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Film and the Arts

October '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Holocaust 

(CBS/Paramount)

When this eight-hour miniseries premiered on NBC in 1978, it was a controversial event: could a sanitized reenactment show viewers the true horror of the holocaust? Well, it can, to an extent. Even though director Marvin J. Chomsky and writer/producer Gerald Green work within their era’s constraints, there’s still a powerful shock running through this melodrama about the travails of the Jewish Weiss family during Hitler’s murderous reign.

 

 

 

Helped by a top-notch cast—Fritz Weaver, Rosemary Harris, James Woods, Tovah Feldshuh and Meryl Streep as the Weisses and David Warner and Michael Moriarty as Nazis—Chomsky and Green bring out the immediacy and offhanded cruelty of those horrifying dozen years. The hi-def image looks impressive, even if the standard TV aspect ratio has been “converted” to widescreen.

 

Awake 

(Cinedigm)

When a car accident victim awakens in a hospital room without his memory, he finds himself accused of being a serial killer—so he kidnaps a sympathetic nurse and goes off on a journey to clear himself and discover his true identity.

 

 

 

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers tries to invest this convoluted tale with gravity but isn’t able to transcend its utter familiarity; directors Alex Cher and Fedor Lyass (also the cinematographer) have made a stylish but empty drama. The film does look exceptionally good on Blu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doom Patrol—Complete 1st Season 

(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.

In this bizarrely entertaining superhero origin story, a quartet of freaks and outcasts who have been transformed into a kind of “misfit toys” society of superheroes—Crazy Mary, Cliff Steele, Mr. Nobody and Elasti-Woman—join forces to have one another’s backs and fight injustice and evil.

 

 

 

There’s a welcome sense of tongue-in-cheek glee along with a mix of parody and true belief in the genre that makes it diverting throughout. Whether the series can keep up such a pace past a single season is a big question: but right now it’s good, unclean fun. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel.

 

My Favorite Year 

(Warner Archive)

Peter O’Toole got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his scenery-chewing performance in this mild 1982 comedy as a movie star and drunkard whose impending appearance on a 1950s comedy show (like Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows”) causes consternation among the staff when it’s problematic whether he’ll be sober enough to appear on live TV.

 

 

 

Richard Benjamin’s routine direction takes much of the hilarity out of an already familiar tale, as pros like Joe Bologna, Lainie Kazan and Bill Macy and then-newcomers Mark Linn-Baker and Jessica Harper do what they can to back up O’Toole. The hi-def transfer looks good; Benjamin’s commentary is the lone extra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Touch of Class 

(Warner Archive)

Melvin Frank’s romantic comedy about adultery was old-fashioned as soon as it was released in 1973; despite often groaningly obvious jokes and physical pratfalls, there’s an elegance and wit to the performances of the always underrated George Segal and Oscar-winning best actress (!) Glenda Jackson, which mitigates the movie’s essential shallowness.

 

 

 

That this also got a Best Picture and Best Screenplay nomination is surprising; equally surprising is that, though Jackson won, Segal was (as usual) shamefully ignored. There’s a clean, crisp hi-def transfer.

 

4K/UHD of the Week

Gremlins 

(Warner Bros)

Joe Dante’s 1984 fantasy/monster spoof made a lot of money and made audiences happy, but it remains, 35 years later, an unnecessarily crude succession of parodies, many of which are so specific to its era that they now make little sense and provide few laughs.

 

 

 

Dante has some fun finding new ways to kill off both humans and the creatures, but after awhile, it starts to pall; even such good sports as Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan and Harry Carey Jr. can’t save what’s an overlong mess of a movie. The UHD transfer is transfixing; a plethora of extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.

 

CD of the Week 

Hans Werner Henze—The Raft of the Medusa 

(SWR Classic)

German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) often brought his leftist politics into his works, and his 1971 oratorio— titled after the classic 1819 painting by French artist Théodore Géricault and dedicated as a requiem for murdered Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera—is among his greatest meldings of the political and the musical. Henze set Medusa for a large orchestra, chorus, baritone and soprano soloists and a speaker, and Ernst Schnabel’s text vividly recounts the horrific events surrounding the few survivors of the shipwrecked French frigate, Medusa, in 1817: the crew was forced onto a makeshift raft and all but a handful of the 154 perished.

 

 

 

Henze’s score, alternating sorrow with anger, is given a dramatic reading by conductor Peter Eötvös, who impressively marshals the array of forces at his disposal: the SWR symphony orchestra, three choirs, soloists Camilla Nylund and Peter Schöne, and speaker Peter Stein

Off-Broadway Review—“Fern Hill” by Michael Tucker

Fern Hill

Written by Michael Tucker; directed by Nadia Tass

Performances through October 20, 2019

 

Mark Linn-Baker and Jill Eikenberry in Fern Hill (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

As a playwright, Michael Tucker is a terrific actor, as his play Fern Hill shows. This amusing if familiar sitcom about three couples that are also longtime friends is distinguished by the funny back-and-forth among the men and their wives (some friendly, some nasty), which Tucker writes with an ear toward the easy banter that veteran performers can make their own. 

 

If the play itself suffers for that emphasis—laugh lines come regularly, at the expense of making the people speaking them full-bodied creations—it’s something unnoticed until later, because Fern Hill shows the facility of a Neil Simon play.

 

Fern Hill is the name of the sprawling farm where Jer, writer and professor (and whose 70th birthday brings the couples together), lives with his wife Sunny, an accomplished but self-critical painter. Visiting are Billy, a 60-year-old fading rock’n’roller with a penchant for cooking, and his wife Michiko, whom he met decades before while she was a groupie; and Vincent, a famous 80-year-old painter, and his wife, Darla, a professional photographer. 

 

After nearly an hour’s worth of imbibing and good-natured ribbing about work and play and whether the six of them will live together as a sort of commune as a bulwark against getting old (Jer is adamantly against the idea), the first act turns on the revelation that Jer is having an affair—with a far younger student, no less. 

 

The friction this causes allows other recriminations to well up, and the house is soon awash in bad feelings amid the many drinks, the play culminating in a six-way confessional of sorts to let Jer realize the error of his ways.

 

Director Nadia Tass guides this predictable but well-paced play to its conclusion on Jessica Parks’ superbly-detailed set, in which every inch of space tells us more about the characters—the paintings on the wall, the liquor they drink, the furniture they sit on—than Tucker’s script. But it’s the acting that gives Fern Hill its real pizzazz. 

 

Jodi Long (Michiko) and Ellen Parker (Darla) have less to do than the others but still give finely-tuned comic performances. Mark Blum’s levelheaded Jer makes it easier to dislike him, while Jill Eikenberry (Tucker’s real-life wife) is given the widest character arc of all as Sunny deals with the fallout of Jer’s philandering. Eikenberry comes through in spades: her final glimpse at Blum gives us more insight into Sunny than Tucker’s script.

 

Last (and best) are the two scene stealers. As aging rocker Billy, Mark Linn-Baker—with his sideburns, goatee and long hair a dead ringer for David Crosby—gets many of the most pungent lines and spits them out with lascivious glee. And John Glover has great fun as the narcissistic artist Vincent (what else would his name be?), letting the dialogue fly and home in on whomever he’s targeting. 

 

Linn-Baker and Glover give Fern Hill the comic heft it needs.  

 

Fern Hill

59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 

59e59.org

September '19 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Local Hero 

(Criterion Collection)

Bill Forsyth’s miraculous movie—released in 1983, on the heels of his drily funny breakthrough, 1981’s Gregory’s Girl—is a perfectly realized fable set in the concrete caverns of Houston’s oil barons and the magical, moonlit vistas of Scotland. Shot by the great Chris Menges, Forsyth’s brilliant comedy-drama is so many things at once that it’s quite possible to watch and not realize it, instead just succumbing to a master storyteller’s unique ability to be witty, sardonic, romantic, sentimental and realistic simultaneously.

 

 

 

Mark Knopfler’s extraordinarily evocative score is one of the best ever heard; it’s shocking that none of the many extras that Criterion added to this edition feature it. The film looks luminous on Blu; extras comprise Forsyth and critic Mark Kermode’s commentary; a TV documentary about Menges; a making-of documentary featuring Forsyth and producer David Puttnam; and a Forsyth interview from the time of the film’s release.

 

Anna 

(Lionsgate)

In Luc Besson’s latest nonsensically slam-bang action flick, a Russian model is trained by the KGB to become a lethal killer—until she is strong armed by the CIA to become a double agent. There’s the usual titillation (Sasha Luss is a rockin’ heroine, a natural on the runway, in bed with her handlers, and blowing bad guys’ heads off), insanely detailed gunfights and car chases, and serious actors like Cillian Murphy and Helen Mirren spectacularly slumming.

 

 

 

Since it goes on for two hours, your mileage may vary—I could have been satisfied with 90 minutes easily. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras include making-of featurettes. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Country Music—A Film by Ken Burns 

(PBS)

Ken Burns has returned with another thoughtfully researched and thorough overview of a rich, sweeping, quintessentially American subject—16 hours’ worth of talking heads (including such music luminaries as Merle Haggard, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson and Rhiannon Giddens), vintage photographs, videos and audio recordings, with Peter Coyote’s narration acting as ringmaster for the sprawling but enthralling proceedings.

 

 

 

The Blu-ray set contains the entire series on eight discs, with first-rate hi-def audio and video; extras include additional interviews and a making-of featurette.

 

John & Yoko—Above Us Only Sky 

(Eagle Vision)

This fascinating but sometimes self-indulgent documentary examines the recording of John Lennon’s 1971 Imagine album. In addition to footage of Lennon, Yoko Ono, producer Phil Spector and the other musicians—including, at one point, none other than George Harrison for a go at Lennon’s ferocious Paul put-down, “How Do You Sleep?”—in the studio, there are glimpses of the couple’s non-musical life, including their activism (the “War is Over” billboard in Times Square) and prankishness (Yoko’s phony “exhibit” at MOMA).

 

 

 

The hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are additional footage with Curt Claudio, a fan who figures in one of the film’s more alarming sequences, and alternate takes of three songs from the album.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legends of Tomorrow—Complete 4th Season 

(Warner Bros)

Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.

The time travelers that make up the Legends of Tomorrow begin the fourth season by showing up at JFK Airport as the Beatles arrive—in order to turn back Paul Revere on his horse, who’s warning that the wrong “British are coming.” Such tongue-in-cheek revisionism is at the heart of several of these 16 episodes, including a plot line about Woodstock and its hippies.

 

 

 

Although the goofiness is pervasive, the attractive cast makes the most of their going through time, which includes meeting younger versions of themselves. It all looks terrifically photogenic on Blu; extras include two featurettes, gag reel and deleted scenes.

 

Pavarotti 

(Lionsgate)

Ron Howard’s documentary about the great Italian tenor—probably the most recognized and beloved classical singer since Enrico Caruso—is a hagiographic treatment of the most obvious sort. But that’s not surprising when it comes to memorializing such a towering figure: and the footage of Pavarotti himself (in interviews, opera and concert clips) backs up that theory, as he was such a gregarious, irresistible force of nature with such a naturally beautiful voice that it’s impossible not to be a fawning fan in his wake.

 

 

 

And that’s what this is, with only hints of the difficulties he caused for the women in his life. The hi-def transfer looks (and sounds) excellent; extras are three featurettes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaft 

(Warner Bros)

In this smart-ass reboot of the streetwise private eye series starring Richard Roundtree in the ‘70s, Shaft’s grandson JJ (Jessie T. Usher), a computer geek who works for the FBI, turns detective when his best friend is gunned down. His estranged father John Shaft (Samuel Jackson) appears, annoyingly and cavalierly messing things up as well as helping him out.

 

 

 

It’s a curious hybrid of father-son buddy-movie and blaxploitation spoof (Roundtree appears as grandfather Shaft) that goes on way too long. Too bad Regina Hall is barely visible as John’s ex and JJ’s mother, but that’s probably unavoidable in this testosterone-fueled context. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurettes.

 

DVDs of the Week

Elementary—Complete Final Season

Madame Secretary—Complete 5th Season 

(CBS/Paramount)

In the entertaining final season of Elementary, Holmes and Watson—Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu—find themselves in London after he leaves America to avoid a murder rap for which he was framed.

 

 

 

Another CBS prime-time staple, Madame Secretary, provides Tea Leoni with her juiciest role yet as the popular Secretary of State running for president. If that sounds familiar, then the episode in which Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and—yes—Hillary herself appear won’t be a surprise. Both sets’ extras comprise deleted scenes; Elementary also has featurettes and a gag reel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CD of the Week 

Soirée—Magdalena Kožená & Friends 

(Pentatone)

Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená’s newest CD is a wonderful-sounding and impeccably-programmed recital collection that thoughtfully teams songs by her countrymen Dvořák and Janáček with equally exceptional works by the Frenchmen Chausson and Ravel, the Russian Stravinsky and the Germans Brahms and Strauss. Kožená’s bright, emotive voice is backed by a variety of expressive chamber groupings, and the stellar musicians on display include her husband, pianist Simon Rattle, violinists Wolfram Brandl and Rahel Rilling, violist Yulia Deyneko, cellist David Adorjan, clarinetist Andrew Marriner and flutist Kaspar Zehnder.

Project Grand Slam’s 7th Release Reveals A Marriage of Rock and Jazz To Great Success

PGS7FrontCover

Project Grand Slam

PSG 7
Album

Live Show

The Groove!

125 MacDougal St.

One set – 7:30pm – 8:30pm.

Admission $5

The brainchild of seasoned bassist/composer Robert Miller, Project Grand Slam (PGS) continues catalog building with  PGS 7 — its latest release. This ensemble proves there’s no shame in sticking to your guns and hammering away with a fusion of Jazz, Rock and Latino stylizations — maybe not so familiar to a millennial and post-millennial crowd — but stuff deep in the craw of any proficient musician appreciative of these recordings. The dialogue the band makes between genres gets slicker and slicker with every subsequent release yet PSG never loses its raw, propulsive core.

Originally formed in 2007, PGS has released eight well-received albums all acclaimed for lovers of fusion. Based in New York City.
PSG 7 may be the “album of the year” for lovers of great insrumentalists and great rock vocals. In so many ways PSG should at least come close given the paucity of musical depth so much pop music reflects. The previous release, “Greetings From Serbia (Jan. 2019) was recorded live at the Nisville Jazz Festival and is noted for being  “a watershed record” — a great live document.

But a studio returned was awaited by fans. The previous studio album Trippin’ (2018) hit Billboard’s chart and was named a “best of 2018” on many lists. Now, PSG 7 does that all that the previous studio album did and more. Pick it up or head to a live show.

In anticipation of the new year, PSG starts its Fall performance schedule with a return engagement Friday, Sept. 20th at its “home base” in NYC — The Groove in Greenwich Village.

For more info go to: https://www.projectgrandslam.com/

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