Tuesday, July 16, 2019

July '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
David F. Sandberg’s dopey but disarming superhero movie smartly doesn’t take itself too seriously—except when it annoyingly piles on endless false endings, dragging things out 20 minutes longer than they should be, and threatening an inevitable sequel during the end credits. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are in fine form as teenage Billy and his superhero alter ego, Mark Strong is amusingly villainous as Dr. Sivana and Jack Dylan Grazer is a born scene-stealer as Billy’s foster brother Freddy. It all looks splendid on Blu; extras include a commentary, gag reel, featurettes, deleted scenes, and alternate opening and closing.

BRD Trilogy
(Criterion Collection)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s three melodramas about postwar Germany are highlighted by three great actresses: Hanna Schygulla (1979’s The Marriage of Maria Braun), Barbara Sukowa (1981’s Lola) and Rosel Zech (1982’s Veronika Voss) give glorious performances that raise the level of these otherwise strident films. There’s also visual luster in the rich cinematography of Michael Ballhaus (Braun) and Xaver Schwarzenberger (Lola and Voss, with its enticing B&W images). Criterion’s hi-def transfers look tremendous; voluminous extras include commentaries, interviews, archival footage of Fassbinder interviews and on-set workings, and I Don't Just Want You to Love Me, a full-length career-spanning doc about the director.

Fast Color 
Cowriter-director Julia Hart’s pretentious sci-fi drama, set in an arid Midwest in a near-future, follows a young woman with supernatural powers, on the run from the shadowy authorities, who returns home to see her estranged mother and young daughter. Despite inventive flashes, Fast Color bogs down in confusion in lieu of interesting character development; luckily, the cast—led by the extraordinarily compelling Gugu Mbatha-Raw—provides the humanity the script and direction lack. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras are a commentary and making-of featurette.

DVD of the Week
In Italian director Matteo Garrone’s latest, vengeance takes the form of a put-upon dog groomer who finally has enough of the town bully, after spending a year in jail for refusing to implicate him in a robbery. Despite Marcello Fonte’s entirely believable performance in the title role, Dogman is an entirely predictable fantasy that contents itself with scenes of vicious but repetitive violence, set in a crumbling town where I doubt such a dog grooming saloon could stay in business. Fonte won Best Actor at Cannes last year, but his intensity isn’t enough to rescue Dogman from the dog house.

CD of the Week 
Romance—The Piano Music of Clara Schumann 
Composer Clara Schumann (best known as the wife of 19th century master Robert Schumann) is on a roll! This disc—played with beauty and precision by Isata Kanneh-Mason—is the third in the last few months containing her romantic music that I’ve reviewed, but it’s the first that’s all Clara from start to finish. Kanneh-Mason delicately tackles several lovely miniatures (Romances for piano and for piano/violin, along with two transcriptions of Robert’s lieder), but reserves her greatest strengths for traversing Clara’s A Minor concerto and G Minor sonata, both substantive, engrossing works which deserve wider currency.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

July '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Corvette Summer 
(Warner Archive)
Matthew Robbins’ breathless 1978 comic romance stars Mark Hamill (fresh off Star Wars) as a high school mechanic who improbably sets out for Vegas when the beloved Corvette he was working on is stolen—and he meets a prostitute in training who (equally) improbably falls for him. This forgettable concoction does have one thing in its favor: a truly delightful turn by Annie Potts as the would-be hooker with a heart of gold. The film looks fine on Blu.

(Warner Archive)
The term “gaslighting” originated with this dated but entertaining thriller about a murderous husband driving his young wife insane by degrees; George Cukor’s 1944 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play hinges on the performances of Charles Boyer and Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman as the couple, along with memorable turns by 18-year-old Angela Lansbury as a saucy maid and Joseph Cotton as the detective pursuing the husband. The restored hi-def transfer is superb; extras include the shorter 1940 British film version, 1946 radio version with Boyer and Bergman, Reflections on ‘Gaslight’ (featuring Angela Lansbury), reminiscence by Pia Lindstrom about her mother Ingrid Bergman, and 1944 Oscar ceremonies newsreel.

High Life 
Claire Denis’ first foray into sci-fi is a typically diffuse tale of a group of criminals on the first spaceship to explore a black hole and how the power dynamics play out, as the mission’s doctor (Juliette Binoche) conducts unethical experiments that lead to a baby being born among the crew. Surprisingly, Denis opts for easy conflicts and routine drama, and there’s not much room for the cast to shine: even Binoche—the lone highlight of Denis’ most recent failure, Let the Sunshine In—looks lost. There are a few arresting images, but these occur in a dramatic and thematic vacuum. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are making-of featurettes.

La Passion selon Marc—Une Passion après Auschwitz 
(BelAir Classiques)
The Passion According to Mark—A Passion After Auschwitz, by French composer Michaël Levinas, is an exceedingly dissonant work whose sounds are remindful of what happened to those millions who were killed by the Nazis. Led by countertenor Guilhem Terrail (whose unearthly voice perfectly embodies the otherworldly music), this performance led by conductor Marc Kissóczy is unsettling to be sure, right up until soprano Marion Grange’s emotionally resonant singing at the finale. Hi-def audio and video are excellent.

The Tough Ones 
(Grindhouse Releasing)
In this prime example of mid-70s Italian poliziotteschi, director Umberto Lenzi follows cops who will do anything—ethical or not—to bring criminals to justice, whether they are gang-raping, killing or thieving. The cast is game, the Rome locales are happily unprettified and untouristy, and Lenzi’s direction is down and dirty. It all looks great in a new hi-def transfer; extras include a disc of interviews, a documentary on Lenzi’s career and even a special surprise inside, like a Crackerjack box. 

DVDs of the Week
Poldark—The Complete Collection 
(Acorn TV)
The original Poldark, shown on television in 1975-77, is in many ways a more faithful adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels about Ross Poldark and his ongoing adversarial relationship with his cousin Francis, who married Ross’ sweetheart Elizabeth, all while Ross begins a new life with his own bride Demelza. There’s little of the swooning good looks of the current Masterpiece reboot’s cast, but these performers—led by Robin Ellis as Ross, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, Clive Francis as Francis and Angharad Rees as Demelza—may fit into their roles more snugly and believably. All 29 episodes of the original series (on five discs) are included in this set.

(Film Movement)
This story of a woman on a solo boat trip begins like another All Is Lost (with Robert Redford) or En solitaire (with François Clouzet) as a lone skipper against the elements, but director Wolfgang Fischer soon pivots it into a moral thriller about the implications of Europe’s migrant problem. Fischer, his versatile star Susanne Wolff and Benedict Neuenfels’ technically impressive cinematography combine to create a tense, thought-provoking action movie. Extras are Fischer and Wolff’s commentary and a short, Ashmina, directed by Dekel Berenson.

CD of the Week
Einem—Orchestral Works 
One of the most unabashedly tonal composers who came of age after World War II in Austria, Gottfried von Einem is best-known for his operas Danton’s Death, The Trial and The Visit of the Old Lady, all satisfyingly dramatic if musically old-fashioned. That straightforward style is showcased on this disc of four of his orchestral works, from his 1944 Concerto for Orchestra to his 1981-2 Three Gifts. All of these works—always arresting if at times facile in their proficient polish—are given substantive readings by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the agile baton of Johannes Kalitzke. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

July '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
War and Peace 
(Criterion Criterion)
Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive four-part film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling novel about Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s invading army in 1812 has attained mythic status by virtue of being seven hours long: but its sweeping vistas, stunning cinematography, flawless performances—led by the gifted Ludmila Savelyeva’s lovely heroine Natasha—and narrative clarity are the real reasons it’s a true classic. Criterion’s two-disc set contains a sumptuous new hi-def restoration, two parts on each disc; extras are new interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky and Fedor Bondarchuk, filmmaking son of Sergei Bondarchuk; two 1966 making-of featurettes; 1967 TV profile of Savelyeva; and interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood about the film’s cultural and historical contexts.

(Opus Arte)
Samuel Barber’s volcanically romantic opera—with a distinctively Hitchockian atmosphere of lost and new loves—has some of the composer’s most achingly melodic music, perfectly encapsulating how the women at the opera’s center (Vanessa, her niece Erika and the Old Baroness) react to the men in (and out of) their lives. Keith Warner’s superb 2018 Glyndebourne, England production is buoyed by Jakub Hrůša’s precise conducting of the London Philharmonic, and further illuminated by the emotionally riveting performances by Emma Bell (Vanessa), Virginie Verrez (Erika) and Rosalind Plowright (Old Baroness). There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.

Das Wunder der Heliane/The Wonder of Heliane 
Erich Korngold’s fantastical opera—which gets a rare staging at Bard Summerscape a couple hours north of Manhattan at the end of July—is filled with extraordinary music and absorbing if diffuse drama. Christof Loy’s 2018 Berlin staging highlights Korngold’s dazzling dramaturgy and musical ambition, and has a phenomenal heroine in American soprano Sara Jakubiak, unafraid to take Korngold at his word and appear nude for the end of the first act. This fearless performer and magnificent singer holds together an opera that threatens to become unwieldy in its final act. Hi-def video and audio are impeccable; lone extra is a rare 1928 recording of the third act prelude.

DVDs of the Week
Damn Yankees 
(Warner Archive)
This 1958 adaptation of the hit stage musical has dated badly, especially in the cheeky but toothless humor of the devil needing a sexpot to keep his baseball protégé in line. Ray Walston is hammily unfunny as Mr. Applegate (i.e., the devil), while Gwen Vernon only shines in her—too infrequent—song-and-dance numbers, the best a goofy mambo with choreographer (and soon-to-be husband) Bob Fosse. Otherwise, directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s concoction may disappoint fans of both baseball and musicals. Still, this deserves a vibrant new hi-def transfer on Blu-ray.

Marcella—Series 2 
Few actresses are as emotionally forthright as Anna Friel, and she lets it all hang out as Marcella Backland, a detective whose life is in a shambles, both personally and professionally. It’s too bad, then, that the storylines cooked up to accompany her fragile mental state often approach risibility instead of plausibility, making a mockery of the character and the superlative actress playing her. 

The Sower 
(Film Movement)
Marine Francen’s beautifully written, directed and photographed drama (based on a true story) set in the mid-19th century French countryside follows female villagers who, after the local men have been rounded up by the authorities, decide to share the next one who arrives: when this handsome stranger falls for the shy and unassuming Violette, it threatens to erode the women’s close relationships. This exquisitely crafted exploration of sexual dynamics, tension and jealousy leads to a low-key but heartbreaking ending devoid of sentiment. Francen’s use of the near-square Academy framing adds a heightened claustrophobia to the proceedings, and her lead actress, Pauline Burlet, is a winning presence. Lone extra is Francen’s short, Les Voisins.

CDs of the Week 
Martinů—Cello Sonatas 
I called Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů among our most underrated when I reviewed a two-disc set of his violin and orchestra music earlier this year. Now we have two more excellent Martinů recordings. Czech cellist Petr Nouzovský teams with Swiss pianist Gérard Wyss for estimable readings of Martinů’s three sonatas for cello and piano, formidable works that should be more widely known.

Although Martinů was a prolific opera composer, his other vocal works are obscure, so this disc of his songs based on folk melodies is a welcome addition. Performed with delicacy by a Czech trio—soprano Martina Janková, baritone Tomáš Král, pianist Ivo Kahánek—these four song cycles show a tender side of this most talented composer.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

2019 Tribeca Film Festival Roundup

18th Tribeca Film Festival
New York, NY
April 24-May 5, 2019

The latest edition of the Tribeca Film Festival premiered dozens of documentaries, shorts and domestic and international features: as usual, docs led the way. Alex Holmes’ Maiden, a bracing account of the first all-female crew in yachting’s premier Whitbread Round the World Race, reunites its members, led by crew leader Tracey Edwards, all of whom speak with a mix of wonder and pride over their amazing race in 1989. Edwards is as modest and unassuming as her crewmates are effusive in their praise for her steady leadership that helped them conquer many physical and psychological hurdles on their way to finishing the grueling months-long trek.

In the satisfying A Taste of Sky, Michael Lei explores how the goodwill of Danish gourmand Claus Meyer, whose Gustu is a high-end restaurant and cooking school for poor youths in La Paz, Bolivia, has allowed those (like the chefs profiled in the film, Kenzo and Maria Claudia) with marks against them to make their own mark on the culinary scene. Lil Buck: Real Swan is Louis Wallecan’s eye-opening portrait of the street dancer turned sought-after artist Lil Buck, from his early days growing up as Charles Riley in Memphis to his newly-minted celebrity that has included performances with Madonna and with Cirque de Soleil.

What Will Become of Us is Steven Cantor’s frank portrait of Frank Lowy, Australian founder of the shopping mall giant Westfield, who while in his 80s decided to discuss his tragic past as a Jew in Hungary during World War II: the most devastating moments find Lowy sharing intimacies about his father (who was killed in Auschwitz) and his beloved wife (afflicted with Alzhimer’s).

Meeting Gorbachev
The curious mind of German director Werner Herzog is on display in his latest docs. Meeting Gorbachev shows Herzog—who co-directed with André Singer—sitting down with the jolly former Soviet premier, who doesn’t pull punches (well, not many) as he discusses Glasnost, the end of the Cold War and the current state of the world. Herzog might be a little too differential to his subject, although that may be because that’s the only way Gorbachev would talk at all. In Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, Herzog touchingly chronicles the life and death of one of his closest friends, a British writer and adventurer who died of AIDS 30 years ago. Herzog even allows himself to wax sentimental as he traces Chatwin’s footsteps—literally and figuratively. 

An intriguing but frustrating documentary, Framing John DeLorean is Don Argott and Sheena Joyce’s look at the Detroit car maker who became infamous when his world blew up in a haze of unsold cars and cocaine possession charges by the Feds. Par for the course are reenactments of events in DeLorean’s life, but with a twist: an A-list cast performs them, starting with Alec Baldwin as DeLorean and Morena Baccarin as his wife. The result feels stagy and awkward along with not providing any more insight than other parts of the film do. Bloating the running time are moments when Baldwin—while having his makeup applied—comments on the man he’s portraying, again to scant effect.

Of the two features I saw, Takashi Doscher’s Only is far more forgettable, a lackluster post-apocalyptic nightmare where women are prized only for their breeding capabilities. Despite the winning presence of Frieda Pinto, complemented by a persuasive Leslie Odom Jr. as her partner, Doscher’s nightmarish scenario isn’t very distinctive from the dystopias we’ve been bombarded by elsewhere.

Charlie Says
Better is Charlie Says, Mary Harron’s at times harrowing drama about the Manson cult, shown through the eyes of three of Charlie’s women—Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón)— who discuss their exploits with a prison analyst (Annabeth Gish). Harron effectively dramatizes the ecstasies and agonies of life in a cult, including the killings themselves, which are never displayed as exploitatively as in disastrous recent The Haunting of Sharon Tate. Strong acting by the women and a bizarrely scary turn by Matt Smith as Charlie help smooth out the bumpier paths the movie takes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

June '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
La vie de Jésus 
(Criterion Collection)
French director Bruno Dumont has made alternately hypnotic and infuriating dramas about individuals approaching states of grace in their singular ways; in that sense, he’s a legitimate successor to Robert Bresson. But Dumont’s best film remains his first, this 1997 study of an epileptic young man in a rough-hewn seaside town in northern France, where Dumont himself grew up. The director has found the perfect locales in which to play out his dissection of spiritual malaise, and his amateur cast—led by one David Douche as the alternate brutal and gentle hero of sorts—responds with astonishing realism. The film’s gritty cinematography by Philippe Van Leeuw looks especially potent in hi-def; extras include Dumont interviews from 1997, 2014 and 2019. 

Between the Lines 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 comedy drama about the messy professional and private lives of young journalists at a Boston alternative weekly has attained a certain cache thanks to an estimable cast of then-unknowns who did better work elsewhere: Lindsay Crouse, John Heard, Jill Eickenberry, Jeff Goldblum, Bruno Kirby and Marilu Henner. Though at times insightful, the film lurches from episode to episode too disjointedly. There’s also the late, lamented Gwen Welles, an actress who died far too young at 42 in 1993. The new hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a new Silver interview.

Heroes Shed No Tears 
(Film Movement Classics)
This early John Woo shoot-em-up, set on the Vietnam-Laos border, follows a mercenary soldier whose wife and young son’s lives are in peril when he crosses a sadistic colonel. There’s non-stop action and blood-letting—most of it implausible, and when the mercenary’s son evades a raging inferno, downright risible—but the 88 minutes fly by, which has always been Woo’s forte. The hi-def transfer looks terrific; extras include a new interview with the movie’s star, Eddy Ko.

None but the Brave 
(Warner Archive)
In novice director and star Frank Sinatra’s hands, this 1965 WWII drama—about what happens after American marines crash-land on a remote Pacific island inhabited by a platoon of Japanese soldiers—wavers uneasily between psychological study and “can we just get along” liberal pieties. Director Sinatra, who plays the Americans’ drunken doctor, is unable to avoid a mire of clichés throughout, making this an honorable failure that nevertheless anticipated Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima by nearly four decades. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.

DVDs of the Week 
Degas—Passion for Perfection 
(Seventh Art)
French artist Edgar Degas kept his distance from his impressionist cohorts, going his own way in the paintings and sculptures of racehorses and ballet dancers for which he is best known. This 90-minute documentary, in conjunction with a traveling exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, is a fine overview of the artist’s background and artistry, and doesn’t sugarcoat his virulent anti-Semitism, which reached its apex during the sordid Dreyfus affair. Extras are additional interviews and a glimpse at the museum.

Sara Stein—From Berlin to Tel Aviv 
Matthias Tiefenbacher’s exciting four-film 2015 mini-series follows a secular Jewish detective whose investigation of a Berlin murder case propels her on a journey to Tel Aviv, where she begins a new life colored by her religion—and her decision to become a detective in Israel. These refreshingly sharp procedurals are highlighted by the always on-target portrayal of Stein by German actress Katharina Lorenz. Four 90-minute episodes are included on two discs.

CD of the Week 
Tchaikovsky—Complete Works for Solo Piano 
Valentina Lisitsa has given herself a monumental task by performing all of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s solo works for piano—10 CDs worth, over 11 hours of music—but she succeeds brilliantly. Although Tchaikovsky’s music has been criticized as being too flashy, too flagrantly sentimental, it is technically impressive and anything but mechanical. Lisitsa’s flawless playing follows suit, finding the joyful musicality in the two sonatas and the innate playfulness in his Children’s Album. Then there are the fiendish technical challenges of the solo-piano versions of The Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture, which she masters with hair-raising ease.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Film Series Roundup—Ermanno Olmi Retrospective

Ermanno Olmi
June 14-26, 2019
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Italian director Ermanno Olmi
A masterly artist who specialized in dramatizing undramatic lives, Italian director Ermanno Olmi—who died last year at age 86—made psychologically acute character studies that are as close as fictional films have come to showing real life in all its complexity and ordinariness. The director himself said it all: “The cinema is life and life is the cinema for me.” 

Film at Lincoln Center’s current retrospective—some of his films, rarely seen in this country, are being shown in 35mm prints courtesy of the Instituto Luce Cinecitta in Italy—should, I hope, bring about a reappraisal of the extraordinary work Olmi created, even after his critical and commercial peak, 1978’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, after which the director almost completely disappeared from our screens.

Born in 1931 in Bergamo, in northern Italy’s Lombardy region northeast of Milan, Olmi began making short films in the early 1950s for Milanese electric company Edisonvolta. In 1958 the company commissioned him to make a short about a hydroelectric dam in the mountains; he instead returned with his first feature, 1958’s Time Stood Still, whose protagonists are embodied with simple authenticity by the first of many amateurs Olmi used to enact fictional events similar to those in their own lives.

Olmi's 1961 classic Il Posto, starring his wife Loredana Detto
Olmi’s imposing body of work is highlighted by his early masterpieces Il Posto (1961) and The Fiancés (1963), both of which follow quotidian existence with an eloquence that speaks directly to the heart. Olmi entirely avoided artifice and affectation in his films, preferring to concentrate on the intense emotions of his characters as they attempt to maintain their dignity in their struggles to survive. That even goes for the capitalist at the center of the 1968 classic One Fine Day, who finds his world forever altered after a pair of events threaten to boost him professionally and ruin him personally. Olmi’s gracious and sympathetic study is punctuated by his visually arresting snapshots into the troubled man’s mind.

Then there are the Catholic director’s more overtly religious films, like A Man Named John (1965), a singular biopic about Pope John XXIII; Cammina, Cammina (Walking, Walking, 1983), a recreation of the story of the Magi; and Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994), a visualization of events in the first book of the Bible. These transcend their narrow structures to become triumphant paeans to the goodness of man and his co-existence with nature, artfully displayed by Olmi’s earthy imagery.

Olmi's 2001 study of warfare, The Profession of Arms
Two of Olmi’s greatest late-period films consider the insanity of war. The Profession of Arms (2001), a biography of the 16th century military man Giovanni de’ Medici, was photographed in a procession of indelible images by Olmi’s son, Fabio Olmi. Olmi’s final film., 2014’s Greenery Will Bloom Again, is a spare, humane meditation on warfare, embodied in shivering soldiers caught up in the machinery that made World War I such a protracted and horrific bloodbath.

In Olmi’s films, it’s the precisely etched faces—expressive, inscrutable and hauntingly human—that viewers will remember. There is the young man in Il Posto, visibly heartsick when the girl he adores is among a new crowd; the lovers in The Fiancés realizing their bond can remain strong, even while separated; and the alcoholic hero of the elegant, dream-like fable The Legend of the Holy Drinker, at last finding spiritual redemption (a role wonderfully played by Rutger Hauer in a rare instance of Olmi casting a name actor).

A poet of the commonplace, Ermanno Olmi—as this retrospective makes clear—made films that are anything but. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

June '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman 
The films composing Ingmar Bergman’s so-called “faith” trilogy—1961’s Through a Glass Darkly and 1963’s Winter Light and The Silence, all masterly explorations of placing God and religion in a mainly secular modern world—are as relevant and riveting as ever. Extraordinary performances—Harriett Andersson in Darkly, Gunnar Björnstrand in Light, and Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom in Silence—are of a piece with Bergman’s probingly truthful artistry. Criterion’s hi-def transfers magnificently bring out the shades of grey in Sven Nykvist’s luminous black and white camerawork; extras include Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, a full-length documentary on the set of Winter Light; interviews with Andersson, Björnstrand and Nykvist; and Bergman’s own introductions to the films.

The Entity 
(Scream Factory)
The committed and generous performance by Barbara Hershey is the best thing about Sidney J Furie’s partly spooky, mainly risible 1982 psychological horror entry about a woman physically assaulted and nearly killed by a mysteriously malevolent spirit. Supposedly based on a true story, the movie does attempt to give science and medicine their due but soon becomes a relentless accumulation of haunted-house tropes that end up overwhelming Hershey’s otherwise believable and winning presence. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer, new interviews with Hershey, actor David Labiosa, composer Charles Bernstein and editor Frank J. Urioste, and a vintage making-of.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate 
Rarely are movies so egregiously pointless as writer-director Daniel Farrands’s proudly arrogant retelling of the Charles Manson murders from the point of view of—get this—the actual victims, particularly actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant with husband Roman Polanski’s baby when she was brutally murdered along with several others by Manson family members in August 1969. Farrands uses the sordid episode to reenact the killings themselves—twice! First we see the mutilated corpses then, for good measure, the actual killings: as dreamt by Tate herself in a head-scratchingly exploitive moment. The hi-def transfer is excellent, at least; extras are Ferrands’ commentary and a making-of featurette.

Leprechaun Returns 
In this highly unwanted follow-up to a series of forgettable horror entries from 15-25 years ago, writer-director Steven Kostanski has decided that clever but ludicrous new ways to kill innocent idiots, like having someone cut literally in half horizontally or running over a mailman’s head while it’s stuck in a mailbox, are the sole reason needed to make a movie. Indifferently acted and shot, this plays like a bad, drug-induced, hazy dream, but actually—and yawningly—sets up yet another Leprechaun entry, of course. It looks decent on Blu-ray; extras include on-set footage and a Kostanski interview.

Minute Bodies—The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith 
The microscopic photography of early 20th century British naturalist F. Percy Smith showed off the glories of the unseen world, and his primitive but innovative films remain gorgeous and riveting. Director Stuart A. Staples obviously feels the same way: his hypnotic hour-long feature comprises Smith’s remarkable original footage accompanied by strangely appropriate music by Staples’ band Tindersticks. The film looks tremendous on Blu; extras are four Smith shorts: The Birth of a Flower (1910), Nature’s Double Lifers—Ferns and Fronds (1932), He Would A-Wooing Go and Lupins (both 1936).

Mutual Appreciation 
Along with his earlier Funny Ha Ha, this prime example of mumblecore is Andrew Bujalski’s dated (2005), extremely slight comedy about a group of bumbling young adults’ impossible-to-care-about problems. Bujalski has since graduated to far better fare like last year’s Support the Girls, so this plays like an historical artifact more than a real movie, but as always, your mileage may vary. There’s a sparkling transfer of the shuddery black-and-white movie; extras include a new Bujalski interview; Peoples House, Bujalski’s 2007 short; “Vampira” video intro; and observations from parents of the cast and crew.

A Patch of Blue 
(Warner Archive)
Although far too sentimental in its study of a blind white woman—living with her abusive mother (who caused her blindness!) and drunken grandfather—and the perfect black man she falls for, Guy Green’s 1965 romance remains a touchstone for ‘60s movies in its depiction of a loving interracial relationship. Elizabeth Hartman and Sidney Poitier’s exceptional portrayals triumph over Jerry Goldsmith’s sappy score and Green’s syrupy underlining to keep racists at bay—apparently the kissing scenes were excised in theaters in the South—but only Shelley Winters’ blustery overacting was what earned an Oscar. The B&W film looks great on Blu; extras include a vintage featurette, A Cinderella Named Elizabeth, especially poignant since Hartman killed herself in 1987 at age 44.

Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, Vol. 1 
While leading the New York Philharmonic, conductor Leonard Bernstein—musical polymath and brilliant teacher, easily able to discuss music to audiences aged 7 to 70—hosted concerts for children in which the orchestra plays works familiar and unfamiliar and he describes what makes the music relevant and entertaining. This four-disc set collects 14 episodes from the series that CBS aired (in prime time!) from 1958 and 1972, as music by Mahler and Stravinsky is heard alongside jazz and folk, with Bernstein’s illuminating commentary leading the way. The ancient televised episodes look fine though unspectacular on Blu; extras are three Young Performers excerpts.

DVD of the Week 
The Brink 
The devil Steve Bannon is chronicled in Alison Klayman’s straightforward documentary that shows how his brand of right-wing populism is not organic, genuine or reality-based; instead, it’s the latest charlatan’s guise donned to keep himself relevant and rich. He’s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams but the world is unfortunately being remade in the image of those who follow him, from tRump and Breitbart to clueless sycophants who don’t realize (or care) that they’re voting against their own interests. This evenhanded portrait is simultaneously sobering, depressing and horribly addictive. Extras are additional interviews and scenes.

CD of the Week
George Benjamin—Lessons in Love and Violence 
George Benjamin’s follow-up to his breakthrough opera, Written on Skin—whose spiky music and intense dramatics were satisfyingly coupled with committed collaborators and interpreters—is a static drama based on Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II. Benjamin is merely marking musical time here, and the lack of visuals (the Blu-ray of a performance was released several months ago) doesn’t help with the lack of any dramatic urgency. At least there are reliable singers Barbara Hannigan and Stephane Dagout to help elevate the work vocally whenever it sags.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

June '19 Digital Week I

4K Release of the Week 
Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin 
(Warner Bros)
The Batman films made between 1989 and 1997 return in new 4K editions that provide more visual clarity than ever. Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, with Michael Keaton as the caped crusader, are the best of the lot, mainly because the villains are so strikingly original: Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Danny DeVito’s Penguin and especially Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman. The mediocrities Joel Schumacher directed—Batman Forever (Val Kilmer) and Batman and Robin (George Clooney)—suffer from uninteresting heroes and cardboard bad guys. Still, fans will want all four (a boxed set will be available in September for those who can wait). Extras comprise previous bonus features: commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, featurettes and music videos.

Blu-rays of the Week
Blood—Series 1
London Kills—Series 1 
(Acorn TV)
These bingeable new series are worth checking out, starting with Blood, which follows a black-sheep daughter who returns home after her mother’s death and immediately suspects that her father may have been involved. In London Kills, a group of elite detectives investigate the capital’s most horrific crimes. Both shows have fine writing, incisive acting (particularly by Carolina Main in Blood) and intriguing atmosphere. There are superior hi-def transfers; extras include on-set featurettes and interviews.

The Bostonians 
(Cohen Film Collection)
The second Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Henry James—following 1979’s The Europeans—is this 1984 melodrama set in 1876 Boston about a suffragette spinster (Vanessa Redgrave) and the vivacious young woman (Madeleine Potter) both she and her chauvinistic cousin (Christopher Reeve) are interested in. Filmed with solid craftsmanship but lesser inspiration, this dutiful drama is enlivened by Redgrave’s Oscar-nominated portrayal; too bad Reeve and Potter don’t have the same combustibility in their scenes together. There’s a splendidly restored hi-def transfer; extras include new Ivory interviews.

Buster Keaton Collection, Volume I—The General/Steamboat Bill Jr. 
(Cohen Film Collection)
The first Cohen Keaton collection features one of his greatest comedies, The General (1926), a hilarious Civil War-era farce about a Confederate Army reject who becomes a hero after the Union Army hijacks his beloved locomotive. This is a movie you can’t look away from because so much is going on you don’t want to miss anything. The stunts are astounding even by Keaton’s daring, exacting standards. The other film, Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), ambles along for a while, then pays off late when Keaton is caught in a hurricane and flood, sequences so stunningly audacious (winds blow Keaton about and houses crumble around him, all expertly done by the star, of course—no stunt doubles or CGI) that you watch the final 20 minutes with your jaw on the floor. If you never thought 90-year-old films would look eye-popping in hi-def, think again. Extras are featurettes and Carl Davis’ orchestral scores.

Everyone Stares—The Police Inside Out 
(Eagle Vision)
Early on, the Police’s drummer Stewart Copeland grabbed a camera and proceeded to film Sting, Andy Summers and himself as they toured the world on their way to becoming the biggest band on the planet in the mid ’80s. This intimate portrait of the trio goofing around, arguing, bonding and playing onstage has a home-movie quality that makes it a valuable document of a rock group at its zenith. Shot using ancient (circa 70s-80s) equipment, the hi-def transfer is adequate; extras comprise Copeland and Summers’ commentary, snippets of live performances and additional footage.

Gloria Bell 
Julianne Moore gives another tremendously affecting and subtle performance in Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s own remake of his 2013 feature Gloria, now following a middle-aged American grandmother who feels alive, if only briefly, by spending evenings dancing, drinking and meeting men. If Lelio stacks the deck dramatically by letting the man she falls for (a creepily authentic John Turturro) be a scumbag and her own kids be indifferent to her, Moore is unafraid to show this woman physically and emotionally naked, even making a downer ending cathartic and even transcendent. The film has a solid hi-def transfer; extras include Lelio’s commentary and a making-of featurette.

The Kid 
In Vincent D’Onofrio’s diverting western about sheriff Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid, the kid of the title is not Billy but Rio, a young man who enlists the protection of Garrett to keep his sister’s abusive husband away. Despite the familiarity of the subject, D’Onofrio’s smart pacing and the fine cast—led by Ethan Hawke as Garrett and Jake Schur as Rio—makes this vivid and memorable. There’s a super-looking hi-def transfer; lone extra is an on-set featurette.

Lost in Space—Complete 1st Season 
This unnecessary reboot of the classic 1960s TV series has erased nearly everything that made the original fun—sympathetic family, delightful robot, wacky villains/sci-fi plotting—and replaced it with self-seriousness bordering on condescension. Despite the always welcome appearance of Molly Parker as mom Maureen Robinson, there’s little to these 10 episodes other than the elaborate effects to recommend it to fans of the original. The hi-def transfer looks enticing; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and No Place to Hide, a colorized unaired pilot episode from the original series.

Shaft’s Big Score 
Shaft in Africa 
(Warner Archive)
In anticipation of this summer’s new Shaft movie, Warner Archive releases the two Shaft sequels, both starring Richard Roundtree as the eponymous private eye. Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973) are grittily, unapologetically violent, with Roundtree in solid form throughout. Gordon Parks, who helmed the original, directed Big Score and contributed its famously funky music, while vet John Guillermin did the honors for Africa; both films are more entertaining than one might have expected. Both hi-def transfers are quite good.

Tyler Perry’s A Medea Family Funeral 
Although Tyler Perry’s supply of comic vehicles seems inexhaustible, the actual comic worth is problematic, as his latest entry—in which a family reunion turns into a funeral—can attest. Still, Perry adroitly juggles his usual stable of characters and there is one sequence—a white policeman pulls over a car filled with Medea and family—that makes a cogent point beyond Perry’s usual cheap laughs. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes.

A Vigilante 
If you’ve ever wanted to see Olivia Wilde seriously pounding on men for their disgraceful behavior against women, here’s your chance—of course, it turns out her protagonist is assisting other women because of her own horribly abusive relationship (and, natch, he returns to interrupt her avenging angel activity). Writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s approach is blunt, nuance be damned—fine as far as it goes, which unfortunately isn’t very far. Wilde does surprisingly well with this cipher, her physicality a prominent, and compelling, feature of her performance. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a making-of featurette.