Tuesday, May 24, 2016

May '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Antonia’s Line 
(Film Movement Classics)
This 1995 Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film has lost little of its charm, even if Dutch director Marleen Gorliss’s often amusing feminist melodrama feels less like the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more like the heroic sentimentality of John Irving novels. With an immensely likeable cast and a remarkably light directorial touch, Antonia remains serious fun, although it’s anything but frivolous. Lone extra is a vintage Gorliss interview; the booklet essay by Thelma Adams is notable for discussing female director milestones but somehow omits Lina Wertmuller, the first woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar for her 1976 masterpiece Seven Beauties. The film has a good Blu-ray transfer.

Dirty Grandpa 
Robert DeNiro is definitely enjoying spouting profanities, flirting with nubile young actresses, even doing a Karaoke rap on “It Was a Good Day” (complete with mic drop): he’s having a better time than anyone watching this crass, forgettable comedy that pits deNiro’s eponymous old man against Zac Efron’s straight-laced, about-to-be-married lawyer. Zoey Deutch (Lea Thompson’s daughter) is charming, and Aubrey Plaza has a real way with raunch that even outpaces DeNiro, so there are a few oases amid the comedic desert we’re saddled with. There’s a top-notch hi-def transfer; extras include a commentary, gag reel and featurettes.

Father of the Bride 
(Warner Archive)
This harmless 1950 comedy won’t go down as one of director Vincente Minnelli and star Spencer Tracy’s stellar achievements, but it has its distinct pleasures, most notably Tracy’s effortless charm, the young Elizabeth Taylor’s effortless beauty, and a quick pace that helps this sturdy and short (90 minutes) comedy move from A to B satisfyingly. Warner Archive’s hi-def transfer is superb; extras are two brief newsreels, neither with sound: a glimpse at Taylor’s real wedding and another of President and Mrs. Truman appearing at the movie’s premiere.

The Finest Hours 
Rather like The Perfect Storm, director Craig Gillespie’s absorbingly old-fashioned sea-tossed drama recreates the incredible rescue of 32 sailors on a sinking tanker in a huge storm off the Massachusetts coast by a single coast guard lifeboat in 1951. But unlike Storm, there’s a happy ending for everybody at sea and, especially, the worried fiancée of our hero who’s stuck onshore (and who’s played beautifully by underused British actress Holliday Grainger). The movie looks smashingly good on Blu-ray; extras comprise featurettes and deleted scenes.

How to Be Single 
(Warner Bros)
Dakota Johnson and Alison Brie make sweetly endearing klutzes desperately looking for love in all the wrong places in this lackluster rom-com that balances those assets with the always one-note Leslie Mann as Johnson’s sister and one-trick pony Rebel Wilson, who gives her usual bull-in-a-china shop performance as the snarky friend. Moments where this could have become something more memorable are snuffed out by a stolid Mann and over-the-top Wilson. There’s a high-quality high-def transfer; extras include featurettes, outtakes, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

(Olive Films)
Greek director Michael Cacoyannis made his commercial (and Oscar-nominated) splash in 1964 with Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, but he was best known for his trilogy of adaptations of plays by the ancient dramatist Euripides, which began with Electra and The Trojan Women. In the last, 1977’s Iphigenia—which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar—the director dramatizes without much urgency, and even less poetry and insight, one of the playwright’s most shattering tragedies. Even the authentic Greek cast, which features no less than Irene Papas as Agamemnon’s wronged wife, Clytemnestra, cannot save this stillborn adaptation. The film looks decent if unspectacular on Blu.

The Naked Island 
Kaneto Shindo’s 1960 quasi-documentary is extraordinary in every sense: from its shimmering black and white photography and Hikaru Hayashi’s modernist score to its seemingly unstaged scenes of the unspeaking denizens of an isolated island in the Japanese archipelago. This classic is far away as possible from Shindo’s later horror masterpieces Onibaba and Kurenko, but is undoubtedly the work of the same directorial vision. Criterion’s new hi-def transfer is as astonishing as the film; extras comprise a Shindo introduction, Shindo and Hayashi commentary, Benecio del Toro appreciation and scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit interview.

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami 
(Olive Films)
Following a rake who juggles various women, using them for his own ends without getting emotionally involved until he himself becomes involved in a fatal duel, writer-director Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s stylishly ironic novel is the epitome of pedestrian. Even George Sanders (who provides his usual urbane suavity as our cad of a hero) and actresses ranging from Angela Lansbury to Ann Dvorak are unable to lift it out of the doldrums. Neither does a brief color insert of Max Ernst’s painting The Temptation of St. Anthony. The movie looks fine on Blu.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“Daphne’s Dive" and "A Better Place”

Daphne’s Dive
Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes; directed by Thomas Kail
Performances through June 12, 2016
Signature Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

A Better Place
Written by Wendy Beckett; directed by Evan Bergman
Performances through June 11, 2016
Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Samira Wiley in Daphne's Dive (photo: Joan Marcus)

In her sometimes affecting but mostly scattershot Daphne’s Dive, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes follows the denizens of a local Philly bar over the course of 18 years, but their lives, loves, and even deaths have little resonance or dramatized with scant insight, despite flashes of wit and humor.

We meet Daphne, hard-working owner-proprietor of the eponymous bar; her flaunting, successful sister Inez and her husband, rising local politician Acosta; three regulars, provocative performance artist Jenn, painter Pablo and ancient biker Rey; and Ruby, an 11-year-old black girl adopted by Daphne after she was (literally) found in a dumpster after jumping out a window to escape her family’s eviction.

The play jumps forward through the years—Ruby intones, “I am 15,” “I am 20,” etc., to situate where we are—and the lives of this septet become ever more fractured, complicated, even loving (Daphne and Jenn begin an unlikely romance). But Hudes too often cuts corners: after a tender scene between Daphne and Jenn, for example, the latter’s disappearance from the play is handed so clumsily that it hovers over the rest of the drama, to its ultimate detriment. 

More foolhardy is what feels like a tacked-on epilogue: a flashback to when Ruby was 11 and she and Daphne say what might have been their final goodbye (before Daphne adopts her). Its stiltedness is more the playwright’s fault than two characters searching for things to say. That ever-resourceful director Thomas Kail is unable to fully join the disparate strands of this memory play together, even as it’s enacted on Donyale Werle’s wonderfully dingy bar set and acted with forcefulness by the entire cast, especially Vanessa Aspillaga, who makes an intensely sympathetic Daphne, and Samira Wiley, whose Ruby is wounded but beautifully alive.

Jessica DiGiovanni in A Better Place (photo: Jenny Anderson)

Apartment envy is a fact of life in Manhattan, and Wendy Beckett’s A Better Place tackles it with all the finesse of a ‘70s sitcom filled with caricatures, however funny and accurate parts of it are.

Gay couple Les and Sel live in a rent-controlled one-bedroom, and Les is transfixed by the ultra-rich, seemingly perfect family in their modern, airy apartment across the street: he always watches what’s going on, which includes mom Mary, dad John and daughter Carol, who brings home real-estate brokers for sex laden with brokerage verbiage to get her off.

This is all OK as far as it goes, and Beckett finds plentiful, if easy, humor in these absurd situations, especially when it comes out that the one-percenters are not really as affluent as they seem—both financially and personally; but how the two sides finally get together is brought about in such a painfully contrived way that the final scenes come across as rather desperate in their attempt to join belly laughs and deeper meaning.

The performances are smartly pitched just this side of parody by director Evan Bergman, who otherwise has problems reining in the play’s episodic nature as it jumps back and forth between apartments: best in a game cast is Jessica DiGiovanni, who provides an amusingly flirtatious portrait of a millennial bimbo who needs to hear ever more florid descriptions of pricey apartments to have an orgasm.

The stunning set is by David L. Arsenault: the two apartments are shown in all their realistic glory on either side of the stage, with a metaphorical chasm in between: the lived-in, rent-controlled brownstone is dark and stuffy; and the modern multi-million dollar one all bright and airy. That more is said through the set than through the characters ends up dragging A Better Place down.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Theater Reviews—“City Stories,” “Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone”

City Stories
Written and directed by James Phillips; music composed/performed by Rosabella Gregory 
Performances through May 29, 2016
59 E 59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone
Written by Eve Wolf; directed by Donald T. Sanders
Performances through May 1, 2016
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fishman Space, Brooklyn, NY

Daphne Alexander and Tom Gordon in City Stories (photo: James Phillips)

Part of this spring’s edition of Brits Off Broadway at 59 E 59 Theaters—again bringing together an array of new work from across the pond—is City Stories, a smorgasbord of variable one-acts that melds into a pleasing platter evokes the sights, sounds and people of London.

Director James Phillips’s half-dozen playlets are in rotating repertory: the four I saw—Narcissi, about a couple’s lifelong distancing act; Lullaby, a futuristic tale of a city beset by a plague; Great Secret, about a search for the meaning of life; and Occupy, about the countless letters people have written to God, all stored in a cathedral—run from contrived to clever, all accompanied by songwriter Rosabella Gregory’s sprightly piano playing and singing, which comments on, at times even forming the crux of the alternately intimate and adversarial relationships on display.

In the talented cast, Daphne Alexander stands out with her bewitching manner and easy way with Phillips’ cascades of dialogue in Lullaby. Gregory equally transfixing: when singing the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” during particularly fraught moments in Lullaby, she brings Phillips’s somewhat forced allegory into sharper focus.

Ellen McLaughlin in Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anna Akhmatova was the brilliant Russian poet whose lifelong struggle against Soviet government officials is encapsulated in Anna Akhmatova: The Heart Is Not Made of Stone, a stimulating multi-media performing piece written by Eve Wolf—who also performs several potent Russian piano works—for her enterprising Ensemble for the Romantic Century.

The ruthless and lethal tactics of the Stalinists are shown—sometimes absurdly, as when two apparatchiks dance together to Dmitri Shostakovich—alongside Akhmatova having an unforgettable evening in conversation with British intellectual Isaiah Berlin and commiserating with artist contemporaries like Sergei Prokofiev. We see how great artists, even when up against intolerant, uncomprehending authorities, continue to create.

And it was remarkable that Soviet artists were able to create such enduring works of art: and the best moments occur when Wolf and fellow musicians—fellow pianist Max Barros, violinist Victoria Wolf Lewis and cellist Andrew Janss—play works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninov, briefly transporting her (and us) to a place away from the gulags and secret police, however much that reality informed their very creativity.

Ellen McLaughlin makes a strong-willed yet fragile Anna while Berlin is nicely sketched in by Jeremy Holm; Donald T. Sanders’ effective direction, coupled with David Bengali’s artful projections, Vanessa James’s evocative sets and costumes and Beverly Emmons’s resourceful lighting, vividly reminds us of art’s ultimate power to triumph over evil.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

May '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Boy 
This ordinary thriller about a young woman who becomes an elderly couple’s nanny for their eternally young “son” has creepy Twilight Zone-like moments, but since it runs for 90 minutes instead of a half-hour, there’s a lot of time left for director William Brent Bell to lose his way, and he fills the remaining hour with half-baked attempts at psychological complexity. Lauren Cohan makes a beguiling heroine, but unfortunately isn’t called on to do too much; and the big reveal, when it comes, is as implausible as what precedes it. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.

The Films of Maurice Pialat—Volume 1 
(Cohen Film Collection)    
Maurice Pialat, one of the best if unheralded French directors of the last three-plus decades of the 20th century (he died in 2003 at age 77), is finally getting his due: this first volume of his films on Blu-ray collects three of his earliest triumphs: the trenchant terminal-illness drama The Mouth Agape (1974); an unsparing look at high school kids, Graduate First (1979); and Loulou (1980), a tough-minded romance with then-young stars Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert. The films have been restored to mint condition; voluminous extras include interviews with Pialat’s widow and several of his stars (including actress Nathalie Baye, magnificent in Mouth), deleted scenes, and an 80-minute documentary about his life and career, Maurice Pialat: Love Exists.

Mr. Selfridge—Complete Final Season  
Although I watched this soap opera faithfully, I never entirely bought Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge, the American entrepreneur who singlehandedly created and expanded London’s first large department store in the first decades of the last century: but the rest of the cast, costumes and sets have always been so authentic that they couched the series in a reality that even Piven’s modern sensibility couldn’t ruin. And happily, in this final season, Piven came into his own; with heartwrenching storylines and perfect acting across the board, this season was the most satisfying Selfridge of all. All 10 episodes look glorious in hi-def; extras comprise featurettes and interviews.

Although its title evokes both Carl Jung and The Police, Jacob Gentry’s convoluted sci-fi thrill ride takes a clever premise—the inventor of a time machine goes back in time to ensure no one steals his invention—and does little with it except for several ill-thought out time-travel sequences.  Chad McKnight is OK in the lead and Brianne Davis has an ingratiating Sandra Bullock-esque presence, but Michael Ironside’s too-obvious heavy drags down the entire movie. The film has a crisp, clean transfer on Blu; extras comprise interviews, commentary and music video.

(Film Movement)
An auspicious feature debut, Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb is a masterly exploration of the randomness of surviving a world destroyed by war, specifically the deserts of the Ottoman Empire during the 1916 war, where a young boy finds himself in spiraling violent events beyond his—or anyone’s—control. Nowar’s assured directing rarely missteps, his unknown cast (especially Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat as the eponymous young boy) is sensationally fine and the film’s continued relevance to today is sadly apparent. The film looks superb on Blu; extras are Nowar’s commentary and Lebanese director Ely Dagher’s short Waves ‘98.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf 
(Warner Archive)
Mike Nichols made his daring directing debut in 1966 with this still-powerful if somewhat neutered adaptation of Edward Albee’s best play: it’s a lacerating portrait of two couples, played with strength and wit by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal. Haskell Wexler’s gritty black and white photography—which earned him an Oscar—looks fantastic on Blu; extras comprise a commentary with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh and another with Wexler; featurettes including interview snippets with Albee; and an hour-long 1975 Liz Taylor profile, An Intimate Portrait.

DVDs of the Week  
Beauty and the Beast—Complete 3rd Season 
This reboot of the popular 1980s cult drama series—which propelled Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton to stardom—has now lasted as long as the original (with a new season on the way), as Jay Ryan and Kristin Kreuk more than ably stand in for the original stars. The difference is that Perlman and Hamilton were more plausibly mythic, while these two have been scrubbed clean. Still, it’s mindless fun for the most part for anyone who wants to travel down this road again. All 13 episodes are included; extras are deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato 
(Strand Releasing)
British director Peter Greenaway’s latest extravaganza ostensibly follows Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein to Mexico in 1931, but it’s really about Greenaway’s preoccupations with sexuality, art and history, served with his usual sumptuous visual palette, witty musical juxtapositions (fellow Russian genius Sergei Prokofiev’s brilliant scores for Eisenstein’s films are heard throughout), copious nudity and inscrutable plotting and characterization. It’s too bad that Strand doesn’t do Greenaway (and viewers) the favor of releasing his film on Blu-ray—as it is in Europe—since the ravishing visuals are its saving grace. The lone extra is an interview with actors Elmer Back and Luis Alberti, who play Eisenstein and his Mexican lover.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

May '16 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Choice
Author Nicholas Sparks strikes again, and unlike lightning, he continues to hit the same places again and again—yet another young and attractive couple’s relationship is put in perilous danger by something that’s been contrived more tortuously than this sentence. This, his umpteenth version which takes meeting cute to its extreme, is made serviceable by leads Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer, along with the charming Maggie Grace as our hero’s sister; still, the formula is so well-worn that it ultimately becomes easy to resist. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include a commentary, featurettes and deleted scenes.

John Milius’s crude 1973 shoot ‘em up has more gunfire than seems possible: this is one gangster flick where so many bullets are sprayed that it’s amazing everybody isn’t dead in the first half-hour. Still, it’s fun in its typically trashy Milius way—and there are solid performances by Ben Johnson as FBI man Melvin Purvis and Warren Oates as John Dillinger himself; there’s also colorful support by Richard Dreyfuss as a particularly lunatic Pretty Boy Floyd and Michelle Phillips as Dillinger’s gorgeous moll. The restored hi-def transfer is authentically grainy; extras comprise several interviews and a commentary.

Melody Gardot—Live at the Olympia Paris 
(Eagle Rock)
American singer-songwriter Melody Gardot’s Gallic surname and fluent French in her songs and lively onstage patter endear her to the cheering crowd at Paris’s famed Olympia concert hall for this 2015 show that showcases Gardot’s distinctively sultry vocals, intimate lyrics and bluesy, jazzy tunes. Her beast of a band—seven players strong—brilliantly backs Gardot on everything from the opener “Don’t Misunderstand” to the transcendent improvisations that give the extended closer “It Gonna Come” its flavor. The image and sound are top-notch.

(Cohen Media)
Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s beautifully observed, deeply personal drama about five young sisters whose lives are upended by the adults in their family as they get older, more mature and more interested in boys and sexuality: a no-no in their conservative Muslim family living in rural Turkey. Not only does director-writer Erguven insightfully place her heroines in the intersection of religion and family—parents still make their children’s choices for marriage—but she also gets incredibly real, joyously alive portrayals by the splendid young actresses playing the sisters. The film (one of the best debut features in recent years) looks luminous in hi-def; extras comprise interviews with the five actresses and Erguven’s short, A Drop of Water.

Pride and Joy—Alligator Records 
The history of Alligator Records, the blues-based record label begun by Bruce Iglauer in Chicago in 1971, is recounted in director Robert Mugge’s lively and informative 1992 documentary in which Iglauer and associates discuss Alligator’s fascinating history, along with showing several of the label’s singers doing what they best. Much of the running time is smartly given over to live performances by such Alligator staples as Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks and Elvin Bishop during a marathon concert that was part of its 20th anniversary tour. The film looks decent on Blu; extras comprise 10 additional audio performances from the tour.

Susan Slept Here
(Warner Archive)
This mild 1954 comedy is definitely a relic of its era: Dick Powell plays a bachelor screenwriter in Hollywood who, after he has a 17-year-old girl foisted on him, marries the girl for convenience—eventually, however, there’s something more to their relationship. Director Frank Tashlin adds needed color (figuratively and literally) to this ungainly contrivance, which even includes silly musical sequences; Powell and Debbie Reynolds have an offbeat chemistry as the couple, while Anne Francis is typecast as Powell’s glamorous girlfriend. The movie looks terrific in this new color hi-def transfer.

War & Peace 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Although Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical novel is near-impossible to adapt—aside from two flawed big-screen versions, there’s also a superb but patchy Prokofiev opera based on it—this British TV mini-series is an intelligent attempt to give a sense of the breadth, if not the depth, of the book. The locales, sets and costumes provide the sumptuous trappings for the characters whose travails are dramatized throughout this mini-series’ eight hours. The cast is generally competent—Lily James, James Norton and Stephen Rea are quite good, while Paul Dano and Gillian Anderson are less so—and the entire enterprise is, ultimately, an absorbing soap opera. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are several short featurettes.

DVD of the Week
Forbidden Hollywood—Volume 10
(Warner Archive)
For its tenth—and, it has been announced, final—volume of studio films made before the Hays Code decided, once and for all, what could and could not be shown on American movie screens, Warner Archive has collected this strong quintet of crime dramas and dark character studies. Among the five rough-hewn gems, most notable are Lionel Barrymore as a district attorney hoping to get away with murder in 1931’s Guilty Hands and Barbara Stanwyck torn between two lovers in 1933’s Ever in My Heart.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

May '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
(Vinegar Syndrome)
In this lesser-known ‘70s Blaxploitation film, Rudy Ray Moore plays Dolemite, a pimp just out of the slammer who decides to get his revenge on the gangster who set him up for his jail time. Although the movie is shaky dramatically and histrionically, it has some fun moments that are par for the course for this genre; as always, if this is directly in your wheelhouse, your mileage may vary. There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras include making-of featurette, commentary and interviews.

(Dark Sky)
Yet another nasty “nanny” thriller, this one follows a psychotic young woman who—after kidnaping the real babysitter and takes her place (because that’s what such women do)—does even crazier things like playing with a gun in front of her charges and showing the kids their parents’ sex tape. Again, there are fleeting moments of tension—thanks to Sarah Bolger’s carefully delineated portrayal of Emelie—but they are few and far between, even for an 80-minute B-movie. The film does have a good Blu-ray transfer; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Jane Got a Gun 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Natalie Portman plays a farmer’s wife and mother in the Wild West who must protect her grievously injured husband from a murderous gang with the help of her former fiancée in this surprisingly tepid western directed with only nominal energy by Gavin O’Connor. Portman, though game, is one-note, while the various men in her life are played with little variety by Noah Emmerich, Joel Edgerton and Ewan MacGregor. The film looks impressive on Blu-ray.

Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates
One of the godfathers of the cinema verite movement, Robert Drew and his associates made four seminal film records of President Kennedy’s short term as president: Primary (made in Wisconsin during the spring of 1960), Adventures on the New Frontier (JFK’s early days in office), Crisis (an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis) and finally the classic silent short Faces of November (showing the reaction to his assassination). This unexpected but superb release collects these classic historical documents, and brings them to Blu-ray in the best possible hi-def conditions, along with several excellent extras, like an alternate cut of Primary, a commentary on Primary, the new documentary Robert Drew in His Own Words, outtakes and new and vintage interviews and conversations.

In the outlandish thriller Remember, Christopher Plummer plays an elderly Auschwitz survivor tracking down the last of the Nazis who killed his family before he completely loses his memory; Atom Egoyan’s chilly direction mutes what could have been a guilty pleasure, but there are Plummer’s yummy performance and a clever twist ending. Backtrack is little more than a lukewarm update of The Sixth Sense with a confused-looking Adrien Brody as a psychiatrist whose patients are connected to victims of a train crash decades earlier—which he may have been involved with as a teen. Both films have solid transfers; both discs include featurettes, and Remember includes a director and writer commentary.

Not one of his most memorable films, 1972’s What? is Roman Polanski at his most inconsequential: despite the presence of Marcello Mastroianni as a clichéd European playboy and photogenic locations on the Italian Riviera, it’s only the appealing appearance of Sydne Rome—a young American actress not averse to wandering around through the movie either semi-nude or completely nude—that makes this flimsy movie watchable. Polanski has fun in a small role but, as director, only his healthy musical palette of Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart belies the fact that What? is pretentious and empty. There’s a striking hi-def transfer; extras are new interviews with Rome, composer Claudio Gizzi and cinematographer Marcello Gatti.

DVD of the Week 
Pretty Little Liars—Complete 6th Season
(Warner Bros)
The fates of the “liars” quintet of Aria, Emily, Hanna, Spencer and Mona hang in the balance in an unusually diverting series of mysteries, as the drama’s daring sixth season leaps ahead a half-decade to provide some answers to many difficult questions. The five-disc set, which comprises all 21 episodes from the most current season, also includes bonus features: four featurettes and deleted scenes.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Theater Reviews—Broadway Musical “Waitress”; Shakespeare in Brooklyn

Music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles; book by Jessie Nelson; directed by Diane Paulus
Performances began March 25, 2016
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Richard II & Henry IV, Part I
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Gregory Doran
Performances through May 1, 2016
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn, NY

Jessie Mueller in Waitress (photo: Joan Marcus)

A sweet-natured romantic comedy, the 2007 movie Waitress was stamped by the offbeat personality of writer-director-costar Adrienne Shelly—who was brutally murdered right before its release when she was just 40 years old—balancing rom-com ickiness with a sympathetic look at Jenna, a woman trying to emancipate herself from trying circumstances. Brightly played by the endlessly resourceful Keri Russell, the heroine in Waitress was easy to root for.

In its translation to the stage, much of what made Waitress charming has been lost, replaced by a by-the-numbers musical with forgettable music, strained jokes and a desperate attempt to make Jenna’s fellow waitresses—played amusingly in the movie by Cheryl Hines and Shelly herself—as important to the show as she is. Director Diane Paulus is merely a ringmaster guiding the proceedings from scene to scene with little originality or creativity

The plot was the weakest thing about the movie—rooting for Jenna to cheat on her dastardly husband with the town’s new gynecologist with whom she begins having an affair during her pregnancy isn’t easy—but Shelly’s temperament was geared more toward Jenna’s creations, the homemade pies that amusingly commented on her frustrating life.

The musical unfortunately doubles down on the story (Jessie Nelson wrote the awkward book) and gives her cohorts Dawn and Becky far more to do in the show than onscreen, to the detriment of Jenna and the show. It doesn’t help that Kamiko Glenn and Keala Settle play the friends with maximum campiness, and with Christopher Fitzgerald piling it on as the goofball who falls for Dawn, there are at least 30 minutes of Waitress that could have been excised.

But Jenna does remain front and center thanks to Jessie Mueller. Though she lacks Keri Russell’s natural charm, she’s a capable actress who can also sing the hell out of anything, even the flaccid tunes Sara Bareilles has composed. The show’s emotional center, “She Used to Be Mine,” is an earnest attempt at an 11 o’clock number that Mueller handles with effortless ease, nearly making it the shattering crescendo it desperately wants to be.

David Tennant in Richard II (photo: Richard Termine)

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s auspicious return to Brooklyn brings four plays under the title King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great KingsRichard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V—for a six-week long residency showing the breadth and depth of its talent, spread across 12 hours of prime Shakespeare to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death.

I saw Richard II and Henry IV, Part I and was impressed by director Gregory Doran’s ability to keep things moving cleanly and swiftly but without ignoring the needed breathing spaces that make Shakespeare singular: intimate scenes of verbal jousting that are usually superior to the physical kind, which Doran doesn’t do very well anyway, i.e., the climactic Henry IV battle.

Richard II is rarely done—the only other time I saw it was at BAM in 2000 with Ralph Fiennes essaying the title role—probably because Richard is a tricky role that’s hard to pull off. David Tennant, playing a Richard whose long, wavy hair flows behind him as eccentrically as his personality, isn’t hammy, but makes this showy role his own, eventually gaining the sympathy that Shakespeare withholds from his protagonist until the moving speech when Richard bares himself to his usurper, Bolingbroke (soon to be Henry IV). It’s a high-wire performance that calls attention to itself in the best way.

I could do without Doran’s making physical Richard’s attraction for his cousin Amerle with a pointless lingering kiss (and having Amerle wield the knife that kills Richard is also a questionable decision). But this Richard II powerfully dramatizes the tragedy of a king who gets his comeuppance.

One of Shakespeare’s towering masterpieces, Henry IV, Part I joins typically probing history with the comic world of Sir John Falstaff, one of the most original and audience-pleasing characters he ever wrote. When director Jack O’Brien trimmed both parts of Henry IV at Lincoln Center a decade ago into one play, Kevin Kline’s masterly comic portrayal of Falstaff was its anchor; here, Antony Sher is equally amusing and touching as the blowhard Falstaff, who gives free rein to the king’s precocious son Prince Hal’s inability to grow up.

Sher brilliantly doesn’t overdo Falstaff; instead, he plays this garrulous, gregarious character straight, which makes him all the more endearing. And Sher’s generous performance is balanced beautifully by Alex Hassell’s Hal who, aware of his own immaturity, slowly becomes the mature prince who will be crowned Henry V by the end of the next play.

With intelligent and inspired acting throughout both plays, director Doran smartly keeps visual flourishes to a minimum: scrims and projections are sparingly but particularly well-used, Stephen Brimson Lewis designed the ingeniously spare sets and even the floor is cleverly lit (by the talented Jim Mitchell) to illuminate the strenuous physical and psychological terrain these plays traverse. There’s no better celebration of Shakespeare’s genius in this 400th anniversary year of his death than such exciting and edifying productions of his remarkable works.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

April '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
And Then There Were None
The classic Agatha Christie mystery, a.k.a. “Ten Little Indians,” returns in this fitfully entertaining yarn that is, quite simply, too long: I know it was made to fill out three one-hour television time slots, but stretching out the story with plentiful flashbacks to the victims’ previous lives strangles the tautness that was Christie’s stock-in-trade. It’s certainly a first-class production, with strong performances by Charles Dance, Toby Stephens, Miranda Richardson, Maeve Dermody and Sam Neill, among others. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include featurettes and interviews.

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
(Olive Films)
In Costa-Gavras’s 1988 Betrayed, Debra Winger and Tom Berenger are superb as an undercover FBI agent and the possibly racist murderer she falls for; too bad Joe Eszterhas’ script and Costa-Gavras’s direction highlight the illogical plot holes instead of the stars’ far more interesting character dynamics. 1972’s Dead Pigeon, made in Germany and one of the more bizarre items in director Samuel Fuller’s career, is an alternately fascinating and frustrating drama about an American detective looking for his partner’s killer. Both films have good hi-def transfers; the lone Pigeon extra is the documentary Return to Beethoven Street: Sam Fuller in Germany.

Haven—Complete Final Season

(e one)
In the final season of this offbeat supernatural drama based on Stephen King’s novella The Colorado Kid, the population of the supposedly idyllic seaside town uncovers still more unsettling stories and reveals dark secrets. The large cast—led by Emily Rose, Eric Balfour, Adam Copeland and Lucas Bryant—is able to remain straight-faced throughout, a not inconsiderable fat under the circumstances. The series’ 13 episodes all look impressive on Blu; extras include featurettes, interviews and commentaries.

The Merchant of Venice
(Opus Arte)
Although I’m not too enamored of director Polly Findlay’s modern-dress vision of one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays, she does have an authentic Shylock in actor Makram J. Khoury, who provides this disjointed production with its most dramatic moments. It’s also unfortunate that Findlay has cast Patsy Ferran, a charmless and one-note Portia, who especially looks bad next to the far more engrossing Khoury. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras include interviews, featurettes and Findlay’s commentary.


Even though Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino are top-lined in this legal thriller, it’s Josh Duhamel’s show all the way, so your mileage may vary if you’d rather see two past-their-prime legends as the leads instead of mere support, but the main problem with director Shintaro Shimosawa’s routine drama is its inconsistencies, which grow more desperate as it all continues. Still, the cast does decent work—aside from the men, there are Malin Akerman, Julia Stiles and Alice Eve all scoring in thankless parts—which somewhat mitigates the absurdity that’s mostly on display. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Outlaw Gangster VIP—The Complete Collection
Another shining example of Arrow’s growing hi-def collection of films that have been either neglected or simply ignored, this set of the six films in the Outlaw Gangster series—fast-paced, trashily entertaining Japanese gangster flicks churned out starting in 1968, and begun by director Toshio Masuda and star Tetsuya Watari—is the latest gem of a release. The movies themselves are mainly disposable but sturdy entertainments; the hi-def transfers of all six features are stellar; and the extras include a commentary, visual essay and 42-page booklet.

The Stuff
The Zero Boys
These wacky, grisly mid-80s horror flicks have been brought back from obscurity for whoever wants them. The Stuff, a 1985 entry by Larry Cohen (best known for It’s Alive), is a risibly silly chiller about a new dessert that turns its eaters into…well, something. There’s a surprising then-name cast involved, including Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Moriarty, Paul Sorvino, Garrett Morris and Danny Aiello, while the premise is just whacked-out enough to keep one watching. As for The Zero Boys, Nico Mastorakis’ 1986 slasher entry, neither the deer-in-the-headlights performers nor the less-than-clever ways that people are killed off help matters, while one of Hans Zimmer’s earliest (and synth-laden) scores is only a temporary reprieve. The hi-def transfers are decent enough; extras include intros, interviews and audio commentaries.