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Film and the Arts

March '20 Digital Week III

4K of the Week 

Seven Worlds One Planet 

(BBC Earth)

The latest indelible BBC exploration of our amazing natural world is this seven-part series—each episode covering one of the continents—narrated by the indefatigable David Attenborough, which displays the myriad ways that current cinematographers and directors can drop us in the middle of such eye-popping scenes as cheetahs running down topis (African antelopes) or miniscule frogs feeding their even more microscopic tadpoles.

 

 

 

Drone photography has been perfected to such a great degree that image after unforgettable image jumps off the screen, sometimes literally. Needless to say, in hi-def, all seven hours look simply breathtaking; extras are short on-set featurettes.

 

Blu-rays of the Week

Bamboozled 

(Criterion)

Spike Lee’s most incendiary post-Do the Right Thing movie, this 2000 joint takes on the entertainment industry’s institutional racism, as a desperate TV creator (Marlon Wayans) hits on the idea of a new minstrel show—complete with black performers in blackface—which becomes an unexpected hit. As usual with Lee, powerful moments sit next to trite, tone-deaf sequences; also, as usual, the movie goes on too long, making its points repeatedly but to considerably less effect.

 

 

 

But this might be Lee’s best-cast film: Wayans, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rappaport, Mos Def and Jada Pinkett give firsr-rate performances. Criterion’s packed edition has a decent hi-def transfer (the film was shot digitally) and a plethora of extras, including Lee’s commentary, deleted scenes, music videos, parody commercials, vintage making-of documentary, and new interviews with Lee, Glover, Davidson and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beau Brummell 

(Warner Archive)

The legendary dandy—whose picaresque adventures have long been a mainstay on both the stage and screen—is played by the dashing Stewart Granger in Curtis Bernhardt’s 1954 production, which also features a dazzling young Elizabeth Taylor as his love interest and the great Peter Ustinov as his foil, King George.

 

 

 

Although dramatically saggy, the movie does earn points for its sumptuous costume design and color photography (the latter by Oswald Morris) and the fine score by Miklos Rosza and Richard Addinsell. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer.

 

La bella dormente nel bosco 

(Naxos)

Ottorino Respighi—famed for his richly-scored orchestral works The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome—also wrote several operas of melodic richness and stageworthy drama, such as this version of Sleeping Beauty originally created as a marionette opera, then revised and reorchestrated for the opera house.

 

 

 

Director Leo Muscato’s 2017 production at the opera house in the city of Cagliari (on the Italian island of Sardinia) is a delightful frolic, nicely played by the musicians and appealingly sung by the cast. The hi-def video and audio are top-notch.

 

DVDs of the Week 

Celebration 

(KimStim)

In 2007, legendary designer Yves Saint-Laurent had his final fashion show in New York, and Olivier Meyrou’s fly-on-the-wall documentary presents many backstage scenes and more intimate moments that drew the ire of Saint-Laurent’s partner Pierre Bergé—who figures prominently in the film—and he blocked its release. 

 

 

 

But after Bergé's death in 2017 (Saint-Laurent died in 2008), it's finally been released. Shot in appropriately grainy black and white—with occasional bursts of color—which makes it seem all the more like a clandestinely shot exposé, Celebration (certainly an ironic title) is a warts-and-all portrait of the designer as a frail, old man.

 

Cunningham 

(Magnolia)

Alla Kovgan’s documentary about the great Merce Cunningham—who died in 2009—manages to pack an astonishing amount about Cunningham’s storied dancing and choreographing career into 93 minutes, from his groundbreaking collaborations with composer John Cage to his international celebrity and enormous influence in subsequent decades.

 

 

 

We hear Cunningham’s own words as we watch his dances, both in archival footage and in new performances by current dancers in his company. The lone quibble: this stunning-looking film was shot in 3D, but not only is it not being released on 3D Blu-ray, it’s only available on DVD, so a lot of the visual brilliance is lost. What a missed chance! The lone extra is a short featurette by Kovgan explaining one of the sequences.

 

CDs of the Week 

Daniel Hope—Belle Epoque 

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Violinist Daniel Hope’s latest recording is two discs’ worth of the most representative music of the by-gone Belle Epoque era, which flourished in Europe—and particularly in Paris—in the early years of the 20th century.

 

 

 

The first disc comprises orchestral music, starting with Chausson’s extraordinary Concerto in D major, which Hope dispatches with elegance. Works by Debussy, Massenet, Strauss, Schoenberg and Elgar (a pair) round out this lovely disc. The quirky but fun chamber-music disc consists mainly of miniatures by the likes of Faure, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Ravel, Enescu, Bridge and Hahn, all played beautifully by Hope and his musical partners.

 

Ellen Reid—prism 

(Decca Gold)

Winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, Ellen Reid’s emotionally shattering opera (with an articulate and often blunt libretto by Roxie Perkins) explores the aftereffects of sexual assault in a non-linear and kaleidoscopic work that, based on this otherwise excellent recording, would probably be even more powerful onstage. But, as this faultless performance shows, the chamber orchestra is handled brilliantly and with endless displays of resourcefulness by Reid, especially in the pounding percussion segments, astringent sounds that sit side-by-side with her gorgeous melodies.

 

 

 

Julian Wachner ably conducts the NOVUS NY ensemble and the choir of Trinity Wall Street, and Anna Schubert and Rebecca Jo Lamb give performances of fierce intensity. A bonus track is violist Nadia Sirota’s haunting rendition of “Lumee’s Dream,” an excerpt from prism.

March '20 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

A Hidden Life 

(Fox)

The best film of 2019, Terrence Malick’s expansive epic insightfully dramatizes the true story of an Austrian farmer whose conscience prevented him from pledging allegiance to Hitler and the Nazis.

 

 

 

Malick’s style—gorgeous outdoor shots, soaring music, transfixing hand-held camerawork, quicksilver editing, revealing voiceovers—reaches its apogee in this psychologically penetrating study that, for this non-believer, is one of the most profound films about religion since Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Schepisi’s A Cry in the Dark. Even James Newton Howard’s score—which features James Ehnes’ yearning violin playing—sits perfectly amid Malick’s eclectic palette of Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Gorecki, Schnittke, Part and Dvořák. The film looks immaculate in hi-def.

 

Inherit the Viper 

(Lionsgate)

It’s certainly about a timely subject, but Anthony Jerjen’s drama about opioids destroying middle America is too diffuse, along with being excessively melodramatic.

 

 

 

A good cast—led by Josh Hartnett and Margarita Levieva as a brother and sister drug-selling team as well as Bruce Dern as a bar owner—unfortunately flounders as Jerjen and writer Andrew Crabtree prefer atmosphere over plausibility in their characters’ motivations. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Knives Out 

(Lionsgate)

Rian Johnson’s entertaining whodunit—which nods explicitly to Agatha Christie and Hitchcock, among others—is overlong and takes too many too-clever twists and turns, but it’s well-paced and has a large cast which never takes itself seriously enough to keep it from going sour.

 

 

 

Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer and Michael Shannon happily ham it up, while Ana de Armas finally has her breakout role as the only sympathetic one of the bunch. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras include two commentaries, deleted scenes with commentary, two-hour making-of documentary (Making a Murder), post-screening Q&A with Johnson and cast, and making-of featurette.

 

Richard Jewell 

(Warner Bros)

Another of Clint Eastwood’s schizophrenic—and hypocritical—films is this dramatization of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing and the efforts to paint security guard Richard Jewell as the bomber rather than a hero. When Eastwood sticks to Jewell’s story, it’s blatant but effective, and Paul Walter Hauser gives a fine, understated performance as Jewell (his mother, however, is shrilly enacted by Kathy Bates, who typically got an Oscar nomination).

 

 

 

But when dissecting Jewell’s treatment by the FBI and the media (with scandalously broad portrayals by Jon Hamm and a particularly horrible Olivia Wilde), Eastwood turns this into a ham-fisted “fake news” tirade. Even Sam Rockwell, as Jewell’s lawyer, too easily moves between complex and caricatured. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise two making-of featurettes.

 
 
 
 
 
 

The Sonata 

(Screen Media)

This clunky thriller has a fun premise—after a world-famous “mad” composer dies, his violinist daughter finds his final work, which has tantalizing clues that summon evil spirits—but doesn’t do much more with it beyond the Gothic mansion setting.

 

 

 

Freya Tingley has a colorful presence as the daughter—she’s even good at faking the violin playing—but the late Rutger Hauer (as “mad” dad) doesn’t have much to do, and the climax is more risible than frightening. There’s a quite good hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

 

The Stalking Moon 

(Warner Archive)

Robert Mulligan’s plodding 1968 western is set amid the beautiful vistas and craggy hills of Red Rock Canyon, which show far more emotion than that famous piece of granite, Gregory Peck, who plays an army scout who assists a half-Apache woman (a stolid Eva Marie Saint) and her son cross the prairie to safety.

 

 

 

The result is a routine drama that’s visually stunning but ultimately superficial; even the gunplay and the climactic showdown are as predictable as they are dully presented. The film looks perfect in hi-def.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Titans—Complete 2nd Season 

(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.

In season two of this fresh retelling of the Teen Titans franchise, the titans are reformed after the dramatic showdown that ended the previous season, as they set up shop in Titans Tower, hoping to go on with ordinary lives—until, of course, some of their old enemies return and force them to deal with some unfinished business.

 

 

 

The energetic young cast helps put this over despite its inherent silliness. The second season’s 13 one-hour episodes look especially impressive in hi-def; lone extra is a featurette on titan Jason Todd.

 

Victoria 

(Opus Arte)

Beethoven Project 

(C Major)

A ballet about Queen Victoria—sure, why not? Northern Ballet’s Victoria is an entertaining and illuminating new dance work, choreographed and directed by Cathy Marston and with an excellent original score by Philip Feeney (Jonathan Lo conducts the Northern Ballet Sinfonia). In the title role, Abigail Prudames is a luminous stage presence. 

 
 
 
 
 

The Hamburg Ballet’s Beethoven Project—the latest ballet from renowned choreographer/lighting & costume designer John Neumeier—is visually and musically dazzling, with Neumeier’s dances perfectly mirroring the sturm und drang of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, among others of his works. Both releases feature superior hi-def video and audio.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Whisky Galore! & The Maggie 

(Film Movement Classics)

These early Ealing Studios films are prime examples of the low-key, dry humor that obtains in many of their releases, especially those of director Alexander Mackendrick, who helmed both titles. 1949’s Whiskey Galore! hilariously studies the effect that a sinking ship containing liquor has on a small Scottish community dealing with wartime rationing.

 

 

 

1954’s The Maggie amusingly pits an American businessman against a British boat captain in a battle of dollars, wills and wits. Both B&W films look sparkling in their new hi-def transfers; Whiskey extras comprise an audio commentary, documentary and featurette.

 

DVD of the Week 

Colossus 

(First Run)

Jonathan Schienberg’s eye-opening documentary follows Jamil, a 15-year-old born in this country but whose parents and sister are deported after his dad’s arrest for being an undocumented immigrant.

 

 

 

The unusually articulate teenager Jamil wants the life he’s envisioned for himself in the States but feels a kinship with his family back in Honduras; Schienberg depicts the insanity, anger and ultimately human cost of our already draconian immigrant policies that have been further exacerbated by the colossus of evil named tRump.

 
 
 
 
 
 

CDs of the Week

Nikos Skalkottas—Orchestral Works 

(BIS)

The Neoclassical Skalkottas 

(Naxos)

I didn’t even know the name Nikos Skalkottas before I listened to these two discs of his music, and if he isn’t particularly innovative, he is a composer of accomplished and attractive if mainly conventional and, ultimately, minor music. Still, there’s variety and charm in the works on both discs, even though the most memorable of them, the B flat major Sinfonietta, appears on each. 

 
 
 
 
 

The BIS disc also includes his modernist-period works, the concerto for violin and piano and the suite for violin and chamber orchestra. The Naxos disc has the weightier Classical Symphony and Four Images for orchestra, prime examples of his neoclassical period.

New Films in Brief—Sorry We Missed You, Young Ahmed, The Disappearance at Clifton Hill, Buffaloed

Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You (opens March 4 in New York and March 6 in Los Angeles)

Now 83, legendary British director Ken Loach is still making vital, angry films about ordinary people caught in the vise of merciless market or governmental forces. His latest is a merciless dissection of the modern gig economy: thinking it will be a better way to earn money, Ricky decides to buy a van and become a parcel delivery driver, but soon discovers that not only is the job difficult but that his home life—his wife Abbie and teenage son Seb and daughter Liza Jane have their own issues at work and school—is turning into a shambles. Loach observes this family’s mounting problems with enormous sympathy and thoroughness; Paul Laverty’s trenchant script is unafraid to linger on tender or even sentimental moments. As usual in Loach films, the performances by a cast of unknowns—Kris Hitchen as Ricky, Debbie Honeywood as Abbie and Rhys Stone and Katie Proctor as their kids—ring with truthfulness.

 

The Dardennes' Young Ahmed

Young Ahmed (in theaters)

The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ latest is another depiction of a protagonist in crisis, but with a twist: Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a Muslim teen living in a Belgian city with his family, has been radicalized by a local imam. He tells his mother and sister how to follow the Torah (there is no father present), and he’s especially fixated on his female teacher, whom he attacks with a knife. The Dardennes film all this with their customary rigor, and although several sequences ring disturbingly true—like his conflicted feelings when he spends time with a (non-Muslim) girl, Louise (Victoria Bluck), at the farm he is assigned to by his social worker—other times the lack of context robs the filmmakers of plausibly presenting Ahmed’s radical beliefs and actions. This is especially true of a contrived ending—when Ahmed is, almost literally, paralyzed by his radicalism him—that is painfully literal.

 

Tuppence Middleton in Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (in theaters and on demand)

Set in Niagara Falls (the Canadian side), Albert Shin’s creepy but unsatisfying drama centers on Abby, who returns to her hometown many years after witnessing, at age 9, the abduction of a young boy by a suspicious-looking couple. As she takes over the family-run motel, she tries to piece together what might have happened, but since she has a reputation of not telling the truth, she doesn’t get much outside help. There’s a surfeit of atmosphere, as Shin deftly contrasts the glitz of the touristy Niagara Falls with the more rundown sections of the town, which becomes a believable setting for the shadowy memories and characters conjured up by what Abby witnessed long ago. But even Tuppence Middleton’s forceful presence as Abby and Canadian director David Cronenberg as a willful conspiracy theorist can’t compensate for half-hearted plot twists and a dull denouement.

 

Zoey Deutch in Buffaloed

Buffaloed (in theaters and on demand)

A young woman decides to get a job in the supposed debt-collecting capital of the world, Buffalo (4 straight Super Bowl losses, snow storms, and now debt-collecting?), in Tanya Wexler’s spotty but funny character study, bolstered by the energetic Zoey Deutch as the enterprising Peg, who skirts the law as long as she can, but must deal with her football-loving mother (an amusing Judy Greer), the young detective she’s seeing (Jermaine Fowler) and the competitors who don’t take kindly to her incursions into their shady territory. It’s sympathetic to the people who live in the margins, and Wexler and writer Brian Sacca—who’s from Western New York—nail the small-city vibe in moments like Peg hawking counterfeit Bills tickets on gameday. 

March '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dark Waters 

(Universal)

In this throwback to muckraking films like Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate lawyer who finds himself on the wrong side of his bosses and Dupont when he brings lawsuits against the company for poisoning the water in rural West Virginia.

 

 

Todd Haynes might not seem like the obvious director for such a straightforward drama, but he guides the plot capably and gets strong performances out of Ruffalo and the supporting cast: Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp and several of the actual people who were affected by Dupont’s negligence. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras comprise three making-of featurettes.

 

From the House of the Dead 

(Bel Air Classiques)

Czech composer Leos Janáček died in 1928 before the premiere of his last opera, a haunting adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel about a Siberian prison camp. But despite the perfect marriage of Janáček’s startling music and Dostoyevsky’s taut drama, director Frank Castorf decided he can be trusted more than those two geniuses, opting for all the wrong things: pointless video screen action (obtrusive cameramen and -women are seen too often onstage), a garish parade of painted flesh, and a sense that the prisoners are interchangeable.

 

 

It all lessens the dramatic impact as well as Janáček’s carefully constructed musical cues. The orchestra, conductor Simone Young, chorus and performers do their best to bring across Janáček’s musical vision. There are first-rate hi-def video and audio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

J.S. Bach—The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II 

(Naxos)

Last month I mentioned how astonishing it was that András Schiff performed Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Klavier, Book I, at the 2017 BBC Proms completely from memory. Now there’s Schiff’s playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, at the 2018 BBC Proms, and—if it’s even possible—it’s even more incredible that, once again, Schiff plays the entire 140-minute work from memory.

 

 

Bach’s preludes and variations are enough to tax any pianist, but Schiff plays one of our greatest composers’ greatest works with artistry and graceful calm. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.

 

A Little Romance 

(Warner Archive)

George Roy Hill’s cutesy 1979 romance introduced Diane Lane to the world, and that’s the most enduring quality of this alternately charming and enervating film about the budding relationship between a French boy and American girl in Paris. Lane’s natural charisma is already obvious, but her costar, Thelonious Bernard, is less impressive (he would quit movies and go on to become a dentist); Laurence Olivier, as a French rascal who helps the young couple, chews the scenery delectably, and Sally Kellerman is an amusing mess as Lane’s mom.

 

 

 

George Delerue’s old-fashioned (and baroque-sounding) score won an Oscar, while the locations—Paris, Verona and Venice—are unbeatable. The film looks good if unspectacular in hi-def.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Queen & Slim 

(Universal)

In the fraught atmosphere of tRump’s America, director Melina Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe enter the fray with their provocative exploration of the aftermath of an all-too-real situation: a black couple—on a first date yet—accidentally kill a cop who pulls them over on a Cleveland street. They go on the lam before being tracked down and sacrificed to the gods of police brutality and white privilege.

 

 

Like Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise before it, the film makes for a messy metaphor, but it’s a riveting drama about two innocent people who become martyrs, with superb performances by Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen) and Daniel Kaluuya (Slim). The film looks splendid on Blu; extras include Matsoukas and Waithe’s commentary and making-of featurettes.

 

CD of the Week

David Lang—The Loser 

(Canteloupe)

In this inspired monodrama based on a novel by Thomas Bernhard, Rod Gilfry narrates the story of two performers who feel inadequate once they realize the immense artistry of their fellow classmate: Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (who calls one of them the title moniker).

 

 

Gilfry finds the nuances of emotion and intellect in his characterization, and Lang’s music—for piano and small ensemble—moves along with a sturdy forward momentum in this shockingly direct commentary about the vagaries of art, life and death.

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