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Film and the Arts

September '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Piano Teacher

(Criterion)
One of Austrian master Michael Haneke’s most memorably disturbing dramas, this explosive 2001 character study introduces a repressed middle-aged woman still living with her mother whose masochistic side is displayed when she takes up with a younger man.
 
Haneke unflinchingly depicts a bizarre but all too real relationship usually kept hidden, and he has a willing partner in Isabelle Huppert, who gives another of her scarily authentic portrayals of women acting unlike most of us. There’s the usual superlative hi-def transfer from Criterion; extras are Huppert’s select-scene commentary, new Huppert and Haneke interviews and on-set footage.
 
The Flesh
(Cult Epics)
Another of late Italian director Marco Ferreri’s provocations, this 1991 entry centers around a desperate man who falls for a voluptuous beauty and cannot stand to be apart from her intense sexuality; so when she decides to leave him, he ends up stab….
 
 
 
Well, of course anyone who’s seen a Ferreri film knows where this is headed, so there are no surprises—except for the tin-eared use of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and Queen’s “Innuendo”—but Sergio Castellito’s lead performance and Francesca Dellera’s stunning looks keep us interested for 90 minutes. The hi-def transfer is not bad; extras include interviews with the two stars and director.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Illustrated Man 

Innocent Blood

The Law and Jake Wade
(Warner Archive)
Based on Ray Bradbury stories, 1969’s Illustrated Man is a jumbled farrago of unrelated, supposedly scary tales, but the scariest thing is the tattoos covering Rod Steiger’s body, while Claire Bloom provides a dose of sanity in her too-brief appearance.
 
John Landis has always been a sledgehammer director, and even in his sporadically entertaining gangster vampire flick, 1992’s Innocent Blood, he can’t help but overdo everything, ruining the odd amusing moment and weird thrill. John Sturges’1958 The Law and Jake Wade is a compact western that pits Richard Widmark’s villain against Robert Taylor’s marshal amid the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. All three films have great new hi-def transfers; Illustrated extra is a vintage featurette.
 
Rare—Creatures of the Photo Ark
(PBS)
National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore has made it his life’s work to create a “Photo Ark”: a voluminous record of countless endangered and near-extinct wild animals that he’s tracked down in as many zoos, natural preserves, sanctuaries as he can—and even in the wild—and this three-hour, three-part documentary explores both his worldwide quest and the reasons why so many species are disappearing off the face of the planet.
 
Sartore’s pictures show off these beautiful creatures in their blazingly bright and colorful clarity, especially on Blu-ray.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Taken—Complete 1st Season 

(Lionsgate)

Based on the popular movie (and its unnecessary sequels) with Liam Neeson as a former CIA agent who tracks down his daughter’s kidnapers, this new TV drama provides the backstory of Bryan Mills’ recruitment by a shadowy agency cabal to find international terrorists.
 
The first season’s 10 episodes are occasionally absorbing and exciting, despite a plethora of plotholes. The fine cast is headed by Clive Standen as Mills and Jennifer Beals as his CIA boss. The series looks exceptional on Blu; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
 
2:22
(Magnolia)
An air-traffic controller suspended after nearly causing a mid-air collision meets a beautiful young woman who was on one of the planes and tries to explore the significance of the time 2:22 in his subconscious and, soon, his everyday reality.
 
Michiel Huisman and Teresa Palmer have fine chemistry as the couple thrown together by bizarre circumstance, but they are dragged down by a ridiculous plot that grows more incoherent as it goes along. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVDs of the Week 

The Stopover

(First Run)
Pop singer turned actress Soko turns in a feisty performance in Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s gritty drama about female French soldiers on their way home from Afghanistan who, while on leave in Cyprus, must deal with horny men—both their compatriots and the Arab locals who don’t often see Western women.
 
This fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of modern conflict demonstrates how cultural misunderstandings can proliferate among allies and foes alike.
 
Viva La Liberta
(Icarus)
Writer-director Roberto Ando’s blunt political satire might be better appreciated in its homeland of Italy, where the Berlusconi regime is still fresh in the memory, but despite the presence of the great Toni Servillo in the lead—er, leads—as a disgraced politician and his replacement twin brother, the movie wanly attempts to puncture contemporary politics.
 
A few scattered bulls-eyes don’t compensate for treading such familiar territory without distinguishing itself from predecessors from The Great Dictatorto Dave.

Does "Ismael's Ghosts" Have Any Spirit?

 

An interesting opportunity for local cinephiles will present itself on October 13th and 14th with two screenings at the New York Film Festival of the director’s preferred cut of the new feature, Ismael’s Ghosts, by the extraordinary Arnaud Desplechin, a favorite of the Film Society of Lincoln Center programmers.

The work explores the chaotic impact of the return of the long lost wife—beautifully played by the luminous Marion Cotillard—of a film director—brilliantly realized by Desplechin axiom, Mathieu Amalric—who is embarking on a production. Her reappearance upends the lives of her father—the legendary New Wave actor, Laszlo Szabbo—as well as the filmmaker’s girlfriend—the remarkable Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a memorable role —while disrupting the new project and exasperating the line producer—Hippolyte Girardot, in a comic turn.

Ismael’s Ghostsis well-served by a terrific supporting cast: Louis Garrel as the director’s diplomat brother and Alba Rohrbacher as his wife, along with appearances by Jacques Nolot and Bruno Todeschini. The filmmaking here is uniformly fine, employing elegant dolly shots as well as liberal use of the handheld camera and dynamically edited. The film lacks the freewheeling hilarity of such comparable efforts as Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale, indicating that for all its splendid qualities, this may well prove to be a minor work in the director’s impressive œuvre.

Off-Broadway Review—Simon Stephens’ “On the Shore of the Wide World”

On the Shore of the Wide World
Written by Simon Stephens; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances through October 8, 2017
 
Ben Rosenfeld, C.J. Wilson and Tedra Millan in On the Shore of the Wide World (photo: Ahron R. Foster)
Simon Stephens’s ambitious plays include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which daringly got inside an autistic teen’s headspace thanks to Marianne Elliott’s astonishing Tony-winning staging; and Heisenberg, a routine May-September romance between an elderly man and a younger woman whose dullness was saved on Broadway solely by a luminous Mary-Louise Parker. 
 
In between sits On the Shore of the Wide World, a 2005 effort titled after a line from a John Keats poem, belatedly getting its New York premiere.
 
Three generations of the Holmes family muddle through their quotidian 21st century existence in the north of England. There are two brothers—teens Alex and Christopher (smitten with Alex’s new girlfriend, Sarah)—their parents Peter and Alice, and Peter’s own father and mother, Ellen and Charlie. 
 
After one of the brothers is killed in an accident, it sends shock waves through the family, and the bulk of the play deals with coming to grips with that loss by taking tentative steps toward rebuilding their lives and relationships.
 
The major problem with the play is that these are indistinct characters with muddled motivations and a manner that’s subdued to the point of being somnolent. Maybe Stephens is showing the ultimate British stiff-upper-lip sensibility, but when Peter mentions the death of his son to Susan, the mom-to-be whose house he is renovating, it’s the first time the audience has heard about it and it feels like cheating: why is such a momentous event handled in an “oh by the way” manner, and in a conversation with a relative stranger some weeks after it happened?
 
By omitting immediate reactions to the biggest dramatic incident in the Holmes family’s lives, Stephens shortchanges both the characters and the play they inhabit, ensuring that everything from that point is greeted with audience skepticism: the playwright is playing untrustworthy games.
 
Too often the characters are mere chess pieces placed by their author into contrived situations. When grandfather Charlie is rushed to the hospital with a seemingly serious ailment, it ends up being for purposes of obvious dramatic irony as his son Peter comes to visit and confess his lifelong love-hate for his own dad. 
 
And when Alice meets John, the father of the boy who accidentally killed her son, they embark on an improbable (but platonic!) relationship, replete with delicious home-cooked meals, that exists solely as an inelegant parallel to the equally unconvincing bond between Peter and Susan.
 
Since there’s little coherence in the story’s strands or emotional resonance in the characters, even a first-rate staging doesn’t help. Director Neil Pepe sensitively paces the action—there are many scenes, some brief, some lingering, in several locales (the canny set design is by Scott Pask)—and gets affecting performances by a mainly American cast whose British accents sometimes waver but whose grasp of these sketchy people feels more lived-in than they deserve.
 
Blair Brown is a subdued but transfixing Ellen, Peter Maloney his usual ornery self as Charlie, Mary McCann a riveting bundle of raw nerves as Alice, C.J. Wilson a trenchantly expressive Peter, Ben Rosenfeld and Wesley Zurick finely wrought as the brothers, and Tedra Millan just right as Sarah—this, her first stage appearance after she nearly stole Present Laughter from Kevin Kline, confirms her as one of our most promising performers, on and off Broadway.
 
On the Shore of the Wide World
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY
atlantictheater.org

September '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
 

The Vietnam War

(PBS)
For the formidable team of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, it was only a matter of time before they got to the Vietnam War—following Burns’ famous The Civil Warand The War (on World War II)—and, over 10 episodes and 18 hours, theirs is a thorough and informative history lesson in the usual Burns way, with clear-eyed chronicling and analysis from fascinating talking heads and sobering archival footage. It might not be the last word on such a divisive, disastrous war, but what could?
 
 
On Blu, the series looks and sounds fantastic (big late ‘60s-early ‘70s hits are heard throughout); extras include a making-of featurette and extra scenes.
 
The Big Knife
(Arrow Academy)
Erik the Conqueror
(Arrow)
Clifford Odets’s intriguing but overly melodramatic play The Big Knife—on Broadway a few seasons ago with Bobby Cannavale—was adapted by director Robert Aldrich in 1955, an unsatisfying exploration of a Hollywood superstar’s difficulty balancing his personal and professional lives, despite strong work from Jack Palance, Ida Lupino and Shelley Winters.
 
 
Italian schlockmeister Mario Bava’s 1961 Erik the Conqueror—an often risible but mainly watchable swords-and-sandals epic—has its moments, especially whenever stunning twins Alice and Ellen Kessler are onscreen. The films look pleasing enough in new hi-def restorations; extras include commentaries and Erik’s original ending.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Festival 

(Criterion)

Murray Lerner—who died earlier this month at age 90—directed this classic 1967 time-capsule about the Newport Folk Festival, with performances by luminaries Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger.
 
 
Criterion’s Blu-ray features a superbly restored print with excellent sound, bonus musical performances, When We Played Newport, a new program of archival interviews with Lerner, music festival producer George Wein, Baez, Seeger, Judy Collins, Buffy Saint-Marie, and Peter Yarrow, and Editing "Festival," with Lerner, associate editor Alan Heim, and assistant editor Gordon Quinn.
 
Madonna—Rebel Heart Tour
(Eagle Vision)
Although her career has gone on longer than I expected for a celebrity of scant musical and artistic worth—notwithstanding a brilliant PR machine—Madonna does hire the best in the business, so this two-hour concert from her most recent tour is well-paced, -staged and -performed by her band and sundry dancers.
 
 
That she’s always been arrogantly unsubtle has served her well with her many fans, and she gives them what they want: “shocking” sexual come-ons and a “daring” potty mouth. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch; extras include a CD of the concert, excerpts from another concert and a performance of “Like a Prayer.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Slayer 

The Ghoul

(Arrow)
In 1982’s The Slayer, two couples find themselves at the mercy of a killer in a remote vacation house; director J.S. Cardone’s slasher flick is heavy on atmosphere and gore but light on true chills, despite a game, attractive cast and photogenic locale (Tybee Island, Georgia).
 
 
Dime-store psychology gives way to absurdity in The Ghoul (2013), Gareth Tunley’s would-be thinking-person’s thriller about a detective investigating bizarre murders, with an accomplished cast unable to overcome bumpy dramaturgy. Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; extras include commentaries, interviews and making-of featurettes.
 
Wonder Woman
(Warner Brothers)
If it wasn’t for Gal Gadot—an Israeli actress who dominates the screen with personality, charisma, charm and fierce strength—as the title character, this overlong, overstuffed, underwritten and self-important superhero movie would be as redundant and pointless as all the others from the past decade or so.
 
 
Director Patty Jenkins harnesses what she can of Gadot’s uniqueness but 40-50 minutes of bloat needed to be shorn from this 2-hour, 20-minute slog. The movie looks great on Blu; extras are extended scenes, blooper reel, alternate scene and several featurettes.
                                                                                                                
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVDs of the Week

Abacus—Small Enough to Jail

(PBS)
Anyone still outraged that no big bank executives were punished for actions leading to the 2008 financial meltdown—except for several billions of dollars in fines, more than offset by taxpayer bailouts and bonuses—will be enraged anew by director Steve James’ probing look at how tiny Abacus Bank in New York’s Chinatown was the only financial institution hauled into court.
 
 
As James deftly demonstrates, overreach by the New York attorney general’s office was the bigger story: it tried for at least one conviction, however miniscule in the grand scheme of things, to show it was tough on the big bad bankers. This is also a tale of the togetherness of a family banding together to fight to clear the name of the institution it’s run for generations.  

The Treasure
(Sundance Selects)
Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu loves shaggy-dog stories, which he once again pursues in his latest dryly droll feature, of a piece with his earlier, accomplished but flawed Police, Adjective and 12:08, East of Bucharest.
 
 
A treasure hunt undertaken by a man and his neighbor serves as a metaphor for post-Communist, post-capitalist Romanian society—one with lots of skeletons in its historical closet—with priceless moments of deadpan observation alternating with arid stretches.

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