman who bravely enters the smoldering radioactive ruins after rekindling his relationship with Olga, a former lover who is now a single mother whose only son has been radiated by the accident and is seriously ill.
 
 
Admittedly, Kozlovsky (Alexey) and Oksana Akinshina (Olga) provide persuasive chemistry as the couple, and the sequences inside the crippled plant are filmed impressively and tensely. But at 135 minutes, the syrup overwhelms the central tragedy.
 
 
 
 
 
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World 
(Juno Films)
At first, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s documentary about Björn Andrésen—who, at age 15 was cast as the “beautiful boy” in Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice—seems an intriguing glimpse at someone whose life went far afield from the glamor he experienced as a teenager during a  short window of stardom.
 
 
Then, we discover what’s happened in Andrésen’s life in the ensuing half-century (marriage, divorce, deaths of an infant child and his mother) and the film morphs into a sad exploration of a real-life tragic character that’s far more honest than anything Visconti could have conjured. 
 
 
 
 
 
Savior for Sale 
(Greenwich Entertainment)
The second documentary this summer about the purported Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi—which sold for $450 million at auction in 2017—covers much the same ground as The Last Leonardo, but there’s so much to this cautionary tale of the perils of the art world, especially when it comes to authenticating, buying and selling Old Master paintings, that it remains fascinating and informative.
 
 
Director Antoine Vitkine highlights much the same cast of characters—Russian oligarch, Saudi royal, French go-between, British and American experts—to incisively chronicle the moral failings of a business with admittedly few scruples.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Atys 
(Naxos)
Buffalo-born conductor William Christie and his renowned period-instrument ensemble Les Arts Florissants helped transform baroque opera into a goldmine with their 1989 tour of a sumptuous production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 “tragedy with music,” a five-act behemoth highlighted by sensitive playing and wondrous singing.
 
 
More than 20 years later, Christie and his ensemble returned to Paris to revive the opera, with much the same musical and dramatic result. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio. 
 
 
 
 
 
Dementia 13Director's Cut 
(Lionsgate) 
Anything but auspicious, Francis Coppola’s 1963 feature debut—a shoestring Roger Corman production about an axe-wielding murderer—is fascinating mainly for how Coppola does little right, showing a scarcity of the talent that would flourish in the ’70s. Shot in B&W, the shoestring movie has a few interesting moments, but Patrick Magee’s florid line readings take precedence over the other wooden performers and the 69-minute feature disappears from memory immediately.
 
 
There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are Coppola’s commentary and short intro, along with the six-minute prologue originally attached to the film (this “director’s cut” reflects Coppola returning to his original cut that was “fattened” by Corman with added scenes).
 
 
 
 
 
Love & Basketball 
(Criterion Collection)
Sanaa Lathan’s portrayal of Monica, a world-class athlete who has an off-again, on-again relationship with Quincy (Omar Epps), her basketball-playing neighbor since they were kids, is the emotional center of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 romance that’s become a touchstone for fans of sports movies with a fresh perspective. Although overlong and soap opera-ish at times, there’s a realism and frankness in the performances of Lathan, Epps and Alfre Woodard as Monica’s mother that keeps it all centered.
 
 
Criterion’s hi-def release has an excellent Blu-ray transfer; two commentaries; deleted scenes with commentary; Prince-Bythewood’s early shorts, Stitches (1991) and Progress (1997), with her intro; conversation among Prince-Bythewood, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes and writer-actor Lena Waithe; and new interviews with Prince-Bythewood, Lathan, Epps and Woodard.
 
 
 
 
 
Mona Lisa 
(Criterion Collection)
This gritty and flavorful 1986 crime drama, writer-director Neil Jordan’s breakthrough, stars Bob Hoskins as the ex-con turned chauffeur of a mob boss (Michael Caine) who gets involved with a glamorous call girl (an incandescent Cathy Tyson). Jordan’s gift for quotable dialogue and razor-sharp characterization is on display, and the great Hoskins—with valuable assists from Caine and Tyson—carries the drama on his prodigious shoulders.
 
 
The film looks superb on Blu-ray; Criterion’s extras comprise Jordan and Hoskins’ commentary; 1986 Cannes Film Festival interviews with Jordan and Hoskins; 2015 interviews with cowriter David Leland and producer Stephen Woolley; and new interviews with Jordan and Tyson. 
 
 
 
 
Prince of the City 
(Warner Archive)
Sidney Lumet’s 1981 epic drama, based on the true story of Robert Leuci—who blew the whistle on corruption among the ranks of the NYPD narcotics squad—is the apotheosis of his New York-based crime dramas, which include Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.
 
 
At nearly three hours, Prince is crammed with narrative detail and incident, and Lumet and his cast—led by Treat Williams in the lead—tell a sordid tale with artfulness and truth. The film looks splendid in hi-def; the lone extra is a half-hour-long retrospective featurette that includes interviews with Lumet, Williams and cowriter Jay Presson Allen.
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Release of the Week
Akhnaten
(Orange Mountain Media)
One of the Metropolitan Opera’s most visually imposing recent productions is Phelim McDermott’s colorfully inventive staging of Philip Glass’ opera, set in ancient Egypt and filled with the usual repetitive Glass arpeggios.
 
 
Still, thanks to the terrific sets, costumes, lighting and a committed cast led by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, the nearly three-hour spectacle is  astonishing to behold, if not hear. Too bad that such a gorgeous-looking opera has only been released on DVD and not Blu-ray; it’s inexplicable that, although listed on the cover as Met Opera HD Live, it can only be watched in SD. Extras are between-acts interviews with cast and crew. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sibyl
(Music Box Films) 
For the first hour, director Justine Triet is in complete control of her often hilarious study of atherapist who gradually finds herself drawn into the world of moviemaking after neurotic actress Margot demands she become her therapist for her on-set difficulties with costar/on-set lover Igor and their director (Igor’s off-camera lover).
 
 
The cast, featuring Virginie Efira as Sibyl, Gaspard Ulliel as Igor and Sandra Hüller as the director—who overdoes it, ruining some would-be funny sequences—is led by the exquisite Adèle Exarchopoulos as Margot, who breathes such luminous life into a mere caricature that she dominates the movie. But even she can’t save it after taking a bizarre turn into increasingly implausible territory that any therapist worth her salt wouldn’t be dragged into. Extras include interviews with Triet, Exarchopoulos, and Efira.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week
Eric Tanguy—Concertos 
(Ondine)
Although he’s been among the most performed living composers for the past several years, Frenchman Eric Tanguy (b. 1968) still seems under the radar as far as name recognition—but this delightful disc of three of his characteristic orchestral works looks to get his music to a wider audience.
 
writes tuneful, accessible music with enough spikiness to prevent it from becoming schmaltzy: his concertos provide vivid platforms for virtuoso soloists, and clarinetist Pierre Genisson and violinist Julia Pusker take full advantage in their respective performances. Pusker, in Tanguy’s Violin Concerto No. 2, is a force of nature in the appropriately titled opening movement, “Intense et tres lyrique.”  In the concertos and propulsive Matka, Ville Matvejeff leads the excellent Jyvaskyla Sinfonia.

September '21 Digital Week III

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Wife of a Spy 
(Kino Lorber)
In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s period drama set in 1940, a Japanese businessman sympathetic to American and British interests finds himself in a conundrum: does he expose the atrocities he witnessed in China, which would also implicate his wife, a famous actress?
 
 
 
 
 
 
This restrained, intelligent exploration of conscience and morality in an era of belligerence and nationalism masquerading as patriotism might be too low-key, but its pertinence and exceptional filmmaking—Kurosawa’s command of the camera, editing, set design and superb cast—make it a must-see.
 
 
 
 
 
Best Sellers 
(Screen Media)
Michael Caine as an irascible old git—check. Aubrey Plaza as an adorably clever young woman—check. That’s it, really: director Nina Roessler and writer Anthony Greico’s dramatic comedy about a forgotten author and desperate book publisher who try resuscitating their careers depends almost entirely on the actors’ chemistry, and it works—to a point.
 
 
There’s a reluctance to go beyond the obvious “Caine does something obnoxious and Aubrey hilariously reacts to it,” and if the movie turns unbearably sentimental as it goes where it was heading all along, the two stars do their level best to keep it watchable, even enjoyable at times.
 
 
 
 
 
The Capote Tapes 
(Greenwich Entertainment)
The second Truman Capote documentary to surface this year—Truman and Tennessee—An Intimate Conversation, studied the relationship between two great American writers—provides another glimpse at this tantalizing personality, author, and bon vivant mainly through his own words.
 
 
Director Ebs Burnough effectively brings together Capote’s own voice alongside archival and new interviews with friends, enemies and colleagues like Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer and Dick Cavett, and the result is a richly idiosyncratic portrait of a richly idiosyncratic man.
 
 
 
 
 
In Balanchine’s Classroom 
(Zeitgeist Films)
Connie Hochman’s loving look at dancers who learned their art under the tutelage of the greatest ballet master of the 20th century, George Balanchine (1904-83), gives viewers myriad opportunities to watch the master at work: vintage footage of him rehearsing the men and women who went on to glorious careers themselves as prima ballerinas, principal dancers and teachers, along with valuable glimpses at some of Balanchine’s many onstage achievements with the New York City Ballet, which he cofounded.
 
 
Hochman smartly prods her subjects to speak with a mixture of awe, emotion, and even nostalgia about the biggest influence in their professional lives.
 
 
 
 
 
Storm Lake 
(ITVS)
One of the last small-town newspapers in America, rural Iowa’s Storm Lake Times has been publishing for decades but—as Beth Levison and Jerry Risius’ perceptive documentary shows—the family-owned/operated local source for 3000 loyal readers is in a fight for survival: regional papers are swallowing up small ones, the internet lets anyone read news from anywhere at anytime, and the pandemic made it even more difficult to stay afloat. Publisher-editor Art Cullen and his family have kept the paper running for years and seemed to weather the shutdown last year with help from GoFundMe, but their prognosis is still iffy.
 
 
 
Levison and Risius illuminatingly show how, in a tight-knit community, even conservatives read the local paper despite Art’s left-leaning editorials because they want to see what’s happening with their neighbors and friends. Maybe, just maybe, this bodes well for our future?
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Releases of the Week
Guilt—Complete 1st Season
(PBS)
Rarely has a Masterpiece Mystery series been as stupefying as this second-rate knockoff of Martin McDonough and the Coen brothers (neither of whom I’m a particular fan of): when two annoying brothers try to cover up their accidental drunken hit-and-run killing of an old man, everything spirals out of their control.
 
 
Too bad director Robert McKillop and creator-writer Neil Forsyth aren’t in control either: instead of a tidy 90-minute movie, they have conjured this nearly four-hour morass with none of the characters or their relationships even remotely plausible. It’s well-acted, to be sure, which just brings the ludicrousness at the core into greater focus. Extras comprise three making-of featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
Magnum P.I.—Complete 3rd Season 
Seal Team—Complete 4th Season 
(CBS/Paramount)
This reboot of the ’80s Tom Selleck hit Magnum P.I. reconfigures its action for the new millennium, although the third season’s 16 episodes demonstrate that the seams are showing, however charismatic star Jay Hernandez is and how updated the little twists and turns are.
 
 
Similarly, the fourth season of the action-packed Seal Team—in which Delta Force roots out terrorists in the Middle East, Tunisia, Ecuador, the Mediterranean and other far-flung places—merely nods to its heroes’ family lives in order to destroy more things (and bad guys), despite the granite-jawed David Boreanz as the team leader. Both sets include making-of featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week
Lord Berners—The Triumph of Neptune 
(Naxos)
The furthest thing from a dilettante, despite the fact that he also painted, wrote books and  by some, British composer Lord Berners (1883-1950) actually wrote music that was the last word in style and wit. One of his strongest scores is The Triumph of Neptune, a bracing and sophisticated work that was originally commissioned by Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev and first choreographed by none other than George Balanchine, in 1926.
 
 
Berners’ music is accessibly, endlessly inventive and tuneful, as the other three pieces on this disc—particularly the wonderfully charming puppet ballet, The Man with the Moustache—demonstrate in spades.
 
 
 
 
Igor Stravinsky—The Soldier’s Tale 
(Harmonia Mundi)
In the 50 years since his death, the works of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) remain, in all their variedness and originality, at the forefront of 20th century music. The Soldier’s Tale, which grew out of the ashes of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, displays Stravinsky’s ease in adopting the colors of other musical eras; the frisky neo-classicism that emerged sounds like a hoot but, especially when played by violinist Isabelle Faust and a half-dozen superb musicians—the narrator, Dominique Horwitz, overdoes the English text at times—transforms into a resonant, disturbing tale of the devil, winning again.
 
 
Rounding out the disc are Faust’s lovely interpretations of two other Stravinsky jewels: the solo Elegie and the Duo concertant for violin and piano, where Faust is accompanied admirably by Alexander Melnikov.

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