Sunday, July 23, 2017

Film review—“The Midwife” with Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot

The Midwife
Written and directed by Martin Provost
Opened July 21, 2017
musicboxfilms.com

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in The Midwife (Music Box Films)
There can be no more quintessentially French film than Martin Provost’s The Midwife (the double meaning of the French title, Sage femme, is lost in English), and not simply because it stars Catherine Deneuve. It’s also because of its plot: a 49-year-old midwife receives a phone call one day from her father’s long-gone mistress, now in her 70s and looking for closure after receiving a fatal brain cancer diagnosis.

When she agrees to meet Béatrice Sobolevski, Claire’s own life is in flux: the clinic where she’s worked for decades helping to deliver newborns is about to be replaced by the latest high-tech one, where her hard-earned experience and expertise is beside the point; her son Simon, currently in college working his way toward a medical degree, brings home his pregnant girlfriend; and her neighbor Paul, as hard a worker on his vegetable garden as she is on hers, wants a closer relationship than she’s been willing to allow herself with any man.

Into Claire’s messy life storms the still glamorous and self-absorbed Béatrice, who becomes amusingly dependent on Claire after being told that Claire’s father killed himself decades ago after Béatrice left him. As written and directed by Martin Provost, The Midwife skirts melodrama and soap opera in its depiction of this odd couple, especially when the funny but repetitive back-and-forth between these completely antithetical women is overwhelmed at times by several scarily authentic birthing sequences.

Despite that, the film is quite affecting thanks to its two leads. Deneuve, of course, is even more elegant than the fake Hungarian princess she plays, but she is also believably heart-tugging as a grievously sick woman trying to keep up appearances even though the high life she used to lead is long gone. And Frot—whose pathetically hilarious opera singer with no talent in last year’s Marguerite was far more memorable than Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated turn in Florence Foster Jenkins—gives a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a middle-aged woman at a crossroads in her life who must also confront the ghost of her family’s sorrowful past in the form of Béatrice.

Provost’s droll touches—notably the moment when Béatrice discovers that Claire’s son Simon bears an uncanny resemblance to Claire’s father (and Béatrice’s lover)—complement the delectable performances of both Catherines, who make The Midwife far more substantial than it would otherwise be.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

July '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Kong: Skull Island
(Warner Bros)
As mindless entertainments go, the latest Kong has its moments, especially when the humans are relegated to the background and fascinating-looking creatures dominate the screen: prehistoric monsters, a yuge insect, and of course our giant ape. Up against superior CGI, the cast has little chance to do anything, especially poor Brie Larson, who gives an embarrassing performance for an Oscar winner. At least John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson’s lapses into crude comedy help—a bit. But Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” at the end is unjustified arrogance from journeyman director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. On Blu-ray, the movie looks astonishingly good; extras include featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes and a director’s commentary.

The Devil’s Domain
(Cleopatra Entertainment)
This social-media revenge pic is built on a brazenly insane fantasy: an anorexic high school student makes a pact with the devil to eliminate those at school responsible for bullying her. Director Jared Cohn stages a few brutal death scenes that are horrible fun, but does little else, including making Linda Bella less amateurish as a she-devil. Madi Vodane’s persuasive teen heroine makes this watchable, at least. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are a making-of and red-carpet interviews.

Midsomer Murders—Series 19, Part 1 
(Acorn)
In the four 90-minute mysteries making up the latest set of this popular series, chief inspector John Barnaby is joined by new partner Jamie Winter for a series of investigations into several killings throughout the local towns of Midsomer, which are strangely prone to murder. The episodes—and the crimes featured in them—include an exotic snake, an army tank, and vengeful cricket fan, and it’s always satisfying to watch Barnaby (nicely underplayed by accomplished vet Neil Dudge) and his latest sidekick solve these increasingly offbeat crimes. The Blu-ray transfer looks great; extras are featurettes and interviews.

 
Terror in a Texas Town
(Arrow Academy)
In Gordon L. Lewis’s tightly wound hybrid of film noir and western, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden)—who arrives at a small town terrorized by a rich hotel owner and his murderous hired gun—is on a mission of revenge for the killing of his father, but all he has is a whale harpoon for a weapon. Even if Hayden’s Scandinavian accent slides all over the place, this does quite nicely as a taut, High Noon-esque drama. The hi-def black and white transfer shimmers with grain; extras are an intro and analysis by western expert Peter Stanfield.

DVDs of the Week 
The Artist’s Garden—American Impressionism
(Seventh Art)
Phil Grabsky’s documentary recounts the fascinating story of American painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries inspired by their more famous contemporaries on the other side of the Atlantic. Among the notable artists shown are Mary Cassett, Hilde Chassam and William Merritt Chase, whose works are as enduring as the French painters who inspired them. As with other Exhibition On Screen entries, the dry 90-minute program (narrated by Gillian Anderson) features gorgeous examples of many artworks, so it’s too bad this wasn’t released on Blu-ray.

The Penguin Counters
(First Run)
Ron Naveen has been counting penguins for decades. If that seems funny, it’s not: he and his colleagues’ numbers are important indicators of how climate change affects various species in Antarctica, and this informative documentary lays out the continued importance of their ongoing scientific studies. Directors Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon also provide beautiful images of the Antarctic habitat, which might convince even the most hardened climate-change denier about what we’re in danger of losing. Extras include additional scenes.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

July '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
L’Argent
(Criterion)
For his final masterpiece, French director Robert Bresson adapted a Tolstoy short story about forgery and transformed it into an austere, straightforward, ultimately soul-crushing dissection of how a single act can spiral into an orgy of death and destruction. Made in 1983, it has a timelessly haunting quality that only Bresson could have created; running a precise 80 minutes, it demands repeat viewings, even if it is one of the most downbeat films ever made. Criterion’s hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras are a 1983 Cannes press conference with Bresson and his cast and James Quandt’s interesting but sometimes silly A to Z video essay on the master.

Feed the Light
(Intervision)
Inspired by stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Swedish director Henrik Moller made this extremely unpleasant and disturbing tale about a determined young mother tracking down her abducted young daughter by her former husband to an eerie institution that really test her mettle. Actress Lina Sunden’s gusty performance in the lead gives Moller’s B&W feature debut a shot in the arm that helps gloss over the film’s dramatic deficiencies. There’s nice use of color for the final shot. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include an on-set featurette and Moller interview.

Pulse 
Doberman Cop
(Arrow)
Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his best-known film Pulse in 2001: it’s a creepy drama that was prescient in its focus on how the internet and social media divide and conquer society, a harrowing premise for an ingenious thriller. Director Kinji Fukasaku’s 1977 Doberman Cop mixes yakuza, American cop movies and martial arts into a strangely entertaining brew with terrific action sequences that appear whenever the plot turns ho-hum. Both films have superior hi-def transfers; extras include interviews, video appreciation and making-of documentary of Pulse.

Running on Empty
(Warner Archive)
A fascinating subject—ex-radicals, on the lam from the feds, try and build a family and new lives—is compromised by Naomi Foner's superficial script (which somehow earned a 1988 Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe), substituting sentimentality and contrivance for three-dimensionality and taut drama. Sidney Lumet's direction is solid, and his cast, especially River Phoenix as the restless teenage son, Martha Plimpton as his restless girlfriend and Christine Lahti as his restless mother, does what it can, but the messy script (and a miscast Judd Hirsch as the restless father) moots any chance at an intelligent and insightful character study. The hi-def transfer is clean if not overly sharp.

The Tunnel: Sabotage—Complete 2nd Season 
(PBS)
In their second go-round, British DCI Karl (Stephen Dillane) and French investigator Elise (Clemence Poesy) find themselves tracking down a particularly insidious terrorist group that begins with a Eurotunnel kidnaping and a shocking crash of an airliner by jamming its onboard computer. What starts provocatively and thrillingly turns, about halfway through, anticlimactic: after the main villains are taken care of, the drama becomes diffuse and wanly limps to the end. But Dillane and Poesy are a still-formidable team, and Elise’s new relationship—which may or may not impact a future season of the show—is an intriguing wrench thrown into the works. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include a making-of and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
My Mother & Other Strangers
(PBS)
Set in a northern Irish village during World War II, this absorbing Masterpiece mini-series follows the interactions of the locals—the men, their wives and children—with the Americans in their midst from a nearby army air base. Although the plotlines approach soap opera, the drama is always watchable thanks to the sterling cast, which is led by a luminous Hattie Morahan as the mother of three and faithful wife who takes a shine to the U.S. commander. Extras comprise on-set interviews.

Norman 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Joseph Cedar’s low-key comedy about a minor Manhattan operator who hits the big time after an unknown Israeli operative he connects with becomes prime minister is really just a remake of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, with Richard Gere subbing for Allen’s small-time talent agent who loses his biggest client. This one-joke movie is stretched painfully thin, and Cedar’s ostentatious visuals are a desperate attempt to bring variety into an essentially static and repetitive story. Still, Gere is very good in an atypical role. Extras are a post-screening Q&A with Cedar and Gere and red-carpet interviews.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Weekend in the Berkshires—“Children of a Lesser God,” John Mellencamp, Natalie Merchant

Children of a Lesser God
Written by Mark Medoff; directed by Kenny Leon
Performances through July 22, 2017
Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
berkshiretheatregroup.org

John Mellencamp
July 1, 2017
Natalie Merchant
July 2, 2017
Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts
bso.org

There’s so much to choose from while in the Berkshires—music, museums, theater, ballet, historic sites, shopping, restaurants—that it’s impossible to do more than a few things on a weekend trip. This time around it was Children of a Lesser God in Stockbridge, and John Mellencamp and Natalie Merchant concerts at Tanglewood.

Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff in Children of a Lesser God (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Most people remember Children of a Lesser God from the 1986 movie version, which won an Oscar for Marlee Matlin in her sensational debut as a feisty deaf woman who falls in love with the hearing teacher wanting her to read lips and speak, while she stubbornly remains in her sign-language world. Despite its creaky dramaturgy, Mark Medoff’s earnest drama nevertheless works strongly in Kenny Leon’s thoughtful staging on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s stage.

Medoff tackles the themes of miscommunication and the physicality of love between people from (literally) two different worlds: James Leeds and Sarah Norman are shown sympathetically but realistically, rough edges and all. As embodied by Joshua Jackson (whose James is full of vigor and charm) and newcomer Lauren Ridloff (who has an appealing stage presence and dramatic heft as Sarah), our protagonists are a worthy adversarial couple.

Director Leon navigates this relationship sensitively, even if he is occasionally tripped up by Medoff’s central conceit: James repeating whatever Sarah and the other deaf characters sign becomes wearying after two-plus hours. (I don’t remember it being that annoying in the movie.) Still, with two excellent actors at the center—a revelatory Jackson in a demanding role, and a sensational find in Ridloff—Children of a Lesser God is emotionally satisfying theater.
                               *                                   *                                      *
The Tanglewood experience is one of the summer’s finest. Sitting on the lawn for a concert under the stars can’t be beat—especially when you can bring anything onto the grounds for a picnic, which people do: tents and tables, lawn chairs and coolers, hors d’oeuvres and main dishes, wine and beer, fruits and desserts. Add to all of that the most casual vibe of any outdoor amphitheater.
                            
Tanglewood concerts by John Mellencamp and Natalie Merchant were prime examples of still-relevant music of artists unworried that their most popular days are behind them. (But don’t tell that to the thousands who showed up both nights.)

John Mellencamp at Tanglewood (photo: Hilary Scott)
John Mellencamp—who has remarkably morphed from an arrogant young cock-rocker named Johnny Cougar into one of our most perceptive and sympathetic chroniclers of ordinary American lives—played a lean, dynamic 90-minute set that included several of his biggest hits along with more politically charged recent material, like the stand-out trio of songs from his latest album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which he recorded with Carlene Carter, who opened the show.

The lovely harmonizies of Carter and Emmylou Harris—whose fine 45-minute set followed Carter’s—joined Mellencamp for the stately “My Soul’s Got Wings,” and Mellencamp sang a powerfully raspy “Easy Target,” the most trenchant of his current political songs. He even broke out a rousing “Pop Singer,” his 1989 hit about how much he hates being a hit-making jukebox. So it was no surprise that, when it came to “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp basically told the audience he hates singing it but knows everyone wants to hear it—so he did a solo acoustic version, letting the enthusiastic crowd take over for the “Oh yeah, life goes on” chorus.

But he’s not averse to all of his hits—he and his crack band (including his MVP violinist Miriam Sturm) cranked out hard-hitting renditions of “Pink Houses,” “The Authority Song,” “Paper in Fire” and, for his lone encore, “Cherry Bomb,” which immaculately closed the show.

Natalie Merchant at Tanglewood (photo: Hilary Scott)
Natalie Merchant’s enduring solo career began nearly a quarter-century ago, after she left 10,000 Maniacs, and her latest tour—subtitled “3 Decades of Song”—features many songs of more recent vintage, wildly appreciated by the Tanglewood.

Of course, she did play tunes from her multi-million-selling solo debut, 1995’s Tigerlily: “Carnival,” “Wonder,” “River” and an unbearably emotional rendition of “Beloved Wife,” which was nearly ruined by some in the audience who felt the need to shout out during the song’s many quiet moments. But Merchant and her band—which featured a superb string section that provided lush but not overbearing accompaniment to these singular story-songs—showed their musical mettle right from the starkly beautiful opener “Lulu” from her eponymous 2014 album.

As for political commentary, Merchant waited until her second set—sans intermission, the show spanned 25 songs and a generous 2 hours and 45 minutes—when she introduced the biting “Saint Judas” with the quip that it’s “for all the racists and bigots in Washington D.C.”

For someone who writes and sings many minor-key, downbeat songs, Merchant has always been a buoyant performer: yes, her delightfully daffy dancing, spinning, hand gestures and arm-flailing are still very much in evidence. (By the encores, she had literally kicked off her shoes to run barefoot from one side of the stage to the other.) And she pointedly saved her most joyous songs for the end: a jubilant “These Are Days” gave way to the ecstatic singalong “Kind and Generous,” the perfect summation of another perfect Tanglewood evening.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Broadway Review—Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room”

Marvin’s Room
Written by Scott McPherson; directed by Anne Kauffman
Performances through August 27, 2017
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
roundabouttheatre.org

Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo in Marvin's Room (photo: Joan Marcus)
The curiously inert production of Marvin’s Room—the lone play by Scott McPherson, who died of AIDS in 1992, shortly after productions in Chicago and Off-Broadway—seems to be a result of the schizophrenic nature of the play itself, which, despite its sympathetic portrayal of an extended dysfunctional family dealing with mortality, never quite finds the right paths to take in its quasi-absurdism.

Middle-aged spinster Bessie has been the caregiver for her sickly father Marvin (with frail aunt Ruth in tow) in their Florida home for years, essentially giving up her own personal life to care for him. When she is stricken with leukemia, she calls her estranged sister Lee, who lives in Ohio with her troubled teenage son Hank and his younger brother Charlie, hoping one of them will be a match for an urgently needed bone marrow transplant. The Ohio trio arrives and sets up shop at Bessie’s house, where the family bit by bit attempts the difficult process of healing and forgiveness, despite death staring each of them in the face.

As staged by Anne Kauffman, Marvin’s Room rarely takes flight despite surefire tear-jerking subject matter—the opening scene of Bessie and her doctor trying to draw blood is played as farce, the doctor’s obvious ineptitude undercutting McPherson’s dark humor about the serious situation. As the play continues, jarring tonal shifts dominate, and Kauffman is unable to stabilize the uneasy balance of tragedy and laughs.

Laura Jellinek’s expansive set for these intimate goings-on—the geography of Bessie’s home is egregiously spread-out, making the family members even more remote from one another than McPherson has drawn them—further distances the audience from the emotions at the play’s core. But Kauffman does do well by her actors.

Jack DiFalco plays Hank’s detachment with a refreshing bluntness, while Luca Padovan is fine as bookworm Charlie. If Celia Weston overdoes Aunt Ruth’s neediness and aw-shucks demeanor she is nonetheless amusing and effective, and Janeane Garofalo nicely underplays Lee, preventing the relationship between sisters from becoming overly sentimental. Then there’s Lili Taylor, whose immensely affecting Bessie is the beating heart of an otherwise bumpy ride of a play and production.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

June '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Joe Versus the Volcano
(Warner Archive)
In 1990, this must have seemed like a sure-fire hit: Oscar-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) makes his directing debut with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a romantic comedy. But the result is a movie that wrong-foots it every step of the way. There’s a thin line that separates charming from cloying and Shanley and his leads rarely find themselves on the right side of it, leading to many wincingly awful situations that are not nearly as romantic, dramatic or comedic as they think. Shanley would later become a major playwright (Four Dogs and a Bone, Doubt, Outside Mullingar), so this bit of treacle can be considered a mere bump in his road. There’s an outstanding hi-def transfer; extras are a brief featurette and music video.

Cinderella
(Opus Arte)
One of the most beguiling of all ballet scores is Sergei Prokofiev’s timeless take on the classic fairy tale, and with such a sturdy piece of music to work with, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has created an absorbing and entertaining two hours of dance in his 2012 staging for the Dutch National Ballet. The dancing and movement are sublime, the sets, costumes and visuals (by Julian Crouch and Basil Twist) are charming and Prokofiev’s unbeatable music leads the way. Hi-def video and audio are impeccably rendered; extras comprise Wheeldon’s commentary and interviews with Wheeldon and dancers.

The Golden Cockerel 
(Mariinsky)
This colorful production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical final opera about an aging Tsar who receives the title bird to warn him of any dangers is a smashing musical and dramatic success, thanks to Anna Matison’s excellent direction, which features clever use of CGI. Conductor Valery Gergiev leads the orchestra in a lush musical performance of one of the composer’s most attractive scores, while the singers—led by young Russian soprano Kira Loginova in the title role—provide first-rate vocals. The Blu-ray audio and video are in spectacular hi-def.

Heli
(Strand Releasing)
Writer-director Amat Escalante’s relentlessly downbeat drama throttles viewers with its depiction of the lawlessness running rampant in a Mexico overrun by drug wars, corrupt police and beaten-down ordinary people, including the young man who tries to help his 12-year-old sister, only to trigger horrible events that include abduction, torture, rape and murder. It’s serious stuff, and exceedingly well-made, but there are diminishing returns to a film that displays grotesque acts of violence, inuring viewers from caring about what happens to its onscreen characters. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; lone extra is a half-hour on-set featurette.

DVDs of the Week 
All Governments Lie
(First Run)
Fred Peabody’s incisive chronicle of our broken politics features the usual talking heads—Noam Chomsky, Carl Bernstein, Matt Taibbi—but it’s more than mere preaching to the choir: its subtitle, Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone, alludes to the legacy of one of the great progressive journalists, whom we desperately need more of today. Hearing journalists like Jeremy Scahill take on Stone’s mantle of fighting the good fight against a deceptive government—whether Bush, Obama or Trump—shows that there is hope that we the people can overcome what our leaders have become. Extras are extended interviews.

Unlocking the Cage
(First Run)
For their latest documentary, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus tackle a subject not on currently on anyone’s radar, but which may soon generate huge controversies: are animals (especially primates) sentient, which makes them eligible for personhood, like corporations? The filmmakers follow attorney Steven Wise, who works with animal-rights groups to find cases (apes being held in captivity) to bring before the court and try to get favorable rulings. It’s an eye-opening glimpse at what the future of legal rights for individuals (humans and non-humans) may hold, however problematic or nonsensical it might seem to some right now. The lone extra is a music video.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Film reviews—Bertrand Tavernier Retrospective and Documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema”

My Journey Through French Cinema
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier: Film and Nothing But
Through June 29, 2017
Quad Cinema, 34 W 13th Street, New York, NY
quadcinema.com

Bertrand Tavernier in My Journey Through French Cinema 
In his New York Times review of Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct at the 2002 New York Film Festival, Elvis Mitchell actually penned the following line: “Bertrand Tavernier is not often thought of as a man of passion.”

Anybody who could write such an obvious howler has no business reviewing films, for it is so patently untrue. If anything, Tavernier is overzealous in his passion about the films he makes, the characters who populate them and the stories they find their way through. Seeing even one of his films in the Quad Cinema’s current retrospective, Film and Nothing But—or his new, endlessly fascinating My Journey Through French Cinema, also showing at the Quad this week—will put the lie to Mitchell’s foolish statement.

Tavernier’s passionate film knowledge is evident in every second of My Journey Through French Cinema, which runs a staggering 190 minutes but flies by more quickly than anything playing in the local cineplex. The director’s personal chronicle of what has most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth is done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably, that you wish it would go on for several more hours. As always with Tavernier, there are marvelous anecdotes, superb insights, treasured observations: when discussing composer Maurice Jaubert among the greats of ‘30s and ‘40s cinema, Tavernier’s enthusiasm comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his marvelously attuned personality to all things cinematic.

As the retrospective Film and Nothing But demonstrates, Tavernier is impossible to pigeonhole, which may be why he’s not held in the high esteem he should be. His debut was a splendid adaptation of a novel by Georges Simenon, 1973’s The Clockmaker, but he’s also made historical epics, science-fiction films, war dramas, period pieces, intimate character studies, etc. What these films all have in common is the Tavernier Touch, which offer fractured narratives that rarely provide the sort of closure most audiences expect, along with an affection for his flawed, ordinary, and all too human characters.

The great actor Philippe Noiret was Tavernier’s alter ego for several of the director’s best films, from The Clockmaker to 1989’s devastating World War I epic Life and Nothing But (June 26). Tavernier’s masterly The Judge and the Assassin (1976; showing June 29) stars Noiret as a judge who must decide an insane murderer’s fate, and the cat-and-mouse between the men (Michel Galabru is also magnificent as the killer) is brilliantly observed.

Other must-sees this week are 1980’s A Week’s Vacation (June 29), a beautifully realized look at a young woman’s mini-breakdown that showcases Natalie Baye’s subtle performance; Captain Conan (June 26), a stunning 1996 drama of French soldiers fighting in the Balkans after World War I; ‘Round Midnight (June 29), Tavernier’s 1986 valentine to be-bop jazz, starring the inimitable Dexter Gordon in an Oscar-nominated performance; L. 627 (June 27), a dark and moody 1992 study of French cops trying to clean up the streets of drugs; 1995’s Fresh Bait (June 27), Tavernier’s superior riff on the Natural Born Killers theme; and his most recent features, 2010’s The Princess of Montpensier (June 27), a tough-minded but ultimately heartbreaking historical romance, and 2013’s The French Minister (June 28), an unabashed and witty satire of French—and, by extension, international—politics.

More than four decades into a first-rate career, Bertrand Tavernier continues to make highly personal, extremely sophisticated films that defy easy categorization. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

June '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Marseille Trilogy
(Criterion)
Marcel Pagnol, one of the greatest writers in early French cinema—along with his work for the stage and on the page—created a classic cinematic trilogy in the 1930s: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936), the first directed by Alexander Korda, the second by Marc Allegret and the last by Pagnol himself, whose humanity, and love for both life and ordinary people is shot through all three films, which feature wonderfully vivid acting by Pierre Fresnay (Marius), Orane Demazis (Fanny) and Raimu (Cesar). Criterion’s magnificent new transfers show off the pristine B&W compositions by three different cinematographers; extras include an ingratiating intro by Bertrand Tavernier; interview with grandson Nicolas Pagnol; segments of a 1973 documentary series Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux choisis; Marseille, a 1935 documentary short produced by Pagnol; and archival interviews with Fresnay, Demazis and Robert Vattier.

American Epic
(PBS)
Digging deep into our country’s musical past, this three-hour documentary narrated by Robert Redford recounts how ordinary people with extraordinary talent had their music recorded and preserved for the first time. All three episodes are crammed with great songs and rarely-seen (and rarely-heard) archival footage. The second disc, The American Epic Sessions, comprises 90 minutes of joyous musicmaking as contemporary artists record new tunes using the only surviving piece of working recording equipment from the 1920s; among them are Elton John, Los Lobos, Nas, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, and Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage 
(Arrow Academy)
Italian giallo master Dario Argento made his debut in 1970 with this tense murder mystery about an American writer in Rome who, after witnessing an attempted murder, is swept up by a serial killer on the loose. Tony Musante (from TV’s Toma) is perfectly cast as the American out of his element, and Argento suggests without being explicit, which he later frequently abandoned. Bonuses are gritty cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and a modernist score by Ennio Morricone. Arrow’s hi-def transfer is sensationally good and grainy; extras include an audio commentary, new interviews with Argento and actor Gildo di Marco, archival interview with actress Eva Renzi and video essay on Argento’s films.

King Lear
(Opus Arte)
This 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s most shattering tragedy stars an overripe Antony Sher as the monarch who gives away his kingdom only to fall prey to insanity and mortality. Director Gregory Doran does nothing egregiously wrong, but never allows the Bard’s taut drama to cohere. There are scattered gems among the cast, notably Antony Byrne’s Kent and Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar; Natalie Simpson is a pleasing Cordelia, but sisters Regan and Goneril are embodied without much distinction by Kelly Williams and Nia Gwynne. The staging is shown in sharp hi-def; extras are Doran’s commentary, Sher interview and costume featurette.

Moses und Aron 
New York City Ballet in Paris
(Bel Air Classiques)
Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal opera Moses und Aron is pretty static dramatically, which is why Romeo Castellucci’s 2015 Paris Opera staging spends much of its time concentrating on offbeat, even bizarre visuals, including the sight of an actual ox standing onstage for several minutes (without being sacrificed). Philippe Jordan conducts orchestra and chorus to a perfect 12-tone maelstrom; the leads are enacted vividly by Thomas Johannes-Mayer and John Graham-Hall. A record of the company’s 2016 tour to the City of Lights, New York City Ballet in Paris dazzlingly shows off several classic Balanchine dances set to music by French masters Gounod, Ravel and Bizet, played boisterously by the Orchestre Promethee led by Daniel Capps. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.