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Blu-rays of the Week
The War of the Worlds
Director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal’s 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic 1897 sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion remains watchable even if it is cheesy and dated-looking: although, it must be admitted, for its time, the special effects are fairly dazzling.
Criterion’s smart package includes Paramount’s fantastic-looking and -sounding 4K/5.1 surround restoration; 2005 audio commentary and making-of featurette, The Sky Is Falling; new featurettes on the restoration and visual/sound effects; and—best of all—three audio extras: a 1970 Pal interview; Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 Mercury Theater radio version, which millions of listeners thought was real; and a 1940 radio discussion between Welles and Wells, recorded in San Antonio.
John Steinbeck’s most famous novels were successfully turned into films (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden), but David S. Ward’s 1982 adaptation combines Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday to lesser effect.
Sven Nykvist’s gorgeous photography, Richard MacDonald’s stunning set design and John Huston’s craggy narration outpace the budding romance of Doc and Suzy, outsiders on Cannery Row. Despite the presence of Nick Nolte and (especially) Debra Winger, this overwhelming exercise in style—like fellow early ’80s flops One from the Heart and Popeye—is worth a watch as mainly eye-popping sketches for a story that hasn’t been supplied. The hi-def transfer is, unsurprisingly, transfixing to watch.
Romance on the High Seas
In this diverting 1948 romantic comedy set primarily on a cruise ship, a suspicious wife and husband hire a stand-in and a private eye, who promptly fall for each other, which leads to a satisfyingly silly finale of mistaken identities.
The two couples— Janis Paige (wife) and Don DeFore (husband), and Doris Day (in her effervescent movie debut as the stand-in) and Jack Carson (private eye)—are enjoyable enough to make this dated comedy a treat, along with Jule Styne’s songs; the bursting colors of director Michael Curtiz’s production—shown to great advantage on Blu-ray—also keep things percolating.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
In his latest documentary about how humans deal with their environment, director Nikolaus Geyrhalter provides eye-opening views of some of the most imposing terrain on the planet—mines, quarries and tunnels—to show how we are forever altering the planet, even more so, unbelievably, than natural forces.
Juxtaposing God’s-eye views of places in California, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Spain and Canada (which look like otherworldly abstract paintings) with trenchant interviews with those working at these sites, Earth displays the simultaneous beauty and horribleness that accompanies the changes that can irrevocably damage our one and only home.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
This look at a truly great man might be somewhat hagiographic, but when the subject has done as much over the past six decades for civil rights and race relations as John Lewis has as a congressman from Georgia and as an associate of Martin Luther King—marching at Selma, speaking at the march on Washington, for starters, trying to end racism and prevent the loss of our democracy—then there’s nothing to criticize.
Lewis is still going strong at age 80, and Dawn Porter’s lovely portrait presents a humble but dedicated hero for so many still in pursuit of liberty and justice for all.
A product of rock’n’roll haven Detroit, Suzi Quatro was a tiny woman with a big voice, a big bass and a big personality, all of which gave her a successful career outside of America, where she had a couple of mid/late ‘70s hits (“48 Crash,” the duet “Stumblin’ In” with Chris Norman) and a recurring role on TV’s Happy Days as Leather Toscadero.
Liam Firmager and Tait Brady’s documentary tells Quatro’s story from her teen days in a band with her sisters to current icon status. Quatro is still an unapologetic spitfire and others heard from in this well-rounded portrait are her sisters, brother, ex-manager, ex-producer/songwriter, ex-guitarist/ex-husband and superfans like Cherie Currie, Tina Weymouth and fellow Detroit native Alice Cooper.
DVD of the Week
Evil—Complete 1st Season
This intriguingly twisty crime procedural pairs a forensic psychiatrist (skeptical of anything unscientific) with a Catholic seminarian and his assistant to search for (or rule out) supernatural answers to murders and other crimes.
It’s too bad that the series often takes the easy way out with cheap attempts at scares—like the pilot episode’s unintentionally funny night terrors subplot—because when concentrating on the psychology of supernatural vs. reality, it’s compelling. Katja Herbers, an effortlessly winning actress, could be Carey Mulligan’s doppelgänger (that would make a great episode), while Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi and Christine Lahti provide excellent support. In addition to the series’ 13 episodes, extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.
CD of the Week
Massenet’s “exotic” opera, about an Egyptian courtesan whose true purity is revealed, but with tragic consequences, is best known for its lilting Méditation, an intermezzo for violin—which, in this recording, is dispatched beautifully by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Jonathan Crow.
Massenet’s music is otherwise appropriately (if too obviously) dramatic and romantic; conductor Sir Andrew Davis summons a vivid reading of the shimmering score. Soprano Erin Wall makes a vocally glamorous and enticing heroine, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir provides stellar support.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
The King of Staten Island
I’m no fan of Pete Davidson or Judd Apatow so I unsurprisingly found their collaboration—all two hours and fifteen minutes—insufferable. Davidson basically (and monotonously) plays himself if he never joined SNL, just a tattooed goof-off; shoehorning his own tragic back story (Davidson’s real father, a firefighter, died on Sept. 11) into this crude, forgettable attempt at comedy—another of Apatow’s paeans to losers—borders on the unseemly.
On the positive side, Marisa Tomei is a delight as Pete’s mom, Steve Buscemi is fine as a fireman, and Bill Burr is agreeable in a one-note part as Mom’s new boyfriend (another fireman)—but they only partially compensate for long stretches of choppy, self-indulgent moviemaking and empty, laughless space.
French director Claude Sautet’s sophomore feature, this 1960 crime drama is a taut, tight exploration of a wanted man’s desperate attempts to remain free—by film’s end, his wife is dead, he’s separated from his two young sons and the law is right behind him.
Lino Ventura gives a blistering performance as the flawed protagonist and has fine support by Jean-Paul Belmondo as his latest—and likely last—partner and Sandra Milo as a young woman who assists them. Superbly shot in stark B&W by Ghislain Cloquet, Sautet’s best film was followed by increasingly more erratic features, unfortunately.
My Darling Vivian
Usually erased from accounts of Johnny Cash’s life and career is his first wife Vivian Liberto—mother of his four daughters, including singer Rosanne—in favor of the obvious June Carter Cash/second wife angle; Matt Riddlehoover’s illuminating documentary corrects the by-now cemented historical record.
Emotional interviews with Vivian’s daughters are interspersed with an eye-opening and quite touching look at Vivian with and without Johnny: after their divorce, she remarried while admitting that Johnny was the love of her life.
(Blue Fox Entertainment)
Bill Nighy displays his usual snarky persona as a respected tailor damaged after one of his sons stormed out during a tense game of Scrabble in Carl Hunter’s by-the-numbers study of a man more interested in words than in other people, including his own family.
The always watchable Nighy can do sort of thing in his sleep, which means there’s little surprise to his character arc, while even an actress as dependable as Jenny Agutter is unable to create many sparks as a woman who enters the tailor’s life after meeting him at the morgue, of all places.
Polish director Jan Kosama’s provocative study of a 20-year-old jailbird posing as a village priest and how it changes him and his parishioners—especially after he looks into past sins that have been swept under the rug—might be contrived but it’s a powerful statement on the uneasy intersection of criminality, religion and redemption.
Bartosz Bielenia gives a phenomenally effective performance in the lead role while Eliza Rycembel leads an excellent supporting cast as a local woman he befriends. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras are a making-of featurette and Kosama’s 2003 short, Nice to See You.
(Film Movement Classics)
Polish director Andrzej Zulawski made several films about unhinged characters in difficult relationships, but he’s in relatively muted mode in this disjointed 1974 portrait of a struggling actress juggling her personal and professional lives.
Romy Schneider’s incendiary portrayal of a married woman who falls in love with a photographer provides some searing and intense moments; too bad these are exceptions in Zulawski’s wan glimpse at artists’ difficulties. There’s a very good hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Zulawski interview.
Mahler—Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”
Gustav Mahler’s massive “Resurrection” symphony—for large orchestra, chorus and two female soloists—is given a forceful rendition by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, Munich Philharmonic and chorus and singers Tamara Mumford and Chen Reiss.
Performed in the gorgeously cathedral-like Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, Mahler’s mammoth work comes off brilliantly, from its quiet beginnings to its stirring finale, much like Beethoven’s ninth (see DVD reviews below). There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Director Daniel Roher engagingly recounts the eventful musical life of Robbie Robertson, leader of the Band, the original roots-rock group whose classic tunes “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” remain staples of classic rock playlists.
Robertson candidly discusses his upbringing in Canada, his move to the U.S. and teaming up with 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 decades. The film looks and sounds great in hi-def.
Japanese director Kon Ichikawa was chosen to create the official record of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games, and the passionately filmed and involving result is—along with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, about the infamous 1936 Berlin Games—the best-ever Olympic document.
From intimate moments of personal triumph and agony to expansive views of the playing fields and spectators, Ichikawa presents the human comedy on an epic canvas. Criterion’s stellar edition includes a quite good (but not great) hi-def transfer, commentary and introductions by Japanese film expert Peter Cowie, archival Ichikawa interviews, new featurette, and nearly an hour and a half of additional footage.
Beethoven’s Ninth—Symphony for the World
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the first symphony comprising a choir and solo vocalists—was a formidable challenge for those at its 1824 Vienna premiere. (Beethoven, deaf by that time and co-conducting the first performance, famously had to be turned around by one of the singers so he could see the applauding audience.)
Christian Berger’s captivating documentary demonstrates that Beethoven’s message of brotherhood and humanity has not faded in the past 200 years: we see orchestras, conductors, composers and soloists getting ready to perform the work all over the world, from Tokyo (where 10,000 people make up the chorus) to Africa. The symphony is still a stirring and daring work of art, which was Beethoven’s intent.
The Gene—A Personal History
This fascinating multi-episode documentary from a book by Siddhartha Mukherjee precisely lays out how genetic science has grown into the complex and seemingly miraculous field responsible for so many important breakthroughs.
Personalizing the science—we are introduced to people with diseases yet to be tamed and watch if gene therapy can help—also humanizes the historical aspect, as the men and women working so heroically are discovering how to utilize constantly improving technology for the betterment of all.
Based on the subtly unnerving novel by Leïla Slimani, Lucie Borleteau’s middling adaptation slowly builds predictable suspense after a well-to-do Parisian couple hires the so-called title character, then loses it all with a lazy finale that recalls mindless slasher flicks far more than more sophisticated thrillers.
As the nanny, the mostly persuasive Karin Viard is eventually undercut by Borleteau’s reliance on clichés, which mitigates the domestic horrors found in this all-too-real situation.
CDs of the Week
Penderecki—St Luke Passion
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki—who died in March at age 86—was known for his tense, dissonant works, which are familiar to anyone who’s seen The Exorcist, The Shining, Shutter Island or fellow Pole Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn. But his St Luke Passion, which premiered in 1966, showed off a “new” Penderecki: blending atonality with baroque forms and a newfound talent for choral writing, this was the first of several large-scale vocal works based on religious texts.
This tremendous performance from the 2018 Salzburg Festival by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Krakow Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw Boys Choir and a quartet of esteemed soloists was conducted by Kent Nagano, whose affinity for Penderecki’s wide-ranging sound world is very much in evidence.
The most characteristic works of American composer Morton Feldman (1926-87) don’t lend themselves to either live performances or, especially, recordings: consider his marathon, six-hours-without-a-break String Quartet No 2.
But this recording shows that Feldman could work his singular magic—slowly evolving sounds, mostly quiet dynamics—in smaller forms: 1973’s String Quartet and Orchestra distills the essence of his music to 26 memorable minutes, while 1986’s Coptic Light (his last completed work before his death from cancer) further consolidates his aesthetic of musical calm, even with the extraordinarily large orchestral forces needed. The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra plays both works brilliantly under the batons of Michael Boder (Coptic Light) and Emilio Pomarico (String Quartet and Orchestra, with the Arditti Quartet).
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