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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 


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’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 


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 


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 


(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.




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.









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 


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 


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 


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

December '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 



Lorene Scafaria’s gritty drama about some financially shaky strippers who get together for even better scores—fleecing wealthy men while plying them with drink—might overstay its welcome, but it’s entertaining as long as one doesn’t think too long about their questionable ruse (that may be what Scafaria was aiming for, but it’s not that obvious).




Alongside an excellent Constance Wu is a sensational star turn by Jennifer Lopez (in her best performance since Selena and Out of Sight 20 years ago) and fine support from Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo and Mercedes Ruehl. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; lone extra is Scafaria’s commentary.


The Cotton Club Encore 


Francis Coppola’s roaring ’20s in Harlem epic remains a messy melodrama—even in this longer director’s cut—but seeing it 35 years later with the benefit of hindsight brings new appreciation for what does work: the dancing, singing and delightful performances of Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Geoffrey Hines and Lonette McKee, along with Richard Sylbert’s production design, Milena Canonero’s costumes and Stephen Goldblatt’s photography, all dazzling.




The film looks spectacular in hi-def; extras are a new Coppola intro and 20-minute Q&A from this version’s New York Film Festival screening.






Kurt Weill—Street Scene 

(BelAir Classiques)

Kurt Weill’s glorious Broadway musical-cum-opera, set in a Manhattan tenement, premiered in 1946 with songs (with lyrics by poet Langston Hughes) and drama (based on Elmer Rice’s play) as relevant now as they were nearly 75 years ago.




John Fulljames’ splendid 2018 production at Madrid’s Teatro Real has a terrific singing cast led by Patricia Racette, Paulo Szot, Mary Bevan and Joel Prieto. Weill’s biting tunes sound pretty formidable as performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real de Madrid, and conducted by Tim Murray. Both hi-def video and audio are first-rate.




This earnestly amateurish Christian movie follows a basketball coach turned cross-country coach using unconventional means to train an asthmatic teenager from the wrong side of the tracks (in her first scene she steals headphones—then takes off like a shot to show her running bona fides).




This is the kind of movie that hits a fake climax every 20 minutes or so, and the acting—led by clumsy director Mark Kendrick, who woodenly plays the coach—is as risible as the script. The title should have been Overlong. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras are a commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes.






Silver Bullet 

(Scream Factory)

This 1985 Stephen King adaptation—from his novella Cycle of the Werewolf—is cheesy and corny (especially when it comes to the laughably bear-like werewolf, courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi) but director Daniel Battias smartly tells the story through the eyes of a young brother and sister, which saves it.




It’s a bumpy ride with some bad acting and subpar effects (the best moment has a pastor dreaming of parishioners transforming into werewolves during mass), but Corey Haim and Megan Follows are appealing youngsters and Gary Busey is amusingly off-kilter as their uncle. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras include an Attias commentary, isolated score selections and audio interview with composer Jay Chattaway, and new video interviews.


Tchaikovsky—Eugene Onegin 

(BelAir Classiques)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece (it’s far better than The Queen of Spades) has emotive music and graceful melodies galore and features juicy parts for star tenor and soprano as Onegin and Tatiana, Pushkin’s ultimate tragic lovers.




They’re played by the sublime Mariusz Kwiecien and Tatiana Monogarova in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s enjoyable 2008 Bolshoi production, which includes superb work by the Bolshoi orchestra under conductor Alexander Vedernikov. The hi-def video and audio look and sound quite impressive.






Tchaikovsky—The Nutcracker and Mouse King 

(Accentus Music)

The Nutcracker is the world’s most beloved holiday ballet, but this 2018 Ballett Zürich production by director/choreographer Christian Spuck tweaks it by returning to the original source, E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, to fill out the plot and characters in a less sugary manner.




These changes shouldn’t disturb any but the most perturbed purists, for the tuneful score remains, and the ballet is as enchanting as ever, led by Michelle Willems’ wonderful performance as a most beguiling Marie (i.e., Clara). There’s a first-class hi-def transfer.


CD of the Week

Rued Langgaard—Complete String Quartets 


Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) is barely known in this country aside from his opera Antichrist, but this 3-CD set comprising his complete string quartets, composed over a 36-year span, should help alleviate that situation.




Langgaard’s six numbered quartets as well as several other works (variations, an unnumbered early quartet, etc.) display a versatile instrumental facility and a range of moods from extreme serenity to slashing rage. Performing these fine works impeccably is the Nightingale String Quartet.

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