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April '21 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema/Streaming/Theater Releases of the Week 
Nina Wu 
(Film Movement)
Actress Wu Kei-Xi cowrote the script of this explosive drama about an actress dealing with exploitative and sexist behavior on the set of her latest film, something that’s definitely not the exception, which director Midi Z unflinchingly shows in a final, disturbing sequence.
 
 
Wu is sensational as the young actress navigating sudden notoriety and ongoing abuse, despite the middle of the film sags with a melodramatic subplot about Nina’s close relationship with another actress who enjoys working locally—she’s in a family-friendly staging of The Little Prince—instead of following in Nina’s footsteps toward a popular career. 
 
 
 
 
Six Minutes to Midnight 
(IFC Films) 
Based on a true story, this pre-WWII drama stars Eddie Izzard as a teacher just arrived at a girls’ school outside London for the daughters of Nazi officials run by a stern headmistress (Judi Dench) who uncovers a plot that puts him and others in mortal danger.
 
 
Well-acted by Izzard, Dench, Carla Juri as the girls’ leader and Jim Broadbent as a bus driver who helps Izzard, Andy Goddard’s film is unfortunately so filled with strained and melodramatic silliness that it sometimes approaches self-parody, which is a shame since the material itself is worthy of serious and even exciting exploration.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-Ray Releases of the Week 
The Bermuda Depths 
(Warner Archive)
This 1978 made-for-TV fantasy flick hasn’t aged badly simply because it wasn’t very good anyway: a young man is beguiled by a beautiful woman apparently living in the sea at the same time he assists an old friend tracking an enormous sea creature. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but there are engaging performances by Connie Selleca in an impossible mermaid role, Carl Weathers as a marine biologist and Burl Ives, of all people, as the island’s grand old scientist.
 
versions of Tom Kotani’s film—which looks terrific in new hi-def restored transfers—are included: the 75-minute U.S. TV version, in the near-square 1.33:1 aspect ratio; and the 97-minute widescreen international theatrical version. The lone extra is an audio commentary.
 
 
 
 
 
Breaking News in Yuba County 
(Warner Bros)
With all the talent in front of the camera, you’d think that director Tate Taylor would have been able to get more laughs and emotion out of this satirical black comedy about a mousy middle-aged wife who finds freedom and celebrity after her two-timing husband “disappears.”
 
 
But Taylor is unable to corral the likes of Mila Kunis, Wanda Sykes, Awkwafina, Juliette Lewis, Regina King, Ellen Barkin, Matthew Modine and, in the lead, the unbeatable Allison Janney into something more coherent than scattershot moments of hilarity and heartbreak. The film looks great on Blu.
 
 
 
 
 
Crossfire 
(Warner Archive)
The year 1947 was a breakthrough for American movies: two features dealing with anti-Semitism were both nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The winner, Gentlemen’s Agreement, which has dated badly, is now little more than a decent melodrama; but Crossfire remains compelling in its study of the investigation into the beating death of a man simply because he was Jewish.
 
 
Tautly directed by Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire’s top-notch cast is led by Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Grahame and Robert Ryan (the latter two nominated for their supporting performances; the film was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Director). The B&W film looks superb on Blu; extras are an audio commentary and vintage making-of featurette.
 
 
 
 
 
Isle of the Dead 
(Warner Archive)
Boris Karloff gives this slow-moving but effective 1945 horror flick extra creepiness in his portrayal of a general who desperately tries to contain a plague on a small island—but fails. Although it’s Filmmaking 101 from director Mark Robson, it eventually becomes truly frightening.
 
 
There’s a fun side note for classical music fans: the score by Leigh Harline drops hints of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s classic composition Isle of the Dead at certain juicy moments. The B&W flick looks fine on Blu; lone extra is an audio commentary.
 
 
 
 
Secrets & Lies 
(Criterion)
Mike Leigh’s 1996 comedy-drama was a commercial and critical breakthrough—it received several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director—but remains a profound disappointment: a serviceable if unoriginal story about a black woman who tracks down the white mother who gave her up for adoption as a baby is dragging out as if it were the greatest story ever told.
 
 
At nearly 2-1/2 hours, there’s far too much dead screen time; Leigh stacks the deck dramatically, then does an about-face and ties everything up so neatly it all comes off as phony rather than credible. Leigh’s customary excellence with actors is in evidence, but Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean Baptiste spend too much time improvising, to the film’s detriment. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are new interviews with Leigh, Jean-Baptiste and composer Gary Yershon and a 1996 Leigh audio interview.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week
Richard Danielpour—An American Mosaic 
(Supertrain Records)
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, American composer Richard Danielpour decided to pour his complicated feelings into a new work. The result, An American Mosaic, was composed last summer, and its 15 movements for solo piano provide a richly expressive musical palette for the superb pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
 
 
She sensitively navigates Danielpour’s emotional landscape, which encompasses the many heroes and heroines of the past year, detailed in movements that have straightforward titles like “Caretakers & Research Physicians” and “Doctors & Interns.” Four soothing “Consolations” appear at the beginning, two midsections and the end, demonstrating Danielpour’s debt to Bach, three of whose short keyboard works have been transcribed by Danielpour and beautifully performed by Dinnerstein as a kind of benediction. 
 
 
 
 
 
Charles Ives—Complete Symphonies 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the ultimate American maverick: he became a millionaire selling insurance, so his composing career was something he could do on his own terms. This recording of his four symphonies—with committed, visceral performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel—starts with the derivative if pleasant Symphony No. 1, composed when he was in his early 20s.
 
 
The second symphony brings in American popular and religious tunes, one of Ives’ obsessions, in its final movement, when Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” threatens to take over, while the third symphony is a major leap forward, as bits of several hymns are woven into an increasingly complex fabric. Then there’s Symphony No. 4, so difficult in form that it wasn’t even premiered until 1965, a decade after Ives’ death: it begins as a choral symphony (the Los Angeles Master Chorale does the honors here) and moves through the sounds of marching bands, batteries of percussion and, in the finale, what sounds like a celestial ensemble intoning some of Ives’ most monumental music.

March '21 Digital Week IV: RIP, Bertrand Tavernier

Blu-ray Release of the Week 
Bertrand Tavernier’s Journeys Through French Cinema 
(Cohen Media)
When Bertrand Tavernier died on March 25, the film world not only lost one of its greatest directors but also one of the very best cinema historians around. Proof of that has just been released on Blu-ray: Journeys Through French Cinema, an eight-hour series in which Tavernier discusses many of his favorite French films and filmmakers in his usual engaging and thoughtful style.
 
In 2016, Tavernier created My Journey Through French Cinema, a 190-minute, deeply personal chronicle of what most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth, growing up in Lyon and later when he moved to Paris. It was done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably that I wished it would go on for several more hours.
 
Now, with Journeys Through French Cinema, my wish has been granted: over eight one-hour episodes, Tavernier dives even more deeply into his favorites over six decades of movie watching, starting with two episodes’ worth of “My Go-To Filmmakers,” those directors who have influenced Tavernier, both personally and artistically. He even goes so far as to ingeniously pair two cinematic giants most wouldn’t think to link: Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati. (He also does the same, more questionably to my mind, with the great Sacha Guitry and not-so-great Quentin Tarantino.)
 
For the remaining six segments, Tavernier passionately guides the viewer through his own prism of French film history, from the great film composers and those directors who worked during the Nazi occupation of France, to those films made after World War II until the coming of the New Wave, through the final section “My Sixties,” during which Tavernier became a film press agent and was able to promote those films and filmmakers he especially admired.
 
For lovers of French film such as myself, it’s always a pleasure to see such wonderful scenes from classic films by Raymond Bernard (whose 1934 Les Miserables is, at nearly six hours, the most thorough and impressive adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel), Sacha Guitry (whose witty and boisterous comedies of manners are always a treat) and Henri-Jacques Clouzot (whose classic thriller, 1953’s The Wages of Fear, remains indelible).
 
As always with Tavernier—who, the handful of times I spoke with him, was a font of knowledge, enlightened conversation and natural friendliness—there are priceless anecdotes, brilliant insights and treasured observations: there are many moments during these eight hours when Tavernier’s passion comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his unique personality attuned to all things cinematic.                         
 
A Sunday in the Country
As for Tavernier’s many films—he made 22 features, from 1973’s extraordinary debut The Clockmaker to 2013’s satirical The French Minister, along with a handful of other documentaries, including his shattering four-hour exploration of the French-Algerian War’s effects, 1991’s The Undeclared War—where to start?
 
I’d start with A Sunday in the Country, his exquisite 1984 chamber drama about a day in the life of an aging minor painter whose dutiful son and family come to visit, along with his frivolous (and single) daughter, and the unfair realities of existence—the old man is indifferent to his son but adores his daughter—are shown in all their hilarity and heartbreak, scored to the luminous chamber music of French master composer Gabriel Fauré. It’s available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, with a typically listenable Tavernier audio commentary.
 
Another way to see several more superb Tavernier films is the Criterion Channel, which is streaming 
"Directed by Bertrand Tavernier"
on the Criterion Channel

nine of his very best, most characteristic films under the title “Directed by Bertrand Tavernier.” Alongside The Clockmaker and A Sunday in the Country are the beautifully realized intimate character study, 1980’s A Week’s Vacation; the forceful crime drama, 1976’s The Judge and the Assassin; the acidic black comedy, 1982’s Coup de Torchon; and the incisive, potent antiwar chronicle, 1996’s Captain Conan. 
 
So start somewhere, anywhere, and enter the singular and unforgettable cinematic universe of Bertrand Tavernier, which has a richness rarely equaled by any other director.

March '21 Digital Week III

VOD/Virtual Cinema/Streaming/In Theater Releases of the Week 
The Courier 
(Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
This true story of Greville Wynne, a businessman recruited by the CIA and MI6 for duty as a go-between for a Russian spy slipping secrets to the Americans and British, doesn’t break new ground, but it is absorbing and even—when the stakes are high and lives are at stake—becomes tense and involving.
 
 
Benedict Cumberbatch, best playing ordinary men caught up in events beyond his ken, is excellent as Wynne; matching him are Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky, his Russian counterpart, and Jessie Buckley as Sheila, his dutiful but beleaguered wife. Dominick Cooke directs unobtrusively but without the artistry needed to elevate this above “decent thriller.”
 
 
 
 
 
The Father 
(Sony Pictures Classics) 
Florian Zeller’s intimate play—which won Frank Langella a best actor Tony Award in 2016—has been extensively and, for the most part, successfully rejiggered for the screen, anchored by Anthony Hopkins’ heartbreaking performance as a man in the throes of senility who is unwilling—but unable—to concede that he has little control over his aging mind.
 
 
Zeller smartly because straightforwardly visualizes his protagonist’s shifting mental state, sometimes thinking his daughter is present, and at other times, surprised that she’s there. As the women in his life (daughter? caretaker? both? neither?), two Olivias—Colman and Williams—are superb foils for Hopkins, who hasn’t been this affecting since The Elephant Man 40 years ago.
 
 
 
 
 
Happily 
(Saban Films/Paramount)
This black comedy’s setup—a happily married, still lustful couple of 14 years annoys their friends enough to lead the pair to suspect them after a visit to the couple’s house by a strange man leads to a dead body—is rich with humor and sharp observation, but when the stranger’s identity is (sort of) revealed and the friends are all trapped in a rented house, the second half stumbles badly and limps to a risible, even nonsensical finish.
 
 
Joel McHale and Kerry Bishe are terrific as the couple and, in a fine supporting cast, Natalie Zea stands out as McHale’s ex, but writer/director BenDavid Grabinski cops out and ends up trading uneasy but genuine laughs for eye rolls.
 
 
 
 
 
Quo Vadis, Aida? 
(Neon/Super Ltd)
When the Bosnian War was at its height in 1995, the village of Srebrenica became ground zero for the Serbian Army, which massacred hundreds of male villagers, both men and boys. Director Jasmila Žbanić’s shattering drama recreates that awful moment in history through the eyes of Aida, a local woman acting as translator who desperately but futilely tries to get her husband and sons to safety out of town.
 
 
Jasna Đuričić’s richly expressive performance is the moral center of Žbanić’s film, which matter-of-factly and depressingly shows how evil is perpetrated with unwitting complicity from those nominally in charge (the toothless UN peacekeepers).
 
 
 
 
 
4K Release of the Week 
Godzilla 
(Warner Bros)
This 2014 reboot of the classic Japanese film series about a prehistoric monster regenerated by nuclear radiation, has been directed by Gareth Edwards with a lack of crudeness that is most appreciated, at least occasionally; at other times, one yearns for scenes that are more slam-bang and action-packed.
 
 
Still, the special effects—except in the big creature-battle finale, which unfortunately is too darkly lit—don’t overwhelm the human characters, and the cast, led by Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Juliette Binoche (who’s gone far too early), doesn’t embarrass itself. The movie looks vividly tactile on UHD—there’s also a Blu-ray disc of the film—and the extras include several on-set and behind-the-scenes featurettes. 
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Cellist 
(Opus Arte)
What sounds like a preposterous idea for a ballet—dramatizing the tragically short life of the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who died in 1987 at age 42 of multiple sclerosis—becomes quite affecting in the hands of the Royal Ballet choreographer Cathy Marston, who ingeniously pairs Lauren Cuthbertson as Jackie with Marcelino Sambé, who personifies her cello, and their dances together (and apart) are incredibly moving; the one-act ballet is scored to music by Elgar, Faure and Schubert associated with du Pré’s performances and recordings.
 
 
Another one-acter is the beguiling Dances at a Gathering, a set of Jerome Robbins’ wonderful dances to Chopin solo piano music (played by Robert Clark). As always, the hi-def video and audio are excellent.
 
 
 
 
 
The Undoing 
(Warner Bros)
Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known, this six-episode miniseries about a murder that threatens to tear apart a wealthy Upper East Side family trods familiar ground—even its unsurprising denouement—with supreme assurance, thanks to Susanne Bier’s detailed direction and David E. Kelly’s fastidious script.
 
 
Of course, none of these characters is in the least sympathetic: as the suspicious wife and suspect husband, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant are accommodating in that department, while Donald Sutherland gleefully chews the scenery as Kidman’s arrogant father. The series looks quite impressive on Blu; extras are several short featurettes and interviews.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week
Bluebeard’s Castle 
(BIS)
In one of the greatest of all operas—I won’t even use the qualifier “20th century”—Hungarian master Béla Bartók distills the dramatic, romantic and tragic essence of Charles Perrault’s terrifying fairy tale into a hair-raising and chilling hour. Bartók’s masterly music score is filled to the brim with thrilling moments: for example, even though I know it’s coming, the radiant organ chords when wife Judith opens Bluebeard’s fifth door always amaze.
 
 
The Helsinki Philharmonic, led by conductor Susanna Malkki, certainly delivers on this new recording, with bass Mika Kares (Bluebeard) and mezzo Szilvia Voros (Judith) giving perfectly pitched vocal performances.
 
 
 
 
 
Orson Rehearsed—An Operafilm 
(Naxos)
American composer Daron Aric Hagen already wrote an opera about an American arts master—Shining Brow, about architect Frank Lloyd Wright—and now tackles another genius: Orson Welles. Orson Rehearsed is an often convoluted but dramatically compelling one-acter set at the moment of Welles’ death at age 70 in 1985, as three Orsons hash out the many highs and lows—both real and imagined—in the great director’s life and career.
 
 
The problem with Orson Rehearsed stems from its subtitle, An Operafilm—surely this strange, disjointed work would benefit greatly from visuals that fill in the cracks in the clever soundworld Hagen has conjured.
 
 
 
 
 
Zappa—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Deluxe 
(Zappa Records)
Alex Winter’s excellent documentary Zappa is crammed with bits of the wide-ranging music Zappa composed and performed during his astonishing and eclectic 30-year career, much of which is heard on this three-CD set: everything from mid ‘60s pop tunes “Everytime I See You” and “Memories of El Monte” through minor hits “Dancing Fool” (1978) and “Valley Girl” (1982) to the challenging late work, Overture.
 
 
Also included is music that inspired Zappa, from Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite to Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation. And rounding out the set is the film score by John Frizzel with Nick Cimity and David Stal, which is evocative and atmospheric in its way, but not as memorably original as Zappa’s own work.

March '21 Digital Week II

VOD/Virtual Cinema/Streaming Release of the Week 
Center Stage 
(Film Movement Classics)
Taiwanese director Stanley Kwan made this intelligent 1991 biopic about Chinese silent-era actress Ruan Lingyu, who died by suicide at age 24.
 
 
Kwan fascinatingly pieces together the remnants of her life, career and legacy by layering his film with interviews with former colleagues, lush recreations of scenes from her films—including some which are lost—and discussing her artistry with Maggie Cheung, who commandingly plays her. It’s challenging and lengthy (2-1/2 hours) but utterly absorbing, with an emotionally shattering final sequence that merges sorrowful film and personal history.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Beggar’s Opera 
(Opus Arte)
British composer John Gay’s opera, which he wrote in 1728, skillfully weaved its satirical story of charismatic petty criminal Macheath around and through then-popular tunes of the day (although the best known version is Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, created two centuries later).
 
 
Robert Carsen’s 2018 Paris staging updates the street lingo—lots of f-bombs are thrown in, to no discernible effect—but unnecessarily underlines Gay’s incisive original with a rather desperate 21st century sensibility. Happily, there are fine musical contributions from conductor William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants ensemble as well as Benjamin Purkiss’ Macheath and Kate Batter’s Polly Peachum and Emma Kate Nelson’s Jenny, two of Macheath’s many conquests. There are first-rate hi-def video and audio. 
 
 
 
 
 
Celine and Julie Go Boating 
(Criterion Collection)
French director Jacques Rivette’s 3-1/4 hour shaggy-dog tale of two 20-something Parisian women—one a magician (bohemian), the other a librarian (straitlaced)—who find themselves in a mansion where a murder plot is reenacted again and again is loosely-structured, paper-thin and amateurish in execution—Rivette even manages to make the delightful Marie-France Pisier look ordinary! Still, many consider this a masterpiece, so obviously your mileage may vary.
 
 
Criterion’s two-disc set houses a spiffy hi-def transfer and many extras, including critic Adrian Martin’s audio commentary; Claire Denis’ two-plus hour documentary, Jacques Rivette: Le veilleur; archival interviews with Rivette, Pisier, Berto and Labourier; and new interviews with actress Bulle Ogier and actor/producer Barbet Schroeder.
 
 
 
 
 
Damn Yankees 
(Warner Archive)
It’s too bad that this 1958 adaptation of the hit stage musical has dated so badly, especially in the cheeky but toothless humor of the devil needing a sexpot to keep his baseball protégé in line. Ray Walston is hammy but unfunny as Mr. Applegate (i.e., the devil), while Gwen Vernon surprisingly shines only in her infrequent song-and-dance numbers, the best a really goofy but limber mambo with choreographer (and soon-to-be husband) Bob Fosse.
 
 
Otherwise, directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s frothy concoction may disappoint fans of both baseball and musicals. At least there’s a vibrant new hi-def transfer, but no extras.
 
 
 
 
 
The Great Caruso 
(Warner Archive)
Who else but Mario Lanza—the operatic voice of the mid 20th century—would play Enrico Caruso, the greatest singing voice of the early 20th century, in Richard Thorpe’s hokey but entertaining 1951 biopic that takes so many liberties with the facts that even viewers who don’t know the real story might say, “wait a minute—did it happen like that”?
 
 
Even so, Lanza singing real opera excerpts and the charming Ann Blyth as Caruso’s wife Dorothy are enough to make it watchable, even for the skeptical or uninitiated. The Technicolor visuals pop nicely in Warner Archive’s sparkling hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a 2005 documentary, Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods.
 
 
 
 
 
Heart Chamber 
(Naxos)
For Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, writing an opera about the most heartfelt romantic coupling means minutely applying clinical notes and soundscapes to make for a disorienting if occasionally illuminating experience.
 
 
Director Claus Gluth’s 2019 Berlin production piles on visual flourishes that might have worked wonderfully in the theater (split screens, film and video, superimposed imagery) but fall flat presented on this disc, so Czernowin’s multisensory work never reaches its objective. Still, it’s expertly done by a dizzying array of singers, musicians and technicians, and there’s impeccable hi-def video and audio.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week 
Hilary Hahn—Paris 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
American violinist Hilary Hahn’s latest recording may have her usual scintillating performances of two towering violin works—Ernest Chausson’s elegant Poeme and Sergei Prokofiev’s brilliant First Violin Concerto—but the main draw is the world premiere recording of Finnish master Einojuhani Rautavaara’s final work, 2016’s Deux Serenades.
 
 
Written for Hahn—who played the first performance onstage in 2019—the Rautavaara piece plays to her strengths with its sheer emotional power. Especially when played so beautifully by Hahn and her fine accompanists, conductor Mikko Franck and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Rautavaara couldn’t have asked for a lovelier epitaph. 
 
 
 
 
 
John Williams Live in Vienna 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
John Williams has written so many iconic scores for dozens of films—mostly Steven Spielberg’s but also the Star Wars and Harry Potter series, among many others—that it would seem a fool’s errand to try and jam excerpts into a single concert.
 
 
But this two-disc recording of a Vienna Philharmonic performance Williams himself conducted in January 2020 does very well as a terrific overview of his monumental career. Williams’ music for several Spielberg films gives the musicians a chance to shine, with Close Encounters and E.T. as the orchestral highlights. Violin superstar Anne-Sophie Mutter provides exquisite, stylish soloing on several of Williams’ less well-known scores, like Cinderella Liberty, The Witches of Eastwick and Sabrina, and she effortlessly handles the yearning, fragile melodies of Schindler’s List. The finale, the exuberant Imperial March from Star Wars, rounds out an exceptional set.
 
 
 
 
 
Rachmaninoff—Symphony No. 2 
(LSO Live)
Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote big, full-bodied, unabashedly Romantic music that’s often criticized as too sentimental or—even worse—popular.
 
 
But his most enduring works are precisely in that mold, like his splashy piano concertos—with one memorable melody after another—the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the taut, well-paced Second Symphony (1908). Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra give this marvelous symphony a vigorous workout full of lyricism and intensity.

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