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4K/UHD of the Week
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY
Bard Summerscape/Bard Music Festival
Performances June 29-August 18, 2019
Laura Benanti at Caramoor
July 6, 2019
Lunchtime Concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields
June 4, 2019
Violinist Daniel Pioro at Wigmore Hall
June 2, 2019
Composer Erich Korngold
Now that fall is here, let’s backtrack to a summer of performances on both sides of the Atlantic. First, Bard Summerscape, Bard College’s annual summer arts festival on the bucolic shores of the Hudson River, two hours north of Manhattan, and the accompanying Bard Music Festival looked at Korngold and His World: the great Viennese composer Erich Korngold was best known for his fantastic film scores when he went to Hollywood during the golden era of the 1930s but, as artistic director Leon Botsein showed in his usual impeccable and provocative programming, Korngold and his music were so much more.
I caught two Korngold programs at Bard: a concert anchored by his orchestral music and a fully-staged production of his opera Das Wunder der Heliane, both conducted by Botstein and both equally accomplished and mesmerizing musically, if—in the opera’s case—less so dramatically. The orchestral concert, titled The Orchestral Imagination, was highlighted by Korngold’s dazzling piano concerto for the left hand, played with aplomb by stellar soloist Orion Weiss, even at times he and Botstein didn’t seem to be on the same musical page.
Also on the program were works by other underrated Viennese composers Franz Schreker (his Vom ewigen Leben comprises lovely settings of two Walt Whitman poems) and Alexander Zemlinsky, whose Lyric Symphony is a large-scale wonder. Botstein, despite bumpy patches, led the American Symphony Orchestra in a vivid reading of Zemlinsky’s masterpiece, with stellar vocal contributions by soprano Erica Petrocelli and baritone Michael J. Hawk. The same goes for the orchestra’s playing during Korngold’s Heliane, an opera filled with beautiful, memorable melodies but whose libretto—takes convolutedness to another level.
Korngold's opera Das Wunder der Heliane at Bard Summerscape (photo: Stephanie Berger)
If director Christian Räth’s visuals are too extreme—but which still let Thomas C. Hase’s magisterial lighting come to the fore—the orchestra, chorus and the leads, particularly Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte’s virtuoso Heliane, give the audience a chance to concentrate on Korngold’s music, among his very best.
Closer to Manhattan, the summer festival at Caramoor (in Katonah) comprises orchestral and chamber concerts, jazz performances and sundry other events, including the appearance of Broadway diva Laura Benanti—one of the Great White Way’s brightest lights—and her fabulous new show, Tales from the Soprano Isle.
Soprano Laura Benanti (photo: Jenny Anderson)
In addition to singing both Broadway standards and contemporary tunes, along with a marvelously delivered mini-suite of classics from My Fair Lady, in which she recently starred on Broadway, with her silvery, shimmery soprano, Benanti tells stories about her career and her life which now features her toddler daughter) with her singularly hilarious and pointed sarcasm. Accompanied by pianist Todd Almond, Benanti proves herself (once again) as a multi-threat hyphenate: singer-actor-comedian-storyteller extraordinaire.
The summer music season began early in June on a trip to London, which included terrific concerts at Wigmore Hall and the Church at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The latter hosted the formidable Kennedy Ensemble played Mendlessohn’s Octet in a fiery (and free!) performance that caught the playfulness and seriousness of purpose the 16-year-old composer corralled for one of his greatest works.
Violinist Daniel Pioro (photo: Hugh Carswell)
The storied and acoustically perfect Wigmore Hall was the setting for a superbly programmed recital by violinist Daniel Pioro. Opening with an exquisite version of Biber’s singular G Minor Passacaglia, Pioro was joined by pianist Roderick Chadwick for an arresting rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 and then, finally and most thrillingly, was a breathtaking arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ yearning The Lark Ascending for violin, piano, cello and viola by cellist Clare O’Connell (who joined the men and violist Charlotte Bonneton for the performance). Pioro’s passionate playing of Vaughan Williams' lovely violin line allowed us to hear this familiar but gorgeous piece anew.
Blu-rays of the Week
When this eight-hour miniseries premiered on NBC in 1978, it was a controversial event: could a sanitized reenactment show viewers the true horror of the holocaust? Well, it can, to an extent. Even though director Marvin J. Chomsky and writer/producer Gerald Green work within their era’s constraints, there’s still a powerful shock running through this melodrama about the travails of the Jewish Weiss family during Hitler’s murderous reign.
Helped by a top-notch cast—Fritz Weaver, Rosemary Harris, James Woods, Tovah Feldshuh and Meryl Streep as the Weisses and David Warner and Michael Moriarty as Nazis—Chomsky and Green bring out the immediacy and offhanded cruelty of those horrifying dozen years. The hi-def image looks impressive, even if the standard TV aspect ratio has been “converted” to widescreen.
When a car accident victim awakens in a hospital room without his memory, he finds himself accused of being a serial killer—so he kidnaps a sympathetic nurse and goes off on a journey to clear himself and discover his true identity.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers tries to invest this convoluted tale with gravity but isn’t able to transcend its utter familiarity; directors Alex Cher and Fedor Lyass (also the cinematographer) have made a stylish but empty drama. The film does look exceptionally good on Blu.
Doom Patrol—Complete 1st Season
Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.
In this bizarrely entertaining superhero origin story, a quartet of freaks and outcasts who have been transformed into a kind of “misfit toys” society of superheroes—Crazy Mary, Cliff Steele, Mr. Nobody and Elasti-Woman—join forces to have one another’s backs and fight injustice and evil.
There’s a welcome sense of tongue-in-cheek glee along with a mix of parody and true belief in the genre that makes it diverting throughout. Whether the series can keep up such a pace past a single season is a big question: but right now it’s good, unclean fun. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel.
My Favorite Year
Peter O’Toole got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his scenery-chewing performance in this mild 1982 comedy as a movie star and drunkard whose impending appearance on a 1950s comedy show (like Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows”) causes consternation among the staff when it’s problematic whether he’ll be sober enough to appear on live TV.
Richard Benjamin’s routine direction takes much of the hilarity out of an already familiar tale, as pros like Joe Bologna, Lainie Kazan and Bill Macy and then-newcomers Mark Linn-Baker and Jessica Harper do what they can to back up O’Toole. The hi-def transfer looks good; Benjamin’s commentary is the lone extra.
A Touch of Class
Melvin Frank’s romantic comedy about adultery was old-fashioned as soon as it was released in 1973; despite often groaningly obvious jokes and physical pratfalls, there’s an elegance and wit to the performances of the always underrated George Segal and Oscar-winning best actress (!) Glenda Jackson, which mitigates the movie’s essential shallowness.
That this also got a Best Picture and Best Screenplay nomination is surprising; equally surprising is that, though Jackson won, Segal was (as usual) shamefully ignored. There’s a clean, crisp hi-def transfer.
4K/UHD of the Week
Joe Dante’s 1984 fantasy/monster spoof made a lot of money and made audiences happy, but it remains, 35 years later, an unnecessarily crude succession of parodies, many of which are so specific to its era that they now make little sense and provide few laughs.
Dante has some fun finding new ways to kill off both humans and the creatures, but after awhile, it starts to pall; even such good sports as Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan and Harry Carey Jr. can’t save what’s an overlong mess of a movie. The UHD transfer is transfixing; a plethora of extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.
CD of the Week
Hans Werner Henze—The Raft of the Medusa
German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) often brought his leftist politics into his works, and his 1971 oratorio— titled after the classic 1819 painting by French artist Théodore Géricault and dedicated as a requiem for murdered Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera—is among his greatest meldings of the political and the musical. Henze set Medusa for a large orchestra, chorus, baritone and soprano soloists and a speaker, and Ernst Schnabel’s text vividly recounts the horrific events surrounding the few survivors of the shipwrecked French frigate, Medusa, in 1817: the crew was forced onto a makeshift raft and all but a handful of the 154 perished.
Henze’s score, alternating sorrow with anger, is given a dramatic reading by conductor Peter Eötvös, who impressively marshals the array of forces at his disposal: the SWR symphony orchestra, three choirs, soloists Camilla Nylund and Peter Schöne, and speaker Peter Stein
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