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Blu-rays of the Week
Ajami (Kino)Ajami is a ghetto on the outskirts of the Israeli town of Jaffa populated by Palestinian immigrants, Christians, Arabs and Jews, all living in close proximity. In Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s tense crime drama, these people continually butt heads, extracting revenge for the pettiest—or most vicious—of slights, and bloodshed is the usual result. Never wallowing in its display of this endless cycle of violence, Ajami unflinchingly — and, ultimately, heartbreakingly — shows the best and worst of humanity, often seen side by side. Don’t hold last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination against it: Ajami is certainly unsettling, but it’s also an edge-of-your-seat thriller detailing minute-by-minute survival. This brutally frank glimpse at quotidian reality in the Middle East was shot on digital video and transferred to film, so the clarity of the images is given a harshness by the grain so essential to its quasi-documentary quality. The extras include a half-hour featurette, The Story of the Actors, and a substantial 23 minutes of deleted scenes.City Island (Anchor Bay)Writer-director Raymond De Felitta studies a dysfunctional — but ultimately lovable — family living on a Bronx island most people think of solely as a place to eat fresh seafood. Although these characters are fashioned out of clichés (smart daughter goes bad, mixed-up teenage son horns in on chubby neighbor, mom suspects dad of cheating, etc.), De Felitta and his cast let us care about their them, even when they act stupidly or are stuck in a familiar subplot (Dad, a corrections officer, is also an aspiring actor, which his wife would never understand). Andy Garcia and Julianne Margulies as the parents, Dominik Garcia-Lirido and Ezra Miller as their kids, Steven Strait as the father’s son from another relationship, and Emily Mortimer as an actress befriending dad — all are authentically New Yawkers without resorting to caricature. The hi-def image is excellent, and the extras include a De Felitta/Garcia commentary, deleted scenes and a conversation among director and cast at a City Island restaurant.DVDs of the Week
Temple Grandin(HBO) In Mick Jackson’s biopic, Claire Danes gives the kind of transformative performance as a real-life autistic woman who became our greatest advocate for humane livestock treatment that we usually associate with Meryl Streep. Danes throws herself into her role with such fervor that we experience Grandin's incredible and difficult journey to overcome a disability and an uncomprehending society.Julia Ormond gives an equally affecting portrayal as Grandin’s sturdy mother, whose own strength obviously helped her daughter succeed. David Straithairn and Catherine O’Hara round out an excellent cast, yet whenever Danes is onscreen, she dominates the movie like she never has before. It’s heartening to watch Danes (and Ormond) show the ferocity needed to do justice to Grandin’s inspiring story. Extras include Grandin's own audio commentary and a short making-of.Visions of Israel (Acorn Media) Another in the impressive Visions of.. series, this time the overhead aerial cameras roam over the cities, countryside and stunning natural wonders of Israel. We see the sprawling capital, Tel Aviv, along with the biggest city, Jerusalem, by day and at night; outlying areas like the one that houses an ingenious irrigation system that literally turned the desert green; and awe-inspiring ancient relics like the hilltop fortress at Masada.
Date Night(Fox)Even Steve Carell and Tina Fey's best efforts can't raise Date Night above intermittent laughter. As a married couple out for a night in Manhattan that goes spectacularly wrong, Carell and Fey get more comedy out of a formulaic script than most others would, with good, amusing moments from both, especially Fey, who can milk laughs out of a simple glance even more inspiredly than her co-star, whose everyman persona is getting old fast.
The movie's Manhattan locations are well-chosen, and the Blu-ray transfer, while not the gold standard, gets the job done. Extras include an extended version of the film with 14 minutes of mediocre material, director Shawn Levy's commentary, deleted, extended and alternate scenes, featurettes and the ubiquitous gag reel, which shows that Carell and Fey probably and more fun making Date Night than we do watching it.
The Ghost Writer(Summit)Based on Robert Harris's tense novel The Ghost, a thriller about a ghost writer, hired to pen a former British prime minister's autobiography, who finds himself in international intrigue and political assassination, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is diverting but minor stuff, an entertaining instance of a great director slumming—sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not. This story seems more exciting on the page than onscreen, maybe because Polanski treats it too cavalierly, assuming that twists and turns are enough.
There's much impressive technique on display from the director and his actors Pierce Brosnan as the Tony Blair-like disgraced politician, Ewan McGregor as the ghost, Olivia Williams as the PM's smart wife and Kim Cattrall as his faithful assistant. Expertly shot by Pavel Edelman in European locations believably standing in for Cape Cod, The Ghost Writer looks immaculate on Blu-ray: Polanski's naturalistic visuals keep us grounded in a real milieu. The meager extras include interviews with Polanski, Harris and the cast.
DVDs of the Week
Helen(E1)Thanks to many rote action dramas, Ashley Judd has gotten short shrift as a formidable actress. But films like Ruby in Paradise and Bug have shown that she can give nuanced, complex performances if the material warrants it. So too her riveting turn in Helen as an emotionally crippled mother who sinks so deeply into depression she begins a precarious friendship with Mathilda (Lauren Lee Smith), who suffers from bipolar disorder.
Sandra Nettelbeck has written and directed a sober character study that's flawed solely by melodramatic excess, especially in Mathilda's subplot. But with Judd in top form, and solid support by Goran Visnjic as her husband and Alexia Fast as her young daughter, Helen is a psychologically convincing portrait. The extras comprise short interviews with Judd, Visnjic, Smith and Fast.
Welcome(Film Movement)The French drama Welcome accomplishes a miraculous balancing act by dramatizing the plight of illegal immigrants without sentimentality or cheap dramatics: 17-year-old Kurdish refugee Bilal has crossed Europe in hopes of reuniting with his girlfriend living in England. But when he reaches northern France, authorities prevent him from going any further. His audacious idea is to swim to her, and Simon, a local swimming instructor whose personal life is a mess, reluctantly helps him.
Director Philippe Lioret avoids a didactic debate about illegal immigration, instead showing sympathy for those who have taken it upon themselves to make new lives in a new country. Vincent Lindon (Simon) gives a textbook lesson in understatement; newcomer Firat Ayverdi (Bilal) persuasively reveals what’s at stake for a young man whose only crime is that he was born in the wrong country. The lone extra is a British short, Berlin Wall.
CDs of the Week
Alondra de la Parra: Mi Alma Mexicana (My Mexican Soul)(Sony Classical)Young Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra has already shown her mettle with fiercely committed performances leading the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in the past few years. She champions the music of her home country, and in a surprisingly daring move, Sony Classical has released a two-disc set of her conducting her own orchestra in two hours' worth of Mexican music spanning 125 years, Mi Alma Mexicana (My Mexican Soul), a decent overview of 13 mainly obscure composers.
Manuel M. Ponce's scintillating guitar concerto is performed with brio by Pablo Sainz Villegas, while Silvestre Revueltas' impressive Sensemaya and Federico Ibarra's compressed yet compelling Symphony No. 2, Las antesalas del sueno, are other highlights. Alex Brown's solo playing makes one wish we could hear the entire concerto for piano improvisation by Eugenio Toussaint, not only the Largo movement. De la Parra and her players' enthusiasm makes one anticipate this superb conductor's next project.
Erwin Schulhoff/Stefan Wolpe(Ars Medici)20th century classical music was forever changed by the Nazis, who not only murdered millions but also destroyed a rich musical legacy in the countries they overran. The composers heard on this wonderful recording by the Ensemble Aventure chamber group were Jews hounded by the Nazis: Erwin Schulhoff died in a concentration camp in 1942 and Stepan Wolpe emigrated to the United States, where he lived, taught and composed until his death in 1972.
Both Schulhoff and Wolpe's “dadaist” works—which have outlived that short radical artistic movement—are presented in their original context, with two Schulhoff pieces preceded by a “Dada prologue.” Schulhoff's expressive chamber works for unusual combinations—Bass Nightingale for double bassoon or the Divertissement for oboe clarinet and bassoon—and the two Wolpe works—the mini-opera To Anna Blume and the Sonata for Oboe and Piano—give fine introductions to two composers whose music should be more widely-heard. This disc (which, at 55 minutes, could easily include another work by each composer) is a promising start.
Secrets of the Trade Written by Jonathan TolinsDirected by Matt Shakman Starring Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, John Glover, Mark Nelson, Noah Robbins
Without Glover, Tolins’ likable, honest but overfamiliar comic coming-of-age story would probably fade after it’s finished faster than it does. Secrets of the Trade introduces us to a precocious 16-year-old theater lover, Andy Lippman from Port Washington, Long Island, whose literate fan letter to his Broadway idol Kerner is finally answered two years later. After going to lunch with Kerner at Café des Artistes, Andy is taken under the great man‘s wing, where he learns, through trial and error (mostly error) what it takes for a career in show business.
Tolins, as he showed in Twilight of the Golds on Broadway nearly 20 years ago, is better with quips than characterizations, so the constant zingers among this smart set of people—which includes Andy’s parents and Kerner’s assistant Bradley—proliferate for an overlong 2-1/2 hours. The one-liners do hide Tolins’ predictable set of situations, like Andy’s coming out, his mother’s frustration over her failed dancing career and Kerner’s own skeletons in the closet.
In his smartly straightforward staging, director Matt Shakman allows his actors to do the heavy lifting, and they respond with a terrific show of support for Glover. Mark Nelson and especially Amy Aquino do wonders with Andy’s underwritten mom and dad, while Bill Brochtrup is so unerringly perfect as Kerner’s all-knowing assistant Bradley that you might forget he’s giving a masterly class in underacting. As Andy, Noah Robbins, who scored as Neil Simon’s teen alter ego in Brighton Beach Memoirs, gives more of the same here, which works for the jokes but not for the believability of a character who ages from teenager to mature adult by play’s end. But it’s Glover’s Kerner who is such an indelibly theatrical creation that Secrets of the Trade seems far more substantial than it really is.
Performances through September 4, 2010Primary Stages 59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Streetprimarystages.org
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