Tuesday, September 27, 2016

September '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Central Intelligence
(Warner Bros)
Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart team up for this latest “odd couple” comedy about high school chums who get together 20 years later, one of them an accountant and the other a CIA agent: craziness ensues. There are plenty of laughs, even if much of the unrated cut’s two hours is spent spinning wheels desperately looking for lots of cheap jokes (most of which it finds). Hart and Johnson make a surprisingly potent team, but Jason Bateman is wasted as the school jerk turned corporate jerk-off. The movie has a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include a gag reel, alternate scenes, and a commentary

Dead-End Drive In
One of the leading lights of the Ozploitation movement, Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith made this 1996 horror parody with moments of gleeful goriness alongside moments of gob smacking idiocy. You get what you came for, in either case, and the whole thing is mindless (and occasionally sarcastic) fun. The Arrow set includes a nicely-detailed hi-def transfer and a plethora of extras: director’s commentary, Trenchard-Smith’s classic documentary The Stuntmen, and his 1978 public-service short Hospitals Don’t Burn Down.

Director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 magnum opus—ten hour-long films for Polish television in which he and cowriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz transformed the ten Commandments into compelling modern parables—has writing, directing and acting that coalesce into a true masterpiece. It’s too bad Kieslowski took the metaphysical aspects of his filmmaking to their illogical extremes with his Three Colors trilogy, since Dekalog showed off a superior balance of the physical and metaphysical. Criterion’s magnificent set includes fantastic hi-def transfers of all 10 episodes—along with the features made from episodes five and six, A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love—and extras comprising many interviews with Kieslowski, Piesiewicz, several actors, three cinematographers and an editor, along with Annette Insdorf’s appreciation and analysis of the series.

The Fiddle and the Drum
(C Major)
Based on several Joni Mitchell songs both familiar and obscure, Jane Grand-Maitre’s inventively choreographed ballet finds the danceable moves inside these iconic tunes, and the Alberta Ballet Company gives them a thorough workout that fellow Canadian Mitchell will surely appreciate. The hi-def audio and video are excellent; extras include interviews with Mitchell, Grand-Maitre and dancers from the company, along with Mitchell’s own video installation of the set.

High Noon 
Johnny Guitar
(Olive Signature)
For its new Blu-ray line, Olive’s Signature Series gives classic films new releases comprising a hi-def transfer with new and illuminating extras. The first titles are classic westerns. High Noon (1952) is Fred Zinnemann’s tense and terse showdown starring Gary Cooper, Lloyd Bridges and Grace Kelly, while Johnny Guitar (1954) is Nicholas Ray’s exciting showdown starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden (in a rare romantic lead), Ernest Borgnine and Mercedes McCambridge. Both films have glistening transfers and extras comprising new interviews and featurettes; Johnny also includes a commentary.

Jekyll & Hyde…together again
(Olive Films)
Jerry Belson’s bombastic 1982 parody of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic horror tale overdoes the humor whether it’s Jekyll or Hyde onscreen (Mark Blankenfield is a blank in both roles), even while he’s getting various nubile actresses—including charmer Bess Armstrong—into compromising positions. Amazingly, it took four writers to come up with this comic misfire. The Blu-ray transfer looks good, at least.

Love Me or Leave Me 
(Warner Archive)
In this grandly entertaining biopic set during the Roaring ‘20s (and the ‘30s), Doris Day plays Ruth Etting, who went from small-time dancer to singing star with the help of her gangster manager-turned-husband, Moe Snyder, played by James Cagney with his usual blustery menace (for which he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination). Day and Cagney make a formidably fractious pair, and Day sings a bunch of hits ranging from “My Blue Heaven” to the title song. Charles Vidor’s colorful Cinemascope music drama has a terrific hi-def transfer; extras comprise vintage featurettes, a few starring the real Ruth Etting.

Night Train to Munich
Carol Reed’s exciting 1940 thriller, which owes much to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, is a rollercoaster ride that takes on more urgency than usual since it’s ripped from then-current headlines: Nazis kidnap an eminent Czech scientist and his daughter, while a British spy pretends to be a Nazi officer while he’s trying to free them. Despite arid stretches, Reed really picks up the pace for a humdinger of a climax at involving cable cars at the Swiss border. Criterion’s Blu-ray contains its usual excellent transfer and a discussion between two film scholars about Reed’s film.

(Opus Arte)
For the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production of the Bard’s simmering drama, director Iqbal Khan’s idea is to cast both Iago and Othello with black actors—Lucian Msamati and Hugh Quarshie, respectively—to make secondary the racial component of their adversarial relationship, even though it remains in Shakespeare’s text. With lesser actors, it might not work, but both Msamati and Quarshie hit the play’s high points—and Joanna Vanderham is a heartbreaking Desdemona—so the conceit gets a fine dramatic workout. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are Khan’s commentary and two featurettes.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
Kenzi Mizoguchi is one of Japan’s most revered directors, although I’d put several masters—Ozu, Naruse, Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Imamura and Ichikawa—ahead of him. Still, his greatest film is this intimate and absorbing 1939 portrait of a kabuki actor’s strained, complicated relationships with his family and the woman who loves him. It’s slow-moving but builds to an overwhelmingly emotional climax. The usual stellar hi-def transfer from Criterion is missing: it’s acceptable but sometimes subpar. The lone extra is an interview with reviewer Phillip Lopate.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“What Did You Expect?” and “A Taste of Honey”

What Did You Expect?
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Performances through October 9, 2016
The Public Theater; 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

A Taste of Honey
Written by Shelagh Delaney; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through October 30, 2016
Pearl Theater, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Jay O. Sanders and Lynn Hawley in What Did You Expect? (photo: Joan Marcus)

For What Did You Expect?, the second play in his trilogy about an election year in the life of the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, NY—two hours north of Manhattan on the Hudson River—Richard Nelson once again chronicles ordinary Americans sitting around the kitchen of their comfortable home and, while making meals (dinner and tomorrow’s picnic lunch), discussing various topics intelligently and in a civilized manner. There are arguments and apologies, jibes and reminiscences, and sadness and laughter. These plays find Nelson encompassing the fullness of humanity; it’s not for nothing that Chekhov has been evoked in reference to these beautiful, intimate works.

The Gabriel family comprises mother Patricia, son George and his wife Hannah, sister Joyce, and two wives of recently deceased brother (and famed novelist-playwright) Thomas—first wife Karin and third wife and widow Mary. As in Nelson’s previous Apple Family Cycle, his individuals are intimately but rigorously characterized, their quirks, mannerisms, foibles and heartbreaks making them sympathetic and real to any of us watching from the audience.

Politics lurking throughout these plays, and since Nelson has set them in the present—I saw What Did You Expect? on the evening it takes place, Friday, September 16—there’s discussion of our current presidential election. There are only a few moments of particular discussion, underlined by Hannah saying, “It just makes me feel dirty…Filthy. Like you just want to shower off.”

This precisely observed glimpse at our nation at a significant moment has been directed with rigorous intimacy by Nelson himself, while his cast—Roberta Maxwell (Patricia), Jay O. Sanders (George), Lynn Hawley (Hannah), Amy Warren (Joyce), Meg Gibson (Karin) and Mary Ann Plunkett (Mary)—is simply unbeatable. The final play in the trilogy, Women of a Certain Age, opens on Election Night; I can’t wait.

Rebekah Brockman in A Taste of Honey (photo: Russ Rowland)

When A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s comedy-drama about a young woman’s stifling life in small-town England (Delaney hailed from Lancashire), premiered in 1958, it was hailed as a breakthrough for the then-19-year-old playwright. Although her career never really panned out after this one notable success, her debut play remains trenchant and touching, borne out in director Austin Pendleton’s modestly-scaled revival.

Jo, an 18-year-old living with her 40-year-old mother Helen in a small, ramshackle apartment, is desperate to break free from the shackles of the stifling environment in which she’s grown up. She brings home her sailor boyfriend Jimmy, about to ship out, while her mom flaunts her new fiancĂ©e Peter, the latest in a long line of men that Jo refers to with her cutting remark, “What’s this one called?” After Helen marries and Jo becomes pregnant, she befriends the well-meaning Geoffrey after she realizes that Jimmy isn’t coming back.

Delaney’s natural talent for dialogue allows her characters both dignity and the occasional kick in the pants, and her instinctive musicality comes to the fore with snippets of songs in and around the conversations, and Pendleton has a superb trio performing onstage and interacting with the performers, who are consistently top-notch.

In the leads, Rachel Botchan’s Helen lives and breathes true survival, with a heaping dose of humor, and even better is Rebekah Brockman’s Jo, a creation of such combined toughness and empathy that she pays the ultimate tribute to Delaney’s remarkable heroine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

September '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Beauty and the Beast—25th Anniversary Edition
Disney’s best animated feature since its late ‘80s renaissance, this 1991 classic has hummable songs, glorious visuals and a truly romantic spirit that speaks even more to adults than children; if it doesn’t reach the sublime heights of Jean Cocteau’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece based on the Perrault fairy tale, it’s still quite an achievement. This 25th anniversary edition includes the original film, extended cut and sing-along version, all in impossibly sharp hi-def; extras include featurettes on Paige O’Hara (voice of Belle) and composer Alan Menken (shown with fellow Disney cohorts Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Stephen Schwartz and Lin-Manuel Miranda).

The Captive
Yours, Mine and Ours
(Olive Films)
In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent The Captive, a young Montenegrin woman falls for a captured Turkish nobleman during the fractured Balkan Wars; this 50-minute drama has moments of fleeting romance, but it’s the restoration to gleaming hi-def that makes it an interesting historical artifact. The hit-or-miss 1968 romantic comedy Yours, Mine and Ours stars Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball as widowers with many children who—surprise!—fall in love, making for a family that’s 18-strong. Fonda and Ball sleepwalk through this forgettable fodder, while some of the child actors (including young Tim Matheson) are less annoying than the usual onscreen under-agers. Both films have good hi-def transfers.

Cat’s Eye 
Salem’s Lot
Stephen King’s It
(Warner Bros)
A trio of Stephen King adaptations makes its hi-def premiere, starting with Lewis Teague’s Cat’s Eye (1985), an uneven anthology of creepily tongue-in-cheek stories starring then-luminaries James Woods, Alan King and a young Drew Barrymore. Two TV movies-of-the-week—the vapid vampire tale Salem’s Lot (1979) and the clown-killer weirdness of It (1990)—breathe some life into King’s crude original stories, which are preferable to having to read those. The hi-def transfers are decent; commentaries comprise Teague’s on Cat’s Eye, director Tobe Hooper’s on Salem’s Lot and director Tommy Lee Wallace’s on It.

The Exotic Dances of Bettie Page
(Cult Epics)
If vintage erotica is of interest, then these titles are recommended, starting with Exotic Dances, which shows off 1950s pin-up Bettie Page in various stages of undress—and even the altogether. Sin, an affectionate homage to adult films of a far more primitive era, includes such taboo fantasies as a nun fellating a priest. Both sets—comprising 30-minute features supplemented by additional footage and outtakes—have been upgraded to hi-def, although since the original quality is so variable, any improvements aren’t immediately obvious.

Summer Night Concert 2016 
(Sony Classical)
Continuing an annual seasonal ritual held on the vast grounds of the extraordinary Schoenbrun Palace outside Vienna in May, this concert is an entertaining mash-up of the popular (Strauss waltz, Ravel’s Bolero) and the substantial (an intense performance of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, played with fleet ferocity by sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque). Conductor Semyon Bychkov capably leads the Vienna Philharmonic in this summertime favorite balancing baubles and brilliance. The hi-def image and audio are first-rate.

Twin Peaks—The Original Series, Fire Walk with Me & The Missing Pieces
I was no Twin Peaks fan, but even I found the disjointed and stilted series better than director David Lynch’s abomination of a feature film, 1992’s Fire Walk with Me, which in its ineptitude (whether deliberate or not is immaterial) makes the series seem like Citizen Kane in comparison. For those who want all things Twin Peaks, this set will do quite nicely (and more cheaply than the previous Blu-ray set), with all 29 series episodes, both versions of the pilot, and the film, all in fine high-def; extras include Log Lady episode intros, 90 minutes of deleted Fire Walk scenes and other featurettes.

DVDs of the Week 
The Automatic Hate
(Film Movement)
In this low-key but absorbing indie drama, millennial Davis discovers he has an uncle his father never told him about—along with three nubile female cousins, one of whom, Alexis, he instantly falls for, to the detriment of his relationship with his beautiful ballerina girlfriend. Although co-writer-director Justin Lerner has a tenuous grip on dicey incest material, that he keeps things non-exploitative is a tribute to his terrific cast headed by talented Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, who makes a trenchant and vital Alexis. Extras are a commentary, deleted scenes and British director Eva Riley’s short, Patriot.

Back in Time
This entertaining look back at the Back to the Future trilogy interweaves reminiscences of the major players—director-writer Bob Zemeckis, writer Bob Gale, producer Steven Spielberg, actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson, singer Huey Lewis—with those mesmerized by or who’ve made a cottage industry of it, like those who bought the famous cars involved. It’s a fun ride despite the misplaced love for what was, after all, a merely clever piece of disposable entertainment.

Pete Townshend—Face the Face 
Toto—Live at Montreux 1991
(Eagle Rock)
On the heels of his best solo album, 1985’s White City—A Novel, Pete Townshend assembled a crack band with no less than David Gilmour on lead guitar, for a scintillating concert on the German TV program Rockpalast; highlights are riveting versions of White City’s “Give Blood” and “Secondhand Love,” Gilmour’s solo hit “Blue Light” and a tune Townshend gave to Roger Daltrey for his solo album, “After the Fire.” A few big hits in America. notwithstanding, Toto has always been more popular in Europe, and its 1991 incarnation—keyboardist David Paich, guitarist Steve Lukather and the brothers Porcaro, drummer Jeff and bassist Mike—blow the roof off the Montreux Jazz Festival with a jam-heavy eight-song set, out of which only “Roxanna” and “Africa” are recognizable smashes. Both sets include an accompanying audio CD of the concert.  

Scorpion—Complete 2nd Season
Hawaii Five O—Complete 6th Season
Blue Bloods—Complete 6th Season
The second season of Scorpion furthers the bonds of the genius outsiders with the sweet young mom (Katharine McPhee) who acts as their lifeline to the “normal” world as they are hers to her mentally challenged son; meanwhile, the sixth seasons of Hawaii Five-O and Blue Bloods use their Hawaiian and Manhattan locations to build a credible atmosphere for their criminal investigations. Lots of extras on all three sets include featurettes and gag reels; Bloods and Scorpion also has commentaries and Hawaii and Scorpion have deleted scenes.

(Cinema Libre)
This pseudo-documentary, which runs with the thoroughly discredited “vaccines cause autism” meme, contains dangerous misinformation under the guise of science, while repeatedly exploiting autistic children and playing up the role of a supposed CDC whistleblower who was in fact no such thing. Director Andrew Wakefield is the disgraced doctor who started it all; producer Del Bigtree is a “medical journalist” in on the whole ruse—a quick Google search will provide much information to refute what they say—and they are the prime talking heads for this slick but shoddy piece of advocacy that cherry-picks more information than the average Fox News segment. Extras are additional interviews.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“The Wolves” and “The Birds”

The Wolves
Written by Sarah DeLappe; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through September 29, 2016
Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

The Birds
Adapted by Conor McPherson from Daphne du Maurier’s short story
Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski
Performances through October 2, 2016
59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

The cast of The Wolves (photo: Daniel J. Vasquez)

In The Wolves, playwright Sarah DeLappe hit on an imaginative idea for a character study: the nine members of a high-school girls soccer team are a microcosm for the fraught teenage years, a sort of female-only Breakfast Club. Although it seems like a gimmick even as you’re watching, it satisfyingly negotiates the thin line between self-indulgence and sympathetic observation.

During the play’s feverish-paced 90 minutes, we come to know these young women, all subtly individualized by DeLappe in her fresh, dialogue-driven script. Director Lili Neugebauer’s miraculous nonet playing the teammates—Brenna Coates, Jenna Dioguardi, Samia Finnerty, Midori Francis, Lizzy Jutila, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tedra Millan, Lauren Patten, Susannah Perkins—fires off DeLappe’s rat-a-tat dialogue so effortlessly that it sounds like it’s the natural speech patterns of the young athletes.

These nine extraordinary actresses, who also give intensely physical performances—they have to stretch, run and practice soccer throughout—embody their characters in a natural and winning way, whether dealing with the tragic death of one of their own (the one moment when the play rings less than true) or simply being teenagers by befriending or bullying one another.

The Wolves (the team’s name, of course) is a cogent, urgent glimpse of the here and now, shrewdly played out on the Duke on 42nd Street’s tiny stage, and capped by Laura Jellinek’s clever set and Lap Chi Chu’s animated lighting. Would that The Birds—staged in the cramped 59E59’s Theater C—had the same flicker of wit that sparked DeLappe’s play.

The cast of The Birds (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Adapted by Conor McPherson from Daphne du Maurier’s chilling short story—also the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s vastly different (and vastly superior) 1963 film—The Birds begins with two survivors of lethal avian attacks that have decimated the world’s population and turned civilization upside down. They are barricaded in a house which they leave periodically to look for food: when a young woman joins them, their travails become far more psychologically fraught inside their claustrophobic shelter.

Too bad McPherson’s superficial adaptation weren’t opened up, as it were, by director Stefan Dzeparoski, who uses David J.Palmer’s interesting projections and Ien Denio’s creepy sound effects to show what’s beyond the walls, but is unable to make the characters sympathetic. That’s despite the intense efforts of Antoinette LaVecchia, Tony Naumovski and Mia Hutchinson-Shaw, the latter especially compelling as the young interloper who puts herself between the other two.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

September '16 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Captain America—Civil War
The latest superhero blockbuster (more than $400 million at the U.S. box office) is one of the most bloated yet, with a gaggle of damaged Avengers battling for supremacy, all preceding the big showdown: Captain America vs. Iron Man. Since the stakes are so low—it’s basically a conceit to have two “good guys” go after each other as their superhero colleagues take sides—directors Anthony and Joe Russo are unable to rise to the level of what would make this truly trashy fun. As always, the CGI effects outbattle the script, and Robert Downey’s Iron Man is far more entertaining than Chris Evans’ Captain America. The movie has a great Blu-ray transfer; extras include a two-part making-of, other featurettes, gag reel, deleted and extended scenes and directors’/writers’ commentary.

The Conjuring 2
(Warner Bros)
The inevitable sequel to the occasionally disturbing original, also directed by James Wan, is, to be blunt, perfectly encapsulated in his last name: overlong and lacking many plausible scares, the movie bounces all over the place trying (and failing) to frighten the bejesus out of the audience. Having four writers surely doesn’t help, while good actors like Frances O’Connor as the mother of the possessed girl get lost in a lackluster and finally quite contrived anti-climax. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include featurettes and deleted scenes.

The Everly Brothers—Harmonies from Heaven 
Journey—Live in Manila
(Eagle Rock)
The Everly Brothers, who predated the British rock invasion with late-‘50s/early-‘60s hits as “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love,” are commemorated in Harmonies, an hour-long documentary that succinctly sums up their musical and historical importance, including interviews with both brothers (Phil died in 2014; Don is still around), and admirers Keith Richards, Graham Nash and Art Garfunkel. Journey, with Steve Perry sound-alike singer Arnel Pineda in tow, returned to Pineda’s home country, the Philippines, in 2009 for a rockin’ two-plus hours, Live in Manila, for raucous and rabidly proud fans. Most of the hits are present, but so are retread tunes from a then-new album, Revelation. Both discs have first-rate transfers; Harmonies extras include additional interviews and a 1968 concert on a separate DVD.

The Jungle Book
This remake of the beloved 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic book is a live-action film starring young Neel Sethi as Mowgli and many CGI/animatronic creatures voiced by familiar intoners Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o and Idris Elba. It’s nicely done if a bit overinsistent with the special effects that overwhelm the tender tale underneath, but Jon Favreau directs with few outright gaffes, which makes for a qualified success. The film looks luminous on Blu; extras are featurettes and Favreau’s commentary.

Once Were Warriors 
(Film Movement)
When I first saw this in mid-‘90s, it struck me as a melodramatic mess about a New Zealand Maori family brought down by a drunken husband’s rage—there’s undeniable power, but the shrillness of Riwia Brown’s script and one-note acting by Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison blunt its dramatic effectiveness. Two decades later, it still seems a cinematic sledgehammer, thanks to the single-minded direction by Lee Tamahori. The film looks good on Blu; lone extra is a vintage featurette.

Standing Tall
(Cohen Media)
Emmanuelle Bercot’s tough but tender character study follows Malony, a young man caught up in France’s grinding social-work machinery thanks to an itinerant mother, until he has the chance to break free with the help of a sympathetic judge and capable caseworker. Bercot’s sympathetic treatment occasionally crosses into melodrama, but her strong cast—newcomer Rod Paradot (Malony), Sara Forestier (mother), Benoit Magimel (caseworker) and Catherine Deneuve (judge)—assures that the two-hour drama never feels oppressively overdone. The hi-def image is striking; extras are deleted scenes with Bercot commentary and a making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week 
All Things Must Pass
The rise and demise of Tower Records—the beloved record-store institution that began in 1960 in Sacramento and at its peak encompassed dozens of stores in several states and countries including huge flagship stores in Manhattan (West 4th/Broadway and 66th/Broadway, where I spent lots of time and money for nearly two decades)—is recounted with flair and palpable nostalgia by director Colin Hanks. It’s rarely mournful in tone, but the sense of the passing of a musical era is evoked beautifully, and celebrity Tower fans as Elton John, Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen weigh in.

(Film Movement)
Like the paintings of the man whom this documentary chronicles, Hockney is a colorful yet incisive portrait of the artist: director Randall Wright was granted access to the reclusive painter, who speaks straightforwardly and openly about his life and career. As we are shown glimpses of his voluminous and ever-changing work, Wright also interviews others involved with Hockney, but it’s his subject’s forceful personality that remains at the film’s center. Lone extra is a director’s commentary.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Theater Review—“Twelfth Night” in Central Park

Twelfth Night
Adapted by Kwame Kwei-Armah; directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah & Shaina Taub
Performances ended September 5, 2016
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Jose Llana and Nikki M. James in Twelfth Night (photo: Joan Marcus)
Now in its fourth year, Public Works abridges classic plays (usually Shakespeare), adds contemporary songs and attitudes to play fast and loose with those works: it also crowds onto the Delacorte Theater stage as many performers that can possibly fit. This year’s entry, Twelfth Night—Shakespeare’s lyrical comedy about separated twins and a cross-dressing heroine—dropped much of the Bard’s most sublime poetry for Shaina Taub’s lyrical doggerel accompanied by her pleasant if unremarkable tunes.

Taub sang several herself while also playing Feste the clown and, when she wasn’t doing that, she also led a rockin’ onstage house band. Unsurprisingly, Taub’s asides and pop-culture references drew appreciative guffaws and cheers from the audience.

Many community groups from throughout New York City’s boroughs joined the cast of professionals and amateurs onstage: so the Jambalaya Brass Band entertainingly oompahed their way across the stage and the New York Deaf Theater beautifully accompanied one song; even United States Postal Carrier delivered a package to the full-of-himself servant Malvolio (played with self-satisfied hilarity by Andrew Kober).

The production turned the island of Illyria into a swirl of bright colors and sparkling costumes by master designer David Zinn, and the dozens—sometimes hundreds—of people onstage made this a truly communal event. I personally missed Shakespeare’s offhand insights, but there’s always fun to be had in the foolproof clownish subplot, where Jacob Ming-Trent’s gleeful Sir Toby Belch was a highlight.  

If Jose Llana was a bit of a stuffed-shirt as Lord Orsino, Nikki M. James more than made up for it with her winning Viola, nee Orsino’s male servant Cesario, soon confused with her long-lost—and presumed drowned—twin brother Sebastian. A glorious singer, James is also a terrific comedic and dramatic actress: she already proved her mettle several years ago opposite Christopher Plummer in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at Canada’s Stratford Festival, so why not Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, or even Viola in an unabridged Twelfth Night?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

September '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
A Boy Named Charlie Brown
Snoopy Come Home
At the height of his comic strip’s popularity—which became even more celebrated with TV specials like the classic perennial A Charlie Brown Christmas—Charles Schultz and company brought the Peanuts gang to the big screen with, for the most part, memorable results. 1969’s low-key Boy is like a charming—if occasionally rambling and overlong—TV episode, while 1972’s Snoopy show off the strip’s beloved beagle in an often bittersweet narrative. The films look good enough on Blu-ray, at least.

Man in the Wilderness
(Warner Archive)
Long before the bloated and overwrought (but, sadly, Oscar-winning) The Revenant, an earlier era of “survival” films featured Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972) starring Robert Redford and this atmospheric 1971 entry starring Richard Harris as the physically and emotionally wounded protagonist. Although there’s not much action by today’s standards, Harris gives as intense a performance as Leonardo DiCaprio as the protagonist left for dead by his fellow explorers, and director Richard C. Sarafian keeps the drama understated and naturalistic, even with an attacking bear (you didn’t think The Revenant was in any way original, did you?) that further wounds Harris. There’s a solid hi-def transfer, with muted colors and sharp imagery.

The Ones Below 
This standard-issue Rosemary’s Baby rip-off is afflicted with the usual problem of this kind of would-be thriller: its characters act so stupidly that one can’t have much sympathy when bad things begin happening. It’s stylishly directed by David Farr (who also wrote the flimsily-motivated script), and Clemence Poesy is disturbingly effective as a new mother gone off the rails by her neighbors, but by its end—which is nonsensical—the movie prefers cheap twists over psychologically plausibility. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise several featurettes.

Styx Live at the Orleans Arena Las Vegas
(Eagle Rock)
It’s difficult to say whom this release is for: are hardcore Styx fans pining for an eight-song performance, barely lasting 50 minutes, interspersed with a half-hour’s worth of alternately entertaining and self-serving interviews with band members and crew? The band sounds as tight as ever—and Tommy Shaw’s voice hasn’t aged a bit on tunes like “Crystal Ball”—but why, in 2016, are rock fans still getting chopped-up and heavily-edited, instead of full-length, concert films? The hi-def video and audio are rocking; extras are interviews.

What Happened, Miss Simone? 
(Eagle Rock)
Nina Simone was a true original—her singing style and stage presence were unquestionably unique—but the details of her career and her life as an icon and a civil-rights activist is at the center of Liz Garbus’s always fascinating documentary. The footage of her performing is electrifying—especially glimpses of her during her “eclipse” in Europe—but it’s only one aspect of her legacy, as the many interviews with family, colleagues and admirers shows. The film has a solid Blu-ray transfer; extras comprise additional interviews.

DVDs of the Week
CSI: Cyber—Complete 2nd (Final) Season (CBS)
Limitless—Complete 1st Season (CBS)
Lucifer—Complete 1st Season (Warner Bros)
CSI: Cyber never caught on with viewers—the rare CSI franchise to fail—despite what producers thought would be sure-fire casting of Oscar winner Patricia Arquette and Emmy winner Ted Danson: the final season is watchable but underwhelming. The first seasons of new dramas Limitless and Lucifer had trouble keeping their balance with offbeat plots butting heads with the strictures of hour-long network TV drama series, the former’s pill making its protagonist the world’s smartest man, while the latter transplants the devil from Hades to Los Angeles—the City of Angels, get it? CSI and Lucifer extras include featurettes, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Moby Dick 
(Warner Archive)
Clocking in at only 78 minutes, it’s obvious that this 1930 version of “the great white whale” tale has little to do with Herman Melville’s massive novel: furthermore, John Barrymore’s Ahab, lovesick over a young woman in New Bedford, Mass., returns to the sea to kill the giant leviathan who bit off his leg before returning to land and his woman, has nothing on Melville’s great antagonist. To cement things, there isn’t even any character named Ishmael in the movie, which makes this for Barrymore completists only.

Supernatural—Complete 11th Season
(Warner Bros)
As if they hadn’t fought enough demons, specters, werewolves and other creatures of the night over the previous ten seasons, Dean and Sam Winchester—brothers and hunters of Supernatural—have not encountered an enemy like the one that arrives to confront them in their 11th season: The Darkness. It’s a clever ploy to reboot a show that was on its way to becoming stale and repetitive, and the 23 episodes gain dramatic traction from it. Extras are five featurettes, deleted scenes, gag reel and commentaries.