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May '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Les Girls 

(Warner Archive)

This clumsily executed 1957 musical comprising Cole Porter’s beguiling tunes recounts the friction among the partners in a famous cabaret act, with Gene Kelly doing his usual razzle-dazzle alongside his main ladies Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, who all are worthy of the praise Porter showers on them.




Too bad George Cukor’s curiously flatfooted direction keeps this from taking off like the best movie musicals of its era do. The colorful widescreen compositions look excitingly alive in hi-def; extras are an archival featurette hosted by Elg and a vintage cartoon.


The Insult 

(Cohen Media)

In Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s volatile Beirut-set feature, hurled insults between a local and a Palestinian laborer spiral into a national case that is judged in the media and the courtroom. Doueiri’s taut story raises the stakes between the two men at first, but then becomes more strident and contrived, so much so that its power is diminished.




Still, Doueiri’s formidably authentic actors lend the film the gravitas it needs. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is an informative 33-minute interview in which Doueiri discusses (in English) his film’s genesis.







Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame In Concert 

(Time Life)

This invaluable two-disc set for music fans collects the most recent quartet of Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies: 2014, 2016 and 2017 in Brooklyn and 2015 in Cleveland.




Not surprisingly, the highlights are many: 2014 features the remaining members of Nirvana with singers Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Lorde; 2015 brings a Ringo and Paul reunion for Starr’s belated solo induction; 2016 finally admits both Deep Purple and Cheap Trick; and 2017 does the same with both ELO and Yes (with Geddy Lee playing bass in place of the late, great Chris Squire). Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.


12 Strong 

(Warner Bros)

After the Sept. 11 attacks, an elite troop of U.S. Special Forces goes to Afghanistan to kick-start the War on Terror by (at first begrudgingly and later more willingly) teaming with the North Alliance to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda.




This straightforward and effective dramatization of the group’s heroics has been directed by the workmanlike Nicolai Fuglsig, and the heroes are enacted with true grit by Liam Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Pena, among others. The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; extras comprise two behind-the-scenes featurettes.







DVDs of the Week



Ilan Ziv’s exhaustive six-part feature documents the history of capitalism, from Adam Smith’s incisive and misinterpreted insights (like his legendary phrase, “invisible hand”) to the 2008 global collapse, which—according to many renowned economists—wasn’t supposed to happen.




Through interviews with sundry experts and witty sequences explaining integral concepts, Ziv has made a thorough, impactful look at what, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst of all possible economic systems—except for all others.


A Violent Life 

(Distrib Films)

The Mediterranean island of Corsica (Napoleon’s birthplace) isn’t usually in movies, especially as shown in Thierry de Peretti’s gritty drama, whose protagonist returns from Paris to the raw, violent isle he grew up on after his best friend (and fellow gang member) is murdered.




Through clever flashbacks, de Peretti trenchantly explores the underbelly of a modern society whose everyday life is gripped by crime and a regional fractionalism so severe that it’s led to a separatist movement against the arrogant French state.

April '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 



Writer-director Scott Cooper always wanted to make a western, and this intermittently powerful drama—which displays a knack for the wide spaces and unexpected violence that the Indian territories comprised—is a thoughtful study of the men and women caught up in the casual brutality that was their daily existence circa 1892. 



It’s a little long, and some scenes fall flat, but this is assured work from Cooper, with sturdy performances by Christian Bale, Rosemund Pike and Wes Studi among a large and varied cast. And the final shots are haunting. The film looks spectacular on Blu; lone extra is a 60-minute making-of documentary. 


Bill Nye—Science Guy 


This engaging documentary portrait of the world’s most popular scientist since Carl Sagan (his mentor) shows Nye in his natural habitat: not the lab, but in front of crowds and cameras spreading the gospel of scientific inquiry and learning to millions of all ages. 



It’s quite touching seeing those interested in science or in scientific careers after watching his TV show, and Nye himself is quite pleasant, but there are also his missteps, like when he debated a prominent creationist and the ensuing publicity gave millions in donations to a creationist museum, the very antithesis of Nye’s own advocacy. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include several deleted scenes.


Killer Klowns from Outer Space 


The textbook definition of a guilty pleasure is this grade-Z horror comedy from 1988 about the title characters terrorizing a bunch of horribly awful actors and actresses; the Chiodo brothers can focus the camera in the right direction, at least, and their sense of humor is intact if infantile. 



As always with cult items, your mileage may vary. The film looks presentable on Blu-ray; many extras include an archival Chiodo brothers’ commentary, making-of documentary, interviews with filmmakers and stars, and several of the Chiodos’ earlier films.


Paddington 2 

(Warner Bros)

Director Paul King’s slight comic adventure has its share of charming moments, and a cast of top-flight British performers (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Hugh Grant, Peter Capaldi and Brendan Gleeson) ensures it stays in its lane, but the story—a term in jail for our favorite (and innocent) anthropomorphic bear—threatens to completely scuttle the film. 




Still, Paddington 2 remains disarming throughout, which is the most you can expect from a sequel. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras include featurettes and a music video.


A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo 


This pair of Spaghetti westerns, from 1965 and 1966, respectively, are both directed by Duccio Tessari, who follows a clean-cut gunslinging hero as he takes his revenge—yes, there’s enough vengeance to go around for two films—on bunches of faceless, thieving and murdering Mexicans. 



It’s often borderline risible, but fans of the western genre will find something to enjoy here. Both films have fine hi-def transfers; extras comprise commentaries for both films, interviews and featurettes.


Unforgotten—Complete 1st Season 


This latest in PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series is an absorbing procedural about a pair of detectives working a re-opened case when the remains of a body appear decades after the victim disappeared. 



Narrowing the suspects to a manageable few who have motive if not opportunity, the detectives methodically find their way to the truth. Forceful acting by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as the partners is reinforced by a superb supporting cast led by veteran Tom Courtenay as one of those under suspicion. The six episodes look terrific on Blu.






(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the DVD I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)

DVD of the Week 

Claws—Complete 1st Season

(Warner Bros)

This tongue-in-cheek series about manicurists in Manatee County, Florida who want to start their own upscale salon, by hook or by crook—mostly the latter—is as subtle as its title, with streams of easy jokes, broad stereotypes and even broader acting. 





But there’s something appealingly off-kilter that prevents it from ever getting too precious, even if ten one-hour episodes—and with more seasons to come—are too much of a not-so-great thing.

Grand Rapids Symphony Unearths Hidden Gems of 20th Century Scores

The Grand Rapids Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Terry Johnston
A strong season of orchestral music in New York continued impressively at Carnegie Hall on the evening of Friday, April 20th, with the appearance of the fine musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony under the admirable direction of Marcelo Lehninger.
The program began brilliantly with a stirring account of the invariably thrilling and immensely popular Bolero of Maurice Ravel. The extraordinary Brazilian soloist Nelson Freire then took the stage for an engaging performance of a work he has recently championed, the sparkling and eclectic, single-movement piano concerto Momoprecoce of Heitor Villa-Lobos—an example of the unfamiliar repertory that made this event especially memorable.
The second half of the evening was at least equally remarkable, with another rewarding presentation of an underrated piano concerto played by Freire, Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla, which opens with the evocative and impressionistic “En el Generalife”, followed by the more dramatic, ensuing movements, “Danza lejana” and “En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba”. After an enthusiastic ovation, the soloist delighted the audience with an encore: the charming “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from the Children’s Corner Suite of Claude Debussy.
The concert concluded stunningly with another rare opus: the powerful, exotic and enthralling Chôros No. 10, “Rasga o Coração”, of Villa-Lobos, which featured the superb Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus led by Pearl Shangkuan. Ardent applause was reciprocated by another encore, this time including the entire ensemble: the inexpressibly beautiful and seldom heard choral version of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, set to a text by Robert de Montesquiou, a figure that inspired such artists as Marcel Proust, J. K. Huysmans, and James Whistler. I hope these musicians return to New York before long, bringing more splendid discoveries.

NYC Theater Review—Antony Sher in “King Lear” at BAM

King Lear

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Gregory Doran

Performances through April 29, 2018

Antony Sher and Graham Turner in King Lear (photo: Ellie Kurttz)

King Lear should drain spectators as much as it drains the life out of its eponymous protagonist, who dies with his beloved Cordelia in his arms, his prideful transgressions also resulting in the deaths of his other two daughters, a son-in-law, and the complete destruction of his kingdom. However, of the many times I’ve seen Lear, the end rarely arrives with more than a shrug; that continues with Gregory Doran’s workmanlike Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Antony Sher at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Two years ago at BAM, Doran and Sher’s collaborative Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 had the same strengths and weaknesses, but Sher’s tendency toward overripeness—superb diction but odd scansion and excessive zeal—worked better with Falstaff than Lear, which needs a more judicious balancing act between the role’s subtle humor and the tragic downward spiral from arrogance to madness to brief joy to final, fatal grief.


Doran’s lone innovation—if it can be called that—is an oversized glass box that Lear first appears in, carried in by his servants, as he declaims from on high and apart from his subjects about his “darker purpose.” The box returns for the torturing of Gloucester, which enables the “vile jelly” of his eyes being torn out of his skull to shoot all over the glass, where it looks like the gory contents of many more eyes than his mere two.


Doran’s otherwise measured pace has the desultory effect of watching a monochromatic melodrama, not Shakespeare’s taut tragedy. Niki Turner’s drab sets and costumes—the latter mainly all white or all black—might be an unintended comment on the director’s peculiar lack of shading. Botched is the climactic scene, as a wheeled-out Lear sits holding the dead Cordelia: this kills the effect of an incensed father howling over his daughter’s demise, his own frailty momentarily usurped by his overwhelming sadness. And Sher speaks Lear’s five heartbreaking “nevers” without ever cutting straight to the heart, sounding like an actor’s recitation exercise rather than the furious cries of a mortally grief-stricken man.


The large supporting cast is highlighted by Antony Byrne’s keenly observed Kent, Oliver Johnstone’s cogent and sympathetic Edgar/Poor Tom and Graham Turner’s amusingly stoic Fool. Conversely, none of the actresses playing Lear’s daughters makes much of an impression, while Paapa Essiedu—who plays Edgar’s villainous illegitimate brother Edmund—has been called a 28-year-old acting wunderkind, but his performance lacks sufficient variety, with an unfortunate singsong voice to boot. 


Ultimately, this is another production of King Lear that fails to scale the summit of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.


King Lear

BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

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