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Film and the Arts

May '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Seire Noire 

(Film Movement Classics)

In Alain Corneau’s provocative 1979 study of lowlifes and delinquents based on Jim Thompson’s novel A Hell of a Woman, Patrick Dewaere—who killed himself six years later at age 35—projects sheer desperation better than anyone this side of Klaus Kinski.

 

 

Next to Dewaere’s memorably sketchy turn as a small-town salesman are finely etched performances by Myriam Boyer as his mousy wife and 16-year-old Marie Trintignant (also lost early when she was beaten to death by her boyfriend at age 40) in an astonishing debut as a troubled teen who gets involved with him. Seire Noire remains the second-best Thompson adaptation, runner-up to Bertrand Tavernier’s searing 1982 Coup de Torchon. The film’s grit is well-served on the grainy Blu; extras include 2002 interviews with Trintignant and Corneau and a recent retrospective making-of documentary.

 
 
 
 

Arrow—Complete Final Season 

(Warner Bros)

Eight seasons of Arrow are wrapped up in satisfying fashion as Oliver Queen (aka the Green Arrow) turns from protecting his beloved hometown Star City to being the last bulwark of safety for the entire multiverse—with several surprising (and even touching) outcomes as the 10 episodes move back and forth thousands of years in the past and into the future.

 

 

The uniformly appealing cast is led by Stephen Amell’s Oliver and Emily Bett Rickards, Melanie Merkosky, Katherine McNamara and Katie Cassidy as several of the women revolving around him. The hi-def transfer looks excellent.

 
 
 
 

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death 

(Film Detective)

Matthew Mallinson’s 1980 martial-arts drama is haphazardly cobbled together from undistinguished vignettes shot in Manhattan, footage from karate bouts at Felt Forum and glimpses of the beloved Bruce Lee in early celluloid appearances (he died several years earlier).

 

 

But, despite the presence of Blaxploitation vets Fred Williamson and Ron van Clief—and the always interesting Adolph Caesar as our ringmaster of sorts—this never becomes anything other than a curio for desperate Lee fans. There’s a nice, grainy Blu-ray transfer; the lone extra is a retrospective featurette including interviews with Mallinson, Williamson and producer Terry Levene.

 
 
 
 

World on Fire—Complete 1st Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

This absorbing seven-episode historical miniseries thrusts viewers headlong into the beginning of the Second World War on a large canvas that includes Germany, Poland, France, England and Belgium.

 

 

The story strands follow ordinary people—we don’t see politicians or generals—and although it’s at times marred by clichés, the tenor of lives threatened with total war is generally well-realized, and the weighty cast (Helen Hunt, Lesley Manville, Sean Bean, and an astonishing young Polish actress, Zofia Wichłacz, for starters) easily does the necessary heavylifting. There’s a superb hi-def transfer.

 
 
 
 

DVDs of the Week 

Ricordi? 

(Distrib Films)

The title means “Remember?” in Italian, and director Valerio Mieli examines how memory (and, as Milan Kundera has it in his great novel, forgetting) informs a young couple at the center of his messy but intriguing romantic drama.

 

 

The performances of the delightful Linda Caridi and brooding Luca Marinelli are the heart of a film that dives into the complexities of how each partner sees the relationship, no matter how contradictory or maddening it may be to the other one.

 
 
 
 

The Sharks 

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

Uruguyan director Lucia Garibaldi’s slight but engaging character study concerns teenager Rosina’s infatuation with a slightly older boy who works for her father.

 

 

Newcomer Romina Bentancur never hits a false note in her portrayal of a smart and headstrong girl dealing with friends and family—and some of best moments occur as Garibaldi observes Rosina’s sister, who has own teen-related difficulties.

 
 
 
 

CD of the Week 

Reine de coeur—Hanna-Elisabeth Müller 

(Pentatone)

The shimmering German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller has fashioned a lovely recital out of the great practitioners of German lieder and French melodies—Schumann, Poulenc and Zemlinsky—in a program of love, life and the depths of the soul.

 

 

Müller’s clear soprano rings out with authority and aching honesty, and she is sensitively accompanied by the excellent pianist Juliane Ruf. The Poulenc songs, particularly—two sets of his most beguiling works—are the highlights of a superlative recording.

April '20 Digital Week IV

VOD of the Week 

Why Don’t You Just Die? 

(Arrow)

Kirill Sokolov’s jet-black kind-of comedy follows a young man who’s egged on by his girlfriend to kill her father—and that’s just the beginning of 90 minutes’ worth of back-stabbings (figurative and literal), double-crossings and some of the most ridiculously over-the-top bloodlettings in a while.

 

 

Whether such violence is an acceptable form of entertainment is, of course, the sticking point; but Sokolov’s irreverence keeps one watching to see what lunacy he’s dreamed up, and his cast is game enough to make it seem as real—or at least as surreal—as possible. 

 
 

Blu-rays of the Week

Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter 

(Film Movement Classics)

The great British actor Alastair Sim—best known for playing Scrooge in the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol—is the focus of this boxed set containing four comedies to which he contributed: the best of the lot are the classic girls-school farce, 1954’s The Belles of St Trinian’s (in which he plays both the headmistress and her gambling brother) and 1960’s hilarious School for Scoundrels.

 

 

 

All four B&W films have been lovingly restored; extras include interviews with scholars, historians and even Sim’s daughter.

 

 

 

 

The Cremator 

(Criterion)

In this caustic 1969 black comedy, the head of a crematorium in 1930s Czechoslovakia follows the Nazis’ agenda to its ultimate end, and his own “final solution”: beginning with his Jewish wife and children.

 

 

 

Czech director Juraj Herz’s allegory of evil might be too heavyhanded, but his dazzling visual slight-of-hand, Rudolf Hrušínský’s tremendously portentous performance and Zdeněk Liška’s scarily perfect score make this an especially potent example of the Czech New Wave. As usual, Criterion has an excellent hi-def transfer; extras comprise Herz’s 1965 short, The Junk Shop; 1993 Hrušínský interview; 2011 featurette of Herz returning to his film’s locations; and a 55-minute documentary about Liška.

 
 

Guns Akimbo 

(Lionsgate)

Daniel Radcliffe plays a nerdy video-game developer who becomes the prey in a terminal live-streamed death match in Jason Lei Howden’s pointlessly—and repetitively—ultra-violent actioner that’s heavy on blood, guts and flying bullets but light on everything else.

 

 

 

Radcliffe is unsurprisingly unable to fashion an interesting character out of someone with guns welded onto his hands; Samara Weaving persuasively plays the professional killer tracking him down, but how expert is she if 99.9 percent of her shots miss? The film looks fine on Blu.

 
 
 
 

CD of the Week 

La Passione—Barbara Hannigan 

(Alpha)

The remarkably daring Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan returns with another spectacular recording, as she does double duty as a singer—on two fiendishly difficult modernist works of the mid and late 20th century—and conductor, on Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 49, which gives this album its title.

 

 

 

Hannigan attacks the swooping and chattering vocal line of Luigi Nono's disturbingly raw five-minute solo Djamila Boupacha (1962) with her customary ease; but that brief work is a mere prelude to her mesmerizing tour de force as vocalist and conductor of Gerard Grisey's 1998 masterwork Quartre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil (his last completed composition). Hannigan and the versatile Ludwig Orchestra forces bring it all home with a propulsive and—in the atypically mournful opening movement—somber reading of Haydn's minor-key symphony.

April '20 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week

Underwater 

(Fox)

In director William Eubank’s efficient if wholly derivative thriller, shaven-headed Kristen Stewart leads a group of people working at the bottom of the ocean for an oil company who fatally discover several heretofore undiscovered (and lethal) creatures. Most of the dramatic beats are lifted directly from the original Alien, but Eubank and his writers aren’t bothered enough to disguise them, which mitigates their effectiveness. A more serious problem is the difficulty differentiating among people in underwater suits, so there’s not much at stake except to watch who goes next. The hi-def transfer looks warm and inviting.

 

 

Action of the Tiger 

(Warner Archive)

The title comes from as lofty a perch as Shakespeare’s Henry V, which is far too exalted for such a routine 1957 adventure, directed in a rather desultory manner by Terence Young (who would helm the first Bond film, Dr. No, five years later, with an actor who has a small role here, Sean Connery). As a mercenary boat captain, Van Johnson has an abrasive manner that’s a mismatch for French actress Martine Carol in one of her few English language roles; their romantic scenes together are faintly ludicrous. With splendid locations in Greece and Spain, the film has a ravishing color palette that looks great on Blu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tin Cup 

(Warner Archive)

This 1996 reunion of Bull Durham writer/director Ron Shelton and star Kevin Costner is an enjoyably breezy if overlong tale of another brash and veteran underdog, a golf club pro who enters the U.S. Open to win the hand of the current squeeze of a vain and obnoxious pro. Costner is always charming and Don Johnson makes a good foil, but I’ve never had much use for Rene Russo, even though she tries hard and has some good moments. The problem is that, at two-plus hours, this drags itself to the 18th hole; shorn of 20 minutes, Tin Cup would have been a hole in one instead of a mere birdie. There’s a terrific hi-def transfer.

 

 

VOD of the Week

Pot Luck 

(Giant Pictures)

Just in time for 4/20, Jane Wells’ documentary (engagingly narrated by Robin Quivers) engages with all sides of the current cannabis debate in Colorado, which legalized it in 2012: those who sell, grow, use, are against, and must deal with the consequences of it. Wells’ interview subjects range from the thoughtful to the humorous to the banal, but since the film is only 75 minutes, it seems too thin and superficial to gain any lasting insights from. Still, it is an intriguing peek at what’s going on in ground zero for legalized weed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DVD of the Week 

Goldie 

(Film Movement)

Slick Woods gives a magnetic performance as a Bronx teen fancying herself a future dance star in hip-hop videos who must deal with current reality when she has to make sure her younger sisters aren’t taken away to foster care after their mom is arrested. Too bad Sam de Jong’s mainly routine drama only has infrequent flashes of insight and local color to compensate. The lone extra is U.K. director Dionne Edwards’ short film, We Love Moses

 

 

CD of the Week

Korngold—Violin Concerto/String Sextet 

(Chandos)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold composed some of the greatest and grandest film scores of the ’30s and ’40s (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk), and his only violin concerto often sounds like the very best film music, especially as played by soloist Andrew Haveron—whose fluid tone perfectly mirrors Korngold’s melodic genius—and accompanied by the RTE Concert Orchestra under the stable hand of conductor John Wilson. Korngold’s string sextet, one of his towering chamber pieces, also has a symphonic grandeur that the superior Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble on this disc captures beautifully.

April '20 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dolittle 

(Universal)

Doctor Dolittle, who could talk to the animals, has not been well-served onscreen: there was the ill-fated 1967 musical version with Rex Harrison, the enjoyable slight 1998 Eddie Murphy remake, and now this pointless reboot with a scenery-chewing Robert Downey (sporting a broad Welsh accent) as the good doctor who’s made himself a recluse after his wife dies, and the talking animals and enterprising children coax him back to life.

 

 

 

Director Stephen Gaughan is interested only in big set pieces, so the movie is less a coherent narrative than a series of disjointed sequences that show off the cute anthropomorphic animals, voiced by celebrities from Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes to Marion Cotillard and Selena Gomez. Young children might find some appeal to this harmless but ineffectual remake. The HD transfer looks stellar.

 

Just Mercy 

(Warner Bros)

The inspiring story of a real-life hero, lawyer Bryan Stevenson, is dramatized in this compelling if overlong courtroom procedural about the lengthy but eventually successful appeal of the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillan, a black man from rural Alabama railroaded onto death row for a still unsolved murder.

 

 

 

Director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton has a fine eye for detail, and his cast—Jaime Foxx (Walter), Michael B. Jordan (Bryan), Brie Larson (Bryan’s associate) and Tim Blake Nelson (perjured prisoner), for starters—give authenticity to a triumph of justice served that serves as a cautionary tale of other instances of justice denied. The film has a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise deleted scenes and making-of featurettes. 

 
 
 
 
 
 

Police Squad—The Complete Series 

(CBS/Paramount)

From the creators of the zany 1980 spoof Airplane!—the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams—comes this cult 1982 TV series (it only lasted six episodes), another spoof starring Leslie Nielsen as a doofus detective who manages to solve crimes. 

 

 

 

Police Squad is a hit-or-miss accumulation of physical comedy, one-liners, asides, puns, in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek parody: Nielsen is game, and the opening-credit sequences are fun, but like Airplane!, your mileage may vary. It looks adequate on Blu; extras are commentaries on three episodes, archival Nielsen interview, gag reel, featurette and casting tests.

 

VOD of the Week

Once Were Brothers—Robbie Robertson and the Band 

(Magnolia)

Director Daniel Roher engagingly recounts the eventful musical life of Robbie Robertson, leader of the Band, the great original roots-rock whose classic tunes like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” remain staples of rock’n’roll playlists.

 

 

 

Robertson candidly discusses his early life in Canada, his move to the States and finding his future bandmates, working with Bob Dylan and, later—following the Last Waltz concert film—Martin Scorsese, for whom he has scored and compiled music for several films. 

 
 
 
 
 
 

CDs of the Week 

Exiles in Paradise—Émigré Composers in Hollywood 

(Naxos)

So many composers left Europe during the Nazi era for the U.S. that it was inevitable that several would settle in and around Los Angeles, where they wrote music for movies and gave Hollywood a cultural cachet it had heretofore lacked.

 

 

 

This sterling disc collects short works by 11 of these men—a 12th work, an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” is by violinist Jascha Heifitz, another émigré—including the familiar (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff), the obscure (Godowsky, Achron, Gruenberg) and those best-known for their film scores (Korngold, Waxman, Rosza). These beguiling miniatures are attractively performed by cellist Brinton Averil Smith and pianist Evelyn Chen.

 

Hindemith—Kammermusik, Volume 1 

(Ondine)

Early in his career, German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote several concertos for soloists and orchestra under the rubric Kammermusiken. The four concertos collected on this superb recording, composed between 1921 and 1925, showcase Hindemith’s talent for balancing the virtuosic demands of the soloist parts and the orchestral underpinnings, notably on Kammermusik No. 1 & 2 (pianists) and No. 3 (cellist).

 

 

 

With Christopher Eschenbach adroitly conducting small ensembles culled from the Kornberg Academy Soloists and Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, the first-rate solo performers are pianists Xi Zhai and Christopher Park and cellist Bruno Philippe.

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