Lover, Beloved (SXSW Festival)

Digital Week – March 16


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This week’s roundup features my review of singer Suzanne Vega’s filmed performance as author Carson McCullers, “Lover, Beloved,” showing at Austin, Texas’ SXSW Festival, both in-person and streaming (visit sxsw.com), along with reviews of two excellent new dramas, Bulgarian director Ivaylo Hristov’s “Fear” and Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s “Great Freedom.” Also worth seeing is Marta Mészáros’ “Adoption,” a shattering 1975 Hungarian drama out on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Streaming/In-Theater Releases of the Week

Lover, Beloved (SXSW Festival)

In concert, Suzanne Vega tells amusingly deadpan tales as illuminating as the direct, durable songs she sings in her personable, conversational voice. Those tough-as-nails songs, often written from the point of view of a detached narrator, make her the ideal interpreter of the life of Southern author Carson McCullers, who wrote such classics as “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” “The Member of the Wedding” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” But Vega’s McCullers solo show, filmed by director Michael Tully, is an awkward hybrid (part concert, part one-woman performance piece, part musical) which doesn’t always coalesce into a uniform and satisfying whole. Vega plays McCullers with an acceptable southern drawl, speaking the renowned writer’s words while singing several songs that have music by Vega and Duncan Sheik and Vega’s own occasionally biting lyrics. The best moments, such as atmospheric blues or torch songs like “Song of Annemarie” and “Harper Lee,” give a clear snapshot of McCullers’ complicated relationships. Then there are songs like “Me of We,” which do neither McCullers nor Vega no favors.

Fear (Film Movement)

Fear (Film Movement)Bulgarian director Ivaylo Hristov’s black comedy that doubles as a cautionary tale about hypocrisy, xenophobia, and cultural misunderstandings follows Svetia (the memorably dour Svetlana Yanchevaa), a widow in an isolated village, who runs into Bamba (a deadpan Michael Fleming), an African émigré trying to get to Germany. After initial distrust—and a town full of scared citizens—the pair becomes inseparable, to everyone else’s chagrin. Hristov’s sharp sense of the absurd lets him not belabor his obvious points about narrowmindedness and racism, and there’s genuine feeling throughout, culminating in a final shot—which provides this strikingly-shot B&W film with its only spot of color—that will reverberate in the viewer’s memory.

Great Freedom (MUBI)

Great Freedom (MUBI)The shameful treatment of homosexuality in Germany—under the guise of Paragraph 175, which made it punishable by imprisonment—is the subject of Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s sensitive drama, which follows Hans, in and out of jail for years due to the simple fact that he’s gay, and his at first tentative then tender relationship with a fellow prisoner. Franz Rogowski—an actor I’ve never found adequate in anything else he’s been in—gives a sympathetic performance as Hans, and Meise displays, with tact and a lack of cheap sentiment, how humanity cannot be snuffed out even in the inhumane circumstances his protagonist finds himself in.

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Kino Lorber)

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Kino Lorber)Canadian director Patricia Rozema’s 1987 debut feature is the lightweight, alternately enervating and charming comedy about Polly, an aimless young woman who latches onto her new boss Gabrielle, an elegant gallery owner, discovering new things about herself along the way. Sheila McCarthy makes a winning heroine, Quebecois actress Paule Baillargeon is perfectly cast as the brooding boss, and if Rozema doesn’t trust her material enough to keep focused—the literal flights of fancy and narrative tangents are more cutesy than necessary—Rozema would find her own voice in her next film, the criminally unseen “White Room.”

4K/UHD Release of the Week

The Matrix—Resurrections (Warner Bros)

The Matrix—Resurrections (Warner Bros)In this belated sequel, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) make a return trip to an ever more dangerous alternate reality, as director Lana Wachowski goes for broke and creates a string of staggering visual set pieces that may not make much sense but provide the kind of satisfying head trip that fans will enjoy. And Wachowski succeeds—to an extent: Reeves and Moss make an endearing pair, while the visual effects and stunts dazzle, but, at nearly 2-1/2 hours, it goes on forever. The 4K/UHD transfer looks stunning; the extras (on the accompanying Blu-ray disc) comprise more than two hours’ worth of interviews and on-set featurettes.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Adoption (Criterion)

Adoption (Criterion)In Márta Mészáros’ insightful and mature drama, middle-aged woman Kata, who has always wanted children, insinuates herself close to Anna, a teenage ward of the state who wants to be emancipated so she can marry her boyfriend. With powerhouse performances by the two leads—the great Katalin Berek as Kata and Gyöngyvér Vigh as Anna—Mészáros’ potent chronicle of how women must deal with smothering forces from both within and without remains pertinent today, even without all the Communist-era baggage. The tightly-focused B&W images (photographed by the great Lajos Koltai) are rendered beautifully on Blu-ray; extras include a 2019 Mészáros interview, video essay about her work, Mészáros’ 1964 short, “Low-Ball,” and a 1979 documentary, “Márta Mészáros: Portrait of the Hungarian Filmmaker.”

Hester Street (Cohen Film Collection)

Hester Street (Cohen Film Collection)This clichéd 1975 melodrama somehow gained Carol Kane a best actress Oscar nomination as a newly-arrived Jewish immigrant in 1896 Manhattan whose husband, already assimilated, has little patience for what he sees as her glaring inadequacies. Admittedly, Joan Micklin Silver’s mostly amateurish, threadbare film does depict—in evocative black and white—the thriving Eastern European culture of the Lower East Side (including a lot of authentic Yiddish dialogue), but the characters populating her story are less than compelling. The film looks authentically grainy on Blu-ray; extras include two new interviews with the director, her audio commentary, archival cast/crew interviews and the original opening sequence with commentary by Daniel Kremer, author of a book on Silver.

Vienna Philharmonic—New Year’s Concert 2022 (Sony Classical)

Vienna Philharmonic—New Year’s Concert 2022 (Sony Classical)This festive annual New Year’s concert, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, is a tradition in Vienna, and that means lots of Strauss music (not Richard, unfortunately): delightful Strauss dances, polkas, overtures and waltzes, including the grandest of them all, the “Blue Danube.” Daniel Barenboim conducts adroitly, the orchestra sounds terrific, and the masked audience looks enthralled. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio; extras are more Strauss music accompanying ballet dancers and the world-famous horses of Vienna’s Spanish riding school.

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