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Film and the Arts

March '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dark Waters 


In this throwback to muckraking films like Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate lawyer who finds himself on the wrong side of his bosses and Dupont when he brings lawsuits against the company for poisoning the water in rural West Virginia.



Todd Haynes might not seem like the obvious director for such a straightforward drama, but he guides the plot capably and gets strong performances out of Ruffalo and the supporting cast: Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp and several of the actual people who were affected by Dupont’s negligence. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras comprise three making-of featurettes.


From the House of the Dead 

(Bel Air Classiques)

Czech composer Leos Janáček died in 1928 before the premiere of his last opera, a haunting adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel about a Siberian prison camp. But despite the perfect marriage of Janáček’s startling music and Dostoyevsky’s taut drama, director Frank Castorf decided he can be trusted more than those two geniuses, opting for all the wrong things: pointless video screen action (obtrusive cameramen and -women are seen too often onstage), a garish parade of painted flesh, and a sense that the prisoners are interchangeable.



It all lessens the dramatic impact as well as Janáček’s carefully constructed musical cues. The orchestra, conductor Simone Young, chorus and performers do their best to bring across Janáček’s musical vision. There are first-rate hi-def video and audio.







J.S. Bach—The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II 


Last month I mentioned how astonishing it was that András Schiff performed Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Klavier, Book I, at the 2017 BBC Proms completely from memory. Now there’s Schiff’s playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, at the 2018 BBC Proms, and—if it’s even possible—it’s even more incredible that, once again, Schiff plays the entire 140-minute work from memory.



Bach’s preludes and variations are enough to tax any pianist, but Schiff plays one of our greatest composers’ greatest works with artistry and graceful calm. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.


A Little Romance 

(Warner Archive)

George Roy Hill’s cutesy 1979 romance introduced Diane Lane to the world, and that’s the most enduring quality of this alternately charming and enervating film about the budding relationship between a French boy and American girl in Paris. Lane’s natural charisma is already obvious, but her costar, Thelonious Bernard, is less impressive (he would quit movies and go on to become a dentist); Laurence Olivier, as a French rascal who helps the young couple, chews the scenery delectably, and Sally Kellerman is an amusing mess as Lane’s mom.




George Delerue’s old-fashioned (and baroque-sounding) score won an Oscar, while the locations—Paris, Verona and Venice—are unbeatable. The film looks good if unspectacular in hi-def.







Queen & Slim 


In the fraught atmosphere of tRump’s America, director Melina Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe enter the fray with their provocative exploration of the aftermath of an all-too-real situation: a black couple—on a first date yet—accidentally kill a cop who pulls them over on a Cleveland street. They go on the lam before being tracked down and sacrificed to the gods of police brutality and white privilege.



Like Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise before it, the film makes for a messy metaphor, but it’s a riveting drama about two innocent people who become martyrs, with superb performances by Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen) and Daniel Kaluuya (Slim). The film looks splendid on Blu; extras include Matsoukas and Waithe’s commentary and making-of featurettes.


CD of the Week

David Lang—The Loser 


In this inspired monodrama based on a novel by Thomas Bernhard, Rod Gilfry narrates the story of two performers who feel inadequate once they realize the immense artistry of their fellow classmate: Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (who calls one of them the title moniker).



Gilfry finds the nuances of emotion and intellect in his characterization, and Lang’s music—for piano and small ensemble—moves along with a sturdy forward momentum in this shockingly direct commentary about the vagaries of art, life and death.

February '20 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 


(PBS Masterpiece)

This PBS Masterpiece adaptation of an unfinished novel by Jane Austen is as sumptuous as Downton Abbey or Poldark, but with a drive and dramatic impetus all its own: Austen’s interlocking stories of several characters—with her feisty heroine Charlotte Heywood front and center—make for eight episodes of rich viewing.




Leading the immaculate cast is Rose Williams, who makes a sympathetic and winning Charlotte; Theo James is nearly her equal as Sidney Parker, her nemesis turned romantic possibility. On Blu-ray, the series looks quite enticing; extras comprise three short featurettes.




Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 drama was a failed attempt at making a theoretical construct—the title is Italian for “theorem”—with minimal dialogue and characters as prototypes in an assaultive provocation. The film looks ravishing, as does Terence Stamp as a stranger who enters a rich family’s house and proceeds to seduce everyone—father, mother, son, daughter and housekeeper—transforming their lives for better or ill.




Even this, one of Pasolini’s most inscrutable films, looks better than ever in Criterion’s hi-def release—and even sounds more interesting on the alternate English-dubbed soundtrack featuring Stamp’s voice. Extras are commentary by Robert S. C. Gordon, author of Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity; 1969 Pasolini intro; 2007 Stamp interview; and a new interview with John David Rhodes, author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini's Rome.







Tex Avery Screwball Classics—Volume 1 

(Warner Archive)

It’s taken awhile for these vintage cartoons to be released on Blu-ray, mainly because of the questionable morals and unbridled racism that these ‘40s and ‘50s works encompass, but since Tex Avery’s importance in the world of animation cannot be overstated, it’s great that all 19 cartoons are finally available.




Of course, there are problematic issues throughout, especially the obvious stereotypes in Big Heel-Watha, but the cleverness and wit of Batty Baseball or Symphony in Slang cannot go unnoticed. The colors in hi-def look smashing.






(Warner Archive)

John Huston’s lumbering sports-cum-war drama seemed old-hat when it was released in 1981; watching a combination of movie stars and soccer greats (including Pele) team up as Nazi POWs against the German team in a soccer match during World War II seems ludicrous from the get-go. Huston directs relatively unobtrusively, but the few flourishes—slo-mo for an amazing Pele goal—and Bill Conti’s pseudo-rousing, sub-Rocky score reek of desperation.




Sylvester Stallone is embarrassing as an American who plays goal for the prisoners (he even pronounces the river “Sane” in ugly American fashion), while Michael Caine, Max von Sydow (as a Nazi functionary) and others don’t completely embarrass themselves. The film looks quite good in hi-def.







ZZ Top—That Little Ol’ Band from Texas 

(Eagle Rock)

Celebrating an amazing half-century of this blues-rock power trio playing together, Sam Dunn’s entertaining documentary quickly moves through the members’ history as musicians and friends, covering their ups (notably huge MTV success in the early ‘80s) and downs (drug addiction nearly derailed them).




It’s telling that after the MTV section—smash videos “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” got massive airplay—the documentary ends with “ZZ Top is still playing,” showing how fast and brief their commercial peak was, although those who extol them—including Josh Homme and Billy Bob Thornton—say their influence is more than just visual. Both hi-def video and audio are first-class.


DVD of the Week

Howard’s End 

(PBS Masterpiece)

The latest adaptation of the classic E.M. Forster novel comes from the pen of Kenneth Lonergan, who won an Oscar for his brilliant script of Manchester by the Sea and is one of our leading playwrights. Lonergan brings a light touch to the material that at times threatens to become too “modern,” but on the whole he respects Forster’s original throughout his four-part miniseries treatment.




Even more splendid is Haley Atwell, an always underrated—and too little-seen—actress who brings real charm to the role of Margaret Schegel. Providing welcome support is the rest of the cast, led by Julia Ormond, Matthew Macfadyen and Tracey Ullmann. 


CD of the Week 

Gottfried Von Einem—Der Prozess/The Trial 


It’s generally agreed that his first opera, 1947’s Danton’s Death, is Gottfried von Einem’s best, although there are adherents for both 1971’s The Visit of the Old Lady and his follow-up to Danton, 1953’s The Trial, based on Kafka’s hallucinatory novella.





This 2018 Salzburg Festival recording of The Trial, in a vivid performance by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under conductor HK Gruber, ratchets up the dramatic intensity. Leading a huge cast of impressive soloists are Michael Laurenz as the antihero Josef K. and Ilse Eerens as the various women who flit in and out of his marked life.

Broadway Play Review—Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons” with Jane Alexander and James Cromwell

Grand Horizons

Written by Bess Wohl; directed by Leigh Silverman

Performances through March 1, 2020



James Cromwell and Jane Alexander in Grand Horizons (photo: Jane Marcus)



Bess Wohl’s Make Believe—at the Second Stage Theater last summer—looked at a broken family through the eyes of children, both as scared youngsters and scarred adults. Her new play, Grand Horizons, has a similar outlook, but now the adult children must come to terms with their elderly parents’ surprising decision.

When Bill and Nancy—now living at Grand Horizons, a seniors’ “independent living community”—decide to get a divorce (Nancy blurts it out one morning at breakfast, and Bill agrees), their sons Brian and Ben, along with Ben’s heavily pregnant wife Jess, descend on them to see what the hell is going on. Soon skeletons are dragged out of (and tossed back in) the family closet as shifting family dynamics of the past several decades are analyzed: Bill’s current relationship with another woman, Carla; Nancy’s decades-ago fling with her high school sweetheart; older brother Ben and younger brother Brian still fraught relationship, seeing that straight Ben is a married successful lawyer with a kid on the way while gay Brian is single, desperate for companionship—his Tinder date with Tommy, whom he brings back to his parents’ place, quickly turns ruinous—and is a grade-school theater teacher.

If Grand Horizons approaches sitcom-level comedy at times—like repeated jokes about Brian’s The Crucible staging with a youthful cast of 200—and its contrivances grate more than those in Make Believe (the coup de theatre that ends act one with a literal bang is a hoary device that sets up the less interesting second act), Wohl writes lively, biting dialogue that shows her understanding of and sympathy for her flawed characters. On Wohl’s wavelength is director Leigh Silverman, who smooths out the rough patches in a humorous, involving production that features Clint Ramos’ perfectly antiseptic set design and Jen Schriever’s nicely understated lighting. 


The excellent cast features Maulik Pancholy as Brian’s disastrously funny date Tommy, Priscilla Lopez as a scene-stealing Carla and Ashley Park as an amusingly exasperated Jess. As the brothers, Ben McKenzie’s Ben has a levelheadedness that always threatens to turn sour, and Michael Urie’s Brian lays bare his many scars with equal parts humor and heartbreak. 


Nancy and Bill are embodied beautifully by Jane Alexander and James Cromwell. Cromwell’s dry delivery serves him well as Bill, a man whose life has taken many wrong turns of his own making, while Alexander is simply radiant as Nancy, showing the simultaneous exasperation and elation over her marriage’s possible dissolution. Others have said that the 80-year-old award-winning actress extolling cunnilingus is the show’s high point: actually, Alexander’s entire performance is the show’s high point. 



Grand Horizons

Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY

February '20 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Antonio Gaudi 


Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi’s sublime creations are mainly in Barcelona, Spain, where Japanese master Hiroshi Teshigahara shot this 1984 visual essay masquerading as a mere documentary. From his towering (and still unfinished) church La Sagrada Família to the amazing curves of his Casa Milà, the fruits of Gaudi’s imagination ran riot—and Teshigahara’s probing camera displays these wondrous masterpieces of modern art. Composer Toru Takemitsu’s bizarre synthesized sounds ingeniously create an audio equivalent to Gaudi’s otherworldly designs.




On Blu-ray, the architect’s buildings and the director’s images look even more spellbinding; extras include Teshigahara’s short about his sculptor father, Sculptures by Sofu-Vita; footage of Teshigahara’s first trip to Spain; the late, great art critic Robert Hughes’ one-hour BBC special about Gaudi; Ken Russell’s BBC TV program about Gaudi; and an interview with architect Arata Isozaki.




Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Concert—The Blu-Ray Collection 

(Time Life)

This boxed set collects three previous releases that cover the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies from 2009 to 2017. First, there are two discs of the 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009, which paired many top stars that rarely play together, including Bruce Springsteen with Billy Joel, Mick Jagger and Fergie with U2, and Sting with Jeff Beck. A second two-disc set comprises the induction ceremonies from 2010 through 2013, highlighted by outpourings of support from audiences and musicians for Genesis (2010) and especially Rush (2013), the latter for which uber-fans Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins inducted the band and played its classic “Overture” from 2112.




Best induction speech is the late Chris Cornell’s for Heart (2013), and Alice in Chains leader Jerry Cantrell jammed on rousing versions of “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” with the Wilson sisters. The final two discs features the 2014-17 induction ceremonies: highlights are the remaining members of Nirvana with singers Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Lorde (2014); Ringo and Paul reunion for Starr’s belated solo induction (2015); and Rush’s Geddy Lee playing bass in place of the late, great Chris Squire in a tribute to Yes (2017). Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.








(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.

When nice gal Sara has sex with high school hunk Skyler, she gives birth almost immediately to two extraterrestrial monsters, which proceed to terrorize the townspeople, gleefully and gorily killing anything in their path.




This setup makes it sound like it’s a malevolently bloody version of Gremlins, which it is—and though there are rough patches throughout, actress Mary Nepi is perfectly cast as Sara, who plays the virgin turned badass alien hunter with humor and an engaging manner that helps put this over as a tongue-in-cheek parody/monster movie. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise an audio commentary, making-of and blooper reel.


DVD of the Week

Scandalous—The Untold Story of the National Enquirer 


This entertaining documentary takes the right approach when dealing with the long and checkered history of the National Enquirer: simultaneously amused and bemused at how the supermarket rag has, as we begin the third decade of the 21st century, become one of the most powerful media conglomerates and an ally of the current president.




Interviews with former staffers give needed context that, coupled with the added tRumpery that has forever damaged whatever integrity a tabloid could have, makes this wild ride quite enlightening—and depressing.


CD of the Week 

The Contrast—English Poetry in Song 


British soprano Carolyn Sampson has programmed an immensely satisfying recital disc of song settings by several compatriots to works by English poets.




Sampson smartly bookends the disc with the playfully witty William Walton (opening with 1962’s cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table and ending with three absurdist songs from the great Façade he created with Edith Sitwell), and her pristine voice guides us through a century of British vocal writing from the early 20th century Romanticism of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge and Roger Quilter to a composer heretofore unknown to me: Huw Watkins from Wales, whose Five Larkin Songs (this is the first recording; Sampson herself sang the 2010 premiere) present Sampson’s lovely voice at its most emotive. Her pianist, Joseph Middleton, plays with delicacy throughout.

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