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Film and the Arts

September '20 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 

Wonders in the Suburbs 

(Kino Marquee)

There’s a lot of talent in front of writer-director Jeanne Balibar’s camera—including herself—but her painfully leaden comedy backfires, as its jaundiced look at local politics is so heavyhanded that any laughs or insights are buried.

 

 

Wasted are Bulle Ogier, Mathieu Amalric and most of all Emmanuelle Beart, who is game as the newly-elected mayor who has difficulties implementing her campaign promises—which include things like Brioche Day—but the actress is defeated by Balibar’s forced whimsy and uncertain tone throughout. 

 
 
 
 
 

Made in Italy 

(Topic/First Look Media)

This frivolously entertaining series that goes behind the scenes at a Milan fashion magazine in the mid-'70s is a showcase for the charming Italian actress Greta Ferro, who plays Irene, a novice who has to juggle her newfound independence and likeminded colleagues with her dull boyfriend and old-fashioned father and mother.

 

 

This eight-part series balances Irene’s personal and professional lives with aplomb if a little too patly, and the glimpses of a changing world outside her window—strikes, terrorism, etc.—doesn’t really add or subtract much of anything. Good support comes from the redoubtable Margherita Buy as one of Irene’s superiors in the office.

 
 
 
 
 

4K Releases of the Week 

Beetlejuice 

(Warner Bros)

Tim Burton’s cartoonish 1988 black comedy is remembered for Michael Keaton’s insane turn as a bio-exorcist for the afterlife; amazingly, Keaton is barely in a film whose 90 silly but funny minutes are taken up by a solid cast of comic actors and straight men and women—Catherine O’Hara, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Jeffrey Jones, even Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.

 

 

Of course, Burton’s splendidly skewered visuals are on vivid display, especially in ultra hi-def. Too bad the only extras are three episodes of an animated spinoff series. 

 
 
 
 
 

The Goonies 

(Warner Bros)

This 1985 Steven Spielberg-produced adventure about a group of nerdy teens overcoming the bad guys in their small Oregon town has become a cult film yet remains loud, obnoxious, repetitive, juvenile and for the most part unfunny.

 

 

Richard Donner’s frantic direction can’t hide the gaps in Chris Columbus’ script and Spielberg’s own cutesy attitudinizing smothers the game young cast, including Corey Feldman, Josh Brolin, Kerri Green and Martha Plimpton. The film looks impressive in 4K; many extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, a vintage making-of featurette and the music video for Cyndi Lauper’s hit title song. Too bad the recent Zoom reunion of cast and creators wasn’t included at the last minute (but you can find it on YouTube).

 
 
 
 
 

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 

Deep Blue Sea 3 

(Warner Bros)

I didn’t even know there was a Deep Blue Sea 2, but here’s another sequel about murderous sharks—what other kind are there?—this time genetically programmed to hunt, kill and eat, which of course puts in peril the workers at a research center in the middle of the ocean.

 

 

There are nice underwater sequences, but pitting the good guys vs. the bad guys above water is hopelessly contrived, and the climax is not the dynamic destruction this kind of movie thrives on. There’s a very good Blu-ray transfer and two making-of featurettes.

 
 
 
 
 

Rusalka 

Der Messias 

(Opus Arte)

British soprano Sally Matthews makes a shimmering tragic heroine in Antonin Dvořák’s lovely fantasy opera Rusalka, given an elegant production by Melly Still at last summer’s Glyndebourne Festival in England; conductor Robin Ticciati leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus in a gorgeous reading of Dvořák’s score.

 

 

Handel’s classic Messiah—arranged by none other than Mozart—is called Der Messias in this performance from Salzburg, Austria (Mozart’s hometown), early this year. Music and singers are stellar, but the unfortunate staging is by Robert Wilson, whose austere minimalist visual aesthetic transforms the work into static dullness. Both discs have excellent hi-def audio and video; Rusalka has a short making-of.

 
 
 
 
 

DVD Release of the Week 

Seal Team—Complete 3rd Season 

(CBS/Paramount)

The elite Bravo team is back for its latest high-stakes adventures, starting with a top-secret—and hugely dangerous—mission to Serbia before other deployments in North Yemen, Iran, Liberian, Indonesia and, lastly, Afghanistan.

 

 

For 20 episodes, the members of the team (led by Jason Hayes, played with stolid intensity by David Boreanz) must balance the difficulties of their chosen profession with the very real demands of loved ones back home, and if it’s all entirely predictable, the excitement of the action sequences compensate. Extras comprise four on-set featurettes.

 
 
 
 
 

CD Release of the Week

Walter Kaufmann—Chamber Works 

(Chandos)

Even among Eastern European composers whose careers—or their very lives—were destroyed by the Nazis, Walter Kaufmann and his story stand out: born in Czechoslovakia in 1907, Kaufmann moved to Bombay, India, once Hitler came to power and spent the war years there before ending up in Canada, where he conducted the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra; he finished his career in Bloomington at Indiana University’s School of Music, where his archive—most of the scores of his works are still uncataloged—is held.

 

 

Five world premiere recordings of his chamber works (all composed in India) paint a fascinating portrait of an eclectic and serious composer: hints of Eastern music are heard among the standard western classical works of string quartet (two), violin sonata, violin sonatina, and a striking septet for piano and strings. The ARC Ensemble plays impeccably.

August '20 Digital Week II

VOD/Virtual Cinema Release of the Week 

She Dies Tomorrow 

(Neon)

Writer-director Amy Seimetz’s all-too-relevant horror film takes something from the everyday—a young woman believes she’s going to die within 24 hours, and her anxiety is contagious, as others are affected by her “virus”—and makes its concerns of existential, physical and mental dread caused by Covid-19 universal.

 

 

While not entirely successful (there are too many dead-end sequences or visual non-sequiturs), Seimetz’ film has hit on a powerfully metaphorical story, and her committed cast (Chris Messina, Josh Lucas, Jane Adams, and as the director’s alter ego—one assumes since the lead is named Amy—Kate Lyn Sheil) plays it to the hilt.

 
 
 
 
 

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Coma 

(Capelight)

Russian director Nikita Argunov’s imaginative dystopian fantasy owes more than a little bit to Inception, especially in its visualization of a fragmented and jumbled world based on dreams, called “Coma.” But Argunov’s story of an architect who awakes after a bad accident and joins a rebel group of fighters to rediscover reality is cleverly done and has matchless special effects.

 

 

The film (which can be watched in either the original Russian with subtitles or in an English dubbed version) looks vividly hyperrealistic on Blu; extras are several short featurettes.

 
 
 
 
Final Space—Complete 1st and 2nd Seasons 

(Warner Bros)

Creator (and lead character voice) Olan Rogers’ animated sci-fi series makes for an unwieldy if witty and cock-eyed parody-cum-satire that works handily at times and falls flat at others. Both seasons—25 episodes in all—are pointing toward increasingly meager comic returns but the refreshing low-fi animation and an impeccable voice cast (Keith David, Fred Armisen, Conan O’Brien, for starters) make it watchable.

 

 

While the unevenness is closing in, enough originality remains on display to get a green-light for a third season. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are short featurettes on each episode. 

 
 
 
 
 

Michael 

(Warner Archive)

Nora Ephron’s 1996 fable is lumbering and crude; I hoped a second viewing 24 years later would improve it, but unfortunately it remains probably Ephron’s worst film: that it took four writers to cobble this piece of leaden whimsy together was an obvious sign of trouble.

 

 

A game cast—William Hurt, Jean Stapleton, Andie McDowell, Bob Hoskins and John Travolta as the fallen angel—never transcends the trite material, and at times Ephron’s visuals are remindful of Steven Spielberg at his most trite and syrupy. The film looks fine in hi-def.

 
 
 
 
 

Shanghai Triad 

(Film Movement Classics)

This 1995 period piece is among Chinese master Zhang Yimou’s weakest efforts, a slow-moving and predictable gangster tale seen through the eyes of a boy who improbably becomes an assistant to a local henchman’s kept woman, a gorgeous courtesan who is also a popular nightclub singer-performer.

 

 

Despite the glamorous presence of Zhang’s then-muse, Gong Li—who gives a shockingly unsubtle and flat performance—and mesmerizing Oscar-nominated cinematography by Lü Yue, this strident drama vaporizes from memory as soon as it ends. The film does look superb in a new hi-def restoration; lone extra is a video essay about the film by scholar John Berra.

 
 
 
 
 

DVD Releases of the Week

The Destruction of Memory 

(Icarus Films)

This eye-opening 2016 documentary by director Tim Slade vividly shows how the wanton destruction of many sites of cultural and artistic heritage during wartime and beyond—from World War II and Bosnia to September 11 and Iraq—is something that’s within our power to stop if there is far-reaching buy-in and if we use modern technology to mitigate the potential losses.

 

 

As defined by the 1954 Hague Convention, genocide is usually considered against large groups of people, but the annihilation of libraries, museums and religious sites (as often as not today by non-state actors) demonstrate an ongoing attempt at erasing our very history. Intelligent talking heads and shocking footage of widespread damage provide a needed immediacy to this important subject.

 
 
 
 
 

NCIS—The 17th Season 

NCIS: Los Angeles—The 11th Season

NCIS—New Orleans: The 6th Season 

(Paramount/CBS)

One of the most successful franchises ever on network television, the NCIS umbrella now encompasses three series—the original, set in Washington D.C.; the first spinoff, in Los Angeles; and the most recent, in New Orleans—each of which smartly uses its locale for its rigorous investigators to solve their cases.

 

 

The casts—led by Mark Harmon and Maria Bello (D.C.), LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell (Los Angeles), and Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder (New Orleans)—make all three series enjoyable watches. These sets contain the entire current seasons (number of episodes: 20, D.C.; 22, L.A.; and 20, New Orleans; extras include featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.

 
 
 
 
 

CD Release of the Week

Dame Ethyl Smyth—The Prison 

(Chandos)

Although Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) is now considered a major composer, she didn’t receive recognition from her contemporaries until late in her long career. A prime example of her mature works is this, her last major composition, written when she was 72. The bleakness of the subject matter notwithstanding, this is an ennobling and even thrilling symphony that, with its extensive parts for soprano, bass-baritone and chorus, is an oratorio or even one-act opera in all but name.

 

 

 

This exemplary recording features bass-baritone Dashon Burton as the Prisoner, soprano Sarah Bailey as His Soul and the Experiential Chorus, along with the Experiential Orchestra, all under the baton of conductor James Blachly.

August '20 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Rebuilding Paradise 
(National Geographic)
The devastating 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California and the formidable aftermath for so many who lost, literally, everything—hundreds of homes were destroyed and 85 people died—are recounted in Ron Howard’s sometimes difficult to watch but ultimately hopeful documentary.
 
 
Among those we see are a policeman whose marriage doesn’t survive; a former mayor who’s one of the first to have a new house built; and the high school superintendent whose own personal misfortune overshadows her achievement of having a graduation ceremony for the students. It’s a familiar but still compelling story of a preventable tragedy—with the local power company playing the villain—and the resilience of ordinary people.
 
 
 
 
 
Summerland 
(IFC Films)
In playwright Jessica Swale’s writing/directing debut, a reclusive writer living near the English coastline reluctantly takes in a young boy during the London blitz, which triggers her memories of an earlier relationship with an equally free-spirited woman.
 
 
This awfully contrived melodrama has some of the least plausible relationships and plot twists in any movie in ages, which makes one wonder about the value of Swale’s plays. But as a director Swale elicits beautifully nuanced performances from Gemma Arterton as the writer and Lucas Bond as the boy, and sensitive support from Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton and—in the film’s pivotal role—Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-rays of the Week 
His Dark Materials—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Bros/HBO)
In this series based on the acclaimed fantasy novels by Philip Pullman—about two youngsters who come of age amid parallel universes and a talking animal known as a daemon that’s the embodiment of a person’s soul—there are enough diverting moments, including many of the fantasy sequences, to make up for the more turgid earthbound sections and make this adaptation more entertaining than enervating.
 
 
Eight episodes might have been too much for these flimsy materials, both dark and not so dark; there are persuasive portrayals by Dafne Keen as our heroine Lyra and James McAvoy as her uncle Asriel. The whole thing looks terrific on Blu; extras include several making-of featurettes and cast interviews.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Sin of Nora Moran 
(Film Detective)
This obscure 1933 drama is as bleak as they come, a sordid but endlessly watchable story of how a vibrant young woman arrives on death row for murder.
 
 
It’s potently enacted by Zita Johann, and if director Phil Goldstone’s melodrama has its share of hokiness and some wooden performances, it compensates by focusing on how and why Nora ends up where she is; its interesting flashback structure juggles her tragic chronology. The film looks fine on Blu; the lone extra is a featurette about Johann.
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Releases of the Week 
City Dreamers 
(First Run Features)
Joseph Hillel’s insightful documentary features four women architects—Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and Denise Scott Brown—who have spent their unheralded but innovative careers demonstrating how cities are and can be transformed.
 
 
Although each of them has worked with several “superstars” (Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, for starters), each has transcended those associations, and Hillel’s beautifully-shot film is a necessary corrective to the myth that all the great architects are men.
 
 
 
 
 
Hawaii Five-O—The Complete Final Season 
(Paramount/CBS)
This reboot of the classic series starring Jack Lord as McGarrett and James MacArthur as his partner Danno—and which showed the then new state as a crime-infested paradise—reaches its end after ten seasons (the original lasted a dozen, from 1968 to 1980), with a younger, spirited cast led Alex O’Laughlin and Scott Caan chasing and rounding up villains.
 
 
These 22 episodes sprint all over the islands as the good guys earn their pay. Extras include a gag reel, deleted/extended scenes, O’Laughlin interview and a goodbye video from the cast.
 
 
 
 
 
Home from Home—Chronicle of a Vision 
(Corinth Films)
In German director Edgar Reitz’s prequel of sorts (made in 2013) to his colossally mammoth Heimat (1984)—which was a 15-hour, sweeping epic about ordinary Germans caught up in the machinations of history that was reportedly one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films—the same exacting sense of minutiae, of the quotidian, of regular people living their lives, is again presented with artful precision.
 
 
Filmed in rich black and white, the film demands to be seen in the best visual presentation possible, so it’s unfortunate there’s not a Blu-ray release to catch every nuance.  
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week
Shostakovich—Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” 
(Pentatone)
When Dmitri Shostakovich decided to set as a choral work Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s coruscating 1961 poem about the murders of Soviet Jews at the hands of Nazis, Babiy Yar, the poet’s words so inspired him that he ended up added several other of his poems as the work morphed into the mournful 13th symphony.
 
 
This first-rate recording captures the raw emotions in Shostakovich’s music and Yevtushenko’s words, which are intoned by the stentorian bass Oleg Tsibulko and the Popov Academy of Choral Arts and Kozhevnikov choirs, accompanied by the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits.

July '20 Digital Week IV

VOD/Virtual Cinema Release of the Week 
Gordon Lightfoot—If You Could Read My Mind 
(Greenwich Entertainment)
Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe have made a lovingly introspective portrait of the great Canadian singer-songwriter, whose mid-’70s hits “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” are still staples of adult-contemporary radio.
 
 
Lightfoot engagingly discusses his long career and its attendant highs and lows; the directors bring together a virtual who’s-who of Canadian music (Anne Murray, Sarah McLaughlin, Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson) to anoint Lightfoot as the ultimate Canadian troubadour, whose songs are the very essence of inspired craft and storytelling.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Outsider—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Bros/HBO)
This Stephen King adaptation about a murderous entity that stumps law enforcement starts out very well, but somewhere around episode 4 it loses its way and stumbles badly.
 
 
After 10 hours, it amounts to much ado about very little but remains watchable thanks to an estimable cast led by Ben Mendelssohn and Cynthia Erivo as an improbable pair of investigators trying to solve a seemingly impossible case. Honorable mention goes to Bill Camp as the D.A. The series looks stunning in hi-def; extras comprise several making-of featurettes, including interviews with cast, crew and King. 
 
 
 
 
 
Cendrillon/Cinderella 
(Opus Arte)
French composer Jules Massenet’s beguiling musical adaptation of the original fairy tale Cinderella is among the most sheerly entertaining of all operas, and Fiona Shaw’s 2019 staging at England’s Glyndebourne Festival follows suit.
 
 
John Wilson ably conducts the Glyndebourne orchestra and chorus and the entire cast is exceptional, with the stand-out, unsurprisingly, being American-Australian soprano Danielle de Niese as an amusing, thoughtful, winning Cinderella. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
 
 
 
 
 
Million Dollar Mermaid 
(Warner Archive)
This 1952 Esther Williams vehicle is as creaky as they come—Williams plays Aussie swimmer Annette Kellerman (sans accent), who becomes an aquatic hit in London and America—yet despite its questionable status as a biopic it does have Williams at her best in the water, whether the River Thames, an indoor tank in a Broadway theater or on a Hollywood movie set.
 
 
Colorful in both senses—the movie looks eye-wateringly splendid in hi-def—Mervyn Leroy’s drama dries up on land but contains one of choreographer Busby Berkeley’s typically extravagant showstopping sequences. Extras include a vintage short and cartoon as well as a radio show with Williams and Walter Pidgeon.
 
 
 
 
 
Pride and Prejudice 
(Warner Archive)
Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson are perfectly cast as Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, the latter among Jane Austen’s greatest heroines, in Robert Z. Leonard’s slightly musty but sympathetic 1940 adaptation of Austen’s classic novel.
 
 
The impressive cast includes Maureen O’Sullivan and Ann Rutherford as the other Bennet sisters while the lovely physical production (which won an Oscar for B&W art direction) is true to the source, but Olivier and Garson’s chemistry—initially antagonistic then, ultimately, romantic—is the heart of the film. The hi-def transfer looks sparkling; extras are a vintage short and cartoon.
 
 
 
 
 
Thirteen Ghosts 
(Scream Factory)
This loose 2001 remake of William Castle’s 1960 haunted-house B flick is technically persuasive—the sudden appearances of the dozen lethal ghosts are superbly done as is the puzzling box of a home where the action takes place—but it’s otherwise unpleasant to watch.
 
 
Steve Beck’s direction is for the most part turgid and a fine cast on paper is mainly wasted: F. Murray Abraham. Tony Shaloub, Embeth Davidtz, Shannon Elizabeth and Matthew Lillard have all been much better elsewhere. There is an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include new interviews, audio commentary by Beck and others, and vintage featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Releases of the Week 
Grantchester—Complete 5th Season 
(PBS Masterpiece)
In the latest Grantchester go-round, the year is 1957, and the seemingly idyllic environs of the village are darkened by the deaths of a student at the female-only college, a hit-and-run victim and a cinemagoer (among others) and Detective Inspector Keating must muster all of his wits and wiles to solve these crimes over six episodes.
 
 
Robson Green is in top form as Keating and Tom Brittney is perfection is the vicar, Keating’s ally, and the investigations remain as distinctive and entertaining as they’ve been over the previous four seasons. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.
 
 
 
 
 
Target—Philadelphia 
(Indiepix)
The brazen killings of 11 black people, including 5 children, in Philadelphia in 1985 by the city government—which culminated in an actual bomb being used—against the radical group MOVE is the starting point of director Sean Slater’s fascinating overview and primer of how America’s police forces have become militarized.
 
 
It’s no coincidence that such a sea change in policing and law enforcement is directly tied to black American movements from the Black Panthers in the late ’60s to today’s Black Lives Matter, as Slater’s succinct reportage makes clear. The lone extra is a short Slater intro.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week 
Alwyn—Miss Julie 
(Chandos)
British composer William Alwyn (1905-85), in the shadow of Benjamin Britten throughout his career, composed operas that are overshadowed by Britten’s exceptional output. Still, his adaptation of August Strindberg’s intense character study is dramatically compelling, with an appropriate chamber-like quality—there are only four singing roles and no chorus—that brings out some of Alwyn’s finest, most ravishing music.
 
 
This new recording, with Sakari Oramo leading the BBC Symphonic Orchestra and with warm singing by Anna Patalong in the title role, is certainly a worthy addition, but since there’s already a superior Lyrita recording of Miss Julie, how about exploring Alwyn’s even more obscure operas, the early The Ferry Fiddler and the later Juan, or The Libertine?
 
 
 
 
 
Dallapiccola—Il Prigioniero/The Prisoner
(Chandos)
In this unsettling one-act opera by the great modernist Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75), freedom is put to the test, and Dallapiccola distills the drama to its very essence; its 45 minutes are climaxed by one of the most quietly shattering operatic endings.
 
 
This new recording, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda and played with exquisite tact by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, is all about the singing: both the soloists and the Danish National Concert Choir (which also performs two shorter Dallapiccola choral works on the disc) make this a stellar rendition of one of the most powerful 20th century operas.

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