Thursday, March 21, 2019

Leon Botstein Interview—Martinů’s Opera “Julietta” at Carnegie Hall

American Symphony Orchestra: The Key of Dreams
Leon Botstein, music director
March 22, 2019
Carnegie Hall
americansymphony.org
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů

For decades, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have consistently put on the most innovative and exciting classical-music programming in New York. Usually thematic in nature—the ASO’s first concert this season in October, A Walt Whitman Sampler, featured a rare live performance of Vaughan Williams’ expansive A Sea Symphony—the annual slate also features an annual performance of an obscure opera, usually from the 20th century and often overdue to be heard by audiences.

Last season was Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, an unabashedly modernist and explicitly socialist work rarely presented in New York (or anywhere else, for that matter). On March 22 at Carnegie Hall, Botstein and the ASO present Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta, which many consider his operatic masterpiece. Botstein recently discussed Martinů, choosing operas to resurrect and what’s coming in a few months at his other job, running the annual Bard Music Festival, which looks at the musical world of a single composer each summer.

Kevin Filipski: With so many worthy but underheard 20th century composers from which to choose, how did you pick Martinů?
Leon Botstein: First of all, it’s the quality of the composer, the significance of the composer and the consistency of his music. Over the years, interest in Martinů has grown. There are the orchestral works, of course, and he was an avid opera composer. Two of his operas stand out: his last, The Greek Passion, and Julietta, which is considered his finest opera, a real masterpiece. The more you look into it, the more you see how unusual it is. I like to think of Julietta as a psychoanalytic opera, with extremely innovative use of speech and music, and melodrama and dialogue. It’s really a fantastic piece. I didn’t really know much of its performance history, and it’s never been done in the U.S.
Sara Jakubiak sings the title role of Julietta
(photo: Ashley Plante)

KF: Julietta was originally done in French. Why perform it in Martinů’s original language, Czech?
LB: This is a long back-and-forth. If I remember correctly, I retranslated it from French into Czech. The original story and novel are French. A Martinů scholar has done a new critical edition for the Czech version. Given its performance history and Martinů’s own relationship to the Czech language, he was quite like Janáček, who believed that the actual sound of the language was a crucial element. In Martinů’s case, it’s his own revision of the original version: if you will, an analogy might be made between Beethoven’s Fidelio and Leonore. Fidelio is what we play on the stage, but it’s Beethoven’s distillation of his complete work on this project. The Czech Julietta appears to have the same status. There’s a feeling that Czech is sonically more effective and that this version is the final statement by the composer.

KF: I know you have a list of many worthy operas you’d like to perform. Can you explain your process of choosing them?
LB: This opera was definitely on my list. There’s a whole fantastic repertoire of Czech opera, and two Smetana operas have always been on my list: Dalibor and Two Widows. In Martinů’s case, Julietta and The Greek Passion, as I said earlier, have been on the list of operas that need a fresh look and a fresh hearing. Julietta has been on my mind for awhile: in the 90s, I had the honor of working with Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, for whom Martinů wrote his piano concertos. He was a good friend of Martinů and lent me his own score of Martinů’s piano concertos and encouraged me to look into more of his music. For many of us, Martinů was a name but just in a general sense, not for any specific work. There was a tremendous output—he was tremendously prolific—but not anything that was so far in view that you could follow the trail, like Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for example. When I was preparing for the Dvořák Bard Music Festival (1993), I stumbled on a whole bunch of names that I didn’t know anything about, including Suk and Martinů. Suddenly a whole Czech tradition opened up in the 19th and 20th century. My first encounter with Martinů was with the symphonic music: a few seasons ago I conducted his sixth symphony. 
Leon Botstein (photo: Ric Kallaher)

KF: Speaking of the Bard Music Festival, what’s on tap for this summer?
LB: This summer is Korngold, which will be fascinating, because he’s somebody who had 2-1/2 careers. He was an opera and chamber music composer before the mid-1930s, and he was also a phenomenal prodigy. Die Tote Stadt, which we’re doing a concert performance of, was one of the most highly performed operas in the early 1920s. He was a sensation, and his serious opera is Das Wunder der Heliane, which we will perform in a staged version. So we’ll look at Korngold’s career, and in the process, we’ll also hear how he was engaged in operetta along with his contemporaries. We’ll show how he took music he wrote for movies and turned it into concert music, because he really didn’t make a big distinction between them. And we’ll do a serious sampling of his orchestral and instrumental output. 

KF: In this fragmented culture, how does serious music stay relevant for audiences?
LB: There are essentially two pillars of our art forum that seem to do well. First, it’s the new: new work, new names on the scene and premieres; in that category I would put new artists like pianists, violinists and conductors. So in that sense it’s a new performer and new composer-based structure. Then there’s the standard repertory, what I would call a Ferris wheel, which goes around and around. We’ll see a lot of it in the Beethoven year (2020 is the 250th anniversary of his birth) and it changes almost not at all. What’s vanished completely is the third absolutely essential pillar, maintaining the vitality of the rich history of this art form, which is what we do with Bard and the ASO It’s the hardest thing to bring across. We’re in the business of engendering curiosity, not having an aesthetic war of, say, tonal vs. atonal. That kind of nonsense is no longer relevant. What is relevant is to get listeners to hear music with a sense of curiosity and not nervousness if they don’t recognize something. You have to build trust with the audience, which is what we are doing with Bard and the ASO.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

March '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Spider-Man—Into the Spider-Verse 
(Sony)
Winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Film, this enjoyable “alternative” Spider-Man origin story follows a teenager who, after a bite by a radioactive spider, becomes another Spider-Man—just as the original superhero supposedly dies. Crammed with inventive visuals, a creatively offbeat script and enough humorous asides to keep parents interested while their kids are enthralled, this may be the beginning of a new wave of cartoon superhero flicks. The film looks sparkling on Blu; extras include an audio commentary, alternate universal mode, several featurettes and a new animated Spider-Man short.

The Kid Brother 
(Criterion)
The latest Criterion release of a 1927 feature by Harold Lloyd—who was, after Chaplin and Keaton, the greatest silent film comedian—might not equal earlier Lloyd releases like The Freshman and Safety Last!, but it has the writer-director-actor-stunt man’s best qualities in abundance, from spectacular sight gags and physical humor to unexpected poignancy. Criterion’s release includes a wonderfully detailed restored hi-def transfer, two musical scores to choose from and the usual plethora of extras: audio commentary, new and archival interviews, video essays and the newly restored Lloyd shorts Over the Fence (1917) and That’s Him (1918).

Man from Atlantis 
(Warner Archive)
This 1977 TV movie—starring Patrick Duffy as an amnesiac man with gills and webbed feet washed ashore and taken in by U.S. officials, who need his help neutralizing a mad eco-terrorist—is typically silly stuff saved only by ahead-of-its-time environmental awareness. It’s surprising that all four of these Atlantis movies were not released together on Blu-ray, as they were earlier on DVD; their initial popularity helped green-light the short-lived (13 episodes) series. Luckily for Duffy, another series, Dallas, soon came along. There’s a vivid hi-def transfer.

Marquise 
(Film Movement Classics)
French director Vera Belmont’s lusty 1997 costume drama is a terrific showcase for Sophie Marceau, who has never been more charming than as the title character, a dancing girl from the sticks who works her way up the social ladder to become a member of Moliere’s acting troupe and performer for the royal court. Belmont’s sharp eye for political satire is more muted than in her wonderfully evocative 1985 film, Red Kiss—which also needs to be restored and reevaluated—but this is still a delicious glimpse at a bygone (17th century) era. The movie looks great on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a new interview with Belmont. 

Mary Poppins Returns 
(Disney)
In this long-gestating sequel to 1964’s Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt takes on the role that Julie Andrews is beloved for: the irrepressible supernanny, who comes back to the same family she was with before. Blunt is fine, as is the rest of the cast—Lin-Manual Miranda, Colin Firth, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, and especially the welcome return of vets Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury—and Marc Shaiman’s songs are tuneful echoes of the Sherman brothers’ originals. Director Rob Marshall loses control over the final 30 minutes, but as family entertainments go nowadays, one could do a lot worse. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include a sing-along edition, deleted scenes, deleted song, featurettes, interviews and a gag reel.

The Quake 
(Magnet)
Director John Andreas Andersen has made what could be called a thinking-mans’ disaster movie—at least up to a point. His hero is a Finnish geologist trying to sound the alarm about an 8.5 earthquake about to devastate Oslo and its citizens, including his family. For its first two-thirds, The Quake is fun, even brainy stuff, but when the quake arrives—and there’s tremendous, and sparing, use of special effects that show Oslo’s destruction—character development unfortunately takes a back seat to disaster movie clichés. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are several making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week 
Divide and Conquer—The Story of Roger Ailes 
(Magnolia)
In her incisive documentary about the man who created Fox News and today’s negative political campaigns, Alexis Bloom charts the rise and fall of Roger Ailes alongside oft-incriminating interviews with those who knew and worked with him—including, unsurprisingly, women who describe his sexual indiscretions and harassment. There’s nothing too surprising, but it’s put together so meticulously that it becomes a compelling if grotesque portrait of our benighted era.

Over the Limit 
(Film Movement)
Marta Prus’ gripping fly-on-the-wall documentary follows Margarita Marun, a world-class Russian rhythmic gymnast, practicing and participating in tournaments with an eye toward the 2016 Olympics. She seems a focused young woman, but her coach has decided that psychological bullying will ensure that she keeps that focus. Marun appears to accept such behavior as part of her reaching for greatness—up to a point. Immediately after the Olympics, she retires at age 20, shows the ambivalence. A bonus short film is Johnson Cheng’s Olympics-set Iron Hands. 

CD of the Week 
Stéphanie D'Oustrac: Sirènes 
(Harmonia Mundi)
For this intelligently programmed recital, Stéphanie D'Oustrac is joined by pianist Pascal Jourdan for a journey through lynchpins of Romantic-era music by Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. Although her renditions of six Liszt lieder are precisely phrased and she treats Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder with the reverence they deserve, it’s in the Berlioz, not surprisingly, that finds the French mezzo most in her element. Both Les Nuits d’ete and Le mort de Cleopatra, usually heard in their orchestrated versions, have never sounded so elegant and intimate as they do here, only hearing D’Oustrac’s lustrous voice and Jourdan’s refined accompaniment.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Broadway Musical Review—Laura Benanti in “My Fair Lady”

My Fair Lady
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe; directed by Bartlett Sher
Performances through September 22, 2019
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
lct.org

Laura Benanti in My Fair Lady (photo: Joan Marcus)
Laura Benanti has said that Eliza Doolittle is her dream role: and this coming from a Tony-winning star who has already lit up productions of The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Wonderful Town, Nine and She Loves Me. But as she proves again (and again) throughout the delectable Bartlett Sher staging of My Fair Lady, some dreams do come true—for Benanti and for her audience.

Benanti is simply a splendid and sympathetic Eliza right from the start, nailing the feisty flower girl’s nearly impenetrable cockney accent when she meets chauvinistic linguist Henry Higgins, who takes a bet to transform her from guttersnipe to princess. Benanti beautifully embodies Eliza’s evolving personal journey from an ignorant to an enlightened young woman, cherishing her own values even more when she sees how the pompous one percent lives. 

Benanti does everything right. She has a wicked sense of humor and a proportional sense of tragedy; she has the feistiness to stand up to Higgins (a drolly superior Harry Hadden-Paton) and her own father, the indefatigable Alfred P. Doolittle (the agile and winning Danny Burstein), but also treats Henry’s mother Mrs. Higgins (the ageless Rosemary Harris) with respect and her own rich, besotted suitor Freddy (velvet-voiced Christian Dante White) with tenderness. 

And, of course, Benanti’s singing is peerless, from her joyful on “I Could Have Danced All Night” to her fierce “Just You Wait” and heartbreaking “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” She also looks the part, wonderfully and authentically, in Catherine Zuber’s exacting costumes. Praise is also in order for Michael Yeargen’s remarkably precise sets, Michael Holder’s exquisite lighting and Christopher Gattelli’s clever choreography. Lerner and Loewe’s classic songs sound sumptuous thanks to Ted Sperling’s musical direction.

Bartlett Sher’s fresh reinterpretation of Lerner and Loewe’s show—based on Bernard Shaw’s still-relevant exploration of class and gender differences—puts a 21st-century gloss on one of the greatest musicals ever. But above it all is Laura Benanti, who makes another iconic role expressly her own in a masterly performance. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

March '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald 
(Warner Bros)
This sequel to J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter story (and maiden attempt at a screenplay) once again tracks a wizard, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a none-too-subtle version of an adult Harry Potter, and his attempts to return dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to captivity after he escapes. Alongside Redmayne and Depp, the cast—including Katharine Waterston, Jude Law, Zoë Kravitz and Carmen Ejogo—does battle with and against eye-popping effects and cleverly designed monsters. Two-plus hours of such exploits becomes wearying, but—as usual when it comes to Rowling’s imaginative worlds—your mileage may vary. The film looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras include on-set and “Unlocking Scene Secrets” featurettes and deleted scenes.

Fear the Walking Dead—Complete 4th Season 
(Lionsgate)
The fourth season of this spin-off of/prequel to The Walking Dead is highlighted by the first crossover episode of the two series, and the 16-episode season consists of two eight-episode segments. As usual, it’s crammed with accomplished writing, directing and acting, but I can’t help but feel that such efficient storytelling obscures the fact that there’s little purpose or point to the whole enterprise. But that seems a minority opinion.  It does look fantastic in hi-def; extras comprise four audio commentaries.

The Indomitable Bow—Mstislav Rostropovich 
(Naxos)
Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich not only collaborated with the greatest 20th century composers—Prokofiev, Britten, Shostakovich, Dutilleux, Lutaslowski and Penderecki, for starters—but also performed many masterworks for the cello from Bach on; and that’s only part of his long but fascinating story. Bruno Monsaingeon’s illuminating documentary portrait shows an artist and human-rights advocate fearlessly speaking out during the Cold War, as Rostropovich and his soprano wife Galina Vishnevskaya fell afoul of Soviet policies antithetical to art and humanity. Clips of him performing and speaking are complemented by interviews with colleagues and family members. The film looks fine on Blu; extras comprise his performances of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and interviews with the children of dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich about their relationship. 

Kalifornia 
(Shout Select)
In Dominic Sena’s nervy 1995 drama—among a group of mid-90s “youthful killer” movies including Fresh Bait, Natural Born Killers and True Romance—Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis are a charismatic murderer and his compliant girlfriend on a road trip with unsuspecting couple David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes. Despite manipulative touches, this is an effective and disturbing study, with top-notch performances all around—and whatever happened to Forbes? There’s a finely-detailed hi-def transfer and both the director’s and original theatrical cut are included; extras are a new Sena interview, archival featurette and cast interviews.

Krypton—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Bros)
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)
In the first season of this sci-fi fantasy series that creates an alternative Superman origin story, an earthling from the future, Adam Strange, arrives on the title planet to convince Seg-El, Superman’s future grandfather, that his eponymous home planet needs to be saved from destruction. Despite the intriguing premise, the series takes itself a little too seriously, and it doesn’t really go anywhere unfamiliar or riveting over its 10 episodes. There’s a stellar hi-def transfer; extras are the 2017 Comic-Con Panel, two featurettes, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

The Vanishing 
(Lionsgate)
This relentlessly downbeat, exceedingly violent drama shows what happens on an isolated island when three lighthouse keepers discover a cache of gold along with a body after a boat washes ashore. Based on a tantalizing true-life tale, this prime piece of speculative fiction was directed with supreme control by Kristoffer Nyholm and exceptionally well-acted by Peter Mullan, Gerard Butler and Connor Swindells. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

CDs of the Week
Bartók—Complete String Quartets 
(Chandos) 
Bartók—Piano Concertos; String Quartet; Concerto for Orchestra; Music for Strings, Concerto for Orchestra 
(Orfeo)
The great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote gloriously original music in all genres, from chamber and orchestral to choral and opera. These two-disc sets bring together defining performances of some of his masterpieces. The Arcadia Quartet, with the daunting task of playing all six of his expressive, explosive string quartets, makes its own mark in this mysteriously elusive but exciting music. 

The Orfeo disc compiles performances over several decades of some of Bartók’s most important works, including pianist György Sándor as the brilliant soloist in a 1955 recording of the Piano Concerto No. 2 and Sándor Végh leading the Camerata Academia des Mozrteum Salzburg in a stunning 1995 reading of the masterly Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (whose third movement is familiar to anyone who’s seen The Shining).

Monday, March 11, 2019

Off-Broadway Review—“Hurricane Diane”

Hurricane Diane
Written by Madeleine George; directed by Leigh Silverman
Performances through March 24, 2019
WP Theater/New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY
wptheater.org/nytw.org

Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, Mia Barron and Kate Wetherhead in Hurricane Diane (photo: Joan Marcus)
The women who populate Madeleine George’s amusingly off-kilter Hurricane Diane seem to be waiting for something, anything to spice up their daily drudgery. What arrives to uproot the lives of Carol, Renee, Pam and Beth is a literal force of nature: Dionysus, who—or so we are told in the god’s hilarious opening monologue—has decided to return to civilization to convince people that the earth is dying thanks to man-made climate change and that the best place to start changing minds is a cul-de-sac in suburban New Jersey.

As Dionysus—who takes the form of Diane, a butch landscaper—worms into their homes, confidences and, eventually, beds, the women’s souls are revealed and their inhibitions drop away. Cautious Carol; levelheaded Renee; irrepressible Pam; and needy Beth (her husband recently left her) all find varying degrees of liberation through Diane’s physical and emotional proximity.

For 90 minutes, George’s play gleefully skewers everything and everyone in its path, sometimes incisively, sometimes lazily—there are times when it skirts sitcom writing, but others when it makes skillful comic and even tragic impressions. And, although it simply peters out at the end, it’s crammed with quotable dialogue and a fearless way of destroying the realism of both her characters and her own play. 

Hurricane Diane is directed with equal parts vigor and finesse by Leigh Silverman on Rachel Hauck’s cleverly designed set. And the cast of five couldn’t be bettered. The women—Mia Barron (Carol), Michelle Beck (Renee), Danielle Skraastad (Pam) and Kate Wetherhead (Beth)—are magnificent individually and as a unit, with Skraastad as a particularly dynamic scene-stealer. And Becca Blackwell is the perfect embodiment of Diane/Dionysius, drawing every last laugh out of George’s robust and even potent words.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

March '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Creed II 
(Warner Bros)
In this sequel-to-cum-remake-of Creed I and Rocky IV, the son of Ivan Drago—the Russian from Rocky IV—faces off against Adonis Creed, who wants to avenge his father Apollo (who was killed in the ring by Ivan), but his trainer, our old friend Rocky, wants no part of it. Sylvester Stallone co-wrote the clever if draggy script, Michael B. Jordan is a fine Adonis, Tessa Thompson again has little to do as his fiancée—who discovers she’s pregnant and the couple worries over whether the child will be born hearing-impaired, as she is—and Dolph Lundgren and Brigitte Nielsen return as the humorless Dragos (Florian Munteanu plays their gargantuan boxing son). It’s entertaining enough but predictable and…well, who cares, because when Creed III appears we’ll do it all over again. The Blu-ray looks quite good; extras are deleted scenes and featurettes.

Bent 
(Film Movement Classics)
Martin Sherman’s forceful play about homosexuals in a Nazi concentration camp has been adapted into an intermittently absorbing drama by Sean Matthias—featuring Mick Jagger as a cross-dressing Berlin nightclub singer—with powerful sequences of young men being hunted down like dogs and being brutalized in the camps. Still, it plays out more efficiently than devastatingly, even if Clive Owen is well-cast as Max, the protagonist. The 1997 film looks good and grainy on Blu; extras include cast and crew interviews, music video and on-set footage.

Bernstein at 100 
(C Major)
For last summer’s celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, a star-studded list of performers descended on Tanglewood in the bucolic Berkshires of western Massachusetts to perform his own music and music he advocated like Mahler and Copland. Best performances are Nadine Sierra singing Bernstein’s Kaddish 2 and Isabel Leonard and Tony Yazbeck singing excerpts from West Side Story; host Audra McDonald leads the entire cast—and musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma and John Williams—in a rousing finale of Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” There’s superior hi-def video and audio; extras are brief featurettes and appreciations.

Starsky and Hutch 
(Warner Archive)
One of the most unnecessary of all reboots has the unlikely and unfunny duo of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson doing what Stiller and Wilson always do while around them more interesting personalities—like Snoop Dog and the original Starsky and Hutch, David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser—do more entertaining things. The 2005 movie has a fine hi-def transfer; extras include an audio commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurette and the ubiquitous gag reel, which shows that they had more fun making the movie than we do watching it.

Wild Rovers 
(Warner Archive)
In Blake Edwards’ overlong “modern” western, William Holden and Ryan O’Neal are cowboys who become bank robbers and find they’re in way over their heads. There are some funny and memorable moments scattered throughout—especially colorful is Karl Malden as their ranchman boss—but this 1971 effort plays as a Butch Cassidy knockoff that tries to capitalize on its jokey camaraderie, and only fitfully achieves it, although Holden is a particular delight. The widescreen drama—which includes an overture and exit music, as it did when it was originally shown in theaters—looks ravishing on Blu.

CD of the Week
Viardot—Le Dernier Sorcier 
(Bridge Records)
Nineteenth century French composer-pianist Pauline Garcia Viardot’s Romantic chamber opera (with a libretto by Russian author Ivan Turgenev) was pretty much forgotten until it was recently unearthed. Hearing it in the composer's original form, for piano, narrator and soloists—where it sounds more like an extended song cycle than a through-composed musical theater work—might blunt its musical power (I'd love to hear the chamber orchestration), but it's still lively and often stirring throughout. Trudie Styler narrates gracefully, the accomplished pianists are Liana Pailodze Harron and Myra Huang, and the strong soloists are led by Eric Owens, Jamie Barton, Camille Zamora and Adriana Zabala.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2019

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
February 28-March 10, 2019
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY
filmlinc.org

Mikhaël Hers’ Amanda
The 24th annual edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s long-running Rendez-Vous with French Cinema is highlighted by Amanda, Mikhaël Hers’ sensitive and touching drama about a carefree young man close to his single-mom sister and her young daughter who must man up once their world is changed by a traumatic event. Vincent Lacoste and young Isaure Multrier make a poignant pair as the devastated uncle and niece who try to start a new life together, and although Hers skirts melodrama, he never succumbs to it, making their relationship that much more heartrending.

Emmanuel Mouret's Mademoiselle de Joncquieres
Emmanuel Mouret, maker of second-rate Woody Allen relationship comedies, switches gears with Mademoiselle de Joncquieres, a clever period piece a la Les Liaisons dangereuses, based on a Diderot story. Although the film sags and eventually wears out its welcome, Mouret’s entertaining revenge comedy has a subtle performance by Cecile de France as a widow who hatches an elaborate plan against the regent who has wronged her.

Director Mia Hansen-Love seemingly can’t find her way back from her earlier observant relationship dramas like Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love; instead, like her recent Eden and Things to Come, her newest, Maya, has the ingredients of a powerful character study, following a war correspondent just freed from capture by Muslim terrorists who finds himself unsettled by his experience and travels to India, where he strikes up a relationship with a free-spirited young woman. Unfortunately, Hansen-Love’s directing and writing once again lack focus and insight. 

Patricia Mazury’s Paul Sanchez Is Back!
Some films are distinguished by bravura acting. In Patricia Mazury’s serial-killer black comedy Paul Sanchez Is Back!, the shifts in tone are jarring but partially redeemed by Zita Hanrot as one of several inept local police officers; she finds the humanity and humor in what’s on paper a complete caricature. Similarly, Adele Haenel—who has done memorable work in such disparate films as Water Lilies, The Unknown Girl and BPM—gives an affecting portrayal of the widow of a heroic police officer who discovers he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be in Pierre Salvadori’s otherwise banal romantic comedy The Trouble with You.

And teenage newcomer Zea Duprez singlehandedly makes Meteorites—Romain Laguna’s heavyhanded portrait of a teenager who sees a meteor streak overhead and proceeds to have a memorable summer, punctuated by a fraught relationship with her first real boyfriend—watchable with an incisive portrayal that outclasses the perfunctory drama she’s stuck in.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Musical Review—“The Scarlet Pimpernel” in Concert

The Scarlet Pimpernel 
Music by Frank Wildhorn; directed by Gabriel Barre; conducted by Jason Howland
Performed on February 18, 2019
Manhattan Concert Productions, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
mcp.us

Laura Osnes and Tony Yazbeck in The Scarlet Pimpernel (photo: Synthia F. Steiman)
Filled with swashbuckling derring-do, The Scarlet Pimpernel is Frank Wildhorn’s most sheerly entertaining musical, and for its recent concert version, Manhattan Concert Productions presented it with pomp and circumstance—and a guillotine set up at the back of center stage, surrounded by the chorus. Hearing this musical live with a huge chorus was a treat in itself!

The Scarlet Pimpernel (from Baroness Orczy’s famous novel) is set during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution: British fop Percy, married to French singer-actress Marguerite, leads a band of his countrymen who rescue citizens from execution, with the evil French envoy Chauvelin on his trail. There are shades of Les Miserables in the story and the setting, but Wildhorn has a few musical aces up his sleeve. Alongside rousing choruses are pretty duets for Percy and Marguerite (“Believe” and “When I Look at You”) and defiant battle-cry numbers for Chauvelin (“Falcon in the Dive” and “Where’s the Girl”). All these—and more—were dispatched with aplomb by the starry cast, led by Laura Osnes’s delightfully appealing Marguerite, Tony Yazbeck’s hilariously brash Percy and Norm Lewis’ charismatically nasty Chauvelin. And setting the pace was the large and versatile orchestra under music director Jason Howland.

Norm Lewis, Laura Osnes and Tony Yazbeck do battle (photo: Synthia F. Steiman)
The most fun of the night was late in the evening, when Yazbeck did a soft-shoe, implored Lewis to do one, then duked it out with him in a short sword fight: Osnes joined in, wielding her weapon even more impressively than the men. Under Gabriel Barre's savvy direction, the whole evening made The Scarlet Pimpernel feel more like an authentic Broadway musical than it did 20 years ago.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

February '19 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
A Star Is Born 
(Warner Bros)
Despite its acclaim, box office haul and awards, this is definitely the least of the four versions I’ve seen of the standard she-becomes-famous-while-he-goes-downhill showbiz tale—even the much-maligned 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson remake is better than this dreck. When she’s not in front of a microphone, Lady Gaga comes off as sullen and self-absorbed: her tendency to stare blankly is no help either. Bradley Cooper’s competent if undistinguished direction betrays an unimaginative vanity project, and Cooper’s leaden acting is practically fatal: I never believed one moment of the two stars’ relationship, nor Cooper’s with Sam Elliott, who plays the half-brother/manager (not father, which would make more sense) in his usual laconic way. The Oscar-winning song “Shallow” should have been the movie’s title. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include music videos, bonus musical performances and a making-of featurette.

Between Worlds 
(Lionsgate)
When a man whose wife and daughter perished in a house fire begins a relationship with a woman whose own daughter has had a near-fatal accident, her daughter becomes possessed by the spirit of his dead wife to avenge her own untimely death. (At least I think that’s what happens.) Writer-director Maria Pulera’s insane mélange of supernatural and sexual scores points for audacity, if nothing else. Nicolas Cage’s focused craziness works well here, and German actress Franka Potente as the woman and Aussie Penelope Mitchell as her daughter are far better than the material warrants. There’s a superb hi-def transfer.

George Benjamin—Lessons in Love and Violence 
(Opus Arte)
The opera Written on Skin made George Benjamin’s name: his spiky music and intense dramatics, coupled with committed collaborators and interpreters, were a satisfying combination. His latest, a static drama based on Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, shows Benjamin merely marking musical time, but it does bring out the best of director Katie Mitchell and singers Barbara Hannigan and Stephane Dagout, who elevate the opera whenever it sags. The hi-def image and audio are first-rate; lone extras are short interviews with Benjamin, Crimp and Mitchell.

Nino Rota—La notte di un Nevrastenico/I due timidi 
(Dynamic)
Nino Rota—best known for the memorable scores he wrote for many Fellini films, from the sublime The White Sheik to the didactic Orchestra Rehearsal—was also a master of chamber music, symphonies and even operas, two of which are enacted in Cesare Scarton’s beguiling 2017 staging from Italy’s Reate Festival. The one-acters, La notte di un Nevrastenico and I due timidi, have silly characters and storylines, but the music is wonderfully alive, the performers sing and act beautifully and the orchestra (under Gabriele Bonolis) sounds perfect. 

Year of the Dragon 
(Warner Archive)
When Michael Cimino made this 1985 detective drama, it was his first feature since 1980’s Heaven’s Gate bankrupted United Artists: although far from successful, Dragon is an entertaining yarn with some breathtaking sequences and Mickey Rourke at his cynical best as a police captain tracking a Chinatown crime syndicate. Major debits are a convoluted plot (courtesy writers Oliver Stone and Cimino) and a non-actress named Ariane as Rourke’s love interest. Still, it holds our interest for 135 minutes and is Cimino’s last watchable film of the four he made before his death in 2016. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is Cimino’s informative commentary.

CD of the Week
George Antheil—Symphonies No. 3 and 6, Orchestral Works 
(Chandos)
American composer George Antheil (1900-59) spent his formative composing years in Europe, soaking up the avant-garde sounds and making them his own through his often brutal-sounding, march-like rhythmic music. But, as this terrific recording of five of his orchestral works performed with aplomb by the BBC Philharmonic under conductor John Storgards can attest, he could also compose sturdy, melodic works, notably his sixth symphony, “After Delacroix,” wafts by at times to allow the listener to savor Antheil’s impressive aural equivalents to the French artist’s astonishing canvases. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

February '19 Digital Week III

DVDs of the Week 
Shoplifters 
(Magnolia)
The 2018 Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest is another of his brilliant observational dramas about how fluid are the definitions of family—this one is in the form of several individuals helping one another get through poverty by resorting to petty crime, mainly stealing, to make ends meet. As always, Kore-eda’s gaze is both sympathetic and unflinching: we watch as these people go through their daily grinds, and the sublime cast gets right to the heart of their complex characters and their often troubled journeys. It’s too bad that Magnolia has released this magnificent film only on DVD.

The Last Race 
(Magnolia)
Set at Riverhead Raceway, the last bastion of stock-car racing on Long Island, Michael Dweck’s breezily entertaining documentary shows the last gasp of what seems to be a lost cause, as the land the raceway sits on is worth millions to developers. The raceway’s managers, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, are deciding if they will yield to what’s probably the inevitable shutdown, and the racers themselves are hoping to have one last spin around the track—literally and figuratively. Extras include additional interviews and scenes.

The Sunday Sessions 
(First Run)
Richard Yeagley’s wrenching documentary displays a tactful restraint that helps relay how abhorrent and destructive gay conversion therapy can be to everyone involved. Following a young religious man, Nathan, as his therapist, Chris, tries to revert him back to heterosexuality, the film is often too painfully intimate to watch, especially when Nathan deals with reconciling his own nature with his own belief system. 

Blu-rays of the Week
Backbeat 
(Shout Select)
Iain Softley’s engaging 1994 biopic of Stu Sutcliffe—John Lennon’s best friend who never had real musical smarts and who got kicked out of the Beatles, died tragically of a brain hemorrhage at age 21—tells Stu’s story with humor and honesty. Stephen Dorff is a fine Stu, Sheryl Lee a revelation as Astrid Kirchherr—the German photographer who fell in love with Stu while the Beatles were in Hamburg—and Ian Hart a terrifically visceral John. The film looks great in hi-def; extras are a conversation with Astrid Kirchherr, deleted scenes, Softley and Hart interviews, audio commentary with Softley, Hart and Dorff, featurette and casting sessions.

Frantz Fanon—Black Skin White Mask 
(Film Movement Classics)
This provocative 1995 hybrid of biopic and documentary about the celebrated anti-colonial philosopher and theorist (who was born in French Martinique and who died in 1961 at age 36) was made by British director Isaac Julien, whose formal structure—juxtaposing interviews with people close to Fanon with readings from his works, archival footage and reenactments of episodes in his life—is inspired and inspiring. There’s a sparkling new Blu-ray transfer; the lone extra is Mark Nash’s fascinating 1992 short Between Two Worlds.

Happy Hour 
(KimStim/Icarus)
Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 5-hour, 17-minute opus about a quartet of 30ish female friends living quotidian lives is, at the start, off-putting, then becomes—very slowly but quite fully—entrancing. Hamaguchi gives his epic-length film, and its realistic, sympathetic characters, ample room to breathe, and if there are sequences (like one at an author’s reading) that could have been excised or, at the very least, trimmed, there’s also an appreciation for and understanding of life in all its ordinariness and extraordinariness. Then there’s the superlative acting by the four actresses, which easily matches Hamaguchi’s humanism. The film, spread over two discs, looks ravishing in hi-def—it’s too bad it wasn’t released originally on Blu-ray alongside the DVD release in 2017—and the extras comprise cast interviews.

Tarzan Goes to India 
Tarzan's Three Challenges 
(Warner Archive)
These two programmers have colorful remote location work to help prop up tried-and-true storylines that at least allowed the African resident to leave the continent. Tarzan Goes to India (1962) finds our hero coming to rescue of elephants endangered by a dam being built, while Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963) pits him against the evil uncle of a young heir to an East Asian throne. Both films look colorfully impressive in hi-def.

La vérité 
(Criterion)
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot made masterpieces like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique and other estimable films like Le Corbeau and Quai des Orfèvres, but this 1960 potboiler is not among them. Brigitte Bardot plays a woman on trial for killing her lover in his West Bank flat: this took six writers to cobble together? Clouzot’s unflashy direction does little to illuminate the back-and-forth between the courtroom and flashbacks to the incidents in question. Bardot pouts with the best of them, as always; this by-the-numbers melodrama is mainly for Clouzot completists. The hi-def B&W transfer looks glorious; extras comprise an hour-long 2017 Clouzot documentary, excerpt from a 1982 Bardot interview and 1960 Clouzot interview.

CD of the Week 
James Ehnes—Kernis/Newton Howard Violin Concertos 
(Onyx)
James Ehnes, a true virtuoso, tackles three recent works for his instrument in this engaging listen—and a disc that recently won a Grammy for Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, which is the most substantial piece here. But that’s not to say that James Newton Howard’s own concerto—the work of a composer best known for his dozens of film scores—isn’t attractive-sounding or that Bramwell Tovey’s Stream of Limelight isn’t a winning piece of chamber music. Ehnes plays with refinement and robustness throughout, and he’s ably supported by the Seattle (Kernis) and Detroit (Newton Howard) symphonies and pianist Andrew Armstrong (Tovey).

Monday, February 18, 2019

Movie Review—Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “Never Look Away”

Never Look Away
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 
Now playing in New York
Sonyclassics.com

Cai Cohrs and Saskia Rosendahl in Never Look Away
No one can accuse a director with a name like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck of restraint. The German director of Never Look Away—a magnificent 189-minute epic encompassing Nazis, Communism and modern art—proved with his debut feature, the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film The Lives of Others (2006), that he is unafraid to tackle serious and complex subject matter: but even that expertly-made and incisive dramatization of how the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, destroyed ordinary citizens was only a prelude to the sweeping audaciousness of Donnersmarck’s absorbing new film.

Based loosely on the life and career of modern German artist Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away is a biopic that’s crammed with every kind of melodramatic and comedic, romantic and tragic, cinematic and theatrical trope; what’s amazing is how Donnersmarck builds them into an exhilarating portrait of an artist as a young man. 

The film opens at an exhibit of degenerate art in Dresden that a Nazi party member gleefully demolishes, as our protagonist—six-year-old Kurt Barnert (the charmingly wide-eyed Cai Cohrs)—has his own artistic sensibilities supported by his angelic aunt Elisabeth (an elegant Saskia Rosendahl), who is torn from the family after erratic behavior renders her an undesirable to the Nazis. Her last words, mouthed to Kurt as she’s taken away, are the film’s evocative title, and throughout his life he takes them to heart.

Tom Schilling, Paula Beer and Sebastian Koch in Never Look Away
Shrewdly, Donnersmarck never returns to her words again, a rare moment of subtlety in a film that prefers the big-hearted moment, the florid gesture, the violent incident, the unmistakable symbol and the visual metaphor as it takes in Kurt’s life from the Allied bombing of Dresden and postwar rebuild to the stifling sameness of sanctimonious East German art schools and the freedom afforded by Dusseldorf when Kurt (played as an adult by the likably pleasant Tom Schilling) and his wife Ellie (Paula Beer, and tremendous) make their breathless escape to artistic and personal liberty in the West.

Nazism makes up a big chunk of the film’s narrative and psychological concerns: Professor Carl Seeband, Ellie’s beloved father, was not only one of the party elite but also a doctor who damned many young women to barrenness and even horrific death, including Elisabeth. Sebastian Koch plays this damnable villain with his usual suavity, helping to smooth over the worst excesses of his character, like giving his own daughter an abortion in an attempt to destroy her relationship with Kurt.

Donnersmarck never looks away from such horrifying images as the awful annihilation of mentally ill young women and the brutal deaths of civilians during Allied bombings; then there are the easily mockable—but sweetly naïve—bookending sequences of Elisabeth and Kurt responding ecstatically to the simultaneous horn blowing of local bus drivers, which have to be seen to be believed. 

The director makes his protagonist’s license to paint whatever he sees, however desultory—Kurt’s fame skyrockets when he creates paintings based on photographs of his family, turning them into blurry but powerful reminders of sordid German history—into a visual mantra (the glistening cinematography is by Caleb Deschanel), as every single sentimental and bombastic moment of Never Look Away becomes an essential part of the monumental story being told.