Sunday, August 2, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—"Shows for Days," "Amazing Grace"

Shows for Days
Written by Douglas Carter Beane; directed by Jerry Zaks
Performances through August 23, 2015
Mitzi E. Newhouse @ Lincoln Center Theater, New York, NY

Amazing Grace
Book, music & lyrics by Christopher Smith; directed by Gabriel Barre
Opened July 16, 2015
Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street, New York, NY

Lupone in Shows for Days (photo: Joan Marcus)
For Douglas Carter Beane, nothing succeeds like excessive zingers. His latest play, the awkwardly titled Shows for Days, is full of them, and they overwhelm this sentimental, sketchy autobiographical memory play about how he began in theater. His teenage alter ego Car hangs around a local Reading, Pennsylvania, theater group, first doing grunt work, then writing lively cast bios and finally penning a full-length play put on by the troupe.

Beane populates his play, narrated by the grownup Car, with a caricatured whiny young actress, aggressive bisexual actor, mincing veteran actor, lesbian jack/jane of all trades and domineering diva. There are scattered amusing moments and one-liners, but Beane is much too concerned with demonstrating theater's sacredness, whether it's in a small town or at Lincoln Center, and with pulling back the curtain on what goes on offstage, with in-joke references that get titters of recognition from a few insiders and crickets from the rest of the audience.

If Shows for Days is a trite exercise in hagiographic autobiography, director Jerry Zaks knows how to smooth over its worst impulses by staging it as zestily as possible, even if most of his game cast is unable to escape the clutches of Beane’s clichĂ©d characters. Only the legendary Patti Lupone is able to transform the diva Irene into a sharply-etched portrait of a hurricane-like life force, not so much bulldozing but tapdancing her way through the play, giving even Beane’s weakest lines a sense of hilarious urgency. Shows for Days would be even more forgettable without Lupone's brilliant artistry.

Young and Foy in Amazing Grace (photo: Joan Marcus)
The story of John Newton—18th century British slave owner turned militant abolitionist who wrote one of the most beloved songs ever—is certainly fascinating, but the musical made from it, Amazing Grace, contents itself with melodrama, unsubtle explications of slavery's evil and songs that never approach Newton's own quiet hymn, which has accumulated heavy baggage over the centuries: most recently, President Obama sang it at the memorial service for nine murdered Charleston churchgoers.

Since the song "Amazing Grace" has been placed at the very end—where it's performed twice, first by the cast then, after curtain calls, by the cast and the audience in a communal celebration—we must endure 2-1/2 hours of mediocre tunes, lyrics, dramatics and dimestore psychology as Newton changes from a man who thought slavery was natural (his father ran a booming slave-trading business) to a fervent abolitionist.

Since Newton also penned some 200 songs, surely a couple could have gotten into the show; instead, Christopher Smith's mainly unmemorable numbers, which comprise pseudo-spirituals and pseudo-big ballads, predominate in director Gabriel Barre's well-paced staging. Most impressive is the first-rate physical production by set designers Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, costume designer Toni-Leslie James and lightning designers Ken Billington and Paul Miller, whose accomplished work climaxes with a marvelously realized tableau of Newton being saved from drowning by his loyal slave Thomas at the close of the first act.

Josh Young's strong-voiced Newton, Erin Mackey's beguliling Mary (Newton's longtime sweetheart), Chuck Cooper's tough but tender Thomas, Laiona Michelle's sympathetic slave Nanna and Harriett D. Foy's hypnotic Princess Peyai of Sierra Leone (who sold her own people and treated the shipwrecked Newton as a sex slave) are all but drowned out by the heavyhanded mediocrity of the music, lyrics and book. Despite good intentions, Amazing Grace never illuminates its important story for its audience.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Cemetery Without Crosses 
(Arrow USA)
An unabashed tribute to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, French director-actor-cowriter Robert Hossein made this entertaining 1969 revenge shoot-em-up at the height of the craze: it passes by harmlessly enough, with an interesting hanging at the opening that's followed by lots of vacant stares and pauses that do little more than fill up the 90-minute running time. Hossein himself plays the hero of sorts with little nuance, while French actress Michele Mercier plays the femme fatale with an enthusiasm belying her lack of acting ability. The film looks fine for its age on Blu; extras are three Hossein interviews.

The Erotic Rites of Dr. Frankenstein 
(Kino Lorber)
In Jess Franco's (deliberately?) mistitled thriller, after the famous doctor Victor Frankenstein is killed, his own daughter Vera has to take on the ultimate bad guy, a wizard and his assistant, a blind bird-woman (of course!). Although the movie is anything but erotic, it's a mildly enjoyable yarn that shows off Franco's eye for female pulchritude and sharp European locations, which combine to keep it watchable. The movie looks OK but a little soft on Blu; lone extra is a commentary.

(C Major)
Although Franz Schubert wrote magnificent songs and chamber music, his operas never made it far in the repertoire, which gnawed at him in his brief life (he died at 31 in 1828): this engaging production of his most accomplished dramatic work has all hands coming together musically, vocally and directorially. Peter Stein's 2014 Salzburg staging of this romantic epic is well done, while the singers—Julia Kleiter, Georg Zeppenfeld, Markus Werba—and musicians (under Ingo Metzmacher's able baton) present Schubert's rich melodies the way they were meant to be heard. The hi-def image and sound are first-rate; extras are interviews.

Life on the Reef 
The Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast, the largest coral reef system on earth, is so large it can be seen from outer space: in Nick Robinson's engrossing three-hour documentary, above- and underwater HD cameras present an educational look at this amazing part of our world. The eye-popping colors, the bountiful variety of marine life, and even glimpses at human disasters (there's a heartstopping moment when a rescue plane is dispatched for a burning boat with more than a dozen people aboard) make this a must-see nature epic. The Blu image is stunning, unsurprisingly.

Rolling Stones from the Vault: Hyde Park Live 1969 
(Eagle Rock)
When the Stones performed at Hyde Park, it was only two days after former member Brian Jones died, and there's a weird moment when Mick Jagger recites a Shelly poem before the assembled throng; the rest of the 55-minute concert film—out of running order and only containing half of the show's songs—consists of ragged but straight-ahead rock'n'roll. The band performed "Honky Tonk Women" for the first time, its sleazy vibe already in evidence; other highlights are "Midnight Rambler" and "Sympathy for the Devil," the latter accompanied by African tribal drummers. Too bad this historic concert is so truncated, but fans won't care.

Der Rosenkavalier 
(Arthaus Musik and Opus Arte)
Richard Strauss' grandest opera has been a staple since its 1911 premiere, so it's too bad that the 2014 Glyndebourne, England, staging is so undistinguished: although Kate Royal, a formidable singing actress, succeeds royally in her first attempt at the Marschallin, the others performing the greatest female trio in opera history—Tara Erraught and Teodora Gheorghiu—are not up to her level. A better trio is in the 2004 Salzburg Festival staging, with Adrienne Pieczonka, Miah Persson and Angelika Kirchschalger (the best Octavian in recent memory) do wonders with Strauss' characteristically gorgeous vocal lines, especially in that final, unforgettable trio that becomes a meltingly lovely duet. The new version looks fine and the earlier one looks decent on Blu. Extras on the Glyndebourne disc comprise interviews.

3 Hearts 
(Cohen Film Collection)
A love triangle between a man and two sisters sounds enticing, but in Benoit Jacquot's clumsy hands, it turns out less exciting than a trip to the dentist: don't blame actor Benoit Poelvoorde, directed to be either sullen or moody by turns; too bad neither of his leading ladies, charmless Chiara Mastroianni and one-note Charlotte Gainsbourg, are worthy of his time and trouble. Jacquot's silly machinations include his laying on portentous music and omniscient narration with a trowel, all to no avail. The film looks good on Blu; lone extra is a 30-minute Jacquot Q&A.

The Water Diviner 
(Warner Bros)
For his directorial debut, Russell Crowe tackles an expansive yet intimate true story of an Australian farmer who travels to Turkey to find out what happened to his three sons, who fought in the battle of Gallipoli. Crowe is, as usual, taciturn in the lead role, but as director he has an easy grasp (like fellow Aussie Mel Gibson) for action juxtpasoed with sentimental domestic scenes. There's also an immaculate performance by Ukrainian beauty Olga Kurylenko, and the emotional family bonds are enough to see us to the end despite the glaring flaws. Andrew Lesnie's gritty photography has been superbly transferred to hi-def; extras are making-of and Gallipoli featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
With his entry in an unwelcome tradition of normal young women falling for obnoxious guys, director-writer Sam Esmail harks back to earlier films—The Sixth Sense and Annie Hall come up in the first few minutes—in a desperate attempt to make his conventional romance seem unconventional. Mixing the chronology of the relationship is another ruse to hide the flimsiness of his conceit; if Emmy Rossum is her usual adorable self, Justin Long too easily enacts the typically annoying creep. 

Count Your Blessings
The High Cost of Loving 
(Warner Archive)
In Blessings, Jean Negulesco's 1959 romantic comedy, Britisher Deborah Kerr doesn't forgive French husband Rossano Brazzi's many dalliances while in the army for nine years, does the unthinkable and divorces him: this medium-concept material is partially redeemed by the charming pair of Kerr and Brazzani, with Maurice Chavalier lending gallant support as Brazzani's uncle. Jose Ferrer directs and stars in High Cost, a 1958 comic romp about an office worker with a pregnant young wife who thinks he's about to lose his job: after a sublime silent opening sequence, the movie settles down to routine comic asides about office and home life, with Gena Rowlands scoring in her debut as the wife.

Our Daily Poison 
Journalist Marie-Monique Robin made this documentary about the chemicals that keep being put into our food supply in 2010, but even in the lightning-fast internet era, it's still a wake-up call about an industry more interested in manufacturing more rather than healthier food. Robin, who enlists the assistance of experts in the field from Europe and the U.S., buttresses her argument with vintage clips that show that this is not merely a 21st century liberal issue. A personal quibble: in her narration, Robin pronounces "grocer" as "grosher," which I find gross!

(First Run)
A worthy Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee this year, Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze's drama about an elderly man who nurses opposing wounded soldiers during the Georgian war of the 1990s nestles its allegorical account of warfare's insanity and futility inside an unassumingly subtle drama about pure goodness. Without wielding a sledgehammer, Urushadze still hammers home pertinent points about adversarial mania among ancient enemies, and his flawless cast embodies these men not simply as types, but as real people, which adds to  the film's low-key but real power. Lone extra is a five-minute on-set featurette.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

July '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Can't Stand Losing You—Surviving the Police 
(Cinema Libre)
This terrific music documentary, told mainly in the words and photographs of guitarist Andy Summers, presents a highly condensed, opinionated history of The Police, the world's biggest early '80s rock band, that features backstage and onstage footage of the band's 2007-8 reunion tour. Although Sting is the villain, as his ego (and composing talent) outgrew the others' until it couldn't be restrained within the group's confines, there's an unspoken question: despite his complaints that Sting had a stranglehold over songwriting, why doesn't Summers tout his own compositions, save for the Grammy-winning "Behind My Camel," with Summers rather than Sting on bass? (We know the answer.) Still, this is an enjoyable journey for Police fans. The movie looks fine on Blu; extras include Summers' commentary, interview and Q&A.

The Crimson Field 
This slow-moving BBC series, about front-line British nurses during World War I dealing with grievously wounded and dying servicemen along with their personal and professional lives, has the usual accomplished acting and production values. But this not quite prestigious show is merely a superior soap opera with cardboard characters, familiar revelations and cliched relationships. The luminous presence of Oona Chaplin as a young nurse makes its six one-hour episodes watchable despite the flaws. It all looks splendid on Blu-ray.

Ex Machina 
Writer-director Alex Garland's intelligent sci-fi drama begins promisingly with its storyline about a cyborg endowed with artifical intelligence, Ana, who beguiles and ultimately wins over Caleb, who meets her at his boss's secret hideaway during a week fraught with mysteries that quickly turn moral: and mortal. Too bad Garland succumbs to a silly showdown that's nothing more than a catfight—a battle of brawn rather than brains—which wrecks his clever set-up; despite all, it's well-acted by Bromhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and especially Alicia Vikander, with first-rate production design and special effects. The film looks gorgeous in hi-def; extras include a 40-minute making-of and an hour-long Q&A with Garland, Isaac and crew. 

Hiroshima Mon Amour 
Fifty-six years after its premiere, the power of Alain Resnais' debut feature has not diminished; it remains a psychologically penetrating portrait of both a couple and a world scarred by and scared of the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Brilliantly acted by Emmanuelle Riva, magnificently shot by Sacha Vierny and Mochio Takahashi, and exquisitely scored by Georges Deleure and Giocanni Fusco, Resnais' classic has never looked sharper nor more modern than in its new restoration. Criterion extras include two Riva interviews, two Resnais interviews, film historian Peter Cowie's commentary and a restoration featurette.

Love Unto Death
Life Is a Bed of Roses 
(Cohen Film Collection)
These mid-'80s films by French director Alain Resnais (who died last year at age 91) demonstrate his versatility and, at times, vacuity: 1984's Death, one of his bleakest films, is a chamber drama for four players (led by his future wife Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi as a couple yearning to be together beyond the grave) that gives great weight to Hans Werner Henze's intense musical interludes. 1983's Roses, by contrast, is a colossally lightweight affair that is a pretty-looking but pretty uninvolving experience. Both films have been restored nicely, despite some (probably unavoidable) softness in the image; lone extras are commentaries.

Powers—Complete 1st Season 
Little House on the Prairie—Complete 6th Season 
In a world where humans and superheroes interact, a homicide department investigates superhumans' crimes; the first PlayStation network scripted series, Powers is high-concept, but its healthy skepticism and tongue-in-cheek attitude works well. The sixth season of the beloved series Little House was originally televised in 1979-80, and its 24 episodes, while touching on Michael Landon's father, Karen Grassle's mother and Melissa Sue Anderson's older sister, concentrate on Melissa Gilbert's Laura, who turns 16, becomes a teacher, helps rebuild the blind school that was destroyed by fire and prepares to get married. Prairie has been restored beautifully for hi-def, and Powers looks equally good on Blu. The lone Prairie extra is a retrospective featurette; Powers extras comprise featurettes, outtakes and deleted scenes.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 
It's nearly impossible to recreate the charm that the first Exotic Hotel had, but since Hollywood is all about making money, a badly titled sequel was all but assured, and so we have Second Best, which is already admitting its inferiority to the original, despite both being directed by John Madden. Still, despite many contrivances, overlength (it should be 90 minutes, tops) and a lazy appearance by Richard Gere, the movie floats by on its lovely locations and British regulars Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton. The movie looks exquisite on Blu; extras are making-of featurettes.

Stray Cat Rock 
(Arrow USA)
This enticing boxed set collects all five films in the Stray Cat Rock series—comprising Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat 71—all made between 1969 and 1971 by directors Yasuharu Asebe and Toshiya Fujita, whose fast-moving but furious fun unapologetically combines the trashiest aspects of onscreen sex, violence and rock'n'roll. Starring the delectable Meiko Kaji as the leader of a girl gang, this quintet of undeniably dated flicks is a mish-mash of visual schemes that make for riotous viewing, especially if one can "binge" all five consecutively. The films look great on Blu-ray; extras are interviews.

DVDs of the Week
I Am Femen 
(First Run)
Oksana Shachko, a feminist icon in an era that desperately needs one, is endlessly articulate, intelligent and photogenic as she leads a group called Femen, whose public protests in Ukraine and throughout Europe have become a flash point the way the Russian female group Pussy Riot did a few years ago: their topless demonstrations have brought publicity and notoriety to their brave stances against oligarchy and authoritarianism. Alain Margot's fascinating documentary follows the anarchic activist Oksana as she unblinkingly puts her body and her life on the line for justice, along with a group of equally like-minded young women. 

Red Knot 
Set on a ship traveling to Antartica, Scott Cohen's atmospheric feature debut takes the pulse of a married couple's relationship, if rather too blatantly spelling out its themes via symbolic icy waters, forbidding terrain and a glimpse of Roman Polanski's own debut film Knife in the Water on a laptop. Despite such baggage, the movie is quietly hauntingy thanks to Olivia Thirlby as the wife: she's an underrated actress of dignity and grace; Vincent Kartheiser (the husband) and Billy Campbell (the ship's captain) are also fine. Kudos to Michael Simmonds' location photography and Garth Stevenson's moody music; extras are brief featurettes.

Run of the Arrow 
(Warner Archive)
In Samuel Fuller's rip-roaring 1957 western, an unrepentent Confederate soldier (Rod Stieger) befriends Sioux Indians and becomes an important ally in their ongoing skirmishes with the U.S. Army, which is in the process of allowing settlers from the East to have their manifest destiny. Though there is some dreadfully wooden acting and unintentionally funny diaogue, Fuller's gritty direction and Steiger's zesty performance make this sturdily watchable; that it clocks in at a fast-paced 85 minutes surely helps. 

112 Weddings 
A documentarian who has been filming weddings as a side gig for the past two deacdes, Doug Block has shot no less than 112 ceremonies of The Big Day, finding himself bonding with many couples only to never see or hear from them again. Now, by catching up with several of his favorites, he discovers that, as one might expect, their lives have been changed by their marriages, usually in ways they never expected; interviews with his honest subjects are juxtaposed with joy-filled footage from their weddings. Extras include interviews and a Q&A.

CD of the Week
Reynaldo Hahn—Chamber Music 
Born in 1874 in Caracas to a German Jewish father and Venezuelan mother, Reynaldo Hahn grew up in France, and his music has the stylish refinement of his adopted homeland: several of his extremely attractive works, including the four chosen for this disc, show off a beguiling ear for variously odd—but exactingly thought-out—combinations of instruments. The charming opener, Le Bal de Beatrice d'Este, is a buoyant ballet for 15 players, while the elegant closer Divertissement pour une fete de nuit is another sophisticated workout for flute, saxophone, bassoon, horn, percussion, string quartet and piano. The musicians perform these and Hahn's tastefully constructed Concerto provencal and Serenade with obvious enjoyment, making listeners hear the composer’s aesthetic of beauty in music.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

July '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Here Is Your Life 
One of the finest debut films in history, Swedish director Jan Troell's epic-length 1966 examination of a teenager becoming a man (based on novels by Eyvind Johnson) honestly, bittersweetly, humorously and without sentimentality presents everyday working life in all its quotidian glory, with an extraordinary cast and the singular eye of an artist in the form of Troell, who co-wrote, edited and photographed his first masterpiece. That he would go on to make more quietly exceptional films from The Emigrants and The New Land to The Flight of the Eagle, Land of Dreams and Everlasting Moments is a mark of Troell's genius, a filmmaker nearly equal to his countryman Ingmar Bergman. 

Interlude in the Marshland, Troell's magnificent 1965 short, crams more incident, feeling, characterization, detail and insight into 30 minutes than most other directors do in two hours; its inclusion as an extra—in a restored hi-def transfer, like the feature—provides further illumination into Troell's rich career, which began with a bang and is still going strong five decades later. Other extras are new interviews with a personable Troell, lead actor Eddie Axberg and Troell's producer/co-writer Bengt Forslund, and director Mike Leigh's appreciation.

(Arrow USA)
This knowing 1980 ripoff of the original Alien and remake of Invasion of Body Snatchers, directed by Italy's Luigi Cozzi, is about malevolent Martian eggs which, when exploded, graphically annihilate whatever unlucky stiffs are nearby. It's as insane as it sounds, but Cozzi doesn't care; even though the goriest fun is in the first half, a ludicrous finale in which the egg queen is introduced is nothing if not grossly icky. A final shot at the foot of the World Trade Center suggests a sequel that (thankfully?) never was made. On Blu, the movie has an appropriately grainy look; extras include a commentary, Q&A with Cozzi and star Ian McCulloch, Cozzi interview and vintage on-set featurette.

Deli Man 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Erik Greenberg Anjou's engaging documentary concerns that American culinary innovation, the Jewish deli, of which there were thousands across the country a half-century ago; now, however, there are only a handful left, including New York's famous Carnegie, Katz's and Second Avenue Delis. Anjou structures his film around Ziggy Gruber, proprietor of a thriving deli in Houston, although he does visit New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles to check in with others still making Jewish comfort food for a smaller but still supportively loyal clientele. The hi-def transfer is quite good; extras comprise featurettes and additional interview snippets with deli fans from Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel to Alan Dershowitz and Larry King.

Kill Me Three Times 
Fans of Simon Pegg will enjoy his gleefully nasty turn as a jaded killer whose increasingly desperate attempts to finish his latest job keep getting interrupted in director Kriv Stenders'  nasty black comedy. Although the rest of the cast is on the same wavelength as Pegg, notably the slyly funny Alice Braga as the cheating wife he's after, Stenders keeps the unsure tone wavering throughout, even if the viciously violent finale gives Pegg the chance at a classic blackout line. The movie looks first-rate on Blu; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Lovers 
Director Roland Joffe made his name in the '80s with political films set in faraway lands, namely The Killing Fields and The Mission; his latest has a superficial similarity but that's about it. Exotic locations take a back seat to a tepid time-travel story (a scientist who gets bopped on the head and knocked out finds himself in colonial India as a British soldier wooing a beautiful princess) that's essentially a routine rom-com; sharp camerawork and editing and dazzling leading ladies Bipasha Basu and Tamsin Egerton are unfortunately offset by a dull Josh Hartnett as the hero. The movie looks ravishing in hi-def; lone extra is a making-of.

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe 
(Film Movement Classics) 
Only the French could make a broad farce about a violinist mistaken for a double agent, but unbelievably, this 1972 flick became a huge international hit—even its sequel, The Return of the Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, was a colossal success. Director Yves Robert is anything but subtle, but his game cast (led by Pierre Richard, Jean Rochefort and the sultry Mireille Darc) provides genuine if intermittent laughs, enough to make its 91 minutes go by quickly. The restored film looks excellent on Blu.

The Unwanted 
(Kino Lorber)
Based on the 19th century vampire story Carmilla, Bret Wood's hoary gothic melodrama follows the budding romantic relationship between Carmilla, a drifter who arrives in a small town to find out why her mother disappeared, and Laura, a shy waitress whose father holds very dark secrets about her own mother...and Carmilla's as well. Presented with little finesse, the movie becomes quietly but steadily risible, even with the best efforts of actresses Hannah Fierman and Christen Orr, both very fine in their underwritten roles; William Katt is too hammy as the unhinged father. The film looks decent on Blu; extras comprise deleted scenes, making-of and 2008 Wood short, The Other Half.

DVDs of the Week
Beyond Zero 
The latest in director Bill Morrison's unique found-footage documentaries marries devastating and evocative footage from the trenches of World War I with Aleksandra Vrebalov's haunting but repetitive chamber music, which is skillfully played by Kronos Quartet. Even at 40 minutes, the movie becomes slightly wearying, but the primitive power and beauty of the images, often disappearing or melting away before our very eyes, remains. A Kronos featurette is the lone extra.

Goodbye to All That
The debut feature of Junebug screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, this engaging comic drama introduces the slightly daffy Otto, who is dealing with a divorce from his unfaithful wife, keeping a relationship with his young daughter and handling a dating scene that comprises one night stands more than anything. Anchored by the extremely likeable Paul Schneider as Otto, the film is also buoyed by the always delightful presence of the always shamefully underused Anna Camp, who contributes a priceless bit as a sexually adventurous but guilt-ridden churchgoer who may be Otto's perfect woman. 

An intense and provocative look at a dramatic and fateful day in Northern Ireland, director Yann Demange's drama follows a British army recruit (Jack O'Connell) who, after a fellow soldier is killed by an IRA sympathizer, finds himself stuck behind enemy lines, trying to stay alive and finding himself helped by people he thought would want him dead. Despite its ultra-realism (a pub bombing is sickeningly authentic) and persuasive performances, '71 is marred by implausibilities like close-range missed shots and a gun with an endless supply of bullets. The lone extra is an audio commentary.

Zero Motivation 
Based on her own experiences in the military, writer-director Talya Lavie's black comedy about how women are treated—and treat one another—in the Israeli armed forces has many perceptive moments, but is sidetracked by the weight of an unexpected suicide and a final, ridiculously overwrought catfight that features staple guns. Still, this mostly on-target film features sharp direction and a superb cast across the board. Extras comprise two Lavie shorts and a making-of  featurette.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

July '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Merchants of Doubt 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Following his breakthrough documentary Food Inc., an expose of the food industry, director Robert Kenner tackles an infinitely larger problem for our democracy and our world: the spin doctors who have, against all odds (and available evidence), produced skepticism among the public about scientifically settled subjects like climate change. Some of them gleefully discuss how they fool people (including themselves): there is no fear of accountability for such despicable sleight of hand, as the political points scored are too important. The movie looks fine on Blu; extras comprise Kenner's commentary. Toronto Film fest Q&A and deleted scenes.

The Flying Dutchman 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
The Metropolitan Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello—an opera which nearly matches Shakespeare's original—has been around for years but gets the dramatic job done, as does Renee Fleming's beautifully sung Desdemona: her rendition of the final "Ave Maria" is as prayerful as it is touching. Johan Botha's Otello is too broad, but Falk Struckmann's feverish Iago is the ultimate in villainy. In his abortive Zurich staging of Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, director Andreas Homoki sets the ship's action in a corporate boardroom, which may be modern but which illuminates nothing; at least Bryn Terfel in the title role and Anja Kampe as the heroine Senta give glorious performances that allow one to appreciate the musical side. Both operas look and sound excellent on Blu-ray; Otello extras include interviews.

Pit Stop
Spider Baby 
(Arrow USA)
Director Jack Hill made sloppy, low-budget genre pictures that have become cult films, like 1969's Pit Stop, a straightforward if undistinguished action flick about figure-eight racing that's notable mainly for an early appearance by who would later become Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn. 1968's Spider Baby is another beast entirely: this amateurish drama about a demented family is weird enough to stay interesting, kind of like a car crash that draws gawking rubberneckers. Both films have been nicely restored on hi-def; extras include commentaries, interviews and featurettes.

Poldark—Complete 1st Season 
In this new adaptation of the series of novels by Winston Graham about a man who returns home to England after fighting in the American Revolution, only to find his sweetheart betrothed to another man, Aidan Turner makes a smoldering Ross Poldark and Eleanor Tomlinson a sultry Demelza, the wild young woman he brings to his home as a servant and, later, his wife. This eight-part, eight-hour mini-series was shot on visually spectacular Cornwall locations, but fast-paced storytelling and good acting make it soar. The Blu-ray looks fantastic; extras comprise interviews, featurettes and commentary on the first episode.

Although director Susanne Bier's melodramatic instincts overwhelm her serviceable material (the relationship between a timber baron and his independent young wife in Depression-era North Carolina), this isn't the fiasco that some critics have made it out to be. If Bradley Cooper is little more than a one-dimensional pretty boy as the husband, Jennifer Lawrence again gives a fiercely committed, honest portrayal that compels one to keep watching even when her director, co-star and scriptwriter (Christopher Kyle) let her down. The film's photography (by Morten Soborg) glistens in hi-def; extras comprise deleted scenes and featurettes.

While We're Young 
This, yet another Noah Baumbach picture whose biggest frame of reference is other movies—and so has little of substance in its characters and their relationships—steals brazenly from Woody Allen's far superior Crimes and Misdemeanors (among other films) with a hackneyed generation-gap plot about a floundering documentary maker dealing with sundry professional and personal crises. Baumbach tries having it both ways by simultaneously laughing at and with his own characters, regardless of age, but he doesn't have the finesse to pull it off; and any movie that makes Charles Grodin dull and unfunny is in trouble from the get-go. The film does look good on Blu; extras are behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Woman in Gold 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co.)
The true story of Gustav Klimt's painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer (now at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan), which was stolen by the Nazis, and how her elderly niece Maria Altmann sued the Austrian government for its return is routinely dramatized by director Simon Curtis, who has a solid anchor in Helen Mirren's trenchant portrayal of Maria. Although Ryan Reynolds shows little charm or intelligence as her American lawyer, Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is as superb as Mirren as the younger Maria. At least Curtis doesn't condescend, as his Germans and Austrians are allowed to speak their language instead of heavily accented English. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras comprise Curtis's commentary, making-of featurette and Neue Galerie press conference.

DVDs of the Week
First Peoples 
This fascinating multi-part series examines our common ancestry by exploring where the first people to roam the planet came from, where they migrated to and how much of their DNA can still be found in our own, tens of thousands of years later. The five one-hour episodes of First Peoples—set in the relevant areas of Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and the Americas—comprise interviews with and discoveries by archeologists and genetic experts to enlighten viewers about ongoing explorations of our ancient, and current, history.

Human Capital 
(Film Movement)
Director-cowriter Paolo Virzi’s probing drama about the global economy after the stock market collapse zeroes in on a dysfunctional family whose teenage son is accused of hitting a man while drunk driving. Virzi juggles his story's strands effectively and the acting is estimable: although Valerie Bruni Tedeschi’s fine but unexceptional performance as the boy’s mother has gotten plaudits, they rightfully should go instead to Matilde Guidi’s lancingly truthful portrait of a friend of the son who holds his fate in her hands. Extras are a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, music video and a German short film, Job Interview.

Pantani—The Accidental Death of a Cyclist 
Italian cycling champion Marco Pantani—lone winner of both the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia races in the same year (1998)—was part of a doping scandal on the heels of his return to racing following a near-fatal accident; then, in 2004, his lifeless body was found in a hotel room, victim of a drug overdose. How did this champion athlete and celebrity end up dead at age 34? This documentary, directed by James Erskine, features emotional interviews with family, friends and competitors, along with archival footage of international news coverage and of Pantani himself to create a sympathetic but still-relevant cautionary tale. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"The Qualms," "Of Good Stock," "The Spoils"

The Qualms
Written by Bruce Norris; directed by Pam MacKinnon
Performances through July 12, 2015
Playwrights Horizons, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Of Good Stock
Written by Melissa Ross; directed by Lynne Meadow
Performances through July 26, 2015
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

The Spoils
Written by Jessie Eisenberg; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through June 28, 2015
The New Group @ Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Kate Arrington, Jeremy Shamos and Sarah Goldberg in The Qualms (photo: Joan Marcus)
Having won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his 2010 world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, Clybourne Park—a play far worthier in theory than in execution—Bruce Norris returns with his latest, The Qualms, again indulging in his predilection for words—mainly, parsing what people say to one another—to the detriment of all else.

Swingers Gary and Teri have invited newcomers Chris and Kristy to a party at their beachfront condo where, after drinks, hors d'oeuvres and small talk, the invitees—who also include friends Deb and Ken, and Roger and Regine—pair off for wife- and husband-swapping. The other couples' relaxed and carefree attitudes intrigue Kristy but unnerve Chris, who starts arguing with the others on the slightest pretext about anything. 

If you go to this play for sex or nudity, don’t bother, since Norris isn’t interested: a short scene when each partner pairs off with another is short-circuited by Chris erupting angrily after Regine teases him with face slaps. Chris then insults Deb's weight, Ken's androgyny, Gary's hippier-than-thou temperament and Roger's tough-guy persona, resulting in Ken finally knocking him down and Chris becoming a pariah among a pretty liberal group of people, which embarrasses Kristy, who’s obviously itching for spice in their (her?) life.

After setting up this uneasy situation among normal, everyday people, Norris short-circuits it by having Chris go too far, to the point where it becomes apparent that being aggressively pedantic and jealous would almost certainly have prevented him from even attending this party, however enticing the thought of an orgy might have been in the abstract. Despite such implausibility, Jeremy Shamos plays Chris with such intensity and brilliant bitchiness that he makes us at first root for—then, later, against—him, even when Norris ramps up his reactionary reactions against the others.

Really, there's not much of a play here—a late appearance by a delivery man is designed to extend the flimsy plot for a further few minutes with cheap laughs, while Teri’s final monologue adds little—but Pam MacKinnon's skillful direction and an accomplished cast get the job done. Although Shamos is the stand-out, Sarah Goldberg’s appealingly smoldering Kristy and Noah Emmerich’s hilariously matter-of-fact Roger are not far behind. And it all takes place on Todd Rosenthal’s astonishingly enticing set of Gary and Teri’s condo that’s almost (but not quite) in Ikea-like bad taste.

Jennifer Mudge, Heather Lind and Alicia Silverstone in Of Good Stock (photo: Joan Marcus)
The set is also the thing in Melissa Ross's Of Good Stock, where master Santo Loquasto—winner of 3 Tony awards and 18 Tony nominations, along with 3 Oscar nods for Woody Allen's Zelig, Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway—has fashioned a Cape Cod summer cottage so warmly enriching and homey that anyone would want to kick the actors out and move in.

Not that Ross's play is totally negligible; far from it. Exploring how three grown sisters have been screwed up by their famous novelist father's legacy—along with how he treated them and their saintly mother while alive—Of Good Stock introduces down-to-earth Jess, the oldest, fighting cancer and living in the family house (now hers) with food writer husband Fred; headstrong Celie, the youngest, who arrives with her latest boyfriend Hunter, one of 13 siblings from Missoula, Montana; and high-strung Amy, the middle one, newly engaged to Josh and flaunting her impending wedding to the consternation of the others, even her fiancĂ©.

Ross, whose characters and dialogue alternate between funny and poignant, acerbic and sentimental, sweet and crude, has engagingly written about a too-familiar subject. But her ear at times turns tin: everyone drops F-bombs as casually as DeNiro and Pesci in Raging Bull, which wouldn't be bad if the play's pivotal scene—the sisters, outside the house at the dock after a night of drinking and arguing, finally let their feelings out by yelling "Fuck Dad," “Fuck cancer,” ad nauseum at the top of their lungs—didn't go over the top with the same expletive. Having the F-word already scattered throughout the play sucks the emotion out of what should be a powerful moment of catharsis for the sisters and the audience.

Slickly staged by Lynne Meadow, the play features several fine performers, with Jennifer Mudge’s Jess as subtle as Alicia Silverstone’s Amy is shrill. Still, a decent production of a decent play on an outstanding set is a not-bad way to spend a couple hours.

The cast of The Spoils (photo: Monique Carboni)
Jesse Eisenberg, who specializes in narcissistic geeks as an actor, has been writing those same parts for himself as a playwright. His last play, The Revisionist, was insufferable; his latest, The Spoils, is less so, but still wears out its welcome long before it ends. It concerns Ben (Eisenberg, of course), a borderline sociopath who enjoys mocking everyone and everything, mainly his roommate Kalyan from Nepal, along with Kalyan's Indian girlfriend Reshma, who at least sees through Ben. 

Eisenberg piles incident on top of incident as Ben embarrasses others and himself as he loutishly talks and talks, and insults and insults: it's amusing for a while, but a little of it goes a very long way, as Eisenberg the actor and Ben the character aren’t as charming and Archie Bunker-ishly loveable as Eisenberg the playwright thinks they are. A 75-minute one-act might work, but 2-1/2 hours and two acts don’t. 

Not once but twice Ben goes into a lengthy—and unnecessarily explicit—description of a dream he once had about Sarah, a childhood friend he wants to take from Ted, another grade-school buddy with whom he just reconnected; then there’s the entire second act, which comprises another long and unfunny digression, this time of all of the characters punning on the phrase "I can't believe it's not butter," followed by desultory showdowns between Ben and each character in turn.

The final moments—Sarah’s lone memory of Ben as a nice person (albeit in grade school), dragged in out of left field in a belated attempt to bandage his reputation as a jerk—are a playwright’s desperate but failed attempt at meaning. But with Scott Elliott's lively directing on Derek McLane's purloined Manhattan apartment set and finely tuned performances by the cast (even Eisenberg in his motor-mouthed, single-minded way), I can’t believe it’s not better.

The Qualms
Playwrights Horizons, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Of Good Stock
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

The Spoils
The New Group @ Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY