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Film and the Arts

January '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Joker 

(Warner Bros)

When does homage end and pilferage begin? That’s the question after seeing Todd Phillips’ colossally unimaginative and ultimately trivial Batman villain backstory tale, which is equal parts Taxi Driver rip-off and King of Comedy rip-off (pointedly, Martin Scorsese has said he hasn’t seen Joker yet). Joaquin Phoenix chews the scenery relentlessly as the eponymous anti-hero whose murderous pathology is lamely explained away as a reaction against bullying; Phoenix, in fact, makes Nicholson’s turn in The Shining look positively subtle.

 

 

 

And Robert DeNiro’s phoned-in appearance only makes Phillips look worse in Scorsese’s shadow. The movie’s most interesting aspect is the haunting violin score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which belongs in another, worthier movie. Gotham City looks convincingly desaturated on Blu; extras are four making-of featurettes.

 

Acceleration 

(Cinedigm)

This by-the-numbers actioner casts Natalie Burn as an operative in a criminal syndicate who must do what the deadly kidnapper of her young son says or she’ll never see the boy again.

 

 

 

Dolph Lundgren plays the seeming bad guy—who isn’t entirely whom he seems, of course—but unfortunately directors Michael Merino (who also wrote the script) and Daniel Zirilli don’t bother to do anything novel with what amounts to an intriguingly twisty plot, instead contenting themselves with a bunch of routine chases, fights and shootouts. The film looks attractive on Blu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Judy 

(Lionsgate)

Rupert Goold’s standard-issue biopic looks at Judy Garland in decline as she takes on several London “comeback” concerts that end up showing just how far gone she is in her physical and emotional downfall, interspersed with the usual flashbacks to earlier in her career as a young but bullied sensation.

 

 

 

Renée Zellweger gives it her all as Judy, and her singing and onstage demeanor are impressively focused, but for the rest she cannot overcome her lack of looking or sounding like the real Garland—that squeaky Zellweger voice too often intrudes. The Blu-ray looks quite good; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

 

The Kill Team 

(Lionsgate)

Dan Krauss, who made the documentary The Kill Team about a group of American soldiers taking matters into their own hands in Afghanistan, returns to direct a feature based his own doc: the tension and claustrophobia of war’s close quarters are shown with consummate skill.

 

 

 

As the bloodthirsty squad leader, Alexander Skarsgård is scarily unnerving, while Nat Wolff makes a fine ordinary Joe caught up in nastiness he wishes he weren’t part of. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras are Krauss’ commentary, deleted scenes, and a making-of. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucas Debargue—To Music 

(Naxos)

French pianist Lucas Debargue, then 27 years old, makes a memorable subject in Martin Mirabel’s informative and entertaining 2017 documentary portrait that displays his artistry, restlessness and—unsurprisingly for a great performer—moments of self-doubt.

 

 

 

In addition to revealing interviews, there are glimpses of Debargue playing concertos and solo music, even working on a trio he composed for his own ensemble. Debargue is not the only fascinating artist onscreen: his Russian teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya, is also a character (in both senses) in her own right. The hi-def video and audio are exemplary; extras include excerpts of Debargue performing Beethoven and Scriabin.

 

Passport to Pimlico

The Titfield Thunderbolt 

(Film Movement Classics)

Film Movement Classics’ first releases from London’s classic Ealing Studios—1949’s Passport to Pimlico, about a London neighborhood that decides it’s part of France, and 1953’s Titfield Thunderbolt, about a small town that decides to resurrect a defunct rail line—might not be up to the level of Ealing’s best comedies, like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, but they are quite diverting and cleverly done in their own right.

 

 

 

Both films have been restored brilliantly, bringing out the details of Lionel Banes’ B&W Passport photography and the exquisiteness of Douglas Slocombe’s color Titfield cinematography. Extras include interviews, location featurettes and other ephemera. 

 

DVDs of the Week 

Twin Flower 

(Film Movement)

Young Italian director-writer Laura Luchetti’s drama about the unlikely relationship between a mute teenage girl and a headstrong African migrant sympathizes with its protagonists without ever approaching maudlin.

 

 

 

The difficulties and occasionally deadly dealings in this shadowy underworld are strongly detailed by Luchetti, and the subtle performances of non-actors Anastasiya Bogach and Kallil Kone give the film its bite and lasting flavor. Lone extra is a wryly comic short, Cerdita, by Spanish director Carlota Pereda.

 

Wrinkles the Clown 

(Magnolia)

It seems like a story made up for the faux-documentary set: a clown, parading himself as a child’s nightmare, has made it to mythic status in southwest Florida—where else?—as parents with unruly kids threaten to hire him to scare them, while curious kids, teens and adults of all ages contact him for a cheap thrill.

 

 

 

But Michael Beach Nichols’ documentary about this phenomenon is all too real (even if the unseen person parading around as Wrinkles’ alter ego is just an actor hired by the real “Wrinkles”) but at a scant 75 minutes, the intriguing psychological and sociological threads it brings up are rarely delved into at any length. Extras are deleted scenes.

Off-Broadway Review— Samuel D. Hunter’s “Greater Clements”

Greater Clements

Written by Samuel D. Hunter; directed by Davis McCallum

Performances through January 19, 2020

 

Edmund Donovan (front) and Haley Sakamoto in Greater Clements (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Comprising mostly desultory moments that too often flirt with soap opera, Samuel D. Hunter’s Greater Clements doesn’t quite succeed as a real American tragedy, but it’s a serious play about a relevant subject: the end of the American Dream.

 

The setting is Clements, a small Idaho town that’s seen better days: the once-thriving mine has closed and even tours of it have dwindled to nothing. Proprietor of the local museum, Maggie—whose father died in a mine accident years ago and whose husband left her for another man—survives meagerly thanks to the occasional tourist visit, but most of her time is spent dealing with her grown son, Joe, a disturbed young man whose violent past haunts the community.

 

Reentering Maggie’s life is Billy, a high school boyfriend dying of cancer who wants to rekindle their relationship. Billy brings along his granddaughter, Kel, whose quick bonding with Joe leads to a scare when Kel goes missing. The play’s convoluted melodrama is climaxed by a fatal shooting, a scene in which poor Maggie is tortured psychologically—and needlessly, even masochistically—by the playwright. (He even introduces a new character, which drags the length play out even more.) 

 

Hunter does write sympathetically about these characters’ current situation, with Joe, in his quotidian way, explaining cogently what’s happened to places around the country like Clements: “I mean, it’s gotten smaller, it’s—. But I mean, being a town—it still means something.” But, as his cavalier treatment of his heroine in the play’s final enervating sequence shows, Hunter is not above manipulation. Maggie’s relationship with Billy is touching, but let’s face it: Hunter needs Billy and Kel in town to pave the way for the play’s climactic death. 

 

David McCallum’s staging (on Dane Laffrey’s agile sets, with an assist from Yi Zhao’s expressive lighting) is impeccable, and the fine supporting cast is led by Ken Narasaki as Billy and Haley Sakamoto as Kel. But, most memorably, Maggie and Joe are illuminated by the affecting performances of Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan, which hauntingly cut to the heart of the mother and son’s complicated relationship. 

 

Greater Clements

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

lct.org

December '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Hustlers 

(Universal)

Lorene Scafaria’s gritty drama about some financially shaky strippers who get together for even better scores—fleecing wealthy men while plying them with drink—might overstay its welcome, but it’s entertaining as long as one doesn’t think too long about their questionable ruse (that may be what Scafaria was aiming for, but it’s not that obvious).

 

 

 

Alongside an excellent Constance Wu is a sensational star turn by Jennifer Lopez (in her best performance since Selena and Out of Sight 20 years ago) and fine support from Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo and Mercedes Ruehl. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; lone extra is Scafaria’s commentary.

 

The Cotton Club Encore 

(Lionsgate)

Francis Coppola’s roaring ’20s in Harlem epic remains a messy melodrama—even in this longer director’s cut—but seeing it 35 years later with the benefit of hindsight brings new appreciation for what does work: the dancing, singing and delightful performances of Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Geoffrey Hines and Lonette McKee, along with Richard Sylbert’s production design, Milena Canonero’s costumes and Stephen Goldblatt’s photography, all dazzling.

 

 

 

The film looks spectacular in hi-def; extras are a new Coppola intro and 20-minute Q&A from this version’s New York Film Festival screening.

 

 

 

 

 

Kurt Weill—Street Scene 

(BelAir Classiques)

Kurt Weill’s glorious Broadway musical-cum-opera, set in a Manhattan tenement, premiered in 1946 with songs (with lyrics by poet Langston Hughes) and drama (based on Elmer Rice’s play) as relevant now as they were nearly 75 years ago.

 

 

 

John Fulljames’ splendid 2018 production at Madrid’s Teatro Real has a terrific singing cast led by Patricia Racette, Paulo Szot, Mary Bevan and Joel Prieto. Weill’s biting tunes sound pretty formidable as performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real de Madrid, and conducted by Tim Murray. Both hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

 

Overcomer 

(Sony)

This earnestly amateurish Christian movie follows a basketball coach turned cross-country coach using unconventional means to train an asthmatic teenager from the wrong side of the tracks (in her first scene she steals headphones—then takes off like a shot to show her running bona fides).

 

 

 

This is the kind of movie that hits a fake climax every 20 minutes or so, and the acting—led by clumsy director Mark Kendrick, who woodenly plays the coach—is as risible as the script. The title should have been Overlong. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras are a commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes.

 

 

 

 

 

Silver Bullet 

(Scream Factory)

This 1985 Stephen King adaptation—from his novella Cycle of the Werewolf—is cheesy and corny (especially when it comes to the laughably bear-like werewolf, courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi) but director Daniel Battias smartly tells the story through the eyes of a young brother and sister, which saves it.

 

 

 

It’s a bumpy ride with some bad acting and subpar effects (the best moment has a pastor dreaming of parishioners transforming into werewolves during mass), but Corey Haim and Megan Follows are appealing youngsters and Gary Busey is amusingly off-kilter as their uncle. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras include an Attias commentary, isolated score selections and audio interview with composer Jay Chattaway, and new video interviews.

 

Tchaikovsky—Eugene Onegin 

(BelAir Classiques)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece (it’s far better than The Queen of Spades) has emotive music and graceful melodies galore and features juicy parts for star tenor and soprano as Onegin and Tatiana, Pushkin’s ultimate tragic lovers.

 

 

 

They’re played by the sublime Mariusz Kwiecien and Tatiana Monogarova in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s enjoyable 2008 Bolshoi production, which includes superb work by the Bolshoi orchestra under conductor Alexander Vedernikov. The hi-def video and audio look and sound quite impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

Tchaikovsky—The Nutcracker and Mouse King 

(Accentus Music)

The Nutcracker is the world’s most beloved holiday ballet, but this 2018 Ballett Zürich production by director/choreographer Christian Spuck tweaks it by returning to the original source, E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, to fill out the plot and characters in a less sugary manner.

 

 

 

These changes shouldn’t disturb any but the most perturbed purists, for the tuneful score remains, and the ballet is as enchanting as ever, led by Michelle Willems’ wonderful performance as a most beguiling Marie (i.e., Clara). There’s a first-class hi-def transfer.

 

CD of the Week

Rued Langgaard—Complete String Quartets 

(Dacapo)

Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) is barely known in this country aside from his opera Antichrist, but this 3-CD set comprising his complete string quartets, composed over a 36-year span, should help alleviate that situation.

 

 

 

Langgaard’s six numbered quartets as well as several other works (variations, an unnumbered early quartet, etc.) display a versatile instrumental facility and a range of moods from extreme serenity to slashing rage. Performing these fine works impeccably is the Nightingale String Quartet.

December '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

It Chapter Two 

(Warner Bros)

Although as overlong as the first film and bloated with relentless and often redundant flashbacks, Andy Muschietti’s follow-up is more engaging, mainly because the lead actors, from Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader to Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Martell and Finn Wolfhard as their younger selves, dramatize Stephen King’s juvenile material with no-nonsense professionalism.

 

 

 

There’s still the ridiculous, inane finale as the clown Pennywise morphs into other murderous creatures, but that’s to be expected from the rarely subtle King. The hi-def transfer is impressive; extras include a two-part making-of doc, featurettes and Muschietti’s commentary.

 

An Elephant Sitting Still 

(KimStim)

The story behind Chinese director Hu Bo’s first (and only) feature is as saddening as his nearly four-hour, slow-burning drama about several downcast and defeated characters in modern-day China.

 

 

 

After finishing the film, Hu Bo committed suicide at age 29, leaving behind the question of what-could-have-been for a talented filmmaker but also a sense that perhaps this magnum opus summed up his outlook on life and death and nothing else would have the same impact. Either way, this monumental film is flawed and repetitive but consistently fascinating. A magnificent hi-def transfer elevates the lacerating closeups even higher. Lone extra is his short, Man in the Well.

 

 

 

 

 

Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic 

(Film Movement Classics)

In the two films making up Fritz Lang’s Indian EpicThe Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb—the exoticism of the Far East is colorfully if somewhat ploddingly brought to life by the legendary German director. Tiger is almost infuriatingly slow-paced, but the better-paced Tomb more organically delves into a culture unknown to many westerners.

 

 

 

A sparkling restoration gives the colors saturating depth on Blu-ray; extras are two commentaries, The Indian Epic documentary, and a video essay on star Debra Paget. 

 

The Goldfinch 

(Warner Bros)

Donna Tartt’s bloated and enervating novel somehow won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, likely because its plot intersected the worlds of art and terrorism to nod toward being highbrow, even though Tartt’s is a distinctly middlebrow sensibility. Still, I held out hope for John Crowley’s film version since he showed such sensitivity and tact with 2015’s Brooklyn.

 

 

 

But this messy adaptation is a Cliffs Notes’ selection of highlights, nicely shot and acted (especially by Oakes Fegley as the younger self of hero Theodore, whose mother died in a Met Museum blast and who stole a small painting by a Dutch Master in the confusion) but narratively diffuse and often too literal-minded. The film looks superb in hi-def; extras are deleted scenes with Crowley’s intros and two featurettes.

 

 

 

 

Joan the Maid 

(Cohen Film Collection)

I’ve never been a Jacques Rivette fan, except for the two films he made in the early ‘90s: 1991’s magnificently intimate, four-hour artist exploration, La belle noiseuse, and this even longer two-part study of Joan of Arc, released in 1994.

 

 

 

Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, in one of her greatest performances as the 14-year-old Joan (the actress was 26 while shooting), Rivette’s consistently engrossing historical drama clocks in at 5-1/2 hours, yet there’s not a dull or inopportune moment. The film’s restored hi-def transfer is richly detailed; too bad there are no contextualizing extras.

 

Operation Crossbow 

(Warner Archive)

Michael Anderson’s 1965 World War II drama gives a mainly fictional spin to the Allied operation where spies infiltrated a German factory involved in making the V1 and V2 rockets that were heavily damaging London and might do so to New York if the war continues.

 

 

 

Still, despite melodramatic touches (like Sophia Loren’s grieving but acquiescent widow of a man whom one of the spies is imitating), the film is entertaining and even at times exciting, and it authentically allows the actors to speak English, German or Dutch. It’s rare to hear so many bilingual name actors (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Anthony Quayle, Sophia Loren, Jeremy Kemp), providing welcome verisimilitude, which helps to smooth over the occasional silly moments. The film looks great in hi-def; lone extra is a vintage making-of. 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready or Not 

(Fox)

After a young woman marries her sweetheart at his family’s estate, they tell her she must partake in a “game” of hide and seek with her armed in-laws as a rite of passage that soon turns malevolent and murderous.

 

 

 

Samara Weaving makes for a most appealing heroine, but even she cannot save this benighted and obnoxious attempt at mixing humor and horror. There’s a very good hi-def transfer; extras include a making-of featurette, gag reel and a directors’ and star’s commentary.

 

DVD of the Week 

Raise Hell—The Life and Times of Molly Ivins 

(Magnolia)

Molly Ivins—the finest progressive journalist/political analyst of the late 20th century—is sorely missed in this era of corruption and gaslighting by the tRump administration that made the George W. Bush years look tame in comparison.

 

 

 

Director Janice Engel’s loving documentary portrait presents Ivins’ life, career and unique perspective (including her spicy sense of Texas humor) in its proper context, showing how progressivism has been in an uphill climb against entrenched corporate and conservative concerns in politics and media. Some of Ivins’ most stinging bits are included, along with heartfelt reminiscences by colleagues and figures who were the butt of her barbs. Extras are additional Ivins clips.

 

 

 

 

 

CD of the Week

Idina Menzel—Christmas: A Season of Love 

(Schoolboy/Decca)

Idina Menzel—known by the public as the “Let It Go” singer from Frozen the movie and by those in the know as one of Broadway’s best singing actresses—returns with her second holiday album, matching her vibrant soprano with familiar yuletide tunes, from boppy openers “Sleigh Ride” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to classic hymns “Oh Holy Night” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

 

 

 

She also brings friends on board for fun duets on lesser-known ditties, including Billy Porter (“I Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), Josh Gad (“We Wish You the Merriest”) and Ariana Grande (“A Hand for Mrs. Claus”). Other favorites are her take on the Peanuts standard “Christmas Time Is Here” and a song that name checks are young son, “Walker’s 3rd Hanukkah.”

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