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Blu-rays of the Week
In his thoroughly unnecessary sequel to The Shining, writer-director Mike Flanagan slavishly imitates Kubrick’s classic and tries to balance that with adapting King’s own sequel (but includes the original novel’s ending for reasons best left unsaid). By trying to have it both ways, Flanagan ends up with little of either, an unsatisfying blend of King’s juvenile sensibility and Kubrick’s more ironic one. Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny Torrance is mainly somnambulant, Kyliegh Curran is engaging as the teenager whose shining causes Danny to confront his own demons, and Rebecca Ferguson makes a compelling villainess, although her part—a vampire who sucks the life essence out of those who shine—is nonsensical.
Many shots, images, music cues, even edits nod to Kubrick’s original film, but with none of the impending dread, creepiness or resonance. In addition to the 152-minute theatrical cut, there’s a bloated three-hour director’s cut. Both versions look stunning in hi-def; extras include three making-of featurettes which feature King and Flanagan interviews.
FLCL—Progressive and Alternative
The popular anime show returns following its long-ago first season—first seen on the Adult Swim network in 2003—with the Blu-ray debuts of two new series: Progressive and Alternative, both of which premiered on Adult Swim in 2018. Both series are presented in the original Japanese along with an English dubbed version; the original version is my preference, but your mileage may vary.
The dozen episodes of both series are presented in striking colors in hi-def; extras include making-of featurettes as well as interviews with the creators, voice actors and the Pillows, the band that composed and plays the musical score.
In his ham-fisted film, Korean director Bong Joon-ho has set up the most blatant allegory since Noah’s flood—which also makes an appearance—and tries having it both ways by playing it for laughs and completely straight. Neither approach works because tone and logic are askew: we are meant to believe that members of a rich family (which a quartet of poor family members homes in on, eventually takes jobs in their household and soon runs the place) are so benighted as to allow such machinations to happen right under their noses.
Then when a disgruntled former employee returns—why would anyone allow her back in the house?—another nonsensical plot plays out. It’s at least acted forcefully and Bong is an impressive enough technician to make this seem more than the sum of its shaky parts. On Blu, the film looks impressive; lone extra is a director Q&A.
Despite Natalie Wood’s usual plucky presence, this is a strained, mostly unfunny 1966 would-be caper comedy about a kleptomaniac who robs her own husband’s bank because she feels neglected by him. Director Arthur Hiller aims the most heavyhanded comedic lobs at the audience, and even Wood starts to become annoying; the best the film has to offer is a time-capsule glimpse at mid-‘60s Manhattan, including a sequence set in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden.
A top supporting cast—Peter Falk, Jonathan Winters, Ian Bannen, Dick Shawn and Lou Jacobi—has astonishingly little to do. The film looks superb in hi-def; lone extra is a featurette about legendary costume designer Edith Head.
French visual artist-sculptor Prune Nourry recounts her difficult battle with breast cancer at age 31 in this lacerating self-portrait with equal parts wit, humor and a defiantly unsentimental quality. There are moments where you want to look away because they’re so intensely personal, but Nourry’s positive attitude—and insightfully showing how her art informs her life—keeps one watching.
There’s even a delightful cameo by the late, lamented Agnes Varda in a lovely moment between female artists (or, as Nourry calls Varda in the closing credits, her “sweet potato”). There’s a high-quality hi-def transfer; lone extra is a post-screening Q&A with Nourry.
In his overlong but engrossing melodrama, writer-director Trey Edward Shults follows a middle-class black family in Florida that’s torn apart by tragedy but attempts to become whole again. Shults has a real empathetic feel without getting too maudlin, but his Terrance Malick-ish imagery and sound end up pale imitations of the master; Shults also lingers too long at moments that deserve a subtler touch.
Still, with an emotionally honest cast—Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie—even lesser sequences (like the overwrought ending) find the truth and complexity of real life. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise Shults and Harrison Jr.’s commentary, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and cast Q&A.
CD of the Week
Soprano Ruby Hughes has created an intelligent program for this recital disc—her first with orchestra—juxtaposing two towering song cycles of early 20th century romanticism (Mahler) and modernism (Berg) with a more recent work, Welsh composer Rhian Samuel’s Clytemnestra, from 1994.
Hughes’ richly enveloping voice caresses the beauty of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and the restlessness of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, and in the jagged edges of Samuel’s dramatic work, she lets go with the ferocity and abandon of Aeschylus’ great tragic character, avenging her own daughter’s death. Hughes is expertly accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which is led by the supple conducting of Jac van Steen.
Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey
Through July 19, 2020
Museum of Moving Image, 36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, NY
Now firmly on any reputable Greatest Films of All Time list, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the visionary director’s most inscrutable, puzzling and, paradoxically, satisfying films. The director’s peregrination from contacting author Arthur C. Clarke to collaborate on what was first titled Journey Beyond the Stars to premiering a nearly three-hour trip through time and space was one of many he took to bring his challenging, often polarizing ideas to fruition onscreen.
Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, until July 19, is a remarkably wide-ranging exhibition that takes visitors through Kubrick’s constant re-envisioning of what would become the greatest science-fiction film ever made and among the most complex narratives from a major studio to ever grace the screen.
Moonwatcher costume and space suits
The exhibit is filled with ephemera anyone with even a remote interest in 2001 would want to see—Kubrick’s voluminous correspondence; his detailed notes, many written (or typed) on index cards; models of several of the film’s space ships; examples of the costumes and set designs; audio interview with Dan Richter, who played the ape-man Moonwatcher in the Dawn of Man sequence; Moonwatcher’s head, the helmet of one of the astronauts, and even the cap of the Pan Am stewardess; and Kubrick’s lone Oscar statuette—he unbelievably never won for Best Director—for Best Special Effects.
Kubrick’s singular brilliance dominates the exhibition, not least in his carefully-worded—some might say pedantic—letters filled with questions and anaylsis and trivia that he sent to space experts from NASA and others. Kubrick’s use of music, one of his greatest filmmaking innovations, arguably reached its apogee in 2001, whose uniqueness is seen and heard in a section of the exhibit where the famous opening sequence is shown with both Alex North’s original music—an effective but obvious Hollywood score—and Kubrick’s “temp” choice that became permanent, Richard Strauss’ rousing intro to Also sprach Zarathustra.
Kubrick’s genius also shines through in the film series accompanying Envisioning 2001, which comprises features that informed Kubrick’s approach as 2001 took shape, several of which will be screened during the exhibition: Polish director Jindřich Polák’s visionary 1963 sci-fi mystery Ikarie XB-1 and Ingmar Bergman’s classic psychological portraits Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring, among them. And, to top it off, 2001 itself will be screened monthly in a 70-millimeter print, providing more opportunities to take another exhilarating journey beyond the stars with Stanley Kubrick.
The IrishmanDirector: Martin ScorseseCast: Robert DeNiro, Pacino
While master actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese have separately established voluminous and highly praised careers, their work together has stirred hurrahs that have made them Olympians of cinema. Whether it was “Taxi Driver or “Raging Bull,” their collaborations have raised the level of cinematic art and established a dynamic that has been truly special. Over 50 years, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker has also crafted iconic gangster stories from “Mean Streets” to “Goodfellas” and “Casino” — and now “The Irishman” joins that list.
Scorsese’s three 1/2 hour long epic received incredible reviews when it opened the New York Film Festival, and now has racked up 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Already available on Netflix, "The Irishman" was compared to a Rembrandt painting by The New York Times and the movie received an unprecedented 100% “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
But getting the film financed for either big or small screen took a lot of wrangling until it became Netflix’s; again a project presented a daunting challenge for Scorsese, DeNiro and its producers. Recalled the legendary 76-year-old, “There’s a really long history [to this] because Bob and I really wanted to work together since we did ‘Casino’ which was in 1995, and we would check with each other and what we were doing, what projects we were doing, things like that, never quite connecting.”
Added the Oscar-winning actor, “Yeah, we were talking about two years before, and I said now I should just read it for research on Frankie Machine. And then I read it.”
This 76-year-old was referring to another project that had been under consideration, "The Winter of Frankie Machine". Though it was pitched for possible production, it fell to this project to get made, based on a different book. How did it get started? Producer Jane Rosenthal had explained that, in 2007, she and partner DeNiro were trying to make another movie, “The Winter of Frankie Machine.” Said Rosenthal, “On a call with Paramount Pictures head Brad Bray, Bob brought up this other book that he had read and said, ‘Maybe we could do this together or maybe not.’ The book was ‘I Hear You Paint Houses,’ and we decided we should do that.”
With that, Scorsese responded, “When Bob presented the book to me, it seemed that he was very strongly attached to the character. We didn’t have to say much. After the phone call with Brad, I got Steve [Zaillian] to write the script. That was about 10 years ago.”
Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004’s book, “The Irishman” stars DeNiro [who is part Irish] as Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, with Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci as Jimmy Hoffa, and Russell Bufalino, respectively. In the movie, Sheeran recounts both his job as a union official and as a hitman for the Bufalino crime family. Born in 1920 to Philadelphia-base house painter Thomas Francis Sheeran Jr., and Mary Agnes Hanson, the young Sheeran grew up in Darby, Pennsylvania — a small working-class Irish neighborhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia. As a World War II veteran, he learned his killing skills fighting in important battles in Italy.
As the killer recalls his Mafia life, the film flashes back to the hits that defined his career, and the part he claims to have played in the disappearance of life-long friend Hoffa, the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who mysteriously vanished in late July, 1975, at age 62. A classic mobbed-up union figure fighting for his constituency — while taking wads of cash under the table — Hoffa provided a challenge for any actor.
For Scorsese, this production offered an opportunity for him to finally work with Pacino, who plays the legendary Teamster leader. As the award-winning actor remembered, “Oh yeah, it was because in today’s world, you have a lot of access to those kinds of characters because of people who know them, or knew them, there’s books about them. We had access to all that. When I played Serpico, the thought of him on a video somewhere was, I mean it was not even a thought, but I had him. That’s always an advantage. But Jimmy knew so much about it, I grew up at the time of it.”
The movie also re-teamed the director with DeNiro and Pesce, who last worked together maybe 25 years ago in Casino. As DeNiro noted, “Opportunities passed and then Joe and I would talk about the movie too. We went through our own process of talking about it as far as all that goes. But I’m just happy we all finally got to do it because it did take a long time. The way that Martin was able to do it and the way that we wanted to do it, we were lucky to have the people that put up the money.”
Scorsese agreed. “Yes, that was the key! We couldn’t get a backer, there was no way, for years. But, ultimately it was [Netflix’s head] Ted Serrandos. He actually backed the film and financed it.”
Still, there was another huge challenge facing the director. The story spans three decades and more. And that offered a unique opportunity. “[Visual effects supervisor] Pablo Helmanand Maya had come up with a solution for the de-aging process that wouldn’t interfere with Bob and Joe — like talking to each other with helmets on or tennis balls on their faces. We did tests a few years ago, but it was a costly experiment. Yet Ted and everyone at Netflix said, ‘Go with it!’ Creatively, they turned to us and there was no interference of any kind. There were some notes from time to time and we addressed them or not.
“The point is that it was necessarily an interesting hybrid in a way, because it hung in the balance [for] what a film is. All of this is an extraordinary time of change, but when it comes down to it, ultimately, we all felt the picture had to be made for ourselves really. We had to check in with each other; you know, as you grow older, people change differently at times and you grow separate away from each other. This was not the case; we just kept coming back and still have a telepathic way of working together, particularly with certain characters. And, It’s my first time working with Al, finally!”
To which, Al chimed in, “I read the script, I promise!”
Scorsese replied to that: “I know, because the marks you hit and the lines were very specific. Certain people think he would have a lack of appreciation… You know it’s there, it’s in the script, but it is the interpretation.
The 79-year-old master thespian added, “Somebody said to me, about the age thing, and they showed me this thing of Bob doing Goodfellas, and I thought, ‘why is he doing this again?’”
The seasoned moviemaker explained, “I always told this story about the first day shooting with you, getting out of the chair. It was you and me, and you were complaining about “those Kennedys they go to war with these people” — remember on the TV? That was the first time I have ever worked with you too and I said, ‘That’s great!’ It was really good what he did and I said one more take and he gets up out of the chair, yells at the TV and leaves again, at which point I say, ‘Good, maybe we’ll do one more and I think we can move on.’
“There were two cameras going, and this was [with] the three lenses on each camera. I think it was [cinematographer] Rodrigo Pietro, Pablo and I think Gary. It isn’t just about lenses and computer imagery. It’s about posture, it’s about movement, it’s about everything, so there were people on each element dealing with the actors on this. And Gary came over and said, ‘I have to tell you something.’ And I’m like ‘What?’ and he says, ‘He’s supposed to be 49.’ I said, ‘Why are you telling me?’ he says, ‘No, you have to tell him!’ I walk over and say, ‘Al, everything’s fine, but one of the things is that when you get out of the chair, you’re supposed to be 49.’ Al’s like, ‘Oh God, Okay!’ We were sculpting this whole thing, it was like working models in a way, plus the truth about how they’re interpreting. It’s an extraordinary experience!”
And with that in mind, Pacino acknowledged, “Young again!”
(Film Movement Classics)
Bill Forsyth’s breakthrough feature was this extremely charming 1981 romantic comedy about a teen who falls for a sporty tomboy who makes the high school’s soccer team. Although Forsyth would go on to make better, more memorable films—like his masterpieces Local Hero and Housekeeping—there’s something disarmingly unpretentious to this perceptive comic study.
Winning performances by John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory), Dee Hepburn (tomboy) and Claire Grogan (another girl) help keep this as fresh and funny as it was nearly 40 years ago. The new hi-def transfer looks luminous; extras include a new Forsyth commentary, new interviews with Forsyth and Grogan, and a vintage interview with Forsyth.
Britt-Marie Was Here
Swedish actress Pernilla August—an accomplished veteran of films by Ingmar Bergman and her ex-husband Bille August—plays a forgotten 63-year-old wife who discovers her husband is having an affair, so she moves away and improbably becomes the soccer coach to a bunch of unruly teens.
This is crowd-pleasing, safe filmmaking whose sentimentality and cutesiness is obviously the draw here, along with August, always an appealing presence, as our heroine. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.
Sidney Lumet’s pulse-pounding 1964 drama about a Cold War nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union had the misfortune of being made at the same time as Stanley Kubrick’s scaldingly comic take on the subject, Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick even sued the production).
Fifty-six years later, Lumet’s tense thriller—with a fine cast led by Henry Fonda as the president, Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver, Walter Matthau and Dan O’Herlihy—can be appreciated on its own. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is exceptionally vivid; extras include Lumet’s 2000 commentary; an interview with film critic J. Hoberman; and Fail-Safe Revisited, a 2000 documentary short including interviews with Lumet, O’Herlihy and screenwriter Walter Bernstein.
George Benjamin—Written on Skin/Lessons in Love and Violence
With 2013’s Written on Skin, British composer George Benjamin became a rock star in the opera world: his spiky music and the intense drama of Martin Crimp’s libretto about a fateful adulterous affair combine with committed performers and interpreters to create an overwhelming dramatic and musical sensation.
His 2018 followup, Lessons in Love and Violence—a static drama about an enraged and enraging monarch and the bitter rivalries among his family and subjects—finds Benjamin and Crimp spinning their wheels, even with returning Skin collaborators: director Katie Mitchell and singers Barbara Hannigan and Stephane Dagout. Hi-def images and audio are first-rate; extras are short interviews with Benjamin, Crimp and Mitchell.
Leonard Bernstein’s Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Vol. 2
As music director of the New York Philharmonic, conductor Leonard Bernstein—a brilliant musical polymath and teacher with the rare ability to talk about music to any audience, young or old—hosted dozens of concerts in which the orchestral players demonstrated works both familiar and obscure while he chattily discussed the pieces’ relevance and originality.
Like volume 1, this four-disc set collects 14 episodes from the series that CBS aired (in prime time!) from 1958 and 1972—along with three episodes featuring young performers—as music by Copland (on his 60th birthday) and Shostakovich is played and analyzed alongside a couple of Beatles tunes. The half-century-old televised episodes look fine, if unspectacular, on Blu.
DVD of the Week
Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1906-76) led a fascinating personal and artistic life, and Murray Grigor and Hamid Shams’s affectionate documentary rises to the occasion by being thoughtful about his legacy as it drifts heavily into “music geek” mode.
Interviews with many of Piatigorsky’s students and fervent admirers—including fellow cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Mischa Maisky and Stephen Isserlis—further illuminate a magnanimous portrait of a man, musician and mentor.
Beethoven’s lone opera, Fidelio, originated as Leonore, titled after the eponymous heroine whose beloved husband, Florestan, has been jailed for crimes against the state.
Although both versions have their dramatic clunkiness—redeemed throughout by Beethoven’s soaring music, especially the great overtures (“Leonore No. 2” is included here)—there have been attempts in recent decades to resuscitate Leonore. In this estimable new recording, housed in an impressive hardcover book, René Jacobs adeptly conducts the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra as well as several well-cast soloists, led by Marlis Petersen’s transfixing Leonore.
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