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Film and the Arts

December '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 


(Warner Bros)

One of the most successful retreats in military history—the British got nearly all of their troops back safely to England, keeping Hitler at bay until the U.S entered the war in 1941—is not tailor-made for a film treatment the way director Christopher Nolan approaches it. Visually, Dunkirk is a marvel, but dramatizing how civilians took their boats into treacherous waters to pick up soldiers at Dunkirk by following one man and his sons who get involved with seemingly everything that happens at sea and in the air reduces the entire film to unrelieved, and implausible, melodrama.

No one—not even Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance—makes an impression, and the final impression is one of technical, not artistic, virtuosity. There’s a superlative hi-def transfer; a second disc of extras include nearly two hours of on-set featurettes.


Auntie Mame

(Warner Archive)

This 1958 adaptation of the stage play about an irrepressible aunt who goes to any lengths to protect her beloved nephew showcases Rosalind Russell’s unsubtle but indomitable performance in the title role.

However, 145 minutes of overwrought attempts at whimsy and charm are badly misdirected by Morton DaCosta, who never gets a handle on things, including blatantly racist characters like the Asian butler. The film has a ravishing hi-def transfer.


Chicago—The Terry Kath Experience 


Michelle Kath Sinclair made this touching documentary portrait of her father’s legacy nearly 40 years after his death: Terry Kath was lead guitarist for Chicago, and he died when he put what he thought was an unloaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger a week before his 32nd birthday in 1978.

Kath has since gotten his due as one of rock’s most underrated guitar players, as we find out through encomiums by Joe Walsh, Steve Lukather and Mike Campbell, along with his fellow band members. This is also Sinclair’s personal journey; no posthumous praise can bring her father back, but—along with his music—it helps. Extras comprise additional interviews and featurettes.   


Cosi fan tutte

(Arthaus Musik)

Mozart’s delectable comic opera about two couples who, after many trials and tribulations, are finally reunited is transformed by director-choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker into a roundelay among a dozen performers, six singers doubled by half-dozen dancers, who become a physical manifestation of the indelible Mozart-del Ponte characters.

What begins as an intriguingly different take on a familiar work soon becomes repetitious and even confusing as the dancers basically cover the same ground as the music and words—it’s ultimately redundant, if cleverly staged and impeccably danced and sung. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.


General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait 


In 1974, French director Barbet Schroeder made this documentary about the infamous Ugandan dictator, who relished the attention of a European filmmaker immortalizing him.

Amin was charismatic and murderous, charming and ruthless; Schroeder catches all of that, but the relatively short 90-minute running time makes this a less than ideal portrait: we see the venom, but not the psychology. The excellent new transfer is buttressed by two Schroeder interviews (2001 and 2017) and an interview with journalist Andrew Rice about Amin.


One Million B.C.


Movie fans know the late ‘60s version starring a loin-clothed Raquel Welch; the 1940 original has a poor substitute in Carole Landis and features a stolid Victor Mature and Lon Chaney Jr. running around looking embarrassed fending off awful-looking dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters.

Directors Hal Roach and his son’s barely passable entertainment with incredibly chintzy special effects is a mildly diverting (and, at 80 minutes, harmless enough) piece of movie history. The hi-def transfer is decent.


DVDs of the Week 

The Pulitzer at 100

(First Run)

Kirk Simon’s documentary of the history and legacy of the Pulitzer Prize is an uninspired overview of the world’s most important arts and cultural award, and includes interviews with Pulitzer voters and recipients in an attempt to explain how diverse groups of people vote for what they think is the best play, piece of music, journalism, etc., in any given year.

Most interesting are the occasional breakaways to, say, a Natalie Portman or a John Lithgow reciting excerpts from winning plays or poems by winners Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Robert Frost.


Stefan Zweig—Farewell to Europe

(First Run)

The great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig lived out his last years in South America, committing suicide (along with his young wife Lotte) in 1942 in Rio at age 61. His troubled existence was marked by accolades but also exhaustion after Adolf Hitler’s rise heralded a final decade of wandering, homeless and unable to return to his native Austria.

Maria Schrader’s film absorbingly chronicles this period of his life, with convincing portrayals by Joe Haden (Zweig), Barbara Sukowa (first wife Friderike) and Aenne Schwarz (second wife Lotte).


The Unknown Girl 

(Sundance Selects)

The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ incisive character studies over two-plus decades vary wildly in quality—implausibility rears its ugly head more often than not—but their latest is one of their best. Adele Haenel is superb as Jenny, a young doctor who finds out that the title character, a desperate loner who knocked on her office door but was refused entry, is found dead nearby.

We get caught up in Jenny’s plight as she tracks down the dead woman’s identity and family. This is the Dardennes at their most humane, helped enormously by Haenel, an actress capable of mercurial and quicksilver changes and shifts in emotion.


Viceroy’s House


The end of British rule in India is the subject of Gurinder Chadha’s straightforward, tactful docudrama, with Hugh Bonneville as Lord Mountbatten, sent to India by his majesty’s government to secure a peaceful transfer of power; he is surprised by how awful fellow Britons treat the supposed second-class citizens.

Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are a persuasive Mountbatten and wife Edwina, while the usual towering Michael Gambon steals scenes as Mountbatten’s duplicitous chief of staff. The lone extras are several deleted scenes.

Broadway Review—Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children"

The Children

Written by Lucy Kirkwood; directed by James MacDonald

Performances through February 4, 2018


Ron Cook, Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay in The Children (photo: Joan Marcus)

The ponderous The Children arrives in New York after raves in London, as Lucy Kirkwood’s risible drama about the after effects of a devastating nuclear plant disaster wastes its topnotch cast.


Post-meltdown in rural England, 60-something marrieds (and retired nuclear engineers) Robin and Hazel live just outside the radioactive danger zone. When former colleague Rose arrives out of nowhere, scaring the bejesus out of Hazel—who smacks Rose’s nose in fright, causing a torrent of blood staining Rose’s shirt—Robin and Hazel find themselves dealing with a past that includes infidelity, along with figuring out the kind of future (if any) they’ll have.


The play’s title refers to the couple’s unseen offspring, whom Rose asks Hazel about more than once, along with referring to the play’s strident plea not to ruin our world for our children’s benefit. Kirkwood strains at understatement in her characters’ small talk and British stiff-upper-lipped reserve, however wrongheaded for her creaky melodrama. It's obvious that all three of them are aware of past indiscretions, so why the continued dancing around the subject?


And to extend what might have been a taut fifty-minute one-acter into a flabby one-hundred minute one-acter, Kirkwood drops in irrelevancies like a dance sequence to a song the trio loves, along with a pointless conversation that finds Hazel constantly questioning Rose if she only did number 1 in the loo instead of number 2, which causes the toilet to clog. Rose replies that she only did number 1—and when water comes streaming into the kitchen, (un)hilarity ensues.


Rose isn’t settling old scores or putting their mutual past in proper perspective: instead, she’s asking her fellow scientists to join her at the stricken plant to take over cleanup from the much younger workers currently there. After all, since they’re pushing 70, it makes sense for them to risk their twilight years than those with decades ahead of them. It's a worthy sentiment, but Kirkwood drops it in so heavy-handedly that it has little of the sense of urgency or mortality she was aiming for.


It’s up to three superior performers—Deborah Findlay (Hazel), Ron Cook (Robin) and especially Francesca Annis (Rose)—and James MacDonald’s sympathetic direction to make this shrill message play palatable.


The Children

Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Broadway Musical Review—Revival of “Once on This Island”

Once on This Island
Book & lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown; directed by Michael Arden
Opened December 3, 2017
Hailey Kilgore in Once on This Island (photo: Joan Marcus)
Set on an unnamed Haiti, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musicalOnce on an Island premiered in 1990, its initial run introducing LaChanze to New York. For the show’s first Broadway revival—a cleverly-conceived production in the round, complete with sand, rain and a pond—there’s another impressive actress making her debut: Oregon teenager Hailey Kilgore.
Kilgore is Ti Moune, orphaned in a raging storm as a youngster and taken in by the loving Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian on an isle bitterly divided between dark-skinned natives and lighter-skinned French descendants, the grand hommes. One day, Ti Moune sees a car crash involving Daniel, teenage grand homme; she nurses him back to health, begging the local gods—Papa Ge, Asaka, Agwe, Erzulie—to take her rather than him, imaging that he has fallen for her as she has him, despite sundry obstacles: his family, his fiancée and their class differences, for starters.
This beguiling fable has a homespun wisdom that’s greater than the sum of its parts, as Flaherty’s merely serviceable book and lyrics are married to Flaherty’s tuneful but derivative songs. The folk tale’s plot—filled as it is with unabashed sentiment, teenage romance and a celebration of the circle of life, so to speak—alternates between cloyingly and happily beneficent.
Michael Arden’s inventive staging begins before the musical proper: bare-footed actors mill around the sandbox set, mingling with audience members near the stage as they go about their everyday business like feeding the animals. Camille A. Brown's resourceful choreography allows spacious movement within the relatively cramped space of Dane Laffrey’s spry set, which seems to sprout new expanses wherever one looks (a trailer truck, a fallen telephone pole, even parts of theater seats are brought into delightfully ramshackle service). Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s ingenious lighting and Clint Ramos’s canny costumes complete the fully-formed world we are willingly whisked into for 90 mostly blissful minutes.
There’s commanding vocal work from Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian and Kenita R. Miller as Mama Euralie, and Isaac Powell’s poised Daniel and Kilgore’s enchanting Ti Moune make a charming pair of not-quite lovers. Best of all, the gods comprise a quartet of ultra-talented belters: Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell and the always winning Lea Salonga, whose clear-as-crystal soprano rings out even amid so many astonishingly strong voices on this island.
Once on This Island
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, New York, NY

December '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Death Laid an Egg

(Cult Epics)

Giulio Questi’s wacky 1968 giallo is a product of its time: nodding toward Godard’s masterpiece Weekend (released in ‘67), Questi’s potent critique of a dehumanized industrial society is masked by a tricked-out tale of murder around a poultry plant owned by a philandering husband and his wife. 




In the leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant (husband), Gina Lollobrigida (wife) and Ewa Aulin (mistress) make a stunning trio; there are moments of visual overkill, but it’s stylish and enjoyably loony. There’s a quite impressive hi-def transfer.


Heat and Dust

(Cohen Film Collection)

This 1983 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel tracks parallel East-West culture clashes, as an Englishwoman, Anne, travels to India to discover the fate of her great aunt Olivia, who in the 1920s had an affair with a local ruler (Hindi film star Shashi Kapoor, who died last week). Although labored in its shuttling back and forth, there are compensations, notably Julie Christie as Anne and Greta Scacchi as Olivia, both splendid performances of intelligence and—especially Scacchi—sensuality. 




The hi-def transfer is excellent; there’s also a commentary and a second disc of bonus features: new interviews with Scacchi, Ivory, Jhabvala, composer Richard Robbins, actor Nickolas Grace and producer Israel Merchant; new Q&A with actor Madhur Jaffrey; and Merchant-Ivory’s hour-long 1975 film Autobiography of a Princess.


Pelléas et Mélisande 

(BelAir Classiques)

Claude Debussy’s tragic romance is one of opera’s towering masterpieces, its three hours alternately bracing and disturbing. This 2016 Malmo (Sweden) production is nicely staged by director Benjamin Lazar, with Debussy’s magnificent score being beautifully handled by conductor Maxime Pascal and the Malmo Opera Orchestra. 




But the glory is in the main performers: Marc Mauillon’s vivid Pelléas and—best of all—Jenny Daviet’s languid, meltingly lovely-voiced Mélisande. The hi-def video and audio are topnotch.


The Tale of Tsar Saltan


Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical opera is rarely seen on European or American stages, so who better than St. Petersburg’s own Mariinsky Opera to present such a boldly imaginative production? 




As always, Valery Gergiev persuasively leads his orchestra in music that they all feel in their bones, the usual array of Russian singers belts out convincingly, and the sets and costumes are bright and dazzling. The only caveat is that, since this is on film instead of hi-def video, the visuals don’t pop as they should.














DVDs of the Week 

Karl Marx City

(Film Movement)

Petra Epperlein (with co-director Michael Tucker) returned to the former East Germany to discover the truth behind her father’s 1999 suicide by hanging: was he—as he was accused of being—a spy for the Stasi, the formidable East German security force that terrified thousands of ordinary citizens on a daily basis during the Cold War? 




Epperlein has no illusions about what she finds, which she shares with her devastated mother and twin brothers, while the rest of this agonizing documentary comprises illuminating interviews with various archivists, former Stasi members and regular people that shed a necessary light on how dictatorships can thrive.


Maurizio Cattelan—Be Right Back

(Film Movement)

Maurizio Cattelan is an art world prankster without the social or political cachet of Banksy, but since he’s courted cognoscenti for decades he’s become one of the most reliable names in the business, and Maura Axelrod’s diverting documentary portrait shows him off as a sort-of raconteur par excellence




Whether he’s a real artist is another matter: despite the experts, that he gets a Guggenheim retrospective that garners critical raves and lines around the block says more about the state of our current culture than about his clever but minor works.


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