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Film and the Arts

November '23 Digital Week III

4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
The Expend4bles 
The latest installment of this agreeably slight adventure series about a group of mercenaries who go out on all sorts of dangerous missions hits the usual action and narrative beats, as their leader (Sylvester Stallone, natch) is presumed dead and the others have to deal with that and track down terrorists looking to start a nuclear war.
It’s explosive in all senses, and director Scott Waugh keeps things fast-moving for 100 minutes, although the best performance comes from Megan Fox’s tattoos. There’s a first-rate UHD transfer; extras include Waugh’s commentary and two making-of featurettes.
The Fugitive 
(Warner Bros)
The old TV series starring David Janssen was updated effectively in this 1993 blockbuster, which becomes quite exciting when it concentrates on the accused doctor’s escape from custody and attempts to track down his wife’s real murderer, all while he’s being frantically pursued by a federal marshal.
Harrison Ford is his usual entertainingly stolid self as the hero, Tommy Lee Jones makes a formidable adversary and director Andrew Davis stages and paces the action beautifully, ensuring the film is a well-oiled thrill machine. The 4K transfer looks excellent; extras are an intro by Ford and Davis, commentary by Davis and Jones, and three making-of featurettes.
Christopher Nolan’s take on Robert J. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project is typically Nolanesque: very long, very loud, very overblown and very shallow. This three-hour behemoth is loaded down with visual and aural pyrotechnics from the start: I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan’s noise is louder than actual atomic explosions. Ludwig Göransson’s ludicrously bombastic score is smeared over virtually every scene—I hope he got paid by the minute—including moments where ostensibly important dialogue can’t be heard. Cillian Murphy is properly intense but he’s overshadowed by Nolan’s self-importance.
Aside from Robert Downey and Matt Damon, who make an impression despite Nolan’s singlemindedness, the starry cast is forgettable: Gary Oldman is a cartoonish Harry Truman, likewise Tom Conti as Albert Einstein; poor Florence Pugh, usually a formidable actress, is reduced to a nothing role comprising several gratuitous nude scenes. The film, of course, looks stunning in UHD; extras comprise the 70-minute The Story of Our Time: The Making of Oppenheimer, the NBC News documentary To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, and a Trinity anniversary panel discussion with Nolan and others. 
Saw X 
There’s always an audience for torture, as the tenth installment of this franchise whose hook is “let’s torture people—innocent or deserving—in more creatively nasty ways” shows. John Kramer, torturer extraordinaire of previous Saws, is now a sad victim of a fake cancer-miracle cure and who—of course—returns the favor on those who scammed him.
Of course, you already know whether this is for you; even so, there are a couple uniquely gross ways of torturing, and director Kevin Greutert even partly succeeds in making Tobin Bell’s Kramer kind of sympathetic. Now that’s an original achievement. The film looks pristine in 4K; extras include a commentary, deleted scenes, and making-of featurettes.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Le Cérémonie 
(Criterion Collection)
One of his very best, Claude Chabrol’s 1995 melodrama is a cracklingly good study of manners, mania and murder as a cleaning lady is befriended by a local woman who prods her to target the family she works for. Chabrol’s precise direction moves things along slowly but surely, so that, by the final violent outburst, we are literally left shaken at its horrible, ironic logic. This taut chamber piece is enlivened by the spectacular acting of Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset and Virginie Ledoyen as well as the felicitous music of Matthieu Cahbrol, the director’s son.
Criterion’s excellent hi-def transfer makes Chabrol’s compositions look crisp and clear; extras include Chabrol’s select-scene commentary, intro by director Bong Joon Ho, making-of featurette, and archival interviews with Bonnaire, Huppert, Chabrol and co-writer Caroline Eliacheff.
South Park—The Streaming Wars 
In the South Park duo’s latest “special” two-episode event, the town’s water supply is dwindling thanks to an evil corporation whose head honcho, ManBearPig, has separated it into streams. As usual, Trey Parker and Matt Stone combine astute satire with crude parody and cheap jokes (Cartman gets breast implants) into a stew only they can concoct: somehow, a metaphor for the proliferation of streaming services—including Paramount +, which shows South Park—emerges with eviscerating swipes.
The episodes run about 100 minutes total, so it’s like getting four or five South Park episodes for the price of two, which is sort of a bargain.
In-Theater Release of the Week 
Down in Dallas Town
(First Run Features)
Sixty years on, the assassination of President Kennedy remains a singularly mortifying event in American history, and Alan Govenar’s documentary returns to the scene of the crime—Dealey Plaza in Dallas—to interview several people who were there that day to jog their still-vivid memories.
Hearing them speak after so long is quite touching, and Govenar supplements this with plaza interviews that serendipitously occur on the same day as a nearby mass shooting, as U.S. and international visitors discuss gun control. Illuminatingly, Govenar features mournful songs written by bluesmen and others in response to the JFK tragedy, as he shows more recent footage of ongoing gun violence and homeless people that is quintessentially—and sorrowfully—American. 
CD Release of the Week
Ottorino Respighi—Orchestral Works 
Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) was one of the most original musical voices of his day, combining romantic sensibilities with a love for the past that brought him fame and fortune with several beloved works, including his Roman trilogy, The Birds, Three Botticelli Pictures and his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, all of which are staples for any orchestra worth its salt. All of these works, of course, make up a big part of this 8-disc set of Respighi’s orchestral works, but even though the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra (Roman trilogy) and Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liege (everything else) under conductor John Neschling give vigorous, well-oiled readings of them, the real gems are several works that are not nearly as well known.
For example, there are Sinfonia drammatica, Brazilian Impressions, Church Windows and Il tramonto, in which Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci provides a dreamy, lovingly rendered account. Too bad there’s not more of his wonderfully offbeat operas other than the overture of Belfagor, but hoping it will spur listeners to further explore Respighi’s world, operatic and orchestral.

Film Festival Roundup—DOCNYC 2023

Online streaming through November 26, 2023
The annual documentary festival DOC NYC again includes the option of online watching for those who couldn’t get to the in-person screenings in Manhattan; anyone can access several of the films through Sunday. As always, there were dozens of enticing features and shorts to pick through; the features I saw covered the arts and politics.
Fanny—The Other Mendelssohn
In Fanny—The Other Mendelssohn, director Sheila Hayman takes a close look at Fanny Mendelssohn, an accomplished composer in her own right who was eclipsed both by the era in which she lived that didn’t take women composers seriously and her brother, the also accomplished Felix, who was celebrated for his symphonies and chamber music. Hayman shows that Fanny was as equally masterly as Felix, but the demands of her marriage (despite her husband Wilhelm being totally supportive) and the misogyny of the 19th century held her back. There’s a subplot of sorts in which a Fanny scholar, Angela Mace, resurrects the composer’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.)
How to Come Alive With Norman Mailer
The most egotistical and rabidly aggressive American author is resurrected, so to speak, in How to Come Alive With Norman Mailer, Jeff Zimbalist’s surprisingly nuanced glimpse at how Mailer, an unapologetic chauvinist who swore he was a progressive feminist, treated others, including his several wives and children. Zimbalist speaks with Mailer’s children—including John Buffalo, an executive producer of this film—who willingly discuss their dad’s complexity, as do several Mailer colleagues, admirers and detractors; the result is an entertaining warts-and-all snapshot.
Psychedelicized—The Electric Circus Story
It happened during the heyday of flower power and hippie culture, but the history of the Electric Circus, the storied club on Manhattan’s East Village that lasted from 1967 to 1971, is lovingly recounted in Larry Confino’s Psychedelicized—The Electric Circus Story. Cofounders Stan Freeman and Jerry Brandt engagingly discuss their ambitious project that was a victim of changing times (a bomb supposedly planted by the Black Panthers went off one night, injuring 15 partygoers) but that still remains vivid in their memories.
Rainbow Warrior
The name of a Greenpeace ship set to protest French nuclear testing that was blown up by operatives under the auspices of the French government while it was docked in the port of Auckland, Rainbow Warrior is also the title of Edward McGurn’s breathlessly exciting account of how New Zealand police solved the case—almost inadvertently. Interviews with many participants and witnesses—some of whom fondly remember Fernando Pereira, the photographer who was the lone fatality—revisit a case that turned out to be embarrassing for the French, who first denied their role then ended up paying reparations to Greenpeace, to New Zealand, and to the family of Pereira.
Angel Applicant
In Angel Applicant, designer turned director Ken August Meyer explores the oeuvre of Swiss expressionist artist Paul Klee, who—like Meyer—was stricken with a rare disease, systemic scleroderma, in which the skin and tissues harden, making ordinary movement painful. As he interprets Klee’s final works as a journey taken while in the throes of the ailment, Meyer undergoes his own transformation, looking to alleviate his own suffering from the disease. As he does so, his film finds inspiration in Klee’s art, along with something even more important: hope.
No One Asked You

Comic Lizz Winstead created The Daily Show and cofounded the liberal radio network Air America, but she would probably say her greatest contribution is her pro-choice Abortion Access Front, which Ruth Leitman’s No One Asked You explores in meaningful and even amusing detail. Winstead and her cohorts have kept their sense of humor as well as their sense of proportion, and Leitman shows them using everything in their arsenal to ensure that, in the face of mounting defeats culminating in the overturn of Roe v. Wade, women—and not the (mainly) men in power—retain control over their own bodies.

The Trials of Alan Dershowitz
Detailing the life and career of America’s most famous lawyer (mostly for the wrong reasons), The Trials of Alan Dershowitz director John Curtin recounts Dershowitz’s most famous litigations, which in the public consciousness are mostly a parade of bad guys from Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson to Klaus von Bulow and Donald Trump—the latter a head scratcher even for a free speech absolutist like Dershowitz. He expediently defends himself and his choices, but when he speaks about why he defended Trump, it comes off half-heartedly, as if he knew he did it to keep up appearances. It’s too bad that black (or orange) mark has marred an otherwise estimable career. 

Off-Broadway Play Review—“Scene Partners” with Dianne Wiest

Scene Partners
Written by John J. Caswell Jr.; directed by Rachel Chavkin
Performances through December 17, 2023
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY
Dianne Wiest and Josh Hamilton in Scene Partners (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Dianne Wiest has been a screen and stage treasure for more than four decades now, giving indelible performances in several Woody Allen films—notably her Oscar-winning appearances in Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway—along with many theater appearances including Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, Steve Tesich’s Square One and, more recently, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons on Broadway.
In Scene Partners, 75-year-old Wiest plays Meryl Kowalski, a 75-year-old widow who, following her bastard of a husband’s death, decides to leave her boring midwestern life and go to Hollywood to become a movie star—which she does, improbably but determinedly. The year is 1985, when Wiest’s screen career was starting to take off thanks to her memorable supporting turn in Woody’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. Maybe playwright John J. Caswell Jr. is using Wiest’s own career to create Meryl Kowalski, but he’s thrown so much into the pot—absurdism, melodrama, parody, tragedy, even karaoke—that it’s hard to discern any point to it all. 
The Hollywood that Meryl arrives in is a clichéd place, populated with mindless agents, acting teachers and actors. The doctor Meryl visits—her sister Charlize, a failed actor Meryl stays with, takes her to him—is named Noah Drake, coincidentally the name of the doctor played by heartthrob Rick Springfield on the soap General Hospital. It’s all silly, but are we supposed to be laughing at Meryl or with her? Is this woman in a wrinkled trench coat a real find as a septuagenarian star, or is she merely delusional?
Even naming Wiest’s character Meryl Kowalski is a double-barreled cheap laugh, name-checking the Oscar-winning Streep and Tennessee Williams’ Stanley in Streetcar. The sophomoric humor extends to the dialogue: when Wiest fires off her first F bomb, a few audience members the night I saw the play practically fell out of their seats with laughter, though it’s not particularly funny as a rule to hear a star say “motherfucker.”
Director Rachel Chavkin has trouble making the bizarre, seemingly random tonal shifts cohere. Her pacing is also slack, as if she’s unsure what to do when, say, Meryl gets on the train to leave Wisconsin for California and it’s populated by Russians, one of whom flirts with her while they sing the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” (which, to be nitpicky, wasn’t released until a year later) or when Meryl secures a top agent by threatening him with a gun after they discuss the World Series going on between the Cards and Royals.
Screen Partners opens with Wiest onscreen introducing her character in closeup; filmed sequences and other projections dominate the production, and one pivotal scene of Meryl and Charlize being interviewed is shown entirely onscreen, although it would work better onstage, especially in a small theater like the Vineyard. That it’s filmed robs it of immediacy and poignance; its visual punch line—hinting that the entire play might be in Meryl’s head—could have been achieved more cleverly onstage.
Although she at times isn’t even the focus with so much busyness going on, Wiest retains her effortless charm, even singing Corey Hart’s “Never Surrender” with gusto in a goofy karaoke scene. Johanna Day is unfortunately wasted as Charlize; the rest of the cast does yeoman duty in multiple roles, but only Josh Hamilton, as a stereotypically smarmy agent and stereotypically annoying acting coach, is hilarious without being obnoxious, which is quite an achievement in this context. 

Juilliard Orchestra Present Finnish Classic

Photo by Claudio Papapietro.

At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, on the evening of Monday, November 6th, I had the exceptional pleasure to attend a terrific concert featuring the excellent Juilliard Orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Milarsky.

The program began impressively with a sterling account of the powerful, mysterious Lumière et Pesanteur by the late contemporary Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. In her note on the work, she commented:

Lumière et pesanteur is a gift for Esa-Pekka Salonen, inspired by his performance of my La Passion de Simone in Los Angeles, January 2009. This piece is an arrangement based on the eighth station of the Passion, which I know that he especially likes.

Program annotator Noémie Chemali adds:

This version is an arrangement without the electronics that, in the original oratorio, narrated [Simone] Weil's own texts. It was also pared down to the orchestral part without a soprano soloist; this time, the principal trumpet takes the role of the passion play’s narrator.

And about La Passion de Simone, she says:

this multimedia oratorio, created in collaboration with Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf and stage director Peter Sellars, premiered in 2006 at the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna. Written in the passion play tradition, it makes a loose allusion to Baroque oratorio, which historically depicts the suffering of Jesus. This work, instead, explores the life and spiritual journey of the iconic French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1909-43). Scored for orchestra, solo soprano, and electronics, it was subsequently performed by fellow Finn, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who inspired the orchestral arrangement known asLumière et pesanteur.

A remarkable young cellist, Taeguk Mun, then joined the musicians as soloist for a memorable rendition of Ernest Bloch’s moving, neo-Romantic Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody from 1916, earning—and receiving—an enthusiastic ovation, but the second half of the event was maybe even more extraordinary, consisting of an enthralling version of the magnificent Symphony No. 3 of Johannes Brahms. The opening of the initial Allegro con brio is passionate in nature but much of the movement has a quasi-pastoral character—on the whole, the dominant mood is affirmative although not without darker undercurrents. The ensuingAndanteis more subdued but also joyous in general, notwithstanding the abiding tragic cast of the composer’s personality. The melodic and lyrical Poco allegretto is astonishingly beautiful—itshaunting main theme was employed by Serge Gainsbourg for his exquisite song, "Baby alone in Babylone,” which was sung in its immortal original recording by the fabulous Jane Birkin. The Allegro finale—the most dramatic and intense of the movements—is Mendelssohnian at moments. The artists were rewarded with ardent applause, a harbinger of what appears to be an exciting season.

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