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Film and the Arts

January '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Bad Day at Black Rock

(Warner Archive)
In John Sturges’ tense 1955 thriller clocking in at a perfectly paced 81 minutes, Spencer Tracy plays a wounded war vet whose arrival in a remote western town sets off the locals in a spirited and ugly campaign to be rid of him.
The widescreen photography by William C. Melor is spectacular, Andre Previn’s effective music matches the nerve-wracking mood, and although Tracy is too old for the lead, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing his role. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a commentary by film expert Dana Polan.
(Warner Archive)
The Battle of the Bulge—the final nail in the Nazi war machine’s coffin—was still recent history when William A. Wellman’s searing 1949 dramatic recreation was made, and it remarkably lacks both melodramatics and sentimentality (with barely any music heard and patriotic marches left until the final credits).
Despite the constraints of its era, it remains a tough testament to war’s harshness and the bravery of the men who fight. The B&W film looks luminous on Blu-ray; extras comprise a vintage cartoon and vintage featurette.
Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! 
One of the least inspired of Bob Hope’s vehicles, this weak 1966 comedy concerns a desperate real-estate broker who lucks into prosperity when a runaway Hollywood megastar stays at his lone property.
Hope is game but looks lost, Elke Sommer is beautifully befuddled as the screen queen, and Phyllis Diller ridiculously wasted as Hope’s housekeeper in this frantic but dated attempt to be “with-it.” There’s a fine hi-def transfer.
Come and Find Me
Writer-director Zack Whedon’s crime drama is an exceedingly slow burn, as our hero searches for his missing girlfriend who he soon discovers was not whom he thought she was: liberally mixing in flashbacks,
Whedon loses his way in a mess of false leads and ends up strangling what might have been an interesting mystery. Attractive lead performances by Aaron Paul and Annabelle Wallis somewhat compensate. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include featurette and commentary.
The Light Between Oceans 
Derek Cianfrance’s unapologetically grand, old-fashioned tragic romance from M.L. Stedman’s novel about a lighthouse keeper, his wife and the baby that improbably washes ashore in their remote location is greatly enhanced by luminous widescreen compositions awash in natural light.
Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are perfectly cast as the couple; Rachel Weisz does wonders with the underwritten role as a widow who haunts them. On Blu-ray, Adam Arkapan’s photography comes to ravishing life; extras are Cianfrance’s commentary and two featurettes.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Nicolas Roeg’s inscrutable 1976 sci-fi story hasn’t aged well: if anything, its visual dazzle has been further eclipsed by its thematic and narrative incoherence, along with David Bowie’s zombie-like screen presence.
On Blu-ray, Tony Richmond’s creative camerawork remains the main focus; extras include an archival Bowie interview (from French TV), featurette about the music, interviews with Roeg, Richmond and actress Candy Clark (whose performance is the best in a film that also wastes Rip Torn and Buck Henry), poster and 72-page booklet.
The Men’s Club 
This frivolously sexist 1986 drama about a group of men whose whiny get-together is followed by a night of debauchery in a brothel was adapted by Leonard Michaels from his own book without much conviction: the movie is filled with boring monologues, clichéd conservations and implausible relationships.
Peter Medak likewise directs without much distinction; amazingly, his next three films would be top-notch: The Krays, Let Him Have It and Romeo Is Bleeding. Estimable actors—Roy Scheider, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella, Richard Jordan, David Dukes, Craig Wesson—are outclassed by the women, however badly written their characters are: an uncredited Helen Shaver steals her lone scene, and Penny Baker, Marilyn Jones and Gwen Welles run circles around their male counterparts. There’s a good, grainy transfer.
Barely a feature at 67 minutes, Harold Young’s 1939 espionage drama fails to wring suspense out of its flimsy plot of a plant worker accused of sabotaging work done there, thereby causing the plant’s closure and deaths of three test fliers.
Wooden acting by Charley Grapewin, Gordon Oliver and Arleen Whelan, along with stolid writing and even flimsier directing, relegates this to the realm of the forgettable; with so many older films begging for hi-def release, why put this out?
DVDs of the Week 
The Free World
This downbeat drama, which strains for significance but ends up trumpeting its own incoherence and thinness, follows a man just released from prison for murders he didn’t commit: while working at a dog shelter, he befriends a beaten-down wife, whom he helps flee when she kills her abusive policeman husband.
Typical of writer-director Jason Lew’s film is its bludgeoning insistence that being out of his prison as is bad as being in, as well as equating our protagonist with the canines he’s entrusted with. Boyd Holbrook and Elisabeth Moss do what they can to make their characters believable, but are defeated in the end.
(Omnibus/Film Movement)
What begins as an intriguing conceit—a multi-character study of dozens of Queens neighbors, none of whom came to the aid of Kitty Genovese when she was brutally (and fatally) attacked late one night in 1964—soon degenerates into an exploitive mishmash of melodrama and fake climaxes, all of which come to a head during that fateful evening.
Writer-director Puk Grasten builds up “suspense” at the dying woman’s expense, and providing little insight into his characters, whose problems happened to come to a head at the exact time they could have helped a victim in dire need.
CDs of the Week
Mstislav Rostropovich—Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon 
One of the foremost cellists of the second half of the last century, Russian Mstislav Rostropovich had a long and winding career that not only encompassed the standard repertoire but also many modern composers who wrote works that he championed. In addition to his characterful cello playing, he was also an accomplished piano accompanist and a sensitive conductor, and this superlative 37-CD boxed set of everything he recorded for Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Philips from 1950 to 2004 encompasses this renaissance musician’s oeuvre, whether with his bow, at the keyboard or on the podium.
There are recordings of Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn and—lots of—Beethoven, especially the latter’s chamber works; three equally graceful recordings over a period of 10 years of Schubert’s sublime String Quintet; concertos by Schumann, Dvorak, and Brahms; and even two full-length operas he conducted, Puccini’s Tosca and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

But it’s in 20th century music that these discs come to fiery life: Shostakovich and Prokofiev (too little of the latter, but still); Messaien and Bernstein; and, above all, Benjamin Britten, who composed the weighty Cello Symphony for Rostropovich and the latter returns the favor by giving marvelous performances of that, Britten’s Cello Sonata and two cello suites.




Lastly, there are two unusually fine discs of Rostropovich accompanying his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, in Russian songs from Glinka and Rachmaninov to Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, closing a terrific-sounding and beautifully-packaged summary of one man’s life filled with music. 

Staatskapelle Berlin Plays Classics of Mozart at Carnegie Hall

Daniel Barenboim

One of the most imposing highlights of the current season at Carnegie Hall is a complete cycle of the nine symphonies of Anton Bruckner performed by the august Staatskapelle Berlin under the direction of the renowned pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim. Almost all of the symphonies are paired with a concert work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, mostly piano concerti played by Barenboim, conducting from the piano. (Bruckner also completed two early symphonies before his No. 1, a study symphony and the Symphony No. 0; regrettably, neither will be presented in this cycle.)

The series opened auspiciously on the evening of Thursday, January 19th, with a sterling reading of the popular Piano Concerto No. 27, the composer's final work in the genre. The seldom heard, remarkable Symphony No. 1 made an even stronger impression—played here in the original , "Linz" version —and both halves of the concert were rewarded with avid applause.

The music of the following evening began even more arrestingly with a gripping account of the dramatic Piano Concerto No. 20, in one of the most satisfying renditions in recent memory. Also exhilarating was the rarely played Symphony No. 2—presented in the 1877 version edited by Leopold Nowak —surpassing the accomplishment of the previous night. An ardent ovation was a prelude to a noteworthy announcement — that this date marked the sixtieth anniversary of Barenboim's first appearance on the Carnegie Hall stage when he performed at age fourteen with the legendary Leopold Stokowski. The conductor, after recounting an amusing anecdote about the genesis of that event, movingly delivered some impassioned remarks about the necessity to preserve music and the arts in these troubled times— statements which were received with great warmth by the enthusiastic audience.

Barenboim and these musicians were impressively able to match the intensity of that night at the ensuing concert on the following evening, this time with a magnificent reading of the ambitious Piano Concerto No. 24. The program closed triumphantly with an engrossing account of the formidable, stirring, 1878 version of Symphony No. 3, with the passionate applause bringing an exciting weekend to a pleasing conclusion.

Theater Review—“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at BAM

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Written by Martin McDonagh; directed by Garry Hynes
Performances through February 5, 2017
Marie Mullen, Aisling O'Sullivan and Aaron Monaghan (photo: Stepehen Cummiskey)
The world of playwright Martin McDonagh is more sardonic than malevolent, and his Tony-winning The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is also the most notable: he introduces characters who put one another through physical and emotional wringers, often nonsensically, sometimes amusingly: but, in the end, we don’t give a “feck” (to use his favorite epithet) about them.
Maureen, a 40-year-old spinster living with her aging mum Mag in their barebones home in the small Irish village of Leenane, rues wasting her prime years taking care of Mag instead of having her own life. One evening, she returns from a party with Pato, himself home from doing construction work in England; he spends the night, to Mag’s shock. Maureen pretends that they had great sex and are now a couple; but before Pato leaves for Boston, his letter imploring her to join him—which he has his younger brother Ray deliver to her—ends up in Mag’s hands, and Maureen’s plans for the future are again thwarted.
McDonagh writes lively dialogue, but he also likes a rigged game. These people have wit and clever retorts but are also underbrained: we are asked to swallow more improbabilities than we can keep track of. How have Maureen and Pato never gotten together in the decades before the party? Why is Ray so imbecile that he wouldn’t wait to track down Maureen to give her Pato’s letter instead of leaving it for Mag to open? Why would Mag dump a pot of her urine into the kitchen sink every morning without cleaning anything afterwards? And does Maureen’s long-ago mental breakdown have anything to do with the play’s sleight-of-hand ending, which suggests that some—if not all—of the preceding two-plus hours are her own imaginings?
Obviously all this is so that McDonagh can make a black comedy unconstrained by rules of logic: Ray, who earlier complained to Mag that Maureen kept his swingball that got into her yard when he was a child years ago, happens to find it on a shelf near the door when he visits Maureen at play’s end. The power plays and emotional blackmail the women perform on each other become enervating after awhile, which McDonagh himself senses: the sudden eruption of violence is the next step, however implausibly it’s dramatized.
Still, while watching it certainly holds interest, and that’s due to director Garry Hynes, sensitive to McDonagh’s rhythms, and her cast, which makes these shenanigans for the most part entertaining. Marty Rea (Pato) and Aaron Monaghan (Ray) are never believable as brothers but they have McDonagh’s rap down pat, especially Rea in Pato’s monologue that opens act two.
Marie Mullen—who won a Tony as Maureen in 1996—plays Mag with knowing derisiveness, even if she is a shade too broad in her portrayal. Best is Aisling O’Sullivan as a simply stunning Maureen: she makes this self-contradictory virgin/sadist plausibly vulnerable and even sympathetic. What she does with Maureen’s barking insults and moments of defeated silence is create a fatally wounded woman who far surpasses what McDonagh himself dreamed up on the page.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
BAM Harvey Theatre,651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

Broadway Review—“The Present” with Cate Blanchett

The Present
Adapted by Andrew Upton after Chekhov’s Platonov
Directed by John Crowley
Performances through March 19, 2017
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in The Present (photo: Joan Marcus)
A teenaged Anton Chekhov wrote an unwieldy, untitled play that was never produced during his lifetime. It resurfaced after his death and has been adapted by fine British writers like Michael Frayn and David Hare under the titles Wild Honey and Platonov, the latter the drama’s eponymous protagonist. Chekhov’s original runs over five hours in performance, and that we are spared an extra two hours of one of the few reasons to be thankful for Andrew Upton’s adaptation, pointlessly titled The Present, starring Upton’s wife, Cate Blanchett and a host of hard-working Australian performers from the Sydney Theater Company.
Still, that means that, for three hours, we are harangued by a fatiguing group of Russians gathering for a weekend in the country to celebrate widow Anna’s 40th birthday, including her stepson Sergei and his wife Sophia; Mikhail Platonov and his wife Sasha, and Nikolai and his girlfriend Maria. Mikhail, Sergei and Nikolai are lifelong friends, and Anna has been close to all of them: but she is closest to Mikhail, who also had a fling with Sophia years ago—a dalliance which seems about ready to continue—is looking to seduce Maria and (why not?) Anna herself.
Although it has the usual Chekhovian ingredients—including one of the most important, a loaded gun—the messy stew that is The Present isn’t entirely the original playwright’s fault, for his humanity occasionally peeks through the mishmash. Instead it’s Upton’s: the adaptation (which at least whittles the head count down to a more manageable baker’s dozen) is scuttled by an inability to make any sense of the many narrative and emotional layers the young Chekhov piled on. And updating the setting to late 1980s glasnost-era Russia, whose oligarchs have their own set of complications, doesn’t make things any clearer.
Director John Crowley does Upton no favors by ratcheting up the performances to the point where even an A-1 scenery chewer like Blanchett seems downright dour as Anna, perking up only when she holds a gun or flails around lewdly to the dance hit “What Is Love?” in a ridiculously pointless scene. Other music choices are also suspect: there are Clash songs blaring at the beginning and end of scenes, but why would these Russians listen to the Clash? Just because Mikhail hands Anna a cassette of the group’s London Calling album doesn’t justify the aural intrusions.
The opening moments, after the first-act curtain rises, are lively and amusing as these people wander onstage after they arrive for the weekend celebration. But it all quickly palls for the audience as endless discussions of life, love, betrayal—and even a certain American movie Mikhail saw—are indistinguishable and anything but illuminating.
In a solid cast of thirteen, Jacqueline McKenzie (Sophia) and Anna Bamford (Maria) score best as they nearly create full-blooded characterizations, while Blanchett and costar Richard Roxburgh—our erstwhile stars—give workmanlike but uninspired performances in roles they are too old for, especially Roxburgh, whose middle-aged Mikhail is never a convincingly irresistible 27-year-old heartthrob.
The Present
Barrymore Theatre,243 West 47th Street, New York, NY

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