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Film and the Arts

December '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Bad and the Beautiful 

(Warner Archive)

Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 Hollywood drama might not have the incisiveness of All About Eve or the darkness of Sunset Boulevard, but its story of a ruthless producer and those he uses along the way—including an actress, writer and director, all of whose tales we see—is an unalloyed delight, a sheerly entertaining glimpse of the movie business.

 

 

 

Kirk Douglas (producer), Lana Turner (actress), Dick Powell (writer) and Barry Sullivan (director) give the best performances of their careers, Charles Schnee’s script is witty and razor-sharp, and Minnelli’s direction is perfectly realized. Robert Surtees’ B&W photography looks especially sumptuous in hi-def; extras comprise the documentary Lana Turner: A Daughter’s Memoir and several score session cues.

 

The Battle of Leningrad 

(Capelight)

The exhausting 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad from 1941-43 is dramatized in this heroic but superficial war film that displays the horrors the Soviets went through but also their indomitable spirit while fighting a superior foe.

 

 

 

Although writer-director Aleksey Kozlov’s impressive physical production highlights the tension onboard a defenseless barge and its overflow crowd fending off German bombers, this otherwise standard-issue war drama gets most of its resonance by remembering those who died for their country. The movie looks spectacular on Blu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Semper Fi 

(Lionsgate)

Henry-Alex Rubin’s earnest if familiar melodrama about a police officer who’s also a Marine reservist who helps get his half-brother out of prison when he’s unfairly convicted wears its heart on its sleeve but can’t compensate for the script’s myriad clichés.

 

 

 

Mainly unfamiliar actors (excepting the always winning Leighton Meester) are unable to overcome the soggy writing and directing. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes, featurettes and Rubin’s commentary.

 

Verdi—La Traviata 

(Opus Arte)

Giuseppe Verdi’s classic opera about a famed courtesan is a dazzling showcase for a soprano, and Albanian singer Ermonela Jaho thrillingly goes for broke in her emotive characterization, so much so that she actually looks consumptively shrinking at the end of Richard Eyre’s handsome Royal Opera House (London) production.

 

 

 

As her lover and his father, respectively, Charles Castronovo and legendary Placido Domingo acquit themselves well. It’s adeptly conducted by Antonello Manacorda, leading the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wagner—Tristan und Isolde 

(C Major)

Richard Wagner’s epic tragic romance has some of the most moving music ever written for the operatic stage—along with two of opera’s most punishing vocal parts. In Pierre Audi’s 2016 Rome staging, tenor Andreas Schager does wonders with minimal strain as Tristan, while soprano Rachel Nicholls does Herculean work as Isolde, especially in the draining, climactic Liebestod.

 

 

 

Conductor Daniele Gatti and the Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma give an impassioned reading of Wagner’s massive score. Video and audio look and sound sublime in hi-def.

 

The World, the Flesh and the Devil 

(Warner Archive)

Radioactive airborne matter has seemingly wiped out the earth’s population: except for a miner who was conveniently underground, played by Harry Belafonte. He goes to Manhattan to begin anew...but soon two others appear, and this thrown-together trio must deal with the end of civilization—and the possible beginning of another.

 

 

 

Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer’s complex performances give director-writer Ranald MacDougall’s shallow “apocalypse drama” more gravitas than it deserves, but there are truly eye-opening views of a deserted New York City, including eerie shots of empty vehicles piled up on the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel. Harold J. Marzorati’s B&W cinematography looks especially impressive on Blu.

 

DVDs of the Week 

The Ground Beneath My Feet 

(Strand Releasing)

Valerie Pachner’s persuasive portrayal of an employee of a powerful consulting firm whose personal and professional lives are put to the test when her mentally unbalanced sister’s condition worsens at the same time her work at the firm is given unfair scrutiny is the heart of Marie Kreutzer’s insightful character study.

 

 

 

Pachner dominates the screen in a physically and psychologically transfixing performance, whether she’s on a bracing run or dealing with discrimination from coworkers or the guilt she feels over her sister.

 

The Miracle of the Little Prince 

(Film Movement)

Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable The Little Prince has survived since its 1943 publication (preceding the author’s death in World War II) as a work that children and adults of all ages love, but director Marjoleine Boonstra explores another aspect of its endurance in this forthright documentary.

 

 

 

The novella has been translated into hundreds of languages, including some on the brink of extinction, and Boonstra visits those who have translated the book into Tamazight (Morocco), Nahautl (El Salvador), Sami (Scandinavia), and Tibetan to record how it has allowed those languages to survive. If only the film wasn’t so long—it’s only 89 minutes, but reading excerpts and showing picture-postcard shots of the various landscapes do nothing but stretch the running time.  

 

CDs of the Week 

Neave Trio—Her Voice

Ethyl Smyth—Mass in D Minor 

(Chandos)

In the 19th century, composers Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn were more famous for being attached to a more famous husband and brother, respectively. These two discs highlight a quartet of accomplished 19th and 20th century composers who happen to be women. Her Voice is the latest from the excellent Neave Trio, which eloquently performs spirited trios by three original voices: France’s Louise Farrenc (her 1843 trio), American Amy Beach (her 1938 trio) and Brit Rebecca Clarke (her 1921 trio).

 

 

 

The other disc brings together two works by British composer Ethel Smyth: the overture to her forceful 1904 opera The Wreckers and her Mass, a painstakingly realized work from 1891 (revised in 1925). Sakari Oramo skillfully conducts the BBC Symphony and Chorus and four fine soloists in her Mass.

Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal Plays Carnegie Hall

Joyce DiDonato and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, © 2019 Richard Termine
 
A thus-far terrific season at Carnegie Hall continued fabulously on the evening of Friday, November 22nd, with the appearance of the outstanding musicians of the Orchestre Metropolitain de Montreal under the brilliant direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
 
The program opened delightfully with a sparkling account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s wonderful Overture from his late opera, La clemenza di Tito. The extraordinary vocalist, Joyce DiDonato, then took the stage to excellently sing two excerpts from the same work: its most famous aria, “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio,” and “Non più di fiori,” which is notable for having been written for a dramatic soprano with an unusually low range, while DiDonato is a mezzo-soprano with an uncharacteristically high range. The singer, who wore an arresting red gown, received tremendous applause which she rewarded with a glorious encore: the same composer’s entrancing aria, “Voi che sapete” from his opera The Marriage of Figaro.
 
The second half of the program was devoted to a masterly realization of Anton Bruckner’s magnificent Symphony No. 4, the “Romantic.” The complex opening movement was requisitely mysterious and majestic, while the wistful slow movement attained a sumptuous and exalting effect. The outer sections of the Scherzo were stirring and enchanting, set against a charming and dance-like Trio, and the powerful Finale was largely suspenseful and dramatic, with exquisite, more melodious interludes, building to an astonishing climax. An enthusiastic ovation led to another marvelous encore: a bewitching excerpt from Poem for Orchestra by the lesser-known Canadian composer, Violet Archer.
 
The next appearance of these superb artists will be greatly anticipated.

November '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

All About Eve 

(Criterion Collection)

One of the all-time Hollywood classics, Joseph Mankiewicz’s nasty, hilarious and witty satire of theater, movies and celebrities swept the 1950 Oscars and remains one of the most watchable movies ever made about show business. Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter are pitch-perfect, while Mankiewicz’s endlessly quotable script is a marvel of concision and bitchiness.

 

 

 

Criterion’s hi-def transfer is similar to Fox’s from 2011 and many extras from the Fox release (Mankiewicz documentaries, interviews, etc.) are included. Shockingly, Criterion’s packaging is shoddy: my booklet was torn since it was stuck to the foam knobs that hold the discs in place, and it’s difficult taking the discs out without worry about breaking them. It’s a rare whiff from what’s usually the best video company for packaging.

 

Ambroise Thomas—Hamlet 

(Naxos)

French composer Ambroise Thomas premiered his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1868, and it’s a spectacle of pageantry, tragedy, drama—along with a happy ending (Hamlet survives and becomes king). Despite that central absurdity, it’s a sturdy example of 19th century French grand opera, and director Cyril Teste’s 2018 Paris Opéra-Comique production looks and sounds terrific, including its use of onstage video.

 

 

 

Conductor Louis Langrée ably marshals the forces of the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées and Choeur Les Eléments, and the formidable cast is headed by baritone Stéphane Degout as Hamlet and a searing and emotional Sabine Devieilhe as the ill-fated Ophélie. The hi-def video and audio are tremendous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eegah 

(Film Detective)

Nicholas Merriweather’s shoddy 1962 low-budget attempt at horror about a caveman who terrorizes a young woman, her boyfriend and her father is in Plan Nine from Outer Space territory as one of the worst movies ever made.

 

 

 

That’s apparently the selling point: this cheesy, laughable flick—containing several of the all-time amateurish performances—has been given a splendid hi-def transfer; extras include the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where the hosts crap all over it and interviews with MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and actor Arch Hall Jr.

 

The Fare 

(Epic Pictures)

What starts as a shape-shifting Twilight Zone episode soon turns lugubrious as a cabbie and the young woman who keeps getting in—and disappearing from—the back seat try to discover why they’ve been thrown together.

 

 

 

Leading lady Brinna Kelly, also the scriptwriter, shows little facility in either role; leading man Gino Anthony Pesi is better but can’t create a character out of fragments; and director D.C. Hamilton can’t prevent the story from disappearing into the ether. There’s a crystal clear hi-def transfer; extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes, alternate opening, featurettes, interviews and commentaries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olivia 

(Icarus Films)

In Jacqueline Audry’s 1950 drama, a young women’s boarding school is the setting for a series of physical and psychological clashes between factions of students and their headmistresses. Audry’s fresh and exuberant lesbian study never feels forced or false even when she’s up against the constraints of her era.

 

 

 

Her filmmaking is original enough for viewers to want to see what else she did—including her Colette-approved 1949 adaptation of Gigi—so one hopes more restored Audry films are forthcoming. The hi-def transfer of a new restoration is sparkling in B&W; lone extra is a vintage Audry interview.

 

Poldark—Complete 5th Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

In the engrossing final season of the latest television incarnation of Winston Graham’s classic novels, several years have passed since we last saw these characters, but the internal dramas and external political forces driving them remain forcefully and rivetingly intact.

 

 

 

As always, the remarkable cast—led by Aidan Turner (Ross), Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza), Luke Norris (Dr. Enys), Gabriella Wilde (Caroline Enys), Jack Farthing (George) and Ellise Chappell (Morwenna)—propels eight hours’ worth of melodrama in the best sense. The directing, writing and physical production values are also first-rate. The hi-def transfer is transfixing; extras are several making-of featurettes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Is Rattle 

(LSO Live)

In his first outing as music director, Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in a sizzling program of British music from the 20th and 21st centuries, beginning with the delectable concert opener, Helen Grime’s Fanfares, and moving right into Thomas Adès’ Asyla and Harrison Birtwistle’s meaty, exceptionally difficult Violin Concerto, dispatched with aplomb by Christian Tetzlaff.

 

 

 

Rattle then guides his forces through Oliver Knussen’s thornily satisfying Symphony No. 3 before finishing with Edward Elgar’s magisterial Enigma Variations. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette 

(Fox)

Maria Semple’s 2012 novel about a middle-aged wife and mother who takes off after her artistic creativity has been stifled has been made by director Richard Linklater into a cutesy, enervating dramedy.

 

 

 

Cate Blanchett gives an unfocused performance in the title role and Kristen Wiig trots out her usual mannerisms as a next-door neighbor, while Billy Crudup and Emma Nelson’s earnest portrayals of Bernadette’s husband and teenage daughter are wasted. Even a finale set in Antarctica can’t save this wishy-washy display. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise two making-of featurettes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DVDs of the Week 

The Corporate Coup d’Etat 

(First Run)

Fred Peabody’s documentary ponders the corporatization of America—not only obvious stuff like Citizens United, but also the incremental ways that Democrats and Republicans have allowed individual liberties to erode and take a backseat to corporations and billionaires, setting us up for the disaster that is the tRump presidency.

 

 

 

You don’t have to agree with everything in the film by an array of talking heads from Matt Tiabbi to Cornel West to be incensed at how much in tatters our 200-plus year-old experiment in democracy is.

 

Queen of Hearts 

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

Trine Dyrholm gives her usual masterly performance as a lawyer for battered and abused victims who has a torrid affair with her troubled 17-year-old stepson. Although director/cowriter May el-Toukhy doesn’t develop the intricacies of such unethical behavior as penetratingly as possible, Dyrholm’s incisive characterization greatly compensates.

 

 

 

Also noteworthy are Gustav Lindh as her young lover and Magnus Krepper as her husband, along with the raw but redundant sexual explicitness in the couple’s first encounter.

 

 

 

 

CD of the Week

Langgaard/Strauss—Orchestral Works 

(Seattle Symphony Media)

The Seattle Symphony’s new music director Thomas Dausgaard capably leads the orchestra in works by Rued Langgaard and Richard Strauss in his first recording at the helm.

 

 

 

Dausgaard conducted the world premiere of Langgaard’s opera Antichrist, and the dynamic and unsettling prelude is a 12-minute orchestral tour de force. And Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony, a vigorous workout for large orchestral forces, is another aural triumph for Dausgaard and his talented Seattle ensemble.

Mariinsky Ballet Performs a Classic of Soviet Era Ballet

The Fountain of Bakhchisarai by Valentin Baranovsky © State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
 
On the evening of Sunday, November 3rd, I saw a ravishing production—presented by the extraordinary Mariinsky Ballet—of the splendid The Fountain of Bakhchisarai—which premiered in 1934—at the jewel-like Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia—this was especially fortunate since this work, like so much of classic Soviet choreography, is virtually unseeable in live performance in New York.
 
The libretto of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai was adapted by Nikolai Volkov from an eponymous 1823 poem by Alexander Pushkin—which I have not read—which also was the basis for a cantata by Anton Arensky and operas by Alexander von Zemlinsky and Alexander Ilyinsky. The enchanting score—impressively conducted here by Boris Gruzin—is by the eminent composer, musicologist and critic, Boris Asafyev, while the brilliant choreography is by the estimable Rostislav Zakharov, with marvelous sets and costumes designed by Valentina Khodasevich.
 
The dazzling cast, hitherto entirely unknown to me, was magnificently led by Yuri Smekalov as Ghirei, the Crimean Khan, exquisitely partnered by Anastasia Matvienko as Maria. Her bridegroom, Vaslav, was expertly danced by Xander Parish, while Zarema, the Khan’s favorite wife was performed by a superb Anastasia Kolegova. Along with many other charming dancers too numerous to name, other notable artists included: Alisa Petrenko and Dmitry Pykhachov in the Cracovienne; Anna Smirnova in the Bell dance; Maria Shevyakova in the Captives dance; and Nikita Lyashchenko, Daniil Lopatin, and Maxim Lynda in the Tatar dance. The wonderfulcorps de balletprovided entrancing support.
 
I look forward to future appearances of this glorious company.

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