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Film and the Arts

An Evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Joyce DiDonato with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, photo © Todd Rosenberg Photography
A thus-far terrific season at Carnegie Hall continued extraordinarily on the evening of Friday, November 15th, with the magnificent appearance of the superb musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the dazzling direction of the inestimable Riccardo Muti, in the first of two concerts on consecutive nights. (The second was devoted to music by Sergei Prokofiev.)
The program, with all three works in it bearing some connection to the city of Rome, opened exhilaratingly with a magisterial account of Georges Bizet’s colorful, mystifyingly undervalued and seldom performed quasi-symphony, Roma, inspiredby his memorable sojourn in that city as a winner of the Prix de Rome. The first movement consists of a dramatic middle section in between a subdued introduction and its unconventional recapitulation, while the ensuing scherzo was charming and ebullient. The slow movement was stately and melodic, and the work concluded triumphantly with a dance-like finale, eliciting abundant applause.
The second half of the evening began with a commanding performance of another rare opus, the powerful, early The Death of Cleopatra by Hector Berlioz—written as his submission for the Prix de Rome—which is notable especially for its brilliant orchestral writing and which here featured the divine presence of the outstanding mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, who also earned an enthusiastic ovation.
The concert closed stunningly with an unsurpassable reading of the Ottorino Respighi favorite, the exquisite Pines of Rome. The opening “Villa Borghese” section was glittering, succeeded by the somber “Catacombs” movement. The dreamy, impressionistic The Pines of the Janiculum seamlessly transitioned into the glorious and rousing finale, The Pines of the Appian Way, which resulted in an deservedly ardent reception from the audience.
The next appearance of these superlative artists shall be eagerly awaited.

November '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Betty Blue 

(Criterion Collection)

When Jean-Jacques Beineix made this 1986 comedy-drama, his career was in the gutter following his disastrous followup to Diva, his debut hit, The Moon in the Gutter. 




Thanks to a one-of-a-kind performance by the magnetic and irresistible Beatrice Dalle in the title role, Beineix’s alternately enervating and exciting study of a mentally ill young woman’s relationship with a struggling writer (Jean-Hughes Anglade) has its charms alongside its deficiencies, which Beineix’s own three-hour director’s cut multiplies. (It’s too bad that the two-hour theatrical cut isn’t included.) Criterion’s hi-def transfer is magnificent; extras include new and archival interviews with Beineix, Dalle and Anglade; an archival making-of featurette; and a 1977 Beineix short.


The Angry Birds Movie 2 


This sily sequel shows how those natural enemies the birds and the pigs join in an uneasy alliance when both Bird and Pig islands are threatened. Sure, it’s slightly overlong (a movie like this should be 80 minutes, tops), but the creators know their audience and give it more of the same: corny jokes and goofy animated visuals in spades.




The accomplished voice cast includes Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Leslie Jones, Rachel Bloom, Awkwafina and Sterling K. Brown. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include a mini-movie titled Live Stream, featurettes, interviews and a holiday sing-along.







Blinded by the Light 

(Warner Bros) 

The true story of Sarfran Manzoor, a Pakistani national in England who falls in love with Bruce Springsteen’s music, might have made for a heartwarming five-minute interview, but cowriter-director Gurinder Chadha has flattened it into a risible rom-com that takes what could have been an illuminating study of angst and racism amid the working class and makes it into a cutesy “Bruce is God” movie.

The cast is exceptionally earnest, with the happy exception of Rob Brydon, whose few scenes have an energy missing from the rest of the film. Even Springsteen’s music and lyrics—and I’m not a fan—are ill-served by slapping the words to certain songs onscreen or having a turgid musical sequence set to “Born to Run.” The hi-def transfer looks good; extras are two featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.



(Dark Sky)

Writer-director Joe Begos’ dark tale of a young female artist who throws herself willingly and wantonly into a life of hedonism, turning into a literal monster, might be clunky and obvious, but it also has, in the lead role, the remarkable Dora Madison, whose intense performance compels you to keep watching even as the movie itself goes bloodily off the proverbial rails.




The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include two commentaries and a deleted scene.







47 Meters Down—Uncaged 


Yet another Jaws rip-off, Johannes Roberts’ shark movie at least finds itself in unfamiliar surroundings: in an enclosed cove, four young women go scuba diving and find themselves face to face with marauding great whites.

The claustrophobia content is high, which ratchets up the tension at times even though, at 90 minutes, Roberts stretches things out well past credulity, especially the never-ending ending. Still, the quartet of actresses is physically up to the water-logged task. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are a commentary and making-of.


Good Omens 


Michael Sheen and David Tennant battle it out as an angel and a demon in this hackneyed but diverting series about good and evil doing their damnedest to prevent the destruction of the human race and planet earth.




Despite hoary subplots and often risible—and mostly unfunny—asides and characters, Sheen and especially Tennant take their tendency to overplay to the extreme, making this more watchable than it should be. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include commentaries, deleted scenes and several featurettes.







Rolling Stones—Bridges to Buenos Aires 

(Eagle Vision) 

In 1998, the Rolling Stones toured South America, and its outdoor concert in Argentina’s capital makes for a night full of hits, deep cuts and even a surprise guest star—the appearance of Bob Dylan (unacknowledged onstage) for a rip-roaring version of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Mick Jagger is at his best during “Sister Morphine” and “Gimme Shelter,” while the whole band is locked in for terrific run-throughs of “Miss You,” “When the Whip Comes Down” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The SD video is acceptable, but the audio sounds great. The entire concert audio is also on two CDs.


Tel Aviv on Fire 

(Cohen Media)

Writer-director Sameh Zoabi’s beguiling comedy follows a Palestinian interning on a popular TV soap opera who becomes one of the writers and is soon assailed on all sides: the stressed-out lead actress, the producers, the sponsors, his family, the woman he’s in love with and—most sidesplittingly—the Israeli checkpoint commander who demands the show be rewritten to reflect his reality.




There are bumpy patches, but Zoabi’s film amusingly shows how personal interactions can help smooth over seemingly irreconcilable differences. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer; lone extra is a director interview.







Yesterday Was a Lie 


Stylishness is everywhere in James Kerwin’s great-looking but empty 2009 mystery revolving around a couple of dull femme fatales, a singer and a private eye. Despite the glittering B&W cinematography of Jason Cochard, this drama doesn’t go anywhere thanks to Kerwin’s own leaden script.

The lead actresses, Kipleigh Brown (P.I.) and Chase Masterson (singer), do their best but are defeated by the material. The film looks terrific in hi-def; extras include interviews, screen tests, commentary, featurettes, outtakes and Wondercon panel discussion.


DVDs of the Week


The Demons 

(Film Movement)

Québécois director Philippe Lesage made these two films about childhood and adolescence and, despite static longeurs and self-indulgence, they are sensitive explorations of the nuances of growing up, from the innocuous to the horrifying and everything in between. 




The Demons (2015) is more of an apprentice work, a blueprint for the more accomplished and affecting Genèse (2018). Genèse extras are a Lesage commentary and a short film by Swiss/French director Tristan Aymon, The Lesson.


CD of the Week 

Arthur Bliss—Orchestral Works 


One of the unsung British composers of the 20th century, Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) wrote arresting and vigorous music in all categories: chamber music, symphonies, concertos, ballets, film and vocal. This last is the draw of a new disc comprising a trio of later Bliss works (all composed between age 60 and 72), which not only features his rapturous 1952 scena The Enchantress but also the first recording of Mary of Magdala, a lovely sacred cantata composed in 1962-3.




The impassioned instrumental work Meditations on a Theme of John Blow rounds out this superior recording, conducted by Andrew Davis, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and sung by Sarah Connolly and James Platt.

Off-Broadway Play Reviews—Shakespeare Onstage

Richard III

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Garry Hynes

Performances through November 23, 2019



Written by William Shakespeare; directed by John Doyle

Performances through December 15, 2019


Aaron Monaghan in Richard III (photo: Richard Termine)


There are many ways to perform Shakespeare, as two current productions demonstrate with varying degrees of success. Garry Hynes returns with her latest DruidShakespeare staging, Richard III. The story of the English king, whose deformity is as much sociopathic as it is physical, is filled with soliloquies in which Richard ingratiates himself with the audience, forcing us to engage with and even be charmed by him as he goes about committing murder and other atrocities on his way to the throne.


Shakespeare’s words are such that even Lady Anne—whose beloved husband was mercilessly killed by Richard—inevitably falls for Richard’s wooing. But Hynes has made her otherwise impressive Richard, Aaron Monaghan, overdo the faux friendliness and approach “wink wink nudge nudge” territory which, rather than bringing us uncomfortably close to Richard, makes it all rather risible.


Death in the form of a skull literally hangs over the proceedings in a box, an obvious and unnecessary visual from the otherwise no-nonsense director. Hynes’ other invention is a pit at the front of the stage—the greyscale set is by Francis O’Connor—in which the bodies of the victims of Richard’s murderous parade pile up, one by one. (Some of the executions are done with an anachronistic stun gun.) It’s inevitable that, after the climactic battle, Richard’s body is the last to fall into the pit.


Hynes paces the action nicely while most of the performers do well by her direction, especially Garrett Lombard as Hastings, Rory Nolan as Buckingham and Siobhán Cullen as Lady Anne. There’s also the visceral flourish of having Shakespeare’s poetry intoned by Irish actors, some with thick brogues, instead of the usual Queen’s English or flat American accents.


But for all its straightforwardness, this Richard III is most memorable for its lead actor’s lameness. In fact, Monaghan’s limp is so pronounced and authentic I was worried for his physical well-being by the end of the play.



Nadia Bowers and Corey Stoll in Macbeth (photo: Joan Marcus)


Director John Doyle has put his own stamp on many a classic musical, especially those of Stephen Sondheim. Now he’s attempting to do the same with Shakespeare, but streamlining what’s already an elegant and brilliantly paced tragedy like Macbeth into an hour and 45 minutes sans intermission is to sabotage what makes Shakespeare great.


Doyle’s other conceit is to have a cast of nine play all the parts, so the weird sisters become a disembodied—and eerily effective—chorus. But having such a small cast on a bare wooden set lays bare Doyle’s deficient adaptation, especially when Corey Stoll’s stolid Macbeth takes center stage.


Stoll is also outacted by his wife, Nadia Bowers, as Lady Macbeth. Admittedly, hers is the juicier part, but she gets real mileage out of it: her sleepwalking scene, brief though it is, is the most resonant in the play. But since Doyle’s Macbeth flies by so quickly there’s no chance of following the tragic arc which Shakespeare so marvelously develops, leaving a sense of glimpsing mere highlights, like Cliff’s Notes for audiences that haven’t seen the whole play.    


Richard III

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 524 West 59th Street, NY, NY




Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Play Review—Theresa Rebeck’s “Seared” with Raúl Esparza


Written by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Moritz von Steulpnagel

Performances through December 15, 2019


Raúl Esparza and Krysta Rodriguez in Seared (photo: Joan Marcus)


It’s not surprising that behind the scenes of a Brooklyn restaurant would make for a rollicking good time, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared is a fast-paced, often blisteringly funny study of the clashing personalities involved in the act of making food.


The action revolves around Harry, a self-centered chef (of course) who decides not to have his signature scallops dish on the menu after a rave review in New York magazine. His refusal to use his artistry for mere commerce causes endless headaches for his partner, Mike, who’s constantly pulling his hair out while running the place, along with go-getting waiter Rodney.


Harry’s genius at creating delicious dishes is such that, even with his stubbornness, Mike sticks by him and his idiosyncratic behavior. But Mike also hedges his bets by bringing in Emily, a whipsmart consultant who soon whips the place into shape, bringing in more tables and getting a famous food critic to visit and sample the food.


That last causes a final butting of heads that threatens to tear apart Harry and Mike’s tenuous business relationship, and if Rebeck’s solution to this quandary is dramatically ridiculous (if comically inevitable), her tart dialogue provides enough oil to power her predictable but slick machine. 


Director Moritz von Steulpnagel inventively marshals his forces on Tim Mackabee’s minutely-detailed kitchen set, starting with W. Tre Davis’ amusingly ambitious Rodney and David Mason’s highly (and entertainingly) exasperated Mike. The always appealing Krysta Rodriguez makes Emily a funny and intelligent foil for Harry.


At the center of it all is Raúl Esparza, whose brilliantly controlled comic performance as Harry includes his dexterous creating of the dazzling dishes that are the chef’s métier. The second-act opener, when Harry painstakingly and wordlessly prepares a salmon dish only to reject it as not up to his standards with a nonchalant scoop into the garbage can is as perfectly executed an onstage moment as I’ve seen in quite awhile.



Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

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