Friday, February 5, 2016

Interview with Guitarist Russell Javors

The Lords of 52nd Street
February 5, 2016
The Space at Westbury, Westbury, NY

Russell Javors

As rhythm guitarist for Billy Joel during his heyday, Russell Javors played on some of Joel's biggest albums like Glass Houses and An Innocent Man, along with touring the world. Now, some three decades later, Javors has gotten together with Billy Joel band members, drummer Liberty DeVitto and sax player Richie Cannata, as The Lords of 52nd Street. They started playing music together again after reuniting in the fall of 2014 when they were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

Tonight, they play at the Space at Westbury, a make-up show after a snowstorm postponed the original January date. Javors spoke by phone about the new band and that other guy he once worked with.

Kevin Filipski: How did The Lords of 52nd Street come about?
Russell Javors: Well, we really hadn’t thought of it at all: we got together to do the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, and honestly I wasn’t even gonna do it. At first, I didn't have the feeling that anybody cared about it, but it was great getting together and seeing the guys and there was an overwhelming response. It was a part of my life I had moved on from, but now I'm with my brothers again. It all clicked in and was very natural. We hadn't seen each other in ages, but it went over well enough that we thought there might be something there and there’s interest in hearing us. It's funny: I've been playing together with Liberty since I was 15, and we didn't have to think about it. It's natural. It felt that we were like brothers, there's that pulse that we have together. It's nothing complicated: it's chemistry. 

KF: It's a crowded field of tribute bands that you're wading into.
RJ: Yes, there are lots of these kinds of bands out there, and they're good, like the Bigshot band. I had always stayed away from it because I just didn't feel it for awhile, but it's cool that Billy's music is kept alive, even though it’s funny to hear other people play my parts. But people care about this music, and they care about hearing us playing it. The tightrope we have to walk is we're not a tribute band, we are the actual band that played on those records. 

KF: Do you still see Billy Joel?
RJ: A year or two ago, I sat in with him onstage in Florida and before that in Hong Kong, and once in Detroit. It's always good to see everybody, and it's nice how they treat me like family. I'm different now that I was back then: if we made those records now, I might not play them the same way. You don't want to reinvent the wheel, but I look at these songs in a slightly different way now. We were a simple band: our whole mindset was to frame the songs and frame Billy: the song is always king. 

KF: How does it feel to be part of so many songs that touched so many people?
RJ: It's funny: I lived in Hong Kong for years and they have a Bourbon Street-type neighborhood, and I'd walk through and see myself in a video from the '80s. And I realized how much exposure that music had and how much it meant to so many people. You might not think of it that way when you're doing it, but looking back, it was an important part of many people's lives. Billy has earned his accolades with the test of time. I always think of us as Billy's E Street Band. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

February '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Bridge of Spies 
In Steven Spielberg's draggy 2-1/2 hour Cold War drama, Tom Hanks gives an aw-shucks performance as James Donovan, the Brooklyn lawyer who defends a Russian spy and negotiates the release of U2 airplane pilot Gary Powers during a particularly fraught period in U.S.-Russian relations. Although Janusz Kaminski's sepia-tinged photography is masterly as always, Spielberg rarely brings immediacy or tautness to his story; he's too busy forcing present-day parallels in front of the camera. Memorable portrayals by Mark Rylance as the spy and Amy Ryan as Donovan's wife further compromise matters, since they out-act Hanks at every turn. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise four featurettes.

(Anchor Bay)
John Wells' slight but entertaining drama about a hotshot chef who flamed out in Paris and rebuilds his career in London benefits greatly from the chemistry between Bradley Cooper as the chef and always underrated Sienna Miller as his reluctant British protégée. Although too cute by half and consisting of scenes that could have been excised—notably a subplot about our hero and some thugs—the result is a pleasant time-filler. The movie looks fine on Blu; extras include Wells' commentary, deleted scenes, featurette and cast and director Q&A.

Earth's Natural Wonders—Living on the Edge 
For its entire length, this fascinating three-hour mini-series visits some of the most awe-inspiring and spectacular places on earth, like Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Everest, the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls, and explores how their inhabitants (both human and animal) find themselves adapting to the often extreme and unforgiving conditions. From the ocean reefs to the Amazon, from killer bees to man-eating tigers, these programs show off splendid high-definition footage to provide extraordinary views of several amazing locations.

Kansas City Confidential 
(The Film Detective)
Phil Karlson's tough-minded 1952 black and white B-movie (which has been raved about by no less a self-involved movie buff as Quentin Tarantino) tracks the fall-out of a daring armored car heist: an innocent driver looks to avenge himself against those who accused him of being in on the theft. The movie's fast pace as its follows its protagonist to hard-won redemption would work for Karlson's '70s career renaissance with Walking Tall. There's a decent if unspectacular hi-def transfer.

Our Brand Is Crisis 
(Warner Bros)
How political operatives work behind the scenes for their candidates, where winning is everything and losing completely unacceptable, is demonstrated in this intriguing but ultimately self-serving dramatization based on a 2005 documentary about a South American election. Director David Gordon Green never strikes the right balance between satire and seriousness, as witness such meaningless moments as a bus chase through hilly roads and a drunken bar scene. Sandra Bullock seems adrift as Calamity Jane, the professional who helps elect a corrupt politician, and Green's final attempt to inject a moral feels desperate. The movie has a first-class hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Bullock featurette.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—Disney Signature Edition 
Walt Disney's first full-length animated classic, made in 1937, was released on Blu-ray in 2009 in a Diamond edition with a superb hi-def transfer and a plethora of extras; this new Walt Disney Signature series release is unnecessary for anyone with the Diamond disc, but those who don’t have it should pick this up. Some featurettes here weren't included on the Diamond set, while several others from the original aren't included here. At least the first-rate transfer remains.

DVDs of the Week
(Film Movement)
The viciousness of teenage existence is scarifyingly brought to life by director Melanie Laurent in this unsettling adaptation of a book by Anne-Sophie Brasme about two teenagers—wallflower Charlie and boisterous Sarah—who befriend each other, followed by rampant jealousies that change their relationship for good. Laurent follows the girls' shifting dynamics straightforwardly, while the exemplary acting of Josephine Japy and Lou de Laage points the way toward the predictable but still shattering denouement. Extras are interviews with Laurent, Japy and de Laage, and short film Bonne Esperance by French director Kaspar Schiltknecht.

Night Will Fall
(Warner Archive)
The liberation of WWII concentration camps left those who were there marked for life, not only the soldiers but the camera crews and filmmakers who documented these inhumane monuments to Nazi evil. Andre Singer's powerful documentary, recounting the making of one such film by Alfred Hitchcock—which wasn't finished for various reasons until 2014—includes emotional testimony from witnesses about the atrocities they saw 70 years earlier. Extras comprise an interview with historian Rainer Schulze; a Soviet propaganda film about the liberation of Auschwitz; and Death Mills, an American film about the camps co-directed by Billy Wilder.

CD of the Week
Barbara Hannigan—Let Me Tell You 
(BR Klassik)
Written for luminous Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen collaborated with librettist Paul Griffiths on this expressive if diffuse 30-minute vocal piece from the viewpoint of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The words come from the play, although arranged to have a different meaning, and if Abrahamsen's colorful score ultimately lacks depth, Hannigan's brilliant artistry compensates, bringing the character to vividly wise life.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Broadway Review—Linda Lavin in "Our Mother's Brief Affair"

Our Mother's Brief Affair
Written by Richard Greenberg; directed by Lynne Meadow
Performances through March 6, 2016
Gerald Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Greg Keller and Linda Lavin in Our Mother's Brief Affair (photo: Joan Marcus)

For most of its first act, Richard Greenberg's new play Our Mother's Brief Affair ambles along uneventfully as it tells the story of Anna, the 70ish matriarch of a damaged Long Island family, and her two grown (and gay) children, Seth and Abby. Anna, who has been "dying" for years and is once again at death's door, breaks the news to her children that she had a brief but fulfilling affair long ago. 

Then comes a bizarre plot twist, yet another example of the shark-jumping that sometimes afflicts plays and movies around their halfway points: Seth and Abby walk to the front of the stage and explain to the audience just who the distinguished gentleman their mom fell for on a Central Park bench one day really is. 

A long and winding Cold War history lesson ensues, but the fallout for the family—Abby knew about an affair from their long-deceased father, while Seth had already felt betrayed upon discovering that Mom carried on her affair while he was unhappily studying the viola at Juilliard—is nothing compared to the fallout for the audience, as a relatively undistinguished dysfunctional-family comedy is overwhelmed by a plot reveal from out of the blue that sheds no light on either the family dynamic or the historical personages posthumously dragged into it.

As usual, Greenberg writes some amusing and facile dialogue (mainly shticky one-liners) that never digs as deeply into these relationships as it should; everything stays on the surface, so that none of these characters—not even the acid-tongued Anna, played with boisterous brio by Linda Lavin—comes to anything more than fleeting life. On Santo Loquasto's appropriately shape-shifting set, Lynne Meadow's staging still feels scattershot, hamstrung as it is by Greenberg's faulty dramatics, as if two completely separate plays were welded together in the most unwieldy fashion.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

January '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
For his latest scattershot provocation, Spike Lee tackles the incendiary subject of the grievously high murder rate that's literally killing Chicago’s black neighborhoods—hence the punning title that the city is as dangerous as Iraq—and shoehorns in the plot of Aristophanes' play Lysistrata, where women withhold sex until men declare peace. The movie's tagline, "No Peace No Piece," is subtler than Lee’s own take on that pun, while much of the acting is even broader than usual in a Spike Lee Joint. Although his heart is in the right place—and the casting of Teyonah Parris as a sexy and irresistible Lysistrata is inspired—his latest drama is just another long slog of a soapbox. The movie has a first-rate transfer; extras include a music video, deleted and extended scenes and making-of.

Downton Abbey—The Final Season 
Throughout its six seasons, creator-writer Julian Fellowes' smash series about the Crawley clan and its (mainly) loyal servants during several periods of social upheaval has become the most popular PBS series ever aired. And for the final season, it's all there: soap opera-ish contrivances and smothering sentimentality offset by a real sense of period atmosphere and a terrific cast led by Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery upstairs and Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan downstairs. However, a pervading sense of of spinning its wheels validates Fellowes' decision to wrap it up. The series looks smashing on Blu; extras are three featurettes.

The New Girlfriend 
(Cohen Media)
In Francois Ozon's most satisfying movie in years, Romain Duris gives a sensationally charismatic performance as David, a grieving widower whose "sordid" secret is discovered by his dead wife Laura's best friend, Claire, with whom he continues his secret life—until it complicates their own relationship and both of theirs with Claire’s husband Gilles, David's good friend. Besides Duris—whose wounded authenticity transforms David from a mere stunt—Anais Demoustier's Claire is painfully lovely and restrained, Raphael Personnaz's Gilles solidly embodies what on paper is a thankless role. The movie has a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include a 45-minute featurette about Duris' transformation and 10 deleted scenes.

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Volume 1 
(Arrow USA)
The three Japanese films in this set—Seijun Suzuki's Voice Without a Shadow (1958), Toshio Masuda's Red Pier (1958) and Buichi Saito's The Rambling Guitarist (1959)—are fast-paced crime dramas starring such young stars at the time as Hideaki Natani, Yujiro Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi. Since the Nikkatsu studio pumped out a lot of these genre flicks, there will undoubtedly be a few more volumes coming. All three movies’ new hi-def transfers look very good, and the extras include video essays.

The Ritchie Blackmore Story 
(Eagle Rock)
Legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s estimable career, comprising Deep Purple and his indelible "Smoke on the Water" riff, his next band Rainbow and today's pairing with his long-time girlfriend for medieval songs, is ably recounted in this straightforward documentary. Extolling Blackmore’s creative genius are fellow band members, rock analysts and guitar contemporaries like Brian May, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Plentiful musical footage dominates this entertaining overview of a classic artist. The image looks fine; extras are added interviews.

DVD of the Week
Meet the Patels 
In this disarming documentary, sister-brother directors Geeta and Ravi Patel show how their conservative Indian parents deal with Ravi not being married: he even hid his long-term white girlfriend from them, then broke up with her, to avoid having them meet her. He humors his parents by going along with their matchmaking, and the movie presents the Patels as a real family that has balanced the traditional and the modern, and Ravi himself is a charming guide as he deftly negotiates this world.

CD of the Week
Scriabin—Symphonies 3 & 4 
(LSO Live)
Russian composer Alexander Scriabin's interest in a kind of opaque mysticism and occult spirituality is in evidence in sometimes erratic but often ecstatic music, of which these two symphonies are prime examples, especially as played with vigor by conductor Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra in a pair of propulsive live performances. Both symphonies are musical poems; the third, The Divine Poem, is an exhilarating juggernaut of swirling orchestral colors, while the compact fourth, The Poem of Ecstasy, presents Scriabin in his maturity, using fewer means to achieve the same artistic ends.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

January '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Die Freischutz 
(Unitel Classica)
One of the staples of the German operatic repertory, Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 classic drama—which concerns a would-be marksman, the young woman he loves and seven magic bullets—is shot through with romantic musical moments. This 2015 Dresden production, while fairly unremarkable as far as story, setting and atmosphere, has illuminating orchestral playing under conductor Christian Thielemann and, in an accomplished cast, Sara Jakubiak superbly plays Agathe, the female lead. This performance looks and sounds tremendous in hi-def.

The Intern 
(Warner Bros)
Nancy Meyers makes movies filled with juvenile comedy masquerading as adult, phony dramatics straining for significance and an unchecked sentimentality that floods the entire enterprise; her new effort is no exception. After retired widower Robert DeNiro begins interning at a hip company for hard-driving boss Anne Hathaway, the odd couple gradually learns life lessons from each other: despite their professionalism, DeNiro and Hathaway can't overcome their writer-director's inadequacies. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras are three featurettes.

King Roger 
(Opus Arte)
One of the great 20th century operas, Polish master Karol Szymanowski's compact 90-minute masterpiece is crammed with tautly unsettling music and a strangely compelling story that nods to ancient myths and Arabic musical idioms. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien makes a commanding Roger and American soprano Georgia Jarman nearly equals him as the queen; but dominating Kasper Holten's fluid staging is the orchestra’s magnificent playing of Szymanowski's hypnotic score under conductor Antonio Pappano.

The Toxic Avenger Collection
Believe it or not, there are not one, not two, not three, but four Toxic Avenger movies, each more ludicrously amateurish than the previous installment, but that's how Lloyd Kaufman likes it:  the willful ineptitude on display comprises incredibly fake mutilations and disembowelments, coupled with horrible non-acting and cheesy makeup. But the movies enjoy a cult status that stems from the onscreen ridiculousness and, admittedly, there's a certain fascination in watching it all unfold. The hi-def transfers look decent; extras include commentaries, interviews, featurettes and a two-hour making-of mockumentary about the fourth film. 

DVD of the Week
Hate Crimes in the Heartland 
(Virgil Films)
Rachel Lyon's thought-provoking documentary examines two racially motivated crimes in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which occurred nearly a century apart: 1921’s Tulsa Race Riot was led by murderous white supremacists, followed by random 2012 killings of several innocent blacks at the hands of two white men. Although the film's brevity (it clocks in at under an hour), it makes distinct parallels that add up to a salient statement on American race relations, which hasn't progressed as far as we've liked in the past 100 years.

CDs of the Week
Alfredo Casella—Orchestral Works, Vol. 4 
One of the unsung Italian composers of the first half of the 20th century, Alfredo Casella was facile proficient in many genres, even—as the latest volume in a series of Chandos discs shows—though his greatest facility was for orchestral music, three early examples of which are heard here. The excellent BBC Philharmonic, under Gianandrea Noseda's sensitive conducting, performs Casella's Russian-accented Symphony No. 1, gracefully balletic Symphonic Fragments, and haunting Elegia eroica.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg—Violin Sonatas 
(CD Accord) 
Already showing up on many recordings in a classical market that if anything seems relegated to regurgitating the tried and true standards, Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg—who died in 1996 in relative obscurity—has deservedly become a composer of stature, with every new CD of his music consolidating that argument. Here, violinist Maria Slawek and pianist Piotr Rozanski give exceptional performances of some of Weinberg's violin-piano works, including the fiercely hard-nosed Sonata No. 4 and the expansive Sonata No. 5.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Broadway Review—Michael Frayn's "Noises Off"

Noises Off
Written by Michael Frayn; Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Opens January 14, 2016
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Megan Hilty, David Furr and Jeremy Shamos in Noises Off (photo: Joan Marcus)
One of the funniest plays of this or any year, Michael Frayn’s fiendishly clever Noises Off (first on Broadway in 1983, then again in 2001) is a farcical deconstruction of the first rank whose set-up is simple: actors stumble through a rehearsal of something called Nothing On as their incredulous director wonders whether they will actually make it through the first performance the following night.

The genius of Noises Off is that Frayn's characters don't just run around and slam doors for two-plus hours: they do much more, as the three acts slyly feed off one another so that, in Act II, we see what goes on backstage during a performance, as the actors' personal lives intrude backstage (but never onstage) to brilliant comic effect. Later, Act III presents the play-within onstage again, now raggedly played after months of exhausting touring: everything that can does go wrong, even more frantically than in Act I.

In Frayn's expert hands, the laughs keep coming...and coming: he has written with such controlled comic intensity for his nine actors—seven players, one director and the stage assistant having an affair with him (other offstage pairings lead to more hilarious complications onstage and backstage)—that it's possible to miss something happening to some characters because one is following others. 

Director Jeremy Herrin's superlative staging mines Frayn's crammed script for every one of its minute details, all on Derek McLane's extraordinary set, which becomes yet another character with its very slammable doors and its slippery staircases onstage and backstage that are cause many a pratfall. If Act III dips somewhat, it's only because Act I is a procession of wonderfully observed mishaps while the largely wordless Act II is an unequaled display of slapstick that even the best mimes could only hope to equal. Act III, conversely, rehashes what we've already seen while showing the implausibility of what occurs onstage since we've already seen the farcical machinery at work, so some of the entrances and exits don't make sense. But really, in the end, who cares?

Herrin—whose two-part production of Wolf Hall was a highlight of last season—again shows his unsurpassed ability to corral a large cast into an imposing, singleminded juggernaut. As Belinda, an accomplished, haughty actress, Kate Jennings Grant remains delightfully levelheaded throughout the ever-increasing lunacy. As Tim, the befuddled stagehand roped into understudy duties, Rob McClure again shows off his physical comedy flair from the ill-fated Chaplin musical a few seasons back: his entire body shaking and quaking in fear is priceless hilarity.

If Daniel Davis gives soused, over-the-hill star Selsdon Mowbray (a great name!) an irresistibly tainted aura of a past master gone to seed, only Tracee Chimo marks a sour note by overplaying how pathetic assistant Poppy is, making her far less funny and poignant than she should be. As the play-within's actors, clueless Garry and wimpy Frederick, David Furr and Jeremy Shamos provide endless chortles while mangling lines (Garry) and getting nose bleeds whenever things get too hectic (Frederick).

As aging leading lady Dotty, Andrea Martin is deliciously daffy whether wielding a phone, a newspaper or a plate of sardines (all of which figure heavily in the play-within), and Campbell Scott is winningly sardonic as director Lloyd, juggling his own career and his fraught relationships with Poppy and Brooke, the bimbo to end all blond bimbos. 

Brooke is enacted so commandingly by Megan Hilty that she may plausibly claim the title of our best stage comedienne. Not only does Hilty do the obvious things right—she looks stunning in her barely-there wardrobe and acts as brainlessly as any Marilyn Monroe double should—but she projects subtlety in her movements, the stiff gesticulations, the mouthing of other actors' words so she knows when to speak next, or the crawling around the stage whenever she loses a contact lens.

As peerless as the cast of this unmissable revival of Noises Off is, Hilty provides a comedic acting class by herself.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

January '16 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The American Friend 
In Wim Wenders' accomplished 1977 adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, the shabbiest locales in New York, Paris and Hamburg are stars of a slow-building but ultimately gripping crime drama that centers around Ripley, played by Dennis Hopper, whose usual insouciance is only partially counterbalanced by an uncommanding Bruno Ganz as his opposite number. Wenders toys with film noir clichés as he uncoils the mystery behind Ripley's game. Criterion's new transfer is luminous; extras comprise Wenders' and Hopper's commentary, deleted scenes with Wenders' commentary and Ganz and Wenders interviews.

Irrational Man 
(Sony Classics)
Woody Allen's semi-rewrite of his own Match Point follows a philosophy professor who creates a perfect murder scenario with no moral complications—and soon finds the opportunity to test out his thesis. Shorn of anything resembling credible characterization, subplots or even atmosphere—the college town setting is appropriately generic—the drama marches straight ahead from A to B, which is the movie's saving grace. Woody follows his theorist in action in a clinical, detached way, and Joaquin Phoenix (prof) and Emma Stone (student turned paramour) work well within his minimalist mindset. Darius Khondji's  cinematography shimmers in hi-def; lone extra is a red-carpet featurette.

Sinister 2 
I doubt that missing the original Sinister is a disadvantage in assessing yet another attempt at the tired found-footage horror movie, but this sequel lulls the viewer into a stupor for 90 minutes before rousing itself for an effective, if nonsensical, climax involving the demonized young protagonist-videographer and his terrified family. Despite that unsettling few minutes, the movie is not particularly arresting overall, despite a nice performance by Shannyn Sossamon as the mom. There's a good hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, featurette and director commentary.

DVDs of the Week
The American Invasion
Frontline—Immigration Battle 
The American Invasion, a persuasive history lesson, tells the true story of the U.S. airmen who went overseas after we joined the war on the Allied side to help keep the Brits safe from Nazi sorties, with many casualties but also the eternal gratitude of those who were protected by the selfless Yanks. The must-see PBS series Frontline jumped into the Congressional fray in Immigration Battle, investigating what happened on both sides of the aisle in a unique attempt at bipartisanship after Obama's re-election to come up with a comprehensive immigration plan. Although we know what did (or didn't) happen, this behind-the-scenes peek at political maneuvering is a riveting 90 minutes.

The New Rijksmuseum 
The Storm Makers 
(First Run)
The New Rijksmuseum, Oeke Hoogendijk's exhaustive account of the great Amsterdam art institution's 10-year renovation, is an extraordinary achievement in its original four-hour version. Here, at a streamlined two-plus hours, we get some sense of what went on behind the scenes, but without the director's original vision, the decade-long struggles to finish what was scheduled to take five years are only hinted at. In The Storm Makers, director Guillaume Suon exposes the 21st century slave trade in his native Cambodia, telling the heartrending story of one young woman as he shows the chillingly matter-of-fact confessions of a couple of unrepentant "capitalists."

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

January '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
While writer-director Michael Almereyda relies too heavily on gimmickry like rear projection, direct camera address and (literally) an elephant in the room, he has made an intelligent biopic about psychologist Stanley Milgram and his controversial behavioral experiments. Peter Sarsgaard’s commandingly aloof and brooding Milgram, Winona Ryder’s welcome return as his faithful wife and nicely turned appearances by Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards, Josh Hamilton and Taryn Manning greatly assist. The movie looks good on Blu; extras comprise featurettes and an interview with Milgram’s brother.

The Green Inferno 
As usual, director Eli Roth takes a workable premise—naively idealistic students take a trip to the rainforest to defend tribes from greedy developers—and turns the horrors they discover to the most ridiculous extremes. Fans of his movies may not squirm throughout the by-numbers plotting and extensively gory bloodlettings, but even they may shrug at Roth's final, tepid twist that places his heroine in an unflattering light. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; lone extra is a commentary.

Infinitely Polar Bear 
Mark Ruffalo gives a powerful and sympathetic portrayal of a husband and father whose bi-polar condition makes for fraught relationships with his loving daughters and wife in this sensitive but unsentimental drama based on writer-director Maya Forbes's own dad. Although his full-bodied performance is anything but an obvious star turn, Ruffalo is superbly complemented by the wonderful Zoe Saldana as his wife and two remarkable young actresses as his daughters: Ashley Aufderheide and the director's own daughter Imogene Wolodarsky, basically playing her own mother dealing with her own grandfather's difficulties. The Blu-ray transfer is exceptional; extras are a commentary, deleted scenes and Q&A.

The Visit 
After many years (and films) in the wilderness following his breakout The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan has thrown in the towel and jumped on the found-footage bandwagon with this lukewarm thriller pitting two kids against their grandparents, whom they discover to be nothing like how their mother remembered them while she was growing up. The problem, apart from this genre’s inherent silliness, is that the kids’ mom—who hadn’t seen her own parents since she left home years earlier—assumes that having them visit would have no complications: the movie proceeds to pile up implausibilities faster than you can spell Shyamalan. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are an alternate ending, deleted scenes, and a making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Jenny's Wedding 
For a movie that was dumped onto DVD with little fanfare, Mary Agnes Donoghue’s dramedy about a successful young woman who decides to out herself to her family by announcing her marriage to her long-time girlfriend is serviceable entertainment. With a top cast—Tom Wilkinson and Linda Emond are unsurprisingly excellent as the parents, while Katherine Heigl gives a robust performance as Jenny—the movie passes by harmlessly, coming to a satisfying conclusion with minimal maudlin or sappiness. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Divide in Concord 
(First Run)
In 1971, director Johanna Hamilton chronicles the break-in of a Pennsylvania FBI office during the height of the Vietnam War: those responsible not only made public secret documents about illegal surveillance, but they eluded authorities for the next four-plus decades. Hamilton has caught up to them: her absorbing look at a politically fraught era features interviews with the men and women who did it, and raises still-pertinent questions about our own culture of paranoia and secrecy; the lone extra, an hour-long post-screening Q&A, features none other than Edward Snowden.

A microcosm of our society's widening societal gap, Kris Kaczor's Divide in Concord is a heartening documentary about Jean Hill, who in her ninth decade fights the good fight by spearheading a bill that bans water bottles from being sold in Concord, Mass: this plucky David goes up against many Goliaths, from local businesses and shrill activists to water bottle corporations themselves. 

Tokyo Fiancée 
(First Run)
Amelie arrives in Tokyo to teach French, fulfilling a cherished dream since she was young: and when she falls in love with her first (and seemingly only) student, it complicates many things both about their relationship and how she's decided to live her life. Director Stefan Liberski's fey romantic comedy is too often forced, and the heroine’s name is too obviously a nod toward the Audrey Tautou Amelie that's the blueprint for this kind of you-either-love-it-or-hate-it movie. Even though it moves into darker territory, weird whimsy predominates, centered on Pauline Etienne's boyish appeal.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Theater Reviews—Broadway Musical “The Color Purple”; Off-Broadway Play “Steve”

The Color Purple
Music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis & Stephen Bray; book by Marsha Norman
Directed by John Doyle
Opened December 10, 2015
Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Written by Mark Gerrard; Directed by Cynthia Nixon
Closes January 3, 2016
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

The cast of The Color Purple (photo by Matthew Murphy)

There didn't seem to be any compelling reason to revive the musical The Color Purple—especially in John Doyle's typically sterile staging—at least until British actress Cynthia Erivo, as Celie, the downtrodden but resourceful heroine of Alice Walker's tough but poetic novel and Steven Spielberg's more sentimental movie adaptation, holds forth for her 11 o'clock number, “I’m Here.”

Erivo—who gives a poignant portrayal of a woman who has been impregnated by her father, had her babies taken away from her, has been beaten and dehumanized by her abusive husband Mister and has had her beloved sister Nettie banned from ever seeing her again—slowly builds Celie's declaration of independence until she belts out the liberating words the audience has wanted to hear for more than two hours. Erivo delivers the goods, bringing the dramatically bumpy show to a rousing, and cathartic, climax.

Thanks mainly to Erivo, The Color Purple works as well onstage as onscreen. Although Marsha Norman's book adroitly streamlines events in Walker's novel—primarily written in Celie’s voice as letters to God, obviously tough to recreate in the film or in the theater—the story as shown never entirely escapes its soap opera-ish leanings. The songs of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray skillfully range across a variety of genres, from gospel to blues to jazz to romantic balladry, with occasional moments of heartfelt power. 

Director John Doyle came to prominence through gimmicky Sondheim revivals with performers playing their own instruments onstage; shrewdly, he then changed to productions set against foreboding, often massive backdrops, from the ugly wall overwhelming his disastrous Metropolitan Opera Peter Grimes to the grey, decaying city of Broadway’s The Visit last spring. For Purple, Doyle has designed an imposing wall made of wooden planks, with several chairs jutting out from it at different heights. Other chairs are the only furniture available for the characters to sit on; what this has to do with Celie’s drama is anyone's guess: and, although it quickly gets tiresome, for a few moments the set does have a pleasing look.

In an accomplished cast—of the men, Kyle Scatliffe stands out as a sympathetic Harpo, Mister's grown son—the spectacular voices make the music and drama soar. As Harpo's wife Sofia (Oprah Winfrey’s role in the movie), Danielle Brooks is over the top but never gratuitously so, with a powerhouse voice to match; as famed singer Shug Avery, who bewitches Mister and Celie and everyone in between, Jennifer Hudson shows off her amazingly controlled vocals, even if her ability to act like a sex symbol leaves something to be desired. And, as mentioned before, Erivo is a flat-out unstoppable Celie, equaling LaChanze and Fantasia’s turns in the initial Broadway production.

The cast of Steve (photo by Monique Carboni)

Steve—Mark Gerrard's comedy and the second play this fall to track gay fathers through the minefields of contemporary Manhattan (after the wiser and less wisecracking Dada Woof Papa Hot)—is simply too clever for its own good.

The main couple, Stephen and Steven, have a young kleptomaniac son, whose theft of Stephen's cell phone allows Steven to discover that Stephen has been sexting with one of their closest friends, Brian, long-time lover of another close friend, Matt; this causes Steven to have a dalliance with a younger, gorgeous dancer/waiter Esteban. In addition, the main quartet's lesbian BFF, the endlessly snarky Carrie, is dying of cancer. All of this allows Gerrard the chance to display gallows humor, which at times is funny but is mostly gratuitous. And the play must also set some kind of record for how many inside theater jokes and insults can be flung in 90 minutes. Again, some of these sting amusingly while others simply wither and die.

As schizophrenic as Gerrard's script is (there are actually four characters named some variation of Steve, including an unseen—but hot—trainer at the local gym with whom Brian and Matt end up cohabitating), director Cynthia Nixon shows a remarkable ability to orchestrate the madness into a semblance of coherence; when she can't, there are bouncy theater tunes that the cast performs with aplomb, even at the curtain call. Nixon’s harmonious cast—Matt McGrath (Steven), Malcolm Gets (Stephen), Mario Cantone (Matt), Jerry Dixon (Brian), Ashley Atkinson (Carrie)—goes above and beyond to make Steve broadly entertaining, if rarely insightful

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

December '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Blood Rage 
Opening with a 10-year-old fatally stabbing a fornicating man at a drive-in, John Grissmer's 1987 slasher flick doesn't blink from the get-go, especially when the kid is released 10 years later: but was it he or his twin brother who's the real killer? Gleefully gore-filled—Ed French's inventively cheesy effects culminate with a head split in two—Blood stars Louise Lasser, TV's Mary Hartman, as the boys' deranged mother, and features the usual sex leading to death, as it always does in these movies. An R-rated version, Nightmares at Shadow Woods, and a version comprising both cuts are included; the hi-def transfers look terrific, and extras include Grissmer’s commentary and interviews with Lasser, other actors and makeup artist French. 

(Warner Bros)
This noisy, messy contraption purports to tell how Peter Pan met Captain Hook and took on Bluebeard before J.M. Barrie's original story begins. Although young Levi Miller makes an ingratiating Peter, Hugh Jackman is a hammy Bluebeard and Rooney Mara is as dull as ever as Tiger Lily. Then there's director Joe Wright, whose tone wavers so that his movie uncomfortably swings between loud, lumbering set pieces and quiet moments that barely register. Too bad: in the right hands Pan could have been charming rather than something to be panned. On Blu-ray, it all looks incredible; extras include Wright’s commentary and featurettes.

Time Out of Mind 
Oren Moverman's earnest homeless drama has its heart in the right place but ends up a feel-good film about a middle-aged man forced to wandering New York's streets and finding some hope in the form of his estranged daughter. Richard Gere does his best to seem mentally and physically run-down, but he looks more like a man who simply hasn't shaved for a few days: in support, Ben Vereen and Kyra Sedgwick are far more persuasively homeless. The movie has a fine hi-def transfer; extras are a featurette and Gere PSA.

DVDs of the Week
Queen of Earth 
As a woman devastated by her father's death and boyfriend's unexpected betrayal, Elisabeth Moss is alternately exasperated and angry or docile and distant, but she can't turn such disparate elements into a coherent whole in Alex Ross Perry’s slender study content to display petty outbursts sans any psychological complexity. Katharine Waterston is sensational as the best friend discovering how difficult it is to help our heroine recover, but despite both actresses, Perry relies too heavily on Keegan DeWitt's derivative score, uncomfortably reminiscent of Penderecki’s eerie Shining music, which fails to transform Queen into a horror movie of the soul. Extras are a commentary by Perry and Moss and a making-of featurette.

Xmas Without China 
Can an American family celebrate Christmas without having anything in their house that was made in China? That question hangs over director Alicia Dwyer's lively, incisive documentary about how much cheap products are part of our daily lives: after awhile, the family talked into becoming part of this experiment openly questions why they are doing it, since it's basically ruining their holiday—and their lives. Tom Xia, who came up with this challenge, also introduces his Chinese family, whose dual allegiances provide more sets of eyes open to the cultural clash of identity and consumerism.

CD of the Week
The Wiz—Live! 
For its third live musical telecast, NBC resurrected the hip 1975 Wizard of Oz update that was a Broadway hit with Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and a bomb onscreen in 1978 with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, despite director Sidney Lumet’s inventive use of familiar New York locations. The latest version, populated by an eclectic but very able cast, has a cameo by Mills and the good sense not to give a disastrous Common any more screen time than he deserves. Happily, the singing is often on-target (Queen Latifah, Ne-Yo, Uzo Aduba) and sometimes more than that, especially from the powerhouse 19-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Music--New York Pops Concert and CDs

Brian d'Arcy James and Stephanie J. Block with conductor Steven Reineke and The New York Pops (photo: Richard Termine)

This month's uncommonly mild weather has made it seem more like late spring rather than the holiday season, so the New York Pops’ annual Christmas concerts at Carnegie Hall (December 18 and 19) were a needed antidote. It’s Christmas Time in the City was a wonderfully festive display of great singing and music-making led by Pops music director Steven Reineke, featuring the orchestra, Broadway veterans Stephanie J. Block and Brian d’Arcy James and the chorus Essential Voices USA.

Although Block’s effusive personality threatened to overwhelm the show, happily she hammed it up only during the “Holiday Hits Medley” when she out-Mariahed Mariah Carey on “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Her emotional rendition of Wesley Wheatley and Bill Schermerhorn’s affecting “Yes, Virginia” (in which she mentioned her own newborn daughter) was a highlight, as was her easy rapport with d’Arcy James on their duets “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” 

D'Arcy James also brought his A game, with engagingly unadorned renditions of “The Christmas Song” and “Silver Bells,” but his best moment came with a song he wrote about his hometown of Saginaw, “Michigan Christmas,” which was heartfelt without being the least bit sentimental.

Essential Voices USA dominated from the opening, a rousing “Deck the Halls.” The evening's lone quibble was monstrously over-orchestrated versions of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “O Holy Night,” whose orchestral swellings all but buried the chorus’ excellent work (and in the latter, Block’s ringing high notes). But orchestra and singers came together beautifully for a final singalong of sacred carols that sent the satisfied audience out into the uncharacteristically cold night humming, happy and ready for December 25.

Holiday CDs
Ann Hampton Callaway—The Hope of Christmas 
(MCG Jazz)
Putting together a disc of all-new Christmas songs is a daring endeavor, so this collaboration of singer Ann Hampton Callaway and lyricist William Schermerhorn scores right off the bat. Schermerhorn's lyrics, spirited or wistful or amusing or romantic in turn, are the perfect complement to Callaway's warm singing on these 12 new tunes. Callaway herself wrote the music for the hopeful title track and the personal final song, "Fly with the Angels." The whipsmart jazz arrangements, performed by an exemplary ensemble, give this recording a pleasing seasonal vibe.

December Celebration 
This collection of new Christmas carols by seven American composers spans generations from William Bolcom, John Corigliano and Gordon Getty to Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, whose song cycle On the Road to Christmas delightfully resurrects old tunes next to new ones that work well within the seasonal tradition. Also memorable and likely to last are David Garner's Three Carols and Luna Pearl Woolf's How Bright the Darkness; soprano Lisa Delan and baritone Lester Lynch, conductor Dawn Harms and pianist Steven Bailey are the impeccable musicians. 

Paul Hindemith—The Long Christmas Dinner 
In his melodious musicalization of Thornton Wilder's one-act drama of Americana, German composer Paul Hindemith created a miniature masterpiece that would turn out to be his last opera (he died in 1963, two years after its premiere), and its musical subtleties mirror those of Wilder's insightful play about one family over a period of nearly a century. In this, astonishingly the opera's first English-language recording, conductor Leon Botstein leads an ideal reading that captures the work's emotions with gentle understatement.

Ottorino Respighi—Lauda per la Nativita del Signore 
Although there are motets for unaccompanied choir on this disc—including the four Francis Poulenc motets that are justly famous seasonal works—this recording's highlight is Ottorino Respighi's Lauda, a rarely-heard Christmas cantata of real substance and heightened dramatic power. It was Respighi's lone sacred composition in a long and distinguished career. 

Patty Smyth—Come on December
(Parallel 22)
For her first holiday album (actually more of an EP, since it's only eight songs), Scandal singer Patty Smyth confidently makes her way through five familiar classics and three new tunes, none of which will enter the canon of Christmas classics. Smyth—a magnificently controlled singer who has never received the respect and admiration she deserves (compare that to the out-of-control panegyrics that greeted Adele's new album)—makes even the less memorable songs like "Walk with Me" and the title track shine, and she makes standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" her own.