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Film and the Arts

May '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Funny Games 


German enfant terrible Michael Haneke made this provocative, self-reflexive thriller in 1997, and its defects—obviousness, humorlessness, pointlessness—are still in glaring evidence, although it must be admitted that, thanks to committed performances by two great actors, Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar (both died far too young), and nasty turns by young Aldo Frisch and Frank Giering, it’s an effective piece of trashy claptrap.




But Haneke’s thesis—that audiences are complicit in onscreen sadism and violence—rings hollow; still, this Criterion release makes little sense without Haneke’s own shot-for-shot 2007 American remake as a “bonus.” The hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras comprise new interviews with Haneke, Frisch and film historian Alexander Horwath and the Cannes Film Festival press conference featuring Haneke, Lothar and Mühe.




Hal Ashby (who died in 1988) was beloved for several ‘70s films ranging from The Landlord and The Last Detail to Coming Home and Being There, films championed even while they—and he—never broke through to a wide audience.




Amy Scott’s engrossing if overly reverent documentary recounts his difficult career surviving in Hollywood (the 80s were one disaster after another for him), aided by ear-opening archival interviews of Ashby and new interviews with many who worked with (and worshipped) him, from Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Norman Jewison to Robert Towne and Lee Grant. But conspicuous by their absence are Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras are a commentary and additional interviews.






The Young Debussy 

(LSO Live)

This 2018 concert by the London Symphony Orchestra is built around a recently discovered early work by French master Claude Debussy: his Premiere Suite for Orchestra, which sounds like the kind of attractive, occasionally soaring piece a talented 21-year-old composer might write. The excellent performance—conducted by Francois-Xavier Roth, the last of his three programs commemorating the centenary of Debussy’s death—opens with Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and ends with a suite from Jules Massenet’s ballet Le Cid.




After the Wagner work is the formidable cellist Edgar Moreau playing Eduardo Lalo’s Cello Concerto; he follows that up with a masterly encore of a Bach cello suite. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch. 


DVDs of the Week

Bosch—The Garden of Dreams 

(Film Movement)

Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th/16th century Dutch master, created some of the most strangely compelling images ever committed to canvas, and his painting in Madrid’s Prado, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a magnificent if unsettling triptych that has mesmerized and mystified art historians, other artists and the public for half a millennium.




José Luis López-Linares’ superb documentary delves into the painting—at times literally—with fascinating discussion from talking heads as diverse as soprano Renee Fleming, novelist Salman Rushdie and conductor William Christie, along with dozens of artists, writers and historians who take in this gorgeous if baffling masterpiece. The lone quibble with this release is that a film crammed with exquisite visuals is not available on Blu-ray.






Never Ever 

(Film Movement)

This is yet another routine drama by French director Benoit Jacquot, whose breakthrough, 1995’s A Single Girl, got by on the magnetism of leading lady Virginie Ledoyen; his latest—a wobbly adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel—wastes both of his stars.




Although Julia Roy (who also wrote the messy script) has an undeniable presence, she and her usually interesting co-star Mathieu Amalric can do little with the forced, pandering ghost story that Jacquot shovels at us.



(Film Movement)

Polish director Olga Chajdas’ incessantly gloomy debut feature follows Nina and her husband Wojtek, unable to have a baby, who decide that free-spirited Magda can be their surrogate: then Nina inconveniently falls in love with the young woman.




Chajdas’s direction tries to be too flashy at the expense of her own characters, and incongruous plot twists and implausible plot twists don’t help. Her committed actors, especially Julia Kijowska (Nina) and Eliza Rycembel (Magda), give fierce portrayals in a vacuum. Lone extra is a short, Social Butterfly, by director Lauren Wolkstein. 


CD of the Week 

American Rapture 


This disc’s title refers to the three works the intrepid Rochester Philharmonic plays under its music director Ward Stare: Jennifer Higdon’s new harp concerto, Samuel Barber’s exhilarating first symphony and Patrick Harlin’s Rapture; both Rapture (2011) and Higdon’s 2018 concerto receive their world premiere recordings. 




Rapture is an exuberant closer and Barber’s classic sounds great even in a perfunctory reading, which this decidedly is not. The concerto was composed for and dedicated to American harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who brings out the many subtle facets of her instrument throughout the four movements, from the chamber-like lyricism that most associate with the harp to exhilarating rhythmic bursts.

May '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

All About Lily Chou-Chou 

(Film Movement Classics)

Shunji Iwai’s often mesmerizing 2001 drama follows two boys who are huge fans of a superstar pop singer named Lily Chou-Chou: we see how music can make a difference in someone’s life, especially when it’s filled with personal difficulty and tragedy.




Iwai shrewdly visualizes his young protagonists’ points-of-view through postings on a message board dedicated to the singer, but at nearly 2-1/2 hours, Iwai’s meaningful psychological exploration eventually wears thin, repeating itself to diminishing returns. The film looks fine on Blu; lone extra is a substantial making-of featurette.


Level 16 

(Dark Sky)

This relentlessly dour dystopian nightmare follows several teenage girls who realize that their “school” is really a prison farm from which they are drugged and sold off to rich people who pay a pretty penny for their skin—literally.




Writer-director Danshika Esterhazy mistakes blatancy for depth, ending up with a film that’s less an unsettling cautionary tale than an entirely humorless way to spend 100 minutes. There’s a good hi-def transfer; extras are 90 minutes of cast/crew interviews and a making-of featurette.






Summer Stock 

(Warner Archive)

This isn’t a highlight of Judy Garland's or Gene Kelly’s career: a 1950 musical about a farmer (Garland) whose actress sister’s troupe, led by Kelly, arrives to perform in the family barn—one thing leads to another and soon Garland and Kelly are an item on and offstage.




It’s risible stuff redeemed by a few choice numbers: the pair’s challenge dance in “Portland Fancy,” Kelly’s marvelous solo turn in a deserted barn, and Garland’s climactic “Get Happy.” At least the colors pop beautifully in hi-def; extras include audio of an excised number, vintage featurette about the film and classic cartoons.


DVDs of the Week

George Carlin—40 Years of Comedy 


This seemingly random release finally brings George Carlin’s tenth HBO special to DVD: shot in 1997 at the Aspen Opera House, it’s something of a mixed bag, beginning with a youthful Jon Stewart introducing Carlin clips from earlier HBO specials, followed by about 30 minutes of Carlin standup and 15 minutes of Stewart interviewing Carlin.




It’s interesting, insightful, and funny, but too short; if it was two hours instead of one, it would have been more memorable.






Naples in Veils 

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

In yet another of Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek’s elegant but empty dramas, Naples itself co-stars in this weird tale of a medical examiner—after an amazing one-night stand—discovering that not only might her conquest be the corpse she’s studying, but that he may have a twin brother whom she (naturally) begins to fall for.




As always, Giovanna Mezzogiorno invests the heroine with as much humanity, honesty and charm as she can, but Ozpetek’s cutesiness disallows much originality from seeping in. Extras comprise deleted scenes and cast/crew interviews.


Unforgotten—Complete 3rd Season 

(PBS Masterpiece Mystery)

Investigating another long-unsolved murder when human remains are unearthed in a highway median, our intrepid detectives Cassie and Sunny run headlong into a lion’s den of liars and deceivers—men whose long-ago privilege is disappearing as they age: but is one of them actually a 16-year-old girl’s killer?




Once again, the excellent lead performances by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar dominate this intelligent and absorbing crime drama. Extras include on-set interviews and featurettes.

Brits Off Broadway Review—“Caroline’s Kitchen” by Torben Betts

Caroline’s Kitchen

Written by Torben Betts; directed by Alastair Whatley

Performances through May 25, 2019


Tom England, Aden Gillett and Elizabeth Boag in Caroline's Kitchen (photo: Sam Taylor)

Playwright Torben Betts—whose last play, Invincible, was a bit too slavishly indebted to the master, Alan Ayckbourn—returns with Caroline’s Kitchen, much less enervating and far more entertaining.


The setting of the play’s title is where Caroline—a famous at-home chef whose videos explode online—goes through a hell of a day. Leo, her beloved son, just graduated with honors from Cambridge, returns home wondering why she hasn’t told his dad that he’s gay. He also drops a bombshell: he’s refusing their money for an apartment to travel to Syria for humanitarian purposes. Her retired banker husband Mike has just returned from his regular golf game and will hear nothing of their son’s sexual proclivities or future plans. Amanda, Caroline’s new assistant, is a bitch on wheels with an obvious—if unrequited—crush on Graeme, Caroline’s strapping young handyman, with whom Caroline’s has been carrying on an affair. Finally, Sally, Graeme’s wife, arrives, having just discovered proof of the adulterous couple (Graeme conveniently forgot his phone that morning): but she is mistakenly believed to be a potential buyer of Caroline and Mike’s house.


In 90 minutes, Betts skillfully orchestrates the escalating insanity among these six people, the misunderstandings and anger, the amorous and murderous moments. It all comes to a head when Amanda is banished from the house, Sally grabs a knife sitting on the kitchen’s island, and a terrifying thunderstorm threatens to bring down the wrath of God, literally and figuratively. 


Director Alistair Whatley sublimely orchestrates the controlled onstage chaos, aided spectacularly by the increasingly (and hilariously) unhinged performances by his peerless cast of six: the standouts are Aden Gillett’s utterly unctuous Mike and Elizabeth Hoag’s more subtly characterized Sally. Betts has learned from Ayckbourn to take what’s moving along as sheer farce and stop on a dime, shift gears completely and create something fantastically, even touchingly indelible. 


Although Betts ratchets up the lunacy and manipulates his characters for his own ends more blatantly than Ayckbour—which may be why Betts' play ends with a whimper instead of a comic bang—Caroline’s Kitchen has been written, staged and acted with such ferocious wit that its minor shortcomings ultimately don’t matter.


Caroline’s Kitchen

Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY


Broadway Play Review—James Graham’s “Ink”


Written by James Graham; directed by Rupert Goold

Performances through July 7, 2019

The cast of James Graham's Ink (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

A play about Rupert Murdoch doesn’t seem high on the list of things we need right now. But James Graham’s often thrilling, even intoxicating Ink—especially in Rupert Goold’s splendid staging—is a particularly nuanced take on the early exploits of a man whose very name conjures images of the caricatured dark lord of an evil empire.


Ink, set in 1969, begins with a restaurant dinner between Murdoch, an Australian millionaire looking to make a splash in the British newspaper business, and Larry Lamb, an editor who’s slogged away at various papers. Murdoch offers him the job as editor of the Sun, the tabloid that Murdoch has just purchased as his entry into Fleet Street. Darkly humorous and slightly ominous, this scene encapsulates and anticipates what later unfolds.


Lamb accepts the position and quickly sets about making the Sun popular and profitable in the ridiculously short time frame Murdoch has given him. Much of the first act is given over to the breakneck pace of his recruiting, hiring and getting the tabloid up and running with what looks like a skeleton crew. At the same time, the editors of the Mirror—the world’s biggest-selling newspaper, where Lamb worked years earlier—are responding to the Sun’s increasingly successful (and borderline plagiaristic) gambits, at first incredulously and amusedly, then bemusedly and, finally, very nervously.


The second act takes some darker turns: as the Sun continues its improbable rise, Lamb and his crew must come up with ever more creative ways of keeping it all moving forward, like introducing their nude Page Three girl. In a scene that’s dramatically riveting if most likely invented, the young woman (played with appropriate strength and agency by Rana Roy) insightfully describes her view of the situation to Lamb: “That’s weird, isn’t it. To think after this, I’ll go and we’ll probably never see each other again but we’re linked in this now. Handcuffed together, for all time. Isn’t that funny.”


Ink’s most potent section comes when Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick McKay, is kidnapped and responses to the crime are splayed all over the Sun’s own front pages. Lamb decides that spilling ink and adding more readers is more important than an innocent person’s life (even one connected to the paper), and when Muriel’s body is never found—presumably fed to pigs by the killers—there’s a bit of soul-searching, but not too much, as the race to the top, i.e., the bottom, continues. 


Hovering over all of this is Murdoch, flitting in and out even if he finds some of Lamb’s innovations problematic—at least until they work. The excellent Bertie Carvel plays Murdoch with a perpetual hunch, as if he’s already leaning toward what’s going to happen. Speaking out of the side of his mouth gives him a slightly sinister edge, but Murdoch never comes off as the worst person in the world—which may be why Graham adds a line, at Murdoch and Lamb’s final dinner, that he’s going to New York to buy a TV network. ("TV is the future," he casually says.) The audience dutifully groans.


Skillfully keeping apace of Carvel is Jonny Lee Miller’s Lamb. Miller has to do most of the play’s heavy lifting, as he’s onstage nearly the entire time. He also has to be amped up for long stretches, barking out orders, yelling at subordinates, screaming for new and better ideas, even angrily taking control of the printing process after the union men and women refuse when the McKay kidnapping breaks. But Miller is never showy or blatant; his noisy rage is plausibly within range of a man whose Faustian bargain may preclude him from keeping his dignity. 


Goold’s directing mirrors Miller’s performance—sometimes it seems overdone (a few winking song-and-dance routines in the first act), but it’s of a piece with the Sun’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink ethos. Bunny Christie’s imposing set, on which a mound of office furniture is precariously stacked in helter-skelter fashion, spectacularly visualizes that go-for-broke attitude. Christie’s own costumes, Neil Austin’s canny lighting and Adam Cork’s haunting sound design also contribute handsomely to Ink's sordidly enticing atmosphere.


Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

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