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Blu-rays of the Week
Lebanon(Sony)Samuel Maoz, who served in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon war, used his experiences as the basis of this spellbinding debut about war through the eyes of fighting men. The film, which spends 90 minutes inside a tank, makes us as terrified and claustrophobic as the men: we feel the safety of being inside while not knowing the dangers outside.
Maoz individualizes these soldiers: when someone dies or is gravely wounded, we too are deeply affected. Lebanon doesn’t preach or editorialize, instead presenting war’s insanity as a given. The stunning Blu-ray transfer unerringly recreates Maoz’s daring compositions; the lone extra is a featurette, Notes on a War Film.
The Naked KissShock Corridor(Criterion)Samuel Fuller made intermittently powerful melodramas with primitive means. These films (from 1964 and 1963, respectively) are typical Fuller: Kiss follows an ex-prostitute whose arrival makes her new neighbors uneasy, while Shock chronicles the mental decline of a reporter in an asylum to investigate a murder. The movies work effectively despite Fuller’s limitations, like casting lesser actors in what should be bravura parts.
Criterion’s Blu-ray releases present top-notch transfers of both B&W dramas, and extras include several interviews and The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, an hour-long documentary about Fuller featuring Tim Robbins, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Fox)
Oliver Stone’s timely sequel to his 1987 original is a bit of an after-the-fact “told you so,” as anti-hero Gordon Gekko returns from prison to find that his Wall Street has become even worse. Michael Douglas returns as the scenery-chewing Gekko, but Carey Mulligan is wasted as his daughter and Shia LaBeouf is over his head as his future son-in-law/protégé.
No one shoots New York like Stone, and a terrific sense of the post-stock market collapse blues permeates his film, which glosses over many dramatic deficiencies. The super hi-def transfer shows off Rodrigo Prieto’s widescreen photography: among many extras, Stone’s commentary is worth a listen, and the deleted and extended scenes (with more Stone commentary) are worth a watch.
DVDs of the Week
Frontline: Death by FireThe Spill (PBS)This PBS series is known for its provocative, incendiary programs, and these two are no exception. Death by Fire recounts the questionable death-penalty verdict against a Texas man accused of arson in the fire that killed his three children; The Spill explores the abysmal safety record of BP even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Both programs are decidedly one-sided, even if they give the other side a chance to speak, but so what? They make plentiful points about mistakes made by fire investigators in Texas and BP executives (also in Texas, coincidentally): as always, Frontline provides filling food for thought. No extras.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Image)Richard E. Grant’s manically comic performance as an ad man succumbing to his profession’s pressures by growing an evil twin who takes over career and marriage makes Bruce Robinson’s funny but one-note satire worth seeing. Back in 1989, Robinson was a big deal, having just made the cult hit Withnail & I; and Advertising has some good moments thanks to Grant, who even makes the big final monologue comic nirvana.
Rachel Ward (always an underrated actress because of her beauty) lends superb straight-woman support, yet both she and Grant are bogged down by Robinson’s too-literal evocation of split personality. No extras.
CD of the Week
Bastianello/Lucrezia (Bridge)These two chamber operas were commissioned by the valuable New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), and this recording captures their charm, and the fun the five singers and two pianists have performing these delectable scores. John Musto’s Bastianello skips around varied styles retelling a fractured Italian folktale, while William Bolcom’s Lucrezia has a ravishing zarzuela sound retelling its story of an Italian opera heroine.
Many new operas barely are heard after their premieres, so thanks to NYFOS pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier for recording them. Now will they be performed again live, preferably with a full knockabout production?
Blu-rays of the Week Howl (Oscilloscope)Co-writers/co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s recreation of Allen Ginsberg’s life and art, and the San Francisco obscenity trial concerning his book of poems, Howl, is a vivid if not completely successful glimpse at the American counterculture. If the clever animated sequences don’t fully convey the adventurousness of Ginsberg’s poetry, James Franco fully embodies the charismatic beat poet in a performance that ranks among the year’s finest. Oscilloscope’s superb package includes Howl on Blu-ray (where it looks terrific) and DVD, with contextualizing extras: interviews, Q&A, making-of featurette and readings by Franco and Ginsberg himself.
Lennonyc(A&E)Michael Epstein’s recounting of John Lennon’s last tumultuous decade—when he and wife Yoko Ono lived in New York, where he was killed in 1980—might not contain revelations for real fans, but there’s enough of John’s lancingly truthful statements and brilliant musicmkaing to compensate. Since Ono herself was involved, there is some whitewashing, but the former Beatle’s tragic story remains compelling and heartbreaking. On Blu-ray, the movie looks and sounds better than on DVD or PBS (where it first aired after its NY Film Festival premiere), and there are 20 minutes of deleted interview snippets.
DVDs of the WeekEnemy at the Door: Series 2 (Acorn Media)This historically accurate, dramatically involving 1980 British mini-series continues the story of the inhabitants of the Channel Islands (British territory off the northern coast of France) which became the only English land that fell to the Nazis. This 13-episode, 11-hour chronicle tells many stories of invaders and victims, including those who continued to fight and those who worked with the Germans. Superbly acted by an unknown cast (even if faces look familiar), Series 2, absorbing on its own, is with Series 1 an epic that should not be missed.
The Last Exorcism (LionsGate)This modestly effective chiller depends heavily on the original Exorcist for subject matter (and title) and The Blair Witch Project for its “look.” Like William Friedkin’s masterpiece, The Last Exorcism begins as a psychological study, then morphs into blood-and-thunder horror; like Blair Witch (and countless others since), it’s a faux-documentary, down to the very ending, which nakedly apes Blair Witch’s finale. Those who don’t know the other films might get more out of this shopworn material, but it’s too heavy-handed and inelegantly done for the rest of us. Extras include two commentaries, making-of featurette and interviews with participants in actual exorcisms.
Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everyone Talking About Him)? (Lorber) – The sad life of Harry Nilsson—called by no less than the Beatles as the best American singer-songwriter—is examined in this perceptive documentary by director John Scheinfeld. Nilsson (who died in 1994 at age 52) was a singular talent, but his obsessiveness led him down alleys like alcoholism and an inability to perform live. Interviews with family, friends, collaborators and admirers create a comprehensive portrait of a misunderstood man and artist, however tortured—that the movie concentrates on his genius and humanity is to its credit. Extras include 90 minutes of deleted scenes and interviews.
CD of the WeekJeremy Denk Plays Ives (Think Denk Media)Charles Ives’ exceptionally difficult music has adherents but remains at the fringes of the repertoire. But Jeremy Denk fearlessly dives into the depths of his rarely-heard and towering piano sonatas—and survives! Denk makes sense of what on the page or in the wrong hands seems nonsensical. The first sonata is a series of unrelated snapshots (or as Denk says in his liner notes, “crosscutting” between scenes as if Ives was a film director); the massive second, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860, encompasses mid-19th century literature with four movements titled “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts” and “Thoreau” (the last features flutist Tara Helen O’Connor). Ives will never be accessible to many ears, but for those who are willing, Denk’s dynamic pianism makes an essential tour guide.
Twas a few days before Christmas, and all through my hou-, er... apartment...
My brain was stirring, how to entertain the spouse?
For you see, Christmas Eve would soon be upon us -- and I needed some Jewish counter-programming. I had visited Comic Strip Live previously with my brother at the beginning of the month and saw a flier for a Christmas Eve special.
I did eat a Chinese meal for lunch -- though I did not really laugh at the food too much. I attended the 7:30 show. You know you're in trouble when the funniest joke from every comedian is pointing at the moping long-haired guy and saying "Smile, it's your birthday!"
I sat in the very front -- potentially the spot to receive spit from the mic (thankfully this did not happen). The emcee of the event opened up with a familiar shtick (same material as Dec. 3, 2010), though it was entertaining to see him trade barbs with a woman who said she was from Port Authority. He insisted she was Russian. She played along nicely.
The first guy was on and off the stage so fast that I think it surprised the host. Next came a sarcastic guy who waxed on forever about cats. This made me wish that I had picked alcoholic drinks for the two-drink minimum instead of the bottomless soda that I ended up ordering.
Finally, the main event was Modi, who is apparently famous for some rendition of a German on an airplane. While he did have some good zingers compared to the others, I still did not manage more than a guffaw or two.
So I left a little disappointed. My previous encounter at this comedy club was better than this one. Maybe I would have enjoyed the show with a group of people. Previously, I attended with my brother and his wife, as well as mine.
This time, it was just the two of us. I will never know. I just know that next Christmas Eve, I might just stick to Chinese food and a movie!
For future event at the Comic Strip go to: http://www.comicstriplive.com/
A Kosher Christmas EveDecember, 24th, 2010Comic Strip1568 2nd Ave.New York, NY
On December 20th, 2010, legendary director, Jerzy Skolimowski, presented his newest feature, Essential Killing -- which stars Vincent Gallo and Emmanuelle Seigner -- at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.
Speaking before the screening, Skolimowski recalled once introducing another of his works by saying, "Ladies and gentleman, you are going to see my worst film I ever made", but added that here he had the pleasure of announcing that Essential Killing was the best he had ever made. Unfortunately, the film was screened in a 35-millimeter print transferred from either a digital-intermediate or a video original and, as a consequence, the image-quality was unsatisfactory. After the screening, in an engaging Q & A session, Skolimowski agreed that Essential Killing was an angry film but joked that he was mostly angry with the bitter cold weather he encountered when shooting it. The filmmaker said that although he was friendly with Gallo, having acted alongside him before (in a film by Mika Kaurismäki), he never thought he would direct him given the actor's reputation for difficulty, explaining that he had worked with Klaus Maria Brandauer -- in The Lightship -- which he described as an "unpleasant" experience.
However, after a festival screening of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro, Skolimowski observed a certain animality in Gallo's movement and, to his own surprise, found himself tapping the actor on the shoulder to offer him the screenplay to Essential Killing which he read and agreed to do the very same day. In answer to a question from the audience, Skolimowski said that he doesn't storyboard because he has a good memory for his visual ideas. He also denied that he was glorifying the actions of a Taliban soldier or that his protagonist is a Taliban soldier, stressing that a lot of time was spent in conceiving how to communicate that the character is a civilian. The director said that the film's inspiration lay in his laziness. His previous feature, Four Nights with Anna, was filmed in his house and he sought to write another screenplay that could be shot close to his home. In response to a member of the audience who insisted that the bloodied white horse at the end of the film was a clear reference to Polish iconography, Skolimowski said, "I'm not really interested in politics" and "I'm not really talking about Poland and politics". He added, "I treat this film as a poem". Expanding upon his introductory statement that Essential Killing is his best work to date, the filmmaker said that his three worst films were Adventures of Gerard with Claudia Cardinale, Torrents of Spring with Nastassja Kinski, and his adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz's classic novel, Ferdydurke, which he joked was probably the worst of all since, unlike the other two, it didn't even have the virtue of starring any beautiful ladies. Skolimowski returned to introduce his extraordinary Deep End as "the second best film I've ever made"; it was presented in an outstanding 35-millimeter archival studio print from Paramount.
Screening of Essential KillingDecember 20, 2010Walter Reade Theater165 West 65th StreetNew York, NY 10023212-875-5600
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