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Film and the Arts

Actor Turned Director Diego Luna Celebrates "Cesar Chavez"

Photo by B. Balfour

Born on December 29, 1979 in Mexico City, Diego Luna Alexander lost his mother in a car accident when he was only two. So Luna became immersed in his father's passion for entertainment as Mexico’s most acclaimed living theatre, cinema and opera set designer. From an early age Luna began acting in television, movies and theater. Once he achieved international recognition, he expanded his resume to include writing, producing and directing as well.

This producer-actor-director’s full bio includes such highlights as big budget sci-fi thriller Elysium (2013),  the Oscar-nominated Milk (2008), Tom Hanks starrer The Terminal (2004), and provocative Y Tu Mamá También (2001). But his most recent directorial effort Cesar Chavez not outlines a slice of the famed civil rights leader and labor organizer’s life (powerfully played by Michael Pena) but also chronicles the birth of a modern American labor movement. The film also tells the story of a man torn between family duties as a husband and father and his commitment to the fight for a living wage for farm workers. 

Passionate but soft-spoken, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in this struggle to bring dignity to his community and disenfranchised people in general. Chavez inspired millions of Americans who hadn’t worked on a farm or been to California to fight for social justice. His journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one person’s ability to change the world.

Buttressed by two incredibly strong women — wife Helen (America Ferrara) and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) — Chavez presciently foresaw the impact the Latino American community would have on this country as he drew attention to this long disenfranchised sector.

chavez posterQ: Once you got this idea, how long did it take you to do this film? 

DL: At the beginning I didn’t know I had to do it; I would’ve quit had I been told this was going take four years and a half of my life. When I started I thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that there’s no film about Cesar Chavez. But this is so powerful and comes in time for many reasons, and  since this community’s growing, everyone’s going to want to do this film.” 

I went out and started shopping as is done with films. You go to studios and sit down with executives and everyone gave us a chance to sit down which sounded like, “Okay it’s happening,” then they said, “Wow, this is great, we love that you’re doing this, we’re not going to join but once you have a film, come and show it to us and probably we’ll be part of it,” and we’re like, “No! We need the money to do it!” 

It’s not like I’m just going out and doing it. I heard things like, “Can you make it more sexy?” and I was like, “How can I make it more sexy? If it was sexier, farm workers would probably be living a different reality today.” 

They said, “What about A-List actors? Can you have Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem in it?” And I’m thinking, the man existed, there are pictures, there’s murals! You cannot just say, “Well now it’s just going to look like something else…” This is about a Mexican-American, a guy who was born in Arizona. Anyway, we found no support in this country. But by that point, I promised the family that I was going to deliver a film.

I promised that it was happening and then invested a year of my life into it at that point. We were working on the script with Keir Pearson, so I said to my partner Pablo Cruz, “Let’s go to Mexico and finance it the way we do in film.” 

We went to Mexico and in a week and a half we found the money. At least 70% that allows the comeback for the other 30%. Then we came back and found the perfect partners, Participant Media and Pantelion Films, two different kind of film [studios], but they’re both doing films that would be perfect for this market — one that we’re trying to prove exists. That’s how everything started in terms of putting it together. 

We wanted to come to the States and open a company and office here, so we said that we have to do a film that mattered on both sides of the border. It would allow us to work here but still do stories that connect us with where we come from and the community we belong to, to the point that my son who was born here, in the States, so he’s knows he’s a Mexican-American. In fact, he had an American passport before the Mexican one.

In a way, this was an attempt to tell a story that he would be able to use to find out where he comes from and what needed to happen for him to be where he is at the moment. That’s how everything started.

Q: Do you hope this film will change society’s perception of Latinos and the issues that concerns this community?

DL: There’s something that’s happened here before which is that all us Latinos, we have to learn from these guys that if we organize, if we’re united, we have the strength to change the world. That’s definitely a reality, because I don’t think we’ve been so well organized since then. Yes, there’s a lot of complaints that we have to this country, as a community, but I would start looking at ourselves in the mirror and [ask] why we haven’t done [anything]? 

We have a chance to send that message on the opening week, March 28th, which is, “We want these films to be out. We want our stories to be represented. We want our heroes to celebrated in film.” 

There’s two things that matter here. As Cesar said and showed us, one is that our strength is in our numbers, and they’re growing. So I don’t know why we, as a community, haven’t experienced that feeling of power [that] we actually have in hand. The other is that the film confronts you, not just us Latinos, but everyone in this country, with a reality that’s very uncomfortable, that today in the fields, the conditions still aren’t great. 

The struggle continues and consumers have also not been aware of what they’re part of when they buy a product since then. The amazing thing they did as a community, is that they connected with consumers, the rest of America, a community they didn’t think they had a connection with. They found a way to say, “Our story matters to you.” 

When you buy a grape, you’re supporting child labor. Moms listened to that, when a mother was in a store in Chicago, she found a farm worker saying, “When you’re buying that product, you have to remember that behind that product is the work of my six year-old. ” 

Mothers stopped buying grapes. So it’s about connecting, finding out what connects us, not what separates us. I think that’s a beautiful message about the film, and that applies not just for America, but for the world. It’s a nonviolent movement that said it’s about the responsibility of knowing we’re not here alone. The work of many has to happen so we can experience the life we have. It’s just being aware of that — that’s what matters. 

Q: Was it tough for actor Michael Peña to have this on his shoulders?

DL: I was walking coming with Rosario from having lunch, and she told me, ”It’s unbelievable how much Michael changed for this role. He’s just nothing close to what he portrayed here.” 

I always told him, “Michael, we have to be aware. We cannot do the Hollywood way, you know? We cannot say suddenly that Cesar was a great speaker, and the Martin Luther King kind of leader.” 

But he wasn’t. He was very humble and timid. As a result of the amount of urge he had for change to happen, he had to become the leader. If he would’ve had a chance to stand back and stay behind, he would have done it. He was a great listener. 

That’s why he could organize these people, because he came and took the time to listen to everyone’s story. This is a community that has been ignored for so long, that suddenly someone arrived that cared about their story and said, “Your story matters.” 

In fact, Mark Grossman, who traveled a lot through rallies and was Cesar’s PR person — he wrote the speeches for him — was very close to him and we worked a lot with him. He told me [that] the rallies were painful because he would stay until nine, 10 pm, and people left, and he was still talking to a woman in the back. He had time, he nothing else to do but this, and everyone realized he was giving his life. We have to remember, this is a man that got out of living in the city. He changed his life, he was wearing a suit, he had a job. But he said, “No, we have to go back to the fields, we have to change things from the inside. It’s not going to come from the outside.” 

He went back and sacrificed not just his reality but the reality of his family. I love when Fernando asks, “Who plays in Delano? You’re not taking me to a place that doesn’t have a major league baseball team, right?” And [Cesar] goes, “Yeah, we’re all going to sacrifice here, and we’re all going to go back to where we come from.” 

Q: You showed how he sacrificed his relationship with his older son. You spent more than four years working on this movie. How much did it affect your relationship with your own children?

DL: It does, it does. I’ve never had to go so far as he did. I was in Chicago on Friday, took the red eye, spent Saturday and Sunday with my kids, and I’m here on Monday. I would never give away the weekend, and stay for another interview. I think that’s what makes him heroic. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. 

Q: How old are your kids now?

DL: Five and three. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. These guys left for months. Besides everything we’ve talked about, the film is about a father and a son. To me, the reflection I’m making here is [that] there’s a sacrifice we fathers do. I did not understand until I had a baby. It changed the way I looked to my father. When I had a baby, I went back and said, “Damn, dad. You’ve done all of this?” 

My mother died when I was two, so my father had to play both roles and work and it’s that very unfair part of life where you know you have to do it. I do film because of my kids, I think about them every moment of my life. Every decision I make, they’re involved. Probably, they won’t know this until they have their own. 

That’s the gap that sometimes... Hopefully in life you have the time to bring it back together, but not many times it happens. For these characters, it took a long a long time. They had eight kids. Dolores Huerta had 11 kids. Imagine that and they managed to do all this as well. 

Q: Was it a conscious choice that you avoided his childhood? 

DL: The first script I got, [went] from the day he was born until the day he died. You can do that in a fictional film, it doesn’t matter, but with the life of someone I think that’s very unfair. It’s impossible in an hour and 45 minutes to tell of someone’s 64-year journey. I thought, “I’m going to concentrate in one achievement.” 

That’s the boycott was to me. I said, “If I can explain how the boycott happened, and why the boycott happened, and what [it brought] to the community, I’ll be sending the right message.” 

I didn’t want to do a film just about this community. I wanted to do a film about how this community managed to connect with the rest of the country. Because to me, the powerful message here is that if change ever comes, it’s because we get involved and we people connect with others. 

We find those who are out there and what connects us with them. So to me, that was the thing I wanted to focus on -- the personal struggle of a father. It’s the first film done about Cesar and the movement, so it’s unfair to ask one film to fill the gap of so many years where there was no film talking about it. Because if I was here, and there were another three films, I could focus in on a specific thing that none of the other films [did], but you cannot ask a film to tell everything that hasn’t been told. Hopefully this will [stimulate] curiosity and awareness so that people will go and investigate a little more about who they are and what’s behind them. 

Q: Why was the movie shot in Mexico instead of where the events happened? Did that have to do with where you found the money? Being a movie about a syndicated movement, with the actors’ unions very strong here, don’t know how it is in Mexico, but how much of the actors and the crew were unionized?

DL: We shot in Mexico because of two reasons. One, the film was financed in Mexico, so a lot of the financing came as support. We first went to California, but even if we would have shot in the States, we would not have shot in California, because the actual places have changed dramatically since the ’60s. So you cannot shoot there, you’d have to recreate the [conditions]. 

We found in Sonora that the fields there have that immensity. Sonora is the state that produces 80% of the table grape of Mexico. Mexico is a huge country, so the feeling when you’re there, it’s the same feeling you have in the valley in California. You really are a dot in the middle of nowhere. There’s this immensity, the feeling that those fields are feeding a world, 

In terms of the union, there’s no way to do a film this big non-union in Mexico. Every actor was paid through SAG; we also have a union in Mexico of actors and technicians. It would be very stupid to do a film about a union without the support of unions [laughs]. But you know what happened…? There was a whole debate on the extras. 

The extras are farm workers. That doesn’t mean they didn’t get paid. The point is, I wanted to work with real farm workers. You know those faces? There’s no way to put makeup on a face and make it look like they’ve been under the sun for so many years, under that condition of dust and wind. Those faces tell you the story. Just by looking at the face, you get many things that can’t be said in dialogue. 

Q: Were these farm workers from the area where you shot?

DL: Many farm workers joined. By the third day they realized that film isn’t glamorous and that the experience was as miserable as working in the fields [laughs]. Because we were in the fields, we put every penny we had in front of the camera, so the conditions we were shooting under were rough compared to the cliché of how Hollywood filmmaking is. 

Q: Did the workers themselves teach you anything, something that you never knew?

DL: The only thing is that they reminded me every day of why the film needed to be done. It just still makes no sense to me that those who are feeding this country can barely feed their families. And by listening to their stories, I got the necessary energy to keep going. No matter what our issues were, they don’t matter. I am lucky to be able to choose where I work, who I’m around, what I do, what stories I tell, I can’t complain. It was a great reminder on why this needs to be out. 

Q: The film deals with social issues. Is that also part of the marketing?

DL: Definitely, and we’re focusing a lot in kids. Before the proper promotion started, we did two weeks of going to high schools and universities. We went to Harvard, Berkeley, Irvine, UCLA, then we did a screening in the RFK High School. It was like a system. We did a screening where they taped it and then that’s going to be shown to kids around California. 

We’re pushing to do tons of little videos in social media and everything to raise awareness about Cesar Chavez and what the movement [stood] for. That’s where Participant comes in. They have an amazing reach in terms of a call-to-action. 

As part of our film, we are also making a petition to President Obama about making a Cesar Chavez National Day of Service. As the campaign goes, if you guys participate, it’d be great. There’s a page called takepart.com/cesarchavez and you can sign. If you sign the petition, we need a hundred thousand signatures to go to Obama. 

Film should be the beginning of something bigger. This film should trigger, hopefully, the curiosity of people to find out exactly what this movement was about. It’s difficult to inform in an hour and 45 minutes about everything they did and still entertain but it is pertinent to talk about this because the issues today in the field are even more complicated [than ever]. 

We thought also about a day of celebration... A few states today celebrate Cesar Chavez day, but we thought that a national day of service would be the way he would like to be remembered, a day where you work and give something back to your community, which is what they did from beginning to end. 

There [are] so many things happening at the same time, and there are so many things happening in Latin America. Because if few people know here the story of Cesar Chavez, you’ll go to Latin America and everyone thinks he’s a boxer. No one knows, and it’s something that hopefully the film, and everything happening around the film, might be able to change. Also, the foundation is working really close. 

Dolores Huerta has been promoting the film with us, and every time she grabs the microphone, she talks about it and the 10 other things that matter to her. If film can work for that to happen, if film can bring attention to the work of those that are still in the struggle, still out there, I’ll be very proud. But it’s definitely about kids.

You know an amazing thing that has been happening is that today there’s many Latinos in key positions and many have the chance to actually choose what they want to do in life. They have businesses and so many of these people are buying out theaters and giving them away to schools. 

For the first weekend, someone said, “I would like to share this film with every high school kid of the community I come from” which is an amazing thing. The distribution company Pantelion is getting these calls and managing to actually make it happen, where you basically buy out a theater and fill it with kids that normally wouldn’t go watch it, or will probably watch it two years later on their phone while doing another 20 things, which is how kids now watch films... so that’s also happening. People like Henry Moreno — he was the first one. 

Q: Is he one of the producers?

DL: No, no, no! He’s just a guy that cares about this. I was at an event in Washington, and Moreno talked about this, he was doing a show and he told me, “I’m buying out theaters to share with the kids, and this is happening, people are starting to react.” 

That’s fantastic. I did this film because I think I have some distance to the story. Generationally, I wasn’t around when this happened, so also that gives me some objectivity, I guess. But the angle which I’m telling this, it’s the perfect angle for people who don’t know the story, to listen [to] it for the first time.

Q: What did it teach you about yourself as a father, as a director, as an actor? 

DL: You know, I found a connection. It was through telling personal stories that they managed to bring the attention to something bigger. It was about a mother going out, as I said, a mother going out of a grocery store and telling another mother, “Behind that grape, there’s the work of my kid. Are you sure you want to be part of that?” 

Then that mother got hit so badly and so profoundly, that she’s gonna turn into an advocate for the movement. But it’s by telling personal stories that you can trigger that, and I think film has that power. Today, if I was sitting in a board meeting of this movement, I would say, “Let’s do short documentaries about each other’s experiences and get them out, because that’s the way to get people’s attention.” 

We do the same thing, in a way. At least film is capable of doing what these guys did. That was a connection that I found on the way. When I was out and everyone was like, “Oh, you’re doing the film about Cesar Chavez! I gotta tell you something. My grandfather, one day, he grew up and blah blah blah…” 

If I do a documentary where I tell you, “More than a 100,000 have been killed in the last eight years in my country because of the war on drugs that our president started, our former president started…” You’re going to go, “Oh, that’s a big number.” 

But if I tell you the story of a kid who lost his father and now has to work and had to get out of school to support his mother, and how the life these four people changed dramatically, not just his but his brother and his sister... The next day you’re going to care about the war we’re living there. So by telling personal stories you can trigger that attention and that’s something they were doing that was way ahead of us. 

 

"The Girls in the Band" Honors Music's Unsung Heroines

How many female jazz musicians can you name? Judy Chaikin's new documentary The Girls in the Band can help. By the time the credits roll, you will have met three generations of distaff players, composers, arrangers and GreatDayinHarlemconductors reaching back to the 1920s. Names like saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert, trumpeters Clora Bryant and Billie Rogers and drummer Viola Smith will roll off the tongue as readily as those of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

Read more: "The Girls in the Band" Honors...

January '22 Digital Week IV

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Rifkin’s Festival 
(MPI)
One of Woody Allen’s lesser works, this halfbaked comedy is set at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where cranky critic Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn) accompanies his wife Sue (Gina Gershon)—press agent for the hot young French director Philippe (Louis Garrel)—and, as he worries they’re having an affair, himself falls for a beautiful local doctor, Jo (Elena Ayana).
 
 
As always, there are one-liners galore (some funny, others recycled) as well as affectionate but tepid takeoffs on classics like Citizen Kane, 8-1/2, Jules and Jim, Breathless, The Exterminating Angel and The Seventh Seal. But the material feels stale and not very urgent, while Shawn’s stiff appearance doesn’t help matters as Woody’s alter ego. Still, San Sebastian looks lovely and both Gershon and Ayana are beguiling as the women in Rifkin’s life.
 
 
 
 
 
American Night 
(Saban Films)
Director/writer Alessio Della Valle’s harsh chronicle of organized crime and art forgery revels in loopy twists and turns alongside excessive, cartoonish bursts of violence, but there’s no denying it’s a hfast-paced and always watchable wild ride.
 
 
I haven’t seen Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in years, but he’s quite good as the shady art forger, Paz Vega is sensational as his art expert lover, and Lee Levi and Annabelle Belmondo are excellent as young women in his orbit; Della Valle conjures an authentic atmosphere of the intersecting art world and criminal underworld.
 
 
 
 
 
Brighton 4th 
(Kino Lorber)
In a succinct, minor-key drama that unfolds like a short story, director Levan Koguashvili and writer Boris Frumin follow an elderly man who leaves his home in the former Soviet nation of Georgia to visit his son in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where an enclave of emigres lives.
 
 
Although the plot goes exactly where one expects—especially when there’s discussion of dad being a former wrestler, along with the small-time mob boss to whom the son owes a lot of money—Koguashvili and Frumin adorn it with sharp-eyed characterizations, giving enough variety to the relationships that the movie never approaches melodrama as it subtly gets under the skin.
 
 
 
 
 
4K/UHD Release of the Week
The Lover 
(Capelight)
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ memoir about her affair with a Chinese man in Indochina in 1929 at age 15 nearly got an X rating for its steamy sex scenes, which are the most memorable moments in a mainly aloof and distant film.
 
 
Jane March makes a spectacular debut as the young heroine, while Tony Leung is less interesting as the title character; Jeanne Moreau narrates in French, English or German (depending on which version you decide to watch). Robert Fraisse’s sumptuous cinematography looks especially enticing in 4K; extras include archival interviews with Duras and Annaud, a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Brian Wilson—Long Promised Road 
(Screen Media)
In Brent Wilson’s touching documentary, journalist Jason Fine—who’s had a close relationship with the main Beach Boy for a quarter-century—discusses Brian Wilson’s long career with the man himself as they visit places that resonate in Wilson’s life and art over the past 60 years.
 
 
This intimate glimpse at an artist who has persevered even in the throes of a serious mental illness features numerous paeans from the likes of Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Hawkins, which speaks to his influence on generations of rock stars. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are additional interviews and deleted scenes.
 
 
 
 
 
Dancing with Crime/The Green Cockatoo 
(Cohen Film Collection)
This pair of crackerjack crime dramas has been all but forgotten, mainly because there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better in countless other movies—still, both are good for a watch if there’s nothing else to do.
 
 
1947’s Dancing with Crime boasts nice chemistry between Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim (a married couple offscreen at the time) as a couple of snoops tracking a killer, while 1937’s The Green Cockatoo features the charming René Ray as an innocent woman pursued by both police and criminals. Both films have decent if not exceptional hi-def transfers. 
 
 
 
 
 
Song of the Thin Man 
(Warner Archive)
The last and certainly least of the Thin Man series, this 1947 entry finds Nick and Nora Charles—and their beloved dog Asta—tracking down another murderer, this time with ties to the colorful jazz world.
 
 
William Powell and Myrna Loy are their usual sharp-witted selves and the supporting cast includes ingénues like Jayne Meadows and Gloria Graeme, but the by-the-numbers plotting (and lame Poughkeepsie jokes) make this the least memorable Thin Man flick of all. The B&W movie looks terrific on Blu; extras include a vintage short, A Real Important Person, and classic cartoon, Slap Happy Lion.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week
Haydn—The Creation 
(Alia Vox)
Austrian master Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed several operas that were not as popular with audiences as his contemporary Mozart, but this monumental oratorio (written in 1797-98 and premiered in 1799) is more successful dramatically, and may be the summit achievement of his large-scale vocal output.
 
 
And this superb recording, led by Spanish conductor  Jordi Savall, perfectly marries Haydn’s magnificent orchestral colors (the ensemble is La Concert des Nations) with his majestic voice writing for both a trio of soloists (here, soprano Yeree Suh, tenor Tilman Lichdi and baritone Matthias Winckhler) and chorus (La Capella Reial de Catalunya).

January '22 Digital Week III

4K/UHD Release of the Week 
A Hard Day’s Night 
(Criterion Collection)
Nearly sixty years on, the Beatles’ first film remains innovative, hilarious and gloriously tuneful—it’s a happy combination of Alun Owen’s clever script, Richard Lester’s gleefully absurdist direction, the Fab Four’s wittily distinctive personalities and several of their greatest 1964-era songs, from the title tune and “Can’t Buy Me Love” to “If I Fell” and “And I Love Her.”
 
 
Criterion’s 4K transfer makes the B&W images—the luminous photography is by Gilbert Taylor—literally pop off the TV screen and the audio (overseen by Beatles producer George Martin’s son Giles) is exceptional; there’s an audio commentary, and the accompanying Blu-ray disc has many other extras: archival interviews with and featurettes about the Beatles and Lester; Lester’s breakthrough 1960 short, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film; and an interview with Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn.
 
 
 
 
 
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
Delicious 
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)
In this entertainingly tall tale of the man who opened the first restaurant in France—coinciding with the French Revolution in 1789, naturally—writer-director Éric Besnard has smartly cast Grégory Gadebois as the chef and Isabelle Carré as the woman who starts out as his unlikely protégé, then becomes his confidante and second-in-command: their chemistry gives the film that extra sauce and spice it needs.
 
 
At times, it’s uncomfortably remindful of such Miramax awards bait as Chocolat, but the typically French intertwining of the political, personal and culinary makes this, well, delicious. 
 
 
 
 
 
Italian Studies 
(Magnolia)
As she showed in her Oscar-nominated performance in Pieces of a Woman and Emmy-nominated turn as Prince Margaret in The Crown, Vanessa Kirby is incapable of a false note as an actress, so writer-director Adam Leon is lucky her presence anchors his occasionally intriguing but mainly pretentious character study.
 
 
Unfortunately Kirby—as an amnesiac author who falls in with a group of teenagers—can’t save this 78-minute one-note drama that feels much longer than it is.
 
 
 
 
 
Who We Are—A Chronicle of Racism in America 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Turning a staged lecture into a stirring documentary worked for Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth; lawyer Jeffrey Robinson goes a similar route for his brutally honest and relevant discussion of how our country arrived at its current predicament: he calls out the obvious racism embedded in the founding fathers’ writings and documents and how difficult it’s been to escape that past because it’s still going on today.
 
 
Robinson has a chatty but commanding manner while sharing facts and insights onstage (it was shot at New York City’s Town Hall in 2018) and he dives further into our shared history of embarrassment in several location shots, including one of him discussing the myth of the Confederate flag with a stalwart defender of it in Virginia. 
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Ema 
(Music Box)
Chilean director Pablo Larraín found some mainstream success with a couple of clunky middlebrow biopics, Diana and Spencer, both making unfortunate hash of the legacies of Jackie Kennedy and Lady Di; much better are the films he made in his native country, like Post Mortem, No and, now, Ema, a chillingly unblinking study of a young woman—an artistic free spirit—who responds to the collapse of her marriage and tragedy involving her son by, literally, burning down her own existence and the world around her.
 
 
The fresh and vibrant actress Mariana di Girolamo is magnificent as Ema, humanizing a primarily symbolic role, and Larraín visualizes her experiences with wit, sympathy and perceptiveness. The film looks great on Blu; extras are a commentary by the film’s choreographer, Jose Vidal, and music video directed by Larraín.
 
 
 
 
 
Expresso Bongo 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Val Guest’s 1959 rock-n-roll curio, even more of a time capsule than A Hard Day’s Night, chronicles the early, heady days of the pop music biz in the form of the sleazy local talent agent Johnny Jackson (Laurence Harvey), who discovers teen singer Bert Rudge (Cliff Richard) and proceeds to turn him into a sensation.
 
 
This musical-cum-romantic comedy-cum gritty slice of life comes off as mostly corny now, but it’s definitely a valuable glimpse at the so-called innocent days of the music biz, which don’t look all that much different than the billion-dollar industry it became. The B&W film has a gritty look in hi-def.
 
 
 
 
 
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy 
(Film Movement)
In this engrossing triptych of stories about women dealing with the shifting dynamics of relationships, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi develops, with an almost casual mastery that’s far more accomplished than his forebear, Eric Rohmer (whom Hamaguchi nods to), the near-perfect form for alternatingly amusing and unsettling studies that shudder with palpable tension.
 
 
The film looks splendid on Blu; extras are a Hamaguchi interview and a short, The Chicken, by director Neo Sora.
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Releases of the Week
Billions—Complete 5th Season 
(Showtime/CBS)
The ongoing war between U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades and hedge-fund entrepreneur Bobby Axelrod reaches its deliriously absurd apogee in the latest season of Showtime’s alternately spellbinding and silly drama: Axelrod simply gets on a plane and flees to Switzerland in the finale.
 
 
It’s quite an anticlimax for a showdown that’s been promised for five seasons, and now that Damien Lewis will not return as Axelrod, having Rhoades battle Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) probably won’t have the same frisson. As always, this season had the usual exacting performances by Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, David Costabile and Condola Rashad to keep us watching. 
 
 
 
 
 
Historical Drama Collection 
(Corinth Films)
Corinth Films has put together somewhat of a grab bag with this quintet of films made in the last decade or so centering on historical events, from Russia (Marlene Gorris’ Within the Whirlwind), France (Volker Schlondorff’s Calm at Sea), Germany (Juraj Kerz’s Habermann), Latvia (Viesturs Kairiss’ The Chronicles of Melanie) and Poland (Anna Justice’s Remembrance).
 
 
Of the five, Gorris’ dramatization of the life of Soviet dissident Evgenia Ginzburg (powerfully played by Emily Watson) and Schlondorff’s recreation of the heroic deaths of French resistance fighters, including 17-year-old Guy Moquet (the expressive Léo Paul Salmain) are the most worthwhile entries.
 
 
 
 
 
The Last Tycoons 
(Icarus Films)
Florence Strauss’ eight-part documentary profiling dozens of important French film producers might seem excessive in its length, but in reality it’s probably not enough time to give several of these men their proper due, as it was they who allowed such visionary directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, Luis Bunuel and Jean Eustache to make uncompromisingly personal features.
 
 
Crammed with a voluminous amount of archival interviews alongside scenes from classics like Breathless, Forbidden Games, The Mother and the Whore and Z, this might not be a series that many viewers would binge, but those who are really into French film will find it irresistible.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week 
Hans Werner Henze—The Sea Betrayed 
(Capriccio)
German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) was a modernist who loved writing operas on all subjects and in many styles: this opera, which he wrote in 1986 and revised a couple decades later, is based on Yukio Mishima’s haunting novella The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, which was made into a middling movie in 1976 with Kris Kristofferson and the mesmerizing Sarah Miles as a seaman and his widowed lover, both of whom are disturbed by her teenage son’s nocturnal activities. Henze’s arresting score, which combines dreamy but restless seascapes with gorgeous arias—especially for Fusako, the widow—and sturdy ensembles, remarkably dramatizes this strange, nearly surreal world of inhibition, sexuality, anarchy and murder.
 
 
This recording, from Vienna in 2020, is vivid and intense, brilliantly played by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under conductor Simone Young, and extraordinarily sung by Bo Skovhus as the sailor, Ryuji, Josh Lovell as Fusako’s disturbed teenage son, Noboru, and Vera-Lotte Boecker, who gives a deeply affecting portrayal of Fusako. The only thing missing, in fact, are the visuals, which the CD packaging gives a tantalizing glimpse of: here’s hoping a Blu-ray of the actual production is soon to follow.

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