Tuesday, January 16, 2018

January '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Blade Runner 2049
(Warner Brothers)
Blade Runner is not a movie that was begging for a sequel, and Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up obliges by being an often pointless piece of work, simultaneously too plot-driven and portentously symbolic to work on its own or as a continuation of Ridley Scott’s iconic—if flawed—1982 original. Superbly photographed by Roger Deakins and with eye-popping sets and special effects, Villeneuve’s film nonetheless fails on basic levels, from glacial pacing—Scott was right that a half-hour should have been cut—to monotonous acting by Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright and Harrison Ford and a truly execrable score by Hans Zimmer. Unsurprisingly, the film looks ravishing on Blu-ray; extras include several featurettes and three “prologue” shorts.

I, Daniel Blake
(The Criterion Collection)        
Ken Loach has never shied from wearing his heart on his sleeve; even his most didactic filmmaking is filled with justified anger, like this brutal story of a middle-aged man put through an emotional and physical ringer by the horribly inefficient British welfare bureaucracy. It threatens to but never becomes melodrama thanks to its unflinching honesty and humanity. Loach’s unsentimental direction and Paul Laverty’s curt script are bluntly effective, and Dave Johns’ acting is devastatingly truthful in its depiction of how to retain dignity while caught in grinding government machinery. The grit onscreen is especially memorable on Blu-ray; extras are Loach and Laverty’s commentary; deleted scenes; and two documentaries: the making-of How to Make a Ken Loach Film, and Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach, a career-spanning feature by Louise Osmond.

DVDs of the Week 
(Icarus Films)
Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest fascinating documentary is set in Switzerland, where the mammoth Large Hadron Collider resides at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in a sterile-looking but astonishingly vital environment. Geyrhalter talks with several of the particle physicists who work on the Collider, men and women who maintain the efficiency of the machine and routinely discover new things, and we come away awestruck by their ability to use the latest in technological know-how to help mankind learn more and move forward.

 Conduct! Every Move Counts
(Film Movement)
Götz Schauder’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Georg Solti competition—the world’s most prestigious for up-and-coming orchestra conductors, held every two years in Frankfurt, Germany—takes us behind the scenes to watch the competitors deal with judges, musicians, opponents and their own nerves in hopes they’ll make it through the preliminary rounds. Of the five contenders Schauder follows, Mexican-American Alondra de la Parra comes across as the most competent and self-assured; that she’s taking over Australia’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra means her not getting to the finals hasn’t derailed a successful career.

(Film Movement)                          
What begins as an intriguingly off-center family drama slowly morphs into an unsettling psychological study and finally becomes a nastily sadomasochistic tragedy in which director Koji Fukada sadistically puts his characters through the ringer for no apparent reason other than he can. It’s exceedingly well-acted and there are forceful and insightful moments, but the horrific turn both plot and characters make simply leaves a bad aftertaste, however artfully done it all is. Extras are an interview with actor Kanji Furutachi and Fukada’s short Birds.

The Teacher
(Film Movement)
In Jan Hrebejk’s droll comedy set during the 1980s in Communist Czechoslovakia, a party leader is the new teacher at the local school, coercing her students’ parents into various favors so she won’t give their kids failing grades. What could have been a heavy-handed conceit works handily and hilariously thanks to Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky’s clever conception of intercutting in-class back-and-forth between kids and teacher with a meeting between parents and school officials and the families’ own fraught home lives. Zuzana Maurery makes a gleefully grotesque villain in the title role. The lone extra is Christophe M. Saber’s short Sacrilege.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

January '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
This smash-hit adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a clown terrorizing youngsters is ridiculously bloated, and we’ve also been threatened with a Part II. The problem is that seeing Pennywise, the villain, in the flesh causes uncontrollable giggles; he’s supposed to be scary? Maybe on the page, King’s sledgehammer dramatics work more effectively, but onscreen, director Andy Muschietti’s numbingly crude 135-minute mess becomes—thanks to the talented teen cast—occasional mindlessly murderous fun. The film looks great on Blu; extras comprise featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

Acceptable Risk
This slow-burning but involving Irish TV series explores the convoluted goings-on after the murder of an American in Montreal who worked in Dublin for a Swiss pharmaceutical company (got that?): his shocked wife must deal with his death only a few years after her first husband—who also worked for the company, as did she—also died under mysterious circumstances. Solid acting and unpeeling layers of intrigue make up for lapses in logic, like a low-down criminal who manages to avoid the police to threaten the widow and her sister before getting his comeuppance. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include over an hour of on-set featurettes and interviews.

The Apartment 
(Arrow Academy)
Some consider this Billy Wilder’s greatest film, but I prefer Some Like It Hot to this amusing but jaundiced comedy about a low-level functionary who lets company execs use his bachelor pad for their flings, and who discovers that his married boss’s latest mistress is the cute elevator operator he likes. Despite a flimsy conceit and cardboard characters, this works handily (if obviously), thanks to Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s funny lines and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine’s perfection in the leads. On Blu, the B&W photography looks more stunning than ever; extras include commentaries, video essays, featurettes, interviews and an impressive 150-page hardcover book.

Hell Night
(Scream Factory)
Upon its release, this tepid 1981 horror entry was a failure, and with good reason: there’s enough mediocre filmmaking, amateur acting and unoriginal storytelling to ice it from the get-go. It’s not until the showdown between the heroine (a blandly uninteresting Linda Blair) and the murderer—which climaxes with a clever impalement—that genre lovers finally get what they came for. There’s a solid hi-def transfer; extras comprise new interviews with the likes of stars Blair and Vincent Van Patten, and director Tom DeSimone’s commentary.

We didn’t need a backstory to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but here it is anyway, wallowing in unpleasant nastiness for 90 minutes, carving up villains and victims alike in lugubrious fashion. As a sheriff out for revenge for his teenage daughter’s unspeakable killing, Stephen Dorff shows he’s in a class by himself when it comes to overacting: he even overplays as his innards are ripped out in front of his very eyes. Directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo show little sense of style, rhythm or pacing, but the blood and guts are all in order, however. The hi-def transfer is good; extras include alternate opening and ending, deleted scenes, making-of and interviews.

The Mountain Between Us
If it wasn’t for the combined star power of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, this stretching-credulity tale of strangers who survive a mountain plane crash would be more eye-rolling than it is. In director Hany Abu-Assad’s hands—abetted by screenwriters Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe—no cliché is clichéd enough to ignore: Winslet falls through the ice, Elba slides down a snowdrift to the mountain’s edge, the dead pilot’s dog miraculously survives a mountain lion attack; and they eventually find themselves in each other’s arms, especially in a heavy-handed happy ending. Both stars do what they can, which in the long run is not enough. The film has a fine hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes, deleted scenes and director’s commentary.
Mike Hodges’ offbeat 1972 comic mystery yarn has a properly laconic Michael Caine as a trashy novelist caught up in a murder plot on a Mediterranean isle after being hired to ghostwrite a famous actor’s autobiography. Hodges, who knows how to throw curve balls, has the perfect performer in Caine, who rolls with the punches (literally) throughout this enjoyable shaggy-dog story. The hi-def transfer is good and grainy; extras are interviews with Hodges, assistant director John Glen, cinematographer Ousama Rawi, and producer Michael Klinger’s son Tony.

Time to Die
(Film Movement Classics)
This morally ambiguous 1966 Arturo Ripstein drama, from a tight script by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moves simultaneously at a snail’s and snappy pace as it heads toward a showdown between a man just released from prison for killing another in a duel, and the victim’s now-adult sons who want revenge. The engrossing B&W film looks stunning in this restored hi-def transfer; extras include Ripstein’s and actor Enrique Rocha’s commentary and an introduction by director Alex Cox.

DVDs of the Week 
(Film Movement)
Like Basquiat and Keith Haring, artist Richard Hambleton helped found the street-art movement in 1980s New York, and Oren Jacoby’s entertaining documentary chronicles Shadowman’s incredible rise and even more precipitous fall, mainly fueled by a runaway drug addiction. Jacoby also shows how Hambleton launched a comeback that made his past work even more lucrative, historically and financially; through interviews with the artist and others he worked with or loved, Shadowman is a fine primer of the complex contemporary art world. Extras include 30 minutes of additional scenes.

The White King
(Film Movement)
Based on Gyorgy Dragoman’s novel, directors Alex Helfrecht and Jorg Tittel’s dystopian drama is set in a totalitarian state where a young boy and his mother are desperate to find out whether his father—who has disappeared from sight—is still alive: no one, including his grandfather (a retired general) and the current reigning military leader, is helpful. This tidy 90-minute film has several persuasive performances, including Jonathan Pryce as the grandfather and Greta Scacchi as the military leader, while young Lorenzo Allchurch’s boy is appealing and complicated and Agyness Dehn is a warmly sympathetic mother.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

December '17 Digital Week IIII

Blu-rays of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
One of the most successful retreats in military history—the British got nearly all of their troops back safely to England, keeping Hitler at bay until the U.S entered the war in 1941—is not tailor-made for a film treatment the way director Christopher Nolan approaches it. Visually, Dunkirk is a marvel, but dramatizing how civilians took their boats into treacherous waters to pick up soldiers at Dunkirk by following one man and his sons who get involved with seemingly everything that happens at sea and in the air reduces the entire film to unrelieved, and implausible, melodrama. No one—not even Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance—makes an impression, and the final impression is one of technical, not artistic, virtuosity. There’s a superlative hi-def transfer; a second disc of extras include nearly two hours of on-set featurettes.

Auntie Mame
(Warner Archive)
This 1958 adaptation of the stage play about an irrepressible aunt who goes to any lengths to protect her beloved nephew showcases Rosalind Russell’s unsubtle but indomitable performance in the title role. However, 145 minutes of overwrought attempts at whimsy and charm are badly misdirected by Morton DaCosta, who never gets a handle on things, including blatantly racist characters like the Asian butler. The film has a ravishing hi-def transfer.

Chicago—The Terry Kath Experience 
Michelle Kath Sinclair made this touching documentary portrait of her father’s legacy nearly 40 years after his death: Terry Kath was lead guitarist for Chicago, and he died when he put what he thought was an unloaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger a week before his 32nd birthday in 1978. Kath has since gotten his due as one of rock’s most underrated guitar players, as we find out through encomiums by Joe Walsh, Steve Lukather and Mike Campbell, along with his fellow band members. This is also Sinclair’s personal journey; no posthumous praise can bring her father back, but—along with his music—it helps. Extras comprise additional interviews and featurettes.   

Cosi fan tutte
(Arthaus Musik)
Mozart’s delectable comic opera about two couples who, after many trials and tribulations, are finally reunited is transformed by director-choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker into a roundelay among a dozen performers, six singers doubled by half-dozen dancers, who become a physical manifestation of the indelible Mozart-del Ponte characters. What begins as an intriguingly different take on a familiar work soon becomes repetitious and even confusing as the dancers basically cover the same ground as the music and words—it’s ultimately redundant, if cleverly staged and impeccably danced and sung. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait 
In 1974, French director Barbet Schroeder made this documentary about the infamous Ugandan dictator, who relished the attention of a European filmmaker immortalizing him. Amin was charismatic and murderous, charming and ruthless; Schroeder catches all of that, but the relatively short 90-minute running time makes this a less than ideal portrait: we see the venom, but not the psychology. The excellent new transfer is buttressed by two Schroeder interviews (2001 and 2017) and an interview with journalist Andrew Rice about Amin.

One Million B.C.
Movie fans know the late ‘60s version starring a loin-clothed Raquel Welch; the 1940 original has a poor substitute in Carole Landis and features a stolid Victor Mature and Lon Chaney Jr. running around looking embarrassed fending off awful-looking dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters. Directors Hal Roach and his son’s barely passable entertainment with incredibly chintzy special effects is a mildly diverting (and, at 80 minutes, harmless enough) piece of movie history. The hi-def transfer is decent.

DVDs of the Week 
The Pulitzer at 100
(First Run)
Kirk Simon’s documentary of the history and legacy of the Pulitzer Prize is an uninspired overview of the world’s most important arts and cultural award, and includes interviews with Pulitzer voters and recipients in an attempt to explain how diverse groups of people vote for what they think is the best play, piece of music, journalism, etc., in any given year. Most interesting are the occasional breakaways to, say, a Natalie Portman or a John Lithgow reciting excerpts from winning plays or poems by winners Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Robert Frost.

Stefan Zweig—Farewell to Europe
(First Run)
The great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig lived out his last years in South America, committing suicide (along with his young wife Lotte) in 1942 in Rio at age 61. His troubled existence was marked by accolades but also exhaustion after Adolf Hitler’s rise heralded a final decade of wandering, homeless and unable to return to his native Austria. Maria Schrader’s film absorbingly chronicles this period of his life, with convincing portrayals by Joe Haden (Zweig), Barbara Sukowa (first wife Friderike) and Aenne Schwarz (second wife Lotte).

The Unknown Girl 
(Sundance Selects)
The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ incisive character studies over two-plus decades vary wildly in quality—implausibility rears its ugly head more often than not—but their latest is one of their best. Adele Haenel is superb as Jenny, a young doctor who finds out that the title character, a desperate loner who knocked on her office door but was refused entry, is found dead nearby. We get caught up in Jenny’s plight as she tracks down the dead woman’s identity and family. This is the Dardennes at their most humane, helped enormously by Haenel, an actress capable of mercurial and quicksilver changes and shifts in emotion.

Viceroy’s House
The end of British rule in India is the subject of Gurinder Chadha’s straightforward, tactful docudrama, with Hugh Bonneville as Lord Mountbatten, sent to India by his majesty’s government to secure a peaceful transfer of power; he is surprised by how awful fellow Britons treat the supposed second-class citizens. Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are a persuasive Mountbatten and wife Edwina, while the usual towering Michael Gambon steals scenes as Mountbatten’s duplicitous chief of staff. The lone extras are several deleted scenes.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Broadway Review—Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children"

The Children
Written by Lucy Kirkwood; directed by James MacDonald
Performances through February 4, 2018
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Ron Cook, Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay in The Children (photo: Joan Marcus)
The ponderous The Children arrives in New York after raves in London, as Lucy Kirkwood’s risible drama about the after effects of a devastating nuclear plant disaster wastes its topnotch cast.

Post-meltdown in rural England, 60-something marrieds (and retired nuclear engineers) Robin and Hazel live just outside the radioactive danger zone. When former colleague Rose arrives out of nowhere, scaring the bejesus out of Hazel—who smacks Rose’s nose in fright, causing a torrent of blood staining Rose’s shirt—Robin and Hazel find themselves dealing with a past that includes infidelity, along with figuring out the kind of future (if any) they’ll have.

The play’s title refers to the couple’s unseen offspring, whom Rose asks Hazel about more than once, along with referring to the play’s strident plea not to ruin our world for our children’s benefit. Kirkwood strains at understatement in her characters’ small talk and British stiff-upper-lipped reserve, however wrongheaded for her creaky melodrama. It's obvious that all three of them are aware of past indiscretions, so why the continued dancing around the subject?

And to extend what might have been a taut fifty-minute one-acter into a flabby one-hundred minute one-acter, Kirkwood drops in irrelevancies like a dance sequence to a song the trio loves, along with a pointless conversation that finds Hazel constantly questioning Rose if she only did number 1 in the loo instead of number 2, which causes the toilet to clog. Rose replies that she only did number 1—and when water comes streaming into the kitchen, (un)hilarity ensues.

Rose isn’t settling old scores or putting their mutual past in proper perspective: instead, she’s asking her fellow scientists to join her at the stricken plant to take over cleanup from the much younger workers currently there. After all, since they’re pushing 70, it makes sense for them to risk their twilight years than those with decades ahead of them. It's a worthy sentiment, but Kirkwood drops it in so heavy-handedly that it has little of the sense of urgency or mortality she was aiming for.

It’s up to three superior performers—Deborah Findlay (Hazel), Ron Cook (Robin) and especially Francesca Annis (Rose)—and James MacDonald’s sympathetic direction to make this shrill message play palatable.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Broadway Musical Review—Revival of “Once on This Island”

Once on This Island
Book & lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown; directed by Michael Arden
Opened December 3, 2017
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, New York, NY

Hailey Kilgore in Once on This Island (photo: Joan Marcus)
Set on an unnamed Haiti, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical Once on an Island premiered in 1990, its initial run introducing LaChanze to New York. For the show’s first Broadway revival—a cleverly-conceived production in the round, complete with sand, rain and a pond—there’s another impressive actress making her debut: Oregon teenager Hailey Kilgore.

Kilgore is Ti Moune, orphaned in a raging storm as a youngster and taken in by the loving Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian on an isle bitterly divided between dark-skinned natives and lighter-skinned French descendants, the grand hommes. One day, Ti Moune sees a car crash involving Daniel, teenage grand homme; she nurses him back to health, begging the local gods—Papa Ge, Asaka, Agwe, Erzulie—to take her rather than him, imaging that he has fallen for her as she has him, despite sundry obstacles: his family, his fiancée and their class differences, for starters.

This beguiling fable has a homespun wisdom that’s greater than the sum of its parts, as Flaherty’s merely serviceable book and lyrics are married to Flaherty’s tuneful but derivative songs. The folk tale’s plot—filled as it is with unabashed sentiment, teenage romance and a celebration of the circle of life, so to speak—alternates between cloyingly and happily beneficent.

Michael Arden’s inventive staging begins before the musical proper: bare-footed actors mill around the sandbox set, mingling with audience members near the stage as they go about their everyday business like feeding the animals. Camille A. Brown's resourceful choreography allows spacious movement within the relatively cramped space of Dane Laffrey’s spry set, which seems to sprout new expanses wherever one looks (a trailer truck, a fallen telephone pole, even parts of theater seats are brought into delightfully ramshackle service). Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s ingenious lighting and Clint Ramos’s canny costumes complete the fully-formed world we are willingly whisked into for 90 mostly blissful minutes.

There’s commanding vocal work from Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian and Kenita R. Miller as Mama Euralie, and Isaac Powell’s poised Daniel and Kilgore’s enchanting Ti Moune make a charming pair of not-quite lovers. Best of all, the gods comprise a quartet of ultra-talented belters: Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell and the always winning Lea Salonga, whose clear-as-crystal soprano rings out even amid so many astonishingly strong voices on this island.

Once on This Island
Opened December 3, 2017
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, New York, NY

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Death Laid an Egg
(Cult Epics)
Giulio Questi’s wacky 1968 giallo is a product of its time: nodding toward Godard’s masterpiece Weekend (released in ‘67), Questi’s potent critique of a dehumanized industrial society is masked by a tricked-out tale of murder around a poultry plant owned by a philandering husband and his wife. In the leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant (husband), Gina Lollobrigida (wife) and Ewa Aulin (mistress) make a stunning trio; there are moments of visual overkill, but it’s stylish and enjoyably loony. There’s a quite impressive hi-def transfer.

Heat and Dust
(Cohen Film Collection)
This 1983 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel tracks parallel East-West culture clashes, as an Englishwoman, Anne, travels to India to discover the fate of her great aunt Olivia, who in the 1920s had an affair with a local ruler (Hindi film star Shashi Kapoor, who died last week). Although labored in its shuttling back and forth, there are compensations, notably Julie Christie as Anne and Greta Scacchi as Olivia, both splendid performances of intelligence and—especially Scacchi—sensuality. The hi-def transfer is excellent; there’s also a commentary and a second disc of bonus features: new interviews with Scacchi, Ivory, Jhabvala, composer Richard Robbins, actor Nickolas Grace and producer Israel Merchant; new Q&A with actor Madhur Jaffrey; and Merchant-Ivory’s hour-long 1975 film Autobiography of a Princess.

Pelléas et Mélisande 
(BelAir Classiques)
Claude Debussy’s tragic romance is one of opera’s towering masterpieces, its three hours alternately bracing and disturbing. This 2016 Malmo (Sweden) production is nicely staged by director Benjamin Lazar, with Debussy’s magnificent score being beautifully handled by conductor Maxime Pascal and the Malmo Opera Orchestra. But the glory is in the main performers: Marc Mauillon’s vivid Pelléas and—best of all—Jenny Daviet’s languid, meltingly lovely-voiced Mélisande. The hi-def video and audio are topnotch.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical opera is rarely seen on European or American stages, so who better than St. Petersburg’s own Mariinsky Opera to present such a boldly imaginative production? As always, Valery Gergiev persuasively leads his orchestra in music that they all feel in their bones, the usual array of Russian singers belts out convincingly, and the sets and costumes are bright and dazzling. The only caveat is that, since this is on film instead of hi-def video, the visuals don’t pop as they should.

DVDs of the Week 
Karl Marx City
(Film Movement)
Petra Epperlein (with co-director Michael Tucker) returned to the former East Germany to discover the truth behind her father’s 1999 suicide by hanging: was he—as he was accused of being—a spy for the Stasi, the formidable East German security force that terrified thousands of ordinary citizens on a daily basis during the Cold War? Epperlein has no illusions about what she finds, which she shares with her devastated mother and twin brothers, while the rest of this agonizing documentary comprises illuminating interviews with various archivists, former Stasi members and regular people that shed a necessary light on how dictatorships can thrive.

Maurizio Cattelan—Be Right Back
(Film Movement)
Maurizio Cattelan is an art world prankster without the social or political cachet of Banksy, but since he’s courted cognoscenti for decades he’s become one of the most reliable names in the business, and Maura Axelrod’s diverting documentary portrait shows him off as a sort-of raconteur par excellence. Whether he’s a real artist is another matter: despite the experts, that he gets a Guggenheim retrospective that garners critical raves and lines around the block says more about the state of our current culture than about his clever but minor works.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—“Downtown Race Riot” with Chloe Sevigny

Downtown Race Riot
Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through December 23, 2017
The New Group @ Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Chloe Sevigny and David Levi in Downtown Race Riot (photo: Monique Carboni)
In Downtown Race Riot, Seth Zvi Rosenfeld turns cartoons into real characters: with a huge assist from a talented cast and director, of course. But to what end? Nearly two hours of watching a drug-addled mom, her equally damaged children and her son’s friends and acquaintances meander through their mundane existence—culminating with a violent brawl—bring the audience no insight or point.

Mary, a 39-year-old single mom, lives in a West Village railroad apartment with two children by different men: 21-year-old Joyce and 18-year-old Jimmy, known as PNut. Mary has trouble keeping clean, collects disability checks and has a lawyer on the way to discuss suing the city for giving PNut asthma by his eating paint chips when he was younger (which he never did). PNut and his best friend, a Haitian black named Marcel, aka Massive, plan to go to Washington Square Park for an upcoming fight between neighborhood toughs and minority interlopers from other parts of the city. Joyce, though nominally a lesbian, seduces Massive when she comes home, in part to get back at her brother and especially her mom, who she feels cares more for PNut than Joyce.

Rosenfeld draws sympathetic but realistic portraits of his play’s inhabitants, even the “tough” Jay 114 and Jimmy-Sick, or Mary’s coke-snorting lawyer Bob, all of whom initially seem like refugees from Mean Streets or The Sopranos, but are humanized by the writing and acting. Still, the play and these people don’t go anywhere unsurprising: they are fated to remain behind, thanks to class or race, which isn’t an earth-shattering revelation.

Derek McLane’s tremendous set of Mary’s shabby apartment is arrestingly lit by Yael Lubetzky. Scott Elliott’s fluid direction allows the supremely confident performers to play off one another convincingly, whether Cristian Demeo and Daniel Sovich’s amusing would-be wise guys, Moise Morancy’s charming Massive, Josh Pais’s overanxious Bob, Sadie Scott’s tantalizingly ambivalent Joyce, or David Levi’s flailing PNut.

Chloe Sevigny’s Mary is scarily authentic, whether in her pathetic attempts to hide her drug habit—even when she slinks off to her bed, where she holds forth to PNut, Joyce and Massive—or while slinking around in shorts and a halter top (perfectly ugly ‘70s costuming by Clint Ramos) to entice Bob. It’s a marvelously physical performance that makes her character and the play she’s in seem substantial.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Dolores Claiborne
Doc Hollywood
(Warner Archive)
1995’s Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King’s novel and starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mother and daughter with disturbingly dark skeletons, was directed by Taylor Hackford with stylish ostentation, which fits the strangely compelling material. 1991’s Doc Hollywood, an amiable fish-out-of-water comedy, has a prime starring role for Michael J. Fox as a fresh-faced doctor who finds himself stuck in a small southern town, and who meets a charming young woman (Julie Warner, a delightful actress who unfortunately didn’t do much else in her career). Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; Dolores includes a Hackford commentary.

Bat Pussy
(AGFA/Something Weird)
As if the title wasn’t enough of a clue, this supposedly infamous but mainly forgotten attempt at a porn flick from the classic early ‘70s era riffs on one of our favorite superheroes, but its ineptitude is about all it has going for it. It’s as if Ed Wood tried to make an X-rated film: that no one knows who made it and who’s in it adds a miniscule modicum of mystery that surrounds this curio. Extras are a commentary and bonus movie, 1971’s Robot Love Slaves.

(Blue Underground)
With a title like that, you’d expect a chintzy B movie, and although that’s basically what it is, director Bob Clark provides unsettling creepiness to this queasy tale of a soldier apparently killed in Vietnam who returns home and slowly becomes a zombie. Of course, it’s a metaphor for how soldiers were treated both in country and at home; what’s surprising is how effectively it works, even with committed but spotty acting. There’s an acceptable hi-def transfer; extras include commentaries, interviews and featurette.

Satan’s Cheerleaders
1976’s torpid horror flick Ruby came out the same year as Carrie; that both star Piper Laurie as the loony mother of a disturbed teenage girl is their main similarity. Unlike Carrie’s slick schlockiness, Curtis Harrington’s film is hackneyed, haphazard, and B-movie all the way. Satan’s Cheerleaders, Greydon Clark’s 1977 tease flick, also has little to recommend it, even for viewers on the lookout for T&A amid its typical scares. Amateurish performances, even from sleepwalking Yvonne DeCarlo and John Carradine, don’t help. Both films have decent hi-def transfers; Ruby extras include commentaries and interviews, and Cheerleaders extras comprise commentaries.

DVDs of the Week 
Happy Hour
I’d never seen anything by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, so to come cold to his five-hour, seventeen-minute opus about a quartet of 30ish women friends dealing with their quotidian lives is at first off-putting, then—very slowly—entrancing. Hamaguchi allows his film, and its characters, to breathe, and if there are certain static longueurs—one sequence at an author’s reading could be excised—there’s also an appreciation and understanding of life in all its ordinariness: and extraordinariness. The superlative acting matches the creator’s humanism.

Exhibition On Screen: Michelangelo Love and Death
(Seventh Art)
In presenting the several decade-long career of one of the Renaissance’s—and history’s—greatest masters, this 90-minute documentary overview hits all the expected beats (sculpture, architecture, poetry, Sistine Chapel ceiling) as it combines expert discussion with close-up views of the works that give occasional insight into his method and madness. As always with Exhibition On Screen, there’s a caveat: releasing this only on DVD, not Blu-ray, is a mistake, since these precious artistic treasures should be seen solely in hi-def.

CD of the Week 
Blackmore’s Night—Winter Carols
(Minstrel Hall)
Guitarist extraordinaire Ritchie Blackmore teams with his wife, singer/recorder player Candice Night, for an enjoyable journey through music of the holiday season. Don’t expect Rainbow Does Christmas, however: in these folky-cum-Renaissance Faire arrangements, Blackmore’s tasty acoustic playing beautifully complements Night’s lovely vocals on evergreen titles such as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships” and “We Three Kings.” First released in 2006, this re-release include three songs not included on the original; a second disc (from a 2013 re-issue) has several tunes recorded live, along with various versions—including one in German—of Night singing a Yuletide original, “Christmas Eve.”