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San Francisco Symphony Ushers "The Rite of Spring" in the Fall

Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo by Jennifer Taylor
The exciting new season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall may prove to be outstanding if one is to judge by its stunning second concert—an exhilarating program devoted to the work of Igor Stravinsky—that was given on the evening of Thursday, October 4th, by the fabulous San Francisco Symphony under the brilliant direction of the celebrated Michael Tilson Thomas, who collaborated with the composer as a young musician in the 1960s. (The ensemble presented the opening night gala performance on the previous evening.)
The event was preceded by an informative talk by the appealing and enthusiastic Ara Guzelimian—the Dean and Provost of the Juilliard School—in which he interestingly commented on the sources in traditional Russian music at the basis of The Rite of Spring, the concluding work on the program, as discovered by scholars such as the eminent Richard Taruskin. The proceedings proper began with a thrilling, crystalline account of the 1947 version of the composer’s first ballet score, the dazzling Pétrouchka, after the original orchestration completed in 1911. The musicians received an enthusiastic ovation.
The remarkable virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos then took the stage for a masterly reading of the extraordinary Violin Concerto, a performance notable for the somber intensity of its more introspective passages but equally compelling in its more ebullient registers. Passionate applause elicited a fine, all-too-brief encore, the Adagietto from the Sonata for Solo Violin by the Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas.
The program finished astonishingly with a glorious realization of the magnificent The Rite of Spring. The artists earned another ardent reception—I look forward eagerly to their return to the New York concert stages.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga Light the Sky in "A Star Is Born"

Bradley Cooper
and Lady Gaga are no strangers to having their names in lights, but in A Star Is Born, [Warner Bros./MGM; 135 minutes] their names explode in such magnitude that they light up the sky. Except for a few moments of homage, it would be theatrically incorrect to call the just released A Star Is Born an updated remake of its three predecessors with the same title. Four-time Oscar nominee Cooper, as director, co-writer, and co-producer, has created a Star that won’t eclipse the powerful 1937 dramatic original or 1954 musical remake but which becomes a cinema legend of its own. In fact, it’s poised to become an instant classic. As far as the edgy 1976 box office blockbuster musical remake with the same title – the verdict is still out.

aBornLGagaBCooperInConcertIn this 90% original take, written with Oscar winner Eric Roth [Forrest Gump, The Insider, Ali], Grammy-winning Oscar-nominee [Best Song] Gaga as Ally says, “Almost every single person I’ve come in contact with in the music industry has told me that my nose is too big and I won’t make it.” During the 10 years she studied acting and auditioned for theater, film, and TV, she said she heard similar and much worse. In 2008, with her debut Platinum plus-selling album Fame, we saw star potential. It was just the tip of the iceberg. 

Many didn’t take her seriously because of her attention-getting antics. As a megaselling recording artist [31 million albums and a multitude of hit singles], she popped up in cameo and guest roles, but it wasn’t until the 2015 Oscars when she stunned with a mesmerizing soprano rendition of a medley of tunes for the 50th Anniversary Sound of Music salute that the masses took notice [during the 20-second standing ovation, with her tattooed arms outstretched, among those avidly applauding was none other than Cooper]. Her fan base quintupled with her Golden Globe-winning casting as the Countess that year on American Horror Story/Hotel, channeling a host of notorious film fatales and aided by extravagant costumes, platinum blonde hair, and glam make-up] that finally the public met Gaga the actress.

Cooper, making his directorial debut, envisioned the film with Gaga as co-star. It’s fascinating watching as they prop each other up. The romance begins a bit too soon and rushes toward the inevitable pledging of troths. In love, in performance, and at war their chemistry is solid. It’s the oft-told story of two who fall in love not so much with each other but with each other’s talent. As one up and comer bursts on the scene like a megastar, jealousy rises its ugly head and the megastar fades into a black hole.

Gaga gives a shattering performance as Ally, a singer struggling to break into the big time but who’s given up after so many defeats. She finds it hard to believe that at last someone believes in her. Enter rock legend Jackson Maine, Cooper in another brilliant performance. Reckless boozing, cocaine, and a devastating secret that would ruin his career have him on a destructive path. It’s a performance so vividly etched that it will be long remembered.


With her Star accolades and the inevitable nominations to be heaped on both stars during awards season, Gaga can close the book on her period of dresses fashioned with meat and outrageous shenanigans and can start a new one – coffee-table size. Singing or dancing or acting, she’s a force to be reckoned with. There were big shoes to fill, and quite smartly she pays homage to Judy Garland, star and co-producer of the ’54 film, with an “Easter Egg” hum of “Over the Rainbow.” It was also her idea to pay homage to her idol Edith Piaf, with her standout rendition of “La Vie En Rose.” Another “Easter Egg” is Gaga/Cooper’s bubble bath ala Streisand/Kristofferson’s in the ’76 Star – minus candles burning on beer cans. Gaga pays tribute to her legend of gay fans by singing, as she did early on, in a drag bar – where Jackson wanders in [only in search of a drink, though he ends up signing autographs in unusual and very personal places].

The burden of Cooper’s own demons as a recovering drug and alcohol abuser is obvious as he bares his soul singing in sequences filmed live at music festivals. To prepare, he studied with a voice instructor and learned to play the guitar well enough so he would never get booted offstage. Gaga bares more than her soul in a flash of nudity from her solo bubble bath.


Cooper surrounded himself and Gaga with an equally impressive ensemble cast: Sam Elliott, as Jackson’s caretaking brother; Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father; comic Dave Chappelle as a trusted old friend; and Rafi Gavron as the manager who steers Ally toward stardom and an independence that affects her marriage.

The stars are immensely complemented by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who helps push the music sequences and raw emotion with HD close-ups [you won’t soon forget the last image of Gaga]; and two-time Oscar-nominated editor Jay Cassidy. Songs are by Cooper, Gaga, and Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, who also performs with his band.

To enjoy the huge impact in store, the only way to see A Star Is Born is at a huge-screened cineplex with surround or Dolby sound.

A Star Is Born is also co-written by Will Fetters. It’s produced by Cooper, Bill Gerber, the controversial Jon Peters [due to rights he held for the ’76 Star], Todd Phillips, and Lynette Howell Taylor.

September '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Andrei Rublev 


Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 biographical epic about the medieval Russian icon painter is a mesmerizing classic crammed with sweeping visuals and intimate moments that paint an indelible picture of an artist and culture more than half a millennium old.




In this typically thorough Criterion package, both Tarkovsky’s 183-minute preferred cut and original 205-minute version, titled The Passion According to Andrei, are included, the former looking particularly impressive in restored hi-def; voluminous extras include commentaries, featurettes and Tarkovsky’s student thesis film, 1961’s The Steamroller and the Violin.


Art of the Prank 


Joey Skaggs might be unknown to the general public, but he’s become infamous for his many media hoaxes over several decades, which are recounted with equal parts whimsy and seriousness in director Andrea Marini’s sympathetic portrait of a man who may well be the creator of “fake news.”




The movie centers around his latest public prank, which is better discovered when you watch the film, to show that media manipulation might be the easiest thing in the world (as a certain White House occupant proves every day). There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are interviews and featurettes.







The Big Bang Theory—Complete 11th Season 

(Warner Bros)

For the big hit comedy series’ latest season, the plots and jokes may seem recycled, but the cast—Kalie Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, and Kunal Nayyar, for starters—is still hitting on all comic cylinders in these 24 episodes.




On Blu-ray, the show looks good; among the extras, which include featurettes and a gag reel, there’s a touching remembrance of and memorial to Stephen Hawking, a fan of the show who appeared several times before his death earlier this year.


Big Wednesday 

(Warner Archive)

John Milius’ 1978 memoir was supposed to be a huge nostalgic blockbuster, a la American Graffiti: even Steven Spielberg, no less, thought that it was going to be a smash hit. Instead, it tanked, as critics and audiences considered it another mindless surfing flick.




At two hours, it has a lot on its plate, but the acting by Jan Michael Vincent, Gary Busey and William Katt is painfully uneven, the script by Milius and Dennis Aaberg is scattershot, and Milius’ directing is so bludgeoning that the Big Moments all become little ones. The Blu-ray at least has an excellent hi-def transfer.







Exorcist II—The Heretic 

(Scream Factory)

Upon its release, John Boorman’s 1977 sequel to the biggest horror film of all time was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences; 41 years later, the movie hasn’t improved—Richard Burton overacts, Louise Fletcher and Linda Blair underact, and a horde of locusts outacts everyone—but what surrounds it is far more interesting, thanks to Scream Factory’s extras.




There are glistening hi-def transfers of Boorman’s original, messy 117-minute cut and the even more incoherent 102-minute version; informative commentaries by Boorman and “Special Project Consultant” Scott Michael Bosco; and Linda Blair’s discussion of what went wrong in a short but in-depth interview.


Lucifer—Complete 3rd Season 

(Warner Archive)

In the latest season showing how the prince of darkness infiltrated 21st century American life, Lucifer continues his professional relationship with the LAPD, especially detective Chloe Decker, who helped rid the world of his dastardly Mom (who returns as murdered lawyer Charlotte Roberts).




The 26 episodes are light-hearted and—unsurprisingly—silly, which is mitigated by the charm of leads Tom Ellis and Ellen German, and entertaining support from the likes of Lesley-Ann Brandt and D. B. Woodside. There’s a sharp hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, two featurettes and a gag reel.







Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Concert—Encore 

(Time Life)

This set collects the induction ceremonies from 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, which were highlighted by massive outpourings of emotional support from audiences and musicians for Genesis (2010) and especially Rush (2013), when uber-fans Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins not only inducted the band but played its prog-rock classic “Overture” from 2112.




Best of the induction speeches are Elton John’s heartfelt one for Leon Russell (2011) and the late Chris Cornell’s for Heart (2013); Alice in Chains leader Jerry Cantrell even jammed on rousing versions of “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” with the Wilson sisters. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.




Keanu Reeves seems content to make barely-released action films that let him travel to Europe and work with nubile young actresses; his latest in this vein casts him as an American diamond merchant in Russia—who speaks fluent Russian—who gets involved with organized crime and travels to Siberia after his partner disappears.





As lukewarm thrillers go, it’s watchable, and Reeves has real chemistry with Romanian actress Ana Ularu, who plays the beautiful (and available) woman who (of course) falls for and helps him. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.


DVDs of the Week 



Brothers David and Nathan Zellner’s western has a deliberately misleading title because nothing is as it seems in this evocative, occasionally grisly exploration of what it means to be a hero or villain in a dangerous world.




Robert Pattison gives a strong performance as a man traversing rugged landscapes to, he thinks, rescue the love of his life (Mia Wasikowska) from her husband, which is only the beginning of a surprising journey helped by Adam Stone’s splendid photography and fine acting all around.



(First Run)

In this first-person documentary, Serena Dykman introduces her grandmother Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, a Polish Jew whose heartrending accounts of barely surviving the Nazis are shown through valuable clips of interviews and Q&As she gave throughout her post-war life in France.




Dykman is a novice director, but emotions never overwhelm her: she worships her grandmother as an unsung heroine, but has still made a lucid, tender and fascinating tribute that fully encapsulates the phrase “never forget.”


CD of the Week 

Ralph Vaughan Williams—A Sea Symphony 


Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of our most colossally underrated composers, especially in regards to his symphonies, of which he completed nine between 1903 and 1958. The first, A Sea Symphony, is a massive structure, more than an hour long and, based as it is on Walt Whitman poems, filled with choral and solo singing throughout its four movements.




This recording, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under conductor Martyn Brabbins, with soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, catches the work’s majestic sweep and irresistible forward motion. Also included is Darest thou now, o soul, a short Whitman setting the composer wrote in 1925, some 20 years after the symphony.

September '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Cold Water 


French director Olivier Assayas’s 1994 breakthrough was this cutting, insightful exploration of disaffected youth, circa 1972; part of a series of films about young people, Cold Water goes far beyond that, and not only is it Assayas’s triumph—his use of period songs far betters Scorcese’s—but also that of his leading lady, Virginie Ledoyen, who was a then 17-year-old stunner bringing the director’s vision to vivid life.




The film looks sharp on Blu; extras are new interviews with Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir, and a vintage TV interview with Assayas, Ledoyen and actor Cyprien Fouquet.


The Looming Tower 

(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.

This riveting multi-part Hulu limited series, based on Lawrence Wright’s brilliant book, recounts the events, mishaps and unlucky breaks that allowed the Sept. 11th attacks to happen while the FBI and CIA spent too much time squabbling.




Superbly directed, concisely written and filled with nuanced performances by Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlberg, Tahar Rahim and Bill Camp, this is essential viewing, even—or especially—if you know what inevitably happens. The hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise several featurettes and audio commentaries.







The Miniaturist 

(PBS Masterpiece)

From a novel by Jessie Burton that a mash-up of The Girl with a Pearl Earring (17th century Holland setting) and The Draughtsman’s Contract (an artist unmasks a family’s dark, hidden secrets), this three-part mini-series is an intermittently absorbing 2-1/2 hour-long costume drama encompassing homosexuality, interracial relationships, malicious patriarchy and—finally if most implausibly—21st century feminism.




It’s well-done and extremely well-acted by a cast led by Anya Taylor-Joy and Romola Garai, but the underwhelming plot makes it a chore to watch at times. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; lone extra is a 45-minute behind the scenes featurette.


The Naked and the Dead 

(Warner Archive)

Based on Norman Mailer’s first novel about soldiers battling the enemy and one another in World War II, this 1958 adaptation has solid directing by Raoul Walsh and a fine ensemble cast that includes Cliff Robertson, Joey Bishop, Aldo Ray, Raymond Massey and Richard Jaeckel.




But since the script has little bite and the men are given typically melodramatic problems, this ends up as a good-looking but defanged war film. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray makes Joseph LaShelle’s color cinematography look sumptuous.







Ocean's 8 

(Warner Bros)

In this breezy gender-reversed Oceans 11, eight women plan a daring heist during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Fashion Gala, which allows for some tongue-in-cheek overlapping between the characters in the movie and the actresses who play them, notably fashion mavens like Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Rhianna.




The movie itself is so wispy as to be forgotten right after watching it, but it’s still enjoyable despite the shortcomings. The film has a superior hi-def transfer; extras include 2 brief deleted scenes, interviews and featurettes.


Supergirl—Complete 3rd Season 

(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.

In the latest season of adventures for the 20-something cousin of Superman, Kara Zor-El has difficulty keeping her alter ego (Daily Planet reporter Kara Danvers) and real identity separated, as she also deals with losing Mon-El twice and the appearance of a new nemesis called Reign.




The fetching performance of Melissa Benoist gives this juvenile series its main attraction, now that actress Laura Benanti—who had played Kara’s mom, Alura, with spirited urgency—is gone. Still, the season’s 23 episodes fly by, and the hi-def transfer is superb. Extras are four DC Comics crossover episodes, excerpts from DC TV’s Comic-Con Panels San Diego 2017, featurettes Inside the Crossover: Crisis on Earth-X and She Will Reign!, a gag reel and deleted scenes. 


CD of the Week 

Leonard Bernstein—Wonderful Town 

(LSO Live)

Celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sir Simon Rattle gives the Bernstein/Adolph Green/Betty Comden Broadway musical a whirl, providing effervescent orchestral accompaniment to some of Bernstein’s most playful melodies.




The cast, especially Danielle de Niese and Alysha Umphress as the Ohio sisters trying to make it in the big city, has sass in spades; highlights include de Niese’s “A Little Bit in Love,” Umphress’s “Conga” and Nathan Gunn’s “A Quiet Girl.”

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