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Film and the Arts

April '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week

The Mule 

(Warner Bros)

In Clint Eastwood’s most entertaining film in years, the octogenarian writer-director plays Earl Stone, a retiree with money problems who starts transporting drugs across state lines for a Chicago-based criminal cartel as a way to make some easy money.





Several of Eastwood’s recent films (Gran Torino, American Sniper, 15:17 to Paris) have been borderline jingoistic and crude, but there’s a bluntness to The Mule’s true story that’s refreshing; it also helps that good actors—Dianne Wiest, Bradley Cooper, Eastwood’s daughter Alison—take the onus off Clint in the lead, although he acquits himself charmingly. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are a music video and on-set featurette.


The Great Buster—A Celebration 

(Cohen Media)

Buster Keaton was one of our great screen comedians, and Peter Bogdanovich has created a decent overview of his life and career—including voluminous clips from many of his indelible films—but unfortunately places himself front and center as well.





He also peppers the film with interviews of people who have little of interest to say about Keaton (Cybill Shepherd, Bill Hader, Johnny Knoxville) and the self-indulgence makes this less than ideal: even the structure, first strictly chronological then backtracking to focus on his 1920s silent classics, is also wonky. There’s a great hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Bogdanovich Q&A.






Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase 

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)

In this guileless reboot of the teenage sleuth’s adventures, spunky Sophia Lillis plays Nancy, who investigates a curious case of a haunted house involving a classmate’s grandmother (Linda Lavin) and also involves herself with her father’s dealings with some unsavory types. It’s only 90 minutes, which helps, as does the energetic cast.




Whether we see any sequels out of this attempt to revive a franchise remains a question mark. There’s a crisp and clean hi-def transfer.


DVD of the Week

Jupiter’s Moon 

(Distrib US/Icarus)

After his stunning White God—featuring dozens of canines outacting the humans in a disturbingly gripping post-apocalyptic drama—Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó returns with a fantasia about a Syrian refugee who is shot after crossing the border into Hungary, and who begins to levitate, a condition a dissembling doctor tries to use to his own advantage with ultimately fatal results.




Mundruczó is unafraid to tackle bizarre but compelling subject matter to show the corrosive effects of xenophobia and fear, and even if there’s much too much, the dazzling effects and camerawork and Mundruczó’s keen eye for the truly weird make this a fascinating watch.






CDs of the Week

Lutosławski/Dutilleux—Cello Concertos 


Salonen—Cello Concerto 

(Sony Classical)

Two of the seminal cello concertos of the late 20th century on one recording, and a world premiere by a prominent 21st century composer on another: I guess I can’t complain about music labels not taking chances in 2019. Johannes Moser thrillingly plays touchstones of the modern repertoire, Witold Lutosławski’s and

Henri Dutilleux’s masterly concertos, superbly accompanied by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Søndergård. 




And none other than Yo-Yo Ma gives the world premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s cello concerto, a typically winding and moody work (including electronics), persuasively brought to life by Ma’s dramatic playing and Salonen himself leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Musical Review— Rodgers & Hart’s “I Married an Angel” at Encores

I Married an Angel

Music & lyrics by Rodgers & Hart; directed & choreographed by Joshua Bergasse

Performances March 20-24, 2019

Sara Mearns (far left) in I Married an Angel (photo: Joan Marcus)

City Center’s Encores—now in its 26th season—regularly resurrects forgotten musicals for a week’s worth of sleek, semi-staged performances. Rodgers & Hart’s I Married an Angel, a frothy concoction based on Hungarian playwright János Vaszary’s play Angyalt Vettem Felesegul, certainly fills the bill: the dance-heavy show ran on Broadway for three years in the 1930s, choreographed by Charles Balanchine for his wife Vera Zorina. Similarly, for Encores, Joshua Bergasse has staged and choreographed it for his wife, Sara Mearns, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet.


The show is silly nonsense—a beleaguered Budapest banker wants nothing to do with women and wishes an angel would come down from heaven to be his wife, which, of course, she does—and is mainly an excuse for some hummable (if not especially memorable) Rodgers & Hart tunes and many nicely executed dances for the angel courtesy of Bergasse. Mearns is a terrific dancer, and her movements are expressive and beautifully done: she even walks around the stage en pointe (on her toes), quite impressive in this context. That her vocal delivery is less on point is nowhere near not fatal; luckily, she has no songs, a blessing of sorts. 


The rest of the cast works hard and, for the most part, effectively: leading man Mark Evans is a mite goofy but capable; Nikki M. James, as his sister, is always charming but occasionally vocally strained; and Hayley Podschun, as a man-chaser extraordinaire, steals every scene she’s in, often tap-dancing up a storm.


The distance between I Married an Angel’s caveman view of women and our #MeToo era seems centuries greater than a mere 80 years, but even the wince-inducing lyrics and dialogue don’t erase its minor pleasures. Encores ends its 2019 season in May with another title straight out of its mandate: High Button Shoes, a Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn musical that premiered on Broadway in 1947.


I Married an Angel

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Review— Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole”

Marys Seacole

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury; directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Performances through April 7, 2019


Tyler Quincy Bernstine (center) and cast of Marys Seacole (photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Marys Seacole, based on the true story of a 19th century Jamaican woman whose behind the lines “British hotel” helped wounded soldiers convalesce during the Crimean War, is certainly an ambitious play. But Jackie Siubblies Drury has taken Seacole’s life and added on so much— including Mary’s fellow nurse Florence Nightingale’s own battlefield exploits to the selfless nurses and caregivers on a modern-day hospital ward—that the on-the-nose writing becomes suffocating, even eclipsing her own heroine as an exemplar of someone who values the well-being of others over her own survival.


Taking the outline of Mary’s eventful and worthy life (in 1991, she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit, and in 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton), Drury has thrown linear biography to the wind, instead reordering Mary’s life through a funhouse mirror of different eras, characters and events. There are several other female characters, all with the initial M—including Mary’s mother, Druppy Mary—who are embodied by skillful actresses, including the always incisive Ismenia Mendes. Mary herself is played by the endlessly resourceful Quincy Tyler Bernstine, a magisterial performer in whatever she does. (I still remember her cameo in Kenneth Lonergan’s masterly Manchester by the Sea.) 


Unfortunately, Drury’s writing and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s directing isn’t insightful or gripping enough to allow the many segments and tonal shifts to cohere in any meaningful way. The capable cast is encouraged to shout and scream much of its dialogue, making for much shrillness amid the cacophony of sights and sounds. Chaka Khan’s hit “I’m Every Woman” not only is sung by Mary as a showstopper midway through but returns at the end so no one misses the apostrophe-less title’s very obvious point, a point which is laboriously hammered to death over the play’s 90 minutes. 


Despite such waywardness, there’s a kernel of a good play here, and the best moments hit on the same points with humor and simplicity. Even more subtlety would have made for a far more penetrating play.  


Marys Seacole

LCT 3 @ Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

March '19 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 


(Warner Bros)

Aquaman is the latest superhero to get his due onscreen, and James Wan’s overstuffed but entertaining movie runs headlong into crazily convoluted plotting about underwater plotting among the people of Atlantis, led by our hero’s own half-brother, the ruler of the realm, who wants to make war on humans since they’ve recklessly polluted the oceans.




There’s such a surfeit of effects shots that it doesn’t matter that Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson and Willem Dafoe are basically cashing a check; and, of course, the ending paves the way for what will assuredly be more than one sequel. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise several behind-the-scenes featurettes.




Uncompromising Mexican director Carlos Reygadas never skimps on what others might consider unshowable, and his 2002 feature debut—in which he features a sex scene between his middle-aged protagonist and the elderly woman who reawakens his manly desires—is no exception. However, although it’s beautifully shot in ultra-widescreen, this story of a profound spiritual crisis remains distant and fuzzy to hold our interest for well over two hours.




Criterion’s Blu-ray features a splendid hi-def transfer; extras include a new conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante; actor Alejandro Ferretis’ on-set video diary; Maxhumain, Reygadas’ 1999 short film; and a deleted scene.






King of Thieves 


Based on an infamous 2015 incident in London, James Marsh’s crime caper follows several elderly ex-cons who get together for a brazen robbery: millions of pounds from the vault of a safe deposit company.




With familiar veterans in the leads—Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, Michael Gambon—this plays as an engaging lark and déjà vu drama, like something we’ve seen before: at the end, Marsh even cuts to brief shots of the actors in earlier films (all in B&W). It’s offbeat but entertaining nonetheless. The film looks fine on Blu; lone extra is a making-of featurette.


Second Act 


This latest attempt to jump-start Jennifer Lopez’s movie career is another silly rom-com, as she stars as a big-box store assistant manager who gets a plum position at a top Manhattan advertising firm, until it almost comes crashing down when her real background is uncovered.




At least there’s a wisecracking Leah Remini as her sidekick (as she seems to be in real life) and the appealing Vanessa Hudgens as her antagonist at the agency—although the plot twist involving the pair is so ludicrous that it hangs over the proceedings all the way through. Early on, she was impressive in Jack, U-Turn and Out of Sight, but J. Lo has since sailed along on negligible pap. There’s a good hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes and interviews.






DVDs of the Week 

Monsieur and Madame Adelman 

(Distrib Films US/Icarus)

In this sprawling, too-clever look at the on-again-off-again 40-year relationship between an acclaimed author and his muse, director-writer-actor Nicolas Bedos and writer-actress Doria Tillier—a couple in real life—give marvelous performances, even managing to look and act believably as old-age makeup: Tillier especially is unforgettably complex in a difficult role.




It’s too bad that such a multi-layered character study, studded with moments of ringing insight and invention, is actually eclipsed by its own innovations, making for an increasingly wearying two hours. Still, there’s much to admire, and Tillier is definitely someone to look over for.


Out of Love


(Omnibus/Film Movement)

These films explore the psychological ramifications of relationships that border on obsession, sacrificing original insights for stereotypes helped by bravura acting. In 2016’s Out of Love, Dutch director Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito’s familiar scenario (couple meets cute and embarks on an intense affair bordering on masochism, leaving physical and mental scars) is propped up by intense performances by Daniil Vorobyov and fearless Naomi Velissariou.




Likewise, in 2013’s Ritual, Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi’s melodrama about a young woman and her dominating lover, Désirée Giorgetti gives an emotionally naked portrayal of a woman trying to escape the clutches of a man who repels and attracts her. 


Tracking Edith 

(First Run)

The Edith of the title of this arresting documentary is Edith Tudor-Hart, a noted British photographer who—unbeknownst to nearly everyone—was also part of a Soviet spy ring that recruited the famed turncoat Kim Philby, leading to some of the most damaging intelligence failures of the entire Cold War.




Director Peter Stephan Jungk (Edith’s great nephew) overturns every stone in his quest to discover what could have led his great aunt to become a traitor: his investigation leads him to Moscow where he’s stonewalled, but discovers enough to warrant this detailed 90-minute portrait of a woman whose wayward allegiance will forever eclipse her artistic talent.






CDs of the Week

The Romantic Piano Concerto 78—Clara Schumann, etc. 


Tasmin Little—Works by Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Amy Beach 


Clara Schumann will always stay in the shadow of her husband Robert, but her beguiling music still gets recorded, including two works on new discs. Her enticing piano concerto highlights the 78th (!) volume of the Romantic Piano Concerto series, with Howard Shelley the skillful soloist and conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Minor but attractive works by a trio of obscure Romantic-era composers round out the disc. 





On Chandos, violinist Tasmin Little performs works by Clara and two major composers, American Amy Beach and Briton Ethel Smyth, both of whose violin sonatas are substantial by any standard. Clara’s Three Romances for violin and piano are lovely miniatures, and Little gives them a spirited hearing, accompanied by her adept pianist John Lenehan.

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