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Film and the Arts

August '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Ash Is Purest White 

(Cohen Media)

In Jia Zhangke’s latest saga about contemporary China, Qiao—devoted companion of crime boss Bin—goes to jail for five years after taking the rap for Bin’s unlicensed gun but finds he’s moved on when she is released.

 

 

 

As always, there are many absorbing moments in this cutting critique of modern Chinese society, but Jia’s muse/wife, actress Zhao Tao, isn’t a strong enough performer to carry the weight of this complicated woman’s story. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Jia interview from last year’s New York Film Festival. 

 

The Command 

(Lionsgate)

Dramatizing the tragic 2000 accident aboard Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg’s nail-biting thriller is at times too clever for its own good—its changing aspect ratios are nice but irrelevant—but it’s still a chilling examination of how corrupt bureaucracy, ineptitude and cavalier playing with human lives denies the doomed men’s families any comfort. (A title card states that 71 children were left fatherless by the accident and cover-up.)

 

 

 

A first-rate international cast is led by Matthias Schoenaerts, Lea Seydoux, Colin Firth, Pernilla August and Max von Sydow. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a making-of featurette with interviews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Curse of La Llorona 

(Warner Bros)

In this routine haunted-house entry, an ancient curse is visited on a single mother and her children, and the only way they can exorcise the demon is by enlisting the services of a former priest who is familiar with it.

 

 

 

Allusions to Poltergeist, Close Encounters and, of course, The Exorcist (among others) abound, but director Michael Chaves’ horror programmer skips along at a brisk 93 minutes without defining its characters or their motivations, making the monster—whose makeup design is terrific—the default focus. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.

 

The Fate of Lee Khan 

(Film Movement Classics)

In King Hu’s 1973 classic martial-arts adventure set near the end of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, after a general and his sister visit an inn in a remote area to get their hands on a map that provides the rebels’ plans, the innkeeper helps a band of resistance fighters get it back so the rebellion isn’t crushed.

 

 

 

There’s a sense of humor as well as a precision to the framing and movement in the many balletic fighting sequences in this sequel to Hu’s own masterly epic from two years previously, A Touch of Zen. The film looks tremendous on Blu; lone extra is an appreciation of King Hu. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girls of the Sun 

(Cohen Media)

In Eva Husson’s tough, heartbreaking war drama, a female unit fighting ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan—as hardened and courageous as their male counterparts, if not more so—are treated with disdain due to their gender, putting them in even more mortal danger.

 

 

 

Shot and acted with the utmost authenticity, this searing feature could only have been made by a woman (and it is worlds away from Husson’s intriguing debut Bang Gang). The performances of Husson’s cast, led by the extraordinary Golshifteh Farahani as the squad leader, are nothing short of miraculous. There’s a superlative hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Husson post-screening Q&A.

 

Patrick Melrose 

(Acorn)

Benedict Cumberbatch’s passionate, vitriolic and drily sarcastic performance as a middle-aged man whose life of privilege masks the insecurity he feels as part of a dysfunctional family with little moral compass is the centerpiece of this five-part mini-series based on Edward St Aubyn’s novels.

 

 

 

In addition, there’s a formidable cast (Holliday Grainger, Hugo Weaving and Blythe Danner are particular standouts) and a unique look to each of its five parts, but the blackly comic cynicism is laid on with a trowel, so bingeing might be too exhausting. The hi-def transfer is perfect; lone extra is a short on-set featurette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pokémon Detective Pikachu 

(Warner Bros)

Despite the overuse of CGI, the effects in Rob Letterman’s goofy but enjoyable Pokémon movie are eye-popping, including the cute little Pokémon who teams up with our teenage hero to stop a madman (the paycheck-cashing Bill Nighy) from melding Pokémons with humans.

 

 

 

Ryan Reynolds voices the furry yellow critter with the same snark he uses in Deadpool, except that the innuendos and cursing are toned down a bit. The hi-def transfer is transfixing; extras include an alternate opening, several making-of featurettes, Mr. Mime's audio commentary and a music video.

 

DVDs of the Week

American Beach House

Bikini Model Academy 

(Monarch)

Straw Weisman’s disposably passable time-wasters hark back to the staple of late-night pay-cable networks, flicks with jiggly T&A galore: the titles explain everything, meaning not much goes on in these indifferently-acted beach-and-poolside horny male fantasies.

 

 

 

Of note for golf fans is that Jena Sims—who traipses around in the altogether in Beach House—is champ Brooks Koepka’s girlfriend. Gary Busey and Morgan Fairchild lend their good-natured selves to Academy, while Beach House enlists Mischa Barton and Lorenzo Lamas as top-liners.

 

CD of the Week 

Wynton Marsalis—Works for Violin

(Decca)

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis composed his violin concerto for the electrifying Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti: its four movements revel in Benedetti’s explosive displays of virtuosity and her innate musicality through its four musically diverse movements—as their names, Rhapsody, Rondo Burlesque, Blues, and Hootenanny, show.

 

 

 

Benedetti might even be more impressive playing Marsalis’ Fiddle Dance Suite for solo violin, which she dispatches with gentle power and mighty finesse.

National Youth Orchestra Perform Classics of Opera at Carnegie Hall

Isabel Leonard (L) and Conductor Sir Antonio Pappano (R), photo ©2019 Chris Lee

A fabulous footnote to a superb season at Carnegie Hall was the appearance—on the evening of Saturday, August 3rd—of the amazing musicians of the National Youth Orchestra under the distinguished direction of Sir Antonio Pappano.
 
The program began magnificently with an enthralling performance of Hector Berlioz’s astonishing song-cycle, Les nuits d’été —set to beautiful poems by Théophile Gautier—luminously sung by the stellar mezzo-soprano, Isabel Leonard, who looked characteristically gorgeous in a black-and-white gown with a grey and silver shawl. She began enchantingly with the sprightly “Villanelle,” which memorably contrasted with the more melancholy if tender and exalting, “La spectre de la rose.” More somber was “Sur les lagunes,” followed by the plaintive “Absence” and the more dramatic “Au cimitière (Claire de lune),” concluding joyously with “L’île inconnue.”
 
The second half of the concert was devoted to a thrilling account of Richard Strauss’s dazzling tone-poem, An Alpine Symphony, which mesmerized from the hushed opening section, “Nacht” and the exhilarating “Sunrise” through to the mysterious close. Wondrous too was a transporting encore: Edward Elgar’s unearthly ninth of the Enigma Variations,“Nimrod,” a stunning finish to a glorious evening.

Musical Review— Stephen Sondheim’s “Road Show” at Encores! Off-Center

Road Show

Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by John Weidman

Directed & choreographed by Will Davis

Performances July 24-27, 2019

 

Raúl Esparza in Road Show (photo: Joan Marcus)

 

This summer’s final Encores! Off-Center offering, Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show, resurrected the composer’s biggest problem child.

 

Road Show—which has, in earlier incarnations beginning in 1997, been variously titled Bounce, Wise Guys, and Gold!—follows the real-life exploits of two brothers, Addison and Wilson Mizner, who initially worked together then went their separate ways, since Addison, an architect, was not the con artist Wilson was. Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s 100-minute intermissionless journey follows the brothers from California to Alaska to New York—with quick stops in Hawaii, India, Hong Kong and Guatemala—until winding up in Florida, where Wilson’s get-rich(er) scheme at a new development named Boca Raton fails.

 

As in their earlier collaboration Assassins, Sondheim and Weidman wittily but with a relentless cynicism explore the seamy underside of the American success story. But—if a perusal of the brothers’ bios online is any guide—the Mizners’ lives were even more incredible and stranger than fiction than what we get here, as the show dispenses with real insights for amusing asides and a faux sentimentality that keeps our interest but only intermittently gives either of these worthy characters any depth or dramatic aliveness.

 

Sondheim’s score begins with a stunning opener, “Waste,” then contents itself with mainly accomplished but less remarkable tunes like the boys’ mother extolling her absent Wilson in the heartfelt ballad, “Isn’t He Something!” (sung beautifully by Mary Beth Peil) or their father’s lone contribution, “It’s in Your Hands Now” (dispatched powerfully by Chuck Cooper). If the relationship between Addison and his (fictionalized) partner/lover, Hollis (played by the ingratiating Jin Ha) isn’t presented as enough of a counterweight to the brothers’ oft-broken bond, at least Sondheim has given the lovers the show’s best song: the indescribably moving “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened.”

 

As the brothers, Raúl Esparza (Wilson) and Brandon Uranowitz (Addison) can’t be bettered. Uranowitz gives Addison a fervent yearning quality to complement Esparza, whose natural charisma is on display to proclaim Wilson’s ability to talk anybody into anything—including his own brother. Will Davis’ savvy directing gives added notice that, even though it remains problematic, Road Show deserves a fully-staged future production.

 

Road Show

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

nycitycenter.org

July '19 Digital Week V

4K/UHD of the Week 

The Doors 

(Lionsgate)

Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic tries to turn the Doors lead singer Jim Morrison’s drug-fueled personality—which culminated in his death at age 27 in a Paris bathtub—into something more than a simple biopic, but its ambition might be more of a liability, since Stone’s visual busyness at times overshadows Val Kilmer’s superb central performance as Morrison (unsurprisingly ignored by the Oscars).

 

 

 

For this 4K release, Stone has fashioned a new “final cut” three minutes shorter than his earlier director’s cut (included on the accompanying Blu-ray disc). The film looks—and sounds—great in ultra hi-def; extras comprise a commentary by and new interview with Stone and new interview with sound engineer Lon Bender.

 

Blu-rays of the Week

Body at Brighton Rock 

(Magnet)

Writer-director Roxanne Benjamin’s would-be intense drama pits Wendy, a green national park ranger, at the mercy of the elements after she gets lost…and must remain overnight with a dead body she discovered in a remote area of the park.

 

 

 

At first, it seems that Benjamin is setting us up for a comedy about stupidity—Wendy does the exact things to make her predicament worse—but by the end, after Wendy fends off a crazed visitor and a bear, it’s obvious that Benjamin’s movie is about heroism arriving when least expected. Karina Fontes does wonders making Wendy relatable even in her benightedness. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are interviews and a Benjamin and Fontes commentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bronco Billy 

(Warner Archive)

This 1980 feature about a traveling Wild West show is considered one of star-director Clint Eastwood’s most lighthearted films, and it may well be—but also, thanks to Billy’s horrible mistreatment of a jilted wife Antoinette (whom he lets join his crew and share his bed), which she of course loves, is awfully misogynistic and unfortunately played for laughs.

 

 

 

Sondra Locke’s amateurish acting doesn’t help, and Eastwood and she have no chemistry. At least there’s the always welcome presence of Scatman Crothers—and a superior hi-def transfer.

 

Domino 

(Lionsgate)

Brian De Palma’s latest thriller plods along with static and stagnant action sequences that are as static and stagnant as his earlier ones were fast-paced and even occasionally thrilling.

 

 

 

This ISIS-infused drama is set in Copenhagen and includes several fine Scandinavian actors (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Paprika Steen and Søren Malling) and the great Dutch actress Carice van Houten, but with a flimsy script, derivative directing and Pino Donaggio’s old-hat score, one of America’s former preeminent stylists has delivered a clinker. There’s a terrific hi-def transfer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footlight Parade 

(Warner Archive)

This classic 1933 musical might feature Jimmy Cagney, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler in a story of a desperate director trying to keep audiences’ spirits up during the dark days of the Depression, but there’s a much bigger star on hand: Busby Berkeley.

 

 

 

The dazzling set pieces Berkeley created are his very best, including the most breathtaking of all: a sequence of precisely synchronized movement in a swimming pool by dozens of female aquatic dancers that’s worth the price of admission all by itself. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are archival featurettes and cartoons.

 

Manhunt

(Acorn)

In this true-life crime tale, Martin Clunes gives a forceful portrayal of Detective Sergeant Inspector Colin Sutton, who becomes so wrapped up in solving the murders of young women by a serial killer that he all but neglects his home life and his loving but frustrated wife.

 

 

 

The three-part mini-series is done with vigor and intensity, even its secondary characters—like the grieving parents of a French victim—strongly felt. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is an interview with Clunes and executive producer (and Clunes’ wife) Philippa Braithwaite.

 

CD of the Week 

Hindemith Conducts Hindemith

(Urania Records)

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) composed orchestral music striking in its vitality, variety and vigorousness, along with a deep appreciation of the German composers who preceded him.

 

 

 

These two discs—recorded with the eminent Philharmonia Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic in 1955 and 1956—feature exciting performances of his greatest works, from the extraordinary Mathis der Maler symphony (extracted from his brilliant opera of the same name) to the visionary sounds of Noblissima visione and what’s probably his most famous composition, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Soloist Dennis Brain dynamically dispatches the enchanting Horn Concerto, while Hans Otte is the estimable piano soloist in the lively The Four Temperaments

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