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VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
The King of Staten Island
I’m no fan of Pete Davidson or Judd Apatow so I unsurprisingly found their collaboration—all two hours and fifteen minutes—insufferable. Davidson basically (and monotonously) plays himself if he never joined SNL, just a tattooed goof-off; shoehorning his own tragic back story (Davidson’s real father, a firefighter, died on Sept. 11) into this crude, forgettable attempt at comedy—another of Apatow’s paeans to losers—borders on the unseemly.
On the positive side, Marisa Tomei is a delight as Pete’s mom, Steve Buscemi is fine as a fireman, and Bill Burr is agreeable in a one-note part as Mom’s new boyfriend (another fireman)—but they only partially compensate for long stretches of choppy, self-indulgent moviemaking and empty, laughless space.
French director Claude Sautet’s sophomore feature, this 1960 crime drama is a taut, tight exploration of a wanted man’s desperate attempts to remain free—by film’s end, his wife is dead, he’s separated from his two young sons and the law is right behind him.
Lino Ventura gives a blistering performance as the flawed protagonist and has fine support by Jean-Paul Belmondo as his latest—and likely last—partner and Sandra Milo as a young woman who assists them. Superbly shot in stark B&W by Ghislain Cloquet, Sautet’s best film was followed by increasingly more erratic features, unfortunately.
My Darling Vivian
Usually erased from accounts of Johnny Cash’s life and career is his first wife Vivian Liberto—mother of his four daughters, including singer Rosanne—in favor of the obvious June Carter Cash/second wife angle; Matt Riddlehoover’s illuminating documentary corrects the by-now cemented historical record.
Emotional interviews with Vivian’s daughters are interspersed with an eye-opening and quite touching look at Vivian with and without Johnny: after their divorce, she remarried while admitting that Johnny was the love of her life.
(Blue Fox Entertainment)
Bill Nighy displays his usual snarky persona as a respected tailor damaged after one of his sons stormed out during a tense game of Scrabble in Carl Hunter’s by-the-numbers study of a man more interested in words than in other people, including his own family.
The always watchable Nighy can do sort of thing in his sleep, which means there’s little surprise to his character arc, while even an actress as dependable as Jenny Agutter is unable to create many sparks as a woman who enters the tailor’s life after meeting him at the morgue, of all places.
Blu-rays of the Week
Polish director Jan Kosama’s provocative study of a 20-year-old jailbird posing as a village priest and how it changes him and his parishioners—especially after he looks into past sins that have been swept under the rug—might be contrived but it’s a powerful statement on the uneasy intersection of criminality, religion and redemption.
Bartosz Bielenia gives a phenomenally effective performance in the lead role while Eliza Rycembel leads an excellent supporting cast as a local woman he befriends. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras are a making-of featurette and Kosama’s 2003 short, Nice to See You.
(Film Movement Classics)
Polish director Andrzej Zulawski made several films about unhinged characters in difficult relationships, but he’s in relatively muted mode in this disjointed 1974 portrait of a struggling actress juggling her personal and professional lives.
Romy Schneider’s incendiary portrayal of a married woman who falls in love with a photographer provides some searing and intense moments; too bad these are exceptions in Zulawski’s wan glimpse at artists’ difficulties. There’s a very good hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Zulawski interview.
Mahler—Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”
Gustav Mahler’s massive “Resurrection” symphony—for large orchestra, chorus and two female soloists—is given a forceful rendition by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, Munich Philharmonic and chorus and singers Tamara Mumford and Chen Reiss.
Performed in the gorgeously cathedral-like Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, Mahler’s mammoth work comes off brilliantly, from its quiet beginnings to its stirring finale, much like Beethoven’s ninth (see DVD reviews below). There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Director Daniel Roher engagingly recounts the eventful musical life of Robbie Robertson, leader of the Band, the original roots-rock group whose classic tunes “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” remain staples of classic rock playlists.
Robertson candidly discusses his upbringing in Canada, his move to the U.S. and teaming up with his future Bandmates, working with Bob Dylan and, later—following the Last Waltz concert film—Martin Scorsese, for whom he has scored and compiled music for decades. The film looks and sounds great in hi-def.
Japanese director Kon Ichikawa was chosen to create the official record of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, and the passionately filmed and involving result is—along with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, about the infamous 1936 Berlin Games—the best-ever Olympic document.
From intimate moments of personal triumph and agony to expansive views of the playing fields and spectators, Ichikawa presents the human comedy on an epic canvas. Criterion’s stellar edition includes a quite good (but not great) hi-def transfer, commentary and introductions by Japanese film expert Peter Cowie, archival Ichikawa interviews, new featurette, and nearly an hour and a half of additional footage.
Beethoven’s Ninth—Symphony for the World
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the first symphony comprising a choir and solo vocalists—was a formidable challenge for those at its 1824 Vienna premiere. (Beethoven, deaf by that time and co-conducting the first performance, famously had to be turned around by one of the singers so he could see the applauding audience.)
Christian Berger’s captivating documentary demonstrates that Beethoven’s message of brotherhood and humanity has not faded in the past 200 years: we see orchestras, conductors, composers and soloists getting ready to perform the work all over the world, from Tokyo (where 10,000 people make up the chorus) to Africa. The symphony is still a stirring and daring work of art, which was Beethoven’s intent.
The Gene—A Personal History
This fascinating multi-episode documentary from a book by Siddhartha Mukherjee precisely lays out how genetic science has grown into the complex and seemingly miraculous field responsible for so many important breakthroughs.
Personalizing the science—we are introduced to people with diseases yet to be tamed and watch if gene therapy can help—also humanizes the historical aspect, as the men and women working so heroically are discovering how to utilize constantly improving technology for the betterment of all.
Based on the subtly unnerving novel by Leïla Slimani, Lucie Borleteau’s middling adaptation slowly builds predictable suspense after a well-to-do Parisian couple hires the so-called title character, then loses it all with a lazy finale that recalls mindless slasher flicks far more than more sophisticated thrillers.
As the nanny, the mostly persuasive Karin Viard is eventually undercut by Borleteau’s reliance on clichés, which mitigates the domestic horrors found in this all-too-real situation.
CDs of the Week
Penderecki—St Luke Passion
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki—who died in March at age 86—was known for his tense, dissonant works, which are familiar to anyone who’s seen The Exorcist, The Shining, Shutter Island or fellow Pole Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn. But his St Luke Passion, which premiered in 1966, showed off a “new” Penderecki: blending atonality with baroque forms and a newfound talent for choral writing, this was the first of several large-scale vocal works based on religious texts.
This tremendous performance from the 2018 Salzburg Festival by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Krakow Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw Boys Choir and a quartet of esteemed soloists was conducted by Kent Nagano, whose affinity for Penderecki’s wide-ranging sound world is very much in evidence.
The most characteristic works of American composer Morton Feldman (1926-87) don’t lend themselves to either live performances or, especially, recordings: consider his marathon, six-hours-without-a-break String Quartet No 2.
But this recording shows that Feldman could work his singular magic—slowly evolving sounds, mostly quiet dynamics—in smaller forms: 1973’s String Quartet and Orchestra distills the essence of his music to 26 memorable minutes, while 1986’s Coptic Light (his last completed work before his death from cancer) further consolidates his aesthetic of musical calm, even with the extraordinarily large orchestral forces needed. The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra plays both works brilliantly under the batons of Michael Boder (Coptic Light) and Emilio Pomarico (String Quartet and Orchestra, with the Arditti Quartet).
In her breakthrough performance, Jennifer Lopez plays beloved Mexican singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez with poise, grace and charm in Gregory Nava’s solid if unspectacular 1997 biopic that’s not entirely hagiographic, although it does show Selena as larger than life—which her fans would agree with—while not really demonstrating why she became so hugely popular.
But Lopez burns a hole through the screen in the many concert sequences and maintains our interest even when the drama or music sags. There’s a fine new hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes and two featurettes.
French director Claude Sautet never really hit it big on American shores, and the two films in this set—1970’s The Things of Life and 1972’s Cesar et Rosalie—provide a glimpse why. Although both films are exceptionally well-crafted and superbly acted (Romy Schneider in both films, Michel Piccoli in Things and Yves Montand and Sami Frey in Cesar), there’s an awkward distance Sautet maintains, particularly in Things, where the details of the pivotal car accident are dawdled over so obsessively (there’s even a glimpse of the stunt driver’s helmet in one shot) that the relationships—ostensibly the films’ point—are moot.
Still, these are interesting films that have been unavailable for awhile, and with excellent hi-def transfers and illuminating retrospective making-ofs, this is recommended to fans of Sautet and the gifted Schneider, who tragically died of a heart attack at age 43 in 1982.
Der Zwerg (The Dwarf)
Alexander Zemlinsky’s unsettling opera about a dwarf whose unrequited love for a beautiful princess leads to an unsurprisingly tragic conclusion is tricky to cast, especially if, like director Tobias Kratzer, you want a real dwarf in the title role: his solution is to cast David Butt Philip to sing and Mick Morris Mehnert to act out the drama.
The Brechtian alienation effect occasionally works, but it’s more often enervating and unilluminating. Elena Tsallagova brings a welcome pathos to the princess. The curtain raiser, Arnold Schoenberg’s short, brooding Accompaniment to a Film Scene, is dramatized effectively. There are first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Virtual Cinema/VODs of the Week
Director Boaz Yakim’s latest juggles with the idea of gender identity by dramatizing the relationship between two dancers, male and female—and their respective feminine and masculine sides—by casting two couples to visualize the interactions.
It’s too bad that Yakim is so heavyhanded—especially in the many, often repetitive and explicit sex scenes featuring the quartet of performers in various permutations—and that his dancers are, for the most part, inadequate actors: what could have been an insightful study of gender fluidity and sexual complexity is, ultimately, banal. Even the often thrilling choreography loses its luster in several superfluous dancing sequences, like the final one in Central Park.
Willem Dafoe gives one of his most fearless performances as an American filmmaker and recovering alcoholic living in Rome with his much younger foreign girlfriend and their young daughter in writer-director Abel Ferrara’s bluntly autobiographical film.
Ferrara’s usual crudeness is tempered by the sweetness of the relationship between Dafoe and Anna (Ferrara’s actual daughter by a much younger foreign actress, Cristina Chiriac, who plays—badly—Dafoe/Ferrara’s woman). Although it goes on far too long—as most Ferrara films do—this strained attempt to make art out of his own messy life is saved by Dafoe’s lacerating portrayal.
DVDs of the Week
Baptiste—Complete 1st Season
Julien Baptiste, a French private eye in the recent series The Missing, returns for this taut if needlessly violent six-episode drama about a missing girl in Amsterdam and how the case puts many (including Baptiste’s family) in mortal danger.
Tcheky Karyo is persuasively haggard as the no-nonsense Baptiste, and there’s estimable support from Tom Hollander and Jessica Raine as characters who are not always quite what they seem. The show’s biggest flaw is a tendency to allow Baptiste to act stupidly at the most inopportune times, especially in one ludicrous moment when he leaves his car during an obvious setup that leads to disaster. The lone extras are cast and writers’ interviews.
Lost in America
Former homeless teen Rotimi Rainwater’s documentary, despite its on-the-nose reportage, is necessary viewing for anyone who doubts that homeless children are a tragic black eye on our country today.
The film accumulates its power showing the heartbreaking and at times uplifting stories of children on the streets after leaving home because of abuse, being orphaned or placed in bad foster homes. Then there are the distressing stats and glimpses at Congress that does as little as possible; on the positive side are celebrities like Rosario Dawson, Halle Berry, Tiffany Haddish, and Jewel, who have taken the mantle of fighting for these voiceless people (and some of whom were homeless themselves).
CDs of the Week
Tackling Beethoven’s nine symphonies for a complete recording is a mountain conductors and orchestras are thrilled to climb, and American Robert Trevino leads his Malmö Symphony Orchestra in this latest shot at the Mount Everest of symphonic music.
For the most part, these are engaging, impressive performances: best are the first, second, fourth, seventh and eighth, more conventional compared to the towering third, iconic fifth, impressionistic sixth and the indomitable ninth, which sounds most impressive in the final movement, as bass Derek Welton, tenor Tuomas Katajala, mezzo Christine Rice and soprano Kate Royal lead the joyous chorus.
Strauss—Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow)
Richard Strauss’ mammoth 1919 operatic fantasy has long been one of his most problematic stage works, but as the Met Opera’s 2001 production (which I saw, with Deborah Voigt in the title role) proved, it can make for scintillating musical theater.
So it’s too bad that we’re only getting an audio-only recording of this gorgeous-sounding 2019 Vienna State Opera performance starring Stephen Gould and Camila Nyland in two of the most vocally taxing roles in the repertoire. Strauss’ always luscious music is performed by the superlative Vienna State Opera orchestra and chorus, led by conductor Christian Thielemann (who also was in the pit during that 2001 run at the Met).
VOD of the Week
The Collini Case
Marco Kreuzpaintner’s absorbing courtroom drama, based on Ferdinand von Schirach’s novel, takes what seems an open-and-shut murder case and, through compelling and clever machinations concerning the sordid shared history of killer and victim, becomes a riveting dissection of wartime criminality and those who whitewash it afterwards.
The cast is exemplary: Elyas M'Barek as the green defense lawyer, Franco Nero as his accused client, Alexandra Maria Lara as the victim’s granddaughter and lawyer’s close friend, and Heiner Lauterbach as the smug opposing counsel.
Caro Diario (Dear Diary)
Nanni Moretti’s 1994 triptych comprises episodes varying in amusement, seriousness and 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’s light touch helps him—and viewers—through some of the rough spots.
A truly rediscovered opera is this 1809 historical epic about the infamous Spanish explorer Cortez, who cut swaths of discovery and destruction throughout the new world, and Gaspar Spontini—an early 19th century Italian composer—found interesting musical and dramatic ideas to make his story stageworthy.
Cecilia Ligorio’s 2019 production in Florence, Italy, is clearly and impressively thought-out, with fine musical contributions from orchestra and chorus as well as stand-out turns as Cortez and his Aztec princess love by, respectively, Dario Schmunck and Alexia Voulgaridou. The hi-def image and sound are impeccable.
The Reluctant Debutante
In Vincente Minnelli’s fizzy 1958 adaptation of William Douglas Home’s play, Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall play the nervous parents of a 16-year-old (Sandra Dee) who has eyes for a young man they consider a “mere” musician—but little do they know.
There are few big laughs, instead mainly amused smiles, as Harrison and Kendall are overshadowed by Dee’s mature teenager and Angela Lansbury’s exuberant comic performance as a scheming mom. While forgettable in the extreme, Minnelli completists might find more in it. The hi-def transfer looks excellent.
Sunday in New York
Peter Tewksbury’s 1963 romantic comedy is a product of its time and ahead of it: Jane Fonda plays a 22-year-old bemoaning her virginity on a visit to New York who sets her sights on a man (Rod Taylor) she meets on the Fifth Avenue bus…but when her Albany suitor (Robert Culp) arrives at her brother’s (Cliff Robertson) apartment, things really get screwy.
Based on a Norman Krasna play (apparently a decent Broadway hit starring Robert Redford), the movie is as light as a feather, but it has Fonda at her most irresistible—and it may be a distant cousin to Woody Allen’s new frothy comedy A Rainy Day in New York, which is inexplicably unavailable to see in the U.S.
We Summon the Darkness
A trio of leather-clad young women bring three young men back to the house of one of the girls’ dad for fun and games after a heavy-metal concert, which soon turns into blood and guts in this tongue-in-cheek concoction from director Marc Meyers and writer Alan Trezza.
For about half its length, this horror parody is diverting; too bad that it eventually succumbs to Tarantino-itis, with inappropriately jokey violence, innocuous pop songs to blatantly underline the plot’s ludicrousness (although Kubrick did it better long before Tarantino with Full Metal Jacket); and remaining proudly illogical. The spirited performers keep things watchable. There’s a vivid hi-def transfer.
DVD of the Week
Directors Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche chronicle the life and career of the indefatigable Lea Tsemel, one of the most hated and misunderstood people in Israel over the past half-century. Tsemel unapologetically defends those accused of crimes against the state, mainly Palestinians but even fellow Israelis like her husband, who was charged with and served jail time for what they considered trumped-up charges.
Thought-provoking and provocative like its protagonist, Advocate spotlights a woman whose fearlessness is her greatest weapon, as her husband, son and daughter acknowledge how family life has been disrupted at the same time as they admire her honesty and bravery.
CD of the Week
Tom Cipullo—The Parting
This intensely moving chamber opera by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason explores the sad and illuminating story of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, who was murdered during the Holocaust, and his relationship with his wife as Death hovers nearby.
Cipullo’s brittle and dynamic score is for a quintet of exceptional instrumentalists (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano) and a trio of powerful voices: baritone Michael Mayes (Radnóti), soprano Laura Strickling (his wife) and mezzo Catherine Cook (Death). The combination of Radnóti’s translated poetry and intimate conversations makes for an unforgettable listening experience.
In John Cassavetes’ 1970 exploration of male midlife crisis, three lifelong Long Island friends go on a binge after the sudden death of another buddy that includes public drunkenness (oh the horror!) and a boys’ trip to London. Cassavetes’ worst tendencies come to the fore here—the 142-minute movie is excruciating to sit through, as scene after interminable scene plays out in real time, with scant insight—mitigating the forceful performances of Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes as the eponymous characters.
Obviously director Cassavetes couldn’t leave these improvisations on the cutting-room floor, so we all have to suffer through them. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is splendid; extras include reviewer Marshall Fine’s commentary, archival interviews with the stars (like an embarrassingly self-indulgent appearance on Dick Cavett) and cinematographer Victor H. Kemper, and new interviews with producer Al Ruben and actress Jenny Runacre, who’s terrific in her scenes with Cassavetes.
Inside Daisy Clover
Based on a novel by Gavin Lambert (who also wrote the script), Robert Mulligan’s uneven 1965 film satirizes Hollywood through the exploits of a 15-year-old girl who lives in a shack on a Southern California boardwalk with her mother.
Though tackling—however gingerly—then-verboten topics like (closeted) homosexuality and statutory rape, the film’s more parodic than incisively satiric, but the performances of Natalie Wood (though too old for the lead role), Robert Redford, Christopher Plummer and Ruth Gordon keep interest high right up until the obvious but perfectly realized final image. The movie looks quite enticing on Blu; lone extra is a vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon (huh? nothing on the film itself?).
The Hunting Gun
In Thomas Larcher’s often mesmerizing new opera, The Hunting Gun, Yasushi Inoue’s novel about a man, his wife, daughter and mistress is brought to life with brilliant immediacy and psychological complexity, thanks to the consistently surprising musical score and the fine 2018 world premiere Bengenz Festival production.
Henry Purcell’s 17th century theater-opera hybrid, King Arthur, staged in Berlin three years ago, has wondrous musical interludes but the spoken sections—especially when, as here, done in German—distract from the tale being told, despite notable contributions from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under René Jacobs, choir, singers, actors and dancers. Both operas look and sound terrific in hi-def; but unfortunately there are no extras, especially for the Larcher opera.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Actress/writer Kelly O’Sullivan may be a double threat, but she has scripted herself an enervating character to play: aimless 34-year-old Bridget, who becomes a nanny while trying to keep her messy personal life from unraveling even further.
There is humor and the occasional insight in this portrait of a young woman looking for a true direction, but O’Sullivan and director Alex Thompson rely too much on contrivance, especially concerning young Frances, Bridget’s charge, and a superficial cutesiness, exemplified by Bridget going after Frances’ hot guitar teacher after having an abortion against her not-quite-boyfriend’s wishes. Such moments mute what should have been a more compellingly chaotic comedic character study.
Stage—The Culinary Internship
(Cargo Film & Releasing)
In the Michelin-starred Mugaritz restaurant near San Sebastian, Spain, 30 aspiring chefs arrive for a nine-month intensive that can make or break their careers, and director Abby Ainsworth follows several of them around as they try and succeed in this fraught but dynamic environment.
Alongside the wannabes’ personal stories are their equally personal dishes—including such strangely compelling if not so edible-looking dishes like apple rot, which is apples with penicillin—all overseen by renowned chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, who runs this, one of the world’s most offbeat, even infamous eateries.
DVDs of the Week
Rashaad Ernesto Green’s beguiling independent feature follows 17-year-old aspiring poet Ayanna, who falls for 20-ish music producer Isaiah and discovers that first love is serious and difficult—especially when she discovers she’s pregnant.
Green’s admirably frank, sexy portrait of a young woman finding herself has, in the winning actress Zora Howard (who co-wrote the script with Green) as Ayanna, the perfect embodiment of an intelligent, artistic and complex young woman who deserves the movie that’s been built around her. The lone extra is Green’s 2008 short, also starring Howard and also titled Premature.
Still a Revolutionary—Albert Einstein
(First Run Features)
Showing that Albert Einstein wasn’t the cuddly, white-haired genius he’s been pigeonholed as, Julia Newman’s succinct 80-minute documentary, though a little rough around the edges, is as fascinating as its subject.
Through vintage footage, interviews with historians and biographers, and glimpses of Einstein’s wide-ranging opinions on everything from nuclear war and Nazism to civil rights and abortion rights, Still a Revolutionary provides a necessary corrective and brings Einstein into our own difficult century as our intellectual and moral lodestar.
Rush—Permanent Waves 40th Anniversary
The classic Canadian prog trio’s commercial 1980 breakthrough showed that the band could move into shorter song forms without sacrificing the epic structures and instrumental chops that characterized its earlier records. From the opening “The Spirit of Radio”—which became one of the few popular Rush anthems—to the closing multi-part suite “Natural Science,” the album split the difference between musical complexity (“Jacob’s Ladder”) and lyrical simplicity (“Entre Nous,” “Different Strings”), with the straight-ahead rocker “Free Will” thrown in for good measure.
This welcome two-disc set includes the superb-sounding remastered album and 11 electric live tracks from the group’s 1980 tour, featuring most of the then-new record along with earlier gems “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1”—both Book I and Book II!
Arnold Schoenberg—Pelleas und Melisande/Erwartung
The break in Arnold Schoenberg’s career—from full-blown Romanticism to the 12-tone system—is heard in this excellent recording of one of his most ravishing scores—the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama that Claude Debussy turned into his operatic masterpiece—as well as his haunting monodrama Erwartung, composed six years after Pelleas and comprising the kind of resolutely “difficult” music for which he was renowned (and reviled).
Edward Gardner conducts the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in a passionate Pelleas, while chamber forces most ably accompany the dazzling American soprano Sara Jakubiak in Erwartung’s solo vocal tour de force.
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