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Film and the Arts

January '21 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
The Dissident 
(Briarcliff Entertainment)
Bryan Fogel’s powerful documentary chronicles the events leading to the horrific murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by persons under the direction of the Saudi crown prince himself.
For anyone who’s followed the story over the past couple of years, very little of what is presented here is new, but the accumulation of evidence and details that form an airtight case against the crown prince as well as sorrow over such an awful act committed to silence a vocal critic of the state makes this shocking and unforgettable.
In Corpore 
Sarah Portelli and Ivan Malekin’s four-part omnibus feature about the vagaries of intimacy has a healthy freedom from hypocrisy by unflinchingly dramatizing the physical intimacies of the four couples involved, but by concentrating on what happens in bed leads to a fuzziness of characterization.
It mainly comes off as earnest but amateurish—especially in the third segment, set in Berlin—but there are two finely etched portrayals: from Clara Francesca Pagone as a woman who sleeps with an old boyfriend in Melbourne at the beginning and confesses to her husband in Manhattan at the end, and—even more memorably—Naomi Said, heartbreakingly real as an unhappy wife in the second and best segment, set on Malta.
My Rembrandt 
(Strand Releasing)
In the world of high-priced art, Rembrandt is an Old Master name that brings dollar signs to the eyes of collectors, museum officials and art dealers, and Oeke Hoogendijk’s engaging and insightful documentary follows the travails of several valuable Rembrandt paintings in the hands of private collectors. There’s a portrait of an old woman over the fireplace of a Scottish duke’s estate; another picture up for auction that may or may not be authentic; and a pair of full-length portraits that the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum are contemplating bidding on together.
Hoogendijk introduces an array of colorful and even assiduously oddish characters, including Stanley S. Kaplan, an American billionaire and owner of several Rembrandts who recalls the moment when—after purchasing his first Rembrandt painting—he kisses its subject on the mouth. No explanations are required for art lovers.
The Passionate Thief 
Mario Monicelli’s raucous but ultimately touching 1960 comedy stars Anna Magnani and Totò, two of the greatest stars of Italian cinema, along with a dubbed Ben Gazzara as an unlikely trio tramping through Rome on New Year’s Eve.
Monicelli’s typically light touch treads a fine line between humor and heartbreak, even finding a moment for a brief parody of Fellini’s Trevi Fountain sequence in La Dolce Vita, and climaxing with a perfectly pitched and amusing sequence in a church. This is a remarkable rediscovery that deserves to be seen and savored.
4K Release of the Week 
Love and Monsters 
This cleverly constructed mash-up of dystopian horror and rom-com stars a likeable Dylan O’Brien as Joel, a nerd still pining for the girlfriend he last saw seven years ago—right before the “monsterpocalypse” destroyed civilization.
Much of Michael Matthews’ movie comprises our hero’s adventures through a dangerous landscape, with only an adorable dog as a companion, and if too much of the movie’s running time is taken up by his encounters with various—and, after awhile, repetitive and tired—monstrous creatures, there’s a sweetness and vulnerability that keeps it all watchable, as does Jessica Henwick, who makes a magical Aimee, Joel’s long-lost girlfriend. The eye-popping 4K transfer also accentuates the fakeness of the creatures; there’s a second disc that includes a Blu-ray transfer of the film and short featurettes.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
(BelAir Classiques)
Richard Wagner’s heroic opera is a transitional work between the grand operas of his past and philosophical dramas of the future, but it’s filled with wondrous music and gorgeous dramatic tableaux, the latter of which are only partially achieved in Árpád Schilling’s scattered 2018 Stuttgart staging.
Happily, the musical side more than compensates, with Michael König’s stentorian Lohengrin, Simone Schneider’s compassionate Elsa and Martin Gantner’s forceful Friedrich von Telramund. Cornelius Meister superbly conducts the Stuttgart State Orchestra and Chorus; hi-def video and audio are excellent.

Music Review—Rush's "Permanent Waves" Turns 40

Rush—Permanent Waves 40th Anniversary 

2020 started out horribly for Rush fans with the untimely death of lyricist and drummer extraordinaire Neil Peart in January. That news put a damper on the 40th anniversary of the Canadian prog-rock trio’s commercial 1980 breakthrough, Permanent Waves, which received a deluxe edition in May comprising the original album and 11 live tracks from the accompanying worldwide tour on two CDs and two LPs as well as bric-a-brac for fans, all housed in an LP-sized boxed set. 
When it was released in 1980, Permanent Waves showed that the band could move into shorter, more accessible song forms without sacrificing the epic structures and instrumental chops that characterized records like 2112 and A Farewell to Kings
From the opening track “The Spirit of Radio”—which became one of the most popular Rush anthems—to the closing multi-part suite “Natural Science,” Permanent Waves splits the difference between musical complexity (“Jacob’s Ladder”) and lyrical simplicity (“Entre Nous,” “Different Strings”), with the straight-ahead rocker “Free Will” thrown in for good measure. 
Drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics could be too self-consciously literary with a touch of the pompous—“For the words of the prophets were written on the stadium walls/concert halls” remains too clever for its own good—and bassist Geddy Lee’s vocals, while not as screechy as on earlier albums (especially on Rush’s previous opus, 1978’s Hemispheres, where Lee struggled to sing songs composed in a higher key than he could handle), are still on the “acquired taste” side. 
But there’s no denying the instrumental chops of Peart, Lee and underrated guitarist Alex Lifeson whenever the trio locks in on particularly illuminating breaks throughout, particularly on the epics “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science.” And there’s always a tinge of regret at the end of “Different Strings,” an uncharacteristically subdued Rush track, as Lifeson’s biting guitar solo begins and the song immediately fades out instead of continuing for another minute or so.
This welcome commemorative set comprises the superb-sounding remastered album and 11 electric live tracks from the group’s 1980 tour on two CDs and two LPs: the concert cuts include most of the then-new record along with earlier gems like “Cygnus X-1”—both Books I and II, which the trio rarely played live—and “Xanadu.” 
The set also features items that will excite hard-core Rush fans, from a 40-page hardcover book filled with rare photos and new artwork by longtime Rush album cover designer Hugh Syme to Peart’s lyric sheets for “The Spirit of Radio,” “Entre Nous” and “Natural Science” as well as a replica of the band’s 1980 tour program. 
That last inclusion is notable since each Rush tour program always contained a thoughtful and enlightening Peart essay on the making of the group’s newest album. So including the program is, in essence, the ultimate RIP to a superb writer and rock artist.

December '20 Digital Week IV

In-Theater Release of the Week 
Promising Young Woman 
(Focus Features)
With a promising premise—a young woman, Cassie, feigns being drunk and vulnerable in order to get back at “nice guys” who try and take advantage while she’s in a supposed inebriated state—writer-director Emerald Fennell sets up an unsettling mixture of jet-black comedy and demented rom-com, at least until it disintegrates when Cassie’s motives become clear and she homes in on her real target.
As Cassie, Carey Mulligan gives another of her unforgettable, psychologically rich portrayals, still compelling even when Fennell transforms Cassie into a clichéd vengeaful monster. Mulligan’s ferocious performance is given top-flight support from Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as her flummoxed parents, Laverne Cox as her best friend/coffee shop coworker, and Adam Brody as a former fellow med student with whom she lets her guard down. 
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Another Round 
(Samuel Goldwyn Company) 
Mads Mikkelsen—who made Thomas Vinterberg’s 2012 study of a man accused of pedophilia, The Hunt, watchable even when the director’s script went seriously awry—again dominates Vinterberg’s latest blackly comic drama about a quartet of middle-aged teachers deciding to test a psychiatrist’s theory that drinking to slight excess can make someone more creative and relaxed.
It’s certainly as provocative as all of Vinterberg’s work but, as usual, he goes both too far and not far enough, wallowing in self-pity and melodramatic flourishes. But Mikkelsen grounds this contrived descent into unsurprising consequences, with even his early dance training coming to the rescue for a virtuosically physical finale. 
Through the Night 
(Longshot Factory) 
Loira Limbal’s often wrenching documentary explores, through a 24-hour daycare center in New Rochelle, NY, the difficulties of single moms—especially minorities—juggling having a graveyard shift and needing a place for their children to stay overnight.
Focusing on Deloris “Nunu” Hogan, who with her husband takes care of several children in their home, and two mothers who are trying against the odds—and ingrained systematic racism and sexism—to successfully raise their kids while working odd hours, Limbal refrains from making an explicitly political statement. But that this intimate, generous film exists at all is miraculous. 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Amores Perros 
(Criterion Collection)
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2000 feature remains an auspicious debut, introducing what would become his filmmaking signature with its multistory structure and jumbled chronology to tell a trio of fast-paced, often exciting but schematic narratives centered on how their protagonists treat dogs (the title translates to Love’s a Bitch). Iñárritu’s taut direction and accomplished performances obscure the fact that this has no business going on for 2-1/2 hours.
Criterion again comes up aces with this release: the film looks splendidly grainy in hi-def; extras comprise a new interview with Iñárritu and filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski; new conversation between Iñárritu and actors Adriana Barraza, Vanessa Bauche and Gael García Bernal; Perros, amores, accidentes, a new making-of documentary with behind-the-scenes footage; rehearsal footage with Iñárritu’s reflections; new interview with composer Gustavo Santaolalla; video essay by film scholar Paul Julian Smith; and music videos for soundtrack songs by Control Machete, Café Tacvba and Julieta Venegas.
The Harvey Girls 
(Warner Archive)
Wizard of Oz alumni Judy Garland and Ray Bolger reunite in George Sidney’s 1946 technicolor musical set in the 1890s Wild West about “Harvey girls,” waitresses for a chain of restaurants: Garland gets off the train from Ohio and, unimpressed with the local she’s supposed to marry, signs up as one of the girls; she soon falls for the manager (John Hodiak) of the local saloon that becomes a dangerous rival.
Bolger’s tap dances are the highlights alongside the famous “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” number, but Garland and Hodiak have their moments and Cyd Charisse also dances wonderfully. It’s as sentimentally pleasant as can be, and Warner Archive’s hi-def color transfer looks spectacular. Extras are Sidney’s commentary, three deleted musical sequences, and audio-only scoring stage sessions.
It Happened on 5th Avenue 
(Warner Archive)
Roy Del Ruth’s 1947 fable about a bunch of squatters in a vacant Fifth Avenue mansion and the ultra-rich owner who surreptitiously hides out among them is overlong and one-note, despite a fine cast and generous dollops of unrepentant corniness.
Gale Storm and Don DeFore make an interesting romantic pairing, while Victor Moore is almost too boisterous as the lovable hobo. The B&W film has received a fine-looking hi-def transfer; lone extra is a radio adaptation recorded the same year that the film was released.
The Shop Around the Corner 
(Warner Archive)
Maybe because I’m a fan of She Loves Me, the 1963 Broadway musical based on Nikolaus Laszlo’s Parfumerie, but Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 Hollywood version of Laszlo’s play about two employees of a Budapest shop who are, unbeknownst to each other, pen pals and (of course) would-be lovers is enjoyable but inessential.
If the acting is a bit too broad from the supporting cast, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a charming couple make the 99 minutes relatively painless. Warner Archive’s hi-def transfer gives a remarkable sheen to the B&W film; extras are the featurette The Miracle of Sound and two radio broadcasts (from 1940 and 1941) of the story.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow 
(Warner Bros)
Writer-director-star Jim Cummings’ routine werewolf movie can never decide whether it wants to be a horror film or a black comedy in the style of An American Werewolf in London and ends up stranded in a sort of no-man’s land, where there are neither enough thrills nor laughs to be entertaining.
Cummings himself is too nondescript to be winning as a sympathetic hero of sorts, and the rest of the cast doesn’t get much to do in what is basically an unimaginative and unnecessary picture. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are on-set featurettes and interviews.
DVD Release of the Week 
Avenue 5—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Archive)
Armando Iannucci, the creator of such movie classics as In the Loop and The Death of Stalin and TV classics as The Thick of It (Veep had its moments but was not in the same league as any of the foregoing), returns with a satirical sci-fi series that has his deadpan comic sense in spades but is far too hit-and-miss, seeming more aimless than on-target.
The impeccable cast is led by Hugh Laurie, Veep alum Zach Woods and the gifted and winning Lenora Crichlow, all of whom ring laughs out of even lesser Iannucci lines, but this is one space trip that goes on longer than it should. Extras include a featurette and two commercials (!).
CD Release of the Week
August Enna—Kleopatra 
Danish composer August Enna (1859–1939), almost forgotten now, had a successful career in his home country in the late 19th/early 20th century, particularly with strikingly dramatic works like his 1894 opera about Egyptian queen Cleopatra, which received its first performances in 2019 after an absence from Denmark’s stages of 120 years.
On this often gripping recording from the enterprising Dacapo label, soprano Elsebeth Dreisig is mesmerizing as the tragic heroine, and Enna’s luxuriantly romantic score is given dynamic reading by the Danish National Opera Chorus and the Odense Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Joachim Gustafsson.

December '20 Digital Week III

4K Release of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
Christopher Nolan’s latest bloated super-spectacular attempts to one-up his earlier convoluted films with a constantly time-shifting (and aspect-ratio changing) plot that’s mainly an excuse for alternately exciting (opening concert hall invasion, backwards-car chase) and pointless (final battle) set pieces. Nolan fans will spend hours explaining away his densely plotted but scientifically suspect script but Tenet is yet another example of Nolan taking 2-1/2 hours to tell a story that The Twilight Zone would have covered satisfyingly in 30 minutes.
John David Washington makes a dull hero, further robbing the movie of credibility; Kenneth Branagh’s colorful if stereotypical Russian villain is fun, while Elizabeth Debiecki gives an exceptionally nuanced performance that has no place in something so singleminded. The UHD transfer looks luminous; lone extra (on a separate Blu-ray disc) is a 75-minute making-of.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Louis van Beethoven 
(Film Movement) 
In Niki Stein’s lavish biopic being released on the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth, Beethoven’s life is cleverly reconstructed as it covers three distinct periods: the young prodigy, the teenage wunderkind and the deaf genius near death. While it covers too much ground—there are appearances by Mozart and Haydn, who both give the budding composer-pianist their seal of approval—Stein’s film is intelligent and witty, with musical cues from among works both challenging (late quartets) and popular (the symphonies).
Colin Pütz, Anselm Bresgott and Tobias Moretti are exemplary in the title roles from youngest to oldest, while Ronald Kukulies gives a heartbreaking portrayal of Beethoven’s father, whose existence devolved into drink and tragedy. Arthur W. Ahrweiler’s moody cinematography perfectly mirrors the protagonist’s wide-ranging artistry and unpleasant personality.
To the Ends of the Earth 
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest follows a Japanese newscaster covering a story in Uzbekistan who finds herself in emotional difficulties after evading local cops and hearing that her boyfriend back in Tokyo might be injured in an horrific fire. Kurosawa records his protagonist’s everyday dealings with wry understatement, but at two hours, his film is definitely overstuffed with shots of her wandering the streets.
Atsuko Maeda has an ingratiating presence in the lead, and is quite touching at the end when her character sings (Maeda is a famous pop singer in Japan) the last of weirdly placed but effective song interludes.
Wild Mountain Thyme 
(Bleecker Street)
John Patrick Shanley’s beguiling play Outside Mullingar premiered on Broadway in 2014 with Brian F. O’Byrne and an unforgettable Debra Messing as lifelong next-door neighbors in the Irish countryside who bealtedly find love. But everything delectable in his original play is missing from Shanley’s own adaptation, a strained attempt to re-light a fire that burned so brightly onstage.
Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan are OK in the leads, Christopher Walken is eye-rollingly bad as Dorman’s father, Dearbhla Molloy (the lone Broadway cast holdover) is terrific as Blunt’s mom, and Jon Hamm—in a thankless role smartly omitted from the play—does what he can as an American cousin with designs on Blunt. Of course, Ireland’s locales are lovely and there are enough rom-com pleasures to make it watchable, but Outside Mullingar deserved much more.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
(Strand Releasing/Outsider Pictures)
Director Boaz Yakim juggles with ideas of gender identity by dramatizing the relationship between two dancers, male and female—and their respective feminine and masculine sides—and casting two couples to visualize the interactions.
It’s too bad that it turns out so heavyhanded—especially in the many repetitive and explicit sex scenes featuring the performing quartet in various permutations—and that the dancers are inadequate actors: what could have been an insightful study of gender fluidity and sexual complexity becomes banal. Star Bobbi Jene Smith’s often thrilling choreography makes its mark in several dancing sequences, like the final one in Central Park. The Blu-ray transfer looks beautiful; extras are 15 minutes of dance rehearsals with Smith’s discussion.
Mister Roberts 
(Warner Archive)
Jack Lemmon won the 1955 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his semi-comic relief role in this mild entertainment based on the hit play by Thomas Heggen—who wrote the original novel—and Joshua Logan about sailors on the USS Reluctant in Pacific waters during WWII, including the title character (the men’s immediate supervisor) and the ship’s captain.
John Ford and Mervyn Leroy co-directed (with uncredited work by Logan), and if the movie lacks comic or dramatic sizzle, it’s worth watching for its cast: Henry Fonda (Mister Roberts) gives his usual sturdy, decidedly “straight man” portrayal; James Cagney (Captain Morton) is enjoying himself immensely; and Ensign Pulver is among the earliest of the typically manic Lemmon performances. Taken together, however, these seemingly inapposite actors make this far more diverting than it should be. The Cinemascope film looks lovely on Blu; lone extra is a Lemmon commentary.
Following one of his most singular films, his 1966 allegory of faith and sacrifice that centered on a donkey, Au hazard Balthasar, French master Robert Bresson returned the following year with another bleak journey, this time following a young girl through her harsh existence.
Exquisitely shot in black and white by that extraordinary choreographer Ghislain Cloquet—whose photography shimmers in Criterion’s new hi-def transfer—Mouchette has a quietly devastating finale that is among Bresson’s most indelible images. Extras are an audio commentary; Au hasard Bresson, a 1967 documentary with Bresson on the Mouchette set; segment of a 1967 episode of French TV series Cinéma, with on-set interviews of Bresson and actors Nadine Nortier and Jean-Claude Guilbert; and the original trailer, edited by—of all people—Jean-Luc Godard.
Tex Avery Screwball Classics, Volume 2 
(Warner Archive)
Animated genius Tex Avery was responsible for a lion’s share of the classic output during the golden age of animation—in the ‘40s and the ‘50s—and this second volume brings together another 21 of his most wanted treasures, some starring his classic canine character, Droopy, and several others featuring his most memorable anthropomorphic animals and goofy contraptions.
Some of it is dated and in questionable taste; nearly all of it is entertaining and funny. The restored hi-def color images pop off the screen; the lone extra is a substantial documentary of Avery at work, Tex Avery: King of Cartoons.
2020 World Series Champions—Los Angeles Dodgers 
(Shout! Factory)
For a sports year unlike any other, the Dodgers won the championship in a shortened regular season made up of 60 games followed by four playoff rounds, but not before COVID outbreaks threatened to derail the whole thing.
But the Dodgers prevailed, finally, over the Tampa Rays in six games, and this disc revisits the ups and downs of a strange season that most are hoping is an anomaly, all narrated by legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. The hi-def images and audio are top-notch; extras are season highlights, clinching moments and “How They Got There” featurette.
DVD Releases of the Week
My Dog Stupid 
(Icarus Films)
French director-writer-actor Yvan Attal has yet to make a truly satisfying comedy of manners in a career as a third-rate Woody Allen yearning to be second-rate, but this is an only intermittently irritating dramedy about a blocked middle-aged writer who lets a huge, dumb canine into his life, only to watch its arrival parallels the disintegration of his marriage and the straining of his relationships with his adult son and daughter.
Attal still goes for cheap laughs or fake profundity, but his other actors—led by his always dependable real-life wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg—are fine and the oversized pooch (actually named “Stupide” in the film) is irresistible, which helps smooth over the rougher edges of Attal’s inconsistent filmmaking.
British playwright David Hare, one of our most skillful and insightfully political playwrights, tries his hand at parsing a conservative cabinet member—Hare is a leftist—in this intelligent if melodramatic four-part miniseries that rides on Hugh Laurie’s potent portrait of a man who, despite his act as honest and straight-talking, is not what he seems.
Although Hare allows contrivances that wouldn’t pass muster in a Screenwriting 101 course, he’s on firmer ground when he’s assailing the machinations of the prime minister (a terrific Helen McCrory) and her minions at 10 Downing Street, while Michael Keillor’s direction smartly guides Hare’s story to its satisfying conclusion.
Route One/USA 
(Icarus Films)
Robert Kramer’s legendary road movie that travels along the Eastern Seaboard, following U.S. Route 1 from Maine to Key West, was made in 1989 but remains particularly relevant today, as Kramer chronicles Americans of all walks of life, political persuasions and economic classes, along with visiting landmarks from Walden Pond to the D.C. Vietnam Memorial.
An American expatriate based in Paris (he died in France at age 60 in 1999) who returned to the U.S. for this film, Kramer adroitly handles the camera while his friend, actor Michael Keillor, does the questioning and observing. Route One/USA’s four-hour exploration of the deep and dark crevasses of American life is crammed with incident, detail and insight but is far from exhaustive, mirroring Kramer’s wanting to “understand” the country he left.
The Trip—Four-Course Meal 
(IFC Films)
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon went on four go-rounds touring Europe, annoying each other and eating superb meals along the way, and this set collects all of them: 2010’s The Trip (at home in England), 2014’s The Trip to Italy, 2017’s The Trip to Spain and this year’s The Trip to Greece. 
Although it’s as formulaic as hell—amazing scenery, delectable dinners, good-natured banter and dueling impressions—the stars have such undeniable chemistry that it all works. Michael Winterbottom directs all four series with his usual light hand; it’s too bad that the full version of these peregrinations—each trip began as six-part series for British television—isn’t included. But even as standalone, shortened films, these are extremely pleasurable journeys. 
CD Release of the Week
Charles Wuorinen—Haroun and the Sea of Stories 
Novelist Salman Rushdie’s typically fantastical story about an imaginative young boy growing up in a world of misery and censorship was adapted into a musically adventurous opera by American composer Charles Wuorinen, which premiered in 2004 by New York City Opera. Wuorinen, who died this past March, was known for this thorny, difficult scores, but taking a cue from Rushdie's playful and multilingual pans, Wuorinen’s Haroun is dotted with references to various musical works past and present.
This new recording by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), from the company’s 2019 concert performances, features the original Haroun from the premiere, the terrific soprano Heather Buck, who centers the rangy score with her radiant singing throughout. Gil Rose conducts the BMOP musicians and chorus in this enchanting reading. It's too bad that such a colorful and visual opera does not have a video release to complement this recording.

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