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Film and the Arts

May '24 Digital Week IV

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
(Cohen Media)
The latest film by the world’s greatest living director, 84-year-old Italian master Marco Bellocchio, is yet another of his gripping and operatic dissections of historical subjects that touch on politics and religion—this time he tells the horrific but true story of a six-year-old Jewish boy torn from his parents’ grasp because a former Christian housekeeper said she baptized him when she thought he was dying as an infant. With his usual sweeping flair and acute observation, Bellocchio fills the screen with indelible images that not only cast a wide net on anti-Semitic mid-19th century Italian (read: Catholic) society but also the excruciating pain and loss felt by the Mortara family as their beloved son and brother remains just out of their reach.
Bellocchio builds his film on two towering portrayals—by Barbara Ronchi as the boy’s mother and by Enea Sala as the young Edgardo, as strong a child performance I’ve ever seen. There’s also supremely well-chosen music by Rachmaninoff and Pärt to complement Fabio Massimo Capogrosso’s orchestral score. There’s also the haunting final split-screen of mother and son, as unforgettable an image as Bellocchio has ever shot.
Back to Black 
(Focus Features)
Sam Taylor-Johnson, who made the intriguing misfire Nowhere Boy about John Lennon’s teenage years, has now done the same with this biopic about Amy Winehouse, the talented British singer who was lost her battle to the demons of fame, alcohol and drugs at age 27 (joining the so-called “27 Club,” populated by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain).
The by-the-numbers script by Matt Greenhalgh follows Amy from teen obscurity to stardom, while Taylor-Johnson’s generally competent direction focuses on her songs—yet it never adds up to much, and even the final, desperate scenes come off haphazardly. Lesley Manville (her nan), Eddie Marsan (her dad) and Jack O’Connell (her husband) acquit themselves well, but it’s Marisa Aleba who makes this rote portrait watchable with a thrilling performance that is less an impersonation that a deeply-felt immersion. 
Streaming/In-Theater Releases of the Week 
The Fall Guy—Extended Cut 
If you thought that pairing Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt—both Oscar nominated for their supporting performances in last summer’s Barbie and Oppenheimer—would be irresistible, then David Leitch’s overblown (particularly in the extended cut, an interminable 146 minutes) action comedy is here to dissuade you of that notion.
There’s some fun early on, but the pointless action scenes pile up in mind-numbing fashion. Gosling is always game but Blunt seems out of her element (her best moment finds her singing karaoke to “Against All Odds,” quite a low bar) and the stunt men are unsurprisingly spectacular but it all adds up to very little, just a noisy misfire.
4K/UHD Release of the Week
American Sniper 
(Warner Bros)
In Clint Eastwood’s superficial 2014 portrait of U.S. navy seal Chris Kyle, jingoism and antiwar sentiment battle for supremacy, with the American war hero coming out on top, even though it only nods at dealing with the psychological toll suffered by those who were there.
Bradley Cooper’s sympathetic portrayal of Kyle goes a long way toward redeeming it, as does Sienna Miller, who does wonders with the underwritten role of Taya, Kyle’s wife, making her as fierce and real as Kyle. Perhaps Eastwood noticed too: a closeup of Miller is the last thing we see before an epilogue comprising real footage from Kyle’s funeral. The film looks sharp and focused in UHD; extras include several making-of featurettes.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The American Society of Magical Negroes 
This mild satire whose title says it all—there’s a club of Black people whose members’ sole function is to “rescue” needy whites—has its share of laughs but too few are incisive or notably uncomfortable; instead, it concentrates its energies on the sappily cute romance between Aren, the newest society member, and Lizzie, with whom he’s enamored.
Writer-director Kobi Libii’s feature debut pulls his punches, and the result, while unfocused and unsatisfying, Justice Smith (Aren) and An-Li Bogan (Lizzie) make a charming couple. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include Libii’s commentary and a trio of featurettes.
Club Zero 
(Film Movement)
Austrian director Jessica Hausner serves up her latest provocation: at an exclusive private school, Miss Novak arrives to teach students about responsible eating, innocuously at first but soon it dominates their lives to the point that their family relationships are damaged and their very lives endangered. It’s too studied and obvious to be effective, since Hausner and cowriter Géraldine Bajard stack the deck immediately and with no insight, just shock value (a student eats her own vomit).
The sleepy performances add to the flatness, with good actors like Sidse Babett Knudsen and Mia Wasikowska reduced to poses. Hausner’s clean, unfussy filmmaking works against her this time. The film has a crisp look on Blu-ray; extras are interviews with Hausner and Wasikowska as well as a Hausner master class at the Munich Film Festival.
Coup de Chance 
For his 50th film, Woody Allen returns to the blunt morality tales of Match Point and Solitary Man, this time set in Paris—and spoken in French (a language he doesn’t speak): a beautiful young wife runs into an old schoolmate and begins an affair, triggering her jealous husband’s radar, with fatal results.
Woody foregoes the complexities of his masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors for a straightforward story with an O. Henry twist; it’s minor but satisfying, thanks to his economical directing, Vittorio Storaro’s glistening photography—which has a burnished glow on Blu-ray—and the fine performances, especially by the always winning Lou de Laâge as the wife.
What begins as a credible psychological thriller about the ways lonely children conjure up imaginary friends soon devolves into predictably lunatic attempts at supernatural horror for which director-writer Jaff Wadlow and his two cowriters must shoulder the blame, relying on lazy jump scares and unscary creatures instead.
The promising cast, particularly DeWanda Wise in the lead and Betty Buckley in a certifiably crazy part, is defeated by the material. The film looks good on Blu; extras comprise a commentary and on-set featurettes.
The final two operas in Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, seen and heard in these 2021 Berlin State Opera stagings by director Stefan Herheim that gain in dramatic force as they go along, provide maximum musical strength. Although Siegfried has some bumpy narrative stretches, Götterdämmerung has more consistently glorious music, including the overwhelming Immolation Scene.
Donald Runnicles ably conducts the huge orchestral forces, while the singers are superb: Clay Hilley’s Siegfried is impressive throughout his namesake opera, and Nina Stemme’s Brunnhilde carries the works’ emotional heft. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio; Götterdämmerung extras include a making-of and interviews.
A Story of Floating Weeds/Floating Weeds 
Yasujiro Ozu was considered the “most Japanese” director because his films most realistically displayed how ordinary people lived their lives, as opposed to, say, Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. Ozu rarely strayed from creating small-scaled character studies, such as these two films, the intimate 1934 silent original and its wise 1959 color remake, in which a theater troupe’s visit to a small village causes relationships to be formed, torn apart and reassembled. As usual with Ozu, there’s ample wit and insight along with laughter and tears.
Criterion has included the restored hi-def transfers for both films, which look excellent; extras are Japanese film expert Donald Richie’s commentary on the original and critic Roger Ebert’s commentary on the remake. 
We Go On 
In this 2016 supernatural thriller, directors Andy Milton and Jesse Holland try and make sense of the afterlife through their phobic protagonist who asks people for proof of life after death. But after narrowing it down to three candidates, he is soon dragged into the depths of a nightmare he’s never thought possible.
It’s all hokum but it’s shot in well-chosen L.A. locations and features fine acting by Clark Freeman as the lead and Annette O’Toole as his naturally worried mother. The film looks decent on Blu; extras are three audio commentaries by cast and crew.
DVD Release of the Week
Amore Mio 
As estranged sisters Lola and Margaux—who reunite after Lola’s husband unexpectedly dies and they take off on a trip with her young son Gaspard—Alysson Paradis and the always magnetic Élodie Bouchez are memorable in Guillaume Gouix’s absorbing character study.
The sisters are diametrically opposite, of course, and they have to deal with feelings they have kept at bay for awhile, along with Lola’s grief compounded by guilt and Margaux’s attempts to forge a relationship with an 8-year-old nephew that she barely knows. But Gouix, with help from his resourceful performers (Viggo Ferreira-Redier is a sympathetic Gaspard), creates an emotional journey that doesn’t become maudlin.
CD Release of the Week 
Michael Tippett—A Child of Our Time
British composer Michael Tippett (1905-98) was a pacifist who put his most closely held beliefs into his music, and this secular oratorio is one of most personal vocal works. Composed between 1939 and 1941 (he actually began work on it the day Britain declared war on Germany), A Child of Our Time was inspired by events in 1938 that led to Kristallnacht, the brutal Nazi response to the killing of an officer by a Jewish citizen—Tippett poured all his feelings about oppressed peoples worldwide into his libretto, and, to make sure that universality is also heard musically, several of the chorale sections are African-American spirituals.
Although it can be unwieldy, the sheer emotion behind the work is always evident, as this stellar recording by the BBC Symphony orchestra and chorus, with soloists Pumeza Matshikiza, Sarah Connolly, Joshua Stewart and Ashley Riches, attests. Marshalling these forces with his usual acumen is conductor Andrew Davis, who died in April at age 80. This Child adds to both Tippett’s and Davis’ legacies.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Plays Carnegie Hall

Baritone  Lester Lynch and Chief Conductor Sir Simon Rattle of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Steve J. Sherman.

At Stern Auditorium on two consecutive evenings beginning on Thursday, May 2nd, I had the exceptional pleasure to attend two amazing concerts—the first one presented as a part of Carnegie Hall’s current festival, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice”—played by the outstanding musicians of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the brilliant direction of its Chief Conductor, Sir Simon Rattle.

The first program began exuberantly with a superb realization of Paul Hindemith’s raucous, arresting Ragtime (Well-Tempered) from 1921, about which the composer said:

Do you think that Bach is turning in his grave? On the contrary: If Bach had been alive today, he might very well have invented the shimmy or at least incorporated it in respectable music. And perhaps, in doing so, he might have used a theme from The Well-Tempered Clavier by a composer who had Bach’s standing in his eyes.

The excellent baritone, Lester Lynch, then entered the stage to admirably perform Alexander Zemlinsky’s solemn, powerful, impressively orchestrated Symphonische Gesänge, Op. 20, from 1929. According to the note by Jack Sullivan on this song-cycle, “Zemlinsky selected his texts from the remarkable anthology Afrika singt—a large collection of Black American poetry from 1929, translated to German—that circulated in Germany and Austria.” The work begins lugubriously with “Song for a Dark Girl” by the celebrated Langston Hughes, followed by the impassioned “Cotton Song” by Jean Toomer, whose 1923 novel, Cane, has attained canonical status. The next selection, the mournful “A Brown Girl Dead,” is from a poem by Countee Cullen, who was distinctive for his preference for classical verse forms. Three more Hughes songs ensue in succession, beginning with “Bad Man,” which is animated, in contrast, and caustic, preceding the poignant “Disillusion” and the forceful “Danse Africaine.” The set is completed by the more lively—if dark—“Arabesque,” by the Harlem Renaissance author, Frank Smith Horne.

It was the second half of the event that was especially memorable, however—a magnificent account of Gustav Mahler’s glorious Symphony No. 6 in A Minor. The opening movement—marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo—startsdramatically with a recurrent, dynamic, driving march but then becomes first subdued and then expansive, if with lyrical and Romantic moments, and also pastoral elements that return throughout the piece; it builds to a dazzling conclusion. The unusual second movement, an Andante moderato, is utterly enchanting and has an almost celestial character for much of its length; the music grows in intensity and then ends quietly. The eccentric, turbulent Scherzo has gentler, playful interludes as well as some portentous intimations, but closes softly. The phantasmagorical, tumultuous, and suspenseful Finale, an Allegro moderato, is mesmerizing, if sinister at times, but is not without affirmative, song-like passages, and it too concludes softly. The artists received abundant applause.

The second program was also wonderful, starting with a marvelous version of Richard Wagner’s sublime Prelude and Liebestod from his landmark 1859 opera, Tristan and Isolde. Also remarkable was the US Premiere of the in its way enthralling Aquifer—co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and this ensemble—by contemporary composer Thomas Adès. According to Sullivan: 

Sir Simon Rattle has championed Adès and his work for more than a quarter century. In 1997, he commissioned Asyla for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conducted it internationally more than 35 times, including at his 2002 inaugural concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker, with whom he later premiered Tevot in 2007. In 2020, Mr. Rattle conducted the world premiere of Adès’s Dawn with the London Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms.

The composer has provided this description of the piece:

The title refers to a geological structure that can transmit water. It is cast in one movement built from seven sections. It begins by welling up from the deepest notes, before the theme is presented first by the flutes, building to three statements that use more and more of the orchestra. After a breakdown, the theme returns in a slower second section, albeit with more unstable rhythms and harmony; the third section is built on a crawling chromatic bass line. It accelerates into the fast-flowing fourth section, from which emerges a mysterious stillness. The fifth section builds towards a return of the opening material, lapsing then—as before—into a darker slow section with a dragging character. The fast-flowing music breaks through again, culminating in an ecstatic coda.

The event ended splendidly with a terrific rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s entrancing Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, the “Pastoral,” from 1808. About the initial movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo and titled “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arriving in the Country,” Sullivan astutely says it has “none of the dramatic contrasts in mood that Beethoven normally builds into first movements”; ebullient and melodious with proto-Mendelssohnian qualities, some of it even recalls a Baroque idiom. The ensuing “Scene by the Brook”—an Andante molto mosso—which was an influence on Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, is graceful, with a quasi-Mozartean ethos. The “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” an Allegro, is vivacious and exultant, briefly interrupted by the thrilling “Thunderstorm,” which has the same tempo marking. The Allegretto finale, the “Shepherd’s Song—Happy and Thankful Feelings After the Storm,” according to the annotator, “builds a soaring crescendo—one of Beethoven’s most ecstatic premonitions of Romanticism”; it is jubilant, although not without serious undercurrents, and concludes ethereally. An enthusiastic ovation was rewarded with a delightful encore: the Slavonic Dance in C Major, Op. 72, No. 7, by Antonín Dvořák.

Broadway Play Review— Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate” with Sarah Paulson

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through June 23, 2024
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York, NY","style":""}" href="" style="margin-left:auto;margin-right:auto">
The cast of Appropriate (photo: Joan Marcus)
In the tradition of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tracey Letts’ August: Osage County, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate is an overlong but often viciously entertaining family saga.
After their father dies, the grown Lafayette children wage a battle royale over what’s left of his estate and his legacy. Oldest sister Toni (Sarah Paulson), former vice-principal; middle brother and NYC media maven Bo (Corey Stoll); and younger brother and prodigal son Franz (Michael Esper) have a relationship that’s precarious at best and violently antagonistic at worst, and it all comes to a head under the roof of their childhood home, a former plantation in rural Arkansas.
Toni, who has spent the last several years being her father’s nurse while drinking herself into a stupor, has an 18-year-old son, Rhys, who was the cause of her dismissal from her position at school. Bo arrives from New York with his wife Rachael and children, young son Ainsley and teenage daughter Cassidy (who has a crush on her older cousin Rhys), in tow. And Franz (who enters by crawling through a window late at night) comes with River, his much younger girlfriend, who props up his damaged psyche without knowing the full truth behind his estrangement from the family.
Throughout Appropriate—a multi-purpose title, it turns out—Jacobs-Jenkins slyly echoes and updates Albee and Letts by adding overt racism to an already toxic stew of addiction, pedophilia, alcoholism and anti-Semitism. While rummaging through their father’s massive horde of belongings, the kids find albums containing graphic photographs of lynchings. (There’s already been discussion of the graves of the enslaved that are by the lake that’s on the property.) 
The already colossally dysfunctional Lafayettes must now confront something about their father and family that they’d rather sidestep: did their father simply collect such horrific photos or did he take part in what the photos record? (Later, Bo discovers they might be worth a lot of money, which introduces another moral dilemma.)
As they start to wrestle with this unwanted revelation, Jacobs-Jenkins tweaks them (and the audience). The first act ends with Ainsley running down the stairs, a white pillow case that has eyehole cutouts over his head, like a Klan hood—his appearance shocks the adults, already yelling at and fighting one another, into stunned silence. Although too on the nose, such a sight makes dramatic and comic sense in this context, unlike the end of the play, when Jacobs-Jenkins truly overplays his hand.
A tentative truce called, the exhausted Lafayettes leave the house, making way for the ultimate coup de theatre to unfold. In the space of a few minutes, we watch years—possibly decades—go by as the vacant house is partially reclaimed by nature: a large tree takes root, a window is broken, the chandelier falls to the ground, a bookcase collapses. It’s a brilliant effect—and sublimely spotlights the extraordinary technical design (set by dots, lighting by Jane Cox, sound by Bray Poor and Will Pickens)—but it’s unnecessary underlining after what we’ve witnessed the previous 2-1/2 hours.
Director Lily Neugebauer adroitly paces the complicated plot and character arcs so they unfold as naturally as possible, and she shepherds her actors to persuasive performances perfectly pitched between realistic and hysterics. Graham Campbell, Alyssa Emily Marvin and (the evening I attended) Lincoln Cohen are believable as the messed-up young Lafayette cousins, while Natalie Gold beautifully captures Rachael’s simultaneous uneasiness with the Lafayettes’ history and protectiveness of their own family. Only the resourceful Ella Beatty is hampered by the play’s most stereotypical role; it’s as if River came straight from a roadhouse company of Hair.
The adult Lafayette siblings are played with great gusto by Michael Esper (Franz), Corey Stoll (Bo) and especially Sarah Paulson, whose formidable, steely Toni has no fucks left to give. Paulson’s tremendously affecting, often hilarious portrayal appropriately anchors Appropriate, which, though overlong and repetitive, is a rare example of an intelligent and incisive play inhabiting Broadway. 

Off-Broadway Play Review—Abe Koogler’s “Staff Meal”

Staff Meal
Written by Abe Koogler
Directed by Morgan Green
Through May 24, 2024
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Susannah Flood and Greg Keller in Staff Meal (photo: Chelcie Parry)
Abe Koogler’s play Staff Meal teases at being many things—surreal adventure, nightmarish parody, quirky rom-com—but ends up being not much of anything, a tasting menu with too many options and not enough flavor. The flimsy, one-act conceit begins with several blackout scenes of a couple, Ben and Mina, meeting cute in a coffee shop while working on their laptops. After some amusing introductory dialogue, Ben finally asks Mina out to dinner; as they walk the streets, they make small talk about where they’re from and discover a posh restaurant that is inexplicably empty. 
After they’re seated, the couple is never served dinner—shades of Luis Bunuel’s own surreal satire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—because the wine they order is in a cellar deep underground. While waiting, Ben discusses his idiosyncratic take on the film Titanic while Mina describes her bizarre belief that she is inextricably linked to fictional characters like the rat in Ratatouille or the whale in Moby-Dick.  
Meanwhile, the waiter who traveled great lengths to fetch their bottle explains in a long speech why the wine cellar is so far away, who the restaurant owner is and why it was difficult to find the exact wine they ordered. Two other servers appear, as does the executive chef: they have their own tales to tell, as does a vagrant who sneaks onstage from the wings a couple times and who turns out to be the restaurant’s owner. (That the vagrant, owner and chef are played by the same actor is another of Koogler’s fuzzy conceits.)
After the play meanders on for awhile, an older woman stands up in the audience and complains about how silly, trite and cliched it has been so far—that she’s not wrong is part of Koogler’s self-puncturing joke, but he also lets her go on too long telling her own story that’s silly, trite and cliched, undercutting his initially amusing and salient point. 
And so it goes for 90 minutes. Ben, Mina and the other characters (include a second vagrant, if you please) are always frustrated in their attempts to make some sort of connection—even more shades of Bunuel’s film—but Koogler’s undercooked play has the feel of an elaborately planned gourmet meal where the diners are instead served microwaved fast-food leftovers. 
What’s supposed to be absurdist is merely absurd; a conversation between Ben and Mina about a beloved pet he had as a kid growing up in Spain is literally a shaggy-dog story. Director Morgan Green does a credible job of maneuvering through the weeds to find some kind of pathway: Masha Tsimring’s expressive lighting, Jian Jung’s subtly witty sets, Kaye Voyce’s clever costumes and Tei Blow’s foreboding sound design create the essence of an unnerving journey that the play doesn’t supply. 
In a game cast, Susannah Flood (Mina) and Greg Keller (Ben) are able to best transcend the script to create a real spark of interest. They are so engaging together that it would be nice to see the pair in a real rom-com—as long as they don’t stop in a place like this for a bite.

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