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Film and the Arts

Daniele Rustioni Makes Carnegie Hall Debut

Daniele Rustioni conducts MET Orchestra. Photo by Chris Lee.

At Carnegie Hall on the evening of Saturday, February 11th, I was inordinately fortunate to attend a superb concert presented by the MET Orchestra under the exceptional direction of Daniele Rustioni in his debut at this venue.

The program opened magnificently with a sterling account of Béla Bartók’s astonishing Concerto for Orchestra. The Introduzione begins ominously and eerily with unsettling dissonances; the music then takes on an impassioned if disquieting urgency, although with more placid—even lyrical—interludes before ending abruptly and excitingly. The sprightlier Giuoco delle coppie that follows is ludic and humorous if not without enigmatic moments and concludes quietly while the ensuing Elegia is inward, mysterious and somber but with intense passages and also closes softly. The enthralling Intermezzo is magical and stirring if overtly comic and satirical and the powerful Finale is propulsive, quirky and cheerful and ultimately thrilling.

For the beginning of the remarkable second half of the event, the impressive bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green joined the musicians for a compelling performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s haunting, too seldom heard Songs and Dances of Death, brilliantly orchestrated by Dmitri Shostakovich. The evening’s pinnacle, however, was a masterly version of Igor Stravinsky’s extraordinary Suite from The Firebird (1919 version). The Introduction and Dance of the Firebird is ingenious and as bewitching as the subsequent Rondo: The Princesses’ Khorovod is evocative. The Infernal Dance of King Kashchei is exhilarating, and is succeeded by the Berceuse which is the most glorious part of the score—and also the unforgettable soundtrack for Lewis Klahr’s amazing film, Altair—while the Finale builds to an ecstatic close. The artists were enthusiastically applauded.

Off-Broadway Play Review—Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers” with Katie Holmes

The Wanderers
Written by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Barry Edelstein
Performances through April 2, 2023
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY
Katie Holmes in The Wanderers (photo: Joan Marcus) 

Anna Ziegler’s play, The Wanderers, is a schematic but intelligently written exploration of two generations of a Jewish family—one very religious, the other decidedly not—with a lightness of touch that doesn’t detract from the thoughtful and piercingly humane drama at its center.
In 2017, Abe, a successful writer, lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his wife Sophie and their (smartly unseen) children. Abe and Sophie have known each other since they were kids, and their marriage has hit a rough patch, exacerbated by Sophie not be able to write as she used to as Abe’s books continue to be successful. To that end, Julia Cheever, a famous actress whom Abe has been infatuated with for years, attends a reading of his and begins an unlikely email correspondence with him, also threatening to unbalance the precarious state of Abe and Sophie’s relationship.
In 1973, also in Williamsburg, Abe’s parents, Schmuli and Esther, get married and start a family. Although both come from Hasidic families, Schmuli is perturbed by Esther’s ever greater attempts to break free of that stifling environment. After Abe is born, Esther’s behavior—which includes listening to FM radio and checking books out of the library—becomes too much for Schmuli’s ultra-conservative father, so she is banned from seeing her daughters, who have been taken from her. She scoops up the baby and leaves.
Ziegler alternates, in a fleet 105 minutes, between the two couples and their marital and personal difficulties; Abe’s ongoing electronic flirtation with Julia makes a tentative menage a trois of the trio of storylines. Writer Philip Roth is not only mentioned in the dialogue—Sophie references his novel Sabbath’s Theater in her opening monologue and Julia stars in a movie adaptation of another Roth novel, Everyman, which unsurprisingly is a bomb with audiences and critics (but not with Abe, who loves everything she’s in)—but his spirit hovers over this play about assimilation and identity, about Abe’s suppressed guilt about broken families, both his parents and now, possibly, his own. And the play is broken up by eight rather Rothian chapter titles (e.g., “Chapter Five (or, Fathers and Sons).”
But Ziegler is too smart a writer to make The Wanderers a mere Roth homage. The women Esther, Sophie and Julia are dignified and vivid presences. Even Sophie’s unseen mother Rivka—who, like Esther, broke away from the orthodox community after meeting a Black man at the Met Museum and settling down with him in Albany, where Sophie grew up—is complexly realized.
Although the relationships and interactions are occasionally contrived in Barry Edelstein’s otherwise zesty staging—which benefits by Marion Williams’ messily book-laden set and Kenneth Posner’s apt lighting—the entire cast finds the truth in Ziegler’s snappy, expressive dialogue. As Sophie, Sarah Cooper (best-known for her hilarious Trump “karaoke” viral clips) has an intelligent gleam in her eye and a confident way about her that makes one look forward to more stage appearances. 
Although Julia may be merely an extension of Katie Holmes herself, Holmes plays the actress with far more charm than she showed in her previous New York stage outings. Lucy Freyer makes Esther quite formidable in the play’s most sympathetic and touching portrayal. And both men—Eddie Kaye Thomas as Abe and Dave Klasko as Schmuli—make equally indelible impressions working their way through their characters’ patriarchal beliefs that are the root cause of the imploding relationships we see onstage.

A Classical Evening With Bernard Labadie at Carnegie Hall

Bernard Labadie conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Photo by Chris Lee

At Carnegie Hall on the evening of Thursday, February 9th, I was fortunate to be able to attend a splendid concert featuring the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the distinguished direction of Bernard Labadie.

The program began promisingly with a very accomplished account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s impressive Piano Concerto No. 18, beautifully played by the eminent soloist, Emmanuel Ax. The initial movement—one of pure elegance and ultimately intricate in construction—opens charmingly and proceeds ebulliently. The slow movement, which is more serious in character as it starts but is more variegated in tone as a whole, reaches a pinnacle in a brief, fugue-like section, while the finale is jubilant and exciting but not without its weightier moments. Enthusiastic applause elicited a fabulous encore from the pianist: Franz Liszt’s "Ständchen," S. 560, No. 7 (after Franz Schubert's Schwanengesang, D. 957, No. 4).
The second half of the event was even stronger, consisting in a solid interpretation of Schubert’s imposing, marvelous “Great” Symphony in C Major. The stirring first movement, which has an enchanting introduction, seems distinctively Mendelssohnian—it recalls the“Italian” Symphony, which is maybe a musical example of what the incomparable literary critic, Harold Bloom, called “transumption,” whereby a later work seems to be the earlier one—even though Felix Mendelssohn had led the work’s world premiere in 1839 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. With the ensuing Andante con moto—which is remarkably dramatic at times—the influence of Ludwig van Beethoven is paramount but there are also passages redolent of the Baroque. Beethoven is also an unmistakable progenitor of the appropriately playful Scherzo, even in the elevated Trio, while the finale was exhilarating. The artists deservedly received a standing ovation.

February '23 Digital Week III

4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
The Fabelmans 
Obviously a labor of love, Steven Spielberg’s most personal film is also, unsurprisingly, one of most sentimental—as well as an often exhilarating and touching journey through his own life story, with many of the sequences that show a boy falling in love with movies and then moviemaking among the most thrilling he’s ever committed to celluloid.
Those indelible moments include his obvious wink to the audience in the final shot (preceded by a gloriously grumpy cameo by director David Lynch as director John Ford) and mitigate the bumpy parts of the ride, like the pet monkey scenes, too-fluttery Michelle Williams as Spielberg’s beloved mother and no-talent Seth Rogen ruining every scene he’s in as the young hero’s uncle. The 4K transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise three making-of featurettes with interviews with Spielberg and his cowriter Tony Kushner, along with the cast and crew.
The Return of Swamp Thing 
This 1989 campfest, sequel to 1982’s all but forgotten Swamp Thing, lives on, kind of, thanks to its star, Heather Locklear, at the height of her TV fame (the soap Melrose Place) and her marriage to Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. The movie at least knows it’s silly and leans into that, so when Locklear falls in love with the title creature, it’s not as completely idiotic as it might have been.
There are also good actors doing decent work like Louis Jourdan as the mad doctor and Sarah Douglas as his valuable assistant. The film looks gloriously colorful on 4K; extras include interviews with director Jim Wynorski, producer Michael E. Uslan, editor Leslie Rosenthal and composer Chuck Cirino, commentary by Wynorski, music video by the Riff-Tones and vintage promo material.
Warm Bodies 
This often risible attempt at a rom com-cum-zombie movie became an unlikely hit in 2013, but it remains a half-baked, too-clever attempt to retell Romeo and Juliet with a young woman and male zombie in the leads (she’s Julie; he’s R., natch).
Luckily, Teresa Palmer and Nicholas Hoult make the pair’s growing relationship almost touching, which makes us forget, if only for a fleeting moment, that neither director-writer Jonathan Levine or original novelist Isaac Marion are a patch on Shakespeare. The UHD transfer looks great; extras include several making-of featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes (with Levine commentary) and a gag reel.
In-Theater Release of the Week
(IFC Films)
What starts as a genuinely creepy incursion into a deeply problematic murder-suicide at a Catholic convent in rural Scotland populated by a group of troublesome nuns soon becomes a standard-issue horror flick that relies on the clichéd dreams, hallucinations and implausibilities that permeate the genre.
Jena Malone is her usual sober self as the aptly named Grace, an ophthalmologist  who decides to investigate her brother’s mysterious death—it’s linked, maybe, to a cycle of abuse in their family and, by extension, the church itself—but she is defeated by writer-director Christopher Smith’s singleminded insistence on making his story as convoluted as possible—he even ruins the disturbing opening shot of a nun with a gun by returning to it at the end, where it’s simply ludicrous.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Cinematic Sorceress—The Films of Nina Menkes 
For a few decades, Nina Menkes has carved out her own niche in the American independent cinematic landscape with challenging films that deserve more notoriety than they’ve gotten: so this two-disc set, comprising five of her features and two shorts, is quite noteworthy.
Among her films that compellingly skirt the line between fiction and documentary—several starring her sister and muse, Tinka Menkes—are Magdalena Viraga, Queen of Diamonds and The Bloody Child, all intelligent in their dramatic vision. The films look splendid in new hi-def transfers, especially the transfixing long shots in The Bloody Child and the intimate B&W images of Phantom Love. Extras include several interviews/Q&As with and commentaries by Menkes.
The Dentist Collection 
In this pair of schlocky horror flicks, 1996’s The Dentist and 1998’s The Dentist 2, Corbin Bernsen plays an insane dentist who maims and/or kills whoever crosses his path or gets in his chair, starting with his cheating wife, whose tongue he tears out after seeing her going down on the pool boy. Both flicks have a few memorable moments of crazed gore, which will delight those who like that sort of thing.
For others, Linda Hoffman brightens the first film as the cheating—then cut-up—wife, while Jillian McWhirter plays Bernsen’s romantic foil in the sequel with a bit less panache. Both films look good on Blu; extras include commentaries by director Brian Yuzna and makeup supervisor Anthony C. Ferrante as well as interviews with Bernsen, McWhirter, and other crew.
Love on the Ground 
(Cohen Film Collection)
This overlong, underwhelming 1984 Jacques Rivette film follows Geraldine Chaplin and Jane Birkin as actresses who perform plays at homes who are hired by a mysterious man to act in his mansion in a new work he’s writing.
Rivette spends much time with this intriguing but slight premise, touching on—but never developing—themes of reality vs. illusion and theater vs. film, Chaplin and Birkin are game in the leads, and William Lubtchansnky’s photography and Nicole Lubtchansky’s editing are expert, but spending three hours with these women is undeniably dreary. The hi-def transfer looks gorgeous; lone extra is scholar Richard Pena’s informative commentary.
A Woman Kills
French director Jean-Denis Bonan’s 1968 drama about a serial killer went unreleased, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a disjointed, barely coherent, awkwardly acted feature almost redeemed by the final 15 minutes, encompassing a reveal of the murderer and a Parisian rooftop chase. Shot on the cheap during the fateful events of May 1968 in France, Bonan’s film is definitely a relic of its era and has a certain value as an historical curio.
The UK-based company Radiance has done a superb job with this release, providing a textual introduction and commentary, several of Bonan’s short films from the ’60s, and a 40-minute documentary about the director, On the Margin: The Cursed Films of Jean-Denis Bonan. The Blu-ray transfer of the B&W feature is appropriately grainy.

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