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Film and the Arts

September '20 Digital Week IV

4K Release of the Week 
Full Metal Jacket 
(Warner Bros)
In Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable 1987 war drama based on Gustav Hasford’s incendiary novel The Short-Timers, recruits go through basic training then are shipped off to Vietnam to become what their drill instructor molded them into: dehumanized killing machines. Kubrick’s classic, which is crammed with stunning images throughout, ends with one of the most haunting moments he ever filmed.
There’s so much mastery on display: the brilliant master stroke of using trashy ‘60s pop songs to further debase the action; the documentary-like immediacy of Douglas Slocombe’s camerawork during several desultory skirmishes; the sardonic black humor in the taut script by Kubrick, Hasford and Michael Herr; the excellent performances by Matthew Modine as Pvt. Joker, Vincent d’Onofrio as the fated recruit Leonard Pyle, and R. Lee Ermey as D.I. Hartman. On ultra-hi def, the film looks ultra-realistic; it’s too bad that the superb 2012 Blu-ray set—with Modine’s on-set photographs and the fascinating extra Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes—wasn’t included.

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
(Screen Media)
Danish writer Christian Torpe Americanized his script for 2014’s Silent Heart, and the result is a nicely photographed and well-acted melodrama about a family dealing with the matriarch choosing to end it all before her ALS becomes too overwhelming; since she’s doing it at the end of a holiday weekend together, secrets and recriminations rear their heads as everyone wrestles with her traumatic decision.
Roger Michell directs elegantly if too schematically and Torpe’s writing has insightful and dramatic moments but too often piles on contrivance and last-minute revelations, while the cast of eight—led by Susan Sarandon’s tough-minded matriarch, Sam Niell’s quiet patriarch and Mia Wasikowska’s brittle black-sheep daughter—keeps one watching despite a familiar story familiarly told.
The Nest 
(IFC Films)
Writer-director Sean Durkin’s dysfunctional family drama unimaginatively attempts to dissect how a family loses its grounding after moving from the U.S. to England during the height of the greed-is-good 1980s.
By having his characters—particularly the father, played unsubtly by Jude Law—act so ridiculously and inconsistently, Durkin sabotages his own picture and ends up nullifying the expressive performance by the always winning Carrie Coon, who plays the wife with such variety and vibrancy that she deserves better than the film she is stuck in.

Space Dogs 
(Icarus Films)
Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter’s audacious documentary takes as its starting point the canine Laika, first earth creature to travel into space, but who was incinerated upon reentering earth’s atmosphere after the historic space ride in 1957. Thus begins a sympathetic but clinical account of Moscow’s stray dogs—Laika’s descendants, it is said—which doubles as an exploration of scientific animal cruelty in order to further space exploration.
There are many tough-to-watch moments, from a couple of strays playfully catching and torturing a cat to death and archival footage of Soviet scientists performing experiments on dogs, but the parallel between street life and lab cruelty is more forced than organic, despite indelible images.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Cordillera of Dreams 
(Icarus Films)
Patricio Guzman, a major but obscure director, makes films about his native Chile. His latest is the forceful final part of a trilogy about memories of Chile, which he left long ago: the title refers to the Andes Mountains—a natural border for Chile and as much metaphorical as it is real—to take the measure of this always changing, undefinable country.
Looking back to the September 11, 1973 coup that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power, Guzman discusses the meaning of the Andes (or Cordillera) with other artists, who give original and insightful answers on their meaning to them and their nation’s history. Beautifully shot, as always, the film is a must-watch on Blu-ray; extras include a Guzman interview, making-of, and interviews with other artists.

I Am a Dancer 
(Film Movement Classics)
In this compelling 1972 documentary, Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev rehearses and performs—in other words, this is as close to balletic bliss as you can get. Director Pierre Jourdan’s camera is in the right position to record Nureyev while teaching others, practicing himself, discussing his art or dancing with legendary ballerinas like Margot Fontyn, with whom he is paired in choreographer Frederick Ashton’s lovely Marguerite and Armand. 
The biggest—and happiest—surprise is a lengthy excerpt from Field Figures, danced brilliantly to the unique strains of Stockhausen’s music. This revelatory ballet film looks superb in a new hi-def transfer. Extras are appreciations by dance scholar Terese Capucilli and American Ballet Theatre dancer Skylar Brandt.
Prodigal Son—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Archive)
This high-concept series takes as its model The Silence of the Lambs and ups the ante, as a young profiler working closely with the NYPD to track murderers turns to his own father, in jail for killing two dozen people years earlier, to help him solve cases by delving into other demented minds.
It’s polished, slick and unnecessarily, grotesquely violent at times, but the acting is persuasive enough to keep viewers coming back for all 20 episodes of its first season: Tom Payne as the criminologist, Bellamy Young as his harried mother and Michael Sheen—channeling Anthony Hopkins—in a wide-eyed, over-the-top performance as the series’ own Hannibal Lecter. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer.

DVD Releases of the Week
Mom—Complete 7th Season
Riverdale—Complete 4th Season 
(Warner Bros)
In its seventh season, Mom remains a pleasantly hit-or-miss sitcom, but the amusing and at times even touching interplay between Allison Janney as Mom and Anna Faris as her frequently disappointing daughter is always enough to make it through these 20 entertaining episodes. 
In the latest season of Riverdale, the gang returns for another go-around as a diverting live-action version of the Archie comics, with enough attractive performers and mild humor to offset the occasionally cloying attempts at melodrama throughout these 19 episodes. (The series shut down filming before the final episode due to the Covid-19 pandemic.) Riverdale extras are a trio of featurettes.

CD Releases of the Week
J.S. Bach—St. John Passion 
Conductor Masaaki Suzuki and his ensemble, the Bach Collegium Japan, are among our foremost contemporary interpreters of Bach’s formidable music, and this latest release—recorded in mid-March, just when the pandemic was starting to rage and everything was starting to shut down—is another estimable addition to their illustrious catalog.
Bach’s St. John Passion is usually considered a step below the lofty heights of the composer’s great St. Matthew Passion, but the urgency of the vocal soloists, chorus and instrumentalists in this performance—perhaps because of the recording circumstances?—makes this a stirring listen.  
Buried Alive—Schoeck, Honegger, Mitropoulos 
Leon Botstein creates the most adventurous programming in the New York area with his American Symphony Orchestra concerts and annual Bard Music Festival and Summerscape (sadly canceled, like everything else, this summer). Now he adds the Orchestra Now—a handpicked ensemble of musicians from the most illustrious music conservatories—to his resume.
The strikingly original music—all written between 1926 and 1928—is by three excellent European composers in their prime: Swiss Arthur Honegger’s short, spiky Rugby; Swiss Othmar Schoeck’s intensely dramatic, 40-minute centerpiece, Lebendig begraben; and Greek Dmitri Mitropoulos’s bracing Concerto Grosso. The orchestra under Botstein plays enthusiastically, and baritone soloist Michael Nagy and the Bard Festival Chorus are standouts in the Schoeck’s monumental work.

September '20 Digital Week III

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 

I Am Woman 

(Quiver Distribution)
Australian Helen Reddy, one of the biggest pop stars of the 1970s, had several hits including “Delta Dawn,” “Ruby Red Dress” and her biggest, “I Am Woman,” which became an international anthem during the era of the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to pass, although a belated push for its ratification is happening now).
Director Unjoo Moon’s biopic hits all the predictable notes—early failure followed by huge success, which leads to a messy marriage and a reevaluation of how fame affects one’s personal life—but is held together by an authentically great performance by Tilda Cobham-Herveym who makes Helen more complicated and sympathetic than the naïve woman thrown to the showbiz lions that the script points toward. 
(Music Box Films)
At first, director Justine Triet is in complete control of this humorous study of a therapist gradually drawn into the world of moviemaking when neurotic actress Margot demands Sibyl become her therapist to finesse the on-set tenseness with her costar and on-set lover Igor and the director (Igor’s real-life lover).
The cast includes Virginie Efira as Sibyl, Gaspard Ulliel as Igor and Sandra Hüller as the director—the latter overdoes it, ruining would-be funny and piercing sequences—but is led by the exquisite Adèle Exarchopoulos, who breathes such luminous life into the caricatured Margot that she dominates the movie, even when it takes a turn into increasingly implausible territory no reputable therapist would be dragged into, leading to a disappointing copout ending.
Blu-ray Release of the Week 

Flying Leathernecks 

(Warner Archive)
Nicholas Ray made this standard-issue 1951 war movie about a marine air squadron fighting the latter stages of the war in the Pacific against the Japanese, who must deal with their own leaders and one another as well as the enemy.
In essence, it’s a nominal John Wayne vehicle, as Wayne—as large a piece of non-acting granite as there ever was—butts heads with Robert Ryan, who’s his superior (both in the film and as an actor). Ray’s most interesting contribution is using actual color combat footage to give a sense of verisimilitude the rest of the movie lacks. On Blu-ray, the vividness of the Technicolor process really jumps off the screen.
DVD Releases of the Week
The Best of Cher 
(Time Life)
This nine-disc set collects the TV specials, episodes from her variety show and televised concerts that Cher starred in from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, including 10 episodes of her 1975 show Cher; her specials Cher…Special (1978) and Cher…and Other Fantasies (1979); and her 1991 and 1999 Las Vegas extravaganzas. Best is the very first episode of Cher, which aired on February 9, 1975 and guest-starred Elton John, Bette Midler and Flip Wilson; where else can one experience Cher and Elton duet on “Bennie and the Jets” and Cher, Bette and Elton trade vocals on “Mockingbird” and “Proud Mary”?
The many extras include disc nine’s full-length documentary, Dear Mom, Love Cher (2013); clips of Cher on Dick Cavett’s and James Corden’s talk shows; interviews with Bob Mackie (of course), Cher’s executive producer George Schlatter and Cher herself; and her performance of the national anthem at the 1999 Super Bowl.
For They Know Not What They Do 

(First Run Features)

In this heartrending documentary, Christian families struggle with the fact that—to their eternal horror—loved ones sometimes come out as gay, upending their safe, religiously self-satisfied lives, sometimes even (as we see happening to one family) with fatal consequences.
Director Daniel Karslake compassionately allows these people to discuss how they processed their reactions and the nearly impossible to reverse consequences that came afterwards. But there are also hopeful stories, like Sarah McBride, a young trans woman who has overcome difficulties and tragedy to finally get her parents’ love and support and speak at the 2016 Democratic Convention. 
A Tramway in Jerusalem 
(Film Movement)
Israeli director Amos Gitai, always unafraid to tackle thorny questions about his home country that have no easy answers, returns with this episodic and typically complex journey, literally: the tram is on a rail line that connects Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods.
Alongside glimpses of the locals who share the trams—who interact at times cordially and at others antagonistically—there are foreigners like French actor Mathieu Amalric, who plays a tourist visiting with his young son, both of them mesmerized by an oud player aboard the tram. Amalric is later laughed at for his naïve views on Israel. The lone extra is a substantial one: a 35-minute film by Gitai, A Letter to a Friend in Gaza, another sober reflection on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
CD Releases of the Week 

Lang Lang—Bach’s Goldberg Variations 

(Deutsche Grammophon)
When Lang Lang set his sights on J.S. Bach’s greatest solo keyboard work (and a touchstone for pianists like Glenn Gould and Andras Schiff), he convinced his record company that he should release two recordings —one from the confines of a studio and the other from a church in Leipzig, where Bach lived and died.
Since his interpretation spans 90 minutes, that’s two discs apiece, so that’s a four-disc set for a single work. Listening to both performances demonstrates how idiosyncratic a pianist Lang Lang is, and the liberties he takes, especially some exceedingly slow tempos, make these sometimes irritating journeys never less than fascinating.
Simone Dinnerstein—A Character of Quiet: Schubert and Glass 
(Orange Mountain Music)
While quarantining in her home in Brooklyn, pianist Simone Dinnerstein decided to make a recording, pairing three etudes by Philip Glass and Franz Schubert’s massive final sonata. Although their sound worlds couldn’t be any more dissimilar to my ears—Glass’ minimalism has never made much of an impression—Dinnerstein’s playing, attuned to both composers’ singular styles, has made the Glass works positively enticing.
But the great Schubert sonata is another thing entirely, as Dinnerstein easily traverses Schubert’s deliberate juxtapositions and repetitions while scaling this imposing musical mountain, whose view from the top—at the tremendous finale—is breathtaking.

September '20 Digital Week II

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 



Director Marco Pontecorvo—the great filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s son—has made a satisfying dramatization of the apparition of the Virgin Mary seen by Lucia and two other children in Portugal in 1917 and its many ramifications.



By giving equal weight to skepticism (through the characters of Lucia’s mother, the local mayor and—in a 70-years-later subplot—a professor who debates Lucia, now an elderly nun) and belief, and visually differentiating them without copying Terrence Malick’s inspired mysticism, Pontecorvo’s well-made anti-spectacle is anchored by excellent performances: Alba Baptista as Lucia’s mother, Harvey Keitel as the layman, Sonia Braga as Lucia the nun and Stephanie Gil, a fantastic child actor, as the young Lucia.


The Andorra Hustle 

(Merola Productions)

In a fearless bit of cinematic reportage, Eric Merola balances voluminous evidence and insightful interviews with the principals to explain what took down the national bank of the tiny European principality of Andorra: the Spanish government covertly pulled the strings to stop the Catalan independence movement in its tracks.



Merola lays out in detail and with the calm clarity of a topnotch detective how this was done with approval by authorities in Europe and—of course—the United States. A special shout-out goes to the defense lawyers trying against imposing odds to clear innocent clients, who deposited their savings in the bank but are unable to retrieve it.


Apocalypse ’45 


In time for the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific, director Erik Nelson has taken newly discovered and restored color footage—as U.S. forces had the Japanese on the run, culminating in victories at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, incendiary bombing of Japanese cities and dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and made a fascinating, you-are-there historical document.



Throughout we hear the voices of those who were there, two dozen veterans of the Greatest Generation giving their observations and memories of those victorious days; fittingly, Nelson gives the last 10 minutes over to their faces and names, a most deserved honor.


Jimmy Carter—Rock & Roll President 

(CNN Films)

In the late ‘70s, California governor Jerry Brown was America’s hippest politician, dating Linda Ronstadt and hanging out with Jackson Browne and the Eagles. But, as director Mary Wharton shows in this breezily engaging portrait, President Jimmy Carter was our music lover-in-chief, whether gospel, jazz, rock, country or classical. Carter hosted concerts at the White House starring Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and had White House visits from Crosby Stills & Nash and even benefit concerts by the Allman Brothers.



Along with showing their performances, Wharton interviews many of them, including an unusually talkative Bob Dylan; some (like Nile Rodgers and Rosanne Cash) even taking their turns reading Carter’s homespun poetry. Carter, now age 95, speaks lucidly and honesty about his kinship with music and musicians. The film won’t make viewers reconsider his one-term presidency, but his openness to all people, cultures and our shared humanity is on display.


Blu-ray Releases of the Week 

Caro Diario/Dear Diary 

(Film Movement Classics)

Nanni Moretti’s 1994 triptych comprises episodes that vary widely in amusement and dramatic interest while representing the states of the filmmaker/narrator’s mind, from the zesty (“On My Vespa,” with Moretti motoring around Rome) to the negligible (“Islands”—unfortunately the longest—about an island where parents let children run things) and the deadly serious (“Doctors,” recounting Moretti’s harrowing cancer treatment).



The tone wavers uneasily throughout, not surprisingly, but Moretti has always had a light touch that helps the film—and viewers—through some of the rougher spots. There is a terrific new hi-def transfer; extras are an on-set featurette and a deleted scene.


Einstein’s Universe 

(Corinth Films)

This 1979 documentary written and conceived by Nigel Carter (which originally aired on BBC, the  PBS) aims to make Albert Einstein’s genius accessible to the average viewer, so it has British actor Peter Ustinov as our narrator/tour guide of sorts, being alternately dazzled and bewildered by the astonishing variety of Einstein’s studies.



Of the many onscreen scientists, some are better than others at speaking in plain English about such abstruse subjects; there are also a few ill-conceived sequences of Ustinov partaking in wacky visualizations of some of Einstein’s theories. There’s a fine new hi-def transfer.






Kentucky Kernels 

(Warner Archive)

This mild, dated 1934 comedy one historical claim to fame: it’s George Stevens’ solo directorial debut. Yes, the director of Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever Told got his start with a creaky vehicle for then-famed comic duo of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey—along with a very young (and pre-Little Rascals) Spanky McFarland, who steals the show as the rambunctious orphan who’s the catalyst for what little plot there is.



It’s all relatively painless and, at 74 minutes, mercifully short. There’s an excellent new hi-def transfer of this slight black-and-white non-classic; extras are a vintage short and cartoon.


CD Release of the Week

Missy Mazzoli—Proving Up 


For her third operatic collaboration with librettist Royce Vavbrek, composer Missy Mazzoli has taken a short story by Karen Russell about a family of 19th century midwestern homesteaders and turned it into a spectrally eerie, dramatically dynamic one-acter.



With superlative performances and remarkably agile playing from the International Contemporary Ensemble, Proving Up proves that Mazzoli can make opera classic and contemporary simultaneously—especially when the supernatural aspect arrives, entirely naturally and with beautifully and hauntingly atmospheric music. 

Doing The Binge This Labor Day — A Way to Visit Other Worlds and Save a Mind In Lock-down

Yes I did.

I let a lot of things go when the pandemic shut-down kicked in. My hair grew out; I ceased emailing and texting with a lot of good and great people; since I was able to get free food from a city program, I took advantage of it even though I ate pretty much the same boring thing every day. Sometimes, I even forgot to brush my teeth.


I was used to going out to different restaurants daily — some great or not so much. I’d be at receptions after special screenings and Q&As with various actors and directors. Suddenly all that was gone. I often would swing into a hotel lobby for the Wi-Fi and a chance to relax and write or meet with various people.

So it’s been quite a Spring and Summer. Without films and music, I needed distraction. When my friend lent me two DVD sets of sci-fi TV series, I was provided with the perfect alternative. By binge-watching them, the on-going escapism helped me survive the pandemic pause. And it’s a perfect thing to do for the holiday weekend.

First I jumped into “Babylon 5” — with its five-season arc based on a floating city in space. Some said it was like “Star Trek -Deep Space Nine” maybe better, maybe worse.

Unusual for the era in which it was released, “Babylon 5” was like a “novel for television” with a defined beginning, middle, and end. ”Unfolding over its five 22-episode seasons, the Babylon 5 space station — built in the aftermath of inter-species wars — served as a neutral focal point for galactic diplomacy and trade. In essence, each episode was like a chapter with the human military staff and alien diplomats stationed there caught up in various political machinations, shifting alliances and layers of betrayal (not unlike today’s political intrigues). Each season contained plot elements which permanently changed the series’ universe.

With most story-lines centered around a core of about a dozen species, Babylon 5’s embroilment in a millennia-long cyclical conflict between ancient, powerful races and their aftermath, offered fabulous escapism. Episodes focused on the effect of wider events on various characters, addressing themes of personal change, loss, subjugation, corruption, defiance, and redemption.

And then there’s “Stargate SG-1.”

In this decade-long series, Colonel Jack O’Neill, Major Samantha Carter, Dr. Daniel Jackson, Teal’C and General George Hammond defeat the myth-making Goa’uld and save Earth time and again by traveling to countless worlds through a series of wormholes generated by the Stargates. As the series evolved from the discovery and implementation of Earth’s Stargates, audiences learn of the complex millennia-long dynamic between the Ancients, the Asgard and the Goa’uld, and how they all fit into humanity’s evolution. The first team’s four main characters in “SG-1” explore the galaxy and more through the vast hyperspace network and evolve into richly developed personalities as they battle various interplanetary threats.

The series lasted 10 years and went through a few TV movies as well. It engendered spin-offs and built up quite a viable universe with a few references and nods to “Star Trek,” “Farscape” and other sci-fi franchises. During the days in which I was sucked into the DVDs, the series became quite a touchstone for me. I would get up and do what I had to do as the anticipation of sitting down and viewing the next episode built up in me.

What was more important to me in all this was the notion that such a binge could save minds and allow for some kind of repair. It doesn’t matter so much what the particular sci-fi series is being viewed or how they build on ideas which both encompass and parallel current political dynamics, but the experience itself.

Being pulled out of present-day traumas and toil offered a salve for pandemic PTSD. Getting immersed in the problems of Babylon 5 or the trials and tribulations of the SG-1 team, allowed me to get a breather.

While I’ve been through TV marathons such as a MoMA-sponsored weekend-long engagement with “Twin Peaks: The Return” (which I wholeheartedly recommend if only for its general strangeness), binge-viewing offered a whole new way to experience media. As a result, such binging transformed the piecemeal experience of watching episodic TV into an expansive feeling of traveling, of taking a trip, through a wormhole into a mind-altering respite from pandemic panic.

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