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Film and the Arts

November '23 Digital Week II

4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
American Graffiti 
George Lucas’ best film remains this 1973 nostalgia trip, a beautifully made, gently touching evocation of the 1950s high school scene—it’s an understated classic, an anomaly in a movie career otherwise engaged with Ewoks, robots and intergalactic battles. It’s also crammed full of young actors giving lively, unaffected performances, including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Paul LeMat, and even Suzanne Somers in a memorable cameo.
The film looks terrifically aglow in UHD—Lucas’ visual consultant was none other than the master cinematographer Haskell Wexler—and extras include Lucas’ commentary, screen tests and a vintage making-of featurette.
Contempt/Le Mépris 
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel was his attempt at a commercial film, starring the great French beauty Brigitte Bardot, whom Godard—at the producers’ behest—shot in various enticing poses and lack of clothing. But, as usual with Godard, the film is a head-swiveling display of satire, melodrama and sunbaked color (Raoul Coutard was, of course, the genius cinematographer).
In addition to Bardot, there are fine performances by Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang and Giorgia Moll. But it’s Godard’s singular artistry that takes over. The film looks breathtaking in 4K; lone extra is scholar Colin McCabe’s intro—too bad none of the features from the 2010 Blu-ray edition were ported over.
The Nun II 
(Warner Bros)
The inevitable sequel to the fairly standard 2018 horror flick is an improvement over the first incarnation mainly because the scares are not as obvious, even if they are, almost inevitably at times, the cheap jump-scare variety.
Still, it’s done with some stylishness by director Michael Chaves, and the acting by Taissa Farmiga as the eponymous heroine and Jonas Bloquet as the boarding-school handyman who becomes possessed by a demon is a notch above the usual for these films. Cinematographer Tristan Nyby’s dark, foreboding look is captured well on 4K; extras are two making-of featurettes.
Violent Night 
So you want to see Santa turn into a vengeful Terminator, tracking down and destroying the villains who have entered a rich family’s home on Christmas Eve? Well, here’s your chance.
Although the bloody violence is overdone, there’s a silly sense of humor involved in watching a drunk, downbeat Kris Kringle doing his holiday thing, and director Tommy Wirkola has smartly populated the movie with fine character actors from Beverly D’Angelo to John Leguizamo, with the redoubtable David Harbour making a memorably bad Santa. There’s an excellent ultra hi-def transfer; extras are on-set featurettes, interviews and deleted/extended scenes.
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Girls on Film 
(Breaking Glass)
Robin Bain wrote and directed this derivative but sexy drama about two young women whose dysfunctions let them bond, at least for awhile, until they discover that there are things they can’t otherwise escape.
Although the acting is variable and there’s too much of a late-night Cinemax feel to the erotic trysts, Bain has made a film that delves a bit deeper than one might expect and, in Dare Taylor and particularly Willow Grey, two performers unafraid to go further than others might dare to.
(Omnibus Entertainment)
The deadly cost of entitlement marks this unnerving Venezuelan drama about the aftermath of the death of a teenager who was part of a group of hedonists drinking, doing drugs and having sex along with trying to get revenge on a hated teacher—who is later convicted of the girl’s death.
Director Hernán Jabes Águila (from his and Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles’ script) has made a difficult to watch depiction of the cost of personal and political corruption that trickles down to ordinary people and where ethics and morals disappear. It’s a daring high-wire act that threatens to collapse but remains compulsively watchable, with a splendid cast leading the way.
The Marsh King’s Daughter 
(Roadside Attractions)
Neil Burger’s adaptation of Karin Dionne’s popular novel about Helena, a young woman who’s the offspring of Jacob, who kidnapped her mother as a teenager, took her to the woods and kept as a prisoner for years, is both absorbing and plodding as it follows her confronting him decades later when he escapes from prison.
The narrative beats are all present and everything has a high gloss, but the predictability of the plot—once Jacob escapes we know exactly how this will end—robs it of much urgency, despite strong work by Daisy Ridley (Helena), Brooklynn Prince (young Helena) and Ben Mendelssohn (Jacob).
(Game Theory)
Sofie Gråbøl gives a powerhouse portrayal of Inger, a schizophrenic woman on a bus trip to France with her sister Ellen, brother-in-law and a group of other Danish tourists, and whose misunderstood behavior affects several others, including Christian, a 12-year-old boy whose clueless dad, Andres, makes his negative feelings toward Inger known.
Once Inger and Christian become unlikely friends, director Niels Arden Oplev’s offbeat drama becomes a sympathetic but prickly portrait, and there’s excellent support from Luca Reichardt Ben Coker as Christian, Søren Malling (best known for his role on the long-running series Borgen) as Andreas, and Lene Maria Christensen as the harried but devoted Ellen.
(Greenwich Entertainment)
The subjects of this surprisingly emotional documentary were also subjects of earlier documentaries, and directors Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall catch up with them to discover how having one’s life displayed onscreen has affected them, in ways that are illuminating and often distressing. 
The Staircase, The Wolfpack, Capturing the Friedmans, The Square and Hoop Dreams—the people populating these films have been exploited and/or affected personally by their experiences, and Tiexiera and Hall broaden their outlook to the ethical considerations of recording regular individuals’ private lives and if monetary compensation should be used, among other tantalizing sidebars.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
The Unknown Country 
(Music Box)
Lily Gladstone—currently stealing Martin Scorsese’s masterly adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon—gives her usual persuasive, natural performance in this diffuse character study by writer-director Morrisa Maltz. Gladstone plays Tana, a woman coming off a crushing personal loss, who attends a family wedding on the Lakota reservation then takes a road trip to find closure.
What follows is meandering but intermittently interesting but, as Tana meets real people living real lives, Maltz has them narrate their own stories, which end up obscuring Tana’s own journey—the final stunning location shots of Tana feel dramatically and metaphorically unearned. It all looks lustrous on Blu, and extras include a commentary by Gladstone, Maltz and editor Vanara Taing; a Mill Valley film fest panel; a Maltz short, Odyssey; a Maltz music video; and a Maltz Q&A from a Chicago festival screening.
CD Release of the Week 
Zoltán Kodály—Orchestral Works
For their latest recording of orchestral works by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and their longtime music director JoAnn Falletta tackle the engaging suite he made from his folk opera Háry JánosSummer Evening, an evocative tone poem; and his three-movement Symphony in C Major.
Falletta and the BPO have already shown their affinity for Kodály’s music, and that comes through again in these spirited performances, especially in the flavorful symphony, which the composer finished late in life after putting it aside a couple decades earlier.

New York Philharmonic Presents "Fate Now Conquers"

Stéphane Denève leads the New York Philharmonic with Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider Beethoven Violin Concerto. Photo by Chris Lee.

At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, on the evening of Thursday, November 9th, I had the considerable privilege to attend an outstanding concert presented by the New York Philharmonic—continuing a strong season of orchestral music—under the impressive direction of Stéphane Denève.

The program began brilliantly with a sterling rendition of the excellent Fate Now Conquers from 2019 by Carlos Simon, which appears to be one of the most frequently performed contemporary works in the classical idiom. About it, the composer has commented, “This piece was inspired by a journal entry from Ludwig van Beethoven’s notebook written in 1815.” The passage reads:

Iliad. The Twenty-Second Book
But Fate now conquers; I am hers;
and yet not she shall share
In my renown; that life is left to
every noble spirit
And that some great deed shall
beget that all lives shall inherit.

Simon added:

Using the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I have composed musical gestures that are representative of the unpredictable ways of fate. Jolting stabs, coupled with an agitated groove with every persona. Frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depict the uncertainty of life that hovers over us. We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail, despite his ailments. Whatever the specific reason for including this particularly profound passage from theIliad,in the end, it seems that Beethoven relinquished to fate. Fate now conquers.

The admirable virtuoso, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, then joined the musicians for a marvelous account of Beethoven’s extraordinary Violin Concerto. The elaborate and ambitious initial movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, opens dramatically but quickly becomes melodious and joyous in mood—and with a somewhat proto-Mendelssohnian quality—but the composer sustains a compelling sense of suspense throughout it. The ensuing Larghetto is lyrical, reflective and relatively subdued but also affirmative—it is the most Mozartean of the three movements—while theRondofinale—with a tempo of Allegro—is dance-like, ebullient and dynamic, and elicited an enthusiastic ovation. The violinist rewarded the audience with a wonderful encore: the Sarabande from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004.

The second half of the event was at least equally memorable, consisting of a stunning realization of the awesome Symphony No. 3 of Camille Saint-Saëns—it is dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt—featuring the celebrated Kent Tritle on the organ. The complex first movement begins as a quiet Adagio but rapidly transforms into an exciting Allegro moderato, which also, maybe surprisingly, evokes the orchestral work of Felix Mendelssohn as well as the opening movement of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony; the music acquires an elevated character when the organ enters in the closing Poco adagio section. The imposing second movement starts turbulently but then becomes more playful, finally building to a thrilling, propulsive, fugue-like conclusion, which drew vigorous applause.

Off-Broadway Play Review—“Sabbath’s Theater” with John Turturro

Sabbath’s Theater
Written by John Turturro and Ariel Levy; directed by Jo Bonney
Performances through December 17, 2023
The New Group @ Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Elizabeth Marvel and John Turturro in Sabbath's Theater (photo: Monique Carboni)
Even more so than his other novels, Sabbath’s Theater was Philip Roth at his most sardonic and scatological. His hero of sorts, Mickey Sabbath, is a 64-year-old former puppeteer who is, by his own admission, a dirty old man: seemingly all he thinks about is having sex when he’s not actually having sex. After his insatiable Croatian mistress Drenka dies of cancer, he is thrown for a loop, which causes him reevaluate his life choices, including his marriages, other relationships with available women, and family memories, notably his beloved brother Morty’s death while flying planes against the Japanese in World War II.
Can a 105-minute play hope to distill the essence of Roth’s masturbatory fantasy of self-abasement? Based on the evidence of John Turturro and Ariel Levy’s stage adaptation, in which Turturro stars in a tour de force as Sabbath, the answer is: not really. Although the adapters have plucked certain incidents and scenes out of the book into their version, it has a scattershot feel, since most of it is pruriently sexual, which makes Mickey Sabbath far more one-dimensional than in the novel. 
The play begins with the sounds of a sexual encounter between Mickey and Drenka, then the lights come up to the pair wrapped up on the floor as she coos sweet nothings in his ear about cooking him the best Eastern European dishes. The scenes between Mickey and Drenka have a spirited frission, helped by Turturro and Elizabeth Marvel (despite a bizarre accent), whose terrific rapport extends from the physical to the intellectual. 
But when Mickey deals with men—like Norman, whom he repays for letting him stay at his Manhattan apartment after the funeral of Norman’s former producing partner Linc by attempting to seduce Norman’s wife and steal his daughter’s panties from her bedroom—the results are a comedy of embarrassment, but Roth does this queasy sort of thing better on the page. 
Then there’s the story’s nadir, when Mickey visits Drenka’s grave and masturbates—it’s here that the otherwise adroit director Jo Bonney succumbs to the cheap scatology by showing his shadowy ejaculation—only to find another man also performing the same act. Such a blunt comedy of debasement keeps Mickey at arm’s length, however charmingly garrulous is  Turturro’s performance.
Turturro and Levy smartly end their adaptation with the poignant meeting between Mickey and a 100-year-old cousin, Fish (touchingly played by Jason Kravits), in which Mickey finally decides that his wasted life is worth living. Notwithstanding Turturro’s gratuitous nudity as he drapes himself in the flag that Mickey’s mother received after his brother died in action, it provides a satisfying way out of a too often enervating take on Philip Roth’s most scathing self-depiction.

Concert Review—Lea Michele at Carnegie Hall

Lea Michele
October 30, 2023
Carnegie Hall, New York City
Lea Michele at Carnegie Hall (photo: Richard Termine)

Lea Michele opened her first Carnegie Hall concert with a flourish, strutting and beaming as she made her way down the aisle to the stage in her sheer black dress belting out the first of many showstoppers, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” a highlight from her recent Broadway run headlining the recent Funny Girl revival.
For the next 90 minutes, Michele treated her adoring audience to more Funny Girl numbers, other show tunes and pop tunes from the TV series Glee, all delivered with her effortlessly powerhouse voice. Her between-songs patter, though charming, was a mite excessive—I heard people grumbling afterward that she talked too much—but obviously the bigness of the moment contributed to some nerves while she spoke about her life and career.
Michele remembered being in this very hall at a young age watching other Broadway greats, hoping she would follow them one day. She obviously did—and on the journey through her early career, she resurrected “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables, her first Broadway show; followed by “Gliding” from Ragtime, which she starred in alongside Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and her beloved Marin Mazzie. 
Michele also told the story of her audition for Spring Awakening, at which she was asked to sing a pop song. The naïve 14-year-old could only think of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” prostitute Mary Magdalene’s Jesus Christ Superstar power ballad. The grownup Michele sang it winkingly, knowingly and, of course, beautifully. 
For this special night, Michele’s special guests were her good friends and costars in Spring Awakening and Glee, respectively. First, Jonathan Groff joined her for a wonderful duet on “Word of Your Body” that segued into a thrilling bit of Sondheim’s “Somewhere,” then Darren Criss joined Lea for a spectacular “Suddenly Seymour” and, with Criss strumming an acoustic guitar, a touching take on Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.”
After those dynamic duos, Michele kept the Broadway hits coming: "Papa Can You Hear Me" was followed by "Maybe This Time" and then a terrific Funny Girl medley of “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People” and “Music That Makes Me Dance.” She followed that with a boisterous “My Man,” a song the real Fanny Brice sang in concert but that wasn’t in the stage musical of Funny Girl—although Barbra Streisand sang it in the movie. Pianist and music director Steven Jamail and his taut, tight band provided strong accompaniment throughout.
For her lone encore, Michele sang a tearfully reflective "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," showcasing a voice of passionate restraint. She promised the cheering fansthat she would return to Broadway soon—which was music to everyone’s ears.

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