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Film and the Arts

April '21 Digital Week III

VOD/Virtual Cinema/Streaming/In Theater Releases of the Week 
Hope 
(KimStim) 
Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl’s intensely personal drama about a wife and mother getting a terminal cancer diagnosis could have easily become sentimental mush a la Love Story, but Sødahl instead tackles her subject emotionally and viscerally, through the heart and the head, and the result is an intelligent tearjerker.
 
 
Of course, she has terrific actors, and Andrea Bræin Hovig gives a fearless, nakedly real portrayal of a middle-aged woman wavering between bravery and giving up in the face of a doubtful future with husband, children and stepchildren, and the redoubtable Stellan Skarsgård is very nearly her equal as her husband, who must rally back to her side after their relationship grew more distant in the past few years. I dare anyone to stay unaffected after the breathtakingly perfect final shot.
 
 
 
 
 
Downstream to Kinshasa 
(Icarus Films) 
Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi's incredibly moving documentary introduces several physically and emotionally scarred victims of the six-day war between Uganda and Rwanda in 2000: they were caught in the crossfire of a battle in the Congolese town of Kisangani, but despite their best efforts, have yet to be compensated for their injuries.
 
 
Hamadi’s sensitive camera follows them as, nearly two decades later, they try and make their cases while keeping their dignity intact amid continuing horrific pain and memories. 
 
 
 
 
 
Gunda 
(Neon) 
Director Victor Kossakovsky’s 93-minute, black and white documentary about a mother pig, her litter of piglets as well as chickens and cows on a farm is utterly mesmerizing from the very first long shot of the mom lying inside the barn as the piglets scurry around her.
 
 
Kossakovsky also edited the film and did the cinematography with Egil Håskjold Larsen, and the result—especially since there is no narration, no humans onscreen and no titles, just the animals’ oinks, clucks and moos—is a truly unique visual and aural experience, just as nature (mostly) intended. 
 
 
 
 
 
Monday 
(IFC Films)
This drama about the relationship between two American expats who fall in love—or lust—while living in Greece is undermined by two unpleasant and unsympathetic characters.
 
 
Director-writer Argyris Papadimitropoulos and cowriter Rob Hayes miss the mark while exploring the heady romance between two immature and juvenile individuals, especially in a sequence of exceeding absurdity when they ride naked on a motorbike, racing away from cops, right before the man is to go to court to get custody of his young son with a Greek woman. Even the energetic acting of Denise Gough and Sebastian Stan is superficial, and this couple remains woefully unexamined. 
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Broadway Melody of 1940 
(Warner Archive)
In the final of five annual Broadway Melodies featuring spectacular song-and-dance set pieces inside a routine showbiz story, director Norman Taurog smartly concentrates on his astonishing dancers, Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, who get many opportunities, singly and together, to show off.
 
 
Although Astaire is terrific as always, Powell is extraordinary in her dancing sequences, especially her first solo, “I Am the Captain”; of course, when they team for the tap-dancing duet “Jukebox Dance” and exhilarating finale “Begin the Beguine” (all songs are by Cole Porter), they are unstoppable. Too bad this was shot in B&W—the last MGM musical not in color—but it looks sensational on Blu. Extras are an Astaire-Powell featurette, Our Gang short and classic cartoon.
 
 
 
 
 
The Furies 
(Criterion)
In Anthony Mann’s dark, cynical western, Walter Huston gives an impressive final performance—he died before the film’s summer 1950 release—as a bastard of a patriarch who literally dares his headstrong daughter to hate him: she does, in Barbara Stanwyck’s equally ferocious performance.
 
 
This B&W epic—beautifully shot by Victor Milner—has its clichéd moments but also a refreshingly mature point of view that leads inexorably to a relentlessly downbeat ending. Criterion’s restored hi-def image is superb; extras include a commentary, 1967 TV interview with Mann, 1931 interview with Huston and a 2008 interview with the director’s daughter, Abbie Mann. Also included is a new edition of Niven Brush’s 1948 novel on which the film is based.
 
 
 
 
 
History Is Made at Night 
(Criterion)
Frank Borzage’s ultra-romantic 1937 melodrama opens with Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur falling in love at first sight—except she’s married to a horrible billionaire and he’s accused of killing another man—and follows them from Paris to New York to a cruise ship that hits an iceberg (no, seriously!).
 
 
Rarely has a movie flaunted its romantic idealism to the breaking point, but Borzage and his stars push it to the limit of sentiment, making this a truly glorious romance. The hi-def B&W transfer looks luminous; extras are a 1958 audio interview with Borzage, a 1940 radio adaptation with Boyer and two critical conversations.
 
 
 
 
 
Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space—Complete Series
Thundarr the Barbarian—Complete Series 
(Warner Archive)
Two strange sci-fi animated series debut on Blu-ray, starting with Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, which ran for two seasons (1971-72): the gang accidentally get shot into space, where they have weekly adventures on various alien worlds. It’s as silly as it sounds, but the bizarre creatures, half-human, half-alien, they meet are worth a chuckle.
 
 
1980’s Thundarr the Barbarian is even weirder: 2000 years after civilization ends, our hero Thundarr and his sidekicks Princess Ariel and Ookla the Mok ride on horseback through the stark landscape. There’s a lack of imagination throughout, but the first episode, set in the ruins of Manhattan, shows the remains of the Twin Towers, making for an inadvertent bit of poignancy. Both series look fine on Blu-ray.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week 
Erwin Schulhoff—Flammen/Flames 
(Capriccio)
Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), one of many accomplished artists who did not leave Europe before World War II, was murdered in a concentration camp in 1942. As with many of these composers, Schulhoff and his music deserve wider currency, but recordings have been few and far between, and live performances even rarer. His opera Flammen, a surreal version of the Don Juan legend, had its premiere in 1932 then virtually disappeared until a celebrated 1995 Decca recording as part of the classic Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) series brought it back from obscurity.
 
 
This 2006 recording, tautly conducted by Bertrand de Billy, features German mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion in the pivotal role of the angel of death, which she also memorably sang on the Decca release. Raymond Very is a very powerful Don, several singers and the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus give eerie voice to the choir sections, and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra expertly performs Schulhoff’s eclectic score, which combines tantalizing snatches of jazz, chromatic textures, and long stretches of mighty orchestral interludes into a vivid if unsettling musical mélange. 

April '21 Digital Week II

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Green Dolphin Street 
(Warner Archive)
Based on a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, Victor Saville’s 1947 melodrama ranges far and wide, from the Channel Islands to New Zealand, to tell an epic tale of two sisters in love with the same man and the myriad tragedies—an earthquake and a tsunami as well as the deaths of loved ones—that befall them over decades.
 
 
A top cast led by Lana Turner and Donna Reed as the sisters, Richard Hart as their mutual love interest, and Van Heflin as the man secretly in love with the married sister make this 140-minute soap opera compelling, and even the primitive special effects—which won an Oscar—are impressive enough for the era. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer of this ravishing-looking B&W film; lone extra is a radio adaptation with some of the film’s cast.
 
 
 
 
 
Doctor X
(Warner Archive)
The “mad scientist” of the title, Dr. Xavier, carries out bizarre experiments, reenacting assorted crimes in his basement laboratory, in Michael Curtiz’s tidy 1932 horror flick that includes murders and cannibalism.
 
 
Starring a pre-King Kong Fay Wray, whose screams will sound familiar, as the doctor’s daughter and Lionel Atwill as Xavier, the goofy but creepy Doctor X looks marvelous on Blu after being restored in all its two-strip technicolor glory; extras are a restored B&W version, a featurette about Curtiz’s horror-film career, two commentaries and a restoration demonstration.
 
 
 
 
 
Faust 
(Opus Arte)
French composer Charles Gounod’s operatic masterpiece was his adaptation of the Faust legend, and David McVicar’s vivid 2019 staging for the Royal Opera House in London is thrilling in its immediacy.
 
 
American tenor Michael Fabbiano is a grandly tragic Faust, Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott is a marvelously mischievous Mephistopheles and Russian soprano Irina Lungu is a truly heartbreaking Marguerite; conductor Dan Ettinger ably leads the Royal Opera orchestra and chorus. Both hi-def audio and video are first-rate; extras are short backstage interviews.
 
 
 
 
 
Fukushima 50 
(Capelight)
The devastating earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Japanese coast in 2011 also caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant to disastrously malfunction and release radiation into the atmosphere, and this finely detailed docudrama reenacts what the plant’s workers and management did in an almost impossible situation, threatening hundreds of thousands of lives.
 
 
Director Setsurō Wakamatsu simply but effectively recreates the often heroic work of the “Fukushima 50” (so-called afterward by international media), stumbling only near the end, as things get slightly mawkish. The hi-def image looks luminous.
 
 
 
 
 
Le nozze di Figaro/The Marriage of Figaro 
Alceste 
(Unitel)
Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, one of a very few perfect operas, blends music, drama, comedy and psychological study into a delightful and illuminating three-hour whole; the great Austrian conductor Nicolas Harnoncourt, after a lifetime performing Mozart, brought his considerable musical gifts to bear for this barebones 2014 Vienna performance, with several superb Mozartean singers—such as Mari Eriksmoen’s Susanna and Christine Schafer’s Countess—and Concentus Musicus Wien ensemble providing stellar support.
 
 
Baroque era master Christoph Willibald Gluck composed operas adroitly combining dance and drama, and Belgian choreographer/director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui accentuates both in his visually stunning 2019 Munich staging of Alceste; soprano Dorothea Roschmann is a vocal powerhouse in the title role. Both operas look and sound spectacular in hi-def; lone Figaro extra is a 50-minute documentary about Harnoncourt’s approach to Mozart.
 
 
 
 
 
A Woman Like Eve 
The Debut 
(Cult Epics)
Dutch filmmaker Nouchka van Brakel’s groundbreaking dramas from the female perspective have been pretty inaccessible for decades—until now. Her 1977 seriocomic study, The Debut, follows a 14-year-old who has a brief but intense affair with a 40ish married man, while her 1979 feature A Woman Like Eve explores why a happily married wife and mother falls in love with another woman.  
 
 
What might seem shocking is rendered so realistically that van Brakel makes the viewer take these characters and their actions seriously. There are excellent, affecting performances by Marina de Graaf (Debut) and Monique van de Ven and Maria Schneider (Eve). Both films look their age but have otherwise decent hi-def transfers; lone Eve extra is a new 40-minute Brakel interview and lone Debut extra is a vintage newsreel.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week
Vaughan Williams—Symphonies 4 & 6 
(LSO Live)
The great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote nine symphonies that are as imposing and impressive in toto as those of Beethoven, and the symphonies recorded here are filled with fire and fury, especially as heard in the blistering performances by the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Antonio Pappano.
 
 
Composed in 1934, the fourth symphony has a controlled rage unleashed as a response to the worsening political climate in Europe, while the sixth symphony, written in 1944-47, despairs for a world shattered by war, winding up with a quiet, mournful epilogue. The LSO under Pappano plays with vigor and sensitivity.
 
 
 
 
Salieri—Armida 
(Aparté)
Composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), known to most as the bitter mediocrity who’s the foil for boy genius Mozart in Amadeus, was a prolific and accomplished composer in his own right, including several operas.
 
 
This three-act musical drama, composed when Salieri was just 20, was recently rediscovered in manuscript form by Christophe Russet, who conducts the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques in a lively performance, with persuasive vocal portrayals by Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten as Armida and Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette as her lover Rinaldo.
 

April '21 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema/Streaming/Theater Releases of the Week 
Nina Wu 
(Film Movement)
Actress Wu Kei-Xi cowrote the script of this explosive drama about an actress dealing with exploitative and sexist behavior on the set of her latest film, something that’s definitely not the exception, which director Midi Z unflinchingly shows in a final, disturbing sequence.
 
 
Wu is sensational as the young actress navigating sudden notoriety and ongoing abuse, despite the middle of the film sags with a melodramatic subplot about Nina’s close relationship with another actress who enjoys working locally—she’s in a family-friendly staging of The Little Prince—instead of following in Nina’s footsteps toward a popular career. 
 
 
 
 
Six Minutes to Midnight 
(IFC Films) 
Based on a true story, this pre-WWII drama stars Eddie Izzard as a teacher just arrived at a girls’ school outside London for the daughters of Nazi officials run by a stern headmistress (Judi Dench) who uncovers a plot that puts him and others in mortal danger.
 
 
Well-acted by Izzard, Dench, Carla Juri as the girls’ leader and Jim Broadbent as a bus driver who helps Izzard, Andy Goddard’s film is unfortunately so filled with strained and melodramatic silliness that it sometimes approaches self-parody, which is a shame since the material itself is worthy of serious and even exciting exploration.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-Ray Releases of the Week 
The Bermuda Depths 
(Warner Archive)
This 1978 made-for-TV fantasy flick hasn’t aged badly simply because it wasn’t very good anyway: a young man is beguiled by a beautiful woman apparently living in the sea at the same time he assists an old friend tracking an enormous sea creature. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but there are engaging performances by Connie Selleca in an impossible mermaid role, Carl Weathers as a marine biologist and Burl Ives, of all people, as the island’s grand old scientist.
 
versions of Tom Kotani’s film—which looks terrific in new hi-def restored transfers—are included: the 75-minute U.S. TV version, in the near-square 1.33:1 aspect ratio; and the 97-minute widescreen international theatrical version. The lone extra is an audio commentary.
 
 
 
 
 
Breaking News in Yuba County 
(Warner Bros)
With all the talent in front of the camera, you’d think that director Tate Taylor would have been able to get more laughs and emotion out of this satirical black comedy about a mousy middle-aged wife who finds freedom and celebrity after her two-timing husband “disappears.”
 
 
But Taylor is unable to corral the likes of Mila Kunis, Wanda Sykes, Awkwafina, Juliette Lewis, Regina King, Ellen Barkin, Matthew Modine and, in the lead, the unbeatable Allison Janney into something more coherent than scattershot moments of hilarity and heartbreak. The film looks great on Blu.
 
 
 
 
 
Crossfire 
(Warner Archive)
The year 1947 was a breakthrough for American movies: two features dealing with anti-Semitism were both nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The winner, Gentlemen’s Agreement, which has dated badly, is now little more than a decent melodrama; but Crossfire remains compelling in its study of the investigation into the beating death of a man simply because he was Jewish.
 
 
Tautly directed by Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire’s top-notch cast is led by Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Gloria Grahame and Robert Ryan (the latter two nominated for their supporting performances; the film was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Director). The B&W film looks superb on Blu; extras are an audio commentary and vintage making-of featurette.
 
 
 
 
 
Isle of the Dead 
(Warner Archive)
Boris Karloff gives this slow-moving but effective 1945 horror flick extra creepiness in his portrayal of a general who desperately tries to contain a plague on a small island—but fails. Although it’s Filmmaking 101 from director Mark Robson, it eventually becomes truly frightening.
 
 
There’s a fun side note for classical music fans: the score by Leigh Harline drops hints of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s classic composition Isle of the Dead at certain juicy moments. The B&W flick looks fine on Blu; lone extra is an audio commentary.
 
 
 
 
Secrets & Lies 
(Criterion)
Mike Leigh’s 1996 comedy-drama was a commercial and critical breakthrough—it received several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director—but remains a profound disappointment: a serviceable if unoriginal story about a black woman who tracks down the white mother who gave her up for adoption as a baby is dragging out as if it were the greatest story ever told.
 
 
At nearly 2-1/2 hours, there’s far too much dead screen time; Leigh stacks the deck dramatically, then does an about-face and ties everything up so neatly it all comes off as phony rather than credible. Leigh’s customary excellence with actors is in evidence, but Timothy Spall, Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean Baptiste spend too much time improvising, to the film’s detriment. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are new interviews with Leigh, Jean-Baptiste and composer Gary Yershon and a 1996 Leigh audio interview.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week
Richard Danielpour—An American Mosaic 
(Supertrain Records)
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, American composer Richard Danielpour decided to pour his complicated feelings into a new work. The result, An American Mosaic, was composed last summer, and its 15 movements for solo piano provide a richly expressive musical palette for the superb pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
 
 
She sensitively navigates Danielpour’s emotional landscape, which encompasses the many heroes and heroines of the past year, detailed in movements that have straightforward titles like “Caretakers & Research Physicians” and “Doctors & Interns.” Four soothing “Consolations” appear at the beginning, two midsections and the end, demonstrating Danielpour’s debt to Bach, three of whose short keyboard works have been transcribed by Danielpour and beautifully performed by Dinnerstein as a kind of benediction. 
 
 
 
 
 
Charles Ives—Complete Symphonies 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the ultimate American maverick: he became a millionaire selling insurance, so his composing career was something he could do on his own terms. This recording of his four symphonies—with committed, visceral performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel—starts with the derivative if pleasant Symphony No. 1, composed when he was in his early 20s.
 
 
The second symphony brings in American popular and religious tunes, one of Ives’ obsessions, in its final movement, when Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” threatens to take over, while the third symphony is a major leap forward, as bits of several hymns are woven into an increasingly complex fabric. Then there’s Symphony No. 4, so difficult in form that it wasn’t even premiered until 1965, a decade after Ives’ death: it begins as a choral symphony (the Los Angeles Master Chorale does the honors here) and moves through the sounds of marching bands, batteries of percussion and, in the finale, what sounds like a celestial ensemble intoning some of Ives’ most monumental music.

March '21 Digital Week IV: RIP, Bertrand Tavernier

Blu-ray Release of the Week 
Bertrand Tavernier’s Journeys Through French Cinema 
(Cohen Media)
When Bertrand Tavernier died on March 25, the film world not only lost one of its greatest directors but also one of the very best cinema historians around. Proof of that has just been released on Blu-ray: Journeys Through French Cinema, an eight-hour series in which Tavernier discusses many of his favorite French films and filmmakers in his usual engaging and thoughtful style.
 
In 2016, Tavernier created My Journey Through French Cinema, a 190-minute, deeply personal chronicle of what most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth, growing up in Lyon and later when he moved to Paris. It was done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably that I wished it would go on for several more hours.
 
Now, with Journeys Through French Cinema, my wish has been granted: over eight one-hour episodes, Tavernier dives even more deeply into his favorites over six decades of movie watching, starting with two episodes’ worth of “My Go-To Filmmakers,” those directors who have influenced Tavernier, both personally and artistically. He even goes so far as to ingeniously pair two cinematic giants most wouldn’t think to link: Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati. (He also does the same, more questionably to my mind, with the great Sacha Guitry and not-so-great Quentin Tarantino.)
 
For the remaining six segments, Tavernier passionately guides the viewer through his own prism of French film history, from the great film composers and those directors who worked during the Nazi occupation of France, to those films made after World War II until the coming of the New Wave, through the final section “My Sixties,” during which Tavernier became a film press agent and was able to promote those films and filmmakers he especially admired.
 
For lovers of French film such as myself, it’s always a pleasure to see such wonderful scenes from classic films by Raymond Bernard (whose 1934 Les Miserables is, at nearly six hours, the most thorough and impressive adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel), Sacha Guitry (whose witty and boisterous comedies of manners are always a treat) and Henri-Jacques Clouzot (whose classic thriller, 1953’s The Wages of Fear, remains indelible).
 
As always with Tavernier—who, the handful of times I spoke with him, was a font of knowledge, enlightened conversation and natural friendliness—there are priceless anecdotes, brilliant insights and treasured observations: there are many moments during these eight hours when Tavernier’s passion comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his unique personality attuned to all things cinematic.                         
 
A Sunday in the Country
As for Tavernier’s many films—he made 22 features, from 1973’s extraordinary debut The Clockmaker to 2013’s satirical The French Minister, along with a handful of other documentaries, including his shattering four-hour exploration of the French-Algerian War’s effects, 1991’s The Undeclared War—where to start?
 
I’d start with A Sunday in the Country, his exquisite 1984 chamber drama about a day in the life of an aging minor painter whose dutiful son and family come to visit, along with his frivolous (and single) daughter, and the unfair realities of existence—the old man is indifferent to his son but adores his daughter—are shown in all their hilarity and heartbreak, scored to the luminous chamber music of French master composer Gabriel Fauré. It’s available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, with a typically listenable Tavernier audio commentary.
 
Another way to see several more superb Tavernier films is the Criterion Channel, which is streaming 
"Directed by Bertrand Tavernier"
on the Criterion Channel

nine of his very best, most characteristic films under the title “Directed by Bertrand Tavernier.” Alongside The Clockmaker and A Sunday in the Country are the beautifully realized intimate character study, 1980’s A Week’s Vacation; the forceful crime drama, 1976’s The Judge and the Assassin; the acidic black comedy, 1982’s Coup de Torchon; and the incisive, potent antiwar chronicle, 1996’s Captain Conan. 
 
So start somewhere, anywhere, and enter the singular and unforgettable cinematic universe of Bertrand Tavernier, which has a richness rarely equaled by any other director.

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