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Film and the Arts

June '24 Digital Week II

In-Theater Release of the Week
Israeli writer-director Savi Gabizon remade his own touchingly offbeat 2017 feature, setting it in Canada and starring Richard Gere as a hotshot NYC executive who, after discovering he fathered a child with a long-ago ex two decades earlier, tries to make amends for being ignorant of his son’s existence.
Virtually nothing about this character study is plausible or rendered sympathetically—except for Gere, who gives a persuasively mournful performance under the circumstances—and several other good performers are wasted, particularly poor Diane Kruger, who has little to do as the teacher his son was infatuated with and who disappears midway through. The rest is taken up with narrative twists of tortured dramatic irony that fail miserably. 
4K/UHD Release of the Week
Godzilla + Kong—A New Empire 
(Warner Bros)
The latest chapter of this monsterverse mashup finds Kong finding more of his own species in the Hollow Earth as Godzilla irradiates himself to prepare for an upcoming battle royale—while Dr. Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) go on an expedition to Hollow Earth where they discover a tribe of Iwi (it was thought that Jia was the last member of the tribe).
Director Adam Wingard has the sense to let the creatures take over (much of the dialogue is embarrassingly self-conscious or unfunnily glib), and if that means CGI dominating the movie, so be it. Of course, Godzilla curling up and sleeping it off inside the Roman Colosseum is an admittedly memorable image. The film looks pristine if too antiseptic in UHD; extras include several making-of featurettes and Wingard’s commentary.
Streaming Release of the Week 
This six-episode history of the punk band the Sex Pistols according to hyperactive director Danny Boy is an entertainingly relentless attack of loud, careening but at times very funny interactions on the level of Boyle’s earliest films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. 
Boyle’s over-the-top attack is appropriate to this material, unlike such abominations as Slumdog Millionaire and The Beach, and the acting follows suit: there are vivid portrayals by Toby Wallace as Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, who’s the focus of the story, and Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde, Jones’ sometime girlfriend who went to found the Pretenders.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms 
(Well Go USA)
In Chinese director Wuershan’s alternately engrossing and hokey epic fantasy—the first part of a trilogy based on a 16th-century novel—the gods must intervene after an evil monarch connives with a demon to consolidate unlimited power. To try and save the world, the gods enlist a mere mortal to serve as their brave hero…but will he be up to the task?
The capable actors are secondary to the often enticing visuals, especially watching the massive armies that include horse-mounted soldiers in battle. There’s an impressive Blu-ray transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Into the Blue 
John Stockwell’s 2005 underwater adventure is as soggy as they come, with a script that does little more than get the supremely attractive cast—led by Paul Walker, Ashley Scott, Josh Brolin and Jessica Alba—into their swimsuits and under the sea for some frolicking.
Of course, villains on land and sharks in the water provide the melodrama, but it’s all inert, glistening bodies notwithstanding. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are Stockwell’s informative commentary, deleted scenes with more Stockwell commentary, a making-of featurette and screen tests.
CD Release of the Week
Debussy—Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was known for music of great elegance, even in such full-length works as his gorgeous (and only completed) opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, a gossamer work of infinite subtlety.
An anomaly in the composer’s career, Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien is Debussy’s incidental music for Italian author Gabriele D'Annunzio's five-act play, a large-scale score that features an orchestra, a chorus, a narrator, and vocal soloists. It’s loaded with sumptuous music, as this topnotch 2005 recording, led by conductor Sylvain Cambreling and featuring singers Heidi Grant Murphy, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Dagmar Peckova; narrator Dorte Lyssewski; the SWR Symphony Orchestra; and Collegie Vocale Gent chorus, demonstrates.

Broadway Review—Peter Morgan’s Putin Play, “Patriots”

Written by Peter Morgan; directed by Rupert Goold
Performances through June 23, 2024
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY
The cast of Patriots (photo: Matthew Murphy) 
Peter Morgan, who struck gold with The Crown on Netflix and The Audience on Broadway—the series  and the play about the 20th-century British monarchy, specifically Queen Elizabeth II—returns with Patriots, a vivid retelling of how the unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, outmaneuvered the rich oligarchs who thought him a mere puppet all the way to the highest reaches of the Kremlin.
Patriots homes in on one oligarch in particular: Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia’s richest and most powerful men, who took over the state television network during the country's post-Communist chaos. Berezovsky helps pull the strings to make sure that Boris Yeltsin is re-elected president, and—after Yeltsin resigns on New Year’s Day, 1999—with the other oligarchs decides they need a true nobody they can install as the country’s leader so they can remain behind-the-scenes puppet masters. How little they knew.
Morgan’s slickly entertaining cautionary tale begins in 1955, when Berezovsky’s mother is notified by the authorities that her nine-year-old son is a precocious math whiz; she takes him to a famous professor to tutor the boy, who goes on to make his mark in applied mathematics. But even though his goal is to win a Nobel prize, when Communism collapses, Berezovsky decides that he’d rather apply his genius to helping his country—which is where he knows the money is. He amasses great wealth and power, finding it contagious. It’s also dangerous—he nearly dies in an assassination attempt (the car bomb kills his driver), and he hires an officer from the police unit investigating the explosion to take over his security detail, which works out well. For a while, at least.
Of course, since the ultimate outcome is well-known for both Berezovsky and Putin (Putin fares much better), there’s little suspense. But Morgan’s shrewd writing and Rupert Goold’s spectacular staging keep it all percolating: like J.T. Rogers’ Corruption, Patriots illuminates the recent past through the lens of our complicated present. As Bartlett Sher did with Corruption, Goold merges the dazzling visual and aural trappings—Miriam Buether’s sets, Jack Knowles’ lighting, Buether and Deborah Andrews’ costumes, Ash J Woodward’s projections, Polly Bennett’s movement and Adam Cork’s sound design and music—to dynamically display the complexity and confusion of the oligarchs and their often wrongheaded decisions.
The large supporting cast is on-target playing an array of characters, while Will Keen’s Putin is simultaneously funny and horrifying even when approaching caricature. At the center of Patriots is Michael Stuhlbarg, who as Berezovsky gives an excitingly reckless performance that occasionally goes overboard; yet it’s in keeping with this outsized story that makes for a genuinely gripping cautionary tale. 

June '24 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Robot Dreams 
In this tearjerking animated fantasy, a lonely dog builds a robot so he has a friend, but after he leaves it on the beach one summer, both of them find ultimately satisfying ways of going on with their lives.
Director Pablo Berger has made a clever, even witty and touching fable about companionship and loneliness, set in a cool-looking ’80s NYC entirely populated by animals and the occasional robot. Kids will enjoy it, of course, but their parents might get even more out of it, especially since the animation is so refreshingly elegant in its simplicity.
This Russian 50 Shades of Grey has a plot as implausible as the worst adult film: Elya, a beautiful, independent, headstrong (fill in the blank) college student, is an environmental activist and influencer shocked that a local forest is being cleared for more development. But when she meets the developer, she finds him gorgeous and charming; he bets her that after a week of romance, she will see the error of her ways. Does she succumb? Well, I’m not going to ruin the fun! (Yes, she does.) 
50 Shades is actually referenced in the dialogue, and Anastasiya Reznik and Alexander Petrov certainly make a sexy pair, but getting through this will depend on your tolerance for the eye-rolling attempts at eroticism from director Dmitriy Suvorov.
Protocol 7 
It’s not enough that Andrew Wakefield, disgraced anti-vaxxer, has branched into badly slanted, unwatchable advocacy documentaries (2016’s Vaxxed: From Coverup to Conspiracy), but now he’s decided to write and direct a feature. This conspiracy thriller might even be worse than his doc, as a shady Big Pharma company pushes through an MMR vaccine that does irreparable harm to vaxxed infants.
The political and moral positions are awful enough, but Wakefield compounds the problem by being an astonishingly inept director and writer: the film’s best performances come from actors who play a dumbfounded nurse and doctor in a scene where they are berated by a new dad upset they gave his newborn scheduled vaccines. Then there are the end credits, during which “facts” are shown onscreen, all sourced to a book cowritten by—of course—RFK Jr.
Rowdy Girl 
Jason Goldman’s straightforward documentary introduces Renee King-Sonnen, a Texas cattle rancher who’s now a vegan and wants to transform her husband Tommy’s huge, profitable ranch into a sanctuary (it’s named Rowdy Girl) that protects the animals at all costs.
Goldman presents Renee and Tommy’s story matter-of-factly, without any needless editorializing, which makes it even more powerful when we listen to her speak about why she changed from killing cattle and eating meat to where she is today, along with touching moments of her bonding with the animals.
Summer Camp 
(Roadside Attractions)
This latest by-the-numbers senior comedy stars Diane Keaton (who else?), along with Viola Davis and Kathy Bates, as longtime friends who met decades earlier at summer camp who decide to relive those experiences by attending a—you guessed it—summer camp reunion.
It all plays out exactly as you’d expect, through laughter and tears, misunderstandings and making up, along with a couple of older guys thrown into the mix (Dennis Haysbert and Eugene Levy, who both look properly embarrassed) for our gals. Keaton, of course, is as irrepressible as ever, Woodard and Bates do decently enough, but it’s as instantly forgettable as a day at camp.
4K/UHD Release of the Week
Cemetery Man 
You might not see a more bizarre and, yes, insane movie than this 1995 zombie entry from Italian director Michele Soavi: Rupert Everett (who looks amusingly bemused throughout) plays cemetery keeper Francesco, who must fend off all manner of reanimated corpses, including the gorgeous wife (Anna Falchi) of a recently buried elderly man—she died having sex with Francesco on hubby’s grave.
The fun part is that Soavi gleefully leans into the craziness, and the blood, gore, sex and ridiculous performances and dialogue all add up to something breathtaking in its combined lunacy and chutzpah. The film’s explicit but tongue-in-cheek visuals look clearer than ever on UHD; the 4K disc has a commentary by Soavi and screenwriter Gianni Romli and the Blu-ray disc includes the film, new interviews with Soavi, Everett and Falchi as well as a vintage making-of.
Kung Fu Panda 4 
In the fourth chapter of this smashingly successful animated franchise, our panda hero Po (the always manically-voiced Jack Black) goes on a journey with a wily fox, Zhen (Awkwafina), that finds them facing villains from previous installments.
It’s all silly fun that’s powered by the chemistry between Black and Awkwafina and the weirdly entertaining voice cast that runs the gamut from Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston and Ian MacShane to Ronny Chieng, James Hong and Viola Davis. The UHD transfer comprises eye-popping colors; extras include a new short, Dueling Dumplings, as well as deleted scenes, Meet the Cast, featurettes and a filmmaker’s commentary.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Fanny—The Other Mendelssohn 
(Mercury Studios)
Director Sheila Hayman takes a close look at Fanny Mendelssohn, an accomplished composer in her own right who was eclipsed both by an era that didn’t take women composers seriously and her brother Felix, also greatly accomplished and celebrated for his symphonies and chamber music.
Hayman shows that Fanny was as equally masterly as Felix, but the demands of her marriage (despite husband Wilhelm being totally supportive) and 19th century misogyny held her back. There’s a subplot of sorts in which scholar Angela Mace resurrects Fanny’s “Easter” piano sonata, originally attributed to Felix but now considered one of her summit achievements, more than 150 years after her untimely death of a stroke at age 41. (Felix died six months later, also of a stroke.) There’s first-rate video and audio.
Io Capitano 
(Cohen Media Group)
In Italian director Matteo Garrone’s intense—if manipulative—drama, Senegalese teens Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) take what little funds they have to try to get to Europe, little realizing the horrors that await them. They are captured, separated and tortured in Libya, abandoned but reunited in North Africa, and finally arrive via the Mediterranean in southern Italy—but only when 16-year-old novice Seydou must pilot the boat filled with dozens of migrants.
Garrone captures the humanity of these people desperate for a new start alongside the inhumanity of many others. Manipulation and contrivance notwithstanding, Io Capitano is superior filmmaking, with a staggeringly moving final shot of Seydou, the face of non-actor Sarr going through so many conflicting emotions that he should have won every award there is. The Blu-ray image looks fantastically sharp; extras include Q&As with Garrone, Fall and Sarr as well as Mamadou Kouassi, whose story inspired the film.
CD Release of the Week
Gabriel Fauré—Song Cycles 
(Harmonia Mundi)
A master of intimately scaled works, French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was at his absolute best writing mélodies, or song settings, which he returned to throughout his long and varied composing career. This new disc of several of his masterly song cycles is sung by baritone Stéphane Degout with modest but supreme elegance, perfect for these jewels of vocal music.
There’s the towering cycle La Bonne Chanson, set to Paul Verlaine poems and a highlight of the composer’s middle period, and the trio of late cycles—Le Jardin clos, Mirages and the magnificent closer, L'Horizon chimérique—are also expressively performed. Pianist Alain Planès is not only a sublime accompanist throughout but also shows off his own Fauré chops in a passionate reading of the great F-sharp major Ballade. 

Broadway Play Review—Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” with Steve Carell

Uncle Vanya
Written by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Heidi Schreck
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through June 23, 2024
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
Steve Carell and Alison Pill in Uncle Vanya (photo: Marc J. Franklin)
As unclassifiable as his other masterpieces—The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Three Sisters—Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya moves freely between laughter and tears, between comedy and tragedy. 
Uncle Vanya revolves around the middle-aged title character, a mediocrity who has been forgotten by everybody and who has pretty much nothing to show for his nearly half-century of life except the avid devotion of his plain niece Sonia, herself the doormat daughter of elderly professor Alexander, now married to the beautiful—and much younger—Yelena. Vanya unabashedly adores the lively Yelena, but she only, often teasingly, considers him a friend. Then there’s Astrov, the dashing country doctor, who frequents Alexander’s estate that Vanya and Sofya sweat blood and tears to keep profitable; he might be able to pry Yelena away from her suffocating marriage. 
The above paragraph makes Chekhov’s plot sound like a mere soap opera, but there’s so much variety and vitality in his exquisitely-written characters—including making Astrov one of the first real environmentalists to grace the stage—that melodrama is kept permanently at bay. Because of its enormous subtlety, Uncle Vanya rarely makes it to the stage convincingly: the last time I saw it in New York, in Austin Pendleton’s 2009 off-Broadway production, it flickered to life only occasionally; and while Lila Neugebauer’s new staging at Lincoln Center Theater has its effective moments, it too ultimately misses the mark. 
One problem is that Chekhov’s tightrope walk between the tragic and the comic is best conveyed on a small stage so that the audience is close to and invested in these flawed, all-too-human characters. But the Vivian Beaumont’s thrust stage hampers Neugebauer and set designer Mimi Lien, who populate the set with pieces of furniture, tables and chairs strewn about, while a huge projection of a forest takes encompasses the back wall. Although much of the action is up front, some scenes are played out further back, lessening their impact. There are bits of visual beauty thanks to Neugebauer and her crack design team—in addition to Lien, there are lighting designers Lap Chi Chu and Elizabeth Harper as well as costumer Kaye Voyce—but even something as clever as a rainstorm drenching star Steve Carell just lays the metaphorical misery on a bit too thickly.
Heidi Shreck’s adaptation updates the play by adding a few unnecessary F-bombs and stripping it of its essential Russianness, which for the most part doesn’t hamper it very much but neither does it make it more relatable or, God help us, modern. Neugebauer’s cast follows suit, a mixed bag of acting styles that has a couple gems amid more unfocused portrayals.
Anika Noni Rose’s vivacious Yelena has a boisterousness that can’t entirely hide her tearful countenance, while Alfred Molina is having so much fun as the cranky, lively old Alexander that it’s contagious. Conversely—and surprisingly—William Jackson Harper makes Astrov a weirdly jumpy bunch of nerves, his dialogue coming out in torrents that are at odds with what Chekhov has written, making it difficult to see what draws Yelena to him. 
Carell’s Vanya, while too subdued—Carell sometimes fades too easily into the background, too obviously underlining Vanya’s wasted life—uses the actor’s hangdog looks to visualize such a weary soul. By far the best performance comes from Alison Pill, whose Sonia is wonderfully alive and piercingly plain; she speaks the final heartbreaking but hopeful speech without a trace of affectation. 
But even that final silence between Pill and Carell can’t rescue this intermittently touching Uncle Vanya; Chekhov’s illuminating portrait of people trudging on with life despite their despair once again deserves better.

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