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Film and the Arts

August '20 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Rebuilding Paradise 
(National Geographic)
The devastating 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California and the formidable aftermath for so many who lost, literally, everything—hundreds of homes were destroyed and 85 people died—are recounted in Ron Howard’s sometimes difficult to watch but ultimately hopeful documentary.
Among those we see are a policeman whose marriage doesn’t survive; a former mayor who’s one of the first to have a new house built; and the high school superintendent whose own personal misfortune overshadows her achievement of having a graduation ceremony for the students. It’s a familiar but still compelling story of a preventable tragedy—with the local power company playing the villain—and the resilience of ordinary people.
(IFC Films)
In playwright Jessica Swale’s writing/directing debut, a reclusive writer living near the English coastline reluctantly takes in a young boy during the London blitz, which triggers her memories of an earlier relationship with an equally free-spirited woman.
This awfully contrived melodrama has some of the least plausible relationships and plot twists in any movie in ages, which makes one wonder about the value of Swale’s plays. But as a director Swale elicits beautifully nuanced performances from Gemma Arterton as the writer and Lucas Bond as the boy, and sensitive support from Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton and—in the film’s pivotal role—Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Blu-rays of the Week 
His Dark Materials—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Bros/HBO)
In this series based on the acclaimed fantasy novels by Philip Pullman—about two youngsters who come of age amid parallel universes and a talking animal known as a daemon that’s the embodiment of a person’s soul—there are enough diverting moments, including many of the fantasy sequences, to make up for the more turgid earthbound sections and make this adaptation more entertaining than enervating.
Eight episodes might have been too much for these flimsy materials, both dark and not so dark; there are persuasive portrayals by Dafne Keen as our heroine Lyra and James McAvoy as her uncle Asriel. The whole thing looks terrific on Blu; extras include several making-of featurettes and cast interviews.
The Sin of Nora Moran 
(Film Detective)
This obscure 1933 drama is as bleak as they come, a sordid but endlessly watchable story of how a vibrant young woman arrives on death row for murder.
It’s potently enacted by Zita Johann, and if director Phil Goldstone’s melodrama has its share of hokiness and some wooden performances, it compensates by focusing on how and why Nora ends up where she is; its interesting flashback structure juggles her tragic chronology. The film looks fine on Blu; the lone extra is a featurette about Johann.
DVD Releases of the Week 
City Dreamers 
(First Run Features)
Joseph Hillel’s insightful documentary features four women architects—Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and Denise Scott Brown—who have spent their unheralded but innovative careers demonstrating how cities are and can be transformed.
Although each of them has worked with several “superstars” (Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, for starters), each has transcended those associations, and Hillel’s beautifully-shot film is a necessary corrective to the myth that all the great architects are men.
Hawaii Five-O—The Complete Final Season 
This reboot of the classic series starring Jack Lord as McGarrett and James MacArthur as his partner Danno—and which showed the then new state as a crime-infested paradise—reaches its end after ten seasons (the original lasted a dozen, from 1968 to 1980), with a younger, spirited cast led Alex O’Laughlin and Scott Caan chasing and rounding up villains.
These 22 episodes sprint all over the islands as the good guys earn their pay. Extras include a gag reel, deleted/extended scenes, O’Laughlin interview and a goodbye video from the cast.
Home from Home—Chronicle of a Vision 
(Corinth Films)
In German director Edgar Reitz’s prequel of sorts (made in 2013) to his colossally mammoth Heimat (1984)—which was a 15-hour, sweeping epic about ordinary Germans caught up in the machinations of history that was reportedly one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films—the same exacting sense of minutiae, of the quotidian, of regular people living their lives, is again presented with artful precision.
Filmed in rich black and white, the film demands to be seen in the best visual presentation possible, so it’s unfortunate there’s not a Blu-ray release to catch every nuance.  
CD Release of the Week
Shostakovich—Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” 
When Dmitri Shostakovich decided to set as a choral work Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s coruscating 1961 poem about the murders of Soviet Jews at the hands of Nazis, Babiy Yar, the poet’s words so inspired him that he ended up added several other of his poems as the work morphed into the mournful 13th symphony.
This first-rate recording captures the raw emotions in Shostakovich’s music and Yevtushenko’s words, which are intoned by the stentorian bass Oleg Tsibulko and the Popov Academy of Choral Arts and Kozhevnikov choirs, accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits.

July '20 Digital Week IV

VOD/Virtual Cinema Release of the Week 
Gordon Lightfoot—If You Could Read My Mind 
(Greenwich Entertainment)
Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe have made a lovingly introspective portrait of the great Canadian singer-songwriter, whose mid-’70s hits “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” are still staples of adult-contemporary radio.
Lightfoot engagingly discusses his long career and its attendant highs and lows; the directors bring together a virtual who’s-who of Canadian music (Anne Murray, Sarah McLaughlin, Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson) to anoint Lightfoot as the ultimate Canadian troubadour, whose songs are the very essence of inspired craft and storytelling.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Outsider—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Bros/HBO)
This Stephen King adaptation about a murderous entity that stumps law enforcement starts out very well, but somewhere around episode 4 it loses its way and stumbles badly.
After 10 hours, it amounts to much ado about very little but remains watchable thanks to an estimable cast led by Ben Mendelssohn and Cynthia Erivo as an improbable pair of investigators trying to solve a seemingly impossible case. Honorable mention goes to Bill Camp as the D.A. The series looks stunning in hi-def; extras comprise several making-of featurettes, including interviews with cast, crew and King. 
(Opus Arte)
French composer Jules Massenet’s beguiling musical adaptation of the original fairy tale Cinderella is among the most sheerly entertaining of all operas, and Fiona Shaw’s 2019 staging at England’s Glyndebourne Festival follows suit.
John Wilson ably conducts the Glyndebourne orchestra and chorus and the entire cast is exceptional, with the stand-out, unsurprisingly, being American-Australian soprano Danielle de Niese as an amusing, thoughtful, winning Cinderella. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Million Dollar Mermaid 
(Warner Archive)
This 1952 Esther Williams vehicle is as creaky as they come—Williams plays Aussie swimmer Annette Kellerman (sans accent), who becomes an aquatic hit in London and America—yet despite its questionable status as a biopic it does have Williams at her best in the water, whether the River Thames, an indoor tank in a Broadway theater or on a Hollywood movie set.
Colorful in both senses—the movie looks eye-wateringly splendid in hi-def—Mervyn Leroy’s drama dries up on land but contains one of choreographer Busby Berkeley’s typically extravagant showstopping sequences. Extras include a vintage short and cartoon as well as a radio show with Williams and Walter Pidgeon.
Pride and Prejudice 
(Warner Archive)
Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson are perfectly cast as Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, the latter among Jane Austen’s greatest heroines, in Robert Z. Leonard’s slightly musty but sympathetic 1940 adaptation of Austen’s classic novel.
The impressive cast includes Maureen O’Sullivan and Ann Rutherford as the other Bennet sisters while the lovely physical production (which won an Oscar for B&W art direction) is true to the source, but Olivier and Garson’s chemistry—initially antagonistic then, ultimately, romantic—is the heart of the film. The hi-def transfer looks sparkling; extras are a vintage short and cartoon.
Thirteen Ghosts 
(Scream Factory)
This loose 2001 remake of William Castle’s 1960 haunted-house B flick is technically persuasive—the sudden appearances of the dozen lethal ghosts are superbly done as is the puzzling box of a home where the action takes place—but it’s otherwise unpleasant to watch.
Steve Beck’s direction is for the most part turgid and a fine cast on paper is mainly wasted: F. Murray Abraham. Tony Shaloub, Embeth Davidtz, Shannon Elizabeth and Matthew Lillard have all been much better elsewhere. There is an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include new interviews, audio commentary by Beck and others, and vintage featurettes.
DVD Releases of the Week 
Grantchester—Complete 5th Season 
(PBS Masterpiece)
In the latest Grantchester go-round, the year is 1957, and the seemingly idyllic environs of the village are darkened by the deaths of a student at the female-only college, a hit-and-run victim and a cinemagoer (among others) and Detective Inspector Keating must muster all of his wits and wiles to solve these crimes over six episodes.
Robson Green is in top form as Keating and Tom Brittney is perfection is the vicar, Keating’s ally, and the investigations remain as distinctive and entertaining as they’ve been over the previous four seasons. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.
The brazen killings of 11 black people, including 5 children, in Philadelphia in 1985 by the city government—which culminated in an actual bomb being used—against the radical group MOVE is the starting point of director Sean Slater’s fascinating overview and primer of how America’s police forces have become militarized.
It’s no coincidence that such a sea change in policing and law enforcement is directly tied to black American movements from the Black Panthers in the late ’60s to today’s Black Lives Matter, as Slater’s succinct reportage makes clear. The lone extra is a short Slater intro.
CD Releases of the Week 
Alwyn—Miss Julie 
British composer William Alwyn (1905-85), in the shadow of Benjamin Britten throughout his career, composed operas that are overshadowed by Britten’s exceptional output. Still, his adaptation of August Strindberg’s intense character study is dramatically compelling, with an appropriate chamber-like quality—there are only four singing roles and no chorus—that brings out some of Alwyn’s finest, most ravishing music.
This new recording, with Sakari Oramo leading the BBC Symphonic Orchestra and with warm singing by Anna Patalong in the title role, is certainly a worthy addition, but since there’s already a superior Lyrita recording of Miss Julie, how about exploring Alwyn’s even more obscure operas, the early The Ferry Fiddler and the later Juan, or The Libertine?
Dallapiccola—Il Prigioniero/The Prisoner
In this unsettling one-act opera by the great modernist Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75), freedom is put to the test, and Dallapiccola distills the drama to its very essence; its 45 minutes are climaxed by one of the most quietly shattering operatic endings.
This new recording, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda and played with exquisite tact by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, is all about the singing: both the soloists and the Danish National Concert Choir (which also performs two shorter Dallapiccola choral works on the disc) make this a stellar rendition of one of the most powerful 20th century operas.

July '20 Digital Week III

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Attraction 2—Invasion 
In this often lumbering sequel to Attraction—the 2017 sci-fi epic in which aliens land in Russia and a general’s daughter falls for one of them—the daughter and the alien reunite and find themselves under attack by the Russian armed forces, while her father tries to get her back safely…or does he?
Director Fyodor Bondarchuk stages some exciting action set pieces in the streets of Moscow as well as on the Moscow River, but the film screeches to a halt too often. The film looks splendid on Blu; lone extra is a short making-of featurette.
(Film Movement Classics)
Italian director Luchino Visconti’s final film (released in 1976 after his death at age 69) is, typically, a visually sumptuous but dramatically inert story about a nobleman cheating on his wife with a princess who’s enraged when his wife takes a lover, becomes pregnant and refuses to have an abortion.
That usually racy actor Giancarlo Giannini is an ill fit for the nobleman, while Laura Antonelli and Jennifer O’Neill, while stunning in their costumes, can’t transform ciphers into complex individuals. As usual, Visconti prefers interior decoration to his characters’ interior lives. The new hi-def transfer looks tremendous; lone extra is a visual essay about the film.
Strike Up the Band 
Girl Crazy 
(Warner Archive)
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were paired early and often in their careers, and these Warner Archive releases highlight their chemistry and precocious talent. 1945’s Strike Up the Band, dazzlingly directed by Busby Berkeley, is an overlong but engaging tale of two teenagers falling for each other as they fight for the right to have the school band play at a national contest. 
In 1942’s enjoyable Girl Crazy—which Berkeley began directing and Norman Taurog finished—Rooney is a spoiled rich kid shunted off to the boondocks for college, where he meets Garland and they fight for the right of the school to stay open. Rooney and Garland sing, dance and even (in Rooney’s case) play drums in entertaining musical interludes—Girl Crazy is awash in Gershwin songs—so these vehicles make a perfect double-header. Both B&W films have spectacularly detailed new hi-def transfers; extras include Rooney intros, vintage cartoons and shorts, stereo remixes of song sequences and a 1940 radio adaptation of Strike Up the Band with Rooney and Garland.
The Wild Goose Lake 
(Film Movement)
Diao Yinan’s convoluted crime drama follows a mobster (on the lam after accidentally killing a cop) who discovers that, even in the underworld, there are no safe places to hide—or to not be betrayed. Diao does conjure up some oppressively heady atmosphere, especially in a tangent about a young woman who befriends our anti-hero, which ultimately (and unfortunately) morphs into the main plot.
Still, there’s a nagging feeling that much of The Wild Goose Lake is nothing more than a wild goose chase, however exceptionally well-made. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise an on-set featurette with Diao, cast interviews and a short, The Goddess, by Chinese-American director Renkai Tan.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
(Long Distance Productions)
Author Flannery O’Connor was born and raised in the South, and her writing mirrored the ambivalence and sense of unfairness she felt living in that segregated era—and Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco’s documentary presents her life and her art in context (“n” words and all), which makes this a vivid evocation of not only a great writer’s life but also the state of the country she wrote about.
Mary Steenburgen engagingly narrates as O’Connor’s voice; excerpts from filmed versions of O’Connor’s work are interspersed, including John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of her first novel, Wise Blood; and interviews with friends, colleagues, editors, and admirers fill in the blanks of a complex, flawed but necessary voice in American literature. 
DVDs of the Week 
The Carer 
(Corinth Films)
Brian Cox gives his usual expansive, overflowing performance as a beloved actor with terminal Parkinson’s who must navigate his own daughter’s selfishness as well as his slowly building affection for his new caretaker, a budding Hungarian actress.
Director Janos Edelenyi guides this unsubtle but bittersweet chamber drama with a sturdy hand, and supporting the great Cox is a formidable group of supporting actors: Emilia Fox (daughter), Coco Konig (caretaker), even Roger Moore (himself). Lone extra is a bizarre look at raving moviegoers after a screening in Toronto.
Curb Your Enthusiasm—Complete 10th Season 
As irascible as ever, Larry David returns for another season of his alter ego getting into as much trouble as ever—including sexual harassment allegations by both his assistant and a caterer at a party, of all places—all while trying to shame his former favorite coffee shop in a way only he can.
For me, a little of David’s observational comedy goes a long way, so your mileage may obviously vary; still, there are priceless moments, as when Larry decides to wear a MAGA cap so people will leave him alone. The two-disc set includes all 10 episodes and an on-set featurette.
Titans of the 20th Century 
In this six-hour series, the lives of the great, the good and the horrible—all influencing the previous century’s shocking body count of millions in two world wars, for starters—are recounted in informative but predictably four-square fashion.
Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill and FDR are the main characters, with Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, Harry Truman and others making a first-rate supporting cast in a half-dozen episodes comprising vintage video, still photos and audio alongside talking-head historians’ discussions. 
CD Releases of the Week
Erik Satie—Vexations
Thomas Adès—In Seven Days 
(Myrios Classics)
These discs feature uncompromising piano works by two masters composing a century apart but similar in their unique approaches. Frenchman Erik Satie (1866-1925) composed Vexations on a single page; it’s considered his most minimalist and expansive work, which could last for several hours if one takes Satie at his word: he asked, perhaps facetiously, for 840 repetitions. Fearless pianist Noriko Ogawa tackles the slow, hypnotic Vexations for an illuminating 80 minutes.
Thomas Adès—who began as an enfant terrible before his magnificent 2006 opera The Tempest—has, in Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein, a most sympathetic interpreter of his piano works. Gerstein dispatches Adès’ Berceuse from his failed 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel and 3 mazurkas with aplomb, and plays the obbligato part in In Seven Days—an orchestral work about creation which Adès sensitively conducts—brilliantly. As a bonus, the two men team for a two-piano Concert Paraphrase from Adès’ breakthrough 1995 opera Powder Her Face.

July '20 Digital Week II

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
(IFC Midnight)
In Natalie Erika James’ clever but ultimately enervating thriller, three generations of women—grandmother Edna, mother Kay and daughter Sam—deal with Edna’s possible slide into senility in a house that becomes seemingly more sinister with each passing day.
James’ interesting if unsuccessful melding of character study and outright horror has an ending that’s patently ludicrous. Luckily, the unimpeachable performances of Robyn Nevin (Edna), Emily Mortimer (Emily) and Bella Heathcote (Sam) help sell it all, however crazed it becomes.
Ai Weiwei—Yours Truly 
(First Run Features)
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s formidable exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, at the infamous prison in 2014, honors the legacy of the artist’s father and other prisoners of conscience around the world by giving visitors the chance to send postcards to those languishing in prison (his father received one while in exile years earlier).
Directed by Gina Leibrecht and Cheryl Haines—the latter organized the exhibit on Ai’s behalf—this documentary illuminates how an artist is also a freedom fighter through his art and how strangers with a pen and a postcard can help fill the lives of those who are incarcerated working for freedom of expression (and their families) with hope.
Greek-American actress Olympia Dukakis—known for her hilarious but tender Oscar-winning performance as Cher’s mother in 1987’s Moonstruck—is the focus of Harry Mavromichalis’s vibrant portrait highlighting her heritage as much as her estimable career onscreen and onstage.
It’s onstage that she really shined, and we see glimpses of both her vintage performances and more recent work, including playing Prospero in The Tempest in the Berkshires area of western Massachusetts. Most poignantly, her 56-year marriage to actor Louis Zorich (who sadly died in 2018) is given ample screen time.
Blu-rays of the Week
Blood and Money 
(Screen Media)
Tom Berenger’s granite visage is perfect for his role as a retired vet who, while hunting, accidentally becomes involved with murderous criminals after hiding the proceeds from their daring robbery in this mostly pedestrian and predictable drama.
Director-cowriter John Barr develops little in the way of characterization—which is too bad because Berenger and Kristen Hager as a young waitress at the local dive have real chemistry—instead, he’s content to use northern Maine’s forbidding Allagash wilderness as a typical snowbound setting. The film looks fine on Blu.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s ravishing romantic opera—composed when he was 17—has an overripe plot about a vengeful woman who realizes that she loves the man who caused her sister’s death. But Korngold’s often radiant score balances this melodrama with his heroine’s conflicting emotions with an artistry that’s uncanny.
This 2019 Turin, Italy, production, forcefully directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, features an earthshaking portrayal by soprano Annemarie Kremer in the virtuosic title role; there’s exquisite music-making by conductor Pinchas Steinberg and the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino. Blu-ray image and hi-def sound are both first-rate.
P.O. Box Tinto Brass 
The Claire Sinclair Show 
(Cult Epics)
The 87-year-old Italian director Tinto Brass makes playfully erotic films full of pulchritude that fall short of hardcore, and 1995’s P.O. Box Tinto Brass is a prime example: the director reads through Penthouse Forum-style letters from females about their sexual escapades, which are visualized in all their naked glory. The Claire Sinclair Show finds the 2011 Playboy Playmate of the Year hosting two episodes: one about her life and the other featuring veteran photographer Bunny Yeager’s final TV appearance. 
Both releases have excellent hi-def transfers; Tinto extras include a 2003 interview and a second disc comprising a documentary, Istinttobrass, with a 2013 interview of its director Massimiliano Zanin; Claire extras include an extended version of the Bunny episode, original Super 8 films, Claire’s introductions and behind-the-scenes.
Verdi—Il Trovatore 
One of Giuseppe Verdi’s most memorable operas has one of his most ridiculous plots, but his brilliantly dramatic score and moving portrayals by Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko and Italian baritone Luca Salsi highlight late director Franco Zefferelli’s typically opulent production (filmed last year at the waterside outdoor theater in Verona, Italy).
In addition, there are Verdi’s luminous arias and famous “Anvil” chorus, which is superbly performed by the orchestra and chorus under conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi. There are superior hi-def audio and video.
DVDs of the Week 
Dateline: Saigon 
(First Run Features)
The reminiscences of the Vietnam War’s most renowned journalists—Neil Sheehan, David Halberstram, Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett and Horst Faas—make up Tom Herman’s cogent documentary about how those on the ground saw a different war than what U.S. presidents and generals were selling. Rather than present a rosy picture of a conflict of honorable intentions but disastrous results, these men admirably dealt with adversity from all sides while reporting from the dangerous battlegrounds of East Asia.
Narrated by Sam Waterston, this riveting but sobering account doffs its hat to these honorable men, some of whom would win a Pulitzer (Halberstram) and write the definitive account of the war, A Bright Shining Lie (Sheehan).
No Small Matter 
Early childhood education is yet another important resource that our country has squandered, and this succinct 74-minute documentary shows ways to stop wasting such a rich ore and start using it to our greater advantage.
Narrated by Alfre Woodard, co-directors Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s film eschews any hectoring or obviously pointing fingers to make the case for giving our youngest children the education they deserve and need from the start. Extras are short featurettes.
CD of the Week 
Anna Clyne/Edward Elgar—Cello Works 
These works for cello and orchestra were composed 100 years apart, but Anna Clyne’s Dance (2019)—a concerto in all but name—stacks up nicely against Edward Elgar’s beloved 1919 warhorse, which has been a go-to for decades for any cellist wanting to prove her bonafides as a serious player.
And on this recording, American-Israeli cellist Inbal Segev does just that, ringing every ounce of emotion out of Elgar’s often heart-tugging score and easily traversing Clyne’s flexible work that is alternately playful and discordant, solemn and majestic. Conductor Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic Orchestra provide exceptional support.

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