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Film and the Arts

January '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Dog Eat Dog
Paul Schrader has always been a humorless filmmaker, and his new flick’s attempts to be funny are so witless and ham-fisted that every single moment feels forced, false and amateurish.
Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe are reduced to doing little more than striking inept crook poses, so they can’t be blamed for Schrader’s failure to mine blackly comic gold out of the killings of various innocent people (hardy har har). The film looks great on Blu-ray; extras comprise a Schrader commentary, Cage introduction and Cage/Schrader Q&A.
Fox and His Friends 
Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s 1975 melodrama about a working-class homosexual and how his lottery win affects his already lopsided relationship with his new middle-class lover (whose arrogant friends also take advantage of him) is, as usual with this prolific but painfully uneven director, a mishmash of well-observed moments and mediocre filler, not helped by indifferent acting.
Criterion’s hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include interviews both archival (Fassbinder and composer Peer Raben) and new (actor Harry Baer and an appreciation from filmmaker Ira Sachs).
New Orleans—Music in Exile
Because of Hurricane Katrina, one of New Orleans’ biggest industries—its wide-ranging and vital music scene—took a massive hit, as so many musicians and the places they played were displaced by the raging waters.
That its music scene rose anew (even as it temporarily relocated to other towns) is what director Robert Mugge’s entertaining and hopeful documentary is about, through interviews with and performances by local luminaries as Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Marcia Ball and Theresa Andersson. There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras include featurettes and additional performances.
DVDs of the Week
Command and Control
In this gripping American Experience documentary, director Robert Kenner adroitly visualizes Eric Schlosser’s massive book recounting a near-disastrous nuclear accident in Arkansas in 1980, including interviews with many of the principals and nice use of a mixture of archival footage and re-enactments.
The DVD comprises two versions of the film: the two-hour version shown on PBS, and a 90-minute edit shown in theaters. Either way—though more so in its longer version—Command and Control is an unmissable (and scary) experience.


(Sundance Selects) 
Steve Cantor’s engaging portrait of Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin introduces us to one of the youngest stars of The Royal Ballet, a celebrity who now has millions of fans worldwide thanks to YouTube videos showing off his dexterous technique and astonishing agility.
Although a little thin at 80 minutes, it does delve into his difficult childhood (his parents are divorced) and how his decision to leave Ukraine to dance affected his extended family. Extras include 15 minutes of deleted scenes.
CD of the Week
Spheres—Claremont Trio

Performing the chamber music of American composer Robert Paterson—whose work I was heretofore unfamiliar with—the Claremont Trio displays unflagging energy and tastefulness.




His two trios, 1995’s Sun and its 2015 follow-up, Moon, are wistful yet muscular works with a surfeit of melodic and harmonic ideas enchantingly realized by the Claremont’s members (Sun was recorded with its original pianist Donna Kwong; Moon with its new pianist Andrea Lam). Sisters Emily and Julia Bruskin play violin and cello, respectively, with exquisite sensitivity, and Julia teams with Lam and fellow cellist Karen Ouzounian for Paterson’s pinpoint Elegy.

January '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Accountant
(Warner Bros)
In this clever but contrived thriller, Ben Affleck plays an autistic CPA cooking the books for the mob who conveniently has martial arts and weapons training from his military father: so when he becomes the bad guys’ target, he is able to take lethal aim at them as well.
Affleck’s taciturn turn works well for his character, while Anna Kendrick contributes her usual amusing bit as a fellow accountant who joins him on the run. Too bad that after the halfway point, the convoluted plotting goes off the rails and turns a guilty pleasure into an aggressively dumb drama. The hi-def image is excellent; extras comprise several short featurettes.
Black America Since MLK—And Still I Rise
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s impassioned, polemical but pointed personal history of the past half-century of African American life—from the Civil and Voting Rights Acts to Black Lives Matter—consists of four one-hour segments chronicling those five decades in expansive and intimate ways.
Gates speaks with everyone from Eric Holder to Jesse Jackson alongside well-chosen footage that spells out the importance of so many of these events. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.
Girls—Complete 5th Season 
I’ve never been a fan of Lena Dunham’s obnoxiously navel-gazing career, beginning with her inept debut film Tiny Furniture and continuing with the consistently resistible Girls.
There are decent performances by Allison Williams and Jemima Kirke as the two least annoying characters in the series, but that’s scant compensation for what continues to be egomania run amuck masquerading as an insightful comedy series. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras are featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.
The People vs. Fritz Bauer
(Cohen Media)
Dramatizing how West German prosecutor Fritz Bauer, in the late 1950s against considerable pushback, helped Israel’s Mossad track down and capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, this intelligent biopic is anchored by an unshowy bit of superlative acting by Burghart Klaussner as Bauer.
Director-cowriter Lars Kraume—who also slyly shows how the repressive sexual politics of the time could destroy careers—has fashioned an important and absorbing lesson about not-so-distant historical events that mustn’t be forgotten. The movie looks sharp and natural on Blu-ray; extras are deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
DVD of the Week 
Eero Saarinen—The Architect Who Saw the Future
Son of a noted architect himself, Eero Saarinen surpassed father Eliel’s talent with his own genius in this engrossing hour-long PBS American Masters episode, narrated by Eero’s own son Eric. Creating iconic structures like JFK Airport’s TWA terminal, Dulles Airport and the St. Louis Arch,
Saarinen’s individuality is on display throughout. But even in its longer version—which, unseen on TV, is included on DVD—this program only scratches the surface of what Eero accomplished in his lifetime. Four short featurettes are included as extras.
My King
(Film Movement)
As writer-director, French actress Maïwenn makes intense films about passionate characters: following her previous feature, the hard-hitting drama Polisse, is an exquisitely intimate study of what must be one of the most dysfunctional relationships ever captured on film.
Overlong and with too many emotional and plot detours, My King nevertheless displays Maïwenn’s fierce talent behind the camera and the equally committed performance of Emmanuelle Bercot as a woman who can’t drop the man in her life (a one-note Vincent Cassel). Extras comprise outtakes, deleted scene and Maïwenn’s debut short, 2004’s I’m an Actrice, with the director herself in the lead.
CDs of the Week
Ginastera: One Hundred
(Oberlin Music)
Tania Stavreva: Rhythmic Movement 
The 2016 centenary of Argentine master Alberto Ginastera’s birth went by with nary a whimper, a shame considering the exceptional works he composed before his death in 1983. A few recordings nodded to the anniversary, like Sony’s re-issue of his opera Bormazo. But the best is Ginastera: One Hundred, which showcases top-flight soloists in first-rate performances of some of his most renowned compositions.
Yolanda Kondonassis (with Oberlin Orchestra) plays the  Harp Concerto; Gil Shaham and sister Orli Shaham the violin-piano duet Pampeana No. 1; Jason Vieux, the Sonata for Guitar; and Orli Shaham, the set of solo piano pieces, Danzas Argentinas. As satisfying as this recording is, it’s too short: at 55 minutes, there was surely room for another substantial Ginastera work.

Bulgarian pianist Tania Stavreva also pays tribute to Ginastera on her new CD, Rhythmic Movement: excerpts from his piano music are thrillingly performed by this monstrously talented musician, who illuminates Ginastera with works that exploit the rhythmic aspect of the keyboard, including her own pieces and Bulgarian folk tunes. The final track, taken from the final movement of Ginastera’s Piano Sonata, has Stavreva and drummer Will Calhoun exploring rhythm in fascinating ways.

January '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Downton Abbey—The Complete Collection

The most watched PBS Masterpiece offering in history is this six-season series created by Julian Fellowes, who meticulously recreated the insular worlds of both masters and servants on a British estate, stretching from pre-World War I to the roaring (but still ominous) ‘20s.
What began as a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs for a new generation soon became an absorbing soap opera in its own right, with the likes of Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville playing the gentrified family members whose own domestic dramas are played out while their servants’ own lives undergo scrutiny. This 21-disc set comprises all 52 episodes from the half-dozen seasons, as well as plenty of bonus features that include on-set featurettes, interviews and five hours of previously unseen material.
(Opus Arte)
Young British actor Paapa Essiedu was one of the highlights of the recent Shakespeare Live! at Stratford for the 400th anniversary of his death (shown on PBS), speaking Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech with clarity and power, so it’s heartening that he plays the part with intelligence and charisma in Simon Godwin’s otherwise unexciting staging at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The supporting cast is undistinguished except for Natalie Simpson’s emotive Ophelia, while directorial liberties obscure rather than illuminate. At least Essiedu shows he’s one of Britain’s great acting hopes. Hi-def video and audio are good; extras are Godwin’s commentary and behind the scenes featurette.
Hermann Prey—The Schubert Song Cycles 
(C Major)
One of the best German lieder singers of the past half century, Hermann Prey was especially compelling performing his beloved Franz Schubert, and this disc brings together video recordings of him singing the three great Schubert song cycles: Die schone mullerin, Schwanengasang and Winterreise.
He’s in peak vocal form, and his piano accompanists (Leonard Hokanson on the first two, Helmut Deutsch on Winterreise) are with him every step of the way. Audio and video (these are recordings from 1984 and ‘86) are adequate; extras are Prey’s intros for all three cycles and a 50-minute documentary about his career.
La Traviata
(C Major)
Recent stagings of two classic 19thcentury operas are distinguished by top-notch casts, beginning with Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, brought into the musical stratosphere by peerless bass-baritone Rene Pape as the devil, tenor Joseph Calleja as Faust and a riveting Kristine Opolais as Margherita.
Verdi’s Traviata has at its center Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, who makes the courtesan Violetta her own and may be well on her way to becoming the new Anna Netrebko, now that Netrebko has settled into a comfortable middle age. Both discs feature first-rate hi-def video and audio.
The Night Has a Thousand Desires 
(Mondo Macabro)
Spanish softcore auteur Jess Franco made this 1984 pseudo-erotic thriller, characterized—as always—by his leading lady’s penchant for frequent disrobing, which, since the actress in question is Lina Romay (who’s easy on the eyes, whatever her merits as a thespian), it’s a not unpleasant way to spend 94 minutes.
Dramatically, Franco’s style is inert and turgid, but he does occasionally make things interesting if not entirely engrossing. The film looks decent enough on Blu-ray; extras comprise a Franco documentary and interview with horror-film buff Stephen Thrower.
DVDs of the Week
Britain’s Bloody Crown
Historian and English monarchy expert Dan Jones has made an engaging four-part document of royal history, essentially going over the same Wars of the Roses territory that the recent PBS Masterpiece series The Hollow Crown did via Shakespeare.
But even though Jones makes such red rivers of royal blood—through corruption, double-crossing and endless wars—come alive, he’s hamstrung by one of my ownbetes noires, re-created historical events, which even when done well as they are here seem inadequate to illuminate historical events.
The Secret Agent 
This adaptation of one of Joseph Conrad’s classic novels (albeit not as well-known as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim) is centered by an accomplished performance by Toby Jones as a British businessman and family man who doubles—to the behest of no one, not even his wife—as a Russian spy.
This sumptuous three-hour adaptation, originally made for British TV, has several sequences where it spins its wheels dramatically and narratively, but overall it’s a stimulating, even at times gripping, piece of work.
CD of the Week
Manon Lescaut
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Giacomo Puccini’s tragic romance doesn’t really need another recording at this date, but when the lead role of that fatal beauty is sung by none other than Russian superstar Anna Netrebko at the top of her considerable vocal game, then why not?
Marco Armiliato sensitively conducts Puccini’s ravishing score in this performance from the most recent Salzburg Festival; too bad Netrebko’s husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, is not up to snuff as Des Grieux, Manon’s bewitched lover.

Broadway Review—New Musical “A Bronx Tale”

A Bronx Tale
Book by Chazz Palminteri; music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Glenn Slater
Directed by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks; choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Opened December 1, 2016
Nick Cordero and Hudson Loverro in A Bronx Tale (photo: Joan Marcus)
Of all the musical adaptations that have cluttered the Broadway landscape recently, I didn’t have much hope for A Bronx Tale. Based on Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical one-man stage show—itself turned into a 1993 film directed by and starring Robert DeNiro—it follows a young Italian boy, Calogero, befriended by a Mafia hood who becomes his strangely credible second father of sorts.
But despite such innately unmusical material, A Bronx Taleworks handily onstage. Palminteri’s book nicely balances the comic overtones of a streetwise kid’s growing up in the 1960s with the serious undertones of Sonny’s violent way of life. Even the romantic subplot between teenage Calogero and his girlfriend Jane plays out in an era of racial strife—Jane is black—giving added weight to what would otherwise be frivolous high school happenings.
Director Jerry Zaks’ forte is the zestiness of the staging, although the sudden violence and intense confrontations may be co-director DeNiro’s contribution. Always a clever hand with stage movement, Sergio Trujillo provides shapely and vigorous choreography. If Glenn Slater’s lyrics are passable at best and shopworn at worst, Alan Menken’s songs remain pleasantly entertaining al a Jersey Boys, which the framework of this show vaguely resembles.
The large cast is uniformly good, even if Richard H. Blake and Lucia Giannetta, both engaging as Calogero’s parents, have too little to do. Ariana Debose makes a winning Jane, and if Bobby Conte Thornton is a little too on the nose as the grown-up Calogero, Hudson Loverro is an irresistibly appealing presence as the young boy.
Best of all is Nick Cordero as Sonny, whom Palminteri played in the movie. In a bit of serendipity, Cordero also played Cheech in the Broadway version of Bullets over Broadway, which Palminteri had also played in Woody Allen’s classic movie. So Cordero has always shown adeptness at portraying hoods with a brilliantly uncanny way of simultaneously playing into the mobster stereotype and hilariously, even touchingly, transcending it.
That Cordero also has a fantastic stage presence—which he puts to thrilling use in his solo number, “One of the Great Ones”—earns him the overused sobriquet “show-stopper.” A Bronx Taleis a fun diversion, but Cordero makes it well-nigh unmissable.
A Bronx Tale
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

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