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October '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

At War 

(Cinema Libre)

Stéphane Brizé reunites with Vincent Lindon for another forcefully argued exploration of the French working class, with Lindon as one of the leaders of a striking workforce at a factory (with German owners) trying to remain afloat in difficult times.




Brizé sets up some astonishing one-take sequences in which the workers and owners do verbal battle—and these segments have a documentary-like authenticity that is unfortunately undermined by the film’s melodramatically tragic ending. Still, with the always persuasive Lindon front and center, the film is never less than fascinating to watch. The film looks superb on Blu.


Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman)

Orphée et Eurydice 


Olivier Py’s abstract 2015 Vienna staging of Wagner’s earliest mature opera The Flying Dutchman juggles the original libretto rather than sabotaging it; also impressive are the leads, Samuel Youn as the Dutchman and Ingela Brimberg as Senta, the woman who tragically loves him. Marc Minkowski conducts his own period-instrument Musiciens du Louvre in a most persuasive performance.




Similarly, Aurélien Bory’s visually stunning production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (at Paris’ Opéra-Comique last year) beautifully complements the tragic music—elegantly arranged by Hector Berlioz—and story, enacted by a trio of formidable performers: Marianne Crebassa as Orphee, Hélène Guilmette as Eurydice and Lea Desandre’s Amour. Both operas’ hi-def video and audio are exemplary.







My Son 

(Cohen Media)

A desperate father looks for his missing son in Christian Carion’s occasionally enervating but mostly entertaining thriller, in which the writer-director’s conceit was to not allow his lead actor Guillaume Canet to read the script his reactions to the twists and turns of the labyrinthine plot are real.




It works, to an extent—but the film’s thinness is underscored by the wildly implausible finale, in which all of the intriguing subplots are forgotten to turn our protagonist into a superhero a la Liam Neeson in Taken. The film looks great on Blu; extras include an hour-long making-of and a short featurette.



(Cohen Film Collection)

James Ivory’s 1981 costume drama, which looks ravishing like all Merchant-Ivory productions, has an accomplished cast to keep us engrossed in this familiar story of decadence and disloyalty in 1920s golden age Paris. Alan Bates and Maggie Smith are excellent as a middle-aged British couple living it up in Paris, and Isabelle Adjani is sensational as a young wife who comes to them—and becomes the man’s lover—after her Polish husband (a fine Anthony Higgins) is imprisoned.




Adjani’s sorrowful countenance as a woman teetering on the edge of sanity is the rightful focus of this somber adaptation of a Jean Rhys novel. The hi-def transfer is sharp and grainy; featurettes include several Ivory interviews.


CD of the Week 

Pascal Dusapin—Penthesilea 


Heinrich Kleist’s classic verse play, about the Amazon queen whose romance with victorious Greek general Achilles ends in an orgy of gore-filled violence, was once turned into a sweepingly dramatic opera by Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck in 1927. So this new work by French composer Pascal Dusapin—which premiered in 2015 in Brussels—has a lot to prove.




But Dusapin realizes the coruscating tragedy in the material and has composed a subtle and expressionistic score that makes for 90 minutes of edge-of-your-seat theater. The performance itself, led by the extraordinarily compelling soprano Natascha Petrinsky in the title role, makes a good case for Dusapin’s opera gaining a foothold onstage, unlike Schoeck’s 1927 version, which has had a few recordings but is rarely seen live.

The Cleveland Orchestra & an Evening of Classics at Carnegie Hall

Franz Welser-Möst with the Cleveland Orchestra Photo ©2019 Chris Lee.
A new season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall began auspiciously on the evening of Friday, October 4th, with the appearance of the extraordinary musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra, under the superb direction of Franz Welser-Möst, one of the finest contemporary conductors. The ensemble had performed at the gala concert on the previous night, featuring the celebrated virtuosi: violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, cellist Lynn Harrell, and pianist Yefim Bronfman.
The first half of the program was devoted to the Carnegie Hall premiere of a recent piano concerto, Trauermarsch, by the prominent contemporary Jörg Widmann—who has had a long association with the Cleveland Orchestra—with Bronfman as soloist, for whom the work was written. The piece was originally conceived as a conventional concerto with a funeral march as the opening movement but in writing that section, the composer eventually developed it to comprise the entire work. Even so, the concerto has a surprisingly variegated texture and is characterized by impressive orchestrations, although I am not competent to judge the ultimate merits of a work in this idiom.
The remainder of the evening consisted of a compelling account of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which opened arrestingly with the majestic funeral march movement. More turbulent and more grandiloquent, if also more eccentric, was the adventurous second movement, while the ensuing Scherzo was even more wild. The incomparable Adagietto was as haunting as ever and Welser-Möst led the musicians to an exhilarating climax in the finale.
The artists received an exceedingly enthusiastic ovation with the conductor returning to the stage multiple times. I look forward to their return to this venue.

October '19 Digital Week II

4K/UHD of the Week 

Pan’s Labyrinth 

(Warner Bros)

In Guillermo del Toro’s labored parable of Spanish rule under Franco, a young girl—who may be the reincarnation of an underworld princess—escapes into a fantasy world after her mother marries one of the dictator’s most reliable generals.




Del Toro does, as always, show a staggeringly imaginative visual sense (which the impressive photography and special effects contribute mightily to), but this two-hour fable becomes more enervating as it goes along, even wasting two splendid Spanish actresses: Maribel Verdu as the rebel housekeeper and Ariadna Gil, who suffers nobly as the girl’s mother. The new 4K transfer looks unsurprisingly sumptuous; extras include del Toro’s commentary and video prologue and hours of materials in featurettes. 


Blu-rays of the Week

Annabelle Comes Home 

(Warner Bros)

This strange little horror entry continues the tale of the possessed doll that, for some insane reason (to make this movie, I guess), the investigators who have her put it in their home’s heavily-fortified artifacts room. Of course, when they go away, leaving their young daughter with her teenage babysitter, the doll’s presence awakens the other evil spirits to create some havoc.




There are a few decent eerie moments—mainly early on—but the bulk of the movie musters little energy or originality. There’s a crisp hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes.







Child’s Play 


Here’s a reboot I don’t think anyone was pining for: Chuckie, the doll who programs itself to kill, returns in a brand spanking and shiny new box, and what the movie lacks in originality it partly makes up for in a few bizarrely executed murders, including an unfortunate man being scalped and skinned or others being killed in a mall melee.




Of the two new doll horror flicks (see above) movies, this is preferable—but not by much. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras are featurettes and a making-of.


The Letter 

(Warner Archive)

In William Wyler’s tense 1940 melodrama about adultery and murder, Bette Davis chews the scenery spectacularly in her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Leslie Crosbie, who fatally shoots her lover and tells her husband (and lawyer) it was in self-defense because he forced himself on her.




W. Somerset Maugham’s solid stage play becomes a soapy but entertaining film, marred only by its era’s inability to allow more leeway in dealing with adult themes. The B&W images look vividly-realized in hi-def; extras comprise an alternate ending sequence and Lux Radio Theater adaptations starring Davis from 1941 and 1944.







Nekromantik 1 and 2 

(Cult Epics)

German director Jörg Buttgereit’s necrophiliac romances, from 1987 and 1991, are the very definition of cult films: made on a shoestring with glaring deficiencies in the filmmaking process, storyline and acting. But even though the infamously grotesque gore-filled sequences are nearly Ed Wood-level fake—the nasty and demented mind at work leads to a disgusting but perfect ending when our necrophiliac heroine decapitates her lover during sex and gets impregnated by a corpse.




Of course, most viewers’ mileage may vary: but if you’ve gotten this far, you’re admittedly intrigued. Even on Blu, the movies still retain their cheap look, but that’s to their ultimate benefit. The films are enclosed in a slipcase; extras include commentaries, music video and shorts, making-of featurettes and even a 2011 concert featuring the sequel’s star Monika M.


The Wedding Guest 


Writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s mediocre thriller about the kidnapping of a Pakistani bride-to-be by a British Muslim and their complicated relationship is one of this usually interesting filmmaker’s rare missteps.




Despite his premise, Winterbottom has made an action flick almost completely devoid of tension; instead, its travelogue ride through picturesque locales in Pakistan and India mitigate the convincing performances of Dev Patel and Radhika Apte as the kidnapper and his hostage. The film does look sharp on Blu.


DVD of the Week 

The Quiet One 


Oliver Murray’s documentary about Bill Wyman, former Rolling Stone who surprisingly retired from the band in 1993, lets the famously reserved bassist narrate the details of his eventful life himself.




Although there are, somewhat disappointingly, no earth-shattering revelations or insights—even his romance of and short-lived marriage to Mandy Smith (whom he met when he was 47 and she 13) is dealt with quickly, waved away by Wyman’s comment that it was all about the heart, not mere lust—the liberal use of Wyman’s amazing collection of archival video and audio make this a worthwhile trip through Stones-related history.

CD of the Week

Korngold—Orchestral Works 


Erich Korngold was a composing and performing prodigy who became one of the 20th century’s most versatile composers, from operas and chamber music to indelible scores for Hollywood films. This new disc also shows that he was an originator of ravishing orchestral colors and brilliant arrangements: his Symphony in F Sharp is about as skillful a 45-minute orchestral workout as one can write.




Even the disc’s so-called filler—Theme and Variations and Straussiana, a tribute to the waltz master Johann Strauss—is done with endlessly bubbly wit. John Wilson conducts a razor-sharp account of these works by the Sinfonia of London.

Broadway Play Review—Florian Zeller’s “The Height of the Storm”

The Height of the Storm 

Written by Florian Zeller; translated by Christopher Hampton; directed by Jonathan Kent

Performances through November 24, 2019


Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm (photo: Joan Marcus)


Devastating loss permeates Florian Zeller’s shallow memory play, The Height of the Storm, in which a long-married couple is shown in the last throes together. The mother, Madeleine, and father, André, now living in their former summer home outside of Paris, are seen together and each one of them alone. It’s a conceit that, on paper, allows for interesting ambiguities, but the unsubtle Zeller instead relies on platitudes and blatant effects to color his study of old age, dementia and death: rather than an affecting drama, the play remains curiously inert.


If that has to do with Christopher Hampton’s translation and Jonathan Kent’s direction, which keep the characters French even though the entire cast is British it’s impossible to say. But both of those add more layers of distance from these people, which further lessens the effect of an intimate chronicle about long-gestating emotional wreckage in a family weighed down by André’s notoriety (and infidelities) as a writer while Madeleine raised their now-grown daughters Anne and Élise, who have relationship problems of their own.


Zeller’s melodrama presents fragments of this couple’s alternate realities, while Kent’s fussy staging underlines the obvious point that sometimes Madeleine and other times André is not present. Of course, “not present” also means lacking mental capability, one sign of dementia, which is how André often appears, even while physically present. 


Such vacillation is less piercing than it might be; early on it already seems a mere gimmick rather than a salient way of displaying the ravages of dementia and old age. And despite a formidable cast—Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce are unimpeachable as Madeleine and André, with equal amounts of welcome humor to alleviate the tragic aspects, despite Pryce’s tendency to shout his lines—The Height of the Storm (whose heavyhanded title, from both a poem recited by André and a weather event that’s mentioned, is freighted with symbolic and actual weight) provokes neither tears nor empathy.

The Height of the Storm 

Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

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