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Blu-rays of the Week
Shakespeare—The Roman Plays
This boxed set collects recent Royal Shakespeare Company stagings of four Bard tragedies at Stratford-upon-Avon. Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant works, gets a decent modern-dress production by director Angus Jackson, with a stentorian Sope Dirisu in the title role. Titus Andronicus, maybe his worst play, provides a visceral jolt in Blanche McIntyre’s 2017 modern-dress production, with Hannah Morrish keeping her dignity as the unfortunate Lavinia and David Troughton making a stentorian Titus.
Julius Caesar, one of his most potent tragedies, is given a compelling staging by director Jackson, with strong acting by Andrew Woodall (Caesar), Alex Waldmann (Brutus), James Corrigan (Marc Antony) and Morrish, whose Portia more than holds her own. And Antony and Cleopatra, one of his most complex, least-produced plays, is given an accomplished staging by Iqbal Khan, with a lackadaisical Antony Byrne as Antony but a lively Josette Simon as Cleopatra. On all discs, hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are commentaries, interviews and a featurette.
Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96), a German-Jewish composer whose music was banned by the Nazis, has been triumphantly rediscovered, and this opera—composed in 1949-50—is a prime example of his accessible but provocative style. Goldschmidt’s splendidly paced account of a young 17th century Italian woman condemned to death with her mother for poisoning her brutally deranged father is filled with melodious and dramatic music worthy of Puccini.
Last summer’s Bergenz, Italy, staging, by director Johannes Erath, unfortunately wallows in grotesque visuals—especially egregious in close-up—that make it more like a freak show than an absorbing tragedy. Still, it’s beautifully performed by a committed cast and orchestra, and the hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob
(Film Movement Classics)
Gerard Oury’s dizzying 1974 comedy was a big hit in France and abroad, but its claim to fame is that it’s so broad, so banal, and so basic in its humor—a bigot and his Arab captor disguise themselves as rabbis to elude assassins and the police—that it’s unsurprising that, watching it now, one wonders what the fuss is about.
There’s certainly much energy to it, starting out in Manhattan and moving to Paris, and the cast is enjoyable in a frenetic way, but it plays out like a misfired Mel Brooks-early Woody Allen hybrid. The film looks good in hi-def; lone extra is an interview with co-writer Daniele Thompson.
Supergirl—Complete 4th Season
Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.
The fourth season of Supergirl explicitly mirrors what’s happening on the current political scene, as anti-alien sentiment swells in Gotham City and Kara, aka Supergirl (a charming Melissa Benoit), must attempt to win the war on two fronts: as a reporter using the press as a bulwark against fake news, and as a superhero—albeit an alien—battling the villains who have used the divisive atmosphere to make their attacks.
The season’s 22 episodes look striking on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes; an hour of highlights from 2018’s San Diego Comic-Con; featurettes; gag reel; and all three crossover episodes of Elseworlds.
4K/UHD of the Week
As a bloodsucker flick, 2009’s Daybreakers tries something different: in a world inhabited by vampires, humans are the outcasts. But this clever conceit can’t sustain an entire movie, which goes haywire long before its predictable ending. Juicy performances, topped by Willem Dafoe’s strangely resonant resistance fighter and Sam Neill and Ethan Hawke as very different kinds of vampires, help.
So do the diverting visuals of the Spierig brothers’ direction, which are miraculously recreated by the 4K transfer, which is simply outstanding. Extras include a comprehensive two-hour making-of documentary and a short film by the brothers, The Big Picture.
DVD of the Week
The Good Fight—Complete 3rd Season
The third season—coming on the heels of last season’s insanely world-shattering developments—finds lawyer Diane Lockhart setting her sights on an even bigger criminal: Donald tRump. The series makes no bones about itching for a fight with the incompetent chief executive, and if it’s at times too didactic even for those who agree with the political sentiments, a stellar cast—led by the peerless Christine Baranski, of course, but also starring Cash Jumbo, Delroy Lindo, Audra McDonald, Michael Sheen, Gina Gershon and Jane Curtin—keeps one’s attention riveted throughout the 10 episodes.
Extras comprise a gag reel, deleted scenes, and the first episode of the series Star Trek—Discovery.
CDs of the Week
Respighi—Piano Music, Volume 1
Two 20th century masters known for their voluptuous orchestral works—Italian Ottorino Respighi and Pole Karol Szymanowski—displayed their versatility and eclecticism with music in other genres, including solo piano works. Two new discs show off the composers’ rigor and craft at the keyboard, starting with Respighi’s early piano works on Toccata Classics, including a sonata and Three Preludes on Gregorian Melodies, both anything but apprentice works and played with alternating strength and restraint by Giovanna Gatto.
Szymanowski filled even his solo music with ecstatic exoticism, which his two sets of Etudes demonstrate on a new Naxos disc, along with his sublime Masques, a three-movement sonata in all but name. Andrea Vivanet displays his affinity for these formidable pieces, and one works looks forward to more volumes by both pianists.
Fists in the Pocket
Marco Bellocchio’s remarkable and shocking 1965 debut is a fascinatingly repellent study of one of the most dysfunctional families ever presented onscreen. Lou Castel, who chillingly plays the epileptic son of a blind mother whom he loathes, and younger brother to an attractive sister, with whom he carries on an unconsummated, incestuous affair, leads the superb cast. Bellocchio makes the persuasive case that commitment to an ideal, even one as loathsomely anti-social as this young man has chosen, is preferable to sitting idly by.
Bellocchio has returned to that leftist theme and its endless variations of obsessive love affairs or relationships based on the abuse of power, and 50-plus years later is still Italy’s most fearless filmmaker. There’s a new hi-def transfer that makes piercingly clear the shades of gray in this B&W film; extras are 2005 interviews with Bellocchio, Castel, actress Paola Pitagora, editor Silvano Agosti, critic Tullio Kezich, and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, and a new interview with scholar Stefano Albertini.
“Insane” is too mild a description of this standalone sequel to The Woman about a wild young woman taken to a priest- and nun-run home to be “civilized” after a hospital stint; but when her equally batty, knife-wielding mother shows up, all bets are off.
Director-writer Pollyanna McIntosh, who appears as Mom in this demented if tidy horror entry, has conjured a finale in church that must be seen to be (dis)believed. Lauryn Canny gives a committed performance in the title role. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras are deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
Echo in the Canyon
Bob Dylan’s son Jakob—of Wallflowers semi-fame—made this intriguing if frustrating documentary revisiting Southern California’s mid-‘60s music scene by showing its relevance today: we see Jakob, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones and Moby record and perform the era’s songs in a tribute concert.
The problem is cutting back and forth between occasionally insightful interviews with Michelle Phillips, Crosby, Stills & Nash—Neil Young is quiet but plays a soaring guitar solo in the studio over the end credits—Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and Ringo Starr and Jakob, et al, singing these touchstone tunes, limiting the scope. Either give us a concert film or a documentary. The Blu-ray’s problem—sound and video are first-rate, of course—is that there are no extras, no additional songs from the concert or additional interviews (it would have been nice to hear what else Petty—in his final recorded interview—had to say).
Bette Davis chews the screen spectacularly in an Oscar-winning performance that dominates William Wyler’s melodramatic 1938 gothic romance as a headstrong Southern belle who vows revenge when her beau returns with a new wife after a year away. Jimmy Stewart is fairly stolid as her man, but Wyler is more interested in Davis’ tantrums anyway; there’s also a pretty grim sequence of yellow fever striking down a southern town, circa 1852.
Ernest Haller’s exquisite, Oscar-winning B&W photography looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras are historian Jeanne Berlinger’s commentary, retrospective featurette, and vintage musical short and cartoon.
Supernatural—Complete 14th Season
In what may be this long-running series’ craziest plot line yet, archangel Michael takes possession of Dean—who, along with his brother Sam, has been fighting supernatural beings and other monsters throughout the series’ entire run—which causes even more havoc, culminating with a vengeful God declaring the destruction of the world.
Despite the ludicrousness of the premise, there’s always been a tongue-in-cheek aspect that keeps it from completely cratering. It all look sumptuous on Blu; extras include Supernatural Homecoming: Exploring Episode 300; The Winchester Mythology: The Choices We Make; Supernatural: 2018 Comic-Con Panel; commentaries; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
Montessori—Let the Child Be the Guide
In this beautifully photographed documentary, French father and filmmaker Alexandre Mourot—whose young daughter is enrolled in a local Montessori school—spends more than a year following children’s interactions in a Montessori classroom in order to dramatize founder Maria Montessori’s dictum, immortalized in this film’s title.
By showing these little students working and playing together without adult interference—which allows them to develop at their own pace, another Montessori motto—Mourot’s sublime film is revelatory about the world of children.
CD of the Week
Anne-Sophie Mutter/John Williams—Across the Stars
This delightful disc of several John Williams film themes—several iconic, others less familiar—is performed by superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, with Williams himself providing sensitive accompaniment leading the Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles. Highlights are Mutter’s lovely renditions of “Nice to Be Around” from Cinderella Liberty (a 1973 romance with Marsha Mason and James Caan) and the theme from the 1995 remake of Sabrina (with Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford).
There are themes from Star Wars movies and Harry Potter, of course; more surprising is that only two Spielberg collaborations are here: The Adventures of Tintin (!) and Schindler’s List, whose sadly emotive theme Mutter plays with impassioned lyricism.
Written by Harold Pinter; directed by Jamie Lloyd
Performances through December 8, 2019
Harold Pinter’s Betrayal charts the fallout of an affair between Jerry, a literary agent, and Emma, a gallery owner; Emma is married to Robert, a book publisher and Jerry’s best friend. Pinter’s gimmick is to start with the end: Jerry and Emma meet for a drink a couple of years after their liaison has finished, followed by Jerry and Robert discussing Emma’s assertion that she confessed the affair to Robert the previous evening. Robert says that’s wrong: she admitted it four years ago.
Betrayal then proceeds to dissect the relationships of Jerry, Emma and Robert (Jerry’s wife Judith has been conveniently omitted) as a trio and as two couples. But, as Pinter shows in the opening scenes, not everything said can be taken at face value: things are misremembered or lied about.
It’s too bad that Pinter doesn’t do much with either his reverse-chronology or the intriguing theme of the fallibility (or willful denial) of memory. Instead, Pinter treats his own characters rather contemptuously. Although they spend their time talking about novels and poetry (Yeats most obviously and, after several mentions, eye-rollingly), they are not real artists but only peripheral to them as agent, gallery owner and publisher. There’s even a supremely cynical moment where Pinter has Robert admit to Jerry at a wine-soaked lunch that he hates modern novels, even though it’s his financial bread and butter.
Pinter takes every opportunity to ridicule his characters, and the audience, armed with the knowledge of what’s to come, chortles smugly each time something happens that the threesome doesn’t know about. With such cheap tricks, Pinter is in effect canceling out his own work. Although he’d never be accused of sentiment—indeed, nastiness and cynicism pervade much of his oeuvre—the scene in Betrayal which we are waiting for (when Robert discovers Emma’s infidelities long before Jerry thought he did) is quite effective in Jamie Lloyd’s savvy staging, especially as enacted with sorrowful sympathy by Tom Hiddleston (Robert) and Zawe Ashton (Emma). (The most recent Broadway production, despite the star power of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, flubbed this and many other scenes.)
Those moments between the married couple—highlighted, at the performance I attended, by very real spittle draining from Hiddleston’s nose—are rare in Pinter’s oeuvre, since they make us feel for them, and that surprising tenderness makes what happens before and after less genuine.
Although he does not overdo the infamous Pinter pauses, Lloyd’s direction relies on Pinterish gimmicks. Some work quite handily, like having whoever is not in a scene to hover in the background of Soutra Gilmour’s starkly bare set. However, that is turned on its head dramatically in one scene as Hiddleston’s Robert is sitting in a chair as Charlie Cox’s Jerry and Ashton’s Emma get intimate near him. While this device has been done to death, Lloyd shrewdly uses it to hammer home the point that, in an affair, even when only two people are present, the third is, as it were, also there. (But, again, why is Judith left out? Most likely because a ménage à quatre is more unwieldy to dramatize than a ménage à trois.)
Another overused device, the stage turntable, helps to, throughout the intermissionless play’s 90-minute running time, slowly shift both the characters’ places in relation to one another and, by extension, their (and our) perspectives, with the helpful assistance, to be sure, of Jon Clark’s magisterial lighting.
Would that the unnecessary appearance of Emma and Robert’s young daughter, Charlotte, added something to what is, in the end (or the beginning), an attenuated and superficial drama. Despite all that, Hiddleston incisively depicts Robert’s fatuousness and Cox precisely portrays how Jerry is torn between his best friend and said friend’s wife, while a forceful Ashton makes Emma far more complex than Pinter’s script wants her to be.
Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice
As in most of his films, family disappointments are explored in this achingly exquisite 1952 drama by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63). As a marriage slowly but painfully ends, Ozu—with always estimable tact—spins gold out of what in lesser hands would be mere soap opera, and his formidable cast might even raise the heartbreak level even more.
Criterion’s hi-def transfer brings out the nuances in the finely-detailed B&W photography; extras are Ozu’s 1937 feature, What Did the Lady Forget?; scholar David Bordwell interview; and Daniel Raim’s new documentary, Ozu & Noda: Tateshina Diaries, on Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda’s collaboration.
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs
(Cohen Film Collection)
Bertrand Blier won the Oscar for 1978’s Best Foreign Film for this supposed satire, an aimless, coarse exploration of a frigid wife who can’t respond sexually to either her husband or the stud he brings on board—but a callow teenager does the trick.
Despite winning performances by Gerard Depardieu (husband), Carole Laure (wife) and Patrick Dewaere (stud), Blier’s attempt to shock the middle-class audiences out of their complacency—something he did to diminishing returns throughout his career—fails completely. There’s a fine new hi-def transfer; lone extra is an introduction by scholar Richard Pena.
Into the Badlands—Complete 3rd Season
In the final season of this series about a post-apocalyptic civilization that has grown up in the gorgeously barren stretch of the eponymous Dakotas area—an admittedly spectacular backdrop—factions have brought war back, threatening to upend the precarious peace of the entire region.
The impressive martial-arts sequences notwithstanding, the series lurches from one mundane dramatic setup to another, finally arriving at an unsatisfying ending. The hi-def transfer is eye-popping, to say the least.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
An intensely personal collaboration between writer-director Joe Talbot and star Jimmy Fails, this stirring if occasionally didactic study follows Fails, a young man moving in to what he thinks is his own grandfather’s house in an historic San Francisco neighborhood, only to find that very little—even his relationships—is what it seems.
There’s a lot to admire about this labor of love, but the excessive length dissipates some of its strengths by film’s end. It is all beautifully done, however. There’s a transfixing hi-def transfer; extras are a commentary and making-of.
The latest scientific discoveries about the solar system make up this engrossing multi-part Nova series that explores the origins and makeup of celestial bodies from Mercury to Pluto (no longer considered a planet, by the way).
As learned talking heads discuss the illuminating journeys of the space probes Voyager and New Horizons, the series’ exacting and detailed visualizations of the planets, asteroids, moons, etc. in orbit present a thorough if necessarily incomplete portrait of our little slice of the universe. The hi-def transfer is terrific.
Soundgarden—Live from the Artists’ Den
This 2013 PBS concert recording—never before released at its full 2 1/2-hour length—makes the case (if one was still needed) that Soundgarden was one of the best live bands on the planet: the pummeling rhythm section of drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd anchored the whiplash and original guitar stylings of Kim Thayil and one of the most distinctive and powerful voices in rock, Chris Cornell (RIP).
Along with several hard-hitting songs from its excellent then-new (and, unfortunately, final) album King Animal, the band blasts through some of its greatest tunes, from “Fell on Black Days” to “Black Hole Sun.” Hi-def audio and video are first-rate; extras are interviews with all four band members.
Nicolas Roeg made this typically unsubtle 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel about a coven of witches turning two boys into mice; helping greatly is Jim Henson’s creature shop, is the real star here: amid much mugging and grimacing by the cast (led by Angelica Huston, Brenda Blethyn, Bill Patterson, Mai Zetterling), the mice are wonderfully anthropomorphic and the witches’ transformations are simultaneously funny and scary.
Like many Roeg films, it’s a mess, but there’s a welcome playfulness behind the usual nastiness. The Blu-ray has a sumptuous hi-def transfer.
DVDs of the Week
The Other Side of Everything
Serbian director Mila Turajlić’s wry, revealing documentary centers around her mother, Srbijanka, an archivist-scholar-opponent of Slobodan Milošević’s oppressive post-Communist regime.
Srbijanka grew up in a home where her family was forced by the government to let strangers live in a couple of rooms: the apartment’s locked doors separating them from these tenants function as a metaphor for life in Serbia during several fractured decades, and Turajlić shines a necessary light on a tangled and traumatizing history.
Young Picasso—Exhibition on Screen
(Seventh Art Productions)
This informative 90-minute overview of Picasso’s early career follows the artist from his hometown of Malaga, Spain, to Barcelona, where he set up shop for a few of his late-teen years; and Paris, where he began to be noticed in the early 1900s as a precocious talent of budding genius.
Conveniently, all three cities have a Picasso Museum, from which many of the paintings displayed in the film come, and the various gallery curators contribute pithy commentary.
CD of the Week
Natasha Paremski—Mussorgsky and Hersch
(Steinway & Sons)
One of today’s most dazzling pianists, Natasha Paremski returns with another superb recording, this time a solo recital. First, she breathes magnificent new life into Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a Russian warhorse if there ever was one. Her nimble playing makes us hear even the most familiar passages as if for the first time.
But Paremski can also make a new work—in this case, Fred Hersch’s virtuosic Tchaikovsky Variations, composed expressly for her—sound instantly, and intimately, familiar. Her ability to effortlessly juxtapose sensitive and fierce playing is a hallmark of her greatness at the keyboard.
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