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Reviews

January '20 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Le Petit Soldat

(Criterion)

Jean-Luc Godard made his second film immediately after his breakthrough debut, 1959’s Breathless, but the incendiary material—the director scaldingly indicts both the French and the Algerians’ use of torture in the then-current Algerian War—caused its ban in France and it was not shown elsewhere until 1963.

Its elliptical narrative is typically Godardian, but Godard’s political urgency, the sharp B&W Raoul Coutard photography, and the first appearance of his then-muse, Anna Karina, make Soldat pointed and still relevant. Criterion has provided its usual superb hi-def transfer; the interesting if skimpy extras comprise two Godard interviews—a 1961 audio one and a 1965 video one—and a 1963 interview with actor Michel Subor.

 

London Kills—Series 2

Doc Martin—Series 9

(Acorn TV)

In the second series of London Kills, the team investigates the killing of an elderly man whose nine-year-old grandson called in the killing. Soon child abuse and other cover-ups dominate in this taut, tantalizing and extremely well-plotted follow-up to last season’s auspicious debut.

By now, Doc Martin is as comfortable as an old shoe, but series 9 throws a curve ball: the good doc is being hounded by officials unpersuaded by his unorthodox methods, even though it’s been good enough for the locals for years. Both series feature tremendous acting to go along with the fine writing. There are first-rate hi-def transfers; extras include interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

 

Primal 

(Lionsgate)

Even by the standards of recent Nicolas Cage fare, this is a doozy: he plays a big-game hunter whose treasured catch, a white panther, is cargo on a ship heading back from Africa to America. Also on board is a dangerous prisoner who, of course, gets loose and causes trouble, especially when he frees the panther and other dangerous animals of Cage’s including—of course—deadly snakes.

The claustrophobic ship setting isn’t really given a thorough workout by director Nick Powell, but it remains mindless (and relatively brief) entertainment. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

 
 
 

DVD of the Week

In Safe Hands

(Icarus)

Jeanne Henry has made an emotionally involving look at adoption, and how each person involved—would-be parents, temporary guardians and, of course, the agency workers themselves—rides a personally wrenching roller coaster as the bureaucracy’s slow machinery grinds its way forward.

Marrying insightful writing and precise directing with exemplary performances—particularly from that sorely underused actress Elodie Bouchez as the expectant mom and Sandrine Kilberlin as the lead agency rep—Henry’s drama is a memorable soap opera.

 

CD of the Week 

Reynaldo Hahn—Complete Songs

(SPPF)

The great composers of French song include Fauré, Chausson, Poulenc, Duparc—and Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), whose own mastery of the French art song, the mélodie, was wide-ranging and impressive through several decades and dozens of songs.

This four-disc set collects everything that Hahn composed, from the early “Rêverie” and “Si mes vers avaient des ailes”—written at age 14 to words by Victor Hugo—to the posthumously published Neuf Mélodies retrouvées. All 107 songs—for which the lavish and illustrated booklet includes the French texts and English translations—are expressively sung by Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis, who is beautifully accompanied by American pianist Jeff Cohen. 


January '20 Digital Week II

4K of the Week 

The Shining 

(Warner Bros)

Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, derided upon its 1980 release because it didn’t play by the genre’s arbitrary rules, has since taken its rightful place as one of our greatest directors’ greatest films, to say nothing of being superior to Stephen King’s novel in every way. The photography—featuring the most unnerving Steadicam ever—sets, editing, and music (by Bartok, Penderecki and Ligeti) are astonishing, and the performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd are appropriately over-the-top.

 

 

 

The ultra hi-def transfer looks fantastic; extras—same as previous releases—include an informative commentary by Kubrick biographer John Baxter and Steadicam inventor/operator Garrett Brown, daughter Vivian Kubrick’s playful yet insightful The Making of ‘The Shining’ documentary (with her own commentary) and two puffy retrospective featurettes.

 

Blu-rays of the Week

Krypton—Complete Final Season 

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of this Blu-ray. The opinions I share are my own.)

In this sci-fi fantasy series’ second and final season, its clever alternative Superman origin story comes to an end: Seg-El, Superman’s future grandfather, tries to save his beloved eponymous home planet from the malign leadership of Zod by bringing together a group of passionate resisters.

 

 

 

The second season is fleeter, less self-serious than the first, and it goes without saying that it’s far more entertaining to watch. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are two featurettes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lighthouse 

(Lionsgate) 

Director-writer Robert Eggers made his name with the clever if not totally original The Witch, but he comes a cropper with his latest, a claustrophobic but quickly enervating two-hander about two men slowly going insane while manning a lighthouse on an isolated island.

Willem Dafoe chews the scenery mercilessly while Tom Pattinson is stoically one-dimensional; neither actor can overcome Eggers’ increasingly bizarre excursions into cabin fever-induced nightmares that culminate in risible lunacy. Even Jarin Blaschke’s exquisite B&W photography doesn’t help. There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer; extras comprise Eggers’ commentary, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

 

Veep—Complete Final Season 

(HBO)

HBO’s political comedy jumped the shark a couple of seasons ago, despite what some have said: it was the same tired material regurgitated, and the performers, talented as they were, simply treaded water playing these caricatures.

 

 

 

Nothing much has changed in the final, abbreviated (seven-episode) season, even if there are still sparks of the old back-and-forth, especially among Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Anna Chlumsky and Timothy Simons. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are brief featurettes and cast interviews.

 

DVDs of the Week 

Mister America 

(Magnolia)

This mockumentary follows Tim Heidecker as he runs for the position of district attorney in San Bernadino County, California, as—get this—revenge for how he felt he was treated by the current DA when Heidecker was on trial for the deaths of 19 people at a festival he ran (it was a hung jury—there was a single holdout to convicting him).

 

 

 

Notwithstanding its clever setup, director Eric Notarnicola’s film makes it much too obvious that the egomaniacal Heidecker is tRump Jr. by another name as his campaign sputters before flaming out altogether. There are moments of potent satire, but too much of the running time is unfortunately given over to Heidecker’s clichéd arrogant jerk.

 

CD of the Week

Tony Banks—5 

(Naxos)

Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks—whose synthesizer sounds were one of the reasons why the band was a progressive-rock supergroup for decades, even when Phil Collins’ pop sensibilities took over for the band’s final years—tries his hand at symphonic music with these five works.

 

 

 

Unfortunately, there’s little variation to be heard as 5 mainly comprises washes of sound with nods to Philip Glass-like block chords; calling it unimaginative is putting it nicely. Nick Ingman’s orchestrations and arrangements do little to distinguish these five works from one another, and Ingman and his Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Choir forces follows suit.

January '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Joker 

(Warner Bros)

When does homage end and pilferage begin? That’s the question after seeing Todd Phillips’ colossally unimaginative and ultimately trivial Batman villain backstory tale, which is equal parts Taxi Driver rip-off and King of Comedy rip-off (pointedly, Martin Scorsese has said he hasn’t seen Joker yet). Joaquin Phoenix chews the scenery relentlessly as the eponymous anti-hero whose murderous pathology is lamely explained away as a reaction against bullying; Phoenix, in fact, makes Nicholson’s turn in The Shining look positively subtle.

 

 

 

And Robert DeNiro’s phoned-in appearance only makes Phillips look worse in Scorsese’s shadow. The movie’s most interesting aspect is the haunting violin score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which belongs in another, worthier movie. Gotham City looks convincingly desaturated on Blu; extras are four making-of featurettes.

 

Acceleration 

(Cinedigm)

This by-the-numbers actioner casts Natalie Burn as an operative in a criminal syndicate who must do what the deadly kidnapper of her young son says or she’ll never see the boy again.

 

 

 

Dolph Lundgren plays the seeming bad guy—who isn’t entirely whom he seems, of course—but unfortunately directors Michael Merino (who also wrote the script) and Daniel Zirilli don’t bother to do anything novel with what amounts to an intriguingly twisty plot, instead contenting themselves with a bunch of routine chases, fights and shootouts. The film looks attractive on Blu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Judy 

(Lionsgate)

Rupert Goold’s standard-issue biopic looks at Judy Garland in decline as she takes on several London “comeback” concerts that end up showing just how far gone she is in her physical and emotional downfall, interspersed with the usual flashbacks to earlier in her career as a young but bullied sensation.

 

 

 

Renée Zellweger gives it her all as Judy, and her singing and onstage demeanor are impressively focused, but for the rest she cannot overcome her lack of looking or sounding like the real Garland—that squeaky Zellweger voice too often intrudes. The Blu-ray looks quite good; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

 

The Kill Team 

(Lionsgate)

Dan Krauss, who made the documentary The Kill Team about a group of American soldiers taking matters into their own hands in Afghanistan, returns to direct a feature based his own doc: the tension and claustrophobia of war’s close quarters are shown with consummate skill.

 

 

 

As the bloodthirsty squad leader, Alexander Skarsgård is scarily unnerving, while Nat Wolff makes a fine ordinary Joe caught up in nastiness he wishes he weren’t part of. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras are Krauss’ commentary, deleted scenes, and a making-of. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucas Debargue—To Music 

(Naxos)

French pianist Lucas Debargue, then 27 years old, makes a memorable subject in Martin Mirabel’s informative and entertaining 2017 documentary portrait that displays his artistry, restlessness and—unsurprisingly for a great performer—moments of self-doubt.

 

 

 

In addition to revealing interviews, there are glimpses of Debargue playing concertos and solo music, even working on a trio he composed for his own ensemble. Debargue is not the only fascinating artist onscreen: his Russian teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya, is also a character (in both senses) in her own right. The hi-def video and audio are exemplary; extras include excerpts of Debargue performing Beethoven and Scriabin.

 

Passport to Pimlico

The Titfield Thunderbolt 

(Film Movement Classics)

Film Movement Classics’ first releases from London’s classic Ealing Studios—1949’s Passport to Pimlico, about a London neighborhood that decides it’s part of France, and 1953’s Titfield Thunderbolt, about a small town that decides to resurrect a defunct rail line—might not be up to the level of Ealing’s best comedies, like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, but they are quite diverting and cleverly done in their own right.

 

 

 

Both films have been restored brilliantly, bringing out the details of Lionel Banes’ B&W Passport photography and the exquisiteness of Douglas Slocombe’s color Titfield cinematography. Extras include interviews, location featurettes and other ephemera. 

 

DVDs of the Week 

Twin Flower 

(Film Movement)

Young Italian director-writer Laura Luchetti’s drama about the unlikely relationship between a mute teenage girl and a headstrong African migrant sympathizes with its protagonists without ever approaching maudlin.

 

 

 

The difficulties and occasionally deadly dealings in this shadowy underworld are strongly detailed by Luchetti, and the subtle performances of non-actors Anastasiya Bogach and Kallil Kone give the film its bite and lasting flavor. Lone extra is a wryly comic short, Cerdita, by Spanish director Carlota Pereda.

 

Wrinkles the Clown 

(Magnolia)

It seems like a story made up for the faux-documentary set: a clown, parading himself as a child’s nightmare, has made it to mythic status in southwest Florida—where else?—as parents with unruly kids threaten to hire him to scare them, while curious kids, teens and adults of all ages contact him for a cheap thrill.

 

 

 

But Michael Beach Nichols’ documentary about this phenomenon is all too real (even if the unseen person parading around as Wrinkles’ alter ego is just an actor hired by the real “Wrinkles”) but at a scant 75 minutes, the intriguing psychological and sociological threads it brings up are rarely delved into at any length. Extras are deleted scenes.

Off-Broadway Review— Samuel D. Hunter’s “Greater Clements”

Greater Clements

Written by Samuel D. Hunter; directed by Davis McCallum

Performances through January 19, 2020

 

Edmund Donovan (front) and Haley Sakamoto in Greater Clements (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Comprising mostly desultory moments that too often flirt with soap opera, Samuel D. Hunter’s Greater Clements doesn’t quite succeed as a real American tragedy, but it’s a serious play about a relevant subject: the end of the American Dream.

 

The setting is Clements, a small Idaho town that’s seen better days: the once-thriving mine has closed and even tours of it have dwindled to nothing. Proprietor of the local museum, Maggie—whose father died in a mine accident years ago and whose husband left her for another man—survives meagerly thanks to the occasional tourist visit, but most of her time is spent dealing with her grown son, Joe, a disturbed young man whose violent past haunts the community.

 

Reentering Maggie’s life is Billy, a high school boyfriend dying of cancer who wants to rekindle their relationship. Billy brings along his granddaughter, Kel, whose quick bonding with Joe leads to a scare when Kel goes missing. The play’s convoluted melodrama is climaxed by a fatal shooting, a scene in which poor Maggie is tortured psychologically—and needlessly, even masochistically—by the playwright. (He even introduces a new character, which drags the length play out even more.) 

 

Hunter does write sympathetically about these characters’ current situation, with Joe, in his quotidian way, explaining cogently what’s happened to places around the country like Clements: “I mean, it’s gotten smaller, it’s—. But I mean, being a town—it still means something.” But, as his cavalier treatment of his heroine in the play’s final enervating sequence shows, Hunter is not above manipulation. Maggie’s relationship with Billy is touching, but let’s face it: Hunter needs Billy and Kel in town to pave the way for the play’s climactic death. 

 

David McCallum’s staging (on Dane Laffrey’s agile sets, with an assist from Yi Zhao’s expressive lighting) is impeccable, and the fine supporting cast is led by Ken Narasaki as Billy and Haley Sakamoto as Kel. But, most memorably, Maggie and Joe are illuminated by the affecting performances of Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan, which hauntingly cut to the heart of the mother and son’s complicated relationship. 

 

Greater Clements

Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

lct.org

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