Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Theater Review—“Big River” Returns via Encores

Big River—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Book by William Hauptman; music & lyrics by Roger Miller; directed by Lear deBessonet
Performances February 8-12, 2017
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY
nycitycenter.org

Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch in Big River (photo: Joan Marcus)

Premiering in 1985 on Broadway—where it won several Tonys, including Best Musical—and returning in 2003—revived by Deaf West Theatre—Big River doesn’t seem the usual kind of reclamation project at which Encores excels. But in Lear deBessonet’s lively staging, this tuneful musical based on Mark Twain’s classic 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn remains engaging and thought-provoking.

There will be carping about using the “n” word to describe Jim, Huck’s fellow traveler down the river—but Jim is an escaped slave and those using the epithet are whites with ties to the South’s “peculiar institution.” Although deBessonet doesn’t skimp on what audiences find uncomfortable a century and a half later, she never gets bogged down in a heavy-handed “message.”

Instead, the focus is on the relationship between Huck and Jim, by turns dramatic and funny, and tough-minded and sentimental, complemented nicely by Roger Miller’s score, a collection of sturdy, alternately rousing (“River in the Rain”), emotional (“Worlds Apart”) or spiritual (“How Blest We Are”) songs that hit on gospel, country, bluegrass and even rockabilly. In the leads, Nicholas Barasch’s delightful Huck and Kyle Scatliffe’s powerful Jim are worthy companions and even adversaries; both men sing beautifully, but it’s Scatliffe who mesmerizes during the show-stopping “Free at Last.”

In the supporting roles of The King and The Duke—who board Huck and Jim’s raft, take over their lives, and sell Jim back into slavery—David Pittu and Christopher Sieber again show why they are among today’s best comic actors. There’s lovely singing by Adrianna Hicks, Katherine A. Guy and Patrice Covington in their soulful solo turns, while the Encores Orchestra and music director Rob Berman provide the often fiery playing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

February '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Betty/L’Enfer/The Swindle
(Cohen Film Collection)
These features by French director Claude Chabrol—who, at his best, could compete with Alfred Hitchcock for witty, well-turned suspense films—are variable in quality, as so much of his career was. 1992’s Betty is an intimately offbeat drama about two scarred women; 1994’s L’Enfer stars a breathtaking Emmanuelle Beart in a twisted psychological portrait of a husband (Francois Cluzet) who believes his wife is cheating; and 1997’s The Swindle wastes Isabelle Huppert, Michel Serrault and Cluzet in a by-the-numbers comic thriller. As usual, Cohen’s hi-def transfers are exemplary; too bad the scarce extras are two commentaries and a Cluzet interview: no extras from the French discs are included, a shame since we’re missing out on interviews and commentaries from Chabrol himself.

By Sidney Lumet
(FilmRise)
This intelligent documentary portrait is essentially one long discussion that director Nancy Buirski conducted before Sidney Lumet’s 2011 death, taking the director from his early TV days to his string of ‘70s and ‘80s film classics that took the pulse of his city (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City) and even the nation (Network, Running on Empty). Lumet is smart, funny, personable and compulsively listenable, and Buirski shows copious clips from his most—and even least—celebrated films (The Wiz, anyone?). The hi-def transfer looks good; extras comprise bonus interview footage and an interview with Treat Williams, who starred in Prince of the City.

Hacksaw Ridge 
(Lionsgate)
Director Mel Gibson fetishizes violence: Christ being tortured in The Passion of the Christ, Mayans being slaughtered in Apocalypto, Scots and English armies fighting in Braveheart. His latest ultra-violent war drama ups the ante: in showing how an American pacifist joins the service during World War II, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gibson actually made combat carnage worse than it really is. At heart a standard war film, it’s sentimental and brutal by turns—with boot-camp sequences stolen from The Boys in Company C and Full Metal Jacket, but far less effective—and it’s up to Andrew Garfield’s emotionally naked performance to deliver the goods. The film looks superb on Blu; extras include a 70-minute making-of documentary, deleted scenes and Gibson’s Veterans Day greeting.

Love in the Afternoon
(Warner Archive)
In Billy Wilder’s gossamer 1957 May-December romance, Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper are an unlikely couple who fall for each other in a Paris made even more glamorous by Wilder’s lustrous black and white visuals, which illustrate every cultural cliché of the City of Lights. Hepburn is luminous, of course, and Maurice Chevalier strangely right as her father; even if Cooper is far too stiff, Wilder has made a high-gloss entertainment of the highest order. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray includes a first-rate hi-def transfer.

Nocturnal Animals 
(Universal)
Tom Ford’s excruciating would-be thriller is a textbook study in how not to make a movie: with his flat, repetitive visual palette, clumsily handled plot devices and comatose acting from a stellar cast—how often can Amy Adams look up in feigned shock from a manuscript she’s reading?—Ford’s drama is ham-fisted and pretentious. Only Michael Shannon escapes the dourness as a dying detective, but even he can’t resuscitate something that’s already DOA. There’s a stellar Blu-ray image; extras include short featurettes and brief interviews.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
(Criterion)
Pedro Almodovar became an international art-house figure with this colorful 1988 comedy that had the anarchic spirit of his earlier, scruffier films but also had winning performances from formidable female stars, led by the great Carmen Maura. Almodovar’s unique comic sensibility has long since worn out, but he was near the top of his game here; Criterion’s hi-def transfer is appropriately outstanding, and extras are new interviews with Almodovar, Maura, brother/producer Augusto Almodovar and former New York Film Fest head Richard Pena, who introduced Almodovar to festival audiences.

The Yakuza 
(Warner Archive)
In this 1974 Sydney Pollack drama, Eastern and Western customs literally do battle when Robert Mitchum visits Japan to help save longtime buddy Brian Keith’s daughter from the murderous clutches of the Yakuza, a Mafia-type organization with long-reaching tentacles. The melding of gangster film, travelogue and romance sits uneasily in Pollack’s messily problematic if intriguing film, with Robert Towne and Paul & Leonard Schrader’s gritty script at odds with Pollack’s more cerebral direction. The fine performances are led by Mitchum’s non-nonsense anti-hero. The grainy hi-def transfer is exceptional; extras are Pollack’s commentary and vintage featurette.

DVD of the Week
London Town
(IFC)
This minor but diverting study of teenage angst follows its nerdy music-loving hero—teen Shay, living in a lower-class London suburb in the late ‘70s—who is befriended by Joe Strummer of the still-unknown The Clash. The movie ambles along with bursts of punk rock blasting out of the speakers as Shay falls for his very first girlfriend Vivian and deals with his parents’ separation, all while discovering that Strummer, of all people, is a friendly dude. It’s all kind of precious but redeemed by emphatic acting by Daniel Huttlestone (Shay), Nell Williams (Vivian) and Jonathan Rhys-Myers (Strummer).


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

February '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Cameraperson
(Criterion)
Kirsten Johnson has shot many seminal images over the past few decades, and Cameraperson is her own “greatest hits” package gleaned from footage of films she has photographed for great documentaries like The Invisible War, Pray the Devil Back to Hell and the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, along with her own “home movies” of herself and family. Though there’s a sense of randomness to this project, there are powerful glimpses of people in such far-flung places as Bosnia, Nigeria, and Brooklyn, providing further proof (if any was needed) that she’s made important contributions to many indispensable films. The Blu-ray looks first-rate; extras include interviews, roundtables and Q&As.

Mercy Street—Complete 2nd Season
(PBS)
The intrigues in and around a Union Army hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War have escalated during this drama’s second season, which plunges further into the medical and personal lives and relationships among the soldiers and other army personnel, doctors and nurses, civilians and slaves. After seeming out of place last season, Josh Radnor has grown into his role as Union doctor Jed Foster, aided by equally strong performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as nurse Mary Phinney and, as a Confederate couple dealing with treason and grown daughters, Gary Cole and Donna Murphy. The season’s six episodes look gorgeously realistic on Blu; extras are 20 minutes of deleted scenes.

Psychomania 
(Arrow)
In the tradition of such biker flicks as Easy Rider and The Wild One, this 1973 British entry ups the ante with a group of zombie bikers terrorizing the local populace, but director Don Sharp has made a pretty muddy film with little drama, scares or thrills. That it’s played relatively straight doesn’t help, as it keeps the film to one dull gear for nearly its entire 91-minute running time. The film has nicely filmic grain in hi-def; extras include new and archival interviews and a featurette.

Quarry—Complete 1st Season
(HBO/Cinemax)
When Mac Conway returns home from Vietnam, he discovers that his gorgeous wife Joni is having an affair, thanks to a mysterious dude who also recruits him as a hitman: the early 70s in America is presented with shrewd surreality that underlines the relentlessly downbeat vision of adultery, betrayal and murder. Logan Marshall-Green is perfectly cast as Mac, South African actress Jodi Balfour is a revelation as Joni, and the writing and direction ratchet up the intensity throughout. The hi-def image is quite good; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes, commentaries and music videos

The Tree of Wooden Clogs 
(Criterion)
Ermanno Olmi has made immeasurably finer films—from his early Il Posto and The Fiances to later masterworks One Fine Day and The Profession of Arms—but this 1978 epic may be his most beloved: winner of the grand prize at Cannes, this nuanced and insightful drama follows a group of Italian peasants over the course of a year. Finely wrought, with amazingly lived-in performances by an all-amateur cast, it has its creator’s characteristic humanity and generosity in abundance, despite its overlength. Criterion’s otherwise excellent hi-def transfer is a bit cooler color-wise than I remember it when I originally saw it, but that’s not a deal breaker; extras include Olmi interviews, a South Bank Show episode on the film’s making; director Mike Leigh’s intro and new cast and crew interviews.

Turandot
(Decca)
Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, completed after his death, is diffuse dramatically but contains some of his finest music, the latter of which is shown off in spades in this absorbing 2015 staging by director Nikolaus Lehnhoff at Milan’s La Scala. Conductor Riccardo Chailly presides over a startlingly dramatic performance with grand and soaring vocals by soprano Nina Stemme (in the title role), tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko and soprano Maria Agresta. The hi-def video and audio are strong.

DVDs of the Week 
Blush
(Film Movement)
In Michal Vink’s appealng study, teenage loner Naama finds herself irresistibly drawn to free-spirited Dana, and their relationship, which soon goes from friendly to physical, is yet another difficulty in a constricted family life that includes a rebellious older sister. Superb performances by Sivan Noam Shimon and Jade Sakori as the two young women anchor a sensitive drama that explores its thorny subject with tact and subtlety. The lone extra is a short, This Is You and Me, directed by American April Maxey.

The Forest for the Trees
(Film Movement)
Neither the enervating mess of her sophomoric sophomore feature Everyone Else nor the overblown pretentiousness of her breakthrough Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade’s 2005 debut is an engagingly slight comedy about a brand new teacher in over her head. It’s incredibly clumsy at times, with choppy editing and mediocre acting, but there’s enough of a glimmer of talent that makes it more disappointing that Ade hasn’t continued to make more—rather than less—interesting movies. The lone extra is Estes Avenue, a short by the U.K.’s Paul Cotter.

CD Release of the Week 
Weinberg—Chamber Symphonies/String Quintet
(ECM)
Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), whose music has gained wider currency since his death, has had many champions, none more stalwart than violinist Gidon Kremer, who has played and recorded many Weinberg works, and whose stalwart ensemble Kremerata Baltica tackles five of Weinberg’s most imposingly satisfying pieces on a must-hear two-CD set. Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies and piano quintet are performed with a superb ear for detail that doesn’t ignore the overall conceptions of these dramatic and yearning works. Weinberg has been one of the happiest discoveries of the past decade: may Kremer and others continue to bring forth his musical riches.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

February '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Bells Are Ringing
Wait Until Dark
(Warner Archive)
Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1960 musical Bells Are Ringing isn’t among his best confections, but there’s enough of Jules Styne’s lovely score and Judy Holliday’s charm to get by—along with a beguiling mix of old-fashioned romance and New York toughness. Wait Under Dark, Terence Young’s 1967 hit Broadway thriller adaptation, gains traction from Audrey Hepburn’s sympathetic turn as the blind heroine, who outsmarts the bad guys led by a malevolent Alan Arkin in three roles. The movie often verges on self-parody, but Hepburn makes it work. Both films have superlative hi-def color transfers: Bells extras are additional musical numbers and a vintage making-of; lone Dark extra is a vintage making-of.

Come What May
(Cohen Media)
This arresting drama about a cross-section of Europeans dealing with the Nazi takeover of France in 1940 has been directed with skill and a fine sense of realism by Christian Carion, who based his story on his own parents’ travails during the war. An excellent cast inhabits its roles with great authenticity, providing an emotional core to a war film imbued with light amidst the darkness: Ennio Morricone’s lush, old-fashioned score (with an assist from Schubert) and Pierre Cottereau’s pungent photography are standouts. The Blu-ray transfer is exceptional; extras include a Carion commentary and interview, on-set featurette and Morricone music featurette.

Def Leppard—and there will be a next time…Live from Detroit 
Mumford & Sons—Live from South Africa: Dust and Thunder
(Eagle Rock)
Def Leppard, circa 2016, is still an arena headliner, as its Live from Detroit concert release shows: with veteran guitarist Vivian Campbell supplementing the original members (including frontman Joe Elliott’s still soaring vocals), ‘80s hits like “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages,” “Hysteria” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” remain potent and some new tunes blend in well, but the best moment comes during an unexpected cover of David Essex’s “Rock On.” Now one of the biggest live acts on the globe, Mumford & Sons hit South Africa for Dust and Thunder, a buoyant performance in front of thousands of sated fans, as they run through their folk-pop repertoire that includes many favorites and a few new songs, with the audience happily singing along throughout. Both discs have first-rate hi-def video and surround-sound audio.

Loving
(Universal)
The case of Loving v. Virginia—in which an interracial couple got legal married status in the racist state of Virginia by the Supreme Court in 1967—is humanized in Jeff Nichols’ beautifully understated drama, which omits melodramatics and sentimentality for a straightforwardly insightful look at an ordinary couple’s decision to love no matter the consequences. In the title roles, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give master classes in underplaying, in restraint, subtlety and graceful humanity: although Negga got an Oscar nomination, it’s no surprise that the Academy in its usual benightedness saw fit to otherwise ignore Edgerton, Nichols, and one of the best films of 2016. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are a Nichols commentary and short featurettes.

Vice Principals—Complete 1st Season 
(HBO)
Watching two vice-principals wage a campus battle royale when their boss decides to step down to care for his sick wife might seem the stuff of an unfunny Saturday Night Live skit, but it’s actually the premise of a mainly (and disastrously) laughless new series, in which co-creator Danny McBride and Walton Goggins try—and fail—to breathe comic life into a stillborn subject. Even Bill Murray as the principal looks bored and bemused, while the nasty joking flies fast and furiously—but always desperately. The hi-def transfer looks good enough; extras comprise audio commentaries, deleted scenes and blooper reel.

Victoria—Complete 1st Season
(PBS Masterpiece)
Another British-made glimpse at its own royalty, dressed up in sumptuous costumes and unerringly recreated sets, this eight-episode mini-series chronicles Queen Victoria’s first years on the throne, which she ascended as a virginal 18-year-old. Jenna Coleman’s magnificent performance combines royal shrewdness and youthful charm into a portrait of a queen as compelling as Helen Mirren’s vastly different Elizabeth. The impeccable supporting cast is led by Rufus Sewell as one of Victoria’s closest advisors; the series itself looks set for a long run. The fine hi-def transfer combines sharpness and clarity; extras include interviews and featurettes.

DVD of the Week 
Mountain
(First Run)
Zvia, a young Orthodox Jewish wife, discovers what’s beyond her own isolated married existence one night in a cemetery in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, where she witnesses a prostitute servicing a john; her curiosity leads her to make new—and quite unlikely—relationships. Writer-director Yaelle Kayam’s impressive degree of insight and control ensure that her story never comes close to descending into exploitiveness: helping greatly is a strong, subtle performance by Israeli actress Shani Klein as Zvia. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Off-Broadway Review—David Ives’s “The Liar”

The Liar
Adapted by David Ives, based on Corneille’s Le Menteur
Directed by Michael Kahn
Performances through February 26, 2017
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

Ismenia Mendes and Amelia Pedlow in The Liar (photo: Richard Termine)
I cannot tell a lie: David Ives is the funniest playwright in America right now, as The Liar—his, as he calls it, “translaptation” of a 17th century comedy by Frenchman Pierre Corneille—demonstrates again and again for two madcap, and side-splitting, hours.

Ives tinkered with Corneille’s play about a man who cannot tell the truth, and the lies he spins become ever more elaborate until even he can’t tell what he has and hasn’t said. Eager knight Dorante (an amusing Christian Conn) appears in Paris one day and immediately hires Cliton (peerlessly funny Carson Elrod, a longtime Ives collaborator) as his servant—Cliton is the exact opposite of his new master in that he always tells the truth. Right after they agree to terms, two lovely ladies enter: both Clarice (adorable Ismenia Mendes) and Lucrece (headstrong Amelia Pedlow) turn Dorante’s head, even though he speaks only to Clarice, while Cliton talks with Lucrece’s flirty maid Isabelle…or is it her straight-laced twin sister—and Clarice’s maid—Sabine (both played with sass by Kelly Hutchinson)?

As usual with such silliness, Dorante’s lies pile up, Cliton’s truth-telling gets him slapped in the face (he mistakes Sabine for Isabelle on more than occasion), Dorante’s father Geronte (a doggedly goofy Adam Lefevre) plays matchmaker for his son and Lucrece, and Dorante’s swashbuckling friend Alcippe, betrothed to Clarice, challenges him to a duel. By the end of the play—no surprise—all is sorted out and three impending marriages are celebrated.

Ives’ always euphoric wordplay reaches even greater heights with its frothy rhymes and spirited iambic pentameter, all bouncing trippingly off the tongues of a smashing cast that’s been directed by Michael Kahn for maximum comic effect. It’s all frivolous, to be sure, but even in its innocuousness there’s more than a grain of truth to its implication that, for those in a position of power, lying is de rigeur. As Dorante himself admits to the audience:

Maybe Corneille will write me up a play.
Or maybe, with my gifts and disposition,
I’ll emigrate and be a politician.
But think, before you hit the subway booth,
How this was all a lie—and yet the truth.
Impossible? Don’t hurt your spinning head.
Just hie thee happily home and lie—in bed!

The Liar
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January '17 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 
Ballers—Complete 2nd Season
(HBO)
This comedy series about a former NFL player turned financial manager hit its stride in its second season, helped not only by more plausible (and funny) storylines but also the strides Dwayne Johnson has made in his acting, especially his comic chops. There are also plentiful inside jokes about the pro football world and the always hilarious presence of the amazing Rob Corddry as Johnson’s desperate-to-be-hip partner. The ten episodes look fine on Blu; extras are featurettes on each episode.

Black Girl
(Criterion)
Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène made his first feature in 1966, an immensely sympathetic portrait of a young Senegalese woman working for a heartless couple in France. At a scant 59 minutes, Black Girl is a model of compression and illumination; Criterion’s gleaming hi-def transfer is complemented by several contextualizing extras, including a full-length 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema; Sembène’s 1963 debut short, Borom Sarret; scholar/actor interviews; a French TV segment about Sembène’s Cannes Festival win; and a deleted color sequence.

Black Society Trilogy 
(Arrow)
He made his international name with the chilling 1999 vision of horror called Audition, but prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (90-plus films—and counting, at age 56) made earlier works displaying his wide-ranging talent, as this set comprising three of those features—Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999)—demonstrates. The films are creepy and absorbing, with Miike’s stylish visuals leading the way. Arrow’s hi-def transfers are impressive; extras include new interviews with Miike and actor Show Aikawa and audio commentaries on all three films.

The Lair of the White Worm
(Lionsgate)
In Ken Russell’s deliriously silly 1988 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel about an immortal priestess looking for a sacrifice for a snake god (!), Amanda Donahoe gives a giddily campy but erotic portrayal of a woman irresistible to everyone—to their ultimate (and usually fatal) detriment. In her wake, solid actors like Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi end up as mere extras, while Russell’s visual bluster ends up looking diffuse, even if he rouses himself for a bravura—and willfully nonsensical—ending. The film has nicely filmic grain on Blu-ray; extras include a Russell commentary, his wife Lisi’s commentary, interviews with actress Sammi Davis and editor Peter Davies, and a featurette.

Parents 
(Lionsgate)
Is ten-year-old Michael really eating human remains which his mom and dad prepare for dinner, or is his hyperactive imagination simply in overdrive? This intriguing satirical concept became a heavy-handed 1989 black comedy by director Bob Balaban, who never balances the horror and humor. The result is rather pointless and witless, which is too bad, for Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt (parents) and young Bryan Madorsky (Michael) are certainly game. The hi-def transfer is satisfying; extras include interviews with Hurt and cinematographer Robin Vidgeon, Balaban commentary and audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias.

Pinocchio
(Disney Signature Collection)
One of Disney’s most beloved animated features—and its second, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—is this 1940 adaptation of an Italian children’s book about a wooden puppet who comes to life, his master Geppetto and his “conscience” Jiminy Cricket: its appearance on Blu-ray (in a good, not spectacular, hi-def transfer) should be a cause for celebration by audiences of all ages. The movie remains an all-time classic, and Disney has not only ported over extras from earlier DVD editions but has also included brand-new bonus material, including featurettes.

DVDs of the Week 
The Battle of Chosin
(PBS)
In what may be the most engrossing episode yet in the celebrated American Experience series, one of the earliest major battles of the often-forgotten Korean War is explored in often harrowing detail. Newsreels and archival footage, along with interviews with some of the battle’s participants, provide a gripping take on a pivotal time in America’s post-WWII battle against Communist aggression.

Danny Says
(Magnolia)
One of the most original characters to emerge from the rock’n’roll scene, Danny Fields—journalist, publicist, record executive—is the focus of Brendan Toller’s funny and irreverent documentary, which explores Fields’s proximity to seminal events in rock history, from John Lennon’s incendiary “Jesus Christ” quote to the discovery of the Ramones. Fields himself is an often hilarious, always politically incorrect interview subject—even if he outlandishly claims the Beatles weren’t any good—and the archival footage of the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and Patti Smith is priceless. Extras include a Fields post-screening Q&A, additional footage and Toller interview.

CD of the Week 
Renée Fleming—Distant Light
(Decca)
Still opera’s reigning soprano, Renée Fleming has always stretched her artistic and vocal wings through excursions into jazz, big-band, rock and pop, which she continues to do on this CD by combining a classic Samuel Barber work with music by contemporary Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and Icelandic diva Bjork. The results are decidedly mixed: Fleming’s lustrous voice illuminates the gorgeous textures and yearning for the past of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and conductor Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra come to the forefront with the brittle sounds of Hillborg’s haunting The Strand Settings. However, neither Fleming’s impassioned vocals nor solid orchestral playing can rescue the three stillborn Bjork song arrangements.