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Film and the Arts

February '19 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

A Star Is Born 

(Warner Bros)

Despite its acclaim, box office haul and awards, this is definitely the least of the four versions I’ve seen of the standard she-becomes-famous-while-he-goes-downhill showbiz tale—even the much-maligned 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson remake is better than this dreck. When she’s not in front of a microphone, Lady Gaga comes off as sullen and self-absorbed: her tendency to stare blankly is no help either.




Bradley Cooper’s competent if undistinguished direction betrays an unimaginative vanity project, and Cooper’s leaden acting is practically fatal: I never believed one moment of the two stars’ relationship, nor Cooper’s with Sam Elliott, who plays the half-brother/manager (not father, which would make more sense) in his usual laconic way. The Oscar-winning song “Shallow” should have been the movie’s title. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include music videos, bonus musical performances and a making-of featurette.


Between Worlds 


When a man whose wife and daughter perished in a house fire begins a relationship with a woman whose own daughter has had a near-fatal accident, her daughter becomes possessed by the spirit of his dead wife to avenge her own untimely death. (At least I think that’s what happens.)




Writer-director Maria Pulera’s insane mélange of supernatural and sexual scores points for audacity, if nothing else. Nicolas Cage’s focused craziness works well here, and German actress Franka Potente as the woman and Aussie Penelope Mitchell as her daughter are far better than the material warrants. There’s a superb hi-def transfer.






George Benjamin—Lessons in Love and Violence 

(Opus Arte)

The opera Written on Skin made George Benjamin’s name: his spiky music and intense dramatics, coupled with committed collaborators and interpreters, were a satisfying combination.




His latest, a static drama based on Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, shows Benjamin merely marking musical time, but it does bring out the best of director Katie Mitchell and singers Barbara Hannigan and Stephane Dagout, who elevate the opera whenever it sags. The hi-def image and audio are first-rate; lone extras are short interviews with Benjamin, Crimp and Mitchell.


Nino Rota—La notte di un Nevrastenico/I due timidi 


Nino Rota—best known for the memorable scores he wrote for many Fellini films, from the sublime The White Sheik to the didactic Orchestra Rehearsal—was also a master of chamber music, symphonies and even operas, two of which are enacted in Cesare Scarton’s beguiling 2017 staging from Italy’s Reate Festival.




The one-acters, La notte di un Nevrastenico and I due timidi, have silly characters and storylines, but the music is wonderfully alive, the performers sing and act beautifully and the orchestra (under Gabriele Bonolis) sounds perfect. 






Year of the Dragon 

(Warner Archive)

When Michael Cimino made this 1985 detective drama, it was his first feature since 1980’s Heaven’s Gate bankrupted United Artists: although far from successful, Dragon is an entertaining yarn with some breathtaking sequences and Mickey Rourke at his cynical best as a police captain tracking a Chinatown crime syndicate.




Major debits are a convoluted plot (courtesy writers Oliver Stone and Cimino) and a non-actress named Ariane as Rourke’s love interest. Still, it holds our interest for 135 minutes and is Cimino’s last watchable film of the four he made before his death in 2016. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is Cimino’s informative commentary.


CD of the Week

George Antheil—Symphonies No. 3 and 6, Orchestral Works 


American composer George Antheil (1900-59) spent his formative composing years in Europe, soaking up the avant-garde sounds and making them his own through his often brutal-sounding, march-like rhythmic music.




But, as this terrific recording of five of his orchestral works performed with aplomb by the BBC Philharmonic under conductor John Storgards can attest, he could also compose sturdy, melodic works, notably his sixth symphony, “After Delacroix,” wafts by at times to allow the listener to savor Antheil’s impressive aural equivalents to the French artist’s astonishing canvases. 

Spike Lee’s “Blackkklansman” Takes Us All by Surprise And Gets Him The Recognition He Deserves


Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

If any film came up from behind this summer and bit everyone on the ass, it was Spike Lee’s return to form —"BlacKkKlansman.” Assuredly an award contender from the start, Lee’s iteration of this true story — a Black policeman uses a ruse to join the KKK in order to keep these  unreconstructed racists at bay — is spot-on from beginning to end. Ands hopefully, he Lee will be awarded one sort of Oscar or another for his first Academy Award nominated film.

Grit might be the word to best describethis dissection of American race relations, or the lack there of, through this period piece.When Lee got his hands on “Black Klansman,” retired police detective/author Ron Stallworth’s out-of-print book, he realized what a story he had on hand. This Brooklynite could have just told about Stallworth’s rise to being the first black detective in Colorado Springs. That story of what Ron endured could made a strong movie in and of itself. But the full narrative offered by his memoir provided incredible fodder for a film to be made. And in doing so, Lee found a way, by looking into the past, to tell a constantly gripping contemporary dramedy — will the Klan ever discover who Stallworth is? — and was actually able to show the absurdity of their beliefs then and now.

Undercover cop Stallworth (John David Washington) does more than that just talk with the Klan and its leader David Duke (Topher Grace), he even persuades fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who happens to be Jewish, to actually attend their surreptitious meetings so that the two keep an eye on their criminally threatening activities. 

As a director and personality, Lee can be irascible, outrageous, provocative and challenging; in this film, he’s all those things but has anchored his varied filmmaking techniques and statements through a story where he’s not only passionate about his characters but also imbues them with a mission. Without ever lagging at any point, Lee works in humor, philosophy and tension throughout. The film even shows a human side to the Klan members without letting audiences forget they are the bete noir to any kind of positive, progressive movement.

He does all of these things with “Blackkklansman” — an outrageous story made all the more outrageous because it was true. The Klansmen look like the fools they are without him having to even slightly exaggerate. And the injustice that led to millions of black people enslaved, tortured and damaged, is properly framed through a contemporary lens to make sure we don’t forget of the awful consequences of the Klan and its beliefs.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" Bio Pic Royally Rocks The Award Season

Malek as Mercury

Bohemian Rhapsody
Directors: Bryan Singer [and Dexter Fletcher]
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

As rock biopics go, “Bohemian Rhapsody” — the film — pretty well tells an alternate-world version of the Freddie Mercury story starring the rest of the band as accoutrement. Obviously, for the purposes of effective filmmaking, director Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (the last minute replacement after Singer was fired), had to focus the story. Sadly, in doing so, some things were lost and diminished in the telling. 

Nonetheless, it’s a great story, that of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) an eccentric lead singer of a band that might not have made it, yet it did manage to accrue enough traction for it to become an international hitmaker, develop as a British legend and, in doing so, tell of both a coming-of-age narrative and of that of a coming-out. Along the way it very much shines a very public spotlight on Mercury and his excesses.

The film bases its title on the 1975 hit of the same name — a song that reflected Queen at its grandiose best. But this British-American joint production also illustrates that the band had an enormous catalog of hits — not all created by vocalist Mercury (formerly Bulsara). From rock anthems such as “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites The Dust” to many more, the band's succession of hits made them a sensation throughout the early 1980s, until tensions arise between the group members over its musical direction and Freddie's changing attitude as he acknowledges his gayness. He goes from being in a happy relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) to drug-fuel romps with Irish manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and unsavory hanger-on druggies.

Disastrously, he pulls away from the band and drifts into a drug infused haze until one night, a married and pregnant Mary urges him to return to the band, having been offered a spot in "Live Aid" — Bob Geldof's huge Wembley Stadium benefit concert. With the AIDS outbreak spreading worldwide, Freddie discovers that he’s infected with the disease. So he comes to London, and begs the band for forgiveness. They reconcile and get a slot. During rehearsal, Freddie reveals to his disease — they embrace him. The Live Aid performance rocks and he reunites with real love Jim Hutton, Mary, and his estranged family. Following Freddie's death, his last manager Jim Beach and the remaining members create the Mercury Phoenix Trust to combat the spread of AIDS.

Despite its tragic consequences, Malek-as-Mercury’s performance lends the film the needed focus and spirit to make it both a hit and major award contender.Not all rock bands' musical journeys have such a powerful redemptive storyline and that makes “Bohemian Rhapsody" all the more inspiring cinematic experience.

Christine Ebersole Sings the Classics of Stage & Screen at Lincoln Center

Christine Ebersole, photo by Da Ping Luo for Lincoln Center.

On the evening of Wednesday, February 20th, the magnificent Christine Ebersole gave a fabulous concert at Alice Tully Hall—as part of the wonderful American Songbook series of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts—accompanied by an excellent jazz quintet featuring music director Lawrence Yurman at the piano, Aaron Heick on reeds, Paul Woodiel on violin and viola, Davic Finck on bass, and Jared Schonig on drums. Still gorgeous in her 60s, Ebersole wore a sequined dress, commenting hilariously about herself: “a drag queen unleashed in a Jersey housewife’s body.”

She opened with a leisurely rendition of “Lullaby of Broadway” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin from Busby Berkeley’s film, Gold Diggers of 1935, followed by Louis Jordan’s “Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens.” She then sang Jerome Kern’s beautiful “I’m Old Fashioned” from the film You Were Never Lovelier directed by the underrated William A. Seiter, with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. She then segued from Kern and Johnny Mercer’s “Yesterdays” and “Lazy Afternoon” from The Golden Apple.
Next was another Warren and Dubin song, “42nd Street,” from the 1933 movie of the same title—Ebersole had appeared in the revival of the Broadway musical adaptation. A highlight of the evening was “I Cain't Say No” from Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s, another show she appeared in on Broadway. Also lovely was “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” from Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe followed by the exquisite ”Where the River Shannon Flows” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” from Burton Lane’s musical, Finian’s Rainbow.
She then sang “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”—which was featured in the film The Harvey Girls — again with music by Warren and lyrics by Mercer. She movingly performed Kern and Hammerstein’s “Bill” from Show Boat followed by George and Ira Gershwin’s “'S Wonderful” from Funny Face. A different type of music was heard with Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”—from her celebrated album, Blue — from which she segued into the superb “Inchworm” by Frank Loesser from the Danny Kaye vehicle, Hans Christian Andersen.
Ebersole then invited Broadway composer Scott Frankel to the piano to accompany her in two songs from Grey Gardens in which she had played socialite Little Edie Beale — beginning with the touching “Will You?” and followed by “Around the World”—and “Pink” from War Paint, in which she had portrayed cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden. She closed the program with “Too Marvelous for Words” by Mercer and Richard Whiting, followed by “How Can I Keep from Singing?”—a Christian hymn from her childhood—and, finally, “I Happen to Like New York,” from Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers. Ebersole performed two enjoyable encores: “I Do What I Can with What I Got,” from the musical Paper Moon and “My Shining Hour” from the Fred Astaire film, The Sky’s the Limit, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Mercer.
This will surely prove to be one of the most memorable concerts of the year and I hope we have the chance to encounter Ebersole’s enormous talents in New York again soon.

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