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Film and the Arts

November '18 Digital Week I

Boxed Set of the Week 

Robin Williams—Comic Genius 

(Time-Life)

When Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, the world was robbed of one of its greatest comedians, an endlessly inventive and original performer who was always “on” whenever in front of the camera. That he left so much topnotch material in his many stand-up routines, tours, appearances on various television shows, and his starring role in his breakout hit Mork and Mindy is underscored in this (mostly) terrific boxed set.

 

At 22 DVDs and more than 50 hours, the aptly-named Comic Genius collects the many facets of Williams: his five sidesplitting HBO specials; several episodes from Mork; many live appearances on Johnny Carson, Jimmy Kimmel, Oprah and SNL (too bad they weren’t able to get any of his uproarious Letterman appearances or anything at all from Comic Relief); this year’s touching HBO documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, from director Marina Zenovich; and his unique appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. There’s a lot more—extras include interviews with Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Eric Idle, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and son Zak Williams, along with behind-the-scenes footage, featurettes, etc.—and it’s all housed with a 24-page book of archival photos, reminiscences from others and Williams’ own jottings. 

 

Blu-rays of the Week

Dracula A.D. 1972 

(Warner Archive)

In this relatively mild Hammer horror feature from (natch) 1972, Christopher Lee plays the resurrected Transylvanian Count who comes to swingin’ England to set his fangs on the comely daughter of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (played with stylish nonchalance by Peter Cushing).

 

 

 

The movie meanders about, with pseudo-hip scenes featuring bad live musical performances, and the anticipated showdown between Lee and Cushing is too muted. But completists—this is the penultimate Hammer Dracula flick with Lee—will enjoy it. The hi-def transfer is fine.

 

 

 

 

 

Mara 

(Lionsgate)

Clive Tonge’s paranormal horror flick has the courage of its convictions—at least until the usual inconsistencies that imperil the genre rear their heads like the sleep demon that terrorizes so many of its characters.

 

 

 

Lending elegance to what becomes a by-the-numbers screamfest is Olga Kurylenko, who gives credibility to this increasingly incredulous tale as a psychiatrist trying to understand why the creepy spirit appears. There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

 

Poldark—Complete 4th Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

The smash-hit series’ fourth season keeps the rivalry going between our engaging eponymous hero Ross and his loathsome adversary George (inexplicably married to Ross’s former flame Elizabeth), with the added incentive for George that, since Ross has outsmarted him and is now a member of Parliament, George continues scheming to return to politics.

 

 

 

The superb cast is led by Aidan Turner (Ross), Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark’s wife Demelza), Heida Reed (Elizabeth) and Jack Farthing (George); the subplots, especially that of Reverend Ossie Whitworth and his unfortunate young wife Morwenna, are especially diverting, and the shocking—if not unexpected—death of one of the major characters (sob!) serves as a cliffhanger of sorts. The hi-def transfer is gorgeous; extras are short featurettes and interviews.

"Waiting for Godot" at Lincoln Center: The Unconventional Classic Lives On

Photo by Richard Termine

Perhaps the most exciting event in this year’s White Light Festival at Lincoln Center was the transfer of the Druid Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s legendary play, Waiting for Godot, which I attended at the Gerald Lynch Theater on the afternoon of Sunday, November 4th.
 
This staging was directed by Garry Hynes—whose previous work includes an exceedingly fine version of Sean O’Casey’s wonderful The Silver Tassie for the Lincoln Center Festival in 2011—with sets and costumes effectively designed by Francis O’Connor and lighting by James F. Ingalls. Where the current production departs from the letter of Beckett’s original, it consistently seems faithful to the author’s intentions. This fact, however, may be thought to constrain the possibilities of creating a theatrical experience which fulfills the potential of the medium since its possibilities as spectacle are scarcely indulged, in conformity to Beckett’s restrictive minimalism—one wonders what Robert Wilson might have done with such a commission. This approach has the consequence of focusing attention on the exceptional literary quality of the text and the remarkable skills of the actors employed. This version also presents a strong case for the fundamental Irishness of this play which was composed in French and premiered in Paris and is especially impressive for conveying the comic dimension of the piece in all its glory.
 
Marty Rea as Vladimir brilliantly etched the self-dramatizations of his character while Aaron Monaghan as Estragon struck an authentic, appropriately contrasting note by generally eschewing irony. Rory Nolan captured the hammy theatricality of Pozzo and Garrett Lombard, who fittingly resembles Stan Laurel, was a mesmerizing Lucky. The beautiful Jaden Pace was memorable as the Boy.
 
Waiting for Godot runs through November 13th and is an important recreation of a classic play.

Mariinsky Orchestra Breathes Life into the Nutcracker

Photo by Chris Lee
 
A thus far exhilarating season at Carnegie Hall continued on the evening of Wednesday, October 31st, with the thrilling appearance of the superb musicians of the Mariinsky Orchestra under the brilliant direction of maestro Valery Gergiev, the first of two performances on consecutive nights. (Already there have been outstanding concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony, tenor Jonas Kaufmann with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, and the Czech Philharmonic.)
 
The program was devoted entirely to the complete score of the magnificent ballet,The Nutcracker,by the incomparable Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. While this ensemble has occasionally been under-rehearsed, on this occasion the artists were in absolute command of the material. Even though the enduringly popular Suite from the ballet that the composer prepared provides a more consistently ecstatic experience than the full score does, nonetheless this was a welcome opportunity to hear some of the wonderful music that is less familiar in recordings and in the concert hall—particularly from Act I—such as the turbulent “The Christmas Tree” section played immediately after the enchanting Overture and followed by the dazzling March, which was heard here at an unusually brisk tempo, a characteristic distinction of the conductor’s interpretation throughout the performance. Several less remembered passages ensued—throughout Gergiev emphasized the dramatic dimension of the music—before the act concluded with the magical Waltz of the Snowflakes (although omitting the wordless chorus), a genre of which Tchaikovsky was perhaps the supreme master.
 
The second act was even more glorious with most of it among the most famous music from the ballet. The most extraordinary part of the work is the collection of dances—each one a jewel—in the Divertissement, including some of the composer’s most original achievements such as the haunting “Coffee” (Arabian Dance), the delightful “Tea” (Chinese Dance), and the exquisite “Dance of the Mirlitons” closing with the transcendent Waltz of the Flowers.
 
The exalting Entrata from the Pas de deux that follows is probably the purest expression in the score of the composer’s intense romanticism, while another of his most astonishing creations is in this section, the ineffably charming second Variation, the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The evening concluded with the gorgeous Final Waltz and Apotheosis, and the musicians deservedly received a rapturous ovation from an audience filled with a countless number of their countrymen. The following evening featured Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss and the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Johannes Brahms featuring the renowned Nelson Freire as soloist. One looks forward to the return of these great artists.

Hungarian State Opera at Lincoln Center with "Mario & the Magician", "Bluebeard’s Castle" & "The Queen of Sheba"

Queen of Sheba, photo by Peter Rakossy.
 
The exciting U.S. debut of the Hungarian State Opera continued strongly with their second and third New York appearances on the evenings of Thursday, November 1st, with a double-bill of János Vajda’s intriguing contemporary work, Mario and the Magician—adapted from the famous, eponymous novella by Thomas Mann and premiered in 1988—and Béla Bartók’s powerful, mysterious Bluebeard’s Castle, conceived here by director and set designer Péter Galambos as a diptych, and on the following night with Karl Goldmark’s magnificent, now seldom seen The Queen of Sheba. (Two nights previously, the company premiered their production of the great 19th-century Hungarian opera, Bánk Bán, which proved to be an extraordinary musical experience.)
 
With the first program, in both cases, the director modernized the settings—although to no obvious advantage—and in neither instance were the stagings visually effective or conceptually persuasive but the strength of the music alone—exceptionally performed by the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and superbly conducted by Balázs Kocsár—sufficed to provide aesthetic satisfactions. I am not fully competent to judge a work composed in the advanced modernist idiom of Mario and the Magician but I nonetheless found it engaging, partly for its impressive orchestral writing. At least two of the singers were especially remarkable, András Palerdi in the lead role of Cipolla, the magician, and Orsolya Hajnalka Rőser as Signora Angiolieri.
 
More astonishing was the Bartók masterwork, one of the finest 20th-century operas, with a libretto by the important film theorist Béla Balázs, after the fairytale by Charles Perrault. Here, too, there was some marvelous singing from Palerdi in the title role of Bluebeard and, even more unforgettably, from Ildikó Komlósi as Judith.
 
The staging of The Queen of Sheba—an opera that deserves to return to the mainstream repertory—however, was much more satisfying, directed austerely but elegantly by Csaba Káel, with beautiful—if underexploited—Art Nouveau sets designed by Éva Szendrényi, attractive costumes by Anikó Németh, and inventive choreography by Marianna Venekei, executed by dancers from the Hungarian National Ballet. Musically, the presentation could scarcely have been bettered, with magisterial direction of the orchestra by János Kovács and thrilling assistance from the chorus.
 
The singers were first-rate with a mesmerizing performance by the sexy Erika Gál in the title role. Also wonderful were Boldizsár László as Assad, Eszter Sümegi as Sulamith, Zoltán Kelemen as King Solomon, Péter Fried as the High Priest, Eszter Zavaros as Astaroth, Lajos Geiger as Baal-Hanan, and Ferenc Cserhalmi as the Temple Watchman. The artists received an enthusiastic ovation. I hope this superior production will gain wider exposure.

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