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August '22 Digital Week II

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Emily the Criminal 
(Roadside Attractions/Vertical Ent.)
As Emily, a young woman unable to keep a legitimate job in a society that punishes those with a rap sheet (however minor), Aubrey Plaza gives her best performance, full of her usual irony, ebullience and deadpan humor but also a strong sense of tragic desperation.
But too often writer-director John Patton Ford leans into implausible melodrama, forcing his heroine to extremes—as when she’s robbed after risibly taking no precautions then immediately becomes Wonder Woman to take down the thieves—but Plaza’s focused, subtle portrayal smooths over the bumpy dramatics.
(Bleecker Street)
Reminiscent of Stand by Me, Rob Reiner and Stephen King’s 1986 memory piece, James Ponsoldt’s mawkish drama follows four young teens in the waning days of summer who chance upon a dead body in the woods and are consumed with trying to identify him.
The acting is variable—the girls’ mothers are played by Lake Bell, Megan Mullally, Sarah Cooper and Ashley Madekwe, none of whom can do much with their cardboard roles, and the four girls are interchangeably dull—the pacing is leaden, the attempts at wit and insight are threadbare and the entire 80-minute film has the feel of an interminably stretched-out short.
Le Temps perdu 
(Film Forum)
A group of Buenos Aires seniors has gotten together regularly for several years to read out loud a Spanish translation of Marcel Proust’s classic novel In Search of Lost Time, and Marĺa Álvarez’s absorbing documentary presents this real-life situation as something Proustian in itself.
These men and women, as they traverse the gargantuan canvas of the lengendary six-volume masterwork, engagingly and honestly discuss their responses to the book’s characters and themes, in the process discovering how this great work of art has entered their very beings.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
Crossing The Blair Witch Project with Ten Little Indians gives an idea of this almost unbearably static drama (made in 2010) that follows several researchers following in the footsteps of an entire New Hampshire town’s denizens, who mysteriously disappeared several decades earlier.
Watching people act strangely as they are targeted by an unseen malevolent force they cannot escape from becomes as urgent and scary as watching paint dry in the hands of directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include directors’ commentary, featurettes and cast/crew interviews.
DVD Releases of the Week 
NCIS—Complete 19th Season 
One of network television’s most successful franchises, the NCIS umbrella now encompasses several series—three spinoffs, set in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Hawaii, respectively; and the original, set in Washington D.C.—all smartly using their locales for their rigorous investigations.
In the latest season of the original (never fear, the 20th season will premiere in the fall), Mark Harmon’s chief retires and is replaced by Gary Cole, but the team still has to hit the ground running as they take on several highly sensitive, dangerous cases to solve. The tension is ratcheted up by bombings, deadly toxins, kidnappings, etc., throughout these 21 episodes. Extras include featurettes, interviews and an NCIS: Hawaii crossover episode. 
Pam & Tommy 
She’s helped greatly by makeup and prosthetics, but British actress Lily James’ remarkable transformation into Pam Anderson provides a sympathetic portrait of an actress-model who was pretty much a punch line in her ’90s heyday, from Playboy spreads to Baywatch appearances and, of course, the infamous sex tape with then-husband Tommy Lee, the focus of this compulsively watchable eight-episode series.
Sebastian Stan as Lee gives fine support; although he can’t completely avoid caricature, he’s far better than Seth Rogen, who gives a one-note portrayal of Rand Gauthier, who stole the couple’s sex tape hoping to cash in big. Buoying up the Rand subplot is Taylor Schilling, who winningly plays a porn actress who falls for the ultimate loser. 
CD Release of the Week 
Per Nørgård—8 Symphonies 
Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932) has quietly amassed one of the most imposing symphonic legacies of the past 100 years, as this extraordinary boxed set comprising all eight of his symphonies demonstrates. From his very first, the aptly titled “Sinfonia austera,” composed between 1953 and 1956, to his latest, the engagingly rhythmic eighth (2010-11), Nørgård has showcased his imaginative and varied orchestral writing.
Although the highlights of this set are plenty, most memorable are the emotional third symphony (1972-75), which is joined by choral forces and an alto soloist; and 1999’s sixth symphony, a vigorous workout for large orchestra subtitled “At the End of the Day.” Perhaps most impressive about this set—recorded between 2009 and 2016—is that these works are performed by three different ensembles (the Oslo and Vienna philharmonics as well as the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus), led by three different conductors (John Storgards, Sakari Oramo and Thomas Dausgaard, respectively), but Nørgård’s music sounds of a piece throughout.

2022 Summer Festivals—Bard Summerscape and Tanglewood

Bard Summerscape
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Through August 14, 2022
Lenox, Mass.
Through September 4, 2022
Richard Strauss' opera The Silent Woman at Bard Summerscape
(photo: Stephanie Berger)
More than two years into the pandemic, summer music festivals are getting back to normal. There were still masks being worn in the Sosnoff Theater at Bard College, whose annual Bard Summerscape returned to its lovely campus two-plus hours north of New York City, for a Richard Strauss operatic rarity, Der schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman), but at Tanglewood, on the equally bucolic campus in the Berkshires, masks were optional for concerts at the outdoor Koussevitzky Music Shed and the indoor Seiji Ozawa Hall.
The Silent Woman contains some of Strauss’ most luscious and elegant music at the service of a knockabout comedy that may have seemed beneath the composer of such opera masterworks as Elektra, Salome, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Capriccio. The libretto, by the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and based on, of all things a play by the Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson, concerns Sir Morosus, a rich and retired admiral who cannot abide noise of any kind. 
Enter his beloved nephew, Henry, who has, to the morose Morosus’ consternation, joined a opera troupe and even married one of the performers, Aminta. Morosus disinherits his nephew in a fit of pique. Morosus’ barber and Henry then concoct a ruse that a disguised, “quiet” Aminta will become the old man’s wife—only to then noisily force a divorce, which will presumably reinstate Henry’s inheritance. The rest of the opera concerns the rough-and-tumble comedy of Aminta, Henry, the Barber and the troupe making life a living hell for Morosus.
German director Christian Räth’s decision to stage The Silent Woman as an opera-within-an-opera isn’t very original, but it’s effective in this context: even if it’s far too long (over four hours) for the amusing if slight material, this elaborate in-joke celebrating performers leans on Mattie Ullrich’s garishly funny costumes, Räth’s own cleverly tongue-in-cheek sets and Rick Fisher’s seductive lighting.
The singers are up to the task of Strauss’ luminous but demanding vocal writing. Harold Wilson (Morosus), Edward Nelson (Barber) and David Portillo (Henry) sound terrific in the main male roles, but the true focus is on Jana McIntyre, who plays the spirited Aminta with a lightness and buoyant vocalism that marks her as a fantastic interpreter of Strauss heroines. Leon Botstein capably leads the American Symphony Orchestra—and James Bagwell does the honors for the Bard Festival Chorale—in yet another of Botstein’s necessary operatic excavations.
                             *                    *                    *                    *
At Tanglewood, two concerts in one day (July 31) brought a surfeit of great sounds. First, for the afternoon concert in the shed, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was led by its music director, Andris Nelsons, in wonderfully precise readings of two works by women: first, the world premiere of Elizabeth Ogonek’s vigorous and humorous orchestral workout, Starling Variations; and 19th century French composer Louise Ferrenc’s derivative but propulsive Symphony No. 3. 
Then, after intermission, we got to witness a master at work: English pianist Paul Lewis, finishing his traversal of all five Beethoven piano concertos in a single weekend with the monumental fifth concerto, the “Emperor.” Lewis was scintillating but in masterly control throughout, and even the most jaded audience member responded enthusiastically to this superlative performance.
That evening, it was the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s turn in the intimate Ozawa Hall. This ensemble, put together every summer with students chosen from all across the country and around the world, spends eight weeks rehearsing and playing together, and this concert of lesser-known 20th-century pieces made from an illuminating and impressive night of music.
The conductors comprised two Tanglewood student fellows and two established veterans. The fellows were Nicolo Foron from Italy, who led the opener, Debussy’s Printemps, and Rita Castro Blanco from Portugal, who was on the podium for Lumina by Olly Wilson. Both had fine command of the orchestra in difficult but accessible works. In between, Ades led the ensemble in a finely articulated reading of Agon, one of Stravinsky’s 12-tone works. 
The evening ended with a rousing version of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, led by JoAnn Falletta, the longtime music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, making her belated Tanglewood debut at this concert and making sure with this bracing performance that she will be welcomed back.

August '22 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
I Love My Dad 
(Magnolia Pictures)
Based on writer-director-star James Morosin’s own experiences, this darkly comic character study dissects young Franklin’s frayed relationship with Chuck, his estranged father, and how Chuck, wanting to remain connected, ends up catfishing Franklin by creating a fake Facebook profile for a local waitress named Becca and responding to Franklin’s ever more affectionate texting.
It all remains a bit creepy, as it’s supposed to be, but Morosin isn’t an accomplished enough filmmaker to make it more insightful. Still, Patton Oswalt gives one of his best performances as Chuck and newcomer Claudia Sulewski is delightful as the unwitting Becca, whom Chuck morphs into Franklin’s dream woman.
(Music Box Films)
In Anita Rocha da Silveira’s toughminded satire, Mari and a group of likeminded evangelical young women prowl the streets physically abusing those they deem to be too sinful, even while remain blissfully (or is that willfully?) unaware that they are helping to promote a fascistic regime that is also deeply misogynist.
The problem with the film is that, after setting up this unsettling glimpse of contemporary society rife with hypocrisy—which has its parallels to what is actually happening in her native Brazil and elsewhere—da Silveira concentrates on eye-popping colors and visual style, so much that the repetitiveness becomes grating after two hours. But in lead actress Mari Oliveria the director has a remarkably vital collaborator.
(IFC Films)
Even a powerhouse performance by Rebecca Hall can’t save this risible, ultimately imbecile concoction by director/writer Andrew Semans, who has made an unholy, always grating hybrid of the worst impulses of David Cronenberg and Peter Greenaway (even the score by Jim Williams at times sounds like what Michael  Nyman used to turn out for Greenaway).
What might have been a slow-burning psychological horror story about a woman whose past returns in the form of an abusive ex is, instead, ridiculously obvious, signaling its unsubtlety 20 minutes in, when Hall dreams about a finding something cooking in her oven. It’s all downhill from there, with nary a shred of narrative or dramatic coherence, let alone anything incisive, to be found.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
(Cohen Media)
Greek director Christos Nikou’s intimate study of identity loss, set during a worldwide pandemic that leaves its victims with no memories, follows an ordinary man, Aris, whose amnesia puts him in a recovery program. As Aris builds a new life that includes new memories, Nikou gently suggests, through razor-sharp images that take in the full absurdity of modern life, that the way out of a global catastrophe might start from within; it is an understated but humanizing drama.
The tight 4x3 aspect ratio perfectly reflects the protagonist’s claustrophobic world and is nicely rendered on the excellent Blu-ray transfer; extras are two interviews with Nikou, one including executive producer Cate Blanchett.

Battle of the Worlds 
(Film Detective)
Describing this cheesy sci-fi flick as a B-movie damns it with faint praise, as Italian director Antonio Margheriti crams much mediocrity into the 80 minutes that make up this loud, empty exercise in “the world’s going to end” melodrama.
Only Claude Rains, as a veteran scientist who’s humanity’s last hope, does what might be charitably called acting, and the Z-grade special effects are laughably amateurish throughout. A bonus featurette about Margheriti, by film historian Tim Lucas, and audio commentary by film historian Justin Humphreys end up making the case that this might be best seen on a tiny B&W screen.
DVD Release of the Week
Fanny—The Right to Rock 
(Film Movement)
I thought I knew my classic rock, but Fanny—an all-female hard-rock group that released albums and toured in the early ’70s to critical acclaim but popular indifference—was a band I knew nothing about, so happily, Bobbi Jo Hart’s documentary sets things right by chronicling the women’s long-ago career, comeback and how those in the know (like David Bowie) hyped them.
The Sacramento-based Fanny’s energetic tunes are showcased in vintage clips; there’s also new material the latest incarnation has put together as well as a healthy dose of archival and new interviews that provide an intimate glimpse at a band more rock fans should know about. Plentiful extras include additional interviews and deleted scenes.

A New Generation: An Evening With The National Youth Orchestra of the United States

NYO-USA, Photo by Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall, beginning on the evening of Thursday, July 28th, I was fortunate to attend three splendid concerts presented by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. The enjoyable first program featured NYO Jazz conducted by trumpeter Sean Jones, the Artistic Director and Bandleader, with guest vocals by the impressive Jazzmeia Horn.

Even better was a terrific concert the following night performed by the remarkable musicians of the National Youth Orchestra proper—under the admirable direction of Daniel Harding—which opened with Edward Elgar’s melodious, autumnal Cello Concerto with the eminent Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. The first movement is Romantic and soulful while the Lento introduction to the second is more lyrical if, maybe paradoxically, more inward, ensuing in a sprightly, even dramatic, scherzo. With the Adagio and concluding Allegro the work moves from the meditative to the anguished.

The second half of the event was enthralling, devoted to a compelling reading of Gustav Mahler’s magnificent Fifth Symphony. The beginning of the first movement is thrilling and suspenseful, the prelude to a beautiful funeral march that builds to great intensities before ending softly. The second movement is more turbulent but also with quieter passages, closing too on a hushed note. The increasingly eccentric Scherzo that follows begins with a cheerful and ebullient Ländler with a lovely, slower, waltz-like section. The celebrated Adagietto is unearthly in its majesty and the exhilarating finale has a more pastoral character but concludes exuberantly. The artists received an enthusiastic ovation which was answered by a fabulous encore: a dazzling performance of an abridged version of "Adventures on Earth" from John Williams’s wonderful score for Steven Spielberg’s film, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

 DSC6362 medThe marvelous third concert—performed on the evening of Monday, August 1st—featured the absurdly precocious musicians of NYO2—which consists of instrumentalists ages 14-17—with Fellows of the New World Symphony and America’s Orchestral Academy, under the flamboyant direction of Mei-Ann Chen. The program began auspiciously with an accomplished account of the rewarding Soul Force by contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery which was notable for its effective orchestration. The excellent jazz soloist Aaron Diehl then took the stage for a brilliant performance of George Gershwin’s delightful Piano Concerto in F. The opening Allegro is sparkling, although very variegated in style and mood, while the second movement is bluesy and more subdued. The exciting finale is propulsive and virtuosic.

The second half of the evening—an assured rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s enchanting Symphonic Dances—was equally memorable. The first movement is compelling with tuneful passages and the second is a captivating—if oddly eerie—waltz, with the last impassioned if quirky. Ardent applause elicited two outstanding encores: An-Lun Huang's extraordinary “Saibei Dance” from Saibei Suite No. 2, Op. 21 and Leonard Bernstein’s irrepressible Candide Overture.

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