Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
(First Run)
Surreal Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s thrilling 1988 take on Alice in Wonderland is crammed with his singular visual inventiveness, showcasing his genius for dazzling stop-motion images. Although it might be too offbeat for children, it’s a must-see for anyone who ODed on Disney’s more sanitized version. Although the movie looks enticing on Blu-ray, First Run dropped the ball by omitting the original Czech audio and forcing the child-friendly English track on viewers. There are also no extras, unlike the British Film Institute release.

The Bletchley Circle—Season 2
Our quintet of intrepid female code breakers—who cracked Nazi spy codes to turn the tide of WWII—return for more post-war London sleuthing in these two entertaining full-length features. Although the plotting is only intermittently arresting, it’s the women themselves—played by Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Sterling, Hattie Morahan, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham—that hold our interest throughout. The Blu-ray image looks solid if a little soft; extras include interviews.

A lesser-known Civil War conflict is featured in Ron Maxwell’s static, occasionally gripping study of men on opposite sides of Lincoln’s declaration of war against the Southern states: Copperheads (named after the snakes) were against this obviously “just” war. Although a handsomely mounted account of an obscure bit of American history, the movie creeps along for many of its 120 minutes, often undermining its potential power with derivative direction and lackluster performances. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.

Death in Venice
(Opus Arte)
Porgy and Bess
Benjamin Britten’s final opera, 1973’s Death in Venice, receives a musically accomplished if dramatically inert 2013 revival by director Deborah Warner in London for the composer’s birth centenary; John Graham-Hall is persuasive as Aschenbach, the dying writer. In San Francisco Opera’s 2013 staging of the Gershwins’ immortal Porgy and Bess, Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell are histrionically and vocally imposing in the iconic title roles, highlights being “Bess, You Is My Woman” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” Both Blu-ray look impressive and sound even better; Porgy’s extras are interviews.

The Invisible Woman
(Sony Classics)
Ralph Fiennes plays novelist Charles Dickens as a Victorian-era rock star: an incredibly popular writer and speaker, Dickens lives for the adoration of his (mostly female) fans, and—even though he’s contentedly married with ten children—he embarks on an affair with a tempestuous young teacher, played with gusto by Felicity Jones. Although Fiennes’ direction tends toward the undistinguished, the lush physical production surrounding two meaty lead performances helps make this unexciting soap opera watchable. The Blu-ray’s visuals look superb; extras include Fiennes’ and Jones’ commentary, interviews and Toronto Film Festival press conference.

The Pawnbroker
(Olive Films)
In Sidney Lumet’s heavily symbolic but powerful 1965 character study of a Jewish concentration camp survivor struggling in his new life as a Harlem pawnbroker—as he deals with people as emotionally adrift as he—Rod Steiger gives an understated performance, surprising coming from an actor not known for subtlety. But despite Lumet’s uneven directing that culminates in a forced series of false climaxes, Steiger creates a psychologically credible portrait. Boris Kaufman’s moody B&W photography retains its grittiness on Blu-ray.

William Friedkin’s 1977 adventure has received a critical reappraisal as a lost classic, but it’s anything but: instead it’s a wrongheaded if technically accomplished remake of  H.G. Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear (Friedkin even dedicates his film to Clouzot). There are tension-filled sequences, especially with the truck on a bridge, but since the characters all remain ciphers, there’s no one to root for in this this two-hour slog through the jungle. Tangerine Dream’s electronic soundtrack is alternately effective and overdone, like the film itself. On Blu-ray, the movie looks stunning.

DVDs of the Week
La Maison de la Radio
(Kino Lorber)
Nicholas Philibert’s latest fly-on-the-wall documentary follows the daily interactions of dozens of employees at Radio France, the state-run Gallic equivalent of the BBC or NPR. Talk-show hosts, news readers, weather forecasters, sports announcers, singers and performers, technicians and people behind the scenes are seen informing, entertaining and giving the news to millions of listeners, and Philibert films it all in his inimitable way, showing the teaming mass of humanity inside the radio conglomerate’s recognizably circular headquarters in the heart of Paris.

Russia’s Open Book—Writing in the Age of Putin
Juliet Stevenson narrates this hour-long account of Russian authors surviving and even thriving despite the black marks on their reputations in Vladimir Putin’s supposedly democratic Russian regime. Instead of criticizing their fearless leader outright, Russian’s Open Book allows writers from Anna Starobinets to Vladimir Sorokin to speak for themselves, both in interviews and in excerpts from their provocative books, read here by the show’s host, British actor Stephen Fry.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali
(Kino Lorber)
In Bill Siegel’s arresting documentary, the world’s most famous man—known as much for his brash mouth as his pummeling fists—is shown as a polarizing cultural and political figure: from changing his name to joining the Nation of Islam, Ali’s very public mistakes and successes outside the ring are as important as his boxing achievements. Interviews with Ali’s brother, daughter and ex-wife are touching, while others like Louis Farrakhan come off as self-serving: but all paint a fuller portrait of a complicated man. Extras are four deleted scenes, audio commentaries and a mock trial by school students.

Wrong Cops
(IFC Midnight)
Writer-director Quentin Dupieux’s heavy-handed, ineffectual comedy about cops abusing their standing in the community—we see them sell drugs and force a woman to provide her phone number in the first few minutes alone—is the kind of unfunny spoof that might have the crew in stitches on the set, but does little for an audience. Good performers like Agnes Bruckner and Roxane Mesquida are mercilessly wasted; when Marilyn Manson doesn’t even register onscreen, it’s hopeless. Lone extra is a Manson featurette.

CDs of the Week
Joyce Yang—Wild Dreams (Avie)
and Tchaikovsky (Bridge)
Exuberant pianist Joyce Yang demonstrates a prodigious keyboard talent on these discs. On Wild Dreams, her easy facility for a wide range of solo piano music from Robert Schumann to Bela Bartok is highlighted by her impassioned playing of two Sergei Rachmaninoff works and Paul Hindemith's deceptively difficult passages. On the Tchaikovsky orchestral disc, Yang dispatches one of the concerto genre’s true warhorses by showcasing the composer’s generous lyricism. Conductor Alexander Lazarev and the Odense Symphony Orchestra provide solid support and give an appropriately stormy reading of the tone poem The Tempest.

Shani Diluka—Road 66
Sri Lankan pianist Shani Diluka’s programming idea for this recital disc is to play various pieces by American composers as complements to Jack Kerouac’s fragmented writings. That Kerouac’s work directly correlates with the music is questionable, but Diluka’s tremendously precise playing—particularly on unheralded gems like Copland’s Piano Blues No. 1, Samuel Barber’s Pas de Deux and even Philip Glass's Etude No. 9—makes the program secondary to the glorious musicmaking. She’s also joined by soprano Natalie Dessay for the bittersweet finale: Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Is Love?"

Monday, April 21, 2014

Marco Bellocchio Retrospective @ MOMA

Marco Bellocchio: A Retrospective
April 16–May 7, 2014
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY

Italian director Marco Bellocchio, now 74, has been making highly charged dramas that take the social, moral and political pulse of his native country for nearly 50 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Although Bellocchio remains highly respected on the international festival circuit—three of his recent films were shown at the New York Film Festival in 2002, 2003 and 2009—he has fallen prey to that strangely mysterious disease that seems to afflict veteran directors considered past their prime in that it’s no longer a given that his films will distributed or released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Luckily for us, some of Bellocchio’s most trenchant films are screening at the Museum of Modern Art through May 6. Although Marco Bellocchio: A Retrospective is sadly incomplete, comprising only 18 of some 40 features, it does include some of his most important works, from his still-remarkable debut, 1965’s Fists in the Pocket, and the even more assured follow-up, 1967’s China is Near, to his latest provocative feature. 2012’s Dormant Beauty, an intelligent and thought-provoking exploration of Italy’s right to life debate (Terri Schiavo was the U.S. equivalent), informs the personal, professional and religious lives of several characters, played splendidly by Isabelle Huppert, Toni Servillo, Maya Sansa, Alba Rohrwacher and the director’s son Pier Giorgio.

Maya Sansa in Dormant Beauty (photo: Francesca Fago)
Accompanying the MOMA retro is a gorgeous hardcover book about Bellocchio. Morality and Beauty, edited by Italian cinema scholar Sergio Toffetti, contains essays and appreciations by critics, collaborators, actors and actresses and other directors about Bellochio’s lengthy cinematic career. The book itself is worth it not only for its insights into his artistry but also for its presentation: there are rare stills from many films, a complete filmography, and even Bellocchio’s own paintings and storyboards for several films. Morality and Beauty is an essential volume for anyone with an interest in one of our greatest filmmakers.

In Bellocchio’s films, from Fists to Dormant Beauty, there are no innocent bystanders: after his first two features, the director himself joined the radical Communist Union in 1968, and the characters populating his dramas are equally committed individuals, in every sense of the word. Bellocchio keeps returning to variations on his themes of obsessive love affairs or relationships often based on abuses of power.

As often as he tackles the incendiary worlds of political, economic and social status—which, in these films, are one and the same—Bellocchio often pushes the envelope even further. 1990’s The Conviction is the movie David Mamet’s Oleanna wishes it were: a professor hides from a young woman he was intimate with in a locked museum overnight the fact that he had the keys all along. Angered, she accuses him of raping her; Bellocchio raises pertinent—and unsettling—questions that remain difficult to answer.

Bellocchio’s most recent films are among his most refined, even as they unfold as hysterically fever-pitched melodramas hinging on notions of faith, idealism and mortality. My Mother’s Smile (2002) takes on the Roman Catholic Church in the form of an atheistic artist horrified to find his deceased mother on the fast track to canonization. Bellocchio shows no mercy depicting a church more concerned with public relations than saving souls.

Good Morning, Night (2003) is a dreamlike retelling of the 1975 kidnapping of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, told from the point of view of terrorist group’s lone woman. Bellocchio, who expertly shows how even radical causes can become domesticated, saturates his film with hallucinatory colors which match the strains of Pink Floyd’s atmospheric music.

Marco Bellocchio on the set of Vincere (photo: Daniele Musso)
2009’s Vincere, another stunning re-examination of Italian history, tells the little-known true story of Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s beautiful, intelligent lover who bore him a son before he became the fascist leader of Italy—whereupon both she and the boy were erased from Il Duce’s life and, consequently, history itself. Intense, gregarious, and thought-provoking from its opening credits, Vincere finds Bellocchio in his most freely expressionist mode, intercutting actual newsreel footage of Mussolini alongside this riveting tale of a real-life heroine fighting against all odds for her and her son’s lives.

Vincere’s frequent, jarring and extreme tonal shifts are reminiscent of Lina Wertmuller’s audacious Seven Beauties (1976), a similarly go-for-baroque masterpiece. Like Seven Beauties, which was anchored by Giancarlo Giannini’s superlative performance, Vincere works so marvelously because Giovanna Mezzogiorno leads us through Ida’s tragic tale. This fabulously expressive actress—whose face is illuminated by the most dazzling pair of hazel eyes in cinema—is the prime focus of Bellocchio’s camera, and her brave, emotionally naked piece of acting is the ultimate collaboration with Italy’s most fearless and fiery filmmaker.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Broadway Theater Roundup—‘The Realistic Joneses’ and ‘Mothers and Sons’

The Realistic Joneses
Written by Will Eno; directed by Sam Gold
Previews began March l3, 2014; opened April 6
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Mothers and Sons
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Sheryl Kaller
Previews began February 23, 2014; opened March 24
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Letts and Tomei in The Realistic Joneses (photo: Joan Marcus)
Will Eno’s brand of absurdism is an acquired taste. His promising short works nod to Beckett and Albee, but his full-length plays Middletown, Thom Pain and The Realistic Joneses are stretched unbearably thin. Although some find profundity and insight in his work, that seems like wishful thinking: his cascading lines of dialogue, instead of exploding into meaning, too often fizzle into meaninglessness.

The Realistic Joneses introduces two couples, both improbably named Jones, which are neighbors in a bucolic mountain area. Stable long-timers Jennifer and Bob welcome the slightly daffy newcomers John and Pony; at the start, John’s non-sequiturs and inappropriate outbursts are mocked by an incredulous Bob, whose wife Jennifer is the epitome of levelheadedness, especially when compared to the airheaded Pony.

Soon, however, John insinuates himself, in a rather unlikely fashion, into Jennifer’s good graces, while—even more ludicrously—Bob and Pony begin an affair. That’s about the extent of the plot: the play has been constructed as a series of blackouts featuring two, three or all four Joneses. And Eno’s epigrammatic dialogue repeatedly falls flat, whether it concerns a dead squirrel in the backyard, a fictional disease both men suffer from or even John mocking the dullness of Bob’s name, to which Jennifer quickly shoots back a riposte about dyslexics liking it—a quip more clever than funny.

By the time we reach the would-be deep finale showing the Jones quartet (the title’s “realistic” is another Eno joke) idly chatting, Eno’s shallow exploration of humanity has very little of import to impart. On David Zinn’s aptly cluttered set, director Sam Gold artfully paces this disjointed  sitcom, while the cast—Toni Collette (Jennifer), Michael C. Hall (John), Marisa Tomei (Pony) and especially Tracy Letts (Bob)—works hard, and at times effectively, to make it all seem more pointed than pointless.

Weller and Daly in Mothers and Sons (photo: Joan Marcus)
That Mothers and Sons is one of Terrence McNally’s most personal plays is obvious, dealing as it does with the AIDS crisis, gay marriage and clueless parents of homosexuals; its strengths and weaknesses stem directly from wearing its heart on its sleeve.

McNally’s schematic set-up—while visiting her long-dead son Andre’s lover Cal on the Upper West Side to get some closure, grand dame Katharine meets Cal’s husband Will and their adopted young son Bud—is merely an excuse for him to pontificate about subjects still near to his heart and own life. The no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Katharine barks nastily at Cal upon her arrival, hiding her own fear and anger over her son’s death from AIDS 20 years earlier: her outbursts, while sometimes funny, are nearly always vitriolic. And McNally stacks his dramatic deck by making Cal, Will and Bud too good to be true—especially young Bud, a sentimental figure of vindication and love who singlehandedly transforms Katharine from nasty old lady to caring “grandmother.”

Mothers and Sons is preachy and didactic, but McNally doesn’t care; he wants to emphasize to audiences that the AIDS era was recent history that shouldn’t be repeated and that the current battle for gay equality is a clear next step for a cultured society. True, there are cheap shots at Dallas and Port Chester, and Katharine herself is self-contradictory: if she grew up in a NYC suburb, why was/is she so obtuse about her gay son? It’s obviously so that McNally can have it both ways, letting Katharine simultaneously raging against right-wing Texan rubes and be ignorant of her son’s sexuality, insisting that it was New York that turned him gay when he moved there at age 18.

Whatever its faults, McNally’s topical play has well-earned laughs and tears. Sheryl Kaller directs persuasively on John Lee Beatty’s gorgeous set—who wouldn’t want to live in this well-appointed apartment that overlooks Central Park?—and the acting quartet is beyond reproach. Grayson Taylor’s Bud is as adorable as written, Bobby Steggert ensures Will’s niceness doesn’t equal blandness, and Frederick Weller makes a strong, full-blooded character out of the stick figure of Cal.

Then there’s Tyne Daly, who makes Katharine as big a diva prowling the stage as the actress was as Maria Callas in McNally’s Master Class. Daly gives her lines more bite, an added dollop of bitterness tinged with sadness, that gives Katharine an extra dimension not found in the script. If the play itself is a bumpy, manipulative ride, at least a master navigator is at the controls.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Best Night Ever
Cocaine Cowboys Revisited
Best Night Ever could be called a female Hangover, except that there are actually scattered laughs in this inane attempt to ape that unfunny blockbuster—it also tries to be a found-footage movie, as one of the Vegas bachelorette party gals records everything. Game actresses are defeated by increasingly desperate material. An extended version of a documentary, Cocaine Cowboys Revisited is a thorough expose of Miami as the bloody battleground for violent drug dealers in the ‘70s-‘80s. Interviews with participants and archival footage bring viewers closer to what happened and why. Both discs have good hi-def transfers; extras include deleted scenes and, on Best, interviews.

Black Jack
(Cohen Media)
Ken Loach’s 1979 costume drama—an anomaly in his long career of politically aware films—is a pleasantly minor adaptation of a children’s adventure novel about a gruff adventurer and two children in mid-18th century England. Though made on a shoestring, Chris Menges’ low-key 16mm photography glistens, thanks to Loach’s fastidious eye for detail, which helps overcome variable acting from mostly unknowns. The grainy Blu-ray image is soft but palatable; extras are a Loach commentary and deleted scenes.

With so many nature documentaries proliferating on TV and the big screen, new ones must distinguish themselves from the others—all of which have gorgeously-looking HD-photography—and the six-part Earthflight does just that. By putting tiny HD cameras on the backs of actual birds and showing them in flight all around the world, the programs find a new way to astonish viewers by giving a literal bird’s-eye view of the marvels in our world, both natural and man-made. Of course, the hi-def images look absolutely stunning, whether taken in Asia, Antarctica, Europe or North and South America.

Forgetting the Girl
(Ram Releasing)
What begins as a mildly intriguing portrait of a Manhattan photographer doing headshots for aspiring actresses—and who fails to personally connect with any of them, despite his efforts—turns into an unsatisfying slasher flick. For awhile, this study of a loner and loser with unresolved issues nods seems psychologically acute, then descends into routine blood and gore. Christopher Denham is extremely good as the protagonist, and Anna Camp—who appears in far too few movies and plays—is delectable as the one female who responds to him. The Blu-ray image is decent; extras include deleted scenes, director commentary and web videos.

The Making of a Lady
Murder on the Home Front
From a story by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who wrote The Secret Garden), Lady follows a young woman marrying a widower who immediately leaves home—she soon must deal with his cousin who decides he wants to take over the estate. Director Richard Curson Smith’s tidy 90-minute mystery, which slowly builds in tension, has slyly restrained performances by Linus Roache and Lydia Wilson. Murder—a slow-moving WWII drama about another young woman (a very good Tamzin Merchant) who works with a pathologist to solve murders in a London preoccupied with German bombings—is a handsomely mounted if unexceptional mystery. Both films have fine hi-def transfers; Murder extras comprise cast and crew interviews.

Paths Through the Labyrinth
(C Major)
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, a 1950s avant-gardist now one of our most renowned classical composers, is still going strong at age 80, with an astonishing array of orchestral works, operas, chamber music and film scores. Director Anna Schmidt’s superb documentary follows Penderecki for a year, still composing, conducting and living life as a major artist, along with admiring interviews with his wife; director Andrzej Wajda; and musicians Anne Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (whose own classical forays ape Penderecki). Well-chosen clips from Kubrick’s The Shining and Wajda’s Katyn illustrate how cinematic Penderecki’s own music really is. The hi-def image is stellar; extras are Greenwood and conductor Lorin Maazel interviews.


(Weinstein/Anchor Bay)
This heart-tugging drama about an Irish woman’s search for the son she gave up 50 years ago while among the Magdalene Sisters in a Catholic convent stars a marvelously understated Judi Dench and an amusingly bitter Steve Coogan as journalist Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the brilliant book about her quest. Stephen Frears’ economical direction and Dench and Coogan’s interplay are the main draws of this mere skimming of Sixsmith’s account, in which Philomena’s son’s rich, varied and surprising life is developed in 420 pages—perhaps a sequel, Michael, will do justice to his life story? The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras are Coogan and cowriter Jeff Pope’s commentary, interviews with Dench and the real Philomena Lee, and a Coogan Q&A.

DVDs of the Week
In Claire Denis’ fragmented, convoluted attempt at film noir, a sea captain must deal with his brother-in-law’s suicide and the disappearances of his weak, estranged sister and niece, all while carrying on an affair with a woman married to a terrifyingly evil corporate capitalist. Although Denis’ eye remains unerring—her cinematographer is, as usual, the great Agnes Godard—her narrative sense has never been her strong suit, and the movie’s central mysteries are slowly, unsatisfyingly brought to a close. Still, a solid cast led by the always watchable Vincent Lindon and the amazing young actress Lola Creton helps smooth over many bumps.

The Children Nobody Wanted
Life According to Sam
(Warner Archive)
Children, an earnest, honorable 1981 movie about Tom Butterfield’s efforts to create a home for mistreated young boys in the small Missouri town where he attends college, gains credibility from Fred Lehne’s lively Tom and a young Michelle Pfeiffer as his lovely girlfriend. The difficult to watch Life, a documentary about children with the incurable disease  progeria, which causes rapid—and fatal—aging, focuses on Sam Berns (who sadly died last fall at age 17), a sparkplug who put a brave face on the disease. Sam extras include Berns’ speech and a PSA with Berns and Dave Matthews.

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony
(First Run)
Wherein a determined group eventually puts together a performance of British composer Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, all 120 minutes, 400 choristers and 200 musicians’ worth! I find Brian’s music even more bloated than Bruckner, but kudos to those loyal fans who persevered and finally saw their dream come to fruition. Director Randall Wood presents their story engagingly, even including biographical tidbits of Brian himself, although the reenactments of events in the composer’s life are ludicrously staged.

In the Name of
(Film Movement)
In Malgoska Szumowska’s engrossing melodrama, a closeted priest hides his sexual proclivities while mentoring young men and resisting the advances of an attractive young local woman. Although contrivances start to creep in after an interesting opening, the natural performances help ground it in a credible reality that keep the film from going off the melodramatic rails. Lone extra is an Israeli short with a similar theme, Summer Vacation.

The Last Time I Saw Macao
(Cinema Guild)
This sleight-of-hand film combines documentary, mystery and visual essay to create a fascinating hybrid: beginning as a reverie about the disappearance of the protagonist’s close friend, it morphs ever more cleverly and ends up an illuminating if occasionally mystifying drama. Co-directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata—who narrates his return to the Portuguese Pacific colony where he grew up to find his friend—provide beautiful imagery amid their narrative misdirection. Extras include an interview with the Joaos and a pair of their shorts, Red Dawn and Mahjong.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Broadway Roundup—‘Bullets Over Broadway’ Becomes a Musical; Denzel Stars in ‘Raisin in the Sun’

Bullets Over Broadway
Book by Woody Allen; directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
Previews began March l1, 2014; opened April 10
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

A Raisin in the Sun
Written by Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Kenny Leon
Previews began March 8, 2014; closes June 15
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Braff and Cordero in Bullets Over Broadway (photo: Paul Kolnik)
The gleefully silly Bullets Over Broadway is this season’s lone movie-to-musical adaptation that actually works. Woody Allen’s original 1994 movie mixed pompous theater people, murderous mobsters, hilarious one-liners and even song and dance into a memorable stew of unbridled nonsense that won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Dianne Wiest (her second) as the ultimate theatrical diva.

Set during Prohibition in 1929 New York City, Bullets’ colorful kaleidoscope of giddy cinematic caricatures was set amidst Carlo di Palma’s tangy cinematography, Jeffrey Kurland’s canny costumes and Santo Loquasto’s lustrous sets, making it one of the most visually splendid of Allen’s movies.

And its plot is right up there with Allen’s cleverest short stories like “Retribution” or “The Kugalmass Episode.” Struggling playwright David Shayne finally gets financing for his first Broadway play, but with one condition: he must cast Olive Neal, the talentless girlfriend of the rich mobster bankrolling the show. A neophyte director protecting his own work, David also has to deal with the rest of his cast, especially legendary actress Helen Sinclair, with whom he’s falling in love, as well as Cheech, the henchman keeping an eye on Olive for his boss and who has many ideas about how to improve David’s play.

To make this madcap send-up work onstage, book writer Allen has the perfect collaborator in Susan Stroman, who did double duty choreographing and directing the immortal Contact, and who’s already expert at transforming movies into stage shows, having done the trick with Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Young Frankenstein and more recently with Big Fish. Stroman’s fertile imagination is definitely in its element with the show’s many song-and-dance numbers, all 1920s standards sung by the cast, whether or not the tunes themselves have anything to do with what’s happening onstage (Greg Kelly, who also orchestrated, has penned new lyrics that refer to the plot and characters).

Stroman’s originality is in evidence from the rousing curtain-raiser “Tiger Rag” to the pointless but giddy closing number “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Stroman adroitly moves from high-kicking chorus girls to a magnificent gangsters’ tap-dance, and her magisterial pacing knows just when to reprise or cut off a number to keep the show’s momentum from faltering. And there are, of course, major assists from Loquasto’s dazzlingly sleight-of-hand sets, William Ivey Long’s flamboyant costumes and Donald Holder’s snazzy lighting.

The cast is also up to snuff. Vincent Pastore is great fun as the gruff mob boss who breaks into growling song, and Nick Cordero gives hilariously comic menace to the artist in hitman’s clothing that is Cheech. Old pros Karen Ziemba and Brooks Ashmanskas provide belly laughs as two delightfully daffy performers in David’s play, with Ziemba going above and beyond for delicious interplay with her beloved pooch Mr. Woofles (played by a stage natural named Trixie). Lenny Wolpe makes a funny teddy bear as Julian Marx, David’s agent, while Betsey Wolfe’s Ellen is a sweetly adorable—and crystalline-voiced—girlfriend for our playwright hero.

As the ultimate bimbo Olive, Helene Yorke shrewdly adopts the same grating voice as Jennifer Tilly in the movie, but does so much more with the character—that she sings and dances simultaneously badly and well helps immeasurably—that she takes Olive to a  higher level. Marin Mazzie, up against memories of Dianne Wiest’s Oscar-winning turn, makes Helen Sinclair her own, as much a comic diva as Wiest but with the added bonus of her own powerhouse singing voice—she even spins that immortal line, “Don’t speak,” in an original way. As David, Zach Braff tries a bit too hard to keep up with the talent around him but settles into an amiably goofy Matthew Broderick groove that fits snugly. But it’s Stroman’s dazzling showmanship that keeps Bullets Over Broadway buoyantly on-target.

Washington and Okonedo in A Raisin in the Sun (photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
 Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is one of those touchstone plays, like Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey into Night, that feels familiar even for those who haven’t seen it. So another Broadway revival only a decade after an ill-fated staging with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs is unsurprising, especially since a Hollywood superstar wanted to star in it.

Hansberry’s 1959 play about the Youngers, a poor black family in Chicago, still feels fresh and has a rigorous intelligence that blends comedy and tragedy in a pinpoint study of social, economic and political injustice. In his new production, director Kenny Leon catches those qualities for the most part; when his staging occasionally stalls, another potent or prophetic Hansberry line of dialogue propels the play forward.

Much has been made of 59-year-old Denzel Washington playing 35-year-old son Walter Lee Younger: actually, in this production, we are told he’s 40. Although Washington looks younger than his age, if not a man of 35 or 40, he has a youthful bearing that nicely complements the accumulating desperation of a man who feels he’s failing his family. Although Washington’s natural charisma makes him one of the most likeable actors around, his edgy side springs forth onstage, in Fences a few seasons back and now in Raisin.

As Walter Lee’s younger sister, the wonderfully named Beneatha, Anika Noni Rose gives a beautifully modulated portrayal of a young woman finding her own way in a crushingly anti-female and anti-black culture, choosing to study to be a doctor until she discovers her African heritage. Likewise, Sophie Okonedo—a Broadway novice—has a slightly mournful quality as Walter Lee’s harried wife Ruth that serves her in good stead: her lovely, subtle performance is at the heart of Hansberry’s timeless tale.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Dead Kids
This trio of thrillers provides a glimpse of the “Ozploitation” genre from Australia and New Zealand from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s: Dead Kids, written by future Oscar winner Bill Condon, lives up to its titles (it was also called Strange Behavior); Patrick finds its horrific carnage in a comatose killer’s mental state; and Thirst is a weird vampire movie like no other. Of course, these movies are acquired tastes of the highest order, but they all deliver what they advertise, so lovers of B-movie bloodfests will rejoice. The Blu-ray transfers are adequate; extras comprise commentaries, interviews and featurettes.

Funny Face
Hi-def programming is all about getting to watch a glamorous star like Audrey Hepburn on Blu-ray, as in this pair of charming romantic comedies. Billy Wilder’s sentimental but tough Sabrina (1954) gets by on an attractive cast led by Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, while Stanley Donen’s colorful musical Funny Face (1957) stars Hepburn as a book shop owner turned model who falls for photographer Fred Astaire; its real glories—aside from Hepburn—are Gershwin songs and Paris locations. Both movies have been visually spiffed up for their hi-def debuts; extras comprise vintage featurettes.

Grudge Match

When Sylvester Stallone resurrected Rocky Balboa to re-enter the ring at an advanced age, it was played straight, unlike this fuzzy flick that pits Sly against Robert DeNiro in a fight for the (old) ages that erases their iconic boxing characters (remember Raging Bull?) from memory by duking duke it out in the most unbelievable way possible. DeNiro seems to be having fun spouting nasty jokes while Stallone sleepwalks yet again, maybe to offset Kevin Hart’s irritating motormouth promoter. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras include featurettes, alternate openings and ending and deleted scenes.

The Hobbit—The Desolation of Smaug
The second part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is—despite much slow, repetitive action, thanks to Jackson’s decision to stretch out material for one three-hour film into three—more worthwhile than the first film, which dragged and sputtered interminably. Here, better pacing, more fully realized creatures and plot strands, along with fantastic special effects work make one look forward to the final installment this Christmas. The Blu-ray image is unsurpassable; extras include several on-set featurettes.

Nurse 3-D
If you love trashy horror movies, this splattering-blood spoof will be up your alley, especially if you pine for sexy young women parading around in nurse outfits that would seem too risqué for a porn flick. Paz de la Huerta plays a crazed young nurse who kills with impunity, and Katrina Bowden plays her latest victim—neither actress is known for her thespian skills. Lots of blood and gore are sprayed toward the camera, but as one-note sick jokes go, it’s mild stuff. In hi-def, the effects look campier in 3-D than in 2-D; extras include making-of featurettes and director commentary.

(Warner Archive)
It’s hard to believe that this messy 1970 mash-up by co-directors Nicolas Roeg and Douglas Camwell was once considered shocking and edgy; but 44 years on, this seems like the epitome of the time-capsule movie, as hippies face off against squares in a dated drama best seen as a window into a long-gone world. Mick Jagger’s androgynous presence still holds up, but his performance of the sub-Stones tune “Memo from Turner” does not. Still, the movie has gained a cult following, whatever that’s worth. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are retrospective and vintage featurettes.

A Touch of Sin

Director Jia Zhang-Je focuses his laser-like lens on modern-day China, whose economy resembles America’s—the rich get richer, the poor get poorer—as the bottom drops out. Based on four incidents of violence as a last resort for desperate people, Jia links them narratively: the marvelously self-contained first section, about a persecuted miner who resorts to murder after insults threaten his manhood, is filled with powerful imagery of a corrupt society rotting from within. But the three episodes that follow essentially repeat the first without its unsettling seriousness. This draining, frustrating experience would have been masterly if Jia had expanded his first segment instead of undercutting its insightful observations with the others. The superlative Blu-ray transfer is the lone extra.

DVDs of the Week
Broadchurch—Complete 1st Season
(e one)
This gripping mini-series about two detectives looking into a murder case in a small seaside town fascinatingly explores how a young boy’s killing affects the psyche of the area’s inhabitants, who find themselves under a national microscope due to the crime’s heinousness. As the detectives, Olivia Colman and Daniel Tenant juggle the smart-alecky aspect of similar characters with more interestingly shaded portrayals. Extras include deleted scenes and a behind the scenes featurette.

The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts—Fully Roasted

This six-disc compilation of 17 infamous Dean Martin Roasts comprises roastees such as Hugh Heffner, Redd Foxx, Zsa Zsa Gabor and then California Governor Ronald Reagan, roasted by celebrities like Orson Welles, Charo, Henry Fonda, Henny Youngman, Jonathan Winters and Shelley Winters. If the jokes and one-liners are too non-PC today—all but proclaimed on the box itself with a back cover warning—then viewers’ mileage may vary. Extras are bonus sketches, featurettes and interviews.

Over the course of several years, Michael Winterbottom filmed this story of a dad who, while imprisoned, realizes that his family—wife and children both—has been moving on and growing up without him. This low-key (except for Michael Nyman’s annoying score) drama, shot in sequence to mirror the actual aging of the performers, is anything but gimmicky: Winterbottom, as so often, gives an insightful take on ordinary lives. Extras include a deleted scene.

The Fiery Angel
(Arthaus Musik)
Sergei Prokofiev’s electrifying opera—about the horrific visions of a young nun haunted by demons during the Inquisition—is seen in this seminal 1993 production at St. Petersburg, Russia’s Mariinsky Theater. Director David Freeman’s mesmerizing staging allows the visuals to run riot, a perfect complement to Prokofiev’s thunderous music, sung by superb Russian singers like Galina Gorchakov as the troubled heroine, with conductor Valery Gergiev leading the orchestra and choir with remarkable intensity. This opera packs a wallop, even in plain old stereo and standard 1.33:1 framing.

Mayberry RFD—Complete 1st Season
Medical Center—Complete 4th Season
(Warner Archive)
Mayberry RFD, a spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show, debuted on network TV in 1968, and Ken Berry’s gentle Sam Jones quickly became an audience favorite, as these disarming 26 episodes demonstrate. For the fourth season of the popular drama Medical Center (which aired in 1972-73), our Los Angeles hospital heroes—played by Chad Everett and James Daly—save the lives of guest stars that run the gamut from William Devane and Larry Hagman to Stefanie Powers and Barbara Eden.

CDs of the Week
Gil Shaham—1930s Violin Concertos
(Canary Classics)
An amazing array of masterworks for the violin appeared in the 1930s—their composers obviously affected by the volatile worldwide political situation, as the rise of Fascism led to World War II—each different in tone, themes and execution. Violinist Gil Shaham gives impassioned readings of extraordinary works by Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten, a treasure trove of enduring artists’ responses to their era. Since this is only Volume 1, we can anticipate more from Shaham: here’s hoping he tackles concertos by Paul Hindemith, William Walton, Karl Szymanowski and Sergei Prokofiev, to name a handful of other important composers.

Hans Werner Henze—Symphonies 2 & 10
The gap between Hans Werner Henze’s second and tenth symphonies is enormous—nearly 53 years, the second premiering in 1949 and the tenth (his last) in 2002, a decade before his death at age 86—but they are still unmistakably the work of the same master composer, who was a master of orchestration and texture. The second, though written by a young composer, is mature in outlook; the tenth, written by a veteran in his mid 70s, displays the still-youthful vigor of the greatest symphonist of the last half of the 20th century. This stellar recording ends conductor Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-sinfonieorchester Berlin’s valuable Henze symphony cycle.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Broadway Musical Reviews: Idina Menzel in ‘If/Then’; ‘Les Miz’ Returns

Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey; music by Tom Kitt; directed by Michael Greif
Previews began March 5, 2014; opened March 30
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Les Miserables
Music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; adaptation by Trevor Nunn & John Caird; directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Previews began March 1, 2014; opened March 23
Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Menzel in If/Then (photo: Joan Marcus)
I wasn’t a fan of Next to Normal, the bi-polar musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which played with adult themes in a juvenile rock style to the tune of a Pulitzer Prize. The same could be said for their new musical, If/Then, which expends pop/rock energy on a basically gimmicky conceit familiar from the 1998 movie Sliding Doors (itself based on Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 movie Blind Chance).

If/Then proceeds on simultaneous paths for its heroine, Elizabeth—a thirty-something divorcee who returns to New York after living in Phoenix for a dozen years—depending whether or not she answers her cell phone. She’s either Liz, a glasses-wearing city planner who falls in love with Josh, a soldier just returned from Iraq; or Beth, an unemployed activist, sans glasses, who begins seeing her old college boyfriend Lucas. The show toggles back and forth by rote, each section dogged by Kitt and Yorkey’s antiseptic—and interchangeable—tunes.

Between the lackluster songs and superficial exploration of Liz/Beth’s lives, If/Then resembles a show made by committee, with very little human element. Although set in cosmopolitan New York and featuring couples that are straight, gay and lesbian, the musical never feels organic: instead, its sharp edges have been filed down to the point that, aside from gratuitous use of the F-word (a song called “What the Fuck” gets huge laughs), If/Then will pass muster with the unfinicky Wednesday matinee crowd.

Yorkey’s book cutesily shows the differences between Liz and Beth’s differing roads taken by, say, having one attend a Yankee game (with a joke about how good they are) and the other a Mets game (with a joke about how bad they are). To make matters worse, among easy jokes that condescend to Phoenix, the Olive Garden and even Brooklyn, the creators decide that the drama needs tragic undertones, so they throw in an Iraq war casualty and a near plane crash, which give portentous—and pretentious—“weight” to the heroines’ possible paths.

The usually resourceful director Michael Grief comes to grief with unending gimmickry that extends from the thematic concept to the visuals: there are mirrors and doorways (actually door frames) that constantly—and redundantly—underline the sense of looking at life from varied perspectives. At least Greif’s set designer Mark Wendland and lighting designer Kenneth Posner make the staging look snazzy.

An able supporting cast—led by Anthony Rapp (as Lucas) and LaChanze (as lesbian sidekick  Kate)—gives its all, and both Liz and Beth are played with smarts, sass and vulnerability by Frozen’s “Let It Go” girl Idina Menzel, who deserves a better musical than this….or Rent, or even Wicked. Although saddled with mind-numbing songs, Menzel is such a pro she even turns the limp noodle of a showstopper, “Always Starting Over,” into something like an emotional, rousing climax. Menzel gives this fizzle of a show a toughness and honesty it otherwise lacks.

The cast of Les Miserables (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Coming on the heels of the commercially successful movie version, the beloved mega-musical Les Miserables returns to Broadway in a prepackaged roadshow production featuring Matt Kinley’s functional sets (based on author Victor Hugo’s own drawings—originally seen in early editions of his eponymous novel—and used here as evocative backdrops), Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland’s decent costumes and Paule Constable’s dramatically inventive lighting.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell’s solid staging, which gets its audience to its final destination with little fuss, is populated with cast members who do their thing with sometimes inspired proficiency. If Caissie Levy’s Fantine belts out the soaring “I Dreamed a Dream” less memorably than Anne Hathaway did in her Oscar-winning turn, at least Nikki M. James’s spunky Eponine gives a heartrending version of “On My Own,” a song I’ve never warmed up to.

I’ve always found the comic-relief couple Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier problematic, especially in their unnecessary wedding appearance for “Beggars at the Feast”; it’s the end of a long show, so please leave the stage and let’s get to the finale! Here, Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle mug even more outrageously than Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter did in the movie: the pair’s first number, the hilarious “Master of the House,” scores, but then again it always does.

As the antagonistic leads, Will Swenson (Javert) and Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean) are well-matched. Swenson, who makes a physically and vocally imposing Javert, really nails his big number, “Stars,” after which he’s put through an impressively staged suicide that draws gasps and applause. As Valjean, Karimloo has a large voice that he doesn’t push most of the time, even going subtly soft for an achingly lovely rendition of “Bring Him Home.” His acting is a little on the broad side, but in a show of monumental gestures, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
At Middleton
(Anchor Bay)
Unless you are an Andy Garcia and/or Vera Farmiga completist, you’ll want to bypass director/cowriter Adam Rodgers’ cutesy piece of forced whimsy about parents who meet and kinda sorta fall for each other when visiting the campus of Middleton College with their kids, who are incoming students. Although the two stars—and Spencer Lofranco and Vera’s youngest sister, Taissa Farmiga, as the kids—shine, they must battle trite dialogue and silly rom-com antics that add up to not much. The Blu-ray looks fine.

Brian May/Kerry Ellis—
The Candlelight Concerts/Live At Montreux 2013
(Eagle Rock)
Queen guitarist Brian May and vocalist Kerry Ellis team for an odd-couple pairing that works niftily, May’s signature guitar stylings—both acoustic and electric—complementing Ellis’ crystalline but powerful voice. Along with a healthy helping of Queen songs that includes left-field choices as “Life Is Real” (Freddie Mercury’s tribute to John Lennon that Ellis dedicates to Mercury), there are wonderful covers like George Harrison’s “Something” and even a schmaltzily effective “Born Free.” The hi-def transfer and audio are stunning to see and hear; the lone extra is a performance of “Nothing Really Has Changed” for its surprised—and touched—writer, Virginia McKenna.


Alain Robbe-Grillet—who wrote Alain Resnais’ 1961 surreal masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad—made his directorial debut two years later with this playful but contrived bit of nouveau-roman filmmaking about a man trying to piece together his relationship with a beautiful but mysterious young woman in Istanbul. The lusciously photographed movie has the lovely Francoise Brion as an asset; too bad her real-life husband, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, is less than scintillating as the protagonist. The hi-def image is excellent; the lone extra is a half-hour Robbe-Grillet interview.

Little House on the Prairie—Complete 1st Season
The first season (1974-75) of the beloved television series about the Ingalls family—with parents Michael Landon and Karen Grassle and daughters Melissa Sue Anderson and Melissa Gilbert—arrives on hi-def, its 24 episodes (and the original pilot movie) intact. The show looks far better on Blu-ray than it ever has; extras include a 40th anniversary documentary and Landon and Gilbert’s screen tests.

Meet Him and Die

This watchable but fairly routine thriller directed by Franco Prosperi has a notable appearance by a dubbed Martin Balsam as a mob boss who befriends a failed robber in prison. A few decent chase sequences and shootouts can’t alleviate the lethargic pacing until a final, predictable climax. Even Elke Sommer in a bathing suit doesn’t help much. The hi-def transfer preserves the grain nicely; lone extra is a short intro.

DVDs of the Week
Altar of Lust/Angel on Fire
A Saint, A Woman, A Devil
(Vinegar Syndrome)
This trio of vintage adult flicks shows that, back in the ‘70s, actual plotlines—however paper-thin—were concocted so the sexcapades had some sort of context, as opposed to today’s “gonzo” online porn. Altar (1971) features someone named Erotica Lantern, Angel (1974) follows a man who returns from the dead in the body of horny Darby Lloyd Rains, and Saint (1977) stars Joanna Bell as a pious woman who turns into a nymphomaniac (take that, Lars von Trier).

Joseph Andrews

(Warner Archive)
With 1977’s Joseph Andrews, director Tony Richardson tried to rekindle the spark of his Tom Jones, which swept the 1963 Oscars, but this costume farce comes off less original, less funny and less sexy, despite the efforts of Richardson’s cast (Ann-Margret and Peter Firth head it) and the handsome physical production. 1983’s Testament—director Lynne Littman’s stolid exploration of the effects of a nuclear attack on the ordinary people of a small US town—has one big plus: Jane Alexander’s extraordinary portrayal of a mother caught up in horrific events.

The Punk Singer
Kathleen Hanna, leader of post-punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre—who dropped out of the spotlight a decade ago because she had nothing more to say—gets a proper appraisal in director Sini Anderson’s straightforward documentary portrait. Interviews with Hanna show her to be as honest as ever in Anderson’s look back at her career, which also includes interviews with her many collaborators and her husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. Extras are deleted scenes and additional interviews.


(Cinema Guild)
Matias Pineiro’s compact feature follows an actress in a theatrical troupe rehearsing Shakespeare whose life is a mess of romantic entanglements. If the movie ultimately is like much ado about nothing, there’s wit in the characterization and dialogue, while Agustina Munoz is an appealing heroine: and there’s the always mesmerizing Buenos Aires as a backdrop. Extras include Pineiro and Munoz’s commentary and a filmed Pineiro play.

When Jews Were Funny
(First Run)
Alan Zweig made this amusing if diffuse exploration of Jewish humor that comprises talking heads like Shecky Green, recently deceased David Brenner (RIP!), Marc Maron and Howie Mandel discussing their comic heritage and telling their favorite Jewish jokes. It’s a pleasant journey that Zweig short-circuits with a rambling, self-serving interviewing style, turning it into a muddled personal diary that culminates with a clip of the 61-year-old director dad and his adorable young daughter. Extras are bonus interviews.