Thursday, January 29, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"Da," "The Road to Damascus"

Da
Written by Hugh Leonard; directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances through March 8, 2015
Irish Rep, 103 East 15th Street, New York, NY
irishrep.org

The Road to Damascus
Written by Tom Dulack; directed by Michael Parva
Performances through March 1, 2015
New York Theatre Workshop, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
59e59.org

O'Reilly and O'Brien in Da (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Hugh Leonard's intimate memory piece, Da, is an affecting comic drama unashamed to wear its heart on its sleeve. In this lovely elegy to his own father, Leonard paints an achingly personal portrait of a son remembering his 'da' with complicated and conflicted emotions: Charlie Tynan, while sifting through his dad's belongings following the old man's funeral, is visited by both his father's ghost and his own memories of life with his parents while growing up in that same house. 

Throughout, Da is funny and joyous, sad and painful, at times ponderous and slow-going, but always real and humane: in short, it honestly conveys one man's relationships with his parents—and especially with his hard-headed but not hard-hearted father—in a way that allows every audience member to see the universal truths that Leonard shows so unpretentiously.

The Irish Rep's lively production, under Charlotte Moore's precise direction, is led by two forceful performances: Ciaran O'Reilly as the exasperated Charlie and Paul O'Brien as a jovial Da, capture the humanity that makes Leonard's 1978 Tony Award-winning play memorable.

Polonsky and Collins in The Road to Damascus (photo: Carol Rosegg)
In the not too distant future, Islamic terrorist groups are still overrunning the Middle East, especially Syria. And, after midtown Manhattan is shaken by a deadly bombing that's been traced back to Syria, the new American president—the first third-party winner in decades—weighs his few options, which include a devastatingly lethal strike on the capital city of Damascus. However, the brand new (and first) African pope has made it clear that he will go to Damascus as a human shield if American bombs go off in retaliation for the New York terrorist attack. 

So goes The Road to Damascus, a new play by Tom Dulack, which shows a future U.S. and world not far removed from our own, in which our current global crises are given greater urgency, and where terrorists and statesmen are strange, if sometimes unwilling, bedfellows. Our nominal hero is State Department agent Dexter Hobhouse, who's on friendly terms with the Pope's closest advisor, Roberto Guzman, who alerts him to His Holiness's decision about Syria, while Pope Augustine is friendly with a popular international journalist of Chechen Muslim extraction, Nadia Kirilenko, who's also (no surprise here) Dexter's lover. When Hobhouse disappears after meeting the Pope in Rome, both State and the NSA try and figure out whether he has jumped to the other side.

Dulack writes scenes of palpable tension and excitement, tautly building the drama to its breaking point. Don't expect any insights about how politics, religion and terrorism intersect, but rather enjoy a perfectly paced thriller that's compelling and all too pertinent, thanks in large part to Michael Parva's confident direction, Brittany Vasta's clever sets and Graham Kindred's magnificent lighting. The sterling company of actors—led by Rufus Collins' properly frumpy Dexter, Larisa Polonsky's sexy and ruthless Nadia and Liza Vann's foul-mouthed NSA agent Bree Benson—is the icing on a very entertaining, if unsettling, cake.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Adua and Her Friends 
(Raro/Kino)
Antonio Pietrangeli's 1960 neo-realist drama—which sympathetically follows a quartet of prostitutes who decide to open a restaurant when a new Rome law closes all of the city's bordellos—sounds treacly and melodramatic in the extreme. But Pietrangeli's sensitive direction, assisted by the wonderfully realistic portrayals of Simone Signoret, Emmanuelle Riva, Sandra Milo and Gino Revere as the women, provides a powerful dramatic trajectory for this compassionate and insightful character study. The B&W film's transfer looks good enough if a bit waxy; extras include an introduction and Pietrangeli short.

By the Gun 
(Millennium)
"By the numbers" more accurately describes this wheels-spinning crime drama about a flashy young gangster (Ben Barnes) doing things on his own—including picking up the adorable daughter (Leighton Meester) of a rival—against his boss's wishes. Director James Mottern and writer Emilio Mauro follow the blueprints of other, better films, but do little more than make a hollow recreation of them, drowning veteran actors like Harvey Keitel and Toby Jones in a tsunami of banalities. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras are a commentary and deleted scenes.

La Cienaga 
(Criterion)
Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's auspicious debut feature is a blackly comic 2001 exploration of a bourgeois extended family dealing with hidden tensions that threaten to bubble up to the surface. Although there is more provocation than substance in her visual and dramatic symbolism, at least Martel was onto something interesting, which unfortunately was not followed through with her increasingly hermetic films The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman. The Criterion hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andrés Di Tella.

Downton Abbey—Complete 5th Season 
(PBS)
The final season of the PBS/Masterpiece smash hit comprises nine episodes that wrap up the various story strands, from an ongoing murder investigation to a wedding and a farewell. Although there is some obviousness in the writing—a discussion of someone named Hitler and his new group the Nazis is an example of 20/20 hindsight—that's a mere quibble when the production values remain impeccable, the acting generally outstanding and the storytelling sheerly entertaining. The hi-def transfer looks smashingly good indeed; extras are three featurettes.

The Drop 
(Fox)
The late James Gandolfini—who seems to be in more films since he died than before—is at his disheveled best in this violent, uneven but generally compelling crime drama by writer Dennis Lehane, playing a bartender in a drop bar who doesn't trust his partner after a suspicious robbery. Although he could have played the role in his sleep, Gandolfini has a formidable presence that outshines costar Tom Hardy's sleepy sidekick; happily, chameleon actress Noomi Rapace is also on hand, and her performance makes us forget how ludicrously implausible her character is. Director Michael R. Roskam has a good eye for Brooklyn locations; the Blu-ray looks solid and extras are Roskam/Lehane's commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
All Neat in Black Stockings 
(Warner Archive)
This late-'60s artifact came out in the wake of such successful farces as The Knack and Alfie, which show a young man seducing attractive "birds" without a thought, until he meets a young woman who turns his head and stops him in his tracks. Victor Henry plays a window washer ladies' man who is upended by the bird played by Susan George, one of the most delectable bits of typecasting in movie history. The comedy is creaky, the sentiments sexist, but it works, mostly due to Henry and George's chemistry.

Art & Craft 
Coherence 
(Oscilloscope)
Mark Landis, who donated his own forgeries of master paintings to museums as gifts, is chronicled in Art & Craft, Sam Cullman,  Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker's eye-opening documentary exploring the complications of art forgery, mainly through the eyes of Matt Leininger, who exposes Landis's chicanery. In Coherence, four couples at a dinner party discover, as a comet flies overhead, that theirs is one of many realities; as Twilight Zone ripoffs go, it's an OK diversion, but writer-director James Ward Birkit trips himself up trying to outsmart viewers. Art extras are commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, Q&A; Coherence extras are commentary, behind the scenes featurettes.

Bird People 
(IFC)
For the first two-thirds of its two-hour running time, Pascale Ferran's ambitious character study of two lonely people—an American businessman and a French cleaning woman—who don't meet until the very end is beguiling in how it displays the minutiae of their lives through an exhilarating combination of formal precision and alternating narratives. But when the film's heroine (played by the always excellent Anais Demoustier) transforms into one of the title creatures, all bets are off, and Ferran's movie limps along to an enervating, diffuse, predictable finale.


The Green Prince 
(Music Box)
In the impossible-to-believe-it's-true category is this forcefully engrossing documentary portrait of Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian whose father was a Hamas leader and who became, against all odds (and even credulity), an informant for Israel's version of the FBI, Shin Bet, under the auspices of agent Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Director Nadav Scirman adroitly explores the dynamic—and dynamite—relationship between the two men, an unlikely pairing that throws a wrench into the accepted narrative of the Middle East's political situation. Extras include interviews and featurettes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Genesis—Sum of the Parts 
(Eagle Rock)
For a band formed in the late '60s that went through numerous personnel changes—notably the loss of its dynamic lead singer and, as his replacement, the drummer who led the group to its greatest commerical heights—these classic British art-rockers don't get their deserved deluxe treatment: instead, this is a straightforward 90-minute documentary about a long, winding and storied career. At least everyone is present and accounted for, starting with Peter Gabriel, who for so long wanted little to do with his fomer mates; Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett round out a lively discussion that, while only skimming the surface, hits the right notes. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras are additional interviews.

Jessabelle 
(Lionsgate)
This routine paranormal thriller follows a young woman—scarred from a car crash that killed her boyfriend—who returns to her family home and becomes haunted by her long-dead mother's spirit, through which she discovers unsavory secrets her father prefers to remain buried. Director Kevin Greutert leaves no cliched unturned, while Sarah Snook plays the victimized woman as gracefully as possible under the underwhelming circumstances. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras are a commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes, alternate ending.

The Palm Beach Story 
(Criterion)
In Preston Stuges' delectable 1942 comedy, Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert play a married couple whose finances are even less secure than their relationship, so the wife runs off to Florida to try and fix things in her unique manner. Only Sturges could have made such a fiercely funny, provocative comedy within the Hollywood system, while McCrea and Colbert give typically memorable comic portrayals. The Criterion hi-def transfer looks great; extras are interviews, a Sturges WWII short and a radio play of the story starring Colbert.

The Skin 
(Cohen Media)
Based on controversial short stories by Curzio Malaparte—who dared to show how badly Italians acted in the aftermath of the Allied invasion during World War II—Liliana Cavani's 1981 drama chronicles, in often sickening detail, how far some Italians went to remain above the fray as Americans took over following Mussolini's demise. Set in Naples, this hard-hitting if diffuse film stars Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and a dubbed Burt Lancaster; the physical production is almost too authentic, but cardboard dialogue and anemic acting lessen the potential impact. The Blu-ray looks OK; extras include Caviani interviews and a commentary.

A Walk Among the Tombstones 
(Universal)
In this supremely violent thriller based on books by Lawrence Block, Liam Neeson again assumes his tough-middle-aged-guy mantle as Matt Scudder, retired New York City cop turned private eye hired by a man whose wife was murdered by her kidnapers. The NYC locations and Neeson are appropriately gritty, but director Robert Frank overdoes the gory quotient; sure, the kidnapers are really bad guys, but why revel in their sadism? The Blu-ray image looks splendid; extras comprise interviews and a making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
The Bridge—Complete 2nd Season 
(Fox)
The original series The Bridge, set on the Sweden-Denmark border, was a subtle, incisive and involving whodunit-cum-character study that became heavily watered down in the American version, set—where else?—on the U.S.-Mexican border. The 13 episodes of the American second season, while not as cliche-ridden as the initial season, continue the hackneyed dramatics that leave Diane Kruger and Demian Birchir's flavorful performances in a vacuum. It's too bad that a more imaginative series didn't come out of this, preferably one set on the U.S.-Canadian border. Extras comprise behind the scenes featurettes and deleted scenes.

4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle 
(Icarus)
I'm no Eric Rohmer fan, so the supposed charms of his films usually escape me, with a few exceptions: unfortunately, this 1987 trifle about two uninteresting young women who meet and bond is not one of those. The women's banal chattiness is married to the contrived situations that Rohmer insists on throwing his heroines into in what unfolds as a barely entertaining throwaway. Lone extra is an interview with Jessica Forde, who plays Mirabelle; too bad this wasn't released on Blu-ray, like it was in France.

Middle of Nowhere 
(Lionsgate)
Ava DuVernay—now best known for last week's Oscar snub for her direction of Selma—helmed this thoughtful 2011 character study about Ruby, a young Compton mother with a husband in jail, who looks to straighten out her life by going to school and tentatively exploring a new relationship. DuVernay's credible dialogue and insightful script, coupled with a shatteringly real Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby, make this a compelling exploration of a society that's still far under most people's radar. Lone extra is an informative commentary by DuVernay and Corinealdi.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Archer—Complete 5th Season (Archer Vice)
(Fox)
In the fifth season of this animated spy spoof, Archer and his cohorts are no longer at the ISIS agency, instead becoming drug dealers attempting to sell cocaine. With a top-notch voice cast—Aisha Tyler is incomparably hilarious as Archer's pregnant ex-girlfriend Lana and Jessica Walter devilishly sly as Archer's mother—and brightly-colored animation, Archer scores as a funny parody that strikes the right balance between crassness and cleverness. The hi-def images are striking; extras include a music video and interview.

Atlas Shrugged III—Who Is John Galt? 
(Fox)
For the final installment of the trilogy from the Ayn Rand novel that's become a conservative bible, the filmmaking and acting are even more amateurish than in the previous two parts: an epic tale of a dystopian United States saved by patriotic entrepreneurs is presented on an amateurish level just a notch below a bad high-school play. The acting is lousy, the directing and writing inept, the photography and sets cheap-looking; I must apologize to Taylor Schilling and Samantha Mathis, whose mediocre acting as Dagny Taggert in the first two films is award-worthy next to Part 3's dregs. The movie looks good on Blu-ray; extras include short on-set featurettes.

88 
(Millennium)
Director April Mullen's derivative mystery, cribbed from Memento, follows a young woman who finds herself in a diner bloodied, with a gun and no memory of how she got there. Her story is gradually pieced together through flashbacks; the scrambled chronology fights for screen time with much gore and flying bullets. Katharine Isabelle, onscreen for pretty much all of the 88-minute running time, lacks the sort of forceful screen presence that makes viewers forgive lapses in logic, plotting and dialogue. The Blu-ray image looks decent; extras include making-of featurettes.

Gone Girl 
(Fox)
I had hoped David Fincher could do something with Gillian Flynn's trashy novel, but her equally moribund screenplay pulls him under, making this glossy but uninvolving  adaptation of one of the least deserving bestsellers ever as close to a hack job as Fincher has ever made. There's a choppiness and lack of rhythm that's shocking coming from the director of Zodiac, the textbook example of expertly pacing a slow-moving story. Flynn's satirical targets are obvious—blueblood New Yorkers, moronic Midwesterners, white trailer trash, the media, fatuous TV hosts, ambulance-chasing lawyers—and Fincher indulges his writer so much that this long movie quickly becomes tiresome. Even the casting is off: Ben Affleck's chiseled jaw and Rosamund Pike's ice-queen look don't make them act any better; only Carrie Coon gives a fully realized performance as Ben's twin sister. The hi-def transfer is superb; Fincher's chatty commentary is the lone extra. 

The Manners of Downton Abbey 
(PBS)
Here's more proof that Downton Abbey has become a cultural phenomenon: this one-hour special that's basically a making-of featurette has received a standalone Blu-ray release instead of being part of the full season release. Host Alastair Bruce, the series' historical advisor, takes viewers behind the scenes to show how he and his staff ensure that the actors and production adhere to the necessary historical fidelity for the series' time period. The hi-def image is excellent; lone extra is a bonus scene.

My Left Foot 
(Lionsgate)
Although Daniel Day-Lewis deservedly won his first Best Actor Oscar in Jim Sheridan's inspiring but unsentimental biography about Christy Brown, whose cerebral palsy and inability to use anything but his left foot didn't stop him from becoming a celebrated writer, there are also tremendously affecting portrayals by Hugh O'Conor as the young Christy and Brenda Fricker as Christy's headstrong mother. Sheridan's sensitive direction makes this 1989 drama is a masterpiece from its first frame. The hi-def transfer looks quite good; extras are short featurettes. 

DVDs of the Week
Playing Dead 
(First Run)
In this bizarrely amusing French mystery, washed-up actor Jean takes a job playing victims in a crime scene reenactment at a Swiss ski resort, while Noemie is the local magistrate working on the case who is at first annoyed by Jean's annoying behavior but—surprise!—gradually warms to him. Writer-director Jean-Paul Salome has cleverly created a weirdly entertaining movie with memorably oddball lead characters, enacted persuasively by Francois Damiens (Jean) and Geraldine Nakache (Noemie). 

Two Mothers 
(TLA)
German writer-director Anne Zohra Berrached's concise, clinical study of a lesbian couple that wants a baby, only to discover that Germany's establishment health facilities can't (or won't) help: so they desperately look for sperm donors, which opens up a whole new can of worms. Karina Plachetka and Sabine Wolf are nakedly vulnerable as the women, whose dilemma—including jealousy and depression—is beautifully handled by Berrached in a pointed 75-minute film that never approaches melodrama or maudlin.

Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis? 
(Disinformation)
This devastating true story about an autistic teen's unfortunate death is a wholesale condemnation of a medical establishment that won't—or refuses to—deal with children suffering from a disease which needs special treatment. Director Andy Wakefield tells this tragic tale through the eyes of Alex's mother and godmother, accused of his murder when they decide that neither they nor he can tolerate his condition any longer. Tough to watch, this is still a must-see and humane look at our medical system's heartlessness. Extras comprise filmmaker interview and featurettes.

CDs of the Week
Busoni/Strauss—Violin Concertos 
(Hyperion)
The valuable series "The Romantic Violin Concerto" has brought dozens of unsung works out of mothballs for listeners to appreciate anew, and the 16th volume also does that with concertos by Ferruccio Busoni and Richard Strauss, neither of which are among either composer's greatest, but both are attractive and melodic with ample opportunities for a talented soloist to show off her chops. And this first-rate recording has that in spades with accomplished violinist Tanja Becker-Bender, whose lively tone and exemplary technique are perfectly attuned to Busoni and Strauss, as are conductor Garry Walker and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Rachmaninov—The Piano Concertos 
(Decca)
Sergei Rachmaninov was a master piano player and composer, and this two-CD, one-Blu-ray set, which brings together his four masterly concertos and equally worthy Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, is one of the best editions available, simply because of its soloist: Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who originally recorded these works in 1972. Now that they've been remastered, Ashkenazy's interpretations can once again be heard in all their glory—his rendition of the formidable third concerto (the "Rach 3" of Shine movie fame) leading the way—with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra providing rich accompaniment. The Blu-ray disc allows listeners the chance to savor these seminal recordings in the highest audio resolution possible.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

January '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Elsa & Fred 
(Millennium)
In a closely-fought battle between saccharine and star power, the former ekes out a victory against Oscar winning vets Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, who play an elderly couple who try and enjoy their unlikely romance despite her flights of fancy and his unceasing dourness. Director Michael Radford, who has remade 2005's Elsa y Fred from Argentina, displays his usual professionalism, but a treacly finale set in Rome that reenacts La Dolce Vita's famous Trevi fountain sequence, defeats him and his still-glamorous stars. The movie looks first-rate on Blu-ray; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Horns 
(Anchor Bay/Radius-TWC)
I don't know Joe Hill's underlying novel, but Alexandre Aja's crass adaptation turns a decent story—a young man accused of his girlfriend's murder grows horns, causing all he meets to confess hidden desires or secrets—into a hackneyed melodrama that relentlessly hammers home its obvious symbolism. Daniel Radcliffe is intensely committed in the lead, but even he can't find much meat on the bones of a metaphor that, exhausting itself after 45 minutes, spins in place for the rest of its repetitive two hours, padded with things like a ludicrous, homophobic subplot about two closeted cops. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; lone extra is a making-of.

Memphis 
(Kino Lorber/Visit Films)
In Tim Sutton's moody character study, a blues musician whose creativity has stagnated drifts around Memphis in an attempt to reconnect with his muses, even if it seems like no matter what he tries or whom he deals with, his personal and professional lives remain maddeningly out of reach. Although it's exceedingly slow, there's a surfeit of atmosphere in this impressionistic musical portrait that's dominates by Willis Earl Beal's magnetic performance. The hi-def transfer is outstanding; extras include a deleted scene and interviews.

Reach Me 
(Millennium)
Cornball in the extreme, this would-be inspirational drama about a self-help author unable to remain anonymous and a cross-section of famous and ordinary people his words help is so disjointed and filled with sleep-walking actors from Sylvester Stallone and Kira Sedgwick to Danny Aiello and Tom Berenger that it falls completely flat. Writer-director John Herzfeld—who once made the oddly entertaining ensemble film, Two Days in the Valley—does nothing right this time, and the desperation of everyone involved is seen in every frame. The hi-def transfer looks good.

DVDs of the Week
Divine Madness 
(Warner Archive)
Director Michael Ritchie—who was at the tail end of his cinematic prime (The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears, Semi-Tough)—filmed Bette Midler's 1979 Pasadena shows for posterity, with the great William A. Fraker as his cinematographer, and the result is an enteraining time capsule of an unabashed diva in her own prime. Midler tells as many dirty jokes and stories as she sings her songs, even if she does show off her impressive pipes on "The Rose" (then a brand-new tune); too bad that the DVD version omits two songs from the original concert film.

Honey 
(Kino Lorber)
Actress Valeria Golino makes an auspicious directorial debut with this engrossing character study about a free-spirited Italian college student Irene who regularly smuggles drugs from Mexico (via California) to help perform assisted suicides under the pseudonym "Honey." With a powerful performance by Jasmine Trinca in the deceptively difficult title role, Golino has made a strong, intelligent drama that would be an impressive achievement for any director, let alone a first-timer.

A Will for the Woods 
(First Run)
The deeply personal story follows Clark Wang, a man whose terminal illness prods him to explore the green burial movement in order to use his upcoming death as a way to help preserve the environment. Directors Amy Browne, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson, along with Clark and his partner Jane, have made a compelling documentary that's rich in humanity and hope, sadness and humor. Extras include extended, deleted and follow-up scenes.

CDs of the Week
Anne Akiko Meyers—The American Masters 
(e one)
With this welcome sort-of sequel to her American Album, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers again displays her endless versatility and virtuosity in three very different works by Samuel Barber, Barber's student John Corigliano, and Corigliano's student Mason Bates. Barber's glorious 1939 Violin Concerto has rarely sounded so of a piece, Corigliano's lovely 2010 Lullaby for Natalie (Meyers' first-born daughter) receives a heartfelt reading, and Bates' inventive 2012 Violin Concerto gives the soloist an extended technical workout: she passes all three tests with flying colors, complemented by Leonard Slatkin's sensitive conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra. Barber may be the lone "American Master" among this composing trio, but this album provides incontrovertible evidence that Meyers also deserves that title.

Nicola Benedetti—Homecoming, A Scottish Fantasy
(Decca)
This followup to Italia, which explored her Italian musical roots, finds violinist Nicola Benedetti reveling in the richness of her Scottish heritage, beginning with Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, a concerto in all but name that spins lilting melodies and singing violin lines from a bottomless well of Scottish folk song and Robert Burns tunes. It's no surprise that Benedetti is also an unabashed Burns lover; the rest of the disc comprises Burns and folk settings for varying instrumentation, from small ensembles to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, led by Rory Macdonald. Throughout, the constant is Benedetti's miraculous musicianship: while, as a bonus, her disc notes show that she's also a wonderfully evocative writer.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

December '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Good Lie (Warners)
This earnest, touching drama follows the true story of Sudanese young men who escaped their country's horrific civil war and traveled across the Atlantic to start afresh with the help of volunteers who eased their navigation of the bewildering but welcoming place called America. Director Philippe Falardeau wisely keeps the focus on the new arrivals, even if that entails some melodrama and sentimentality, further maximized by the likes of Reese Witherspoon (featured on the cover to try and sell the movie) and Corey Stoll in supporting roles. The Blu-ray image looks first-rate; extras comprise deleted scenes and making-of featurette.

I Puritani 
Tosca 
(Decca)
Vincenzo Bellini's final opera, I Puritani, dramatizing the 17th century English Civil War, is given a sturdy 2009 production in Bologna, Italy; its stars, tenor Juan Diego Florez and soprano Nino Machaidze, have superb stage chemistry to go with their ability to easily navigate the composer's treacherously difficult vocal writing. Giacomo Puccini's perennial audience favorite, Tosca, is brought to vivid life in this 2011 Zurich, Switzerland staging; its formidable central trio of Americans Emily Magee and Thomas Hampson and German Jonas Kaufmann provide the gripping center of Puccini's tragic tale of love and death. Both operas have impeccable sound and video on Blu-ray.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears 
(Strand)
This followup to Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's unsettling homage to the Italian slasher genre called giallo, ups the ante in its dissection of a man's mental, physical and psychosexual anguish when he discovers his wife has disappeared. The directors fetishize everything, both in the film and in their visual style, comprising closeups, fragmented shots, split screens, dazzling lighting and editing; for awhile, it's intriguing, even hypnotic, but the technique soon becomes a dead end, and the repetition becomes numbing. The vividness of the filmmaking is given its hi-def due on Blu-ray.

DVDs of the Week
The Man with Two Brains 
(Warner Archive)
By the time of their 1983 romp, writer-actor Steve Martin and writer-director Carl Reiner had polished their silly but probingly sarcastic humor; if this mad-doctor spoof carries more comedic weight than the hit-or-miss The Jerk or Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, it's because Martin himself is more agile, more willing to go for broke on camera without losing the thread of his character and story, something he'd perfect in the following year's tour de force All of Me. Kathleen Turner shows admirable pluck as the femme fatale from hell, willing to go along with Martin on his inspired flights of sheer lunacy, and if it all bogs down at the end, the first hour or so flies by effortlessly.

Running on Empty 
(Warner Archive)
A fascinating subject—ex-radicals, on the lam from the FBI, try and build a family and new lives—is fatally compromised by Naomi Foner's superficial, soap-opera script (which somehow earned a 1988 Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe), which substitutes sentimentality and contrivance for three-dimensionality and taut drama. Sidney Lumet's direction is solid, and his cast, especially River Phoenix as the restless teenage son, Martha Plimpton as his restless girlfriend and Christine Lahti as his mother, does what it can, but the messy script moots any chance at intelligent and insightful character study.

1000 Times Good Night 
(Film Movement)
The always stunning Juliette Binoche adds another indelibly etched portrait to her growing collection of flawed but beautifully human women in this tough, no-nonsense account of a war photographer who returns home to her beloved husband and daughters but still feels the pull of the battlefield. Director Erik Poppe shrewdly centers the action on Binoche both at home and in the midst of unbearable carnage, and the final shot of her when again in the midst of inhumanity is shattering. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau makes a sympathetic husband, but it's Binoche's fierce, utterly compelling performance that commands our attention throughout. Extras are on-set footage and interviews.

Holiday CD of the Week
Renee Fleming—Christmas in New York 
(Decca)
Wherein America's foremost operatic diva gets jazzy for the holidays, with swinging versions of Christmas songs from "Winter Wonderland" to "In the Bleak Midwinter," showing off a voice still in its prime, and giving us a listen to her first musical love, which she may do more of once she stops singing Strauss and Mozart. With help from such illustrious collaborators as Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti, Rufus Wainwright and Kelli O'Hara (with whom she duets on a dreamy "Silver Bells"), Fleming celebrates the season in her usual elegant style. Too bad that this disc wasn't paired with a DVD of her PBS special, which also includes Fleming's performances of Christmas carols with her talented sister and daughters.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Music Reviews: Sir Paul's Latest Re-issues; Jimmy Page's History Book

Wings—Venus and Mars
Wings—Wings at the Speed of Sound
(Hear Music/Concord)

The Paul McCartney Archive Collection has been taking its sweet time covering Paul's amazing post-Beatles career—two releases per year seems to be the norm—and the latest are Wings' mid-70s number-one albums, Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound.

1975's Venus and Mars, which followed closely on the heels of Paul's critical and commercial post-Beatles breakthrough, Band on the Run (still flying high on the charts when this came out), consolidated Wings' commercial success, even though it sounded like a slight comedown after the exhilarating songs on Band.

But the usual variety of musical styles is on display throughout Venus and Mars, from the opening "Venus and Mars/Rockshow"—which would be the concert opener during 1976's Wings Over America tour and at Paul's 2010 shows—to the closing cover of the British TV soap opera Crossroads theme song. In between are the bright-sounding "Magneto and Titanium Man," which showed Paul's interest in Marvel superheroes long before they became movie staples; "You Gave Me the Answer," another of Paul's delightful music-hall pastiches; "Call Me Back Again," housing one of Paul's most agile vocal performances; the smash "Listen to What the Man Said," showing off Paul's genius for arresting arrangements; and "Letting Go," a downbeat number that's actually one of Paul's most personal songs for wife Linda.

Released the following year, Speed of Sound gave the band new songs to play on tour (Paul was playing his first American concerts since the Beatles last performed in 1966) and provided a democratic way of presenting the group as more than simply Paul's backing band by having each member—even Linda, on the facile "Cook of the House"—take a crack at a lead vocal. Guitarist Denny Laine's rocker "Time to Hide" has the strongest musical legs, although Jimmy McCullough's somber "Wino Junko" attained tragic relevance following the 26-year-old guitarist's 1979 death from a heroin overdose.

Speed of Sound's Paul quotient consists of two huge singles—"Silly Love Songs," with its irresistibly melodic bass line, and the guilty-pleasure sing-along "Let Em In"—and fun if inessential romps through various genres like the funky "She's My Baby," bouncy "San Ferry Anne" and romantic "Warm and Beautiful." Best of all is the surging rocker, "Beware My Love," which became a live highlight on the 1976 tour. (Too bad he's never seen fit to resurrect it for any of his recent concerts.)

Along with an impressive remastering job of both albums, these re-issues come with an extra disc of added material, comprising B-sides, demos, alternate cuts, etc. Disc 2 of Venus includes the chugging hit single "Junior's Farm," the great, unheralded stomper "Soily"—never officially released, although Paul felt highly enough of it to make it the group's final encore through the '76 tour—and an early version of "Rock Show," which has a few interesting changes. Sound's second disc contains piano demos of "Let 'Em In" and "Silly Love Songs" (both of which are intricately structured even at this early stage), Paul singing "Must Do Something About It" (which drummer Joe English sings on the record) and an alternate version of "Beware My Love" with Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, which gives it extra oomph.

Next up in the Archive Collection are one of Paul's best albums, 1982's Tug of War, and one of his less compelling efforts, the 1983 follow-up Pipes of Peace. I'm still waiting for 1979's underrated Back to the Egg, but I don't think even Paul likes it very much, so I'm not holding my breath.

Jimmy Page 
(Genesis)

Not content with simply knocking out superb new re-issues of Led Zeppelin's studio albums—Led Zeppelin I, II, III, Zoso (IV) and Houses of the Holy are available, with Physical Graffiti, Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda presumably on the way next year—Jimmy Page has also put together a massive photographic autobiography, simply entitled Jimmy Page.

This gorgous cover-table tome (512 pages and 6-plus pounds' worth) is essential for any Page fan, from his teenage days to the Yardbirds, Zep, The Firm, his '90s reunion with Robert Plant, and beyond: this elegant volume is crammed with hundreds of photos of Page and his cohorts onstage, offstage, backstage and in the studio, complemented by captions and an occasional explanation, along with lists upon lists of what I assume is every concert tour Page has been on.

Unlike Plant, Page desperately wants to embark on one last megatour as you know whom; since that most likely won't happen, he's contented himself with bolstering his legacy as Led Zep's founder and premier musical architect. This book, along with those reissues, goes a long way toward cementing his legendary status as one of rock's greatest instrumentalists and composers. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—"The Invisible Hand"

The Invisible Hand
Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Ken Rus Schmoll 
Performances through January 4, 2015
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY
nytw.org
Ally and Kirk in The Invisible Hand (photo: Joan Marcus)
With his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced doing boffo biz on Broadway (and a likely front-runner for the Tony Award), let's see if playwright Ayad Akhtar is not just a one-trick pony. Happily, The Invisible Hand—which shrewdly shows how money is the root of all evil, whether capitalism or terrorism—proves he isn't: it's another smart, provocative, hard-hitting and all too relevant drama.

After Nick Bright, a broker working in Citibank's Pakistan office, is mistakenly kidnaped—the target was his boss—the group who did the deed decide to try and extort money from the bank for his ransom. But the $10 million they are asking is, in Nick's own words, far too much for someone of his relatively minor stature; but his captors remain steadfast, assuming the dirty American bank will cough up the money.

After weeks in captivity, Nick makes a deal with the men: he will use $3 million from his own offshore acount to invest in the market until he raises $10 million. The group's head, the respected elder Imam Saleem, agrees to allow his protege, the hot-headed Bashir—a London-born Arab who is in Pakistan to wage jihad like, he says, the many leftists who turned into freedom fighters against Franco in the Spanish Civil War to assuage their guilt over living comfortably in the West—to become Nick's financial "assistant."

Although their investments begin well, a brilliantly written and staged scene shows how Nick quickly realizes that working financial angles for his captors has a plethora of moral quagmires: especially after their immediate windfall comes after a prominent Pakistani and his wife (both of whom he knew socially) are killed in a terrorist attack at a wedding. Parallelly, Bashir becomes giddy, almost scarily so, when he sees the ease with which they've made $700,000 in 10 minutes. 

Akhtar's writing skillfully treads the blurred lines separating freedom fighters from terrorists and surviving at all costs from doing what's morally right: he adroitly positions his characters and their explosive behavior in the front lines of the so-called war on terror. If Disgraced found tough insight into that war through two couples in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment, then The Invisible Hand is its flip side: a dispatch from that endless war, with lives on the line for nothing more than cold hard cash.

Since the play began life as a one-acter, there's a noticeable difference in the writing: act one has a simple but forceful elegance that underlines its brutal truths about both sides; after intermission, there are blunter statements of physical and mental brutality. Some may find the sheer viciousness of the play's final moments too obvious, but it works perfectly as the only possible ending for a story that's been leading to ever more dangerously fraught situations for everyone involved.

Ken Rus Schmoll directs with alternate muscle and finesse on Riccardo Hernandez's starkly imposing set (with bonus points for Tyler Micoleau's exquisitely evocative lighting), while the actors—Justin Kirk (Nick), Usman Ally (Bashir), Dariush Kashani (Imam) and Jameal Ali (Dar, a gun-toting minion)—give firmly commanding performances in roles that could easily have become caricature.  All of that, combined with Akhtar's assured script, makes The Invisible Hand another winner by New York's playwright of the moment.