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Blu-rays of the Week
War and Peace
Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive four-part film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling novel about Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s invading army in 1812 has attained mythic status by virtue of being seven hours long: but its sweeping vistas, stunning cinematography, flawless performances—led by the gifted Ludmila Savelyeva’s lovely heroine Natasha—and narrative clarity are the real reasons it’s a true classic.
Criterion’s two-disc set contains a sumptuous new hi-def restoration, two parts on each disc; extras are new interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky and Fedor Bondarchuk, filmmaking son of Sergei Bondarchuk; two 1966 making-of featurettes; 1967 TV profile of Savelyeva; and interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood about the film’s cultural and historical contexts.
Samuel Barber’s volcanically romantic opera—with a distinctively Hitchockian atmosphere of lost and new loves—has some of the composer’s most achingly melodic music, perfectly encapsulating how the women at the opera’s center (Vanessa, her niece Erika and the Old Baroness) react to the men in (and out of) their lives.
Keith Warner’s superb 2018 Glyndebourne, England production is buoyed by Jakub Hrůša’s precise conducting of the London Philharmonic, and further illuminated by the emotionally riveting performances by Emma Bell (Vanessa), Virginie Verrez (Erika) and Rosalind Plowright (Old Baroness). There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Das Wunder der Heliane/The Wonder of Heliane
Erich Korngold’s fantastical opera—which gets a rare staging at Bard Summerscape a couple hours north of Manhattan at the end of July—is filled with extraordinary music and absorbing if diffuse drama.
Christof Loy’s 2018 Berlin staging highlights Korngold’s dazzling dramaturgy and musical ambition, and has a phenomenal heroine in American soprano Sara Jakubiak, unafraid to take Korngold at his word and appear nude for the end of the first act. This fearless performer and magnificent singer holds together an opera that threatens to become unwieldy in its final act. Hi-def video and audio are impeccable; lone extra is a rare 1928 recording of the third act prelude.
DVDs of the Week
This 1958 adaptation of the hit stage musical has dated badly, especially in the cheeky but toothless humor of the devil needing a sexpot to keep his baseball protégé in line.
Ray Walston is hammily unfunny as Mr. Applegate (i.e., the devil), while Gwen Vernon only shines in her—too infrequent—song-and-dance numbers, the best a goofy mambo with choreographer (and soon-to-be husband) Bob Fosse. Otherwise, directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s concoction may disappoint fans of both baseball and musicals. Still, this deserves a vibrant new hi-def transfer on Blu-ray.
Few actresses are as emotionally forthright as Anna Friel, and she lets it all hang out as Marcella Backland, a detective whose life is in a shambles, both personally and professionally.
It’s too bad, then, that the storylines cooked up to accompany her fragile mental state often approach risibility instead of plausibility, making a mockery of the character and the superlative actress playing her.
Marine Francen’s beautifully written, directed and photographed drama (based on a true story) set in the mid-19th century French countryside follows female villagers who, after the local men have been rounded up by the authorities, decide to share the next one who arrives: when this handsome stranger falls for the shy and unassuming Violette, it threatens to erode the women’s close relationships.
This exquisitely crafted exploration of sexual dynamics, tension and jealousy leads to a low-key but heartbreaking ending devoid of sentiment. Francen’s use of the near-square Academy framing adds a heightened claustrophobia to the proceedings, and her lead actress, Pauline Burlet, is a winning presence. Lone extra is Francen’s short, Les Voisins.
CDs of the Week
I called Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů among our most underrated when I reviewed a two-disc set of his violin and orchestra music earlier this year. Now we have two more excellent Martinů recordings. Czech cellist Petr Nouzovský teams with Swiss pianist Gérard Wyss for estimable readings of Martinů’s three sonatas for cello and piano, formidable works that should be more widely known.
Although Martinů was a prolific opera composer, his other vocal works are obscure, so this disc of his songs based on folk melodies is a welcome addition. Performed with delicacy by a Czech trio—soprano Martina Janková, baritone Tomáš Král, pianist Ivo Kahánek—these four song cycles show a tender side of this most talented composer.
La vie de Jesus
French director Bruno Dumont has made alternately hypnotic and infuriating dramas about individuals approaching states of grace in their singular ways; in that sense, he’s a legitimate successor to Robert Bresson. But Dumont’s best film remains his first, this 1997 study of an epileptic young man in a rough-hewn seaside town in northern France, where Dumont himself grew up.
The director has found the perfect locales in which to play out his dissection of spiritual malaise, and his amateur cast—led by one David Douche as the alternate brutal and gentle hero of sorts—responds with astonishing realism. The film’s gritty cinematography by Philippe Van Leeuw looks especially potent in hi-def; extras include Dumont interviews from 1997, 2014 and 2019.
Between the Lines
(Cohen Film Collection)
Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 comedy drama about the messy professional and private lives of young journalists at a Boston alternative weekly has attained a certain cache thanks to an estimable cast of then-unknowns who did better work elsewhere: Lindsay Crouse, John Heard, Jill Eickenberry, Jeff Goldblum, Bruno Kirby and Marilu Henner.
Though at times insightful, the film lurches from episode to episode too disjointedly. There’s also the late, lamented Gwen Welles, an actress who died far too young at 42 in 1993. The new hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a new Silver interview.
Heroes Shed No Tears
(Film Movement Classics)
This early John Woo shoot-em-up, set on the Vietnam-Laos border, follows a mercenary soldier whose wife and young son’s lives are in peril when he crosses a sadistic colonel.
There’s non-stop action and blood-letting—most of it implausible, and when the mercenary’s son evades a raging inferno, downright risible—but the 88 minutes fly by, which has always been Woo’s forte. The hi-def transfer looks terrific; extras include a new interview with the movie’s star, Eddy Ko.
None but the Brave
In novice director and star Frank Sinatra’s hands, this 1965 WWII drama—about what happens after American marines crash-land on a remote Pacific island inhabited by a platoon of Japanese soldiers—wavers uneasily between psychological study and “can we just get along” liberal pieties.
Director Sinatra, who plays the Americans’ drunken doctor, is unable to avoid a mire of clichés throughout, making this an honorable failure that nevertheless anticipated Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima by nearly four decades. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.
DVDs of the Week
Degas—Passion for Perfection
French artist Edgar Degas kept his distance from his impressionist cohorts, going his own way in the paintings and sculptures of racehorses and ballet dancers for which he is best known.
This 90-minute documentary, in conjunction with a traveling exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, is a fine overview of the artist’s background and artistry, and doesn’t sugarcoat his virulent anti-Semitism, which reached its apex during the sordid Dreyfus affair. Extras are additional interviews and a glimpse at the museum.
Sara Stein—From Berlin to Tel Aviv
Matthias Tiefenbacher’s exciting four-film 2015 mini-series follows a secular Jewish detective whose investigation of a Berlin murder case propels her on a journey to Tel Aviv, where she begins a new life colored by her religion—and her decision to become a detective in Israel.
These refreshingly sharp procedurals are highlighted by the always on-target portrayal of Stein by German actress Katharina Lorenz. Four 90-minute episodes are included on two discs.
CD of the Week
Tchaikovsky—Complete Works for Solo Piano
Valentina Lisitsa has given herself a monumental task by performing all of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s solo works for piano—10 CDs worth, over 11 hours of music—but she succeeds brilliantly. Although Tchaikovsky’s music has been criticized as being too flashy, too flagrantly sentimental, it is technically impressive and anything but mechanical.
Lisitsa’s flawless playing follows suit, finding the joyful musicality in the two sonatas and the innate playfulness in his Children’s Album. Then there are the fiendish technical challenges of the solo-piano versions of The Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture, which she masters with hair-raising ease.
June 14-26, 2019
Italian director Ermanno Olmi
A masterly artist who specialized in dramatizing undramatic lives, Italian director Ermanno Olmi—who died last year at age 86—made psychologically acute character studies that are as close as fictional films have come to showing real life in all its complexity and ordinariness. The director himself said it all: “The cinema is life and life is the cinema for me.”
Film at Lincoln Center’s current retrospective—some of his films, rarely seen in this country, are being shown in 35mm prints courtesy of the Instituto Luce Cinecitta in Italy—should, I hope, bring about a reappraisal of the extraordinary work Olmi created, even after his critical and commercial peak, 1978’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, after which the director almost completely disappeared from our screens.
Born in 1931 in Bergamo, in northern Italy’s Lombardy region northeast of Milan, Olmi began making short films in the early 1950s for Milanese electric company Edisonvolta. In 1958 the company commissioned him to make a short about a hydroelectric dam in the mountains; he instead returned with his first feature, 1958’s Time Stood Still, whose protagonists are embodied with simple authenticity by the first of many amateurs Olmi used to enact fictional events similar to those in their own lives.
Olmi's 1961 classic Il Posto, starring his wife Loredana Detto
Olmi’s imposing body of work is highlighted by his early masterpieces Il Posto (1961) and The Fiancés (1963), both of which follow quotidian existence with an eloquence that speaks directly to the heart. Olmi entirely avoided artifice and affectation in his films, preferring to concentrate on the intense emotions of his characters as they attempt to maintain their dignity in their struggles to survive. That even goes for the capitalist at the center of the 1968 classic One Fine Day, who finds his world forever altered after a pair of events threaten to boost him professionally and ruin him personally. Olmi’s gracious and sympathetic study is punctuated by his visually arresting snapshots into the troubled man’s mind.
Then there are the Catholic director’s more overtly religious films, like A Man Named John (1965), a singular biopic about Pope John XXIII; Cammina, Cammina (Walking, Walking, 1983), a recreation of the story of the Magi; and Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994), a visualization of events in the first book of the Bible. These transcend their narrow structures to become triumphant paeans to the goodness of man and his co-existence with nature, artfully displayed by Olmi’s earthy imagery.
Olmi's 2001 study of warfare, The Profession of Arms
Two of Olmi’s greatest late-period films consider the insanity of war. The Profession of Arms (2001), a biography of the 16th century military man Giovanni de’ Medici, was photographed in a procession of indelible images by Olmi’s son, Fabio Olmi. Olmi’s final film., 2014’s Greenery Will Bloom Again, is a spare, humane meditation on warfare, embodied in shivering soldiers caught up in the machinery that made World War I such a protracted and horrific bloodbath.
In Olmi’s films, it’s the precisely etched faces—expressive, inscrutable and hauntingly human—that viewers will remember. There is the young man in Il Posto, visibly heartsick when the girl he adores is among a new crowd; the lovers in The Fiancés realizing their bond can remain strong, even while separated; and the alcoholic hero of the elegant, dream-like fable The Legend of the Holy Drinker, at last finding spiritual redemption (a role wonderfully played by Rutger Hauer in a rare instance of Olmi casting a name actor).
A poet of the commonplace, Ermanno Olmi—as this retrospective makes clear—made films that are anything but.
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY
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