Friday, December 14, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem”

The Hard Problem
Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Jack O’Brien
Performances through January 6, 2019
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
lct.org

Adelaide Clemens (right) in Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem (photo: Paul Kolnik)
The problem for many with Tom Stoppard is that he’s too brainy, too witty, too clever—but he’s always been more than that. The obvious example is The Real Thing, but for every pyrotechnic intellectual exercise like Jumpers or Travesties, there are also plays like Arcadia, Indian Ink, Rock’n’Roll and The Coast of Utopia, each a miraculous balance of heady brain candy and emotional resonance. Hearteningly, his latest, The Hard Problem, can be added to that list.

Stoppard’s heroine, psychology student Hilary, begins working at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science to deal with the ostensible “hard problem” of the title: human consciousness. As always with Stoppard, there’s more that meets the eye, ear, brain and—of course—heart. Hilary’s life and work are colored by her having given up a baby for adoption when she was a teenager. Its consequences are shown in a parallel plotline about the head of Krohl, an ugly American who yells into his cell phone and at his cowering underlings; even if one guesses where these parallel plots will arrive ahead of time, it doesn’t detract from Stoppard’s ability to insightfully explore how Hilary’s complicated feelings over that incident have made her the inquiring, passionate young woman she is today.

Stoppard also allows Hilary to be, unapologetically, a believer. After sex, she kneels to pray at the side of the bed, and if these occasions are amusing (she’s “caught” by her lover despite wanting to stay unseen), they engender typically Stoppardian conversations about the flexibility of belief and the inflexibility of those who don’t believe, even when it comes to science. While the play doesn’t quite make compelling cases either way, thought-provoking ideas are put forth without condescension, as Stoppard effortlessly juggles several paradoxes as dilemmas for Hilary to experience if not fully resolve.

At 100 minutes, The Hard Problem—captivatingly staged by Jack O’Brien on David Rockwell’s sly, endlessly mobile sets—is the shortest Stoppard play I’ve seen since Hapgood, the extraordinarily convoluted spy drama starring Stockard Channing staged by Lincoln Center Theater nearly a quarter century ago. I would have preferred if Stoppard had fleshed out his secondary characters more, but that would have also taken the focus away from Hilary, who is played by Adelaide Clemens—the young Australian actress who was so persuasive and likably authentic in Kenneth Lonergan’s play Hold on to Me Darling at the Atlantic a few seasons back—with authority and a charming ordinariness. Her complex and varied performance is the heart of The Hard Problem.

The Hard Problem
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
lct.org

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

December '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Brewster McCloud 
(Warner Archive)
Made immediately after his 1970 breakthrough, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s character study of a young man who wants to fly—literally—while living in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome is one of the director’s most willfully bizarre efforts. The enjoyably oddball cast—Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Margaret Hamilton, Michael Murphy, and Shelley Duvall in her debut—can only provide so much color to Altman’s aggressively experimental failure, which weakly nods towards better films like 8-1/2 and The Wizard of Oz. The film has a good and grainy look on Blu-ray.

A Dry White Season 
(Criterion)
Euzhan Palcy’s 1989 drama is a blunt but insightful anti-apartheid tract, as a white South African family sheltered from the realities of the government’s racist system discovers what’s happening after its beloved gardener is put on trial. Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon are decent, Janet Suzman and Zakes Mokae are terrific, while Marlon Brando gives one of the most energetic performances of his late career (and an Oscar nomination) as a boisterous lawyer. There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer; extras include a new Palcy interview; a vintage Palcy/Nelson Mandela conversation; and a 1989 Sutherland “Today Show” interview.

God Bless the Broken Road 
(Lionsgate)
In this draggy expansion of a popular country tune, a young widow (her soldier husband was killed in Afghanistan) finds her faith sorely tested until the arrival of a handsome stranger who befriends her daughter helps her back on the right path. Lindsay Pulsipher as the mom and Makenzie Moss as her daughter are quite good, while the supporting cast led by Kim Delaney, Jordin Sparks and Robin Givens is OK. But the whole thing feels like one long melodramatic sermon, mitigating the goodwill of its premise. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include interviews and featurettes.

Mame 
(Warner Archive)
This turgid musical stars an over-the-hill but game Lucille Ball as the partying aunt of a young boy who becomes his guardian and manages to steer him well despite her reputation, with songs by Jerry Herman that run the gamut from the now-holiday classic “We Need a Little Christmas” to standards “Loving You” and “It’s Today.” Robert Preston matches Lucy as her love interest, but the rest of the cast isn’t up to snuff; Gene Saks’ fuzzy direction makes its 130 minutes seem like 130 hours. The film looks fine in hi-def; lone extra is a vintage making-of featurette.

Picnic at Hanging Rock 
(Acorn)
Joan Lindsay’s classic novel about the mysterious disappearance of four young women was made into a stylish if muddled 1975 Peter Weir film; this new five-hour mini-series has all the stylishness but replaces the confusion with a haunting quality that gives the story its powerful impact. Natalie Dormer is perfect as the school headmistress who must deal with the emotional fallout and disastrous aftermath of the (mainly) unsolved disappearance. There’s an especially good hi-def transfer; extras comprise cast and crew interviews and on-set footage

Smallfoot 
(Warner Bros)
Yetis are abominable snowmen for those who don’t remember (and a cousin of Bigfoot, hence the title), and this humorous animated feature’s clever conceit—that a human is spotted by one of the yetis, who thought it was just a legend—helps paper over some interchangeable songs by Common and Zendaya. The top-notch voice cast, including James Corden, Gina Rodriguez and Channing Tatum—also does its part to keep the movie’s good nature quotient high. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include interviews, featurettes, a mini-movie and music videos.

Support the Girls 
(Magnolia)
Andrew Bujalski’s usually annoying mumblecore aesthetic is kept to a minimum in this entertaining glimpse at the manager of a local T&A bar (a would-be Hooters) on her last day, dealing with personal and professional problems like acting as a surrogate mother for the young women employed as scantily-clad waitresses. In the lead, Regina Hall gives a tremendously affecting performance that forms the film’s emotional core, and she has a great rapport with the rest of the cast, especially Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle as her closest employees. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Broadway Musical Review—“The Cher Show”

The Cher Show
Book by Rick Elice; directed by Jason Moore
Opened December 3, 2018
Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY
thechershowbroadway.com

The Cher Show (photo: Joan Marcus)
There are two paths for a jukebox musical. The first is to attach a threadbare plot to an artist’s songs, like Mamma Mia (Abba), We Will Rock You (Queen), Escape to Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffett) or Head Over Heels (Go-Gos); the second is to make a sort of autobiography, like Beautiful (Carole King) or On Your Feet (Gloria Estefan). The Cher Show takes the second tack, with a trio of Chers (a conceit also used by Summer, another autobiographical musical) interacting, either amusingly or enervatingly, as the superstar’s bio is dramatized from her California childhood to her hitting it big with Sonny and the ‘70s and ‘70s to her musical comeback in the late 80s and 90s. 

Cher’s up-and-down career—which comprised hit songs and TV shows, flop recordings and bad movies and, finally, an Oscar (for Moonstruck)—has enough soap opera, melodrama, tragedy and triumph in it to overcome the story’s familiar showbiz clichés as awkward, shy Cherilyn Sarkisian becomes a global megastar (and “goddess warrior,” her own description), overcoming problematic relationships with Svengali/first husband, Sonny Bono, and second husband/drug addict Gregg Allman. Rick Elice’s book tiptoes around personal missteps by allowing Cher a bit of self-awareness as her alter egos—young Babe, mid-career Lady and icon Star—discuss them as they happen. 

The most obvious thing to note about The Cher Show is Bob Mackie’s splendid costumes. If anyone doesn’t remember them from Cher’s many TV appearances at awards shows and her own variety series with and without Sonny, they were truly spectacular: big and billowy or small and slinky, often with sequins, headdresses or other frills, Mackie’s costumes were as readily identifiable as the performer herself.

Costumes aside, The Cher Show is saved by its Star, the sensationally good Stephanie J. Block, who not only exactly copies Cher’s vocal mannerisms when speaking and singing but even looks like her, at least more than the other two—newcomer Micaela Diamond as Babe and Teal Wicks as Lady—who can both belt out the songs and act but can’t channel Cher as impressively.

Jarrod Spector (Sonny) and Matthew Hydzik (Gregg) are fine, while Michael Berresse exudes joy as Bob Mackie and tartness as director Robert Altman. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography smartly combines slavish reenactment and bright originality, while there’s a welcome tongue-in-cheek cleverness to Kevin Adams’ lighting, Christine Jones’ and Brett J. Banackis’ sets and Darrel Maloney’s projections. Director Jason Moore rounds up all this disparate visual and aural splendor into something approaching entertainment.

And the songs? Happily, there’s only a sprinkling of the awful, overdramatic sub-Meatloaf comeback tunes like the eardrum-hurting (and auto-tune starter) “Believe” and “If I Could Turn Back Time,” while there are lots of Sonny & Cher hits (“I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On”) and early solo smashes (“Half Breed,” “Dark Lady”—weirdly resurrected as a sing-off between Sonny and Gregg—and “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves”). 

Not surprisingly, like its leading lady The Cher Show careens all over the place, but its target audience won’t care in the slightest. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

December '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Attraction
(Dark Sky)
This big-budget Russian armageddon flick by Fyodor Bondarchuk—son of renowned director Sergei Bondarchuk (who made the classic 7-hour War and Peace in 1966—is a supremely silly adventure, but it has a pretty good subject (are the arriving aliens malevolent or benevolent?) and a terrific young actress, Irina Starshenbaum, as a credible everywoman who falls in love with one of them. Lots of CGI effects battle for supremacy with less interesting sequences involving blocs of survivors and their competing allegiances, but Bondarchuk keeps things moving briskly for 135 minutes. The hi-def image is spectacular; extras are several featurettes.

Boston Red Sox—2018 World Series Collector’s Edition
(Shout Factory)
After the Boston Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, then ran like a buzz saw through the Yankees and Astros—the latter looking to repeat as champs—in the AL playoffs, lots of skeptics thought they’d be beaten by the Dodgers in the World Series. But aside from that instant-classic 18-inning game which the Dodgers pulled out, the Sox had no problem winning it all for the fourth time since 2004. This comprehensive eight-disc set contains all five WS games, the Division Series-winning game vs. New York and the ALCS-winning game against Houston. Hi-def video looks superb, and audio includes options for TV announcers, home and away radio and Spanish-language. The one-disc Blu-ray includes the official 2018 World Series film, and extras comprising regular and post-season highlights and footage from the Boston victory parade.

Nelly 
(Cinema Libre)
Nelly Arcan was an elegant Quebec escort who wrote four revealing books, including one published after she committed suicide in 2009. In Anne Émond’s film that dramatizes with some grittiness and eroticism Nelly’s perpetually high-flying life in and out of many beds, Mylene MacKay gives a phenomenally authentic and ultimately touching performance of a self-destructive woman whose demise is unsurprising but harrowing nonetheless. The film has a top-notch hi-def transfer.

The Nun
(Warner Bros)
In this latest addition to The Conjuring franchise, an evil spirit scares the bejesus out of a novitiate and a priest who are investigating the surprising suicide of another young nun in a rural church in Romania. The laziness involved—standard-issue bumps in the night and feeble, well-worn scare tactics—is too bad considering there’s a decent cast (Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga) and a wonderfully photogenic setting for the conceit to work. But director Corin Hardy just shrugs and does the minimum amount possible. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.

Westworld—Complete 2nd Season 
(Warner Bros)
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)
Skillfully directed and acted, what Westworld lacks is a reason for going on and on as long as it does. What began as a diverting 1973 sci-fi flick (and an equally entertaining 1976 sequel) has been transmogrified into a convoluted and ultimately confused attempt at Significance. While it’s always great seeing the likes of Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood in the prime of their careers—with a bonus nod to Sela Ward, who steals episode 9—the combination of self-satisfied writing, a portentous and overdone musical score and the feeling that the creators don’t really know where they’re heading combine for a self-defeating, enervating experience. The series looks tremendous in hi-def; extras are featurettes and interviews.

CDs of the Week
Leonard Bernstein—Fancy Free, Anniversaries for Orchestra; CBS Music, A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet (Naxos)
These two new discs were released on the tail end of the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, as the musical polymath has been feted around the world. Both CDs are conducted by Marin Alsop, a protégée of the conductor-composer-teacher-writer-raconteur, and feature world premiere recordings of some of his more obscure works. The first disc, along with the frothy overtures to Candide and Wonderful Town, includes the brilliant ballet Fancy Free and the first recording of the orchestrated versions of his pungent piano pieces, Anniversaries. The second disc, alongside bits from West Side Story and On the Town, features a suite from his failed Broadway musical about the presidency, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the rarely-heard CBS Music and the delightful Bernstein Birthday Bouquet, where eight composers wrote tongue-in-cheek tributes for Lenny’s 70th birthday in 1988.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” with Raúl Esparza

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui 
Written by Bertolt Brecht; translated by George Tabori; directed by John Doyle
Performances through December 22, 2018
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

Raúl Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (photo: Joan Marcus)
Bertolt Brecht wrote his mordant anti-Nazi satire, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in 1941 while living in Finland, waiting for his visa so he could enter the United States. Perhaps looking forward to leaving, Brecht set his play in Chicago, and its lead gangster (who’s from New York) takes over the lucrative “cauliflower trust” and rises to the top of the windy city’s underworld.

For his own tRump-era take, director John Doyle uses George Tabori’s serviceable translation and adds unnecessary parallels to both Hitler and tRump: a spoken timeline of what was happening in Germany on the road to dictatorship has been inserted, and we periodically hear “Sieg heils” intoned, just in case the dimmest member of the audience doesn’t get the connection. Doyle’s most effective touch is turning those creepy shouts into a final, tRumpian “lock her up.”

Doyle also doesn’t have his Arturo Ui—played by the vibrant and charismatic Raúl Esparza—look like tRump in any way, except for a nice bit during Ui’s climactic rise-to-ultimate-power speech when he wears a red tie. The dazzling Esparza turns on the charm and the exaggerated Brooklyn accent as he badgers, cajoles and convinces his followers and enemies how much his “protection” will improve their lives. 

Doyle has staged Ui as an ensemble piece, letting all cast members share in narrating the Hitler timeline, although his double- and triple-casting a few of the roles might confuse those in the audience unfamiliar with Brecht’s play. But Esparza guides us thrillingly through a blackly funny tale made all the darker by, in Brecht’s final warning, the fact that it could be happening again. And no amount of gallows humor will save us.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Scott Aiello’s “Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon”

Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon
Written by Scott Aiello; directed by Claire Karpen
Performances through December 2, 2018
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
59e59.org

Forrest Malloy and Ismenia Mendes in Bernie and Mikey's Trip to the Moon (photo: Michael Kushner)
Scott Aiello’s well-intentioned but mawkish Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is set in the 1990s, something only gleaned from incidentals like someone wearing a Guns’n’Roses T-shirt. With his dialogue—aside from many F-words—setting and characters harking back to ‘50s sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymooners, Aiello strings ginned-up crises together, with very little of it explored in any depth. 

The working-class Vincolo family lives in a suburban Chicago neighborhood. Mike Sr. is a bar owner, wife Gladys a stay-at-home mom, and Mikey the mid-20ish son working in the local fast-food dive while pining for his lovely co-worker Laura, whose boyfriend inconveniently also works there. Then there’s Bernie, Mikey’s early-20ish sister whose near-fatal case of encephalitis as a toddler left her with brain damage, and the fallout is something everyone must deal with.

Aiello shows a close family chained to the beloved but difficult Bertie, making their lives progressively more challenging. But he never does much with that interesting dilemma aside from desperate attempts at comedy—Dad’s partner at the bar, Ski, is leaden comic relief, as is the running gag of phone calls from Jeff Goldblum (that’s really the name Aiello chose), an autistic young man who has a crush on Bernie—and near-tragedy, when Bernie disappears from K-Mart. It’s all too neatly, and melodramatically, resolved at the end, and while the old-fashioned writing might steer clear of true bathos, it prevents the play from digging too deeply into these lives.

Like the script, Claire Karpen’s straightforward staging relies too heavily on Elvis songs—Bernie loves the singer—which also hampers Forrest Malloy’s otherwise likeable Mikey, who has to do a bad Elvis impression that’s reprised in an overlong diversion when he “speaks” to Bernie through his rolls of stomach flab. Malloy does have a nice rapport with both Ismenia Mendes—who does far more with the underwritten Laura than anyone would have thought possible—and Stephanie Gould (who herself has cerebral palsy), whose Bernie plausibly alternates between stubbornness and docility. Too bad Margo Singaliese (Mom), Jordan Lage (Dad) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Ski) are hampered by the caricatures they’re playing. At least Aiello’s heart is in the right place.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

November '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Some Like It Hot 
(Criterion)
Still one of the funniest movies ever made, Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic might now run afoul of those who find it sexist and condescending, but it remains a breathless comic romp, with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe and Joe E. Brown giving best-ever performances in a drag comedy that has one of the all-time great final lines of dialogue. The brand-new hi-def restoration looks magnificent; extras are a 1989 commentary by film scholar Howard Suber; new featurette on Orry-Kelly's costumes; three making-of documentaries; 1982 Dick Cavett Show appearance by Wilder; 2001 Curtis conversations; and a 1988 French TV interview with Lemmon.

Bel Canto 
(Screen Media)
For this strangely inert drama about an American soprano in a deadly hostage situation at the South American mansion where she is performing, Julianne Moore seems out of her element, giving a technically accomplished but chilly performance (even her lip-syncing to Renee Fleming’s glorious singing seems off). Director Paul Weitz also appears out of his comfort zone, with many dramatic moments missing their targets; he’s resigned to melodramatic clichés in the relationships that develop during the stand-off. Too bad that excellent German actor, Sebastian Koch, is also wasted. The film looks quite good on Blu; extras are short featurettes.

Crackdown Big City Blues 
(The Film Detective)
It perilously skirts Ed Wood territory at times, but it’s also what’s actually watchable about this 1991 time-capsule docudrama about a local community battling drug dealers on their own turf. Director/writer Paul DeSilva and producer/writer Frazier Prince’s cautionary tale has perfectly wooden acting throughout, but set during the NYC crack epidemic it manages to make its case persuasively. The film looks decent enough on Blu-ray; extras are a vintage featurette and interviews with Prince and sound man Jim Markovic.

Luciferina 
(Artsploitation)
Argentine writer-director Gonzalo Calzada’s crazy idea is surreal, bloody and legitimately creepy: mix together a novice nun, evil spirits, pregnancy and sex and you have a bizarrely compelling watch that culminates with what may be the first successful sexorcism sequence in movie history. And kudos to actress Sofía Del Tuffo for giving it her all—especially physically—as the young woman who fights back against the devil by having sex with him on the altar in a scene that must be seen to be believed. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula 
Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure 
(Warner Archive)
In 1973’s Satanic Rites of Dracula, Christopher Lee’s undead Count and Peter Cushing’s stake-wielding Van Helsing meet again in contemporary London for another ho-hum showdown courtesy of director Alan Gibson. 1959’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is anything but: this lazy programmer pits Gordon Scott’s brawny but brainy Tarzan against villains Anthony Quayle and a young Sean Connery. John Guillermin’s direction is slickly competent, but the climactic cliff fight is sheer hokum. Both films have excellent hi-def transfers with fully-realized grain and color.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Broadway Play Review—Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song” Returns

Torch Song
Written by Harvey Fierstein; directed by Moises Kaufman
Performances through February 24, 2019
Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY
2st.com 

Mercedes Ruehl and Michael Urie in Torch Song (photo: Joan Marcus)
It’s rare to see a Broadway show as bighearted, sentimental, funny and heartbreaking as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song. At its 1982 premiere, it was a four-hour behemoth titled Torch Song Trilogy, earning raves and two Tony awards for its author/lead actor, who played Arnold Beckoff, the lovably cranky drag performer at its center. Now shortened by an hour and losing a word from its title, it might be even more affecting with some meat trimmed off its bones. 

The probing Torch Song, which dramatizes Arnold’s successful onstage work as Virginia Hamm and his unsuccessful offstage life comprising fraught relationships with his bisexual ex, adopted teenage son and homophobic but protective mom, is set in the pre-AIDS era. Arnold’s lover Alan has been killed in a hate crime, beaten to death outside their apartment, a subtle reminder of the horrors gay men faced while trying to live their lives. Fierstein’s trimmed version and Moises Kaufman’s staging keep Arnold’s disparate relationships—with his mother; with Ed, who left him to marry a woman, but who returns when she throws him out; and with his adopted (and gay) son David—front and center. 

Arnold, who is presented with naked honesty, is annoying without becoming wearying, a difficult tightrope walk which Michael Urie accomplishes with exceptional skill, his deadpan looks after spitting out a lethal line or campy reactions after a deadpan reading allowing him to make Arnold sympathetic by showing him in his entirety: as performer and lover, father and son, joker and mourner.

The same goes for Mercedes Ruehl in the (admittedly) scene-stealing part of Arnold’s mother. Although Ruehl is an old hand at the killer pause, double take or exasperated retort, her Jewish mother who can’t understand why her son is gay is anything but clichéd. This delectable mother-son rapport has genuine—if occasionally uncomfortable—feeling.

The rest of the cast—Michael Hsu Rosen (Alan), Jack DiFalco (David), Ward Horton (Ed) and Roxanna Hope Radja (Lauren, Ed’s wife)—remains a step behind only because Urie and Ruehl are on such a rarefied plane. But everybody does justice to a humane work of art that has only deepened with age.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

November '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Crazy Rich Asians 
(Warner Bros)
Considered an historic film as the first Hollywood studio release to have an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the first of a trilogy of novels by author Kevin Kwan is certainly an audience-pleaser (check out its huge box office numbers). Although it’s essentially a high-gloss soap opera, entertaining and enervating in equal measure, it has a classy, charismatic cast led by Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding. The Blu-ray looks great; extras include Chu and Kwan’s commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurette and a gag reel.

First Blood
Rambo—First Blood II
Rambo III 
(Lionsgate)
Before Rambo became a jingoistic joke, it’s pretty much been forgotten that the first film, First Blood, was an exciting action picture, well directed by Ted Kotcheff and with fine support by Richard Crenna and Brian Dennehy to offset Sly Stallone’s cardboard mumbling hero. But things got worse once the ideological idiocy was amped up, and the second and third entries are barely watchable if instructive looks at Reagan’s America’s ultimate in patriotism—or, as the current White House occupant would have it nowadays, nationalism. These new releases feature sparkling hi-def restorations in 4K and standard Blu-ray, along with a mix of new and vintage interviews and featurettes.

Jeannette—The Childhood of Joan of Arc 
(KimStim/Icarus)
The ultimate provocateur, Bruno Dumont, is back with his latest, which, believe it or not, is a head-banging musical about the beloved saint’s early life, before she takes up arms against the English and becomes a martyr. After the bizarre left turns of Li’l Quinquin (successful) and Slack Bay (disastrous), Dumont jumps off a different cliff with this rigorously shot but musically and dramatically inert drama that does little with its game amateur cast. In theory, the juxtaposition of heavy metal sounds and the austere subject is enticing; but onscreen it comes off as simply too offbeat for its own good. The film looks lovely on Blu, but it’s too bad the burnt-in subtitles threaten to ruin the visuals; extras comprise two deleted scenes and a Dumont interview.

Mile 22 
(Universal)
Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg have made several “gritty” dramas together over the past few years—Sole Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and last year’s Boston Marathon bombing reenactment, Patriots Day—and their latest is a hot mess of convoluted plotting and overdone violence, including a couple of the most ridiculously unbelievable fight sequences ever committed to celluloid. The verisimilitude works to a point, until several melodramatic twists make mincemeat of all that’s come before. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include featurettes, etc.

Rolling Stones—Voodoo Lounge Uncut 
(Eagle Rock)
For the Stones’ tour to support its middling 1994 album Voodoo Lounge, the band pulled out all the stops, as this huge Miami stadium gig makes clear: playing a handful of new songs, the Stones’ emphasis is on its storied past, and that’s where the best performances lie, like hot takes of “Rocks Off,” “Angie” and “Street Fighting Man,” among others. This is the first time the entire 2-1/2 hour concert has been released, and while the video is muddy, the sound has been exceptionally upgraded. Bonuses are five songs from a Giants Stadium show that same year, including a revved-up “Shattered.”

DVD Set of the Week
Scorpion—The Complete Series 
(CBS/Paramount)
Throughout the four seasons of Scorpion (all 92 episodes of which have been collected on 24 DVDs), the close-knit group of brainiac hackers kept coming up against still tougher and more dangerous assignments—all of which they, eventually, dispatched. Now that this silly but entertaining series has run its course, one of the most charmingly natural actresses around, Katharine McPhee, is free again: maybe she can go back to doing more musicals on Broadway after she finishes her tour. Extras are featurettes, gag reels, deleted scenes and audio commentaries.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—“Plot Points in Our Sexual Development”

Plot Points in Our Sexual Development 
Written by Miranda Rose Hall; directed by Margot Bordelon
Performances through November 18, 2018
Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
lct.org

Jax Jackson and Marianne Rendón in Plot Points in Our Sexual Development
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)
In Miranda Rose Hall’s mainly searing, occasionally syrupy hour-long two-hander, a couple speaks openly and explicitly about the difficult roads each travelled to arrive at where they are now: reluctantly but hopefully embarking on a new relationship. The title, Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, is anything but subtle: it literally describes what the couple does throughout Hall’s rather contrived but effective construction.

Cecily, a 30-something cis woman, and Theo, a 30-something genderqueer and transmasculine, at first alternate sharing their most enduring—and sometimes humiliating—memories of sexual initiation, gender confusion and other intimate experiences as they approach this current moment: tentatively (while more than a little scared), they decide to cement their growing relationship; even though it’s not guaranteed to work—physically or emotionally—it may turn out to be the necessary salve for their past wounds.

Hall’s dialogue is literate and biting, even if it sometimes approaches harangues for its own sake. But Margot Bordelon has directed simply and sympathetically on Andrew Boyce’s near-bare set, which visualizes the bare souls inhabiting it. And those souls are gracefully inhabited by Jax Jackson (Theo) and Marianne Rendón (Cecily), tremendously affecting and vital, whether speaking or listening to the other, pulling away or drawing closer—in short, running the gamut of emotions their characters go through. 

November '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Meg 
(Warner Bros)
The ludicrousness of this gargantuan shark movie—it’s Jaws on steroids—is beside the point when all anybody wants is to see, in CGI, how the ocean behemoth makes mincemeat of lots of awful—and some not so awful—characters. This is the kind of movie that wears its influences not on its sleeve but right in front of the camera, so director Jon Turteltaub must have shrugged and said the hell with it: The Meg goes full speed ahead into campy monster movie craziness. It’s definitely not good, but it’s entertaining in its own ridiculous way. There’s a sterling hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes and interviews.

American Dresser 
(Cinedigm)
Tom Berenger is persuasively wounded as a widowed (and alcoholic) Vietnam vet who goes cross-country on his bike with a compatriot (Keith David) to find himself after his beloved wife (Gina Gershon) dies of cancer in this one-note character study written and directed by Carmine Cangialosi, who plays a handsome ladies’ magnet who joins the pair. Although Berenger and David have terrific camaraderie, their director is content to wallow in clichés and superficial characters—Gershon, Penelope Ann Miller, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Damiano and Elle McLemore have literally nothing to do—which knocks this otherwise watchable buddy movie down a notch. Extras are featurettes.

Bloodlust  
(Mondo Macabro)
Supposedly based on a true story, this grimly sick little movie, directed by Marijan Vayda, follows a loner bullied at work and mocked by seemingly everyone who discovers he has a taste for the blood of dead females. Soon he is digging up cadavers in their coffins and going about his yucky business. Obviously, you have to be a fan of a certain kind of demented films to enjoy chose, but those viewers know who they are. It all looks good and grainy in hi-def; extras are interviews with the assistant director and actress Birgit Zamulo.

Gaughin—Voyage to Tahiti
(Cohen Media)
Vincent Cassell throws himself into the role of painter Paul Gaughin, who infamously left France for the South Pacific in 1891 in order to start his art—and—life anew, in Edouard Deluc’s well-made but by-the-numbers biopic. Shot luminously by Pierre Cottereau, the film gets the physical details of the artist’s new home right, but despite Cassell’s intensity, we never really get inside Gaughin’s head: there’s never a moment where Deluc illuminates his protagonist in a profound way. The film sparkles in hi-def; extras comprise on-set featurettes.

Midaq Alley 
(Film Movement Classics)
Director Jorge Fons made this 1995 adaptation of a novel by Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, relocating it to Mexico City: its interest today is primarily Salma Hayek appearing in one of her earliest roles, because, even at 145 minutes, this multi-character drama is too melodramatic and sentimental. The stories are presented straightforwardly, even cursorily, as if just watching several people intersecting through and divided by class and wealth is interest-holding enough. It’s not: Hayek is fine and the rest of the cast is equally good, but the total is much less than the sum of its parts. The hi-def transfer looks good; lone extra is a behind-the-scene featurette.

DVD of the Week
The Children Act 
(Lionsgate)
Ian McEwan’s novel about a British judge whose intense focus on cases involving children has pretty much destroyed her own marriage has become a talky, plodding drama by director Richard Eyre, whose streamlined adaptation—the script is by McEwan—strips away much of the book’s nuance. Although this might straitjacket a lesser actor, Emma Thompson is able to make the judge sympathetic, even admirable, despite her own ethical and moral lapses.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

2018 DOC NYC Festival Roundup

DOC NYC Festival
IFC Center/SVA Theater/Cinepolis Cinema, New York, NY
November 8-15, 2018
docnyc.net

Now in its ninth year, the documentary festival DOC NYC—which this year comprises 135 features, among many other screenings and events—opened with John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm and closes with the world premiere of Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, about two of the seminal NYC newspaper columnists. 

The Ghost of Peter Sellers
I caught a dozen films that range from contemporary politics to artist profiles, including The Ghost of Peter Sellers, director Peter Medak’s account of the ill-fated movie he made with the great comic actor in 1973—after Medak was flying high with The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg—a pirate adventure called Ghost in the Noonday Sun, in which everything that could go wrong did. The biggest problem was the mercurial Sellers himself, who had never enjoyed the best on-set reputation, and Medak digs through memories as he reminisces with others around back then to assuage his own feelings that, decades later, he still feels responsible for this disaster. It’s a weirdly funny and fascinating on-set journey.

In The Artist and the Pervert, Beatrice Behn and Ren̩é Gebhardt chronicle the fascinating love (and kinky sex) story of an eye-opening couple: Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas—whose parents were Nazi sympathizers—and African-American performance artist Mollena Williams. The film’s title raises a pertinent question: which is which? 

The Greenaway Alphabet
The Greenaway Alphabet, a personal look at British filmmaker Peter Greenaway by his artistic and life partner Saskia Boddeke, could also have been called The Artist and the Pervert, as anyone who’s seen Greenaway’s visually and thematically complex films can attest. But Boddeke and their teenage daughter Pip actually bring some humanity to Greenaway, especially when he and his daughter discuss autism when they go through the A’s.

Today’s right-wing extremists—and those gung-ho in their youth but who left the movement, for various reasons—are the subjects of Exit, an engrossing study by director (and former hate-group member) Karen Winther.

Under the Wire
The dangerous conditions under which war correspondents toil are explored in Chris Martin’s shattering Under the Wire, a tribute to and eulogy for (among others) U.S. journalist Marie Colvin, who died covering the civil war in Syria. 

Katrine Philp’s False Confessions eye-openingly shows how many people are trying to remedy an intolerable situation: notably defense attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, who goes to Amherst, an affluent Buffalo suburb, to look into the case of Renay Lynch, behind bars for more than 20 years for a 1995 murder she did not commit. Under the microscope are coercive police interrogations, which Philp and Fisher-Byrialsen shine a necessary light on.

Maxine Trump (no relation, I hope!) describes her life without children in To Kid or Not to Kid, an evenhanded documentary about how women—whether by choice or by chance—deal with their childless lives and the shaming that still takes place, whether by well-meaning family members and strangers or anonymous people on social media. 

Patrimonio, set in Baja, Mexico—near vacation paradise Los Cabos—is a David vs. Goliath story of village fishermen going against a rich developer that wants to take over their local lands and waters, shown by directors Sarah Teale and Lisa F. Jackson as an optimistic result for a group of people for whom activism was never an option. 

Decade of Fire
Vivian Vazquez and Gretchen Hildebran’s emotional Decade of Fire looks past the conventional thinking about the “Bronx is burning” 1970s and uncovers that not only were its inhabitants—primarily blacks and Latinos—painted with a broadly racist brush, but they were also the catalysts for the completely trashed area’s later revitalization. 

Another monstrous corporation is given the once-over in Inside Lehman Brothers, Jennifer Deschamps’ feature that trods familiar ground—did the bigwigs from the big banks get away with high crimes after the 2008 financial meltdown?—but remains an enraging cautionary tale. 

Our own inadequate medical system is given a merciless treatment in The Providers, Anna Moot-Levin and Laura Green’s clear-eyed but encouraging look at a collapsed community in New Mexico cared for by a few health-care providers who help a financially vulnerable population deal with the widespread opioid crisis. 

New Homeland
Finally, another world premiere, Barbara Kopple’s New Homeland (in collaboration with NowThis), is also extremely relevant to our tRumped-up world, sympathetically following Middle Eastern families given refugee status that are welcomed to Canada by their local sponsors. The difficulties of one of the teenage boys to assimilate into his new society is heartrending, but there are also feel-good successes that make any viewer hopeful about our shared future.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Broadway Review—Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman”

The Ferryman
Written by Jez Butterworth; directed by Sam Mendes
Performances through December 23, 2018
Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY
Theferrymanbroadway.com

Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly and Paddy Considine in The Ferryman (photo: Joan Marcus)
As his last foray on Broadway, the bloated, three-plus-hour Jerusalem, can attest, no one would ever accuse Jez Butterworth of subtlety. So it’s not surprising that his new play The Ferryman is permeated by death, from the on-the-nose title to the risibly implausible bit of violence that climaxes its also overlong three-plus hours. 

Set in late August, 1981, on the Carney farm in Northern Ireland on Harvest Day, The Ferryman traffics in nefarious IRA doings. The Carney family has been deeply affected by the disappearance Seamus—younger brother of Quinn, head of the household—years before, and now that his pickled body has been discovered in a bog, the questions arise: Why was he killed, and by whom? Seamus’ widow Cait lives in the sprawling Carney farmhouse with her teenage son, cooking and doing chores for Quinn, his frail wife Mary and their children: four girls and three boys (including a nine-month-old infant). Since Mary spends so much of her time indisposed, naturally a spark has arisen between sister- and brother-in-law.

Also on hand are two elderly aunts: Patricia, who buzzes around getting angry at the radio over Margaret Thatcher insulting the Irish; and Aunt Maggie Far Away, an invalid whose lucid moments are few and far between. Patricia’s husband, Uncle Patrick (they’re both Pat, get it?), who explains the play’s title in a superfluous scene, rounds out the family. 

Despite its trappings and author’s undeniably clever way with profane dialogue, The Ferryman is dramatically flimsy, so Butterworth relies heavily on obvious foreshadowing, heavy-handed symbolism and even the real sufferings of hunger strikers like Bobby Sands, who deserve better than to be dragged in to give weight to these entertaining but superficial goings-on.

The Ferryman reaches its nadir at the opening of the third act, when the Carney boys and their cousins discuss their own IRA memories (with the youngest improbably spitting out the most cutting quips), stopping the play dead in its tracks. It never really recovers: the climactic bloodletting and Aunt Maggie Far Away’s final ominous words (“They’re here!”) are more a dramatic shortcut than a genuinely satisfying ending.

Certainly the staging can’t be faulted. Director Sam Mendes paces The Ferryman so skillfully that there’s always a cloud of suspense hanging over the proceedings. Mendes makes Butterworth’s choppy writing seem seamless; there’s enough authentically casual interplay among the cast of 21 to make them a believably large family, something Butterworth only nods toward in his sprawling, ramshackle script. Mendes even makes assets of audience-baiting ploys: having an actual infant (four are in rotation) portray the Carney’s nine-month-old son and bringing a live goose and rabbit onstage to many oohs and aahs.

The flawless acting is an even greater asset. All of the youngsters—including the infant!—are at home in this household, with dialogue as salty as their elders’ (it’s the old Bad News Bears trope that adorable kids swearing make spectators swoon). Stuart Graham as malevolent IRA man Muldoon and Justin Edwards as simpleton Tom Kettle breathe coruscating life into stock characters: the scene between Tom and Cait (a heartbreaking Laura Donnelly), as he bumblingly and touchingly proposes, is the most effective in the entire play.

Vets Fionnula Flanagan (Aunt Maggie), Mark Lambert (Uncle Pat) and Dearbhla Molloy (Aunt Pat) give Butterworth’s words the perfect zesty snap. And, front and center, Paddy Considine is, amazingly, making his Broadway debut as Quinn, a decent but conflicted man juggling being a father, husband, brother-in-law, son, farmer, IRA sympathizer and survivor. Considine brings racy charm, abundant humor and tragic dimensions to Quinn, something Butterworth doesn’t achieve on his own.

Even if The Ferryman isn’t a great play, watching this sparkling ensemble, estimably directed by Mendes, perform on Rob Howell’s extraordinary set (but what’s up with all those stairs?) is a richly theatrical experience.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

November '18 Digital Week I

Boxed Set of the Week 
Robin Williams—Comic Genius 
(Time-Life)
When Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, the world was robbed of one of its greatest comedians, an endlessly inventive and original performer who was always “on” whenever in front of the camera. That he left so much topnotch material in his many stand-up routines, tours, appearances on various television shows, and his starring role in his breakout hit Mork and Mindy is underscored in this (mostly) terrific boxed set.

At 22 DVDs and more than 50 hours, the aptly-named Comic Genius collects the many facets of Williams: his five sidesplitting HBO specials; several episodes from Mork; many live appearances on Johnny Carson, Jimmy Kimmel, Oprah and SNL (too bad they weren’t able to get any of his uproarious Letterman appearances or anything at all from Comic Relief); this year’s touching HBO documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, from director Marina Zenovich; and his unique appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. There’s a lot more—extras include interviews with Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Eric Idle, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and son Zak Williams, along with behind-the-scenes footage, featurettes, etc.—and it’s all housed with a 24-page book of archival photos, reminiscences from others and Williams’ own jottings. 

Blu-rays of the Week
Dracula A.D. 1972 
(Warner Archive)
In this relatively mild Hammer horror feature from (natch) 1972, Christopher Lee plays the resurrected Transylvanian Count who comes to swingin’ England to set his fangs on the comely daughter of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (played with stylish nonchalance by Peter Cushing). The movie meanders about, with pseudo-hip scenes featuring bad live musical performances, and the anticipated showdown between Lee and Cushing is too muted. But completists—this is the penultimate Hammer Dracula flick with Lee—will enjoy it. The hi-def transfer is fine.

Mara 
(Lionsgate)
Clive Tonge’s paranormal horror flick has the courage of its convictions—at least until the usual inconsistencies that imperil the genre rear their heads like the sleep demon that terrorizes so many of its characters. Lending elegance to what becomes a by-the-numbers screamfest is Olga Kurylenko, who gives credibility to this increasingly incredulous tale as a psychiatrist trying to understand why the creepy spirit appears. There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Poldark—Complete 4th Season 
(PBS Masterpiece)
The smash-hit series’ fourth season keeps the rivalry going between our engaging eponymous hero Ross and his loathsome adversary George (inexplicably married to Ross’s former flame Elizabeth), with the added incentive for George that, since Ross has outsmarted him and is now a member of Parliament, George continues scheming to return to politics. The superb cast is led by Aidan Turner (Ross), Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark’s wife Demelza), Heida Reed (Elizabeth) and Jack Farthing (George); the subplots, especially that of Reverend Ossie Whitworth and his unfortunate young wife Morwenna, are especially diverting, and the shocking—if not unexpected—death of one of the major characters (sob!) serves as a cliffhanger of sorts. The hi-def transfer is gorgeous; extras are short featurettes and interviews.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

2018 New York Film Festival and Margarethe von Trotta Retrospective

56th New York Film Festival
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY
September 28-October 14, 2018
filmlinc.org/nyff

Searching for Ingmar Bergman
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Opens November 2, 2018
Margarethe von Trotta: The Political Is Personal
Runs through November 8, 2018
Quad Cinema, 34 W 13th Street, New York, NY
quadcinema.com

The New York Film Festival included several interesting documentaries, although the features in the main slate were for the most part underwhelming. Case in point: Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (opens Dec. 21). Although his last film, Ida—the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film which explored the controversial question of how Poland treated Jews during WWII—was an impressively controlled drama, Cold War tries for a similar dynamic but fails. Again shot in exquisite black and white (by Łukasz Żal) and starring an affecting Joanna Kulig, this drama (partly based on the director’s parents’ relationship) about a couple attempting to leave behind the crushing controls of Communism feels like a trailer for a more involving and intimate study.

Happy as Lazzaro
Alice Rohrwacher has been one of the brightest filmmakers around since her unforgettable debut, Corpo Celeste, played the 2011 New York Film Festival. Although her follow-up, The Wonders, relied too heavily on forced Felliniesque whimsy, Happy as Lazzaro (on Netflix and in theaters Nov. 30), gets the balance right. The film follows a good young man who’s part of a village whose inhabitants basically work as slaves for a rich landowner. After a tragic incident, the villagers are moved to civilization, but Lazzaro ends up on his own, and Rohrwacher freely and delightfully exults in him being unmoored from reality. Although at times labored, it’s rarely heavy-handed; even the final sequences, in which the surreal and magical clash with naturalism, have a sense of purposefulness, showing the director at her best.

In Frederick Wiseman’s latest immersive documentary, Monrovia, Indiana (opened Oct. 26), we visit the heart of tRump country, a rural Midwestern town in which people go on with their workaday lives. Long stretches of Wiseman’s consistently watchful gaze are given over to local community board meetings in which increasingly banal arguments are made about mundane matters. Although Wiseman takes no explicit political stances, the film ends with the funeral of one of the town’s elders, and the weight of the sequence makes it feel like an elegy for an America that’s been lost.

Director Christian Petzold—whose collaborations with that extraordinary actress Nina Hoss on films like Barbara and Jerichow are among German cinema’s high points over the past decade—disappoints with his latest, Transit (opens Mar. 1, 2019), which, coincidentally or not, does not feature Hoss. Instead, the camera is trained on Franz Rogowski, an inexpressive actor who sleepwalks through his role as an enigmatic drifter who takes on a dead writer’s identity and becomes embroiled in a convoluted narrative about refugees that belabors its lone point. Although she’s no Hoss, Paula Beer provides a far more sympathetic presence than Rogowski. In the end, sadly, Petzold’s elegant filmmaking skill is all for naught.

The Image Book
In a sense, most Jean-Luc Godard films are essays, collages, the beautiful if sometimes inscrutable symmetry of placing images and sounds side by side, either complementing or pushing back against one another. But The Image Book (opens Jan. 25, 2019) is the closest he’s come in 30 years to something along the lines of his great Histoire(s) du Cinema. Unlike that marathon, multi-episode opus, The Image Book is a mere 90 minutes, but in that short space of time Godard lets fly with startling juxtapositions of old-time movie clips, newly-shot digital footage by his DP/editor Fabrice Aragno, and his own endearingly mumbled grouchy-old-man narration. His foray into politics—he shows Obama at one point, but pointedly doesn’t reference tRump—is as inscrutable as ever, but it’s glorious to see this grand old man of cinema at age 88, still passionately engaged, enraged and enraging.

Made in 1979, The War at Home (now playing)—in a pristine new print—remains a touchstone of documentary reporting on the effects of the Vietnam War on those in America: students on college campuses, families of those who went, and activists at schools and in neighborhoods who clashed with a conservative establishment trying to make an elusive case for the war’s worth. Directors Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown seek out people’s authentic responses and actions to make the point clearer than ever that this unwinnable war needed to be ended, and is valuable viewing four decades on to counteract a prevailing right-wing narrative that liberals lost a war that could have been won had we stayed in it.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman
Searching for Ingmar Bergman, German director Margarethe von Trotta’s intensely personal look at the great director’s art, starts with her remembering seeing The Seventh Seal for the first time while in Paris. That memory triggers her journey to the places where Bergman’s genius was most felt: in Sweden, where she speaks to one of his muses, Liv Ullmann, and his sons—who discuss with candor their volatile and often distant relationship with their father—and von Trotta’s own Germany, where Bergman escaped to Munich in the 70s when he became a tax exile and directed plays and films (The Serpent’s Egg and From the Life of the Marionettes). Among a handful of luminaries (including French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve and Spanish master Carlos Saura), von Trotta’s most memorable moments are with German actress Rita Russek, who describes Bergman’s methods as a theater and film director in a foreign language. If Searching for Ingmar Bergman never really finds him, that isn’t von Trotta’s intent: rather, it’s an essay about the impossibility of separating genius from the flawed individual making art.

Von Trotta’s documentary is the centerpiece of Quad Cinema’s week-long retrospective of her films, The Political Is Personal. Too bad it’s very selective, with the emphasis on her earlier work as part of the New German Cinema of the 1970s into the ‘80s, although she made some quite impressive films after that: most recently, there have been two fine bio-pics, Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen and Hannah Arendt, both starring one of her muses, Barbara Sukowa. 

But the films chosen here—except for her weak collaboration with then-husband Volker Schlondorff, 1975’s The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum—are apt reminders of the singular voice and perspective that she brought to German cinema. Von Trotta’s initial solo features frankly explore complicated female relationships:  The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), Sisters or the Balance of Happiness (1979), Marianne and Julianne (1981) and Sheer Madness (1983) are fascinating individually and in toto, and the performances by her actresses—Sukowa, Angela Winkler, Tina Engel, Hanna Schygulla and Jutta Lampe—are fierce and formidable. 

There’s also Rosa Luxembourg (1986), von Trotta’s absorbing biopic about the Communist agitator, played brilliantly by Sukowa. It’s too bad that her followup films—Love and Fear, The Long Silence, The Promise and Rosenstrasse—aren’t part of this retrospective, which would have made a more complete, warts-and-all portrait of this still relevant filmmaker.