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Blu-rays of the Week
Their Finest Hour—5 British WWII Classics
(Film Movement Classics)
This excellent boxed set, comprising a quintet of British films set during the Second World War—Alberto Calvacanti’s memorable “what if” about a Nazi invasion of England, Went the Day Well? (1942); Guy Hamilton’s tense The Colditz Story (1955), concerning POWs trying to escape an impregnable Nazi fortress; Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955), the astonishing true story of the race to make bombs to take out crucial Nazi dams; Leslie Norman’s effective re-creation of the Allies’ retreat from the north of France, Dunkirk (1958); and J. Lee Thompson’s absorbing desert adventure, Ice Cold in Alex (1958)—is recommended for those who love old war films or simply well-made and inspiring dramas.
Not only are all five B&W features restored in superlative hi-def transfers, there’s a plethora of valuable extras on four of the discs (only Went the Day Well? has no bonues): The Colditz Story includes a documentary, Colditz Revealed; The Dam Busters includes a making-of, two documentaries about the actual men who took part, and other featurettes; Dunkirk includes newsreel footage, 1940 documentary short Young Veteran, actor Sean Barrett interview and actor John Mills’ home movies; and Ice Cold in Alex includes an excerpt from A Very British War Movie documentary, more of Mills’ home movies, interviews with scholar Melanie Williams and actress Sylvia Syms and a featurette on director J. Lee Thompson.
William Wyler’s 1936 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel (and stage version)—concerning a long-time married American couple, Sam and Fran, who find, after their opposing responses to “sophisticated” Europe, that their relationship is deteriorating—is a mature treatment of subject matter that might have seemed too much for its day (including a brief shot of what looks like the wife’s side boob).
Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton are splendid as Sam and Fran, Mary Astor is irresistible as Edith, the expatriate who catches Sam’s eye, and the insights into and humor about American and European cultural differences remain pertinent and potent. The film, which has undergone a recent restoration, looks terrific in rich black and white; the lone extra is a 1937 radio version of the play/novel.
Carl Maria von Weber’s grand romantic opera suffers from a ludicrous libretto, but the contrived tale of a young woman who must prove her fidelity prior to her wedding is dominated from the start by Weber’s ravishing music.
This 2018 Vienna production, staged with passionate feeling if little clarity by Christof Loy, succeeds thanks to its leading ladies: Jacquelyn Wagner as the heroine Euryanthe and Theresa Kronthaler as the antagonist Eglantine are compelling in their acting and brilliant in their singing. Constantin Trinks leads the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir with assurance. Both hi-def video and audio are splendid.
VOD of the Week
In Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest whimsical dramedy, a shady police inspector travels to a remote island to learn a local whistling language to try nabbing criminals more crooked than he is. If there’s chutzpah in building a shaggy-dog story around such a ludicrous concept, Porumboiu runs with it, although he takes it only so far before the seams begin to show.
Luckily, the pace doesn’t lag, the film is fairly short, and there’s a fine cast, led by model turned actress Catrinel Marlon, playing a formidable femme fatale named—tongue-in-cheekly, for those who remember Rita Hayworth in the ’40s noir classic—Gilda.
CDs of the Week
J.S. Bach—St. Matthew Passion
Bach’s towering large-scale oratorio, about the death of Jesus Christ according to the gospel of Matthew, is one of his greatest achievements: even those who aren’t believers have felt the powerful emotional pull of this monumental music for the past three centuries.
This new recording, led by the estimable Bach conductor Masaaki Suzuki, showcases the worthy chorus and orchestra of Bach Collegium Japan, along with a strong vocal cast, led by tenor Benjamin Bruns as the Evangelist, all combining for a truly majestic performance.
Richard Danielpour—The Passion of Yeshua
Richard Danielpour’s world-premiere oratorio of the passion and death of Jesus Christ takes its cue from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, unsurprisingly; but whereas Bach’s work is the summit of baroque-era German music, Danielpour’s is a thoroughly modern work that alternates its sacred vocal texts between English gospel and Hebrew scripture excerpts.
Conductor JoAnn Falletta impressively marshals the large-scale forces needed, including her own Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and the singers are heavily invested in Danielpour’s intensely personal vision, which features Jesus’ mother Mary (mezzo J’Nai Bridges) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Hila Plitmann) in prominent roles.
Although Sam Mendes’ WWI epic is impeccably made—Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning photography blends seamlessly with extensive CGI work—it’s still one of the most gimmicky and dishonest movies I’ve ever seen.
Mendes’ film may be a tribute to his grandfather, a Great War veteran, but 1917 plays out like a remote video game, as soldiers find themselves in increasingly contrived situations that become quite risible—I was surprised when, after the hero falls into water, a shark didn’t attack him. The film looks impressive in hi-def; extras comprise Mendes’ and Deakins’ commentaries, making-of featurettes and interviews.
Come to Daddy
This meretricious movie intends to be shocking with its sudden and protracted outbursts of violence, but director Ant Timpson merely piles ridiculous plot twists on his ludicrous characters’ backs, thereby creating an incoherent mess.
Unfortunately, none of this is enlivened by the presence of Elijah Wood and Martin Donovan, who do their best with what’s essentially an impossible situation. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.
Taking off from the original Japanese horror flick and the American remake, this gratuitous reboot is heavy on the gore but sorely lacking in any ideas or originality, which is surprising considering that director Nicolas Pesce’s debut The Eyes of My Mother showed flashes of brilliance.
Here, however, Pesce settles for jump-scares and “yuck” moments, which does the movie and its game cast no favors. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include 30 minutes (!) of alternate and extended scenes as well as short featurettes.
Shooting the Mafia
The irrepressible Letizia Battaglia, 84 years young when director Kim Longinotto interviewed her for this enlightening documentary, is the center of a tale that is violent, sad, angry, regretful, but ultimately—unbelievably—hopeful. Photographer Battaglia’s lens caught all the inhumanity and horridness of a fraught period in Italian (and, more specifically, Sicilian) history, when the mob made mincemeat of the idea of justice with shocking killings of judges.
This film could stand as a pendant to Marco Bellocchio’s electrifying The Traitor, which covers the same ground, but Longinotto has someone Bellocchio doesn’t: Battaglia, wisely world-weary but upbeat. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Longinotto interview.
The most popular of Richard Wagner’s four Ring operas, with four hours of music, is notoriously punishing on its performers, but in Keith Warner’s unaffecting 2018 production from London’s Royal Opera, the lead roles are assayed by a formidable cast: Emily Magee (Sieglinde), Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Ain Anger (Hunding), John Lundgren (Wotan), Sarah Connolly (Fricka) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde).
Antonio Pappano ably conducts the superb Royal Opera orchestra, with stand-out sequences like “The Ride of the Valkyries” and “Magic Fire Music” beautifully played if too abstractedly staged by Warner. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch.
DVDs of the Week
Back to the Fatherland
(First Run Features)
Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon’s intermittently illuminating documentary follows several Israelis with German ancestry who have decided to return to their European homeland despite its obvious anti-Semitic history.
Rohrer and Levanon (she’s Austrian and is the granddaughter of a Nazi officer; he’s Israeli and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor) interview these young people and their grandparents, who are understandably perplexed over their decision, even though some of them agree to return to Europe for a visit, which triggers difficult but necessary recollections.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
(Big World Pictures)
Romanian director Radu Jude’s films relentlessly dissect his country’s checkered history, like this latest 140-minute meditation on the massacre of Jews in Odessa by Romanian troops during WWII.
Barbarians often seems more like a master’s thesis than a film; the director’s stand-in, a young woman planning a re-creation of the massacre, has intense discussions about guilt, responsibility, ethnic cleansing and even Steven Spielberg with a scholarly skeptic. Luckily for Jude, actress Ioana Iacob’s perspicacious and winning presence allows this dense material about inhumanity and memory to come across with clarity and power.
CDs of the Week
Aspects of America—Pulitzer Edition
This valuable disc collects three American composers’ works which won the Pulitzer Prize in music over the span of a half-century: Howard Hanson’s moody Symphony No. 4—appropriately subtitled “Requiem”—was the 1944 winner; Walter Piston’s exuberant Symphony No. 7 was the 1961 winner; and Morton Gould’s evocative suite for string orchestra, Stringmusic, was the 1995 winner.
This latest volume in the Aspects of America series is another winner, with Carlos Kalmar deftly conducting the Oregon Symphony.
Edvard Grieg—Violin Sonatas
Norwegian master Edvard Grieg is best known for his orchestral works, particularly his piano concerto and his incidental music to August Strindberg’s play Peer Gynt; so this disc, comprising his three violin sonatas, is most welcome.
Spanning two decades in his composing life, Grieg’s sonatas move from youthful buoyance to mature elegance, and Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing performs them sensitively and with keen feeling, as does her pianist, Simon Trpčeski. Hemsing also contributes an attractive short solo piece based on a local folk tune.
4K of the Week
Seven Worlds One Planet
The latest indelible BBC exploration of our amazing natural world is this seven-part series—each episode covering one of the continents—narrated by the indefatigable David Attenborough, which displays the myriad ways that current cinematographers and directors can drop us in the middle of such eye-popping scenes as cheetahs running down topis (African antelopes) or miniscule frogs feeding their even more microscopic tadpoles.
Drone photography has been perfected to such a great degree that image after unforgettable image jumps off the screen, sometimes literally. Needless to say, in hi-def, all seven hours look simply breathtaking; extras are short on-set featurettes.
Blu-rays of the Week
Spike Lee’s most incendiary post-Do the Right Thing movie, this 2000 joint takes on the entertainment industry’s institutional racism, as a desperate TV creator (Marlon Wayans) hits on the idea of a new minstrel show—complete with black performers in blackface—which becomes an unexpected hit. As usual with Lee, powerful moments sit next to trite, tone-deaf sequences; also, as usual, the movie goes on too long, making its points repeatedly but to considerably less effect.
But this might be Lee’s best-cast film: Wayans, Savion Glover, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rappaport, Mos Def and Jada Pinkett give firsr-rate performances. Criterion’s packed edition has a decent hi-def transfer (the film was shot digitally) and a plethora of extras, including Lee’s commentary, deleted scenes, music videos, parody commercials, vintage making-of documentary, and new interviews with Lee, Glover, Davidson and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
The legendary dandy—whose picaresque adventures have long been a mainstay on both the stage and screen—is played by the dashing Stewart Granger in Curtis Bernhardt’s 1954 production, which also features a dazzling young Elizabeth Taylor as his love interest and the great Peter Ustinov as his foil, King George.
Although dramatically saggy, the movie does earn points for its sumptuous costume design and color photography (the latter by Oswald Morris) and the fine score by Miklos Rosza and Richard Addinsell. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer.
La bella dormente nel bosco
Ottorino Respighi—famed for his richly-scored orchestral works The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome—also wrote several operas of melodic richness and stageworthy drama, such as this version of Sleeping Beauty originally created as a marionette opera, then revised and reorchestrated for the opera house.
Director Leo Muscato’s 2017 production at the opera house in the city of Cagliari (on the Italian island of Sardinia) is a delightful frolic, nicely played by the musicians and appealingly sung by the cast. The hi-def video and audio are top-notch.
DVDs of the Week
In 2007, legendary designer Yves Saint-Laurent had his final fashion show in New York, and Olivier Meyrou’s fly-on-the-wall documentary presents many backstage scenes and more intimate moments that drew the ire of Saint-Laurent’s partner Pierre Bergé—who figures prominently in the film—and he blocked its release.
But after Bergé's death in 2017 (Saint-Laurent died in 2008), it's finally been released. Shot in appropriately grainy black and white—with occasional bursts of color—which makes it seem all the more like a clandestinely shot exposé, Celebration (certainly an ironic title) is a warts-and-all portrait of the designer as a frail, old man.
Alla Kovgan’s documentary about the great Merce Cunningham—who died in 2009—manages to pack an astonishing amount about Cunningham’s storied dancing and choreographing career into 93 minutes, from his groundbreaking collaborations with composer John Cage to his international celebrity and enormous influence in subsequent decades.
We hear Cunningham’s own words as we watch his dances, both in archival footage and in new performances by current dancers in his company. The lone quibble: this stunning-looking film was shot in 3D, but not only is it not being released on 3D Blu-ray, it’s only available on DVD, so a lot of the visual brilliance is lost. What a missed chance! The lone extra is a short featurette by Kovgan explaining one of the sequences.
Daniel Hope—Belle Epoque
Violinist Daniel Hope’s latest recording is two discs’ worth of the most representative music of the by-gone Belle Epoque era, which flourished in Europe—and particularly in Paris—in the early years of the 20th century.
The first disc comprises orchestral music, starting with Chausson’s extraordinary Concerto in D major, which Hope dispatches with elegance. Works by Debussy, Massenet, Strauss, Schoenberg and Elgar (a pair) round out this lovely disc. The quirky but fun chamber-music disc consists mainly of miniatures by the likes of Faure, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Ravel, Enescu, Bridge and Hahn, all played beautifully by Hope and his musical partners.
Winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, Ellen Reid’s emotionally shattering opera (with an articulate and often blunt libretto by Roxie Perkins) explores the aftereffects of sexual assault in a non-linear and kaleidoscopic work that, based on this otherwise excellent recording, would probably be even more powerful onstage. But, as this faultless performance shows, the chamber orchestra is handled brilliantly and with endless displays of resourcefulness by Reid, especially in the pounding percussion segments, astringent sounds that sit side-by-side with her gorgeous melodies.
Julian Wachner ably conducts the NOVUS NY ensemble and the choir of Trinity Wall Street, and Anna Schubert and Rebecca Jo Lamb give performances of fierce intensity. A bonus track is violist Nadia Sirota’s haunting rendition of “Lumee’s Dream,” an excerpt from prism.
A Hidden Life
The best film of 2019, Terrence Malick’s expansive epic insightfully dramatizes the true story of an Austrian farmer whose conscience prevented him from pledging allegiance to Hitler and the Nazis.
Malick’s style—gorgeous outdoor shots, soaring music, transfixing hand-held camerawork, quicksilver editing, revealing voiceovers—reaches its apogee in this psychologically penetrating study that, for this non-believer, is one of the most profound films about religion since Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Schepisi’s A Cry in the Dark. Even James Newton Howard’s score—which features James Ehnes’ yearning violin playing—sits perfectly amid Malick’s eclectic palette of Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Gorecki, Schnittke, Part and Dvořák. The film looks immaculate in hi-def.
Inherit the Viper
It’s certainly about a timely subject, but Anthony Jerjen’s drama about opioids destroying middle America is too diffuse, along with being excessively melodramatic.
A good cast—led by Josh Hartnett and Margarita Levieva as a brother and sister drug-selling team as well as Bruce Dern as a bar owner—unfortunately flounders as Jerjen and writer Andrew Crabtree prefer atmosphere over plausibility in their characters’ motivations. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.
Rian Johnson’s entertaining whodunit—which nods explicitly to Agatha Christie and Hitchcock, among others—is overlong and takes too many too-clever twists and turns, but it’s well-paced and has a large cast which never takes itself seriously enough to keep it from going sour.
Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer and Michael Shannon happily ham it up, while Ana de Armas finally has her breakout role as the only sympathetic one of the bunch. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras include two commentaries, deleted scenes with commentary, two-hour making-of documentary (Making a Murder), post-screening Q&A with Johnson and cast, and making-of featurette.
Another of Clint Eastwood’s schizophrenic—and hypocritical—films is this dramatization of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing and the efforts to paint security guard Richard Jewell as the bomber rather than a hero. When Eastwood sticks to Jewell’s story, it’s blatant but effective, and Paul Walter Hauser gives a fine, understated performance as Jewell (his mother, however, is shrilly enacted by Kathy Bates, who typically got an Oscar nomination).
But when dissecting Jewell’s treatment by the FBI and the media (with scandalously broad portrayals by Jon Hamm and a particularly horrible Olivia Wilde), Eastwood turns this into a ham-fisted “fake news” tirade. Even Sam Rockwell, as Jewell’s lawyer, too easily moves between complex and caricatured. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise two making-of featurettes.
This clunky thriller has a fun premise—after a world-famous “mad” composer dies, his violinist daughter finds his final work, which has tantalizing clues that summon evil spirits—but doesn’t do much more with it beyond the Gothic mansion setting.
Freya Tingley has a colorful presence as the daughter—she’s even good at faking the violin playing—but the late Rutger Hauer (as “mad” dad) doesn’t have much to do, and the climax is more risible than frightening. There’s a quite good hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
The Stalking Moon
Robert Mulligan’s plodding 1968 western is set amid the beautiful vistas and craggy hills of Red Rock Canyon, which show far more emotion than that famous piece of granite, Gregory Peck, who plays an army scout who assists a half-Apache woman (a stolid Eva Marie Saint) and her son cross the prairie to safety.
The result is a routine drama that’s visually stunning but ultimately superficial; even the gunplay and the climactic showdown are as predictable as they are dully presented. The film looks perfect in hi-def.
Titans—Complete 2nd Season
Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.
In season two of this fresh retelling of the Teen Titans franchise, the titans are reformed after the dramatic showdown that ended the previous season, as they set up shop in Titans Tower, hoping to go on with ordinary lives—until, of course, some of their old enemies return and force them to deal with some unfinished business.
The energetic young cast helps put this over despite its inherent silliness. The second season’s 13 one-hour episodes look especially impressive in hi-def; lone extra is a featurette on titan Jason Todd.
A ballet about Queen Victoria—sure, why not? Northern Ballet’s Victoria is an entertaining and illuminating new dance work, choreographed and directed by Cathy Marston and with an excellent original score by Philip Feeney (Jonathan Lo conducts the Northern Ballet Sinfonia). In the title role, Abigail Prudames is a luminous stage presence.
The Hamburg Ballet’s Beethoven Project—the latest ballet from renowned choreographer/lighting & costume designer John Neumeier—is visually and musically dazzling, with Neumeier’s dances perfectly mirroring the sturm und drang of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, among others of his works. Both releases feature superior hi-def video and audio.
Whisky Galore! & The Maggie
These early Ealing Studios films are prime examples of the low-key, dry humor that obtains in many of their releases, especially those of director Alexander Mackendrick, who helmed both titles. 1949’s Whiskey Galore! hilariously studies the effect that a sinking ship containing liquor has on a small Scottish community dealing with wartime rationing.
1954’s The Maggie amusingly pits an American businessman against a British boat captain in a battle of dollars, wills and wits. Both B&W films look sparkling in their new hi-def transfers; Whiskey extras comprise an audio commentary, documentary and featurette.
DVD of the Week
Jonathan Schienberg’s eye-opening documentary follows Jamil, a 15-year-old born in this country but whose parents and sister are deported after his dad’s arrest for being an undocumented immigrant.
The unusually articulate teenager Jamil wants the life he’s envisioned for himself in the States but feels a kinship with his family back in Honduras; Schienberg depicts the insanity, anger and ultimately human cost of our already draconian immigrant policies that have been further exacerbated by the colossus of evil named tRump.
Nikos Skalkottas—Orchestral Works
The Neoclassical Skalkottas
I didn’t even know the name Nikos Skalkottas before I listened to these two discs of his music, and if he isn’t particularly innovative, he is a composer of accomplished and attractive if mainly conventional and, ultimately, minor music. Still, there’s variety and charm in the works on both discs, even though the most memorable of them, the B flat major Sinfonietta, appears on each.
The BIS disc also includes his modernist-period works, the concerto for violin and piano and the suite for violin and chamber orchestra. The Naxos disc has the weightier Classical Symphony and Four Images for orchestra, prime examples of his neoclassical period.
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