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Blu-rays of the Week
Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood
One of the Criterion Collection’s best recent boxed sets is this six-disc journey through the groundbreaking films made by director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, including such classics as Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express. Dietrich’s persona—aloof but endlessly fascinating—was cemented through these pictures, and von Sternberg provided the most elegant vehicles for her talent.
The new hi-def transfers of these 80-plus-year-old B&W films are nothing short of astonishing; many extras include new and archival featurettes and interviews.
Jonas Carpignano’s second feature, set amid Roma families in southern Italy, is an arresting, quasi-documentary look at a teenage boy whose close-knit family is shaken up when dad and older brother are taken in by the police. Our young protagonist discovers that being head of the household is not as easy as it looks.
With a non-professional cast (including several members of the same family), there’s a certain roughness in parts, but the authenticity of these people and their home are delicately wrought. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include a 50-minute making-of documentary; Cannes featurette; deleted scenes; and Carpignano’s original A Ciambra short.
This star-studded 2011 production of the Mozart classic—with Peter Mattei as the Don, Bryn Terfel as his servant Leporello, and veterans Barbara Frittoli and Anna Netrebko and young Anna Prohaska as the women in his life—is complemented by Daniel Barenboim conducting the La Scala orchestra for three hours of operatic bliss.
Director Robert Carsen smartly keeps his powerhouse cast front and center; first-rate hi-def video and audio completes the picture.
Endeavour—Complete 5th Season
Wherein recently promoted Endeavour Morse, his worldlier partner Thursday and new recruit Fancy solve more crimes, including murder in a movie house and the theft of a valuable Fabergé egg.
The six self-contained episodes make up several hours of sheer entertainment, made most palatable by the performances of Shaun Evans, Roger Allam and newcomer Lewis Peek, all of whom enjoying good chemistry. The British countryside looks great on Blu.
DVDs of the Week
Rosario Dawson is a knockout as the title character, a male fantasy of a damaged single mom: a former stripper, hooker and addict who turns grown men into putty and a young man, barely older than her son, into a reasonable facsimile of an adult.
William Macy directs Will Aldis’s threadbare script with over-insistent whimsy, which turns rom-com material into leaden melodrama; the rest of the cast—Nick Robinson, Felicity Huffman, Macy himself, Kathy Bates, and William Fichtner—has its moments but too much of Krystal is cringeworthy as it attempts being sentimental and offbeat simultaneously, like Macy’s Showtime series Shameless.
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 5th Season
This latest release collects all 24 episodes from the penultimate 1971-72 season of the comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, the perfect ringmasters for a loony stew of goofy jokes and skits, with musical interludes and political satire making appearances as well.
The first episode features the only time then “world’s biggest sex symbol” Raquel Welch came on the show; there’s also the usual motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Richard Dawson, Gary Owens, Lily Tomlin) and other guest stars like Hugh Hefner, Gene Hackman, Carroll O’Connor and Rita Hayworth that help celebrate a milestone like the series’ 100th episode.
This clumsily executed 1957 musical comprising Cole Porter’s beguiling tunes recounts the friction among the partners in a famous cabaret act, with Gene Kelly doing his usual razzle-dazzle alongside his main ladies Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, who all are worthy of the praise Porter showers on them.
Too bad George Cukor’s curiously flatfooted direction keeps this from taking off like the best movie musicals of its era do. The colorful widescreen compositions look excitingly alive in hi-def; extras are an archival featurette hosted by Elg and a vintage cartoon.
In Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s volatile Beirut-set feature, hurled insults between a local and a Palestinian laborer spiral into a national case that is judged in the media and the courtroom. Doueiri’s taut story raises the stakes between the two men at first, but then becomes more strident and contrived, so much so that its power is diminished.
Still, Doueiri’s formidably authentic actors lend the film the gravitas it needs. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is an informative 33-minute interview in which Doueiri discusses (in English) his film’s genesis.
Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame In Concert
This invaluable two-disc set for music fans collects the most recent quartet of Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies: 2014, 2016 and 2017 in Brooklyn and 2015 in Cleveland.
Not surprisingly, the highlights are many: 2014 features the remaining members of Nirvana with singers Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Lorde; 2015 brings a Ringo and Paul reunion for Starr’s belated solo induction; 2016 finally admits both Deep Purple and Cheap Trick; and 2017 does the same with both ELO and Yes (with Geddy Lee playing bass in place of the late, great Chris Squire). Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, an elite troop of U.S. Special Forces goes to Afghanistan to kick-start the War on Terror by (at first begrudgingly and later more willingly) teaming with the North Alliance to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda.
This straightforward and effective dramatization of the group’s heroics has been directed by the workmanlike Nicolai Fuglsig, and the heroes are enacted with true grit by Liam Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Pena, among others. The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; extras comprise two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
Ilan Ziv’s exhaustive six-part feature documents the history of capitalism, from Adam Smith’s incisive and misinterpreted insights (like his legendary phrase, “invisible hand”) to the 2008 global collapse, which—according to many renowned economists—wasn’t supposed to happen.
Through interviews with sundry experts and witty sequences explaining integral concepts, Ziv has made a thorough, impactful look at what, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst of all possible economic systems—except for all others.
A Violent Life
The Mediterranean island of Corsica (Napoleon’s birthplace) isn’t usually in movies, especially as shown in Thierry de Peretti’s gritty drama, whose protagonist returns from Paris to the raw, violent isle he grew up on after his best friend (and fellow gang member) is murdered.
Through clever flashbacks, de Peretti trenchantly explores the underbelly of a modern society whose everyday life is gripped by crime and a regional fractionalism so severe that it’s led to a separatist movement against the arrogant French state.
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.
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY
Last September, I was at the Ottawa Animation Festival, which is the main thing that happens in Canada’s capitol aside from government bureaucracy, and on the last day I was there, there was a long gap between screenings, so I went down to the Arts Center where some events I hadn’t noticed before were still going on, and I when I got there, I saw that there was a long, long line.
This was for Pearl, a 360° short film released as part of Google’s Spotlight Stories project. Now what this thing was, was not one of those 3D things where you need special glasses for, but something more important: A narrative Virtual Reality experience.
It blew me away. This is the future of cinema. It told a story (about a guy, his kid, and their car), and it did what VR was supposed to do, put you in the middle of the action. You had to put on the goggles and headphones to see it, and that’s fine, it’s the way we’re going to watch movies in the ’30s and ’40s. We have to start somewhere.
In the early 1930s, a two-reeler called La Cucaracha got an Oscar for Best Short. It wasn’t very good in and of itself, but it was the first film to use 3-strip Technicolor, and as such looked gorgeous. So it was, for the time, a technical marvel.
Pearl is that sort of film. Not something that will thrill viewers 30 years from now. But something like, Dire Straits’ music video Money for Nothing back in the ‘80s, something that was really cool and somewhat visionary at the time, but soon become dated. That thing looked kind of primitive when it came out. So did FDR’s television from 1939. State of the Art doesn’t seem “state of the art” for very long.
And thus it is for Pearl. The first successful experiment of something that would show the world the possibilities of the next phase in the evolution of the art form.
The people who make the nominations pretty much all saw the 360° version, and yes, that version deserved all the accolades it can get. But here’s the rub. The nominees have to be seen on the silver screen, which means the people who voted on the Oscar itself won’t see it. They will see a “cinematic” cut down version that’s nowhere near as good, and these people will wonder how this nice, but by no means exceptional, little film earned a nomination in the Best Animated Short category.
So it will lose. Which is sad.
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