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Film and the Arts

March '23 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
Film, the Living Record of Our Memory 
(Kino Lorber)
In director Inés Toharia’s cautionary chronicle about the urgency of film preservation—in one of the film’s many eye-opening statistics, it’s noted that more than three-quarters of all films from the silent era are gone forever—archivists, filmmakers and historians discuss an unexciting but concerning subject for any cinema lover.
It’s also pointed out that saving films digitally isn’t a panacea, since—as anybody who has tried to watch a movie on an older DVD can attest—digital media deteriorates as badly as film does. What to do? That’s the question, and whatever the answer, it had better happen soon: we are in danger of losing a lot of more of our shared film history. Among the articulate talking heads are directors Ken Loach, Wim Wenders and—of course—the ubiquitous Martin Scorsese.
The Forger 
(Kino Lorber)
Set in Berlin in 1940, director Maggie Peren’s tense but playful drama follows Cioma Schönhaus, who joins the burgeoning underground to uses his expertise at forging documents for other Jews trying to escape the Nazis before it’s too late—but his bold, even reckless, flaunting of his own excitement for life, even falling in love with an unavailable woman, puts a bullseye on his back.
Peren’s engrossing film from a real-life subject reflects its protagonist’s almost carefree joie de vive but never loses sight of its tragic center. Louis Hofmann is excellent in the lead role, a deceptively complicated character.
 Free Skate 
(Indiecan Entertainment)
Set in the cutthroat world of figure skating, Roope Olenius’ rugged feature concerns a young Russian—called only the Figure Skater—who goes to Finland to live with her grandmother while taking up skating again, but as she ascends to greater heights on the ice she sees that her position is precarious, especially when it comes to those who would use her for their own ends.
Veera W. Vilo, who is impressive in the lead, also wrote the scathing script, which never shies away from showing the worst of the sport: from physical and emotional bullying to sexual assault, it’s all here.
Gods of Mexico
Helmut Dosantos’ visually rich documentary, which unveils the natural beauties of the director’s beloved homeland, alternates between crisp black and white and richly textured color as it shows the indigenous denizens of varied rural areas at work and at leisure, in a sense resisting the modernization that has become the norm elsewhere.
Dosantos (who is also his own cinematographer) has made a nearly abstract visual and aural essay that at times becomes didactic and repetitious but retains a compelling fascination throughout.
Still the Water 
(Film Movement)
Japanese writer-director Naomi Kawase makes intimate dramas about relationships, like this 2014 feature about teenage lovers who, after discovering a dead body floating in the sea, discover a new-found maturity that may help them on the path to adulthood.
As always, Kawase too often relies on sentimentality and contrived plotting but, unlike an affecting film like True Mothers, here she has made what isn’t much more than a well-acted soap opera. Certainly, it’s not the masterpiece the director herself thought of it at its premiere at Cannes.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
La vie parisienne 
(Opus Arte)
French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach reached his storytelling zenith with this work about quotidian life and love in the greatest of all cities—it’s not titled “Parisian Life” for nothing. And this delectable staging at, appropriately enough, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, is frothy, fizzy fun.
Director Christian Lacroix’s dazzling sets and costumes perfectly complement Offenbach’s beguiling music (played by Les Musiciens du Louvre under the baton of conductor Romain Dumas), and it’s charmingly sung by a superlative cast. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
CD Release of the Week 
Alexander Scriabin—The Poem of Ecstasy/Symphony No. 2
Alexander Scriabin gets short shrift among his Russian contemporaries, possibly because he didn’t write operas like Mussorgsky, Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov. But his music has a voluptuousness all its own, and the two orchestral works on this disc show off how his rapturous style evolved.
The aptly titled The Poem of Ecstasy and his Symphony No. 2 were written within a few years of each other in the early 1900s, but Ecstasy is far more chromatic; JoAnn Falletta conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in rousing performances that catch all the nuances of these towering works.

February '23 Digital Week V

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
The Quiet Girl 
The first film from Ireland to be nominated for the best international film Oscar, writer-director Colm Bairéad’s warm character study follows Cáit, a 9-year-old girl sent home to her pregnant mother’s cousin and husband so Cáit’s parents can deal with the impending birth of their latest child.
Bairéad burrows into the daily life of this girl in scenes of intimacy and insight, and Catherine Clinch’s acting rings unerringly true in every sequence. The film ultimately falls victim to melodrama but remains touching thanks to Bairéad, Clinch and two other pitch-perfect performances: by Carrie Crowley as Eibhlína and Andrew Bennett as Seán, her summer guardians, who are harboring a secret.
(Shout Studios)
In this tantalizingly ambitious comic drama, a sympathetic Jim Gaffigan plays Cameron, a put-upon husband and father hosting a failing late-night children’s science show whose midlife crisis manifests itself in ever stranger ways after a relic from the space race falls into his backyard.
Although director-writer Colin West has a few potentially interesting ideas, the surreal events that pile up lead to a finale that is more jumbled than organic; nonetheless, Gaffigan (in two roles) and Rhea Seehorn as Cameron’s exasperated wife lead a fine cast that keeps Linoleum from jumping the proverbial shark.
(Breaking Glass Pictures)
Middle-aged Felice returns to his native Naples neighborhood after being away for 40 years—he left at age 15 for Egypt, built a business, got married, became Muslim and learned Arabic—and that causes his long-dormant relationships—especially with the head of the local crime syndicate, his best friend decades ago—to come to a head in Mario Martone’s intermittently powerful drama.
While skillfully put together, and featuring a strong Gianfrancesco Favino in the lead, Martone’s film is so singlemindedly insistent on pounding the title idea into every frame that it cannot see the forest for the trees. It also doesn’t help that it all leads to a final sequence that can be seen coming from a mile away, which ends the film on a less than scintillating note. 
4K Releases of the Week
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 
(Dark Sky Films)
Tobe Hooper's 1974 low-budget shocker—made when the world was to going to hell in a handbasket (Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, for starters)—is anything but artful, but it has much less gore than one thought it had and its tidy 83 minutes strip away anything extraneous, which keeps the shocks coming right until the nervy ending.
The new 4K edition features a superb new transfer and four (!) commentaries, including two with Hooper. There’s also an accompanying Blu-ray with the film, commentaries, several vintage featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, blooper reel and an all-new retrospective documentary, The Legacy of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’.
Training Day 
(Warner Brothers)
Denzel Washington won a best actor Oscar for his flashy portrayal of Alonzo, an arrogant renegade L.A. narcotics officer showing the ropes to new partner Jake, played with quiet confidence by Ethan Hawke, in Antoine Fuqua’s exciting if overblown 2001 crime drama.
Memorably frenzied moments abut more risible ones, but Washington, Hawke and a solid supporting cast led by Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Eva Mendes keep things interesting. The 4K transfer looks splendid; Fuqua’s commentary is on both the 4K and Blu-ray, which also includes Pharoahe Monch’s and Nelly’s music videos, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and alternative ending.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
The Inspection 
Writer-director Elegance Bratton’s intensely personal film based on his own life concerns Ellis, a gay Black man misunderstood by his own mother, Inez, and bullied and feeling out of place, joins the Marines almost on a whim and finds that, despite entrenched armed-forces homophobia, he can succeed in life on his own terms.
Although the boot camp sequences mine territory familiar to anyone who’s seen other war movies, there’s a self-analytical honesty that overcomes any obstacles, along with towering portrayals by Jeremy Pope as Ellis and Gabrielle Union complicated Inez. The film looks fine on Blu-ray; extras are Bratton’s commentary, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
CD Release of the Week 
Kurt Weill—Symphonies 1 & 2
German composer Kurt Weill (1900-50) is best known for his theater music, from Mahagonny and Street Scene to his most famous work, The Threepenny Opera. But his concert music also has the confident wit and spiky rhythms that his stage music does, and this disc represents the best of both worlds. It begins with excerpts from his 1933 stage work Der Silbersee—Ein Wintermärchen (The Silver Lake—A Winter's Fairy Tale): the sprightly overture and two vocal pieces.
Then we storm into his compact but propulsive first symphony, followed by a second symphony, Fantaisie symphonique, that’s filled with jazzy and bluesy invention. HK Gruber not only adroitly conducts the Swedish Chamber Orchestra but also gruffly intones the Silbersee vocal pieces.

A Stirring Performance By The Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine

Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine, photo by Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall on the evening of Wednesday, February 15th, I had the pleasure of attending a fine concert presented by the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine under the distinguished direction of Principal Conductor, Theodore Kuchar.

After a brief introduction by the eminent actor Liev Schreiber, the program began favorably with an expert account of Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych’s compelling Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Flute and Strings, featuring Michailo Sosnovsky as soloist. The impressive virtuoso Stanislav Khristenko then joined the musicians for an accomplished rendition of the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Johannes Brahms. The stirring, opening Maestoso—which is dramatic and Romantic with both meditative and impassioned passages—drew applause. The lyrical Adagio that follows—the most beautiful of the movements—at times recalls the slow movements from the mature piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as echoing Felix Mendelssohn. The lively, affirmativefinaleis the movement that most strongly manifests the influence of Ludwig van Beethoven and features a remarkable fugue which is maybe the pinnacle of the work. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a dazzling encore from the pianist: Vladimir Horowitz’s Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen.

The second half of the event was even more memorable, consisting in a confident reading of Antonín Dvořák’s marvelous “New World” Symphony. The exciting first movement is expansive, tuneful and captivating while the ensuing Largo—which received applause—is soulful, evocative and serene, with a pastoral middle section. The Scherzo is more suspenseful and propulsive, with more leisurely, cheerful passages, and thefinaletoo is exhilarating with some quieter moments. An appreciative ovation was rewarded with another delightful encore: Ukrainian composer Anatoliy Kos-Anatolsky’s "Chasing the Wind" from The Jay's Wing.

February '23 Digital Week IV

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
(Bleecker Street)
In her writing and directing debut, the superb Australian actress Frances O’Connor tackles a not undemanding subject—a biopic of English writer Emily Brontë, who wrote her classic novel Wuthering Heights in 1847 before dying the following year at age 30—with passion and intelligence, if not always a discerning artist’s eye.
She invents a relationship out of whole cloth that gives Emily the writerly passion needed for her poetic demise, but it turns the film into a high-gloss melodrama. Still, O’Connor does some impressive work here, and Emily is anchored by a gripping and multi-faceted portrayal by Emma Mackay, who serves the material brilliantly.
Amy’s F It List 
(Indie Rights)
In this hamfisted comedy, director/cowriter Mark S. Allen’s single heroine with a fatal brain tumor decides to live out her final days getting revenge on people who have wronged her—along with having one-night stands, because, of course she does.
It’s a promising if unoriginal premise that Allen does little with: there’s nary a laugh or anything pointed in what unfolds, as Amy dumps food on a male junk-food drive-thru employee or damages the huge pickup of a male driver who cuts her off. As Amy, Alyson Gorske is a charming and capable comic performer who deserves better. 
Devil’s Peak 
(Screen Media)
Billy Bob Thornton hams it up as a crime boss in rural Appalachia, where opoids probably take away more victims than do his own minions—or himself, when he’s in the mood. Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of originality in Ben Young’s minor crime drama/romance.
Then there’s Hopper Penn (son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright, who shines in a thankless role as Thornton’s ex and Penn’s mom), who morosely walks through the film as his character falls for a forbidden gal played by the winning Katelyn Nacon. 
(Open Road Films)
Despite its undeniable visual sheen, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Benjamin Black’s novel The Black-Eyed Blonde—following Raymond Chandler’s creation, private detective Philip Marlowe at the center of a missing-person investigation in 1930s Los Angeles—is pretty lackluster, beginning with the surprisingly flat turn by Liam Neeson as Marlowe.
There’s nicely turned support by Diane Kruger as the femme fatale as well as Jessica Lange as her mother, but Jordan and Neeson’s entry into the Marlowe canon is glossy but awfully lightweight.
The Other Fellow 
(Mission Brief)
How do people who share the same name as a famous person, real or imagined, handle it? In the case of James Bond, Ian Fleming’s immortal agent 007, director Matthew Bauer interviews several namesakes who share stories of humor, regret and even the dangers they’ve faced when others (notably, policemen) find out.
Bauer soon, however, narrows his focus to an American birdwatcher who gave Fleming his hero’s name as well as Gunnar Schäfer, who changed his name to James Bond to make his life more exciting—which it may well be, especially after he gets to star in a documentary about James Bond!
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Rolling Stones—Grrr Live! 
Part of the Stones’ 2012-13 50th anniversary tour, this December 2012 show in Newark, New Jersey—of all places—finds the band putting on a terrific 2-hour, 20-minute performance highlighting their most fertile period, from the opening “Get Off of My Cloud” to the closing “Satisfaction”; there’s even a runthrough of “Midnight Rambler” with old friend Mick Taylor.
Best of all are a choir-enhanced “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and a turbo-charged “Gimme Shelter,” which is relegated to the “extras” section. The video and audio—which includes surround-sound and Dolby Atmos mixes—are spectacular; other extra songs are “Respectable” with guest John Mayer and “Around and Around.” The concert is also on two audio CDs.
Eine Winterreise 
This messy hybrid of music-theater and recital from creator-director Christof Loy presents a rather unimaginative dramatization of the tragically short life of composer Franz Schubert, set to his own extraordinary songs and chamber music.
Ageless Anne Sofie von Otter sings Schubert’s lieder elegantly while marvelous pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout accompanies her and plays excerpts from Schubert’s graceful piano pieces—but Loy’s vision doesn’t cohere in any exciting or memorable way. There’s excellent hi-def video and audio; too bad there are no contextualizing extras.
Venus & Adonis/Dido & Aeneas
(Opus Arte)
Two of the earliest operas by English composers—John Blow’s Venus & Adonis (1683) and Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas (1689)—are paired in this austere and poignant staging by William Relton in the intimate confines of Sweden’s Confidenten Theatre.
The same singers portray all four leads: Bernt Ola Volungholen is in fine form as Adonis and Aeneas, but it’s Swedish soprano Ida Ränzlöv’s showcase as Venus and Dido, singing beautifully throughout, especially in her heartrending rendition of Purcell’s greatest aria, “When I Am Laid in Earth.” There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
DVD Releases of the Week 
Adieu Paris 
(Distrib Films US) 
Cowriter-director Édouard Baer’s uneven comedy brings together several veterans of French cinema—including Pierre Arditti, Gérard Depardieu, Bernard Le Coq, Daniel Prévost and Belgian Benoît Poelvoorde—for a frantic and funny if overbearing display of nastiness as a group of aging “Kings of Paris” get together at their usual haunt for their annual “roast” that is crashed by a foreign (Belgian) interloper.
It’s silly and repetitive but the accomplished ensemble propels the crude jokes and insults through sheer force of habit.
A Family for 1640 Days 
(Distrib Films US)
As Anna, a mother who wants the best for her adopted young son Simon when his real father returns to get him back, Mélanie Thierry gives a fierce and intensely moving performance in Fabien Gorgeart’s raw drama that hearteningly provides a balanced account of both sides in the battle for custody of Simon—the family he’s known his whole young life or the absent biological father who has the law on his side.
Although Thierry is the film’s unforgettable heart, Lyes Salem as her husband Driss, Félix Moati as Simon’s father Eddy and Gabriel Pavie as Simon give stellar support in an emotional but cathartic journey worth taking. 
CD Releases of the Week 
Lili/Nadia Boulanger—Les heures claires 
(Harmonia Mundi)
French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger—an important teacher to countless prominent European and American composers—was also a composer, although her more talented sister, Lili Boulanger, was an accomplished composer whose death at age 24 in 1918 is one of the great tragedies in music history. (Nadia died at age 92 in 1979.)
This marvelous three-disc set collects all of the mélodies (songs) composed by both women: since Lili’s career was so suddenly cut short, her songs make up only one disc, with Nadia’s encompassing the other two. Lili’s songs are more memorably intimate, but mezzo Lucile Richardot and pianist Anne de Fornel give them all impassioned readings. Also included are some of the sisters’ solo piano and chamber music to complement the vocal works, which Fornel and other musicians also dispatch pleasingly.
Sandrine Piau—Voyage Intime 
(Alpha Classics)
Two Lili Boulanger songs also make a brief appearance on French soprano Sandrine Piau’s latest recital disc, in which she and her exceptional French piano partner David Kadouch explore the title’s “intimate journeys” through a carefully curated group of songs that start and end with Franz Liszt.
In between, Piau and Kadouch visit vocal works by Hugo Wolf, Clara Schumann, Franz Schubert, Henri Duparc, and Claude Debussy, all of which are performed sensitively and intelligently. As a nice bonus, piano pieces by Clara and Lili are also programmed. 

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