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Film and the Arts

August '23 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
(Janus Films)
German director Christian Petzold’s “elements” quartet began in 2020 with his “water” film, Undine. The second, Afire—the German title, Roter Himmel, means Red Sky, which is also a more evocative English title—is an off-kilter comedy of manners about a pretentious author, Leon, who spends time with his friend Felix at Felix’s family’s summer cottage to finish his latest book. Leon meets Nadja, also staying there, who uncouples him from his own narrow perspective and forces him to face hard truths about himself, all while deadly—both real and metaphorical—forest fires are sweeping the region.
Petzold’s script and direction are surprisingly none too subtle, but he’s able to sell this often predictable, even silly story through his exemplary cast, led by Thomas Schubert’s self-absorbed Leon and the luminous Paula Beer—now Petzold’s post-Nina Hoss muse—as the seemingly guileless Nadja.
The Beasts 
(Greenwich Entertainment)
In Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s slow-burn drama, French couple Antoine and Olga grow eco-friendly crops in rural Spain among poor farmers suspicious of their motives, especially after they vote against allowing a wind-energy company to purchase local land, which would give many the cash they desperately need.
Although it goes on way too long—its plot could easily unfold in an equally anxious manner with a half-hour cut out—Sorogoyen gets remarkable performances by Luis Zahera and Diego Anido as brothers who become the couple’s worst antagonists, Denis Ménochet as Antoine and especially Marina Foïs, who, as Olga, gives a master class in understatement, especially in the extraordinary close-up with which Sorogoyen smartly ends his film.
The Restless Hungarian 
(Moira Productions)
In his raw, emotional cinematic memoir, Tom Weidlinger candidly explores the secrets and lies haunting his family, starting with the reminiscences of his father, a Hungarian scientist who survived the Holocaust: something that he had hidden from his children.
Although I generally abhor reenactments in documentaries, here they perfectly underscore the unsettling state Weidlinger finds within himself trying to pull apart the truth from the fiction in his family’s history.   
The Unknown Country 
(Music Box Films)
Lily Gladstone—soon to be seen in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon—gives her usual persuasive, natural performance in this too often diffuse character study by writer-director Morrisa Maltz. Gladstone plays Tana who, coming off a crushing personal loss, attends a family wedding on the Lakota reservation then takes off on a road trip to try and find some sort of closure.
What follows is meandering and intermittently absorbing, but when, along the way, as Tana meets real people living real lives, Maltz has them narrate their own stories, which have a way of obscuring Tana’s own journey. Even the final, stunning location shots of Tana ultimately feel unearned.
4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
East of Eden 
(Warner Bros)
Elia Kazan’s 1955 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel based on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, here in the form of opposing brothers Cal and Aron only occasionally crackles to life, instead teetering under Kazan’s ponderous direction.
The cast is impeccable, however, led by James Dean in his memorable film debut as Cal; Raymond Massey as the boys’ dad; Jo Van Fleet as their long-lost mother; and Julie Harris as the young woman wanted by both brothers. Ted McCord’s color photography looks especially sharp on UHD; lone extra is critic Richard Schickel’s commentary.
Enter the Dragon 
(Warner Bros)
The 1973 movie that made Bruce Lee an international star—and which was released posthumously, soon after his shocking death that summer at age 32—is a relatively lean action flick with some narrative dead ends that spends most of its time on eye-popping kung fu skirmishes.
Lee was a magnetic screen star without being a decent actor—his exciting physicality was his calling card. The UHD transfer is crisp and clear; extras include a producers’ commentary and a short intro by Lee’s widow, Linda Cadwell.
Rio Bravo 
(Warner Bros)
Howard Hawks’ 1959 western is considered one of the best entries of the genre; despite the presence of John Wayne, who plays the heroic sheriff with his usual laconic sameness, it’s an entertaining, exciting drama about a small group of good guys fending off a murder suspect’s armed gang.
Good acting by Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan makes up for Wayne’s one-note presence. The stunning vistas, photographed by Russell Harlan, look even more spectacular in 4K; lone extra is a commentary by critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Mussorgsky—Boris Godunov 
(Opus Arte)
Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s operatic masterpiece about the infamously murderous czar is usually performed in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s reorchestrated version, but Kasper Holten’s 2016 Royal Opera staging reverts to Mussorgsky’s original stark vision with gripping results.
Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is a mesmerizing Boris, especially in the tragic climactic scene; Antonio Pappano superbly conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, the latter triumphing in the composer’s haunting vocal lines. As usual, hi-def video and audio are first-rate; lone extra is a conversation about the opera between Terfel and Pappano.
Stravinsky—Oedipus Rex 
Igor Stravinsky’s challengingly austere oratorio, with a text by Jean Cocteau from Sophocles’ play, has divided listeners since its 1927 premiere: this 2022 concert version from Florence, Italy, conducted by Daniele Gatti, finds its power in the all-male chorus, AJ Gleuckert’s Oedipus, Alex Esposito’s Creon and Ekaterina Semenchuck’s Jacosta.
As a wonderful bonus, Gatti and the orchestra also perform Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti’s moody Three Orchestral Preludes, also composed for Sophocles’ play. There’s stellar hi-def video and audio.
CD Releases of the Week
Wilhelm Grosz—Achtung, Aufnahme!! 
(Channel Classics)
German composer Wilhelm Grosz (1894-1939) wrote music tinged with jazz rhythms—his short and witty 1930 one-act opera Achtung, Aufnahme!! (Attention, Recording!!), a supreme example of its era, contains sparkling singing and musicianship in a recording made over several years (1999 to 2005) by Ebony Band and its conductor Werner Herbers, who died earlier this year.
Kudos also to several vocalists and the Cappella Amsterdam led by Daniel Reuss. Also included on this world-premiere recording are two short dramatic works: Komödien in Europa (Potpourri) by Walter Goehr and Die vertauschten Manuskripte (Potpourri) by Mátyás Seiber, less scintillating than Grosz’ work but still highly listenable.  
Paul Hindemith—Cardillac 
German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote one great opera—Mathis der Maler—and several less successful dramatic works, including this strange but often compelling 1926 tale of a goldsmith whose jewelry customers mysteriously are killed.
This 2013 recording, while less memorable than others—including the classic DG one starring the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role—has fine performances by the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Munich Radio Orchestra under conductor Stefan Soltesz (who died a year ago) and a solid cast led by Markus Eiche as Cardillac and Juliane Banse as his daughter. 

July '23 Digital Week III

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Last of Us—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Bros)
The first HBO series based on a video game (for what it’s worth), this dystopian thriller isn’t very original—the visuals of this post-pandemic world are awfully familiar, as are the zombie-like victims of a fungal infection that’s destroyed civilization as we know it—but it gets by on  clever writing and sympathetic acting, which makes the characters more human than usual in this genre.
Led by Pedro Pascal, there are also formidable performances by Bella Ramsey, Nico Parker and Anna Torv: but there’s a sense that, after nine one-hour episodes—and a second season to come— the redundancy will take over soon. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras comprise several making-of featurettes, interviews and on-set footage.
I don’t think we need another found-footage horror flick at this late date, but at least writers/directors Vanessa and Joseph Winter’s foray into the genre, about a disgraced YouTuber (is there any other kind?) who goes to a supposedly haunted house, has a sense of humor about itself that sustains it for at least the first half before it ends up repeating itself to death, so to speak.
The film looks quite good in hi-def; extras include several featurettes, bloopers, deleted and alternate scenes, interviews, on-set footage and a commentary.
Fool’s Paradise 
Writer-director-star Charlie Day (best known for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) has delivered a fool’s errand with this completely hamfisted Hollywood satire about a mute just released from a mental hospital, a dead ringer for a famous actor, who gets into the movie business almost accidentally.
It’s an ungodly mix of Being There and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, and Day is not a good enough actor—or writer or director—to pull it off successfully, let alone competently. Even good actors like Edie Falco and Kate Beckinsale are unable to overcome the soggy script and middling direction, and one-dimensional performers like Jason Sudekis fall back onto their usual tricks. The film looks decent on Blu.
(Universal/Open Road)
Gerard Butler gives another solid if unexceptional performance in his second 2023 action thriller, but unlike the faceless Plane, Ric Roman Waugh’s film has a bit more bite for a timely excursion into the murderous world of Middle Eastern double-dealing and revenge.
Although there’s nothing new here and it goes on too long, Kandahar does have its share of tense sequences, and Butler’s stoic heroism is well-suited to the role of a CIA operative desperate to save his Afghan translator and get home to his own teenage daughter. There’s a terrific hi-def transfer. 
Persian Lessons 
(Cohen Media)
In the most contrived way possible, director Vadim Perelman has made a Holocaust film in which his protagonist Gilles, a Belgian Jew, poses as a Farsi speaker with an Iranian background in order to survive: luckily for him, the camp commandant wants to learn Farsi so he can go to Teheran and live with his brother.
The ludicrousness of the premise aside—Lina Wertmuller made a masterpiece out of a similar storyline with Seven Beauties, in which the survival-at-all-cost antihero had sex with the obese female commandant of a concentration camp to stay alive—Perelman and writer Ilya Tsofin’s creaky plotting militates against our complete sympathy, despite the very fine performances by Nahuel Pérez Biscayart as Gilles and Lars Eidinger as the commandant. There’s a first-rate Blu-ray transfer.
Robot Monster 
One of those all-time inept “bad movies” along the lines of Plan Nine from Outer Space and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, this 1953 grade-Z sci-fi flick by Phil Tucker has virtually little to recommend it—unless, of course, you’re one of those gluttons who seeks out and devours junk like this.
That’s, of course, what this 70th anniversary special edition is all about: not only do we get the amateurish B&W film in all its anti-glory in 2D and 3D versions, but there are also many contextual extras, including featurettes in both 2D and 3D and an entertaining commentary featuring the last surviving cast member, Greg Moffett.
Another Nazi-fueled fantasy in which the underdogs have it all over the German monsters, Jalmari Helander’s relentlessly grim film never reaches the giddily masturbatory heights of Quentin Tarantino’s egregious Inglorious Basterds, where French and American civilians and soldiers murder Hitler.
Sisu and its “immortal” fighter, who has killed hundreds of Russians, takes on an entire Nazi squadron in the wilds of the Lapland region in occupied Finland with the help of truckful of women prisoners and finishes off the whole lot in spectacular fashion, is the epitome of a guilty pleasure, especially as played with single-minded viciousness by Jorma Tommila as the mainly silent title character. The hi-def transfer is excellent.

Off-Broadway Play Review—Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending”

Orpheus Descending
Written by Tennessee Williams; directed by Erica Schmidt
Performances through August 6, 2023
Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Pico Alexander and Maggie Siff in Orpheus Descending (photo: Hollis King)
On Broadway in 1989, director Peter Hall bemusedly helmed Tennessee Williams’ messy 1957 play Orpheus Descending, a crude melodrama crammed with specious symbolism and idle imagery. Despite Williams’ endless tinkering with it, Orpheus never reaches the poetic heights of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; instead, its overwrought dialogue and contrived relationships make it seem like a bizarre parody of a Williams play.
Now, Orpheus Descending returns, directed by Erica Schmidt, who wholeheartedly embraces its excessiveness, for better or (often) worse. Young drifter Valentine Xavier (i.e., “Savior”) arrives in a small Southern town that could be the setting for a bad Jason Aldean song. Guitar in hand, Valentine descends into this hell to, it turns out, rescue Lady Torrance, the unhappily married proprietor of the local dry-goods store, whose mortally ill elderly husband—an unrepentant redneck—spends most of his time upstairs, attended to by a nurse. 
Handsome and charming, Valentine finds himself the target of other local women, including rich good-time girl Carol Cutrere, who loves to go “juking” at night, as well as other chattering gossipers who frequent the store. As they spend time together working in the store, Valentine and Lady start a steamy but dangerous affair that will end with two dead bodies and the community’s stalwart backwardness reinforced.
Schmidt dives headfirst into these characters’ desperation and inability to pull themselves free of their unfortunate fates, which is the only way to stage Orpheus and make it watchable—if not particularly illuminating. It’s unfortunate that Amy Rubin’s constricted set of the Torrances’ store leaves so much stage acreage available, and Schmidt utilizes it awkwardly, with some scenes played in front or at the sides of the store, including florid monologues and periodic appearances of the heavily—and fuzzily—symbolic “conjure-man.” The sound and lighting effects are adroitly handled by, respectively, Justin Ellington and David Weiner, and Ellington’s own acoustic guitar music is used sparingly but effectively.
Many speeches, where Williams lets his metaphors fly—like the footless bird that must always remain airborne a particular favorite to which he keeps returning—come off as sketches for the more luminous language the playwright would perfect in his masterpieces. Schmidt’s cast is sometimes able to untangle itself from such extravagances to find a bit of sorely needed humanity, although there are too many characters milling around that have little to do with the story, merely providing more samples of the overheated atmosphere.
Pico Alexander, as Valentine, is attractively animalistic and makes a more magnetic (and musical) martyr than Kevin Anderson did opposite Redgrave. A born scene-stealer, Julia McDermott makes Carol sadly but compellingly pathetic, spitting out her awful torrents of Williams’ pregnant metaphorical dialogue to flail around amid the misogynistic environment she’s been brought up in with commanding flair.
In the 1989 Broadway staging, Vanessa Redgrave played Lady Torrance: she was a spectacular car crash, giving a thrilling exercise in technique that never felt true or authentic. Conversely, Maggie Siff—who’s magnificent as Wendy Rhoades in the Showtime series Billions—mostly underplays Lady, cutting straight to the heart of this grievously wounded but proud woman. Siff even gives a piercingly emotional reading of Lady’s final overripe speech about remembering a barren fig tree while a child. 
But Siff plays Lady with an accent that’s less Southern Italian than Eastern European, which is headscratching. (Weirdly, Redgrave had also played Lady with an offbeat accent—sing-song Italian, which at least was theoretically closer to the target.) But why not just play Lady with a regional southern accent? After all, she’s lived her entire life in the South, not Sicily.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Closes Out Summer Evening Concert Series

Photo by Da Ping Luo.

At Lincoln Center, on the evening of Tuesday, July 18th, I had the pleasure of attending a fine concert—the final one in its Summer Evenings series—presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The event began promisingly with an accomplished account of Joseph Haydn’s wonderful Trio in E-flat major of 1797, here played by the admirable recitalist and virtuoso, Juho Pohjonen, on piano, with violinist Stella Chen and cellist Sihao He. The initial movement , marked Poco allegretto, is a model of elegance; its main body is charming but it possesses a more serious, minor-key interlude. The slow movement is brief and lyrical but with some dramatic intensity, while the finale, which centers upon a Ländler melody, is animated and sparkling.

The musicians were then joined by violinist Danbi Um and violist Beth Guterman Chu for an excellent rendition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s marvelous Concerto No. 12 in A major for Piano and String Quartet, K. 414, from 1782. Program annotator Jack Slavin provides some useful background on the work:

Between 1782 and 1783, Mozart wrote three piano concertos that were published as a set, though it is unclear whether he intended for them to be one. His style was evolving considerably throughout this transitional time; the early Viennese concertos are often seen as a bridge between the Salzburg concertos and those of his mature period starting in the mid-1780s. With Mozart’s own blessing, these three pieces can be performed a quattro, or with string quartet accompaniment instead of full orchestra.

Already with the opening Allegro it seemed that one was encountering something even more remarkable than the Haydn Trio; in it, surprising depths can be found beneath a delightful surface. The introspective Andante—the main theme is a quotation from the Andante from the overture to the opera La calamita de’ cuori by Johann Christian Bach, the composer’s former teacher—has much of the beauty of the celebrated slow movements of the more famous of Mozart’s piano concertos and the piece closes with an exuberant Allegretto finale.

The concert concluded impressively with a compelling reading of Gabriel Fauré’s memorable Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15, completed in 1879 and performed here by Pohjonen, Um, Guterman Chu, and He. The first movement, marked Allegro molto moderato, is passionate, turbulent, and full-blown in its Romanticism, although with some song-like passages, while the ensuing Scherzo is not unexpectedly playful and more eccentric—its ingenious Trio is especially striking. The Adagio that follows is solemn but not unrelievedly so and the Allegro molto finale is complex and absorbing, pervaded by a powerful emotionalism and ends affirmatively.

The artists deservedly received enthusiastic applause, ending a superb series.

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