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Film and the Arts

February '20 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Antonio Gaudi 

(Criterion)

Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi’s sublime creations are mainly in Barcelona, Spain, where Japanese master Hiroshi Teshigahara shot this 1984 visual essay masquerading as a mere documentary. From his towering (and still unfinished) church La Sagrada Família to the amazing curves of his Casa Milà, the fruits of Gaudi’s imagination ran riot—and Teshigahara’s probing camera displays these wondrous masterpieces of modern art. Composer Toru Takemitsu’s bizarre synthesized sounds ingeniously create an audio equivalent to Gaudi’s otherworldly designs.

 

 

 

On Blu-ray, the architect’s buildings and the director’s images look even more spellbinding; extras include Teshigahara’s short about his sculptor father, Sculptures by Sofu-Vita; footage of Teshigahara’s first trip to Spain; the late, great art critic Robert Hughes’ one-hour BBC special about Gaudi; Ken Russell’s BBC TV program about Gaudi; and an interview with architect Arata Isozaki.

 

 

 

Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Concert—The Blu-Ray Collection 

(Time Life)

This boxed set collects three previous releases that cover the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies from 2009 to 2017. First, there are two discs of the 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009, which paired many top stars that rarely play together, including Bruce Springsteen with Billy Joel, Mick Jagger and Fergie with U2, and Sting with Jeff Beck. A second two-disc set comprises the induction ceremonies from 2010 through 2013, highlighted by outpourings of support from audiences and musicians for Genesis (2010) and especially Rush (2013), the latter for which uber-fans Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins inducted the band and played its classic “Overture” from 2112.

 

 

 

Best induction speech is the late Chris Cornell’s for Heart (2013), and Alice in Chains leader Jerry Cantrell jammed on rousing versions of “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” with the Wilson sisters. The final two discs features the 2014-17 induction ceremonies: highlights are the remaining members of Nirvana with singers Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Lorde (2014); Ringo and Paul reunion for Starr’s belated solo induction (2015); and Rush’s Geddy Lee playing bass in place of the late, great Chris Squire in a tribute to Yes (2017). Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snatchers 

(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.

When nice gal Sara has sex with high school hunk Skyler, she gives birth almost immediately to two extraterrestrial monsters, which proceed to terrorize the townspeople, gleefully and gorily killing anything in their path.

 

 

 

This setup makes it sound like it’s a malevolently bloody version of Gremlins, which it is—and though there are rough patches throughout, actress Mary Nepi is perfectly cast as Sara, who plays the virgin turned badass alien hunter with humor and an engaging manner that helps put this over as a tongue-in-cheek parody/monster movie. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise an audio commentary, making-of and blooper reel.

 
 
 
 

DVD of the Week

Scandalous—The Untold Story of the National Enquirer 

(Magnolia)

This entertaining documentary takes the right approach when dealing with the long and checkered history of the National Enquirer: simultaneously amused and bemused at how the supermarket rag has, as we begin the third decade of the 21st century, become one of the most powerful media conglomerates and an ally of the current president.

 

 

 

Interviews with former staffers give needed context that, coupled with the added tRumpery that has forever damaged whatever integrity a tabloid could have, makes this wild ride quite enlightening—and depressing.

 

CD of the Week 

The Contrast—English Poetry in Song 

(BIS)

British soprano Carolyn Sampson has programmed an immensely satisfying recital disc of song settings by several compatriots to works by English poets.

 

 

 

Sampson smartly bookends the disc with the playfully witty William Walton (opening with 1962’s cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table and ending with three absurdist songs from the great Façade he created with Edith Sitwell), and her pristine voice guides us through a century of British vocal writing from the early 20th century Romanticism of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge and Roger Quilter to a composer heretofore unknown to me: Huw Watkins from Wales, whose Five Larkin Songs (this is the first recording; Sampson herself sang the 2010 premiere) present Sampson’s lovely voice at its most emotive. Her pianist, Joseph Middleton, plays with delicacy throughout.

NYC Theater Review—“Medea” at BAM with Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale

Medea

Written and directed by Simon Stone, after Euripides

Performances through March 8, 2020

 

Rose Byrne in Medea (photo: Richard Termine)

 

Rose Byrne’s exquisitely calibrated performance dominates Simon Stone’s otherwise tepid update of Medea. Her strengths as an actress both onscreen and onstage are maximized, literally: Stone has much of the action play out (however redundantly) in front of a video camera, and the footage captured on the large screen above the stage allows the audience to watch Byrne simultaneously play to the camera and the back row of the BAM Harvey Theater with the same honesty and intensity.

 


Byrne plays Anna, mother of two young boys, who’s been released from a stay in a mental hospital following her attempt to poison her husband Lucas when she discovered he’s cheating on her. Not only is he cheating, he’s made the object of his desire—Clara, the much younger (half Lucas’ age) age) daughter of his and Anna’s research lab boss, Christopher—his betrothed while Anna was out of the picture. Needless to say—especially if one is familiar with the Euripides original—Anna does not take this news well, as she continuously reminds him of what they had (a life together, a family, a scientifically rewarding collaboration) and could have again. But her behavior becomes more erratic, until…

 

 

 

Stone has cleverly configured his Medea on a bright stage, courtesy designer Bob Cousins, whose walls and floor are dazzlingly, even blindingly white, heightened even more by Sarah Johnston’s intentionally excessive lighting. This allows for the effective—if too blatantly symbolic—introduction of black ash and red blood for the setup to the dreadful (in the original sense) finale. Would that Stone gleaned any insight from his staging; instead, even covered in ash and gore, the final filicide/suicide/immolation remains remote, unemotional.

 


As Lucas, Bobby Cannavale—Byrne’s real-life partner and father of her two children—has surprisingly little to do but passively react (with a couple of angry exceptions) to his estranged wife’s behavior. Dylan Baker, always a welcome presence, is a very fine Christopher. Two pairs of boys alternate as the sons Edgar and Gus: Gabriel Amoroso and Emeka Guindo were the believably annoying kids (they man the video camera onstage) at my performance. 

 


Madeline Weinstein’s engaging Clara makes for an obvious contrast to Byrne’s ferocious Anna, and any performer who can stand in place with buckets of blood dripping from her hair deserves an award of some kind. But even at 75 minutes, this bloodless Medea seems stretched beyond its slender means, even with Byrne’s star turn.

 
 

Medea

BAM Harvey Theatre, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

bam.org

February '20 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Cimarron 

(Warner Archive)

In Anthony Mann’s 1960 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel about the opening of the Oklahoma Territory to settlers, the racism of the original 1931 movie version—which actually won the Best Picture Oscar!—has been mostly scuttled, which is all to the good.

 

 

 

But Mann (and his replacement, Charles Walters, who finished filming after Mann left the set) still has trouble harnessing the story’s scope and characters, and rote performances by the likes of Glenn Ford, Maria Schell and even the usually reliable Anne Baxter don’t help. The cinemascope photography’s colors pop on Blu-ray.

 

 

 

Grand Isle 

(Screen Media)

Yet another direct to disc Nicolas Cage vehicle, this rain-soaked would-be Body Heat contains his usual over-the-top, demented performance as a husband ostensibly jealous by his wife’s interest in the new handyman.

 

 

 

But despite its hackneyed premise and unsurprising plot twists, the movie gets mileage from the superlative performance as the wife by KaDee Strickland, making her an actual character of feeling and rage and sexuality rather than just the caricature she is in the script. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great War 

(Lionsgate)

Unlike 1917—the gimmicky World War I drama that was nominated for several Oscars—Steven Luke’s gritty, on-the-ground film follows U.S. soldiers fighting through the 1918 armistice, tasked with fending off the German army despite the war’s end.

 

 

 

This well-crafted drama is a little on the nose depicting one soldier’s shell shocked condition, but it straightforwardly shows the rigors, horrors and comradery of battle without excessive melodrama. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer.

 

 

 

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

(Naxos/Unitel)

Ferdinando Paer—Agnese 

(Dynamic)

Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff performs Bach’s towering piano work, The Well-Tempered Klavier, Book I, at the BBC Proms in 2017: Schiff’s stamina is astonishing, as he plays the entire 105-minute work (one of Bach’s most inspired) from memory in front of an enraptured audience.

 

 

 

Torino, Italy, is the setting for the first performance in over 200 years of Agnese, a long-forgotten opera by Ferdinando Paer, of whose music little is heard—it’s perfectly pleasant, with decent music and beguiling arias, but ultimately forgettable, despite persuasive staging, singing and orchestral playing. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swamp Thing—Complete Series 

(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.

The old trope of a swamp monster in a nearby bog has been the start of centuries’ worth of horror stories, and this modern-day series—only one of its ten episodes made it on the air—is the latest to try and resuscitate a moribund genre.

 

It’s entertaining if icky at times, but it finds a home between parody and terror; a fine cast does its best, with Crystal Reed especially good as an initially skeptical investigator who discovers more than she—and the locals—bargained for in small-town Louisiana. The series looks splendid in hi-def.

 

Two on a Guillotine 

(Warner Archive)

This 1964 misfire tries to be scary but ends up merely risible, as the daughter of a famous magician must spend a week in her just-deceased dad’s haunted house to receive the bulk of his estate following his death. But is he really dead?

 

 

 

Connie Stevens screams a lot as the daughter, while Dean Jones is her cardboard lover and Caesar Romero hammy as the dad. William Conrad (later of TV’s Cannon) directs competently but with no inkling of suspense, and Max Steiner’s penultimate score regurgitates several of his earlier themes. The B&W images look enticing on Blu-ray, at least.

 

DVD of the Week 

I Got You Babe—The Best of Sonny & Cher 

(Time Life)

Believe it or not, Sonny Bono and his wife Cher—who made it big with their 1965 duet “I Got You Babe”—hosted The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour on CBS in the early ‘70s: like other shows at the time, it featured them singing, telling jokes—mainly Cher insulting Sonny—and acting in mostly groan-inducing skits with guest stars. In this five-disc set, ten complete episodes from 1971-74 are included, with guests ranging from Jimmy Durante and Tony Curtis to Dinah Shore and the Supremes. Extras comprise interviews with Cher, Frankie Avalon, and producers Allan Blye and Chris Bearde; the 1970 pilot episode; and a 1970 Sonny and Cher interview.

 
 
 

CD of the Week

Louise Alder—Lines Written During a Sleepless Night 

(Chandos)

British soprano Louise Alder has subtitled her outstanding new recital disc The Russian Connection, and so it is—six groups of songs by Russian and European composers, all linked by their having set music to poetry in Russian.

 

 

 

To sensitive accompaniment by pianist Joseph Middleton, Alder runs the gamut of emotions (and languages): Norwegian Edvard Grieg’s brooding German texts and Finn Jean Sibelius’ romantic Swedish settings; Russians Tchaikovsky (French), Medtner (German) and Rachmaninoff, the last in his native tongue; and, finally and most impressively, Alder’s compatriot Benjamin Britten, whose setting of Pushkin’s The Poet’s Echo (in Russian) is a masterpiece in miniature.

February '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Doctor Sleep 

(Warner Bros)

In his thoroughly unnecessary sequel to The Shining, writer-director Mike Flanagan slavishly imitates Kubrick’s classic and tries to balance that with adapting King’s own sequel (but includes the original novel’s ending for reasons best left unsaid). By trying to have it both ways, Flanagan ends up with little of either, an unsatisfying blend of King’s juvenile sensibility and Kubrick’s more ironic one. Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny Torrance is mainly somnambulant, Kyliegh Curran is engaging as the teenager whose shining causes Danny to confront his own demons, and Rebecca Ferguson makes a compelling villainess, although her part—a vampire who sucks the life essence out of those who shine—is nonsensical.

 

 

Many shots, images, music cues, even edits nod to Kubrick’s original film, but with none of the impending dread, creepiness or resonance. In addition to the 152-minute theatrical cut, there’s a bloated three-hour director’s cut. Both versions look stunning in hi-def; extras include three making-of featurettes which feature King and Flanagan interviews.

 

FLCL—Progressive and Alternative 

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of this Blu-ray. The opinions I share are my own.)

The popular anime show returns following its long-ago first season—first seen on the Adult Swim network in 2003—with the Blu-ray debuts of two new series:  Progressive and Alternative, both of which premiered on Adult Swim in 2018. Both series are presented in the original Japanese along with an English dubbed version; the original version is my preference, but your mileage may vary.

 

 

The dozen episodes of both series are presented in striking colors in hi-def; extras include making-of featurettes as well as interviews with the creators, voice actors and the Pillows, the band that composed and plays the musical score.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parasite 

(Universal)

In his ham-fisted film, Korean director Bong Joon-ho has set up the most blatant allegory since Noah’s flood—which also makes an appearance—and tries having it both ways by playing it for laughs and completely straight. Neither approach works because tone and logic are askew: we are meant to believe that members of a rich family (which a quartet of poor family members homes in on, eventually takes jobs in their household and soon runs the place) are so benighted as to allow such machinations to happen right under their noses.

 

 

Then when a disgruntled former employee returns—why would anyone allow her back in the house?—another nonsensical plot plays out. It’s at least acted forcefully and Bong is an impressive enough technician to make this seem more than the sum of its shaky parts. On Blu, the film looks impressive; lone extra is a director Q&A.

 

Penelope 

(Warner Archive)

Despite Natalie Wood’s usual plucky presence, this is a strained, mostly unfunny 1966 would-be caper comedy about a kleptomaniac who robs her own husband’s bank because she feels neglected by him. Director Arthur Hiller aims the most heavyhanded comedic lobs at the audience, and even Wood starts to become annoying; the best the film has to offer is a time-capsule glimpse at mid-‘60s Manhattan, including a sequence set in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden.

 

 

A top supporting cast—Peter Falk, Jonathan Winters, Ian Bannen, Dick Shawn and Lou Jacobi—has astonishingly little to do. The film looks superb in hi-def; lone extra is a featurette about legendary costume designer Edith Head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serendipity 

(Cohen Media)

French visual artist-sculptor Prune Nourry recounts her difficult battle with breast cancer at age 31 in this lacerating self-portrait with equal parts wit, humor and a defiantly unsentimental quality. There are moments where you want to look away because they’re so intensely personal, but Nourry’s positive attitude—and insightfully showing how her art informs her life—keeps one watching.

 

 

There’s even a delightful cameo by the late, lamented Agnes Varda in a lovely moment between female artists (or, as Nourry calls Varda in the closing credits, her “sweet potato”). There’s a high-quality hi-def transfer; lone extra is a post-screening Q&A with Nourry.

 
 
 
 

Waves 

(Lionsgate)

In his overlong but engrossing melodrama, writer-director Trey Edward Shults follows a middle-class black family in Florida that’s torn apart by tragedy but attempts to become whole again. Shults has a real empathetic feel without getting too maudlin, but his Terrance Malick-ish imagery and sound end up pale imitations of the master; Shults also lingers too long at moments that deserve a subtler touch.

 

 

Still, with an emotionally honest cast—Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie—even lesser sequences (like the overwrought ending) find the truth and complexity of real life. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise Shults and Harrison Jr.’s commentary, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and cast Q&A.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CD of the Week 

Ruby Hughes—Clytemnestra 

(BIS)

Soprano Ruby Hughes has created an intelligent program for this recital disc—her first with orchestra—juxtaposing two towering song cycles of early 20th century romanticism (Mahler) and modernism (Berg) with a more recent work, Welsh composer Rhian Samuel’s Clytemnestra, from 1994.

 

 

Hughes’ richly enveloping voice caresses the beauty of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and the restlessness of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, and in the jagged edges of Samuel’s dramatic work, she lets go with the ferocity and abandon of Aeschylus’ great tragic character, avenging her own daughter’s death. Hughes is expertly accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which is led by the supple conducting of Jac van Steen.

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