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Kevin’s Digital Week 33: Middle East, America and Europe

Blu-rays of the Week


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

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.

With narration that’s by turns jocular and serious by renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a soundtrack that features the often jaunty rhythms of Klezmer music, Visions of Israel is another winner in this travel series: too bad it’s not on Blu-ray like some of the other episodes are. The bonus feature (an extra 23 minutes of superlative footage that weren't used in the 55-minute program) includes sights as breathtaking as what’s in the original program.

CDs of the Week

Pizzetti: Chamber Works
Ildebrando Pizzetti is no household name, not even in Italy, where this underrated composer lived from 1880 to 1968. His music, while conservative, is original and attractive, and many of his works should be heard in the concert hall, where they would undoubtedly win new converts. Instead, Pizzetti is getting his partial due on CDs, and the Naxos label has been at the forefront of releasing his orchestral and chamber music for a fresh hearing.  

This new recording features three of Pizzetti's most appealing chamber works, two quite substantial and one, Tre Canti, a buoyant 10-minute bauble in three short movements. The two large-scale works (each about 30 minutes long) are the Piano Trio and Violin Sonata, and the superb musicians—violinist Leila Rasonyi, cellist Laszlo Fenyo and pianist Alpalsan Ertungealp — acquit themselves admirably, particularly in each work’s slow movement, in which yearning tones and gorgeous melodies intertwine.

Shostakovich: The Lady and the Hooligan
Dmitri Shostakovich didn’t write many ballets—only three in a long composing career—but those three are masterpieces: The Golden Age, The Bolt and The Limpid Stream. The delightful The Lady and the Hooligan (a choreographic novel from 1962) is instead a pastiche patched together from his earlier works, like the latter two ballets, Ballet Suites and Cello Sonata. If you didn’t know better, you'd think Shostakovich composed a familiar-sounding but lovely new ballet.

The Delos recording features the Minsk Symphony Orchestra under Walter Mnatsakanov’s baton, and if there’s roughness in some of the orchestral playing, the weightiness needed to make it all work comes through, particularly in the tragic finale. Also included is Shostakovich’s Ballet Suite No. 2, which contains Shostakovich's characteristic eclecticism in spades.

Film Review: Daisies

by Vera Chitylova visionary frescoes of youth gone wild
Czechoslovakia, 1966
(Facets Multimedia/DVD)

Most Eastern European films from the Communist period are in some way political. Indeed, arguably the most instructive body of criticism of Stalinism to be found is in the cinema of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In Czechoslovakia most of the relevant films were made between 1963-69, the period of the Czech New Wave. Daisies is a central exemplar.
Whether or not this is the greatest Czech film -- and it might be -- it is undoubtedly the most fun. Indeed, it is almost intolerably exuberant and delightful. One of the key European films of the ‘60’s, Daisies focuses on two young girls who share an apartment, both named Marie (perfectly played by Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová, who appear only in a handful of Czech films from the period).

The girls’ premise is that since the world has gone “bad” they too will be “bad”. In a series of vignettes (the film has no real plot), they proceed to make fun of everyone and everything in their world. They arrange dinner dates with older men who take the train into the city in order to meet them. They then ridicule these invariably sentimental, well-heeled gentlemen (we can infer their class status as Party members from the fact that they can afford to dine in expensive restaurants) while gorging themselves on food.

Food is everywhere in the film, up to the final vignette where the women ruin the prepared food in an empty banquet hall and then “make good” by piecing together broken plates and glasses in a mock clean-up. At this point, their party ends in a crashing chandelier that segues into nuclear explosions, followed by the filmmaker’s dedication “to all those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.”  
The watchwords of the film are play, consumption, and artifice. The two women do nothing but play — with food, with magazine cutouts, with words and names. They have covered the walls of their apartment with drawings, cutouts, and writing. Food is central because they belong to the nascent world that French critics of the time called la société de consommation, consumer society.

This being a film from Communist Czechoslovakia and not Gaullist France, this world is not so much critiqued as used as a subversive weapon. A society of plentiful consumer goods and enough food to waste without flinching was not what the people of Eastern Europe had but what many of them wanted, and would finally get 20 years later. (The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia did flinch, and precisely at the food wastage, when apparatchiks saw the film, unwittingly making themselves targets of the witticism of the film’s prescient dedication).

What the young women in the film, and the young woman who made it, were taking aim at was a society based on a philosophy that was by turns utopian and tragic and not particularly comic, a society that took itself incredibly seriously. The music drives this home; much of it is bombastic or solemn, quasi-hymnal, and ironically counterpointed by the brilliant images and dialogue.

The work demonstrates how play, consumption, and artifice can be subversive strategies, more so in the Czech context than they would have been if this film had been made in the West, where much the same situations and behavior would have taken on a rather different meaning.
Indeed, Daisies was championed in the '70s by Western feminist critics, who saw the women in the film as role models for a playfully ironic and subversive critique or “deconstruction” of patriarchy. Chitylova herself took pains to disavow this interpretation, but it is easy to see both what fueled it and why it must have been in error.

Although the filmmaker said she originally considered using men, it is obvious that the film works much better with young women. In a patriarchal society — and despite its greater gender equality Communism was surely that — women, especially young women, have the privilege of being allowed a far greater measure of irresponsibility, because less is expected of them.

The problem is that this limits as much as it enables the political effectiveness of the appropriation of this irresponsibility through a strategy of playful irony. I’m not sure that the film escapes this limitation by virtue of a distance between the discourse of the characters and that of the film itself, because to speak of such a distance is to speak of irony, and the characters as well as the filmmaker are thoroughgoing ironists. That is, what is it to speak of an ironic treatment of characters whose discourse itself is entirely ironical?   

The film is very self-consciously a work of filmic artifice. But then the characters themselves seem to know that they are artificial, which is part of the meaning of their use of Cartesian doubt (wondering whether they exist, and at one point poignantly noting that not having a job and an identity card renders this problematic), and of their cutting off each other’s limbs and heads with scissors, along with mock screams, which is another manifestation of their refusal to take anything seriously, at least until the final chandelier crash.

The problem with the feminist reading and the strategy it implies is the failure to recognize that this kind of playful irony can be very effective in a work of fiction but is less so in real life. The film’s relentless attack on the new party bourgeoisie and its spirit of seriousness is quite potent. The feminists differed from the filmmaker in tacitly proposing that people, or women at any rate, live this way.  

A less innocent strategy is to propose instead that people learn to view as farce the life of a society whose ideology is that of a straight man. The Party didn’t laugh at the film or at the mess it had created in real life, but maybe it ought to have; it was Marx himself who said that tragic events return as farce.
I don’t wish to imply that the film ceases to delight when the Stalinist frame of reference is disregarded. Part of the fate of the spirit of 1968, which this film so well embodies, is that the kind of attitude that is here celebrated easily morphs into a kind of cynicism, which is indeed what the societé de consommation has become in the West. But the film delights on repeated viewings because it manages in some way I don’t fully grasp to steer clear of that.

The film’s somewhat Dadaist celebration of rebellion represents the eternal youth of a nascent consumer capitalism, a mythical time we all would like to remember when a ludic rage freed us of all responsibilities, when the use of play, consumption, and artifice felt like joyful liberation rather than some kind of compulsive ritual where people have to pretend to be happy.
(Available on DVD from Facets Multimedia, and on and Netflix. Amazon inexplicably has it packaged with Jill Godmilow’s Waiting for the Moon, a film about a famous lesbian couple, the writer Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas).

Kevin’s Digital Week 32: Mostly Grim Dramas

Blu-rays of the Week

Date Night

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

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


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.

(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.

Theater Review: 'Secrets of the Trade'

Secrets of the Trade
Written by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Matt Shakman
Starring Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, John Glover, Mark Nelson, Noah Robbins

As Martin Kerner, genius Broadway producer-director in Jonathan Tolins' Secrets of the Trade, John Glover does the kind of scenery-chewing one rarely sees any more: instead of gobbling up everything in sight, this excellent actor so carefully modulates his over-the-top performance that he remains generous to his fellow actors. There’s not one moment while Glover is onstage that he doesn’t dominate the proceedings—but there also isn’t a moment when you don’t notice any of the other actors onstage with him. That is what good, unselfish acting is all about.

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, 2010
Primary Stages
59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street


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