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Reviews

May '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays/4K of the Week 

Cold Pursuit 

(Lionsgate)

Liam Neeson, who has played a mild-mannered, middle-aged regular guy action hero in his most recent movies, plays another wronged father who tracks down members of the drug gang he holds responsible for the death of his son.

 

 

 

Director Hans Petter Moland sets his gritty actioner amid Colorado’s mountainous terrain, which provides glorious snowbound shots as the backdrop for Neeson’s latest round of extracting vengeance. The film has a superior hi-def UHD and Blu-ray transfer; extras include Neeson and Moland interviews, on-set featurette and deleted scenes.

 

The Devil’s Nightmare 

(Mondo Macabro)

Industrial Animals 

(Troma)

Directed with authority by Belgian Jean Brismée, 1973’s Devil’s Nightmare provides 95 minutes of “guilty pleasure” thrills as an agent of Satan and his succubus set their sights on the souls—and bodies—of a group of tourists staying at Baron von Runberg’s castle, which houses the darkest family secret.

 

 

 

Alternatively, Sam Mason-Bell’s inept Industrial Animals follows a prostitute only too willing to do her client’s bidding—until the gory twist ending. At least Tamsin Howland (who co-wrote with Mason-Bell) is unafraid to do anything onscreen, however demanding or demeaning. Both films have fine hi-def transfers; extras include interviews and commentaries.

 

 

 

 

 

Isn’t It Romantic? 

(Warner Bros)

This Rebel Wilson rom-com vehicle is a rather desperate attempt to put her in what purports to be a rom-com parody but uses the very clichés that make such movies unpalatable.

 

 

 

Wilson is her usual tenacious, sarcastic self, but even at 88 minutes this feels stretched out, especially when the Whitney Houston karaoke sequence goes on seemingly endlessly. There are a couple of decent laughs and some good-natured ribbing of the genre, but it’s still forgettable fluff. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

 

Les Miserables 

(PBS Masterpiece)

I doubt that we needed yet another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s massive novel about the decades-long manhunt by police inspector Javert against our hero Jean Valjean, who finds his life imperiled every time he seems to have settled down into domesticity.

 

 

 

But this six-plus-hour, slavishly faithful version—starring Dominic West as Valjean, David Oyelowo as Javert, Lily Collins as Fantine and Ellie Bamber as Cosette—is entertaining in spite of itself, especially since Hugo’s prose makes the melodramatic turns less risible on the page than they are visualized onscreen. (It’s also nice to the watch the story play out without the musical’s songs for a change.) There’s a splendid-looking hi-def transfer; extras include cast interviews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t 

(Criterion)

Agnès Varda’s intimate 1976 portrait of two women whose lives converge and diverge throughout a couple of decades has many lovely and pertinent observations, but too much of it is slight, shallow and entirely unsurprising.

 

 

 

In the leads, Thérèse Liotard and Valérie Mairesse—unfamiliar faces to most—are charming and winning, but Varda’s final shot (a loving closeup of her then-teen daughter Rosalie) gives away the game as an unsubtle valentine to independent women. Criterion’s hi-def transfer looks perfect; extras include a documentary of Varda on-set, Women Are Naturally Creative, directed by Katja Raganelli; and Varda’s shorts Réponse de femmes (1975) and Plaisir d'amour en Iran (1976).

 

The Prisoner of Second Avenue 

(Warner Archive)

Melvin Frank’s 1975 adaptation of Neil Simon’s play, a scattershot comedy about a Manhattan ad executive who has a breakdown after losing his job in the heat of a scalding summer, has two aces in the hole: Jack Lemmon as the exec and Anne Bancroft as his wife.

 

 

 

Whatever the deficiencies in Simon’s script—peppered with one-liners both hilarious and groan-inducing—and Frank’s bumpy pacing, Lemmon and Bancroft show how skilled they are playing off each other, making this so-so comedy a lot more entertaining than it should be. The Blu-ray transfer looks terrific; extras are a Dinah Shore talk show segment with Bancroft and vintage making-of.

 

 

 

 

 

Shoah—Four Sisters 

(Cohen Media)

Claude Lanzmann’s monumental nine-hour 1985 Holocaust classic Shoah—which remarkably showed no archival footage of the camps or Nazi atrocities—allowed witnesses to talk to give a necessary record of unspeakable inhumanity.

 

 

 

Lanzmann conducted dozens of hours of interviews with other survivors that didn’t make it into Shoah, and before his death last July edited some of them into new films, like Four Sisters. This multi-part film comprises lengthy, painful but illuminating discussions (all from the 1970s) with a quartet of eastern European Holocaust survivors who describe the indescribable. It’s a touching capstone to Lanzmann’s monumental career. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; lone extra is a talk by philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

 

White Chamber 

(Dark Sky)

In Paul Raschid’s one-note dystopian sci-fi, all the action occurs in the title room, where enemies of the government are tortured through psychological and physical methods—and the torturer ends up becoming the tortured.

 

 

 

Cardboard characters and an entirely predictable “twist” ending dilute what could have been a provocative cautionary tale. Shauna MacDonald gives it her all in the lead, especially physically, but she’s cheated by the familiar and hollow route the story takes. There’s a decent hi-def transfer.

 

DVD of the Week 

Finding Your Roots—Complete 5th Season 

(PBS)

In the 10 episodes of the new season of delving into several celebrities’ pasts, host Henry Louis Gates once again digs up unexplored stories and unexpected ancestors of his guests, navigating the strange paths which their family histories took—some heroic, some less than heroic.

 

 

 

Of the 26 guests he sits down with, Gates takes Marisa Tomei, Ty Burrell and Joe Madison on the most eye-opening journeys; he even finds that some of his guests are surprisingly related. 

 

CDs of the Week

Weinberg—24 Preludes

(Accentus)

Weinberg—Symphonies 2 and 21 

(Deutsche Grammophon)

The vital, forceful music of Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) has become more visible on recordings and in live performances. Case in point: violinist extraordinaire Gidon Kremer, who is part of two new Weinberg discs. The first is Kremer’s own violin arrangement of Weinberg’s 24 solo cello preludes, making them as seductive as such succinct works can be over the space of 50 minutes. 

 
 
 
 

The second, far more substantial disc pairs two of the master’s symphonies. Kremer and his ensemble Kremerata Baltica plays the second symphony, written for a string orchestra. While a formidable piece, it pales next to the 21st symphony, subtitled “Kaddish,” a powerful and haunting meditation on the Holocaust that features Kremer’s own soaring violin solos.

 

 

 

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla superlatively conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a performance full of feeling, and the conductor even adds her ethereal vocals to the quietly devastating conclusion.

"Harlequinade" Revival From the American Ballet Theatre Dazzles


The new season of American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened magnificently with the revival of last year’s exquisite production of the breezy Harlequinade, one of the most delightful works in the company’s repertory, which I attended on the evening of Thursday, May 16th. This ballet, an hommage to the commedia dell’arte, is a scholarly reconstruction, staged with additional choreography, by the celebrated Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky of the original version by the legendary Marius Petipa, set to an enjoyable score by the underrated Riccardo Drigo, here effectively conducted by Ormsby Wilkins. The scenery and marvelous, colorful costumes were created by Robert Perdziola after the original 1900 designs by Orest Allegri and Ivan Vsevolozhsky.
 
The outstanding primary cast was led by the fabulous Daniil Simkin—as Harlequin—who has come into his own as one of the greatest male dancers in the company, alongside David Hallberg and Herman Cornejo. Simkin brought down the house in his astonishing solo amongst the divertissements that conclude the second act. He was excellently partnered by the accomplished Skylar Brandt as Columbine, who also had an extraordinary solo in Act II. Tremendous, too, was Hee Seo, one of the finest ballerinas in the company, as Pierrette, here beautifully partnered by Alexandre Hammoudi as the iconic Pierrot.
 
Tatiana Ratmansky portrayed the providential Good Fairy, while amusing in comic pantomime roles were Alexei Agoudine as Cassandre, Columbine’s Father, and Duncan Lyle as Léandre, her wealthy, foppish suitor. Amongst the secondary cast, one could appreciate the brilliant talents of many of the more notable members of the company, such as, to name a few, Thomas Forster, Joseph Gorak, Calvin Royal III, and Arron Scott. The admirable corps de ballet were characteristically superb. One can only hope that this glorious ballet becomes a staple of future seasons.

The "Fountain of Youth" Springs Forth from Carnegie Hall

Yuja Wang on piano with the New World Symphony, photo by Richard Termine
 
A terrific season at Carnegie Hall continued most memorably on the evening of Wednesday, May 1st, with the exciting appearance of the accomplished young musicians of the New World Symphony under the illustrious direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.
 
The program began thrillingly with the New York premiere of Julia Wolfe’s impressive, percussive and arresting Fountain of Youth, co-commissioned by this ensemble along with Carnegie Hall. The piece marvelously sustained interest across its full twenty-minute length, proving to be one of the most enjoyable new orchestral works of recent years.
 
The immensely popular, extraordinary virtuoso Yuja Wang, looking characteristically stunning in a sexy, sparkling green gown, then took the stage as soloist for a dazzling performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s quirkily brilliant Piano Concerto No. 5. The exuberant initial movement cleverly contrasted with the more eccentric second. The ensuing Toccata was requisitely energetic. Most enchanting was the magnificent Larghetto, while the finale recaptured the ebullience of the remarkable opening. After an enthusiastic ovation, Tilson Thomas introduced a superb encore, a jazzy composition of his own for solo piano and dedicated to Wang—entitled You Come Here Often?—which opus she executed with breath taking éclat.
 
The second half of the program was also superlative, devoted to an excellent account of Hector Berlioz’s perennial masterwork, Symphonie fantastique. In the first movement, the artists achieved the necessary, Romantic intensity,precedingan entrancing rendition of the second-movement Waltz. The following Scene in the Fields was unusually lucid, leading into the enthralling March to the Scaffold. The work concluded with a mesmerizing, vertiginous realization of the stunning Witches’ Sabbath. Tremendous applause elicited another wonderful encore, Richard Wagner’s sublime Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin—a perfect ending to a great concert.

"Pepperland" Shakes Up a Beatles' Classic for the Stage

Photo by Stephanie Berger
 
I predict that the finest premiere of a new dance work this year will be Pepperland by Mark Morris—one of the best of contemporary choreographers—which I attended on the opening night of Wednesday, May 8th, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Howard Gilman Opera House, and which runs through the 11th.
 
Apart from Morris’s marvelously inventive choreography—my favorite of his alongside that of The Hard Nut, which was presented at BAM last December — I’d like to especially highlight the delightful, colorful costume design of Elizabeth Kurtzman, as well as the lighting design by Nick Kolin. The piece is an homage to, and adaptation of selections from, the landmark record album by the Beatles released in the summer of 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with original music and arrangements by Ethan Iverson, performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and with vocals by Clinton Curtis.
 
Morris’s artistry here is very much in the tradition of the the extraordinary populist ballets of Jerome Robbins and the satiric works by Paul Taylor, as well as the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, although on this occasion I was reminded of nothing so much as the fabulous dances conceived by the underrated Irish choreographer Norman Maen for the magnificent film by Jacques Demy, The Young Girls of Rochefort, also released in 1967.
 
The dazzling opening recapitulates the album’s immortal title track followed by a hilarious episode recreating its celebrated cover. The beautiful “With a Little Help from My Friends” was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon for Ringo Starr who was never more memorable. McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” was cleverly arranged as an instrumental. George Harrison’s contribution, the exotic “Within You Without You” struck a more serious note amidst the ebullient proceedings.
 
McCartney’s brilliant, nostalgic “Penny Lane” was originally released as a single (along with Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”) and was first intended for the album but instead appeared on the subsequent Magical Mystery Tour. Morris wittily inverted the order of the two concluding tracks, with the haunting “A Day in the Life”—quirkily arranged here replete with an unexpected theremin—preceding the glorious reprise of the title track, which was the accompaniment to an exhilarating finale. I hope that this exquisite opus will receive the abundant exposure and acclaim that it deserves.

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