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I Am Woman
(First Run Features)
Lang Lang—Bach’s Goldberg Variations
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Director Marco Pontecorvo—the great filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s son—has made a satisfying dramatization of the apparition of the Virgin Mary seen by Lucia and two other children in Portugal in 1917 and its many ramifications.
By giving equal weight to skepticism (through the characters of Lucia’s mother, the local mayor and—in a 70-years-later subplot—a professor who debates Lucia, now an elderly nun) and belief, and visually differentiating them without copying Terrence Malick’s inspired mysticism, Pontecorvo’s well-made anti-spectacle is anchored by excellent performances: Alba Baptista as Lucia’s mother, Harvey Keitel as the layman, Sonia Braga as Lucia the nun and Stephanie Gil, a fantastic child actor, as the young Lucia.
The Andorra Hustle
In a fearless bit of cinematic reportage, Eric Merola balances voluminous evidence and insightful interviews with the principals to explain what took down the national bank of the tiny European principality of Andorra: the Spanish government covertly pulled the strings to stop the Catalan independence movement in its tracks.
Merola lays out in detail and with the calm clarity of a topnotch detective how this was done with approval by authorities in Europe and—of course—the United States. A special shout-out goes to the defense lawyers trying against imposing odds to clear innocent clients, who deposited their savings in the bank but are unable to retrieve it.
In time for the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific, director Erik Nelson has taken newly discovered and restored color footage—as U.S. forces had the Japanese on the run, culminating in victories at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, incendiary bombing of Japanese cities and dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and made a fascinating, you-are-there historical document.
Throughout we hear the voices of those who were there, two dozen veterans of the Greatest Generation giving their observations and memories of those victorious days; fittingly, Nelson gives the last 10 minutes over to their faces and names, a most deserved honor.
Jimmy Carter—Rock & Roll President
In the late ‘70s, California governor Jerry Brown was America’s hippest politician, dating Linda Ronstadt and hanging out with Jackson Browne and the Eagles. But, as director Mary Wharton shows in this breezily engaging portrait, President Jimmy Carter was our music lover-in-chief, whether gospel, jazz, rock, country or classical. Carter hosted concerts at the White House starring Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and had White House visits from Crosby Stills & Nash and even benefit concerts by the Allman Brothers.
Along with showing their performances, Wharton interviews many of them, including an unusually talkative Bob Dylan; some (like Nile Rodgers and Rosanne Cash) even taking their turns reading Carter’s homespun poetry. Carter, now age 95, speaks lucidly and honesty about his kinship with music and musicians. The film won’t make viewers reconsider his one-term presidency, but his openness to all people, cultures and our shared humanity is on display.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Caro Diario/Dear Diary
(Film Movement Classics)
Nanni Moretti’s 1994 triptych comprises episodes that vary widely in amusement and dramatic interest while representing the states of the filmmaker/narrator’s mind, from the zesty (“On My Vespa,” with Moretti motoring around Rome) to the negligible (“Islands”—unfortunately the longest—about an island where parents let children run things) and the deadly serious (“Doctors,” recounting Moretti’s harrowing cancer treatment).
The tone wavers uneasily throughout, not surprisingly, but Moretti has always had a light touch that helps the film—and viewers—through some of the rougher spots. There is a terrific new hi-def transfer; extras are an on-set featurette and a deleted scene.
This 1979 documentary written and conceived by Nigel Carter (which originally aired on BBC, the PBS) aims to make Albert Einstein’s genius accessible to the average viewer, so it has British actor Peter Ustinov as our narrator/tour guide of sorts, being alternately dazzled and bewildered by the astonishing variety of Einstein’s studies.
Of the many onscreen scientists, some are better than others at speaking in plain English about such abstruse subjects; there are also a few ill-conceived sequences of Ustinov partaking in wacky visualizations of some of Einstein’s theories. There’s a fine new hi-def transfer.
This mild, dated 1934 comedy one historical claim to fame: it’s George Stevens’ solo directorial debut. Yes, the director of Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever Told got his start with a creaky vehicle for then-famed comic duo of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey—along with a very young (and pre-Little Rascals) Spanky McFarland, who steals the show as the rambunctious orphan who’s the catalyst for what little plot there is.
It’s all relatively painless and, at 74 minutes, mercifully short. There’s an excellent new hi-def transfer of this slight black-and-white non-classic; extras are a vintage short and cartoon.
CD Release of the Week
Missy Mazzoli—Proving Up
For her third operatic collaboration with librettist Royce Vavbrek, composer Missy Mazzoli has taken a short story by Karen Russell about a family of 19th century midwestern homesteaders and turned it into a spectrally eerie, dramatically dynamic one-acter.
With superlative performances and remarkably agile playing from the International Contemporary Ensemble, Proving Up proves that Mazzoli can make opera classic and contemporary simultaneously—especially when the supernatural aspect arrives, entirely naturally and with beautifully and hauntingly atmospheric music.
Yes I did.
I let a lot of things go when the pandemic shut-down kicked in. My hair grew out; I ceased emailing and texting with a lot of good and great people; since I was able to get free food from a city program, I took advantage of it even though I ate pretty much the same boring thing every day. Sometimes, I even forgot to brush my teeth.
I was used to going out to different restaurants daily — some great or not so much. I’d be at receptions after special screenings and Q&As with various actors and directors. Suddenly all that was gone. I often would swing into a hotel lobby for the Wi-Fi and a chance to relax and write or meet with various people.
So it’s been quite a Spring and Summer. Without films and music, I needed distraction. When my friend lent me two DVD sets of sci-fi TV series, I was provided with the perfect alternative. By binge-watching them, the on-going escapism helped me survive the pandemic pause. And it’s a perfect thing to do for the holiday weekend.
First I jumped into “Babylon 5” — with its five-season arc based on a floating city in space. Some said it was like “Star Trek -Deep Space Nine” maybe better, maybe worse.
Unusual for the era in which it was released, “Babylon 5” was like a “novel for television” with a defined beginning, middle, and end. ”Unfolding over its five 22-episode seasons, the Babylon 5 space station — built in the aftermath of inter-species wars — served as a neutral focal point for galactic diplomacy and trade. In essence, each episode was like a chapter with the human military staff and alien diplomats stationed there caught up in various political machinations, shifting alliances and layers of betrayal (not unlike today’s political intrigues). Each season contained plot elements which permanently changed the series’ universe.
With most story-lines centered around a core of about a dozen species, Babylon 5’s embroilment in a millennia-long cyclical conflict between ancient, powerful races and their aftermath, offered fabulous escapism. Episodes focused on the effect of wider events on various characters, addressing themes of personal change, loss, subjugation, corruption, defiance, and redemption.
And then there’s “Stargate SG-1.”
In this decade-long series, Colonel Jack O’Neill, Major Samantha Carter, Dr. Daniel Jackson, Teal’C and General George Hammond defeat the myth-making Goa’uld and save Earth time and again by traveling to countless worlds through a series of wormholes generated by the Stargates. As the series evolved from the discovery and implementation of Earth’s Stargates, audiences learn of the complex millennia-long dynamic between the Ancients, the Asgard and the Goa’uld, and how they all fit into humanity’s evolution. The first team’s four main characters in “SG-1” explore the galaxy and more through the vast hyperspace network and evolve into richly developed personalities as they battle various interplanetary threats.
The series lasted 10 years and went through a few TV movies as well. It engendered spin-offs and built up quite a viable universe with a few references and nods to “Star Trek,” “Farscape” and other sci-fi franchises. During the days in which I was sucked into the DVDs, the series became quite a touchstone for me. I would get up and do what I had to do as the anticipation of sitting down and viewing the next episode built up in me.
What was more important to me in all this was the notion that such a binge could save minds and allow for some kind of repair. It doesn’t matter so much what the particular sci-fi series is being viewed or how they build on ideas which both encompass and parallel current political dynamics, but the experience itself.
Being pulled out of present-day traumas and toil offered a salve for pandemic PTSD. Getting immersed in the problems of Babylon 5 or the trials and tribulations of the SG-1 team, allowed me to get a breather.
While I’ve been through TV marathons such as a MoMA-sponsored weekend-long engagement with “Twin Peaks: The Return” (which I wholeheartedly recommend if only for its general strangeness), binge-viewing offered a whole new way to experience media. As a result, such binging transformed the piecemeal experience of watching episodic TV into an expansive feeling of traveling, of taking a trip, through a wormhole into a mind-altering respite from pandemic panic.
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