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Film and the Arts

May '18 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 

Beyond the Hills 

(Criterion)
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s long but absorbing chronicle of the divergent paths of two female friends—one refusing to leave the convent and the other taking desperate action to change her mind—is as uncompromising as the director’s other films, as the slow-moving and seemingly repetitive sequences pay off by the end in an accumulation of narrative and psychological detail.
 
 
 
 
Criterion’s hi-def transfer is splendid; extras include a Mungiu interview, making-of featurette, deleted scenes and the 2012 Cannes Film festival press conference with Mungiu and his convincing lead actresses Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan.
 
The 15:17 to Paris 
(Warner Bros)
In Clint Eastwood’s turgid re-telling of a real-life event, three American servicemen disarm a terrorist on a train, avoiding a horrific loss of life—but only after they take a trip to Europe, where they take selfies, flirt with young women and drink heavily. The actual train sequence is tautly shot, but before that we are subjected to 70 minutes of borderline ineptitude to fill the running time, from the heroes’ troubles in grade school and their joining the service to their aborted vacation.
 
 
 
 
And having the three men play themselves—along with a fourth who was shot and badly wounded, unsurprisingly unsettling to watch as he recreates his own near-death experience—is a failed gimmick since no one has any dramatic weight onscreen. This is a strangely remote movie on a highly charged subject. It looks fine on Blu; extras are brief, uninformative featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
Game Night  

(Warner Bros)

The question must be asked again: why isn’t Rachel McAdams the biggest female star in the world? She should be as huge as Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock were in their heyday, but she has never gotten her due, despite an Oscar nomination for Spotlight. Her effortless charm is the main draw of this silly but often funny flick about a couple whose regular game nights are upped several notches by the hubby’s shady brother.
 
 
 
 
Jason Bateman does fine as the husband, but despite his and McAdams’ easy rapport, it all runs out of steam and gets quite ridiculous by the end. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras include a making-of featurette and a gag reel.
 
Red Sparrow 
(Fox)
Francis Lawrence’s at times plodding but still intense espionage thriller covers too many locales, characters and story threads which threaten to derail the main plot line, and with it Jennifer Lawrence’s commanding performance as a Russian ballerina turned deadly spy.
 
 
 
 
But despite its overlength and unnecessarily extreme violence, the movie works, mainly because Lawrence (no relation to her director) is so indelible an onscreen presence; she helps paper over a lot of flaws, including her lack of chemistry with Joel Edgerton. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras include several featurettes and deleted scenes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 The Two of Us  

(Cohen Film Collection)

French director Claude Berri’s feature debut with this sentimental but affecting tragicomedy about an eight-year-old Jewish boy sent to live with an elderly Catholic couple during the height of the Nazi occupation.
 
 
 
 
Despite occasional mawkishness, the bond between the boy and the crusty, anti-Semitic old man—enacted with honesty and humor by young Alain Cohen and the great Michel Simon—takes hold of and envelops the viewer until the emotionally charged finale. The restored B&W film is a knockout on Blu; extras include an audio commentary and brief archival interviews with Simon. 
 
DVDs of the Week
ACORN and the Firestorm 
(First Run)
Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s cogent documentary recounts a shameful episode in recent political history—the demonizing and ultimate demise of the liberal grassroots organization by the typically disingenuous and misleading campaign headed by the benighted likes of Breitbart and Fox News.
 
 
 
 
Through interviews with ACORN staff and the young woman who pretended to be a prostitute in a video dishonestly edited that helped sink the organization, this film presents a thoughtful and forceful cautionary tale for our fractured, volatile times.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 Souvenir  

(Strand)

This amusing if slight comedy gets much of its energy from the legendary Isabelle Huppert, slumming but still irresistible as a middle-aged former contestant on the televised Eurovision song contest who meets a young boxer at the factory where she works who coaxes her back in front of a microphone. Director Bavo Defurne smartly keeps Huppert front and center, whether throwing herself into a relationship with the boxer (a deadpan Kévin Azaïs) or singing for the first time in decades. It’s minor stuff made diverting enough for 90 minutes by Huppert’s presence.

May '18 Digital Week IV

CDs of the Week

Béla Bartók—Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Ondine) 

The violin concertos of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), separated by 30 years, are the works of first a youthful virtuoso gaining his footing and then of a sublime master.

That’s not to say that the first concerto (1908) is in any way inferior; in soloist Christian Tetzlaff’s dazzlingly capable hands, it’s a beguiling, buoyant piece of music (Bartók wrote it for a young woman violinist he was head over heels for), while the second concerto (1938) is, simply, a mesmerizing masterpiece. Both are played with great feeling by Tetzlaff and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu.

 

William Walton—Viola Concerto and Other Works (Chandos)

William Walton (1902-1983) has a reputation as a facile composer who penned Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare scores and royal coronation marches, but his output was far more wide-ranging and substantial than that. The works on this disc combine his facility for memorable melodies with his skill for equal parts darkness and light.

 

 

 

The impassioned Viola Concerto, despite being revised twice—the second time more than 30 years after it was first composed in 1929—manages to retain a completeness all its own, buoyed by soloist James Ehnes’ lovely playing. The Sonata for String Orchestra—a transcription of his own A Minor Quartet—and Partita for Orchestra alternate between verve and lyricism; conductor Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra bring out the works’ musicality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mieczyslaw Weinberg/Dmitry Kabalevsky—Concertos (Capriccio) 

The remarkable renaissance continues for Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1918-1996), who has gone from nearly unknown to towering genius thanks to a flurry of recordings and performances over the past decade or so. This disc pairs his striking and lyrical Violin Concerto (1959)—played with apt vigorousness by Benjamin Schmid—with two attractive concertos by another under-the-radar Russian, Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987), Weinberg’s contemporary in the Soviet music sphere. 

Claire Huangci dispatches the lively 1961 Piano Fantasy (after Schubert’s solo piano classic) with tuneful ease, while Harriet Krijgh makes the most of the melodious Cello Concerto No. 1 (1948-9). Cornelius Meister sensitively leads the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in all three works.

 
 

"Giselle" Dazzles at American Ballet Theater

Hee Seo in Giselle. Photo: Gene Schiavone

The new season at American Ballet Theater opened strongly with its very first performance on the evening of Monday, May 14th, a marvelous presentation of the beloved Giselle —one of the oldest surviving ballets—set to the immortal, melodious score by Adolphe Adam, with a libretto by the esteemed French writer, Théophile Gautier, after a retelling of a Slavic legend by the great German poet, Heinrich Heine. The ravishing choreography is after that of Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa and the current staging is by the company’s director, Kevin McKenzie, with unusually attractive scenography by Gianni Quaranta, appealing costumes by Anna Anni, and effective lighting by Jennifer Tipton.
 
This performance featured an outstanding cast, impressively led by the lovely Hee Seo, supremely touching in the title role, confidently partnered by the remarkable Roberto Bolle as the dashing Count Albrecht. Rounding out the principals was the extraordinary Gillian Murphy in an unforgettable turn as Myrta, the magnificent queen of the supernaturalwilis.
 
The secondary cast was also brilliant, including the dynamic Thomas Forster as Hilarion, the village huntsman that unrequitedly loves the heroine—he was thrilling in the concluding act, where he meets his tragic end. Skylar Brandt and Joseph Gorak—two jewels of the company—were delightful in the extended peasantpas de deuxin the first act. Also exquisite were Katherine Williams as Moyna and Zhong-Jing Fang as Zulma, while th ecorps de ballet were in superb form. I excitedly anticipate the remainder of the season.

NYC Theater Review—Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”

Long Day’s Journey into Night
Written by Eugene O’Neill; directed by Sir Richard Eyre
Performances through May 27, 2018

 
Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey into Night (photo: Richard Termine)
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play, is an epic-length exploration of a self-destructive family—the father, retired stage actor James Tyrone; his morphine-addled wife Mary; and their sons, alcoholic Jamie and poetic but sickly Edmund (the author’s self-portrait)—in which  the four characters take turns psychologically and emotionally pummeling one another and themselves, building into a dramatically potent accumulation of vitriolic acid that, in the right hands, makes for a shattering theatrical experience.
 
O’Neill himself went to a sanatorium for TB around the time the play is set (1912), which lends credence to the notion that this incriminating but insightful glimpse into the disastrous effects of a family’s self-destruction helped lead to his own successful playwriting career. (Ironically, although he wrote this play in 1941-2, it wasn’t staged until three years after his 1953 death, for which he posthumously won the Pulitzer and Tony Awards.)
 
Sir Richard Eyre’s London production, in the cozy confines of the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has many faults, led by Rob Howell’s angled and expressionist set, which though it generously allows for Peter Mumford’s gorgeously textured lighting, is too refined and elegant for what should be a semi-rundown Connecticut summer cottage. Although aware of the broken music in O’Neill’s painful, at times melodramatic words, Eyre too often overemphasizes the tragic aspect of these people bumping up against one another like small craft in a tempest-tossed harbor, allowing wincingly overdone moments among the capable cast. 
 
While Rory Keenan makes an aggressively cynical Jamie, Matthew Beard’s Edmund is a lanky, blurry portrait of a would-be artist; neither actor either acquits himself admirably or embarrasses himself. Similarly, Jeremy Irons is too boisterous as James, with overly hammy line readings and gesticulations getting in the way of his performance—that despite the fact that James Tyrone is an actor…and an elderly, hammy one at that.
 
Lesley Manville’s Mary should be the heart of this Journey, and despite a distractingly flat American accent, she often has searingly dramatic moments as the drug-addicted wife and mother in denial about everyone, including herself. It’s too bad, then, that Eyre coaxes her into forced or overstated histrionics, which end up giving her final, poignant lines of dialogue far less resonance than they—and O’Neill—deserve after 3-1/2 hours of unparalleled emotional devastation. 
 

Long Day’s Journey into Night
BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY
bam.org

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