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Film and the Arts

September '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice 

(Criterion Collection)

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 Planets 


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.






The Witches 

(Warner Archive)

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 

(Icarus Films)

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.

Off-Broadway Review—Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe” with Samantha Mathis

Make Believe

Written by Bess Wohl; directed by Michael Greif

Performances through September 22, 2019


Susannah Flood and Samantha Mathis in Make Believe (photo: Joan Marcus)


It’s the rare play that treats preteens with a real understanding. Bess Wohl’s Make Believe does just that—despite some faults, it’s a refreshing change to watch.


For the one-acter’s first half, Wohl introduces four siblings—12-year-old Chris, 10-year-old Kate, 7-year-old Addie and 5-year-old Carl—who return home from school one day, go up to the attic playroom and come to realize that their mother is not coming home. (Dad is on a business trip.) After the kids spend several days playing and getting on one another’s nerves—they don’t go to school, don’t answer the phone or the doorbell, and their only food comes in the occasional bags of groceries Chris brings home—they hear someone coming up the stairs. 


Fast-forward 32 years. The next person through the playroom door is the adult Kate, dressed in black, nervously trying to find some time alone at what appears to be a post-funeral get-together. Soon Addie and Carl show up, but a different Chris is present—about half their age, he introduces himself as a co-worker (and lover) of their brother Chris. 


The reason for the new Chris is soon explained, which Wohl uses to unpack the adults’ neuroses, directly caused by their childhood traumas. (Chris at one point says, with thickly-laden irony, “We are not even going to remember most of this stuff when we grow up.”) If Wohl and director Michael Greif underline the connections too obviously, Wohl’s writing is often incisive enough to look past such contrivances. Her dialogue has bite, the youngsters’ treatment of one another is grimace-inducing but truthful, and the resulting adult difficulties are plausibly presented.


That said, the play’s 80-minute length is both too much and not enough: the kids’ game-playing, running around covered in sheets as ghosts or listening to the answering machine through the floor (is the floor so paper-thin?), becomes repetitive. And the adults’ personalities are a bit too on the nose: Kate still wants to connect long-gone mommy, Addie unthinkingly fools around with new Chris in the attic playhouse and Carl—who imitated a dog at his older brother’s behest as a young boy—has now become a tech genius.


Happily, it’s for the most part smoothed over by the superlative acting, beginning with the four preteen performers (Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary and Casey Hilton), all of whom are funny and ultimately touching. Equally thoughtful portrayals come from Samantha Mathis (Kate), Brad Heberlee (Carl) and Susannah Flood (Addie), who nails the emotional final moments, which culminate in an indelible adult-child embrace. 


Special mention must be given to David Zinn, whose spectacularly detailed set encompasses so much childhood bric-a-brac that we could spend the entire performance rummaging through everything. Flaws notwithstanding, Make Believe makes a believable portrait of children—and the immature adults they become.


Make Believe

Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 

August '19 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Koker Trilogy 


Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016, was best-known for his loosely structured trilogy of films set in his country’s Koker region: 1987’s Where Is the Friend’s House?, 1992’s And Life Goes On and 1994’s Through the Olive Trees. These endlessly inventive mixtures of fiction and documentary are self-reflexive explorations that mark the pinnacle of an impressive career, and were immeasurably valuable in giving Iranian cinema a prominent place internationally.




Criterion’s excellent boxed set comprises fantastic-looking hi-def transfers of all three films, along with many contextualizing extras: And Life Goes On commentary by Kiarostami experts Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum; Homework (1989), a newly-restored Kiarostami doc; a doc about the director, Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams; interview with Kiarostami’s son Ahmad; conversation between scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire; 2015 discussion with Kiarostami; interview with scholar Hamid Naficy.


American Gods—Complete 2nd Season 


In the second season of this tense and gleefully bizarre fantasy drama, the Old Gods and New Gods—when they’re not making the life of our mortal hero, Shadow Moon, extremely difficult—converge on Cairo, Illinois because—hey, why not?




There’s a mighty starry cast on board—led by Ian MacShane, Emily Browning and Peter Stormare, and even including Cloris Leachman and Crispin Glover!—to keep us occupied when the plotting goes off the rails, as it frequently does. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise three making-of featurettes.








In this existential Swedish sci-fi feature—based on Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s eponymous 1956 poem—a city-size ship carrying humans to a new home on Mars goes wildly off course after hitting space debris, sending the vessel into the stratosphere; those onboard must deal with the psychological ramifications, including murder and suicide, for starters.




Directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja have made a thoughtful if diffuse study of human nature reverting to its most elemental state when confronted by a mortal—and moral—crisis. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include several making-of featurettes.


Arrow—Complete 7th Season 

(Warner Bros)

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

The ramifications of the series’ hero Oliver Queen’s decision to admit that he is the Green Arrow continue to reverberate, especially when he’s released from prison and his cousin becomes the new Green Arrow—but is not all she seems to be.




The 22 episodes present a roller-coaster ride of dramatics, especially when it jumps 20 years into the future; but the cast—led by Steven Amell and Katie Cassidy Rodgers—keeps it honest. The hi-def transfer is superb; extras include Comic-Con panel, San Diego 2018; featurettes, gag reel and deleted scenes.






The Flash—Complete 5th Season 

(Warner Bros)

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

The end of last season saw the appearance of Nora, the grown not-yet-born daughter of Barry/The Flash and Iris, whose time-traveling antics end up making things more difficult for the team fighting another rosters of criminals.




This engaging superhero adventure has just enough tongue-in-cheek humor to get by, as well as a fine cast led by Grant Gustin, Candice Patton and Jesse L. Martin. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer of the season’s 22 episodes; extras include Comic-Con panel, San Diego 2018; featurettes, gag reel and deleted scenes.


Godzilla—King of Monsters 

(Warner Bros)

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

In this sequel to the 2014 reboot, Godzilla and several monstrous “Titans”—horrific prehistoric creatures like the three-headed Ghidorah—do battle, along with Mothra, a creature created in a lab by meddling scientists.




Desperately stretching this B-movie aesthetic long past its short attention span—it clocks in, for reasons unknown, at over two hours—director Michael Dougherty relies on his ace effects team to work overtime, as it seems nearly every frame is filled with some rampaging monster. The game cast (Vera Farmiga David Straithairn, Kyle Chandler, Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, for starters) doesn’t stand a chance against the formidable CGI team. The film looks too digital on Blu-ray; extras are Dougherty’s commentary, several featurettes and deleted scenes.







Wagon Master 

(Warner Archive)

Warner Archives’ latest Blu-ray excavation comprises less familiar titles by two legendary directors. Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), is a watchably lush adventure with great color photography by Robert Plank, entertaining scenery-chewing by Stewart Granger and a soaring Miklos Rosza score.




John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950) boasts fine performances by Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr as rustlers who join a Mormon wagon train going west, but there’s a sense of déjà vu in this lesser Ford picture (maybe not an Edsel, but close). Both films have solid new hi-def transfers; Wagon Master includes a commentary by Carey Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich, with Ford’s own comments sprinkled throughout.


The Walking Dead—Complete 9th Season 


The series’ ninth season gets a fresh jolt from its leapfrogging ahead several years—first to more than a year after All Out War and again to six more years later when the united communities’ fraying bonds are put the ultimate test—time and again.




Despite the by-now tired concept, the accomplished filmmaking and acting help cover up the relentless sameness that’s at the heart of the series. It all looks great on Blu; extras include deleted scenes and several featurettes. 


DVD of the Week 

I Love Lucy—The Colorized Collection 


Not that there’s any reason to watch I Love Lucy in a colorized version, but for those who want to, this two-disc set collects 16 of the most popular episodes—including an all-time classic with guest star Harpo Marx—and gives them that slightly off-kilter color wash that sometimes looks decent but more often looks fake.




Still, Lucy is hilarious whether in B&W or color; extras include an interesting 30-minute featurette about the colorization process.


CD of the Week

Poul Ruders—The Thirteenth Child 


Danish composer Poul Ruders—whose 2000 opera from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been back in the limelight thanks to the popular TV series and tRump’s presidency—premiered his latest opera at Santa Fe Opera last month.




This world premiere recording finds Ruders in a more lyrical, even romantic mood, mirroring the libretto that Becky and David Starobin based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The cast is uniformly excellent, with standouts being Sarah Shafer as Princess Lyra and Tamara Mumford as her mother, Queen Gertrude. David Starobin conducts a sympathetic account of Ruders’ engaging score by the Odense Symphony Orchestra. The relatively brief running time and Ruders’ new-found notoriety should further assure The Thirteenth Child a bright future. 

Broadway Play Review—“Sea Wall/A Life” with Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal

Sea Wall/A Life

One-acts written by Simon Stephens & Nick Payne; directed by Carrie Cracknell

Performances through September 29, 2019


Jake Gyllenhaal in A Life (photo: Joan Marcus)


Grief is at the center of the one-acts that make up Sea Wall/A Life, as two fathers try to articulate their grieving and possible next steps towards healing. But neither play delves too deeply into these subjects, instead staying on the surface as the protagonists wear their emotions on their sleeves.


Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall introduces Alex, who regularly leaves England with his wife and young daughter to visit his father-in-law Arthur, who’s living comfortably in the south of France and who debates the existence of God with Alex. When an unspeakable tragedy occurs at the beach near Arthur’s home, whether God even exists becomes moot. 


In Nick Payne’s A Life, Abe is a reluctant father dealing with his own father’s dying. Unlike in Sea Wall, there’s no sudden tragic event, but Payne creates a kind of crude suspense by having Abe simultaneously describe his wife’s giving birth and his father’s final moments. 


Despite moving passages in both plays, both men’s stories of family loss are dramatized in the most contrived way possible, even if, in Sea Wall, Stephens’ description of the tragedy at the beach is chillingly poetic. Payne’s A Life even drags in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which director Carrie Cracknell makes sure we hear a snippet of on the piano that has been sitting on the stage for the entire show in an impotent anticlimax. 


Most problematic, however, is that Alex and Abe are simply not very interesting characters. Although the unseen wives and children are ciphers, Abe’s father and Alex’s father-in-law are more fascinating than the men telling their stories. 


The performances can’t be faulted. Tom Sturridge (Alex) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Abe) disappear fully into these men, and even turn the staging’s cutesy touches—playing around with the house and stage lights, an awkward-looking ladder up which Sturridge ascends to the set’s second level, Gyllenhaal finally sitting down at that onstage piano—into moments that charm the audience...but as Sturridge and Gyllenhaal, not Alex and Abe. These one-acts work far better as actors’ exercises than as fully-realized plays. 


Sea Wall/A Life

Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY

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