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Film and the Arts

June '24 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Robot Dreams 
(Neon)
In this tearjerking animated fantasy, a lonely dog builds a robot so he has a friend, but after he leaves it on the beach one summer, both of them find ultimately satisfying ways of going on with their lives.
 
 
Director Pablo Berger has made a clever, even witty and touching fable about companionship and loneliness, set in a cool-looking ’80s NYC entirely populated by animals and the occasional robot. Kids will enjoy it, of course, but their parents might get even more out of it, especially since the animation is so refreshingly elegant in its simplicity.
 
 
 
Naughty 
(Capelight)
This Russian 50 Shades of Grey has a plot as implausible as the worst adult film: Elya, a beautiful, independent, headstrong (fill in the blank) college student, is an environmental activist and influencer shocked that a local forest is being cleared for more development. But when she meets the developer, she finds him gorgeous and charming; he bets her that after a week of romance, she will see the error of her ways. Does she succumb? Well, I’m not going to ruin the fun! (Yes, she does.) 
 
 
50 Shades is actually referenced in the dialogue, and Anastasiya Reznik and Alexander Petrov certainly make a sexy pair, but getting through this will depend on your tolerance for the eye-rolling attempts at eroticism from director Dmitriy Suvorov.
 
 
 
Protocol 7 
(Abramorama)
It’s not enough that Andrew Wakefield, disgraced anti-vaxxer, has branched into badly slanted, unwatchable advocacy documentaries (2016’s Vaxxed: From Coverup to Conspiracy), but now he’s decided to write and direct a feature. This conspiracy thriller might even be worse than his doc, as a shady Big Pharma company pushes through an MMR vaccine that does irreparable harm to vaxxed infants.
 
 
The political and moral positions are awful enough, but Wakefield compounds the problem by being an astonishingly inept director and writer: the film’s best performances come from actors who play a dumbfounded nurse and doctor in a scene where they are berated by a new dad upset they gave his newborn scheduled vaccines. Then there are the end credits, during which “facts” are shown onscreen, all sourced to a book cowritten by—of course—RFK Jr.
 
 
 
Rowdy Girl 
(Argot)
Jason Goldman’s straightforward documentary introduces Renee King-Sonnen, a Texas cattle rancher who’s now a vegan and wants to transform her husband Tommy’s huge, profitable ranch into a sanctuary (it’s named Rowdy Girl) that protects the animals at all costs.
 
 
Goldman presents Renee and Tommy’s story matter-of-factly, without any needless editorializing, which makes it even more powerful when we listen to her speak about why she changed from killing cattle and eating meat to where she is today, along with touching moments of her bonding with the animals.
 
 
 
Summer Camp 
(Roadside Attractions)
This latest by-the-numbers senior comedy stars Diane Keaton (who else?), along with Viola Davis and Kathy Bates, as longtime friends who met decades earlier at summer camp who decide to relive those experiences by attending a—you guessed it—summer camp reunion.
 
 
It all plays out exactly as you’d expect, through laughter and tears, misunderstandings and making up, along with a couple of older guys thrown into the mix (Dennis Haysbert and Eugene Levy, who both look properly embarrassed) for our gals. Keaton, of course, is as irrepressible as ever, Woodard and Bates do decently enough, but it’s as instantly forgettable as a day at camp.
 
 
 
4K/UHD Release of the Week
Cemetery Man 
(Severin)
You might not see a more bizarre and, yes, insane movie than this 1995 zombie entry from Italian director Michele Soavi: Rupert Everett (who looks amusingly bemused throughout) plays cemetery keeper Francesco, who must fend off all manner of reanimated corpses, including the gorgeous wife (Anna Falchi) of a recently buried elderly man—she died having sex with Francesco on hubby’s grave.
 
 
The fun part is that Soavi gleefully leans into the craziness, and the blood, gore, sex and ridiculous performances and dialogue all add up to something breathtaking in its combined lunacy and chutzpah. The film’s explicit but tongue-in-cheek visuals look clearer than ever on UHD; the 4K disc has a commentary by Soavi and screenwriter Gianni Romli and the Blu-ray disc includes the film, new interviews with Soavi, Everett and Falchi as well as a vintage making-of.
 
 
 
Kung Fu Panda 4 
(Dreamworks)
In the fourth chapter of this smashingly successful animated franchise, our panda hero Po (the always manically-voiced Jack Black) goes on a journey with a wily fox, Zhen (Awkwafina), that finds them facing villains from previous installments.
 
 
It’s all silly fun that’s powered by the chemistry between Black and Awkwafina and the weirdly entertaining voice cast that runs the gamut from Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston and Ian MacShane to Ronny Chieng, James Hong and Viola Davis. The UHD transfer comprises eye-popping colors; extras include a new short, Dueling Dumplings, as well as deleted scenes, Meet the Cast, featurettes and a filmmaker’s commentary.
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Fanny—The Other Mendelssohn 
(Mercury Studios)
Director Sheila Hayman takes a close look at Fanny Mendelssohn, an accomplished composer in her own right who was eclipsed both by an era that didn’t take women composers seriously and her brother Felix, also greatly accomplished and celebrated for his symphonies and chamber music.
 
 
Hayman shows that Fanny was as equally masterly as Felix, but the demands of her marriage (despite husband Wilhelm being totally supportive) and 19th century misogyny held her back. There’s a subplot of sorts in which scholar Angela Mace resurrects Fanny’s “Easter” piano sonata, originally attributed to Felix but now considered one of her summit achievements, more than 150 years after her untimely death of a stroke at age 41. (Felix died six months later, also of a stroke.) There’s first-rate video and audio.
 
 
 
Io Capitano 
(Cohen Media Group)
In Italian director Matteo Garrone’s intense—if manipulative—drama, Senegalese teens Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) take what little funds they have to try to get to Europe, little realizing the horrors that await them. They are captured, separated and tortured in Libya, abandoned but reunited in North Africa, and finally arrive via the Mediterranean in southern Italy—but only when 16-year-old novice Seydou must pilot the boat filled with dozens of migrants.
 
 
Garrone captures the humanity of these people desperate for a new start alongside the inhumanity of many others. Manipulation and contrivance notwithstanding, Io Capitano is superior filmmaking, with a staggeringly moving final shot of Seydou, the face of non-actor Sarr going through so many conflicting emotions that he should have won every award there is. The Blu-ray image looks fantastically sharp; extras include Q&As with Garrone, Fall and Sarr as well as Mamadou Kouassi, whose story inspired the film.
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week
Gabriel Fauré—Song Cycles 
(Harmonia Mundi)
A master of intimately scaled works, French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was at his absolute best writing mélodies, or song settings, which he returned to throughout his long and varied composing career. This new disc of several of his masterly song cycles is sung by baritone Stéphane Degout with modest but supreme elegance, perfect for these jewels of vocal music.
 
 
There’s the towering cycle La Bonne Chanson, set to Paul Verlaine poems and a highlight of the composer’s middle period, and the trio of late cycles—Le Jardin clos, Mirages and the magnificent closer, L'Horizon chimérique—are also expressively performed. Pianist Alain Planès is not only a sublime accompanist throughout but also shows off his own Fauré chops in a passionate reading of the great F-sharp major Ballade. 

Broadway Play Review—Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” with Steve Carell

Uncle Vanya
Written by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Heidi Schreck
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through June 23, 2024
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
lct.org
 
Steve Carell and Alison Pill in Uncle Vanya (photo: Marc J. Franklin)
 
As unclassifiable as his other masterpieces—The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Three Sisters—Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya moves freely between laughter and tears, between comedy and tragedy. 
 
Uncle Vanya revolves around the middle-aged title character, a mediocrity who has been forgotten by everybody and who has pretty much nothing to show for his nearly half-century of life except the avid devotion of his plain niece Sonia, herself the doormat daughter of elderly professor Alexander, now married to the beautiful—and much younger—Yelena. Vanya unabashedly adores the lively Yelena, but she only, often teasingly, considers him a friend. Then there’s Astrov, the dashing country doctor, who frequents Alexander’s estate that Vanya and Sofya sweat blood and tears to keep profitable; he might be able to pry Yelena away from her suffocating marriage. 
 
The above paragraph makes Chekhov’s plot sound like a mere soap opera, but there’s so much variety and vitality in his exquisitely-written characters—including making Astrov one of the first real environmentalists to grace the stage—that melodrama is kept permanently at bay. Because of its enormous subtlety, Uncle Vanya rarely makes it to the stage convincingly: the last time I saw it in New York, in Austin Pendleton’s 2009 off-Broadway production, it flickered to life only occasionally; and while Lila Neugebauer’s new staging at Lincoln Center Theater has its effective moments, it too ultimately misses the mark. 
 
One problem is that Chekhov’s tightrope walk between the tragic and the comic is best conveyed on a small stage so that the audience is close to and invested in these flawed, all-too-human characters. But the Vivian Beaumont’s thrust stage hampers Neugebauer and set designer Mimi Lien, who populate the set with pieces of furniture, tables and chairs strewn about, while a huge projection of a forest takes encompasses the back wall. Although much of the action is up front, some scenes are played out further back, lessening their impact. There are bits of visual beauty thanks to Neugebauer and her crack design team—in addition to Lien, there are lighting designers Lap Chi Chu and Elizabeth Harper as well as costumer Kaye Voyce—but even something as clever as a rainstorm drenching star Steve Carell just lays the metaphorical misery on a bit too thickly.
 
Heidi Shreck’s adaptation updates the play by adding a few unnecessary F-bombs and stripping it of its essential Russianness, which for the most part doesn’t hamper it very much but neither does it make it more relatable or, God help us, modern. Neugebauer’s cast follows suit, a mixed bag of acting styles that has a couple gems amid more unfocused portrayals.
 
Anika Noni Rose’s vivacious Yelena has a boisterousness that can’t entirely hide her tearful countenance, while Alfred Molina is having so much fun as the cranky, lively old Alexander that it’s contagious. Conversely—and surprisingly—William Jackson Harper makes Astrov a weirdly jumpy bunch of nerves, his dialogue coming out in torrents that are at odds with what Chekhov has written, making it difficult to see what draws Yelena to him. 
 
Carell’s Vanya, while too subdued—Carell sometimes fades too easily into the background, too obviously underlining Vanya’s wasted life—uses the actor’s hangdog looks to visualize such a weary soul. By far the best performance comes from Alison Pill, whose Sonia is wonderfully alive and piercingly plain; she speaks the final heartbreaking but hopeful speech without a trace of affectation. 
 
But even that final silence between Pill and Carell can’t rescue this intermittently touching Uncle Vanya; Chekhov’s illuminating portrait of people trudging on with life despite their despair once again deserves better.

Beethoven & Mozart with the New York Philharmonic

Guest Conductor Jane Glover & soprano Karen Slack with the New York Philharmonic. Photo by Chris Lee

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, on the afternoon of Friday, May 10th, I had the considerable pleasure to attend a superb concert of classical era music presented by the players of the New York Philharmonic, under the assured direction of guest conductor Jane Glover

The event began splendidly with an exceptional account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s marvelous Symphony No. 35 in D major, the “Haffner”, K.385. The initial Allegro con spirito movement is vibrant, although with subdued moments, while the Haydnesque Andante that follows is graceful and unexpectedly playful. The ensuing Menuetto is stately and elegant even as it is replete with forceful statements, and the exhilarating Presto finale is propulsive, but again with more reflective interludes.

A fine soprano, Karen Slack, in her debut performances with this ensemble, then entered the stage, to impressively sing Ludwig van Beethoven’s pronouncedly Mozartean recitative and aria from 1796, Ah! perfido, Op. 65. In a useful note on the program, James M. Keller provides the following description:

For the recitative of this piece Beethoven employed a text by the poet Pietro Metastasio. The singer, who has been deceived by her lover, goes through a tumultuous sequence of conflicting emotions, all underscored by the ever-changing tempo and the varying character of the orchestral underpinnings. With the aria proper (“Per pietà, non dirmi addio”), to an anonymous text, we enter another Mozartean world, one in which woodwinds add pointed commentary above the limpid vocal line. The aria seems to reach its conclusion as the singer bemoans her desperate state, but this is a false ending: an extension introduces an outburst of anger, and finally an expression of almost defiant self-respect. The language throughout is not much of an advance on Mozart’s, but Ah! perfido does point the way to such an achievement as the “Abscheulicher” aria that Beethoven would write in his opera Fidelio, not only in its structure but also in its movement in expression from anger and desolation to self-affirming confidence.

The second half of the concert was comparable in strength, starting with a pleasurable realization of Mozart’s wonderful, seldom performed, and astonishingly precocious Symphony No. 13 in F major, K.112, from 1771, written when he was only fifteen. The opening Allegro is ebullient, if with serious episodes, and closer to the Baroque in style at times. The succeeding Andante is charming, but with surprising depth, leading to a brief but admirable Menuetto movement and a majestic finale marked Molto allegro.

The event concluded rewardingly with an accomplished rendition of the most substantial work on the program, the same composer’s major Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K.543, from 1788, the first of his supreme final trilogy of symphonies. The first movement has a solemn, Adagiointroduction, while its main body—an Allegro—is enthralling, but with quieter passages. It precedes an Andante con moto that achieves profundity even as it enchants and a melodious Menuetto with a bewitching Trio. The dynamic, Allegro finale is almost breathless in pace and ultimately dazzling.

The musicians deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.

New York Philharmonic Features Guest Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen

Guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen with the New York Philharmonic. Photo by Brandon Patoc.

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on the night of Saturday, May 4th, I had the pleasure to attend a splendid concert presented by the New York Philharmonic under the superb direction of the eminent guest conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The events began promisingly with an excellent account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s admirable Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 107, from 1959, featuring the talented soloist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Program annotator James M. Keller records that, “The cellist Mstislav Rostropovich collaborated closely with Shostakovich on several works through the years, and it was for him that the composer wrote both of his cello concertos, seven years apart.” In his book Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, Russia, Music, and Liberty: Conversations with Claude Samuel, the cellist commented:

I have a particularly curious recollection about the Shostakovich First Concerto. When I performed the work for the first time, Shostakovich felt I had come out right all along the line, so he adopted the tempos of my interpretation for the published version of the score. However, five years later, I changed my own interpretation, specifically by speeding up the first movement, which to me seemed better suited to the spirit of the music. In any case, I considered that modification an improvement, and I think Shostakovich shared that feeling. But the “error” of my first interpretation remained in print for posterity.

The initial, Allegretto movement opens playfully—although the propulsive music rapidly becomes more serious—and ends abruptly, while the Moderato that follows is solemn, even lugubrious, and meditative, if with sardonic moments; it builds in intensity before reverting to a more subdued register. The succeeding Cadenza movement is also grave in character, if eventually quite animated and virtuosic. Keller reports that, “In the last movement Shostakovich even worked in a subtle quotation of the Russian folk tune ‘Suliko,’ Stalin's favorite piece of music.” Rostropovich said:

These allusions are undoubtedly not accidental, but they are camouflaged so craftily that even I didn't notice them to begin with. … I doubt if I would have detected this quotation if Dmitri Dmitriyevich hadn't pointed it out to me.

This Allegro con moto becomes spirited, if maybe not without irony. Abundant applause elicited a brief, lovely encore from Kanneh-Mason: his own composition, “Melody.”

The second half of the evening was even more memorable, a marvelous performance of Hector Berlioz’s magnificent Symphonie fantastique: Episode de la vie d'un artiste, Op. 14. The composer prepared a scenario for the premiere of the piece, beginning with this section for the first movement:

Part One: Reveries, Passions — The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind's eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved. 

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe.That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations.

The movement opens softly with a brief introduction, then becomes energetic—even, eventually, exuberant—although with reflective passages. This is the section of the scenario for the second movement:

Part Two: A Ball — The artist finds himself in the most varied situations — in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

This movement, an Allegro non troppo waltz, is melodious and charming and reaches a celebratory climax. Here is the next section of the scenario:

Part Three: Scene in the Fields — Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain — all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm, and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. — But what if she were deceiving him! — This mingling of hope and fear, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up theranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. 

The third movement—which was influenced by the Andante from Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony—has a gentle and bucolic, extended introduction, and then becomes increasingly dramatic, eventually returning to the world of its outset, but now with portentous intimations. Here is the following section from the scenario: 

Part Four: March to the Scaffold — Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear.

This exhilarating, even boisterous, march has an appropriately driving rhythm. The final section of the scenario reads thus:

Part Five: Dream of a Witches' Sabbath — He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. — A roar of joy at her arrival. — She takes part in the devilish orgy. — Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae, sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies Irae are combined. 

The sinister music here becomes tumultuous, concluding forcefully. The artists deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.

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