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Film and the Arts

New Films in Brief—Sorry We Missed You, Young Ahmed, The Disappearance at Clifton Hill, Buffaloed

Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You (opens March 4 in New York and March 6 in Los Angeles)

Now 83, legendary British director Ken Loach is still making vital, angry films about ordinary people caught in the vise of merciless market or governmental forces. His latest is a merciless dissection of the modern gig economy: thinking it will be a better way to earn money, Ricky decides to buy a van and become a parcel delivery driver, but soon discovers that not only is the job difficult but that his home life—his wife Abbie and teenage son Seb and daughter Liza Jane have their own issues at work and school—is turning into a shambles. Loach observes this family’s mounting problems with enormous sympathy and thoroughness; Paul Laverty’s trenchant script is unafraid to linger on tender or even sentimental moments. As usual in Loach films, the performances by a cast of unknowns—Kris Hitchen as Ricky, Debbie Honeywood as Abbie and Rhys Stone and Katie Proctor as their kids—ring with truthfulness.

 

The Dardennes' Young Ahmed

Young Ahmed (in theaters)

The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ latest is another depiction of a protagonist in crisis, but with a twist: Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), a Muslim teen living in a Belgian city with his family, has been radicalized by a local imam. He tells his mother and sister how to follow the Torah (there is no father present), and he’s especially fixated on his female teacher, whom he attacks with a knife. The Dardennes film all this with their customary rigor, and although several sequences ring disturbingly true—like his conflicted feelings when he spends time with a (non-Muslim) girl, Louise (Victoria Bluck), at the farm he is assigned to by his social worker—other times the lack of context robs the filmmakers of plausibly presenting Ahmed’s radical beliefs and actions. This is especially true of a contrived ending—when Ahmed is, almost literally, paralyzed by his radicalism him—that is painfully literal.

 

Tuppence Middleton in Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (in theaters and on demand)

Set in Niagara Falls (the Canadian side), Albert Shin’s creepy but unsatisfying drama centers on Abby, who returns to her hometown many years after witnessing, at age 9, the abduction of a young boy by a suspicious-looking couple. As she takes over the family-run motel, she tries to piece together what might have happened, but since she has a reputation of not telling the truth, she doesn’t get much outside help. There’s a surfeit of atmosphere, as Shin deftly contrasts the glitz of the touristy Niagara Falls with the more rundown sections of the town, which becomes a believable setting for the shadowy memories and characters conjured up by what Abby witnessed long ago. But even Tuppence Middleton’s forceful presence as Abby and Canadian director David Cronenberg as a willful conspiracy theorist can’t compensate for half-hearted plot twists and a dull denouement.

 

Zoey Deutch in Buffaloed

Buffaloed (in theaters and on demand)

A young woman decides to get a job in the supposed debt-collecting capital of the world, Buffalo (4 straight Super Bowl losses, snow storms, and now debt-collecting?), in Tanya Wexler’s spotty but funny character study, bolstered by the energetic Zoey Deutch as the enterprising Peg, who skirts the law as long as she can, but must deal with her football-loving mother (an amusing Judy Greer), the young detective she’s seeing (Jermaine Fowler) and the competitors who don’t take kindly to her incursions into their shady territory. It’s sympathetic to the people who live in the margins, and Wexler and writer Brian Sacca—who’s from Western New York—nail the small-city vibe in moments like Peg hawking counterfeit Bills tickets on gameday. 

March '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dark Waters 

(Universal)

In this throwback to muckraking films like Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate lawyer who finds himself on the wrong side of his bosses and Dupont when he brings lawsuits against the company for poisoning the water in rural West Virginia.

 

 

Todd Haynes might not seem like the obvious director for such a straightforward drama, but he guides the plot capably and gets strong performances out of Ruffalo and the supporting cast: Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp and several of the actual people who were affected by Dupont’s negligence. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras comprise three making-of featurettes.

 

From the House of the Dead 

(Bel Air Classiques)

Czech composer Leos Janáček died in 1928 before the premiere of his last opera, a haunting adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel about a Siberian prison camp. But despite the perfect marriage of Janáček’s startling music and Dostoyevsky’s taut drama, director Frank Castorf decided he can be trusted more than those two geniuses, opting for all the wrong things: pointless video screen action (obtrusive cameramen and -women are seen too often onstage), a garish parade of painted flesh, and a sense that the prisoners are interchangeable.

 

 

It all lessens the dramatic impact as well as Janáček’s carefully constructed musical cues. The orchestra, conductor Simone Young, chorus and performers do their best to bring across Janáček’s musical vision. There are first-rate hi-def video and audio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

J.S. Bach—The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II 

(Naxos)

Last month I mentioned how astonishing it was that András Schiff performed Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Klavier, Book I, at the 2017 BBC Proms completely from memory. Now there’s Schiff’s playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, at the 2018 BBC Proms, and—if it’s even possible—it’s even more incredible that, once again, Schiff plays the entire 140-minute work from memory.

 

 

Bach’s preludes and variations are enough to tax any pianist, but Schiff plays one of our greatest composers’ greatest works with artistry and graceful calm. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.

 

A Little Romance 

(Warner Archive)

George Roy Hill’s cutesy 1979 romance introduced Diane Lane to the world, and that’s the most enduring quality of this alternately charming and enervating film about the budding relationship between a French boy and American girl in Paris. Lane’s natural charisma is already obvious, but her costar, Thelonious Bernard, is less impressive (he would quit movies and go on to become a dentist); Laurence Olivier, as a French rascal who helps the young couple, chews the scenery delectably, and Sally Kellerman is an amusing mess as Lane’s mom.

 

 

 

George Delerue’s old-fashioned (and baroque-sounding) score won an Oscar, while the locations—Paris, Verona and Venice—are unbeatable. The film looks good if unspectacular in hi-def.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Queen & Slim 

(Universal)

In the fraught atmosphere of tRump’s America, director Melina Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe enter the fray with their provocative exploration of the aftermath of an all-too-real situation: a black couple—on a first date yet—accidentally kill a cop who pulls them over on a Cleveland street. They go on the lam before being tracked down and sacrificed to the gods of police brutality and white privilege.

 

 

Like Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise before it, the film makes for a messy metaphor, but it’s a riveting drama about two innocent people who become martyrs, with superb performances by Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen) and Daniel Kaluuya (Slim). The film looks splendid on Blu; extras include Matsoukas and Waithe’s commentary and making-of featurettes.

 

CD of the Week

David Lang—The Loser 

(Canteloupe)

In this inspired monodrama based on a novel by Thomas Bernhard, Rod Gilfry narrates the story of two performers who feel inadequate once they realize the immense artistry of their fellow classmate: Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (who calls one of them the title moniker).

 

 

Gilfry finds the nuances of emotion and intellect in his characterization, and Lang’s music—for piano and small ensemble—moves along with a sturdy forward momentum in this shockingly direct commentary about the vagaries of art, life and death.

February '20 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Sanditon 

(PBS Masterpiece)

This PBS Masterpiece adaptation of an unfinished novel by Jane Austen is as sumptuous as Downton Abbey or Poldark, but with a drive and dramatic impetus all its own: Austen’s interlocking stories of several characters—with her feisty heroine Charlotte Heywood front and center—make for eight episodes of rich viewing.

 

 

 

Leading the immaculate cast is Rose Williams, who makes a sympathetic and winning Charlotte; Theo James is nearly her equal as Sidney Parker, her nemesis turned romantic possibility. On Blu-ray, the series looks quite enticing; extras comprise three short featurettes.

 
 
 

Teorema 

(Criterion)

Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 drama was a failed attempt at making a theoretical construct—the title is Italian for “theorem”—with minimal dialogue and characters as prototypes in an assaultive provocation. The film looks ravishing, as does Terence Stamp as a stranger who enters a rich family’s house and proceeds to seduce everyone—father, mother, son, daughter and housekeeper—transforming their lives for better or ill.

 

 

 

Even this, one of Pasolini’s most inscrutable films, looks better than ever in Criterion’s hi-def release—and even sounds more interesting on the alternate English-dubbed soundtrack featuring Stamp’s voice. Extras are commentary by Robert S. C. Gordon, author of Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity; 1969 Pasolini intro; 2007 Stamp interview; and a new interview with John David Rhodes, author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini's Rome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tex Avery Screwball Classics—Volume 1 

(Warner Archive)

It’s taken awhile for these vintage cartoons to be released on Blu-ray, mainly because of the questionable morals and unbridled racism that these ‘40s and ‘50s works encompass, but since Tex Avery’s importance in the world of animation cannot be overstated, it’s great that all 19 cartoons are finally available.

 

 

 

Of course, there are problematic issues throughout, especially the obvious stereotypes in Big Heel-Watha, but the cleverness and wit of Batty Baseball or Symphony in Slang cannot go unnoticed. The colors in hi-def look smashing.

 

 

 

 

Victory 

(Warner Archive)

John Huston’s lumbering sports-cum-war drama seemed old-hat when it was released in 1981; watching a combination of movie stars and soccer greats (including Pele) team up as Nazi POWs against the German team in a soccer match during World War II seems ludicrous from the get-go. Huston directs relatively unobtrusively, but the few flourishes—slo-mo for an amazing Pele goal—and Bill Conti’s pseudo-rousing, sub-Rocky score reek of desperation.

 

 

 

Sylvester Stallone is embarrassing as an American who plays goal for the prisoners (he even pronounces the river “Sane” in ugly American fashion), while Michael Caine, Max von Sydow (as a Nazi functionary) and others don’t completely embarrass themselves. The film looks quite good in hi-def.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZZ Top—That Little Ol’ Band from Texas 

(Eagle Rock)

Celebrating an amazing half-century of this blues-rock power trio playing together, Sam Dunn’s entertaining documentary quickly moves through the members’ history as musicians and friends, covering their ups (notably huge MTV success in the early ‘80s) and downs (drug addiction nearly derailed them).

 

 

 

It’s telling that after the MTV section—smash videos “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” got massive airplay—the documentary ends with “ZZ Top is still playing,” showing how fast and brief their commercial peak was, although those who extol them—including Josh Homme and Billy Bob Thornton—say their influence is more than just visual. Both hi-def video and audio are first-class.

 
 
 

DVD of the Week

Howard’s End 

(PBS Masterpiece)

The latest adaptation of the classic E.M. Forster novel comes from the pen of Kenneth Lonergan, who won an Oscar for his brilliant script of Manchester by the Sea and is one of our leading playwrights. Lonergan brings a light touch to the material that at times threatens to become too “modern,” but on the whole he respects Forster’s original throughout his four-part miniseries treatment.

 

 

 

Even more splendid is Haley Atwell, an always underrated—and too little-seen—actress who brings real charm to the role of Margaret Schegel. Providing welcome support is the rest of the cast, led by Julia Ormond, Matthew Macfadyen and Tracey Ullmann. 

 

CD of the Week 

Gottfried Von Einem—Der Prozess/The Trial 

(Capriccio)

It’s generally agreed that his first opera, 1947’s Danton’s Death, is Gottfried von Einem’s best, although there are adherents for both 1971’s The Visit of the Old Lady and his follow-up to Danton, 1953’s The Trial, based on Kafka’s hallucinatory novella.

 

 

 

 

This 2018 Salzburg Festival recording of The Trial, in a vivid performance by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under conductor HK Gruber, ratchets up the dramatic intensity. Leading a huge cast of impressive soloists are Michael Laurenz as the antihero Josef K. and Ilse Eerens as the various women who flit in and out of his marked life.

Broadway Play Review—Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons” with Jane Alexander and James Cromwell

Grand Horizons

Written by Bess Wohl; directed by Leigh Silverman

Performances through March 1, 2020

 

 

James Cromwell and Jane Alexander in Grand Horizons (photo: Jane Marcus)

 

 

Bess Wohl’s Make Believe—at the Second Stage Theater last summer—looked at a broken family through the eyes of children, both as scared youngsters and scarred adults. Her new play, Grand Horizons, has a similar outlook, but now the adult children must come to terms with their elderly parents’ surprising decision.

 
 
When Bill and Nancy—now living at Grand Horizons, a seniors’ “independent living community”—decide to get a divorce (Nancy blurts it out one morning at breakfast, and Bill agrees), their sons Brian and Ben, along with Ben’s heavily pregnant wife Jess, descend on them to see what the hell is going on. Soon skeletons are dragged out of (and tossed back in) the family closet as shifting family dynamics of the past several decades are analyzed: Bill’s current relationship with another woman, Carla; Nancy’s decades-ago fling with her high school sweetheart; older brother Ben and younger brother Brian still fraught relationship, seeing that straight Ben is a married successful lawyer with a kid on the way while gay Brian is single, desperate for companionship—his Tinder date with Tommy, whom he brings back to his parents’ place, quickly turns ruinous—and is a grade-school theater teacher.
 
 

If Grand Horizons approaches sitcom-level comedy at times—like repeated jokes about Brian’s The Crucible staging with a youthful cast of 200—and its contrivances grate more than those in Make Believe (the coup de theatre that ends act one with a literal bang is a hoary device that sets up the less interesting second act), Wohl writes lively, biting dialogue that shows her understanding of and sympathy for her flawed characters. On Wohl’s wavelength is director Leigh Silverman, who smooths out the rough patches in a humorous, involving production that features Clint Ramos’ perfectly antiseptic set design and Jen Schriever’s nicely understated lighting. 

 
 

The excellent cast features Maulik Pancholy as Brian’s disastrously funny date Tommy, Priscilla Lopez as a scene-stealing Carla and Ashley Park as an amusingly exasperated Jess. As the brothers, Ben McKenzie’s Ben has a levelheadedness that always threatens to turn sour, and Michael Urie’s Brian lays bare his many scars with equal parts humor and heartbreak. 

 
 

Nancy and Bill are embodied beautifully by Jane Alexander and James Cromwell. Cromwell’s dry delivery serves him well as Bill, a man whose life has taken many wrong turns of his own making, while Alexander is simply radiant as Nancy, showing the simultaneous exasperation and elation over her marriage’s possible dissolution. Others have said that the 80-year-old award-winning actress extolling cunnilingus is the show’s high point: actually, Alexander’s entire performance is the show’s high point. 

 

 

Grand Horizons

Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY

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