Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Faust 
(Kino)
Keeping viewers at arm’s length, while his raison d'etre, mars estimable director Aleksandr Sokurov’s bizarre attempt to turn Goethe’s classic into farce; although containing characteristically fluid camerawork (shot in Academy ratio by Bruno Delbonnel), the film is often tepidly humorless despite its being more lighthearted than usual for Sokurov. Because of the director's uniquely dream-like visual style, the movie looks pulled this way and that, but if you know what you're in for—who else but those familiar with Sokurov will watch this?—then there are intermittent pleasures to be had. 

Fed Up 
(Anchor Bay)
Stephanie Soechtig's advocacy documentary demonizes sugar in the fight against the current frightening epidemic of obesity while also demanding that our government stop subsidizing the junk food industry at the same time it fights for healthy eating. Inevitably, in a 90-minute feature important information gets short shrift, but the stories of several children trying to deal with weight problems are heartrending. Another quibble: narrator Katie Couric (co-executive producer with Laurie David) mispronounces "grocery" as "groshery." The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras comprise deleted scenes and a Spanish-language version of the film.

God's Pocket 
(IFC)
Based on Pete Dexter's novel, this drama tries hard to find the scalding humor in ordinary people's tragic everyday lives (and deaths), but actor-turned-director John Slattery is unable to to get a handle on and balance the constant tonal shifts. And despite a game cast—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins and John Turturro, for starters—the film's plot unspools more interestingly than the characters do, so the story's sharp turns overwhelm the performers' otherwise sharp characterizations. The movie looks terrific on Blu-ray; extras are Slattery's commentary and deleted scenes.

The Roosevelts—An Intimate History 
(PBS)
Ken Burns' latest documentary comprises 14 hours and 7 episodes of American history that explores the greatness of two of our ablest presidents, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Franklin's wife Eleanor, who may have been more famous and popular than either. Made in Burns' usual way—archival footage and photographs are shown while narrator Peter Coyote and actors Edward Herrmann (FDR), Paul Giamatti (TR) and Meryl Streep (Eleanor) speak their actual words—The Roosevelts is another valuable American history lesson, this time reminding all of us what progressivism has accomplished. The hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise deleted scenes with Burns' intro, making-of featurette and 13 bonus videos..

Willow Creek 
(Dark Sky)
Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait is late to the game with his riff on The Blair Witch Project about a couple hoping to discover clues to Bigfoot's existence but instead finding  worse horrors when they get lost in the woods. Aside from the fact that the movie's hero and heroine act so idiotically that they deserve their fate, there's no denying that the "found-footage" mania ran its course years ago, and Goldthwait has little in the way of scares and twists to add. The Blu-ray looks first-rate; extras include Goldthwait and his stars' commentary and a making-of featurette. 

DVDs of the Week
Burning Bush 
(Kino)
The 1968 Prague Spring, a brief flicker of democracy during Czechoslovakia's Communist rule, occurred while Polish director Agnieszka Holland was attending film school in the Czech capital; that closeness to the mesmerizing immediacy of history in the making has informed her three-part, epic exploration of some of that history—the aftermath of student Jan Palach's self-immolation as a form of protest. Holland made this as a mini-series for HBO Europe and is a master at the rhythms of dramatic arcs in vogue on TV (she's directed episodes of The Wire and Treme and the recent Rosemary's Baby), and hers is an exciting version of history writ large, with gloriously lived-in performances by Tatiana Pauhofova, Ivan Trojan and Jaroslav Pokorna, among many others. But why isn't Burning Bush on Blu-ray?

The Equalizer—The Complete Series 
(VEI)
This compelling police drama ran on CBS from 1985 to 1989 and not only showcases a charismatic Edward Woodward as the title man for hire who will do the dirty work for his often helpless clients but is also a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan (with many shots of the World Trade Center, which will always pull me out of whatever I'm watching for a few moments).

Woodward does yeoman's work throughout, and is joined by many guest stars, several at the beginning of their careers (Kevin Spacey, Cynthia Nixon, Stanley Tucci) and others veterans of the small and large screen (E.G. Marshall, Maureen Stapleton), while Philip Bosco leads an impressive list of New York stage actors who got in on the fun, like Tammy Grimes and Laila Robins.

This 30-disc set includes all 88 episodes and contains several enjoyable, if somewhat superfluous, extras aside from a 45-minute retrospective featurette: there's A Congregation of Ghosts, Woodward's last completed film before his 2009 death, and CI5: The New Professionals, a 1999 espionage series with Woodward that was a big hit in Europe.

The German Doctor 
(First Run)
In this tantalizing could-be true story, Nazi refugee Josef Mengele sets up shop in Argentina, where there is already a substantial post-WWII German-speaking population: in the process, the amiable monster becomes unusually close to a family, especially the young wife and her vulnerable little daughter (a remarkable Florencia Bado). Director Lucia Puenzo—who also adapted her own novel—never strays far from melodrama, but the cast is top-notch and the inevitable tension is, generally, smartly underplayed. 

Inspector Manara—Complete Seasons 1 & 2
(MHz)
With his blue eyes, wavy hair, sideburns and moustache, actor Guido Caprino plays up the physical attarctiveness of Inspector Luca Manara to the hilt in this ingratiating if thinly stretched police drama in which the atypical chief inspector (in both looks and manner, natch) annoys nearly all his male colleagues but enchants all his female ones—natch. It's fun and entertaining, even if the cases that are solved are less than enthralling, while the cast swings between overplaying and ignoring the obviousness of the conceit.

Years of Living Dangerously 
(Showtime)
In this multi-part series calmly foretelling our doom from climate change, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman leads a pack of celebrities—Don Cheadle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Munn, Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Matt Damon, America Ferrera—to spell out matter-of-factly the road to ruin we are on. There is some optimism in seeing so many people of every stripe trying to help out, which temporarily tempers the obvious conclusion that we are in trouble. Extras comprise hours of material, including deleted scenes and interviews.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

September '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Any Given Sunday 
(Warners)
This 1999 football epic is another typically overwrought Oliver Stone film, providing equal parts mesmerizing gridiron action and preposterous melodrama, while also showcasing the usual overacting by Al Pacino and James Woods, and the usual underwhelming presence of Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J and Jamie Foxx. The NFL cameos are legion: Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas, Warren Moon, Emmitt Smith, Terrell Owens and even coach Barry Switzer apear. Stone's preferred 157-minute "directors' cut" is on the Blu-ray, while the original cut—six minutes longer—is only on an accompanying DVD. The hi-def image looks stunning; extras include commentaries by Stone and Foxx; deleted/extended scenes; music videos; outtakes; features, both old and new.

Night Moves 
(Cinedigm)
Kelly Reichardt's exploration of a trio of radical environmentalists who decide to destroy a dam as the ultimate protest takes an unexpected turn when an innocent person dies in the explosion and the three must deal with the mortal (and moral) consequences. Fine performances by Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning form the dramatic center, while Reichardt's low-key approach to the Hitchcockian thriller pays dividends that makes this her most successful movie since her debut, Old Joy. The movie looks excellent on Blu-ray.

Supernatural—Complete 9th Season 
Vampire Diaries—Complete 5th Season 
(Warners)
These two popular series on the CW network receive their latest Blu-ray releases. In the most recent, 23-episode season of Supernatural—whose latest season begins this fall—Sam and Dean Winchester find themselves battling a plethora of powerful and unearthly beings, while the fifth, 22-episode season of Vampire Diaries—whose sixth season also returns soon—finds the human body count piling up on campus after Elena (the toothsome Nina Dobrev) begins school. Both dramas look sensational in high definition; Supernatural extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel, a 2013 Comic-Con panel and several commentaries, while Vampire extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

They Came Together 
(Lionsgate)
Director/co-writer David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter have concocted a sophomoric parody of rom-coms, beginning with its unfunny double entendre title. Some might defend this trite, desperate gag-o-rama by saying "but it's supposed to be inane—that's the point"; but the pair's endless succession of old, stale gags and one-liners is fully bad enough to be rejected by Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and even the Zucker brothers. Paul Rudd has an effortlessness that almost redeems some of the sorry material, while Amy Poehler's in-your-face attitude fits the movie to a T. The hi-def images look good; extras include Wain/Showalter commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, table reading.

Words and Pictures 
(Lionsgate)
In this perfectly serviceable rom-com, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche bring needed star quality to a sappy love story by Gerald Dipego, whose script (and its title) makes so explicit the literal differences between their characters—he's an English teacher/poet, she's an art teacher/painter—that it mitigates the low-key pleasures the movie does afford, despite hackneyed subplots that add 20 minutes to a movie that should be no longer than an hour and a half. Director Fred Schepisi once again shows his stylish professionalism, but it would be nice if he got hold of a meaty script again: alas, the days of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, A Cry in the Dark and even Last Orders are gone. The sharp Blu-ray image shows off Ian Baker's sumptuously burnished photography; extras comprise a Schepisi commentary and making-of featurette.  

DVDs of the Week
Cesare Mori
Donna Detective 
(MHz)
The compelling true story Cesare Mori follows a detective who, against all odds, went up against the Sicilian Mafia after World War I and cleaned up a lot more than what one would have thought possible; Vincent Perez is particularly appealing in the lead role of the fearless "iron prefect" who used the same harsh methods of the Cosa Nostra to apprehend their leaders. Lucrezia Lante della Rovere's portrayal of the title character in Donna Detective—a harried but brilliant female chief inspector who must balance her personal and professional lives unlike any of her male colleagues—makes this Italian Prime Suspect a must-see as she time and again upends the chauvanistic attitudes of those men who are in charge or are under her charge. 

The Galapagos Affair 
(Zeitgeist)
In this weirdly fascinating true-life murder mystery, directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller lay out with precision and dexterity a who's who of bizarre characters who descended on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s, where jealousy and possible adultery led to the disappearance of two of their denizens. Affair is both first-rate investigative journalism and a shimmery documentary about the natural wonders of these beautiful but near-desolate islands; revolving narrators include Cate Blanchett, Connie Nielsen, Sebastian Koch and Diane Kruger. Extras include deleted scenes and directors' Telluride Festival Q&A.

Lolly Madonna XXX
Nasty Habits 
(Warner Archive)
Richard C. Sarafian's strident Lolly (1973) charts a deadly feud between two Tennessee families, jumpstarted when an innocent young woman is kidnapped; despite veteran actors like Rod Steiger and Robert Ryan—and young bucks like Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid and Gary Busey—the movie is blunt to the point of dullness. Likewise, the bumpily satirical Habits (1977), based on Muriel Spark's novel, is an occasionally funny look at political machinations in a nunnery following the Mother Superior's demise; this unsuccessful take-off on Watergate wastes Glenda Jackson, Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

The Midnight Special 
(StarVista)
Producer Bert Sugarman's late-night pop-music series, which ran from 1972 to 1981, featured the biggest stars of the time performing their hit songs without lip-synching, and this six-disc set crams some six dozen performers from 21 (out of 450) episodes, representing just the tip of the iceberg of who played on the show over its 8-plus years. Included areJohn Denver (who sang on and hosted the series pilot), the Doobie Brothers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates, Aerosmith and ELO, giving energetic live versions of hits like "Take Me Home Country Roads," "Jesus Is Just Alright," "American Girl," "Show Me the Way," "Sara Smile," "Train Kept A-Rollin" and "Strange Magic." Extras comprise bonus songs, interviews and featurettes.

Teenage 
(Oscilloscope)
Matt Wolf's detailed documentary eloquently explores the invention of a generation that we now take for granted: the "birth" of teenagers. Coming to terms with unruly young people has always been difficult for adults, and the chasm that grew following the Industrial Revolution and two world wars is shown by Wolf as the deciding factor in the coming of age of adolescence (and adolescents). Mixing archival footage with dramatic reenactments and narrated diary entries by Jena Malone, Ben Winshaw and others, Teenage is wise beyond its years. Extras comprise Wolf's commentary, making-of featurettes and more archival footage.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Theater Reviews—A.R. Gurney's 'The Wayside Motor Inn' & Shaw Festival 2014

The Wayside Motor Inn
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through September 28, 2014
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
signaturetheatre.org

Shaw Festival 2014
Arms and the Man
Written by Bernard Shaw
Cabaret
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Written by Tennessee Williams
When We Are Married
Written by J.B. Priestley
Performances through October 26, 2014
Niagara on the Lake, Canada
shawfest.com

Ismenia Mendes and David McElwee in The Wayside Motor Inn (photo: Joan Marcus)
A. R. Gurney, America's most civilized, genteel playwright, paints particular portraits, usually of society's upper crust, as in The Cocktail Hour or The Dining Room. His writing more recently became political, disgusted and alarmed as Gurney was over the Bush administration; I wonder if he will write anything about Obama. But much of his career has been one urbane work after another. It's no wonder that Love Letters—which consists of an actor and actress reading letters to each other—is being revived on Broadway this fall with rotating pairs of performers.

When his 1977 comedy-drama The Wayside Motor Inn premiered, it wasn't very well received, since it was more experimental than usual for Gurney: five unrelated stories about five pairs of regular (not affluent) people were played out near-simultaneously on the same set. And indeed, in the first act of director Lila Neugebauer's pleasing revival, there's a sense that, as the plots move forward in a sterile room in the title inn situated near Boston, not much happens in these quotidian lives on an ordinary day.

But, as the second act makes clear, Gurney's point is that there are no (or rare) grand epiphanies or intense dramas in our lives. The closest is a brief heart episode that Frank, sixty-ish husband to nagging wife Jesse, has when alone in the room, or when irate dad Vince tears teenage son Mark's favorite shirt when he refuses to wear a preppy pink one to the meeting Vince arranged for him with an important Harvard alum. 

Indeed, most of what happens is everyday, like college couple Phil and Sally trying to be alone together, or married traveling salesman Ray trying to talk inn employee Sharon (she of the wryly funny pronouncements about the horrible state of the world) into a date, or the escalating arguments betwwen divorcing husband Andy and wife Sharon when she stops by his room and discovers that he swiped beloved family photo albums.

Life goes on for these people, who may be a little wiser or worse for wear after a few hours holed up in this motel room: or maybe not. Either way, Gurney's play comprises typically elegant dialogue and construction, even if the multi-story conceit owes much to Alan Ayckbourn, who did much better by it in How the Other Half Lives, and makes similar ingenious sleights of hand far less gimmicky than Gurney does here. 

Still, director Neugebauer guides the busy stage traffic deftly, while Andrew Lieberman's exacting set and Kaye Voyce's vivid costumes take us right back to the late '70s. In a strong cast of ten, Ismenia Mendes etches a fiercely believable portrait of Sally's sexual confusion (Mendes is fast becoming, after Family Furniture and this, a go-to Gurney favorite), while Jenn Lyon makes a sexy, flirty Sharon.


Every summer, a trek to Niagara on the Lake is good for the soul. This idyllic country town is home to delectable wines made by award-winning wineries, along with housing the Shaw Festival: sampling the wines and attending plays (and, lately, musicals) performed by the best repertory acting troupe around are annual traditions I try not to miss.

Seeing several performances at Shaw allows one to watch the same performers splendidly enact different roles, whether comic, dramatic, farcical, tragic or musical. And so it is this year, starting with the exquisite Deborah Hay, who not only gives a remarkable portrayal of floozy chanteuse Sally Bowles in Peter Hinton's engrossing staging of Cabaret, but also sympathetically plays Dorothea, who is another Tennessee Williams attempt to reincarnate Blanche Dubois in his gauche one-act A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, this season's lunchtime presentation, staged rather toothlessly by director Blair Williams.

In Cabaret—whose obviously symbolic spiral staircase set by Michael Gianfrancesco is utilized to the hilt by director Hinton, at times to the show's detriment—the amazing Hay leads an array of accomplished actors like veterans Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz and Corinne Koslo as Fraulein Schneider. In the seminal role of the Emcee, Juan Chioran copies neither Joel Grey nor Alan Cumming, instead coming up with an equally compelling interpretation of his own, with none of the excessive campiness that marred Cumming's return to the part on Broadway this spring. 


Attending the Shaw Festival leads to blissful discoveries. This season, it's J. B. Priestley's When We Are Married, an hilariously frenzied comedy (premiering in 1938) about three Yorkshire couples, married on the same day in the same chapel 25 years ago, finding out on their Silver Anniversary that they are not legal. These proper Victorians set about dealing with the possibility that they've been living in sin for a quarter-century in drolly humorous ways, while director Joseph Ziegler makes a masterly ringmaster in the Shaw's new production, which has a crackerjack cast led by Claire Jullien as one of the "wives" and Thom Marriott as one of the "husbands."

Jullien also appears in (and pretty much steals) a disappointing revival of Arms and the Man, Bernard Shaw's magisterial exploration of war and peace, both on the battlefield and the boudoir. Would that director Morris Panych didn't irrelevantly push this classic comedy toward farce, with unfelicitous results. But even in such a wayward production, Shaw's caustic humor and still-relevant observations remain a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

The Wayside Motor Inn
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
signaturetheatre.org

Shaw Festival 2014
Niagara on the Lake, Canada
shawfest.com

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Breathless 
(PBS)
Blend Call the Midwife and Mad Men together and you get this swanky but serious '60s hospital soap opera following the jumbled lives of doctors, nurses, patients and their fragile families in a soon-to-explode cultural powder keg in pre-swinging London. The series introduces Otto Powel, the dashing head of the gynecological ward who provides safe but highly illegal abortions, and his elegant but complicated wife Elizabeth: Jack Davenport and Natasha Little play these characters with persuasive conviction, supported by a superior supporting cast. The Blu-ray looks smashing.

Haven—Complete 4th Season 
(e one)
The Walking Dead—Complete 4th Season 
(Anchor Bay)
In the fourth season of Haven—based on Stephen King's novel The Colorado Kid—the small Maine title town is still dealing with the supernatural afflictions that have been unyielding for decades; although risible throughout, there's a guilty pleasure quality to the show, and Emily Rose makes a most attractively flawed heroine. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead stumbles around through a fourth year of post-apocalyptic battles among human and zombie survivors, but it does so with a singlemindedness that keeps many fans coming back for more. Both series look spectacular on Blu-ray; Haven extras are featurettes, interviews, commentaries, deleted scene and blooper reel, and Dead extras are featurettes, commentaries and deleted scenes.

High School Confidential! 
(Olive Films)
In the late 1950s, with rock'n'roll gaining traction among the younger set, Jack Arnold's 1958 drama about rowdy doings in a suburban high school—drug use, drug selling, drag racing—is a prime example of a not very good genre, with Jerry Lee Lewis himself providing the boppin' title tune. Although the acting is mostly embarrassing (especially Russ Tamblyn as an undercover cop pretending to be a horny, drug-adled teenager), there are memorable turns by Mamie Van Doren as a sexy aunt and Jan Sterling as a sexy single teacher; as a cautionary tale it's worthless, but as an hysterical piece of camp, it's worth a look. The B&W photography looks fine on Blu-ray.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson—
'Thick as a Brick' Live in Iceland 
(Eagle Vision/Universal)
Although his voice is now pretty much shot, former Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson still performs his band's classic 1972 album Thick as a Brick in its entirety, paired with (what else?) Thick as a Brick II, which he recorded and released in 2012. Accompanied by a solid backing band, Anderson blows through both albums in front of a racuous audience, showing that, even if his best days are behind him, he made an important contribution to '70s progressive rock. The Blu-ray image and sound are first-rate; extras include Anderson interview and additional songs.

Music from the Big House 
(Matson Films)
Bruce McDonald's documentary about Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli performing concerts with inmates at the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary is a rousing and soul-stirring example of how even convicted rapists and murderers find solace in music. Although McDonald allows the men to speak for themselves, frankly discussing their criminal pasts, his film avoids moralizing to concentrate on Chiarelli and the men's music-making. Steve Cosens' B&W photography looks stunning in HD; extras include bonus concert footage, additional scenes and a music video.

The Originals—Complete 1st Season 
(Warners)
Yet another stylish-looking drama series about sexy young vampires, The Originals has the added smarts of being set in New Orleans—where Anne Rice originally set her classic novel Interview wth a Vampire—bringing the Big Easy's visual lushness into the plotline itself. When the predictable machinations of the undead start to pall over these 22 episodes, there's an attractive cast and even more attractive locations to help out. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras include commentaries, featurettes and unaired scenes..

DVDs of the Week
Citizen Koch 
(MPI)
The rise of the billionaire Koch brothers and the sudden formation of the Tea Party after Obama's 2008 election are front and center in Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's valuable documentary, which also brings into the mix the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society (founded by the Kochs' father) and the current rabidly pro-business Republican party. This damning document should be seen by people of all stripes to see how big money and ultra-rich donors are ruining our political system, but those who would most benefit probably won't come near this movie. Extras include extended and deleted scenes, a conversation with Michael Moore and a Sundance Film Fest "Meet the Artists."

History Detectives—Special Investigations 
(PBS)
This entertaining PBS series follows a trio of investigators—Wes Cowen, Kaiama Glover and Tukufu Zuberi—who set out to unearth fresh evidence and perspectives on several unsolved mysteries from our country's past, traveling around America and beyond to try and crack "cold cases" like the disappearances of Jimmy Hoffa and Glenn Miller, Civil War sabotage and murders of servant girls in Texas. Admittedly, there's a slightly cheesy quality to the entire series, as the trio continually (and breathlessly) acts as if the probes are really solving these long unresolved mysteries, but it remains a guilty pleasure.

Out of the Clear Blue Sky 
(Virgil)
On September 11, the Cantor Fitzgerald firm lost 658 employees—the most loss of life for any company in the World Trade Center attacks—affecting not only the firm's very survival but many surviving spouses, children, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, etc. Danielle Gardner's affecting documentary gives human faces to this unthinkable tragedy, recounting how CEO Howard Lutnick (who lived because he took his son to his first day of school) and survivors have made it through to today, not only emotionally but financially. Despite annoying overuse of dramatizations, this tough but tender film is a stark reminder that a lot happened to innocent people, both on that unforgettable day and for years afterward.

Richard Lewis—Bundle of Nerves 
(VSC)
An bottomless well of exaggerated tics, comedian Richard Lewis's act builds on Woody Allen's Jewish neurotic, this two-disc set is a perfect introduction to his unique brand of stand-up. Disc one comprises his hilarous 1997 HBO special, Magical Misery Tour, which was filmed at NYC's Bottom Line; and his first TV special, 1979's Diary of a Young Comic, an uneven but often sharp debut. Disc two consists of the 1995 film Drunks, a heartfelt but scattershot comic drama that stars Lewis and Dianne Wiest; and an exclusive new fetaure, House of a Lifetime, which shows off the comedian's many collections. Extras are Lewis intros on all four titles, and commentaries on Diary and Drunks.

Sol LeWitt 
(Icarus)
Chris Teerink's sympathetic 76-minute 2012 documentary portrait of one of America's leading conceptual artists—who died in 2007—is an informed appreciation of, and introduction to, the notoriously private LeWitt and his personal art. Teerink's camera explores various works—in particular the 3-mile long installation Wall Drawing #801: Spiral—and conducts several  interviews with colleagues who bring to life his art and life; it's a little dry and academic, but never less than enlightening.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Off-Broadway Roundup—Theresa Rebeck's 'Poor Behavior,' Naomi Wallace's 'And I and Silence'

Poor Behavior
Written by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Evan Cabnet
Performances through September 7, 2014
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
primarystages.org

And I and Silence
Written by Naomi Wallace; directed by Caitlin McLeod
Performances through September 14, 2014
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
signaturetheatre.org

Kreisler and Avers in Poor Behavior (photo: James Leynse)
In Poor Behavior, playwright Theresa Rebeck has written a serious comedy that attempts to dissect two couples during a not-so-wonderful weekend upstate. However, despite a fair share of decent one-liners and bright observations, her play never has the courage of its convictions, falling back on shopworn tropes time and again.

Argumentative Irishman Ian and his flighty wife Maureen are visiting laconic Peter and his spunky better half Ella at their house off the Taconic Parkway (the appropriately crammed and messy house is by set designer Lauren Helpern, with a mighty assist from props/set dresser Faye Armon-Troncoso). The curtain rises on a shrill argument between Ian and Ella about the meaning of "goodness": while their wine-fueled feud may or may not prove that there's a spark between them despite their spouses' presence, it is unmistakably a big yellow highlighter wielded by Rebeck to signal her unsubtle intentions. 

Following the argument, Maureen and Peter, both off to bed, leave Ella and Ian alone; a little while later, Maureen returns and see them embracing, although Ian had just confessed to Ella of his grief over his father's death, and their hug could have been merely conciliatory. But the jealous Maureen doesn't think so, and it leads to serious complications for both couples: Maureen accuses Ian and Ella of having an affair, while a skeptical Peter finally accuses them when Maureen points out that Ian has Ella's earrings—which she absent-mindedly took off and left in the kitchen—in his pocket. (How did she know?)  

The fights continue and abate as the couples leave and return. Later on, Peter catches Ian and Ella in a much more compromising position, after both Maureen and Peter leave and Ian boldly tells Ella to put up or shut up. His ludicrous reasoning is that both spouses already think they are having an affair, so why not have one? Ella, even more ludicrously, acquiesces, presumably to underscore Rebeck's argument about a lack of goodness in our crazy modern world. 

Rebeck wants to show these people in an unflattering light but too often forsakes plausibility to make her not very penetrating points. Crucially, the affair Ian and Ella (and the author) hint at since their opening semantics battle is never made credible for the simple reason that Ian, as written by Rebeck and overacted by Brian Avers, is so unsavory and irritating that it makes no sense for Ella—who comes off as a sensible, smart, grounded woman, at least as played by the sensible, smart and grounded Katie Kreisler—to fall for such a heel and put her stable marriage in jeopardy. Sure, in the real world, there are men and women willing to do that, and broken marriages are everywhere, but Rebeck and her capable director Evan Cabnet never persuasively make the case for such reprehensible (i.e., poor) behavior.

What's left is a smattering of funny lines about easy targets like artisan muffins, childless couples, and Irish food and drink. But that's not why Rebeck wrote her play.

Hicks and Soule in And I and Silence (photo: Matthew Murphy)
I barely remembered One Flea Spare, the first play I saw by Naomi Wallace, which was staged at the Public Theatre in 1998. But after I sat through her drama And I and Silence at the Signature Theatre, it all came flooding back, because both are cut from the same cloth,  beginning with "borrowing" lines from poems for her titles (first it was John Donne, now it's Emily Dickinson). Wallace tackles interesting subjects with occasional insight, little poetry and even less logic, a fatal combination.

And I and Silence recounts the story of two young women, black Jamie and white Dee, who strike up an unlikely friendship while in prison as teenagers and end up barely scraping by nine years later, after their release. Jamie teaches Dee how to clean houses while in jail, but although those skills come in handy to land much needed jobs, both women must deal with the ingrained sexism and especially racism of what's presumably the South in the 1950s. Needless to say, Wallace wants to show that Jamie and Dee, as free adult women, may be even worse off than they were while locked up, a not terribly insightful observation.

Wallace alternates scenes of the locked-up teens with the free women with scarcely any resonance or sense of lives lived or ruined, only Jamie and Dee's mostly banal talk that's occasionally gussied up with what Wallace takes to be poetic utterances. So there's sing-song rhyming dialogue like "I’m dozy, yeah, but hardy as can be/No finer cleaner you’ll come by than me" or bits of pseudo-profundity like "You get one chance with a word. You misuse that chance, you don’t get another and when that happens, they kick you to the curb." 

The nastiness of sexism and racism is never made palpable, despite endless dialogue about it—and anyway, it's already evident what kind of society the girls are trapped in, as shown by the prison sequences, which never ring true either. How would Jamie and Dee continue to keep meeting when they are different cell blocks? No prison would allow such fraternizing, especially between different races, which are deliberately kept apart.

The entire play is a shaggy dog story, mere smoke and mirrors. Even the girls' relationship is kept deliberately opaque, while their sexuality (heretofore hetero) is tossed aside when Dee demonstrates on Jamie's finger how she had to perform fellatio against her will on a nasty boss—whereupon Dee dives under Jamie's dress for some much needed release before their final and violent act of true solidarity. With so little context, it's difficult to sympathize.

If Wallace's script made this pair's motivations more convincing, director Caitlin McLeod might have been able to find a clear way through such deliberate confusions: why, for example, are two sets of actresses needed when the characters merely age from 16 or 17 to 25 or 26? It's needlessly distracting, especially since the paired-off actresses don't look at all alike. A game cast (Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks as Jamie, Emily Skeggs and Samantha Soule as Dee) is left to drift, along with their director and, most damagingly, their author.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
All That Jazz 
(Criterion Collection)
Bob Fosse's penultimate film, this 1979 autobiographical musical drama might have "borrowed" from Fellini's confessional 8-1/2, but it's still as frank, honest and ugly a self-portrait of the artist as a middle-aged egomaniac as there's ever been. Fosse's agile direction and choreography, Alan Heim's clever editing, Giuseppe Rotunno's sparkling photography and the flawless acting—led by Roy Scheider's remarkable performance as Joe Gideon, i.e., Bob Fosse—make this an indelible feel-bad show-biz confessional. Criterion's hi-def transfer is immaculate; voluminous extras include commentaries, featurettes, and interviews vintage and new (the latter with Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi, who danced an unforgettable duet).

Bears 
(Disneynature)
The latest Disneynature adventure takes the measure of America's most fearsome land animal, the Alaskan brown bear, without showing much of its fierceness; still, it's far from a toothless dramatization, despite being turned into a heartwarming tale of a protective mother and her cubs in dangerous climes. Of course, since it's shot on stunning Alaska locations with hi-def cameras, this is a must-watch for lovers of nature and animals—whether lovable or lethal—although the John C. Reilly narration is so cringeworthy one might want to watch on mute. Extras include featurettes and a music video.

Blended 
(Warners)
Since no one expected anything from a third Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore collaboration (after The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates), on its own small terms, this does what it sets out to do: tell a bunch of sophomoric jokes and provide lame sight gags while getting sentimental about family as single parents Adam and Drew eventually get together. Of course, it's at least 20 minutes too long—Sandler should never be allowed to make a movie over 90 minutes—but Barrymore is game, best demonstrated in the gag reel where she unleashes a (bleeped) potty mouth. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; other extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.

Out of the Past 
(Warner Archive)
This terse, nasty 1949 film noir about a bizarre triangle comprising a private detective, the man who hired him and the man's girlfriend was superbly directed by Jacques Tourneur (it was remade as the execrable Against All Odds in 1984, memorable only for Phil Collins' affecting title song). Tourneur's precise direction and lively performances by Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas cement its reputation as one of its genre's essentials. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; lone extra is film noir expert James Ursini's commentary.

Queen Margot 
(Cohen Media)
In Patrice Chereau's epically-scaled adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel about 16th century France's religious wars, Isabelle Adjani gives one of her greatest performances—a notch below her work in The Story of Adele H. and Camille Claudel—in the title role. Chereau's lush production is further elevated by sublime portrayals by Daniel Auteil, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Pascal Greggory and Vincent Perez, which give this costumer purpose and gravity rarely associated with the genre. The grainy hi-def transfer is true to Chereau's aesthetic; lone extra is Richard Pena's commentary.

The Quiet Ones 
(Lionsgate)
Based on a (supposed) true story, director John Pogue's horror movie about a crazed doctor, his students and the possessed patient whom they try and "cure" is notable for its finale, which provides a fiery wrapup to an otherwise routine entry. Persuasive performances also help, but there's a nagging sense of deja vu to the plot, the characters and the entire movie. The Blu-ray transfer looks good; extras are outtakes, deleted scenes, featurettes and commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Almost Human/Golden Boy 
(Warner Archive)
Revolution—Complete Final Season 
(Warners)
Two short-lived cop dramas didn't survive their infancy, but Warner Archive has brought them back for their fans: the gritty modern-day Golden Boy and futuristic Almost Human (created by J.J. Abrams) have their moments of interest, but not enough to carry any but the most unfinicky viewers through all of the episodes in each series. The second and final season of Revolution continues to explore its post-apocalyptic, post-technology world, which comprises opposing factions: fascist para-military groups and freedom fighters, or bad guys vs. good guys. Almost extras include a Comic-con panel, outtakes and deleted scenes; Revolution extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

Californication—Complete Final Season 
(CBS/Showtime)
Portlandia—Complete 4th Season 
(VSC)
Californication stumbled out of the starting blocks seven seasons ago, but it finishes strongly, mainly due to David Duchovny's ability to be annoying and charming simultaneously, while his invaluable costar Evan Handler provides sterling support along with Natasha McElhone, Madeleine Martin and Madeline Zima. Portlandia, which Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein have somehow stretched into a fourth season, remains scattershot at best, but when they hit on something worth satirizing, like Ecoterrrosts (with Olivia Wilde as the gal who always wants to disrobe for a cause) or Gay Pride parades (with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme making a silly cameo), the show can be fleetingly amusing.

Frankie and Alice 
(Lionsgate)
Halle Berry's tour de force performance notwithstanding, this true story about a stripper with multiple personalities that include a racist white woman has been turned into a clunky melodrama by the uninspired director Geoffrey Sax. Berry does give a fiercely unhinged and daring portrayal and Stellan Skarsgard is solid as her psychiatrist; but the screenplay was stitched together by six writers, and it shows. The lone extra is a short making-of featurette.

Ghost Bird 
(Matson/Kino Lorber)
Scott Crocker's fascinating documentary examines a little-known subject—the possible reemergence of the extinct Ivory-bill woodpecker, supposedly sighted in Arkansas in 2004—but also casts a wider net, if you will, that touches on not only the faith and hope of some birders but also small town America, academia and the media. Through interviews and a lot of news footage and other footage, Crocker has crafted a succinct and carefully considered account of our ever-changing relationship with the natural world. Extras include several deleted scenes. 

A Promise
Young & Beautiful 
(IFC)
Based on Stefan Zweig's novel, A Promise is handsomely mounted by director Patrice Leconte, while a trio of terrific actors—Alan Rickman, Richard Madden and especially the amazing Rebecca Hall—provide this elegant but stuffy menage a trois with a human center. Francois Ozon's Young & Beautiful, about a teenager turned successful prostitute, may be little more than a high-class French male fantasy (even although Ozon's gay), but it doesn't shirk from its heroine's difficulties, while Marine Vacth's incredible performance matches last year's breakthrough, Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue Is The Warmest Color.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Aerial America—Southeast Collection 
(Smithsonian Channel)
The latest release in this invaluable travel series comprises journeys through the states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi: a swath of the South that contains some of America's most photogenic landscapes and man-made structures. From Florida's orange groves and Alabama's cotton fields to the glittering cities of Charleston, Atlanta and Birmingham and historic Fort Sumter and St. Augustine, it's enthralling to witness so much of this land of ours, once again captured in stunning hi-definition. 

Bitten—Complete 1st Season 
(e one)
In a twist on the "sexy vampire" genre of so many recent movies and TV shows, this drama series has a werewolf protagonist: and not just any werewolf, but a sexy blonde werewolf. As played by bright, perky Laura Vandervoort as the conflicted creature, Elena is not interesting enough, with or without her "pack" of like beings, to summon up much erotic or dramatic tension, despite the actress's charms. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise Vanervoort's commentary, deleted scenes and behind the scenes featurette.

Fading Gigolo 
(Millennium)
Writer-director-star John Turturro bungles his latest, unsure of his material: is it a farce about an elderly bookshop owner (Woody Allen) pimping his employee (Turturro) to the likes of Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara (who probably don’t need such a service); is it an unlikely romance between Turturro and a lovely Hassidic widow (Vanessa Paradis), or is it a revenge picture about a Hassidic cop (Live Schreiber) preserving the widow’s honor? The tone is inconsistent throughout; and, aside from Allen’s sterling comic presence, the acting is as variable as the ultimately forgettable film. On Blu-ray, it all pleasantly shimmers; extras are Turturro’s commentary and deleted scenes that include priceless Woody improvs.

Favorites of the Moon 
(Cohen Media)
Neither as biting as Luis Bunuel nor as whimsical as Jacques Tati, Georgian director Otar Iosseliani's 1984 absurdist parable is a slight if occasionally diverting shaggy-dog tale that takes pot shots at a bourgeois that treats art, commerce and romance without much conviction. There's nothing particularly wrong with Iosseliani's brand of absurdism, but it's not nearly as provocative or amusing as its director assumes. The Blu-ray transfer is adequate; lone extra is Philip Lopate's disjointed commentary.

Manakamana 
(Cinema Guild)
This hypnotic film is less a straight documentary than a purely visual experience par excellence that simply records the reactions of various passengers on a cable car ride high above Nepal's mountains on their way to an ancient Hindu temple. That directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez never vary their visual attack might induce claustrophobia or boredom in some viewers, but their cinematic high-wire act is exhilarating to watch. The movie looks spectacular on Blu-ray; extras are directors' commentary and three additional cable car rides.

DVDs of the Week
Bicycling with Moliere 
(Strand)
Sometimes there's great pleasure to be had by simply watching performers practice their craft with elegance, as in this blissful comic drama about two actors rehearsing Moliere's The Misanthrope: Lambert Wilson and Fabrice Luchini (co-writer with director Philippe DeGuay) give a master acting class, both as the narcissistic performers they play and the characters in Moliere's classic verse comedy. Although the subplot about a divorcing Italian neighbor (an enchanting Maya Sansa) is not entirely necessary, the trio is so good together onscreen that it's fun to follow their melodramatic menage a trois through its predictable twists and turns.

Last Tango in Halifax—Complete Season 2 
(BBC)
For the second season of this drolly sentimental study of old lovers who find each other anew a half-century later, Alan and Celia (Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid) discover that, after getting married in secrecy, they must deal with many hurt feelings and others' problems—alongside their own, of course. Jacobi and Reid make a wonderfully beguiling couple, while a terrific supporting cast helps make this serious but still funny series a worthwhile diversion.

My Boy Jack 
(BBC)
This powerful true story about how Rudyard Kipling's teenage son's joining the British army during World War I affected the famous author, his American wife Caroline and loving daughter Elsie is brought to vivid life by director Brian Kirk and writer-actor David Haig in this 2007 television film. Amid the precise period details is a quartet of fine performances that make this feel-bad drama strongly hit home: Haig's Kipling, Kim Cattrall's Caroline, Carey Mulligan's Elsie and Daniel Radcliffe's Jack. Extras include Haig, Radcliffe and Cattrall interviews, deleted scenes and 50-minute program The Pity of War.

Only Lovers Left Alive 
(Sony)
Jim Jarmusch's foray into the vampire genre is undeniably stylish, with lush visuals underlining his story of a most romantic undead couple searching for a blood supply that's quickly drying up, putting their immortality in jeopardy; Jarmusch's film falls apart since the stylishness can't cover up the mediocrity of the script, the ludicrousness of the premise, or the mere posing of his actors. Tom Hiddleston and the ubiquitous (and obvious) Tilda Swinton just wander through the film, making it a nice-looking but deathly dull tour of vampirism, similar to a fashion magazine layout. Extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

Summer in February 
(Cinedigm)
This real-life romantic tragedy encompasses a love triangle among painter Alfred "A.J." Munnings, his best friend Gibson Evans and the woman both loved, Florence Carter-Wood. While its trajectory toward the final, fatal event is telegraphed from the start, it has excellent portrayals by Dominic Cooper (A.J.), Dan Stevens (Gibson) and especially Emily Browning (Florence). Decently directed and written by Christopher Menaul, this weepy romance earns its tears mainly due to the fact that it's true. Lone extra is a Stevens interview.