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Film and the Arts

April '20 Digital Week IV

VOD of the Week 

Why Don’t You Just Die? 


Kirill Sokolov’s jet-black kind-of comedy follows a young man who’s egged on by his girlfriend to kill her father—and that’s just the beginning of 90 minutes’ worth of back-stabbings (figurative and literal), double-crossings and some of the most ridiculously over-the-top bloodlettings in a while.



Whether such violence is an acceptable form of entertainment is, of course, the sticking point; but Sokolov’s irreverence keeps one watching to see what lunacy he’s dreamed up, and his cast is game enough to make it seem as real—or at least as surreal—as possible. 


Blu-rays of the Week

Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter 

(Film Movement Classics)

The great British actor Alastair Sim—best known for playing Scrooge in the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol—is the focus of this boxed set containing four comedies to which he contributed: the best of the lot are the classic girls-school farce, 1954’s The Belles of St Trinian’s (in which he plays both the headmistress and her gambling brother) and 1960’s hilarious School for Scoundrels.




All four B&W films have been lovingly restored; extras include interviews with scholars, historians and even Sim’s daughter.





The Cremator 


In this caustic 1969 black comedy, the head of a crematorium in 1930s Czechoslovakia follows the Nazis’ agenda to its ultimate end, and his own “final solution”: beginning with his Jewish wife and children.




Czech director Juraj Herz’s allegory of evil might be too heavyhanded, but his dazzling visual slight-of-hand, Rudolf Hrušínský’s tremendously portentous performance and Zdeněk Liška’s scarily perfect score make this an especially potent example of the Czech New Wave. As usual, Criterion has an excellent hi-def transfer; extras comprise Herz’s 1965 short, The Junk Shop; 1993 Hrušínský interview; 2011 featurette of Herz returning to his film’s locations; and a 55-minute documentary about Liška.


Guns Akimbo 


Daniel Radcliffe plays a nerdy video-game developer who becomes the prey in a terminal live-streamed death match in Jason Lei Howden’s pointlessly—and repetitively—ultra-violent actioner that’s heavy on blood, guts and flying bullets but light on everything else.




Radcliffe is unsurprisingly unable to fashion an interesting character out of someone with guns welded onto his hands; Samara Weaving persuasively plays the professional killer tracking him down, but how expert is she if 99.9 percent of her shots miss? The film looks fine on Blu.


CD of the Week 

La Passione—Barbara Hannigan 


The remarkably daring Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan returns with another spectacular recording, as she does double duty as a singer—on two fiendishly difficult modernist works of the mid and late 20th century—and conductor, on Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 49, which gives this album its title.




Hannigan attacks the swooping and chattering vocal line of Luigi Nono's disturbingly raw five-minute solo Djamila Boupacha (1962) with her customary ease; but that brief work is a mere prelude to her mesmerizing tour de force as vocalist and conductor of Gerard Grisey's 1998 masterwork Quartre Chants Pour Franchir le Seuil (his last completed composition). Hannigan and the versatile Ludwig Orchestra forces bring it all home with a propulsive and—in the atypically mournful opening movement—somber reading of Haydn's minor-key symphony.

April '20 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week



In director William Eubank’s efficient if wholly derivative thriller, shaven-headed Kristen Stewart leads a group of people working at the bottom of the ocean for an oil company who fatally discover several heretofore undiscovered (and lethal) creatures. Most of the dramatic beats are lifted directly from the original Alien, but Eubank and his writers aren’t bothered enough to disguise them, which mitigates their effectiveness. A more serious problem is the difficulty differentiating among people in underwater suits, so there’s not much at stake except to watch who goes next. The hi-def transfer looks warm and inviting.



Action of the Tiger 

(Warner Archive)

The title comes from as lofty a perch as Shakespeare’s Henry V, which is far too exalted for such a routine 1957 adventure, directed in a rather desultory manner by Terence Young (who would helm the first Bond film, Dr. No, five years later, with an actor who has a small role here, Sean Connery). As a mercenary boat captain, Van Johnson has an abrasive manner that’s a mismatch for French actress Martine Carol in one of her few English language roles; their romantic scenes together are faintly ludicrous. With splendid locations in Greece and Spain, the film has a ravishing color palette that looks great on Blu.







Tin Cup 

(Warner Archive)

This 1996 reunion of Bull Durham writer/director Ron Shelton and star Kevin Costner is an enjoyably breezy if overlong tale of another brash and veteran underdog, a golf club pro who enters the U.S. Open to win the hand of the current squeeze of a vain and obnoxious pro. Costner is always charming and Don Johnson makes a good foil, but I’ve never had much use for Rene Russo, even though she tries hard and has some good moments. The problem is that, at two-plus hours, this drags itself to the 18th hole; shorn of 20 minutes, Tin Cup would have been a hole in one instead of a mere birdie. There’s a terrific hi-def transfer.



VOD of the Week

Pot Luck 

(Giant Pictures)

Just in time for 4/20, Jane Wells’ documentary (engagingly narrated by Robin Quivers) engages with all sides of the current cannabis debate in Colorado, which legalized it in 2012: those who sell, grow, use, are against, and must deal with the consequences of it. Wells’ interview subjects range from the thoughtful to the humorous to the banal, but since the film is only 75 minutes, it seems too thin and superficial to gain any lasting insights from. Still, it is an intriguing peek at what’s going on in ground zero for legalized weed.







DVD of the Week 


(Film Movement)

Slick Woods gives a magnetic performance as a Bronx teen fancying herself a future dance star in hip-hop videos who must deal with current reality when she has to make sure her younger sisters aren’t taken away to foster care after their mom is arrested. Too bad Sam de Jong’s mainly routine drama only has infrequent flashes of insight and local color to compensate. The lone extra is U.K. director Dionne Edwards’ short film, We Love Moses



CD of the Week

Korngold—Violin Concerto/String Sextet 


Erich Wolfgang Korngold composed some of the greatest and grandest film scores of the ’30s and ’40s (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk), and his only violin concerto often sounds like the very best film music, especially as played by soloist Andrew Haveron—whose fluid tone perfectly mirrors Korngold’s melodic genius—and accompanied by the RTE Concert Orchestra under the stable hand of conductor John Wilson. Korngold’s string sextet, one of his towering chamber pieces, also has a symphonic grandeur that the superior Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble on this disc captures beautifully.

April '20 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 



Doctor Dolittle, who could talk to the animals, has not been well-served onscreen: there was the ill-fated 1967 musical version with Rex Harrison, the enjoyable slight 1998 Eddie Murphy remake, and now this pointless reboot with a scenery-chewing Robert Downey (sporting a broad Welsh accent) as the good doctor who’s made himself a recluse after his wife dies, and the talking animals and enterprising children coax him back to life.




Director Stephen Gaughan is interested only in big set pieces, so the movie is less a coherent narrative than a series of disjointed sequences that show off the cute anthropomorphic animals, voiced by celebrities from Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes to Marion Cotillard and Selena Gomez. Young children might find some appeal to this harmless but ineffectual remake. The HD transfer looks stellar.


Just Mercy 

(Warner Bros)

The inspiring story of a real-life hero, lawyer Bryan Stevenson, is dramatized in this compelling if overlong courtroom procedural about the lengthy but eventually successful appeal of the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillan, a black man from rural Alabama railroaded onto death row for a still unsolved murder.




Director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton has a fine eye for detail, and his cast—Jaime Foxx (Walter), Michael B. Jordan (Bryan), Brie Larson (Bryan’s associate) and Tim Blake Nelson (perjured prisoner), for starters—give authenticity to a triumph of justice served that serves as a cautionary tale of other instances of justice denied. The film has a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise deleted scenes and making-of featurettes. 


Police Squad—The Complete Series 


From the creators of the zany 1980 spoof Airplane!—the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams—comes this cult 1982 TV series (it only lasted six episodes), another spoof starring Leslie Nielsen as a doofus detective who manages to solve crimes. 




Police Squad is a hit-or-miss accumulation of physical comedy, one-liners, asides, puns, in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek parody: Nielsen is game, and the opening-credit sequences are fun, but like Airplane!, your mileage may vary. It looks adequate on Blu; extras are commentaries on three episodes, archival Nielsen interview, gag reel, featurette and casting tests.


VOD of the Week

Once Were Brothers—Robbie Robertson and the Band 


Director Daniel Roher engagingly recounts the eventful musical life of Robbie Robertson, leader of the Band, the great original roots-rock whose classic tunes like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” remain staples of rock’n’roll playlists.




Robertson candidly discusses his early life in Canada, his move to the States and finding his future bandmates, working with Bob Dylan and, later—following the Last Waltz concert film—Martin Scorsese, for whom he has scored and compiled music for several films. 


CDs of the Week 

Exiles in Paradise—Émigré Composers in Hollywood 


So many composers left Europe during the Nazi era for the U.S. that it was inevitable that several would settle in and around Los Angeles, where they wrote music for movies and gave Hollywood a cultural cachet it had heretofore lacked.




This sterling disc collects short works by 11 of these men—a 12th work, an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” is by violinist Jascha Heifitz, another émigré—including the familiar (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff), the obscure (Godowsky, Achron, Gruenberg) and those best-known for their film scores (Korngold, Waxman, Rosza). These beguiling miniatures are attractively performed by cellist Brinton Averil Smith and pianist Evelyn Chen.


Hindemith—Kammermusik, Volume 1 


Early in his career, German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote several concertos for soloists and orchestra under the rubric Kammermusiken. The four concertos collected on this superb recording, composed between 1921 and 1925, showcase Hindemith’s talent for balancing the virtuosic demands of the soloist parts and the orchestral underpinnings, notably on Kammermusik No. 1 & 2 (pianists) and No. 3 (cellist).




With Christopher Eschenbach adroitly conducting small ensembles culled from the Kornberg Academy Soloists and Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, the first-rate solo performers are pianists Xi Zhai and Christopher Park and cellist Bruno Philippe.

April '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Their Finest Hour—5 British WWII Classics 

(Film Movement Classics)

This excellent boxed set, comprising a quintet of British films set during the Second World War—Alberto Calvacanti’s memorable “what if” about a Nazi invasion of England, Went the Day Well? (1942); Guy Hamilton’s tense The Colditz Story (1955), concerning POWs trying to escape an impregnable Nazi fortress; Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955), the astonishing true story of the race to make bombs to take out crucial Nazi dams; Leslie Norman’s effective re-creation of the Allies’ retreat from the north of France, Dunkirk (1958); and J. Lee Thompson’s absorbing desert adventure, Ice Cold in Alex (1958)—is recommended for those who love old war films or simply well-made and inspiring dramas.


Not only are all five B&W features restored in superlative hi-def transfers, there’s a plethora of valuable extras on four of the discs (only Went the Day Well? has no bonues): The Colditz Story includes a documentary, Colditz RevealedThe Dam Busters includes a making-of, two documentaries about the actual men who took part, and other featurettes; Dunkirk includes newsreel footage, 1940 documentary short Young Veteran, actor Sean Barrett interview and actor John Mills’ home movies; and Ice Cold in Alex includes an excerpt from A Very British War Movie documentary, more  of Mills’ home movies, interviews with scholar Melanie Williams and actress Sylvia Syms and a featurette on director J. Lee Thompson.



(Warner Archive)

William Wyler’s 1936 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel (and stage version)—concerning a long-time married American couple, Sam and Fran, who find, after their opposing responses to “sophisticated” Europe, that their relationship is deteriorating—is a mature treatment of subject matter that might have seemed too much for its day (including a brief shot of what looks like the wife’s side boob).




Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton are splendid as Sam and Fran, Mary Astor is irresistible as Edith, the expatriate who catches Sam’s eye, and the insights into and humor about American and European cultural differences remain pertinent and potent. The film, which has undergone a recent restoration, looks terrific in rich black and white; the lone extra is a 1937 radio version of the play/novel.




Carl Maria von Weber’s grand romantic opera suffers from a ludicrous libretto, but the contrived tale of a young woman who must prove her fidelity prior to her wedding is dominated from the start by Weber’s ravishing music.




This 2018 Vienna production, staged with passionate feeling if little clarity by Christof Loy, succeeds thanks to its leading ladies: Jacquelyn Wagner as the heroine Euryanthe and Theresa Kronthaler as the antagonist Eglantine are compelling in their acting and brilliant in their singing. Constantin Trinks leads the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir with assurance. Both hi-def video and audio are splendid.


VOD of the Week

The Whistlers 


In Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest whimsical dramedy, a shady police inspector travels to a remote island to learn a local whistling language to try nabbing criminals more crooked than he is. If there’s chutzpah in building a shaggy-dog story around such a ludicrous concept, Porumboiu runs with it, although he takes it only so far before the seams begin to show.




Luckily, the pace doesn’t lag, the film is fairly short, and there’s a fine cast, led by model turned actress Catrinel Marlon, playing a formidable femme fatale named—tongue-in-cheekly, for those who remember Rita Hayworth in the ’40s noir classic—Gilda.


CDs of the Week 

J.S. Bach—St. Matthew Passion 


Bach’s towering large-scale oratorio, about the death of Jesus Christ according to the gospel of Matthew, is one of his greatest achievements: even those who aren’t believers have felt the powerful emotional pull of this monumental music for the past three centuries.




This new recording, led by the estimable Bach conductor Masaaki Suzuki, showcases the worthy chorus and orchestra of Bach Collegium Japan, along with a strong vocal cast, led by tenor Benjamin Bruns as the Evangelist, all combining for a truly majestic performance.


Richard Danielpour—The Passion of Yeshua 


Richard Danielpour’s world-premiere oratorio of the passion and death of Jesus Christ takes its cue from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, unsurprisingly; but whereas Bach’s work is the summit of baroque-era German music, Danielpour’s is a thoroughly modern work that alternates its sacred vocal texts between English gospel and Hebrew scripture excerpts.




Conductor JoAnn Falletta impressively marshals the large-scale forces needed, including her own Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and the singers are heavily invested in Danielpour’s intensely personal vision, which features Jesus’ mother Mary (mezzo J’Nai Bridges) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Hila Plitmann) in prominent roles.

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