Tuesday, June 12, 2018

June '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Tomb Raider
(Warner Bros)
Bringing back Lara Croft in this era of rebooting everything is a no-brainer, as is Alicia Vikander replacing Angelina Jolie, since Vikander’s athleticism is less freakishly superhero-ish—she owns the role for however many sequels the producers want to make. The movie itself is divertingly forgettable, with stunts and special effects galore, but the nonsensical adventure is the last thing anyone will remember with Vikander so busy reviving a blockbuster franchise. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include four making-of featurettes.

Benvenuto Cellini 
Il Vologeso 
Hector Berlioz’s 1838 grand opera Benvenuto Cellini—a largely fictionalized overview of events in the life of the great 16th century Italian sculptor—gets an energetic 2015 Dutch National Opera staging by former Monty Python member (and creator of Brazil and The Fisher King) Terry Gilliam, who squeezes out a lot more humor than drama; his cast keeps up with the frenetic pace, led by John Osborn’s Cellini. A virtually unknown opera by Niccolò Jommelli, Il Vologeso, was unearthed centuries after its 1766 premiere, but it’s such a run-of-the-mill baroque work that it’s unsurprising it’s been eclipsed by so many better operas. Still, the Stuttgart production is first-rate, as are the performers and musicians. Both operas have terrific hi-def video and audio; too bad there are no extras, since a Gilliam Cellini interview (or commentary) would have been a hoot.

The Hurricane Heist 
Helped by a clever plot twist—crooks use an impending hurricane to cover their tracks when they rob a U.S. mint—this basically risible crime drama remains watchable mostly because it’s a blast to discover what ludicrous pieces of nature’s wrath happen to move the crazy plot forward. Director Rob Cohen keeps his tongue in cheek, especially during the nutso finale in which dangerous winds claim victims that include 18-wheelers. A game cast featuring Maggie Grace (an actress who deserves better movies) is another plus. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are Cohen’s commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

King of Hearts 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Philippe de Broca’s 1966 tragicomedy has attained cult status over the years with its optimistic allegorical theme—“in an insane world, the insane are sane”—and a story of inmates of an asylum in a deserted French town at WWI’s end crowning a Scottish soldier, sent to disarm bombs retreating Germans left, as their leader. Alan Bates is charming, Genevieve Bujold is stunning, and a bevy of French performers—Daniel Boulanger, Pierre Brasseur, Jean-Claude Brialy and Michel Serrault, for starters—gives this slight satire the energy it needs to get to the finish line. The new hi-def transfer looks superb; extras are new interviews with Bujold and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme along with a commentary.

The Strangers—Prey at Night 
The original The Strangers, from 2008, wasn’t necessarily begging for a sequel, and this belated attempt tries but fails miserably to equal or even come near its occasional chills, with a non-existent plot, characters doing the dumbest things imaginable, and a finale that doesn’t even raise a sigh let alone a scream. It all looks good enough in hi-def; extras include an alternate ending and an alternate (unrated) cut of the film, music video and featurettes.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

2018 Tribeca Film Festival Roundup

17th Tribeca Film Festival
New York, NY
April 18-29, 2018

Woman Walks Ahead
For its 17th edition, the Tribeca Film Festival had its annual array of features and documentaries, television and Netflix series for preview, dozens of shorts and talks and special events. In the first festival since the #MeToo movement, women both in front of and behind the camera were featured, starting with Woman Walks Ahead, Susannah White’s absorbing historical drama about Catherine Weldon, a widowed painter from New York who in 1892 traveled across the country in hopes of painting the great warrior Sitting Bull. As usual with such films, historical veracity be damned, but Woman Walks Ahead is filled with gorgeous western vistas and an estimable cast led by Jessica Chastain’s forcefully bull-headed heroine and Michael Greyeyes’s humane, gentle Sitting Bull. There’s also fine support from Sam Rockwell, Bill Camp and Ciaran Hinds as the men who help—or hinder—Weldon in her seemingly quixotic quest.

Based on the early life of the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley has sumptuous sets and costumes that smother the familiar tale of a young woman not being taken seriously in a culture where men are the poets and thinkers. Elle Fanning makes an engaging if superficial Mary, Douglas Booth a less-than-fascinating Shelley (the poet who takes Mary away at age 16) and Bel Powley a too-modern stepsister Claire (who had a baby with Lord Byron). Director Haifaa al-Mansour gets bogged down in bodice-ripper clichés; Bright Star this isn’t.

Slut in a Good Way
From the Quebecois duo of director Sophie Lorain and writer Catherine Leger, Slut in a Good Way is an irreverent look at a bunch of high-schoolers (particularly 16-year-old Charlotte) and how their casual attitudes toward sex often confuse the issue. A group of engaging young performers—led by the remarkably self-assured Marguerite Bouchard as Charlotte—makes this an amusing and pointed ride through raging teen hormones.

French actress Sara Forestier consolidates her status as a triple-threat by writing, directing and starring in M, a funny, touching, sometimes difficult-to-watch drama about a young woman with an embarrassing stutter who falls in love with a barely literate baker. Their volatile romance, complicated by social and economic differences, is enacted with formidable intensity by Forestier and Radouanne Hardane, and there’s a realistic sense of two imperfectly matched people hoping to not just get by but transcend their hardscrabble environment.

Following his Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio returns with Disobedience, an Orthodox Jewish lesbian romance. For a movie that spends much of its time delving into the culture of the London Orthodox community, it all boils down to when Rachels Weisz and McAdams—both sensationally good (except for McAdams’ occasional lapsed accent)—will find their way to a bedroom. Lelio never sensationalizes the women’s relationship, even if he and co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz succumb to melodrama. But both actresses, at the top of their game, invest this charged material with emotional directness; credit also goes to Alessandro Nivola, who scores in the underwritten role of McAdams’ husband.

Smuggling Hendrix
Set before and during the 2011 riots in London, Obey is a scalding study of people living in a maelstrom of social unrest, racism and economic poverty. Zeroing in on a young man who falls for a beautiful but dangerous young woman, Obey has its missteps but on the whole is a stellar debut for director Jamie Jones. Another look at a real-life volatile area, Smuggling Hendrix follows Yiannis (Adam Bousdoukos), whose dog Jimi runs away to the Turkish controlled part of Cyprus, from which he cannot brought back without it becoming an international incident. Writer-director Marios Piperides shows a light but artful touch with potentially sticky material, smartly having his hero enlist his ex—now with another man—to retrieve their dog. Bousdoukos is a perfect put-upon everyman, and Vicky Papadopoulou gives a bravura performance as a woman whose feelings for her beloved canine help her through a dicey situation with Yiannis.

A choppy distillation of Chekhov’s heartbreaking play, The Seagull sacrifices the depth and humanity of Chekhov’s writing and characters in director Michael Mayer’s and writer Stephen Karam’s unfortunate adaptation, leaving only the bare bones of unrequited love, which is not remotely what Chekhov was after. Still, there’s splendid scenery and forceful acting by Annette Bening, Brian Dennehy and especially Siorose Ronan, an actress who seemingly gets better every time she appears onscreen.

Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary about playwright Terrence McNally, is a joyous valentine to theater and an affecting reminiscence in which McNally engagingly speaks about his life growing up in the Midwest and moving to New York where he became a celebrated writer and Tony winner while befriending seminal artists like Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein—with both of whom he had affairs!—and worked with first-rate actors like those heard from in the film: Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, John Benjamin Hickey and Christine Baranski, for starters.

Marco Proserpio’s documentary The Man Who Stole Banksy enlightens us about a seedy side of the art world: the legal buying and selling of illegal artworks, namely the public street art of the famous eponymous artist who went to Palestine in 2007 to paint on many of the area’s outdoor spaces. We see an enterprising businessman who takes it upon himself to make sure that money can be made from Banksy’s site-specific works, no matter the economic and moral difficulties.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, director Stephen Nomura Schible’s touching documentary about the Japanese composer who won an Oscar for The Last Emperor, shows an artist dealing with devastation from within and without: his 2014 throat cancer diagnosis and horrifying disasters like September 11, the Iraq War and the Fukushima nuclear-plant disaster, all of which marked him personally and artistically. Sakamoto is a gentle, soft-spoken soul, and Schible’s intimate portrait presents a hopeful glimpse of how art can heal.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

June '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Au hasard Balthazar
Among French director Robert Bresson’s most singular films, this 1966 allegory of faith and sacrifice follows a donkey through owners benevolent and malevolent, alongside a young woman’s journey through difficult relationships not unlike the innocent animal’s. Shot in immaculate black and white by brilliant cameraman Ghislain Cloquet—whose photography looks stunning in Criterion’s new hi-def transfer—Balthazar ends with one of the quietest, most moving moments in the history of cinema. Extras are Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, a 1966 French television program about the film, and a 2004 interview with Bresson expert Donald Richie.

Frank and Eva: Living Apart Together 
(Cult Epics)
Director Pim de la Parra’s 1973 drama, a messy, occasionally interesting look at a couple on the rocks—he’s sleeping with everyone while she wants to settle down—has a few fleeting moments of blood and eroticism, sometimes entwined with each other. But there’s the rest of the film—mainly indifferently acted and scripted—that drops it into the mediocre category. Although Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle is prominent on the cover, she barely registers in a marginal role (and feature debut). There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras are director’s commentary and featurette.

Gun Crazy 
(Warner Archive) 

A forerunner of Bonnie and Clyde, this 1950 shoot-‘em-up is as blunt and crude as they come, but director Joseph H. Lewis gets some mileage out of its ludicrously straightforward “they both love guns, fall in love and go on a crime spree” plot line. In the leads, John Ball is fine as Bart, but Peggy Cummins—who didn’t have much of a career—is a knockout in every way as Laurie, the proto-Bonnie. The B&W film looks good on Blu; extras are an audio commentary and the informative 2006 feature-length documentary Film-Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light.

Little Women 
(PBS Masterpiece)
In this elegant-looking, engagingly performed adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic, several veteran performers—Emily Watson as the girls’ mother Marmee, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March and Michael Gambon as neighbor Mr. Lawrence—acquit themselves admirably. But besting them all is Maya Hawke as a wonderfully level-headed Jo, a role so over-familiar that it’s difficult to make something new out of it (although Sutton Foster was a delightful Jo in the 2005 Broadway musical). The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise three on-set featurettes. 

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 
(Warner Archive) 
Stanley Donen’s 1954’s CinemaScope spectacular, an original musical based on a book by Stephen Vincent Benét, is splendid old-fashioned entertainment, with inventive choreography by Michael Kidd and memorable songs by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul. It’s an enjoyable lark, spun together beautifully by Donen. The colors on the Blu-ray are eye-popping but there’s some softness in the image; extras are Donen’s commentary, cast and crew documentary, vintage featurettes and, on a second disc, the film presented in a different widescreen ratio.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Film Series Review—Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018
Series runs through June 6, 2018
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY

The Tavianis' Rainbow: A Private Affair
With the recent death of Ermanno Olmi, Italian cinema lost one of its true masters. As part of the 17th annual Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, another recent casualty, Vittorio Taviani, is represented by his and his brother Paolo’s last collaboration, Rainbow: A Private Affair, an intimate chronicle of love and politics amid Turin anti-fascists in 1944. Bolstered by the appealing Valentina Belle—who plays the woman both protagonists want—it’s not the final masterpiece its directors’ fans hoped for, but has the Tavianis’ characteristic humanity in abundance. (The brothers’ 1982 WWII classic, The Night of the Shooting Stars, is also showing during the series.)

Valentina Cortese—a luminous actress in films by Fellini, Antonioni and Truffaut (for whose Day for Night she got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar)—is remembered in Diva!, Francesco Patierno’s hodgepodge of a valentine that cheekily has several actresses playing her at different times in her career as well as film clips and actual archival footage. Another noted director is feted in Marco Ferreri: Dangerous but Necessary, Anselma Dell’Olio’s sympathetic portrait of Italy’s enfant terrible who paraded crudely vicious satires like The Grand Bouffe, The Last Woman and The Ape Woman (the latter of which is showing during this series) during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

Sergio Castellitto's Fortunata
Sergio Castellitto—a sensitive actor from noteworthy films by Marco Bellocchio, among others—returns with his latest directorial project, Fortunata. Again written by his wife Margaret Mazzantini and centering on Fortunata, a single mother dealing with her rambunctious young daughter, overbearing ex-husband and her kid’s therapist whom she falls for. Castellitto and Mazzantini take their ironically-named heroine’s woes and shove them down our throats, but Jasmine Trinca’s full-throttle performance in the title role makes this rather diffuse melodrama more than a bumpy ride.

In Boys Cry, another brother directing team, Damiano and Favio D’Innocenzo, presents a compelling if familiar look at Rome’s lower-class denizens and organized crime as a couple of friends who begin to relish their new assignment as mob hit men. The Place, Paolo Genovese’s stylish-looking but irredeemably shallow Twilight Zone-ish drama about a stranger who sits in a restaurant day after day and the desperate people who come looking for a way out of their miserable lives, starts out divertingly, then falls prey to a claustrophobic, mind-numbing sameness. 

As a priest who dangerously butts heads with local criminals in his hometown, Mimmo Borelli gives a forceful but restrained performance that centers Vincenzo Marra’s insightful character study Equilibrium. Similarly, in Francesca Comencini’s soggy romantic dramedy Stories of Love That Cannot Belong to This World—in which Lucia Mascino and Thomas Trabacci play mismatched lovers who meet cute, fight cute and break up not-so-cute—Valentina Belle, as in Rainbow, captivates as the new (younger) woman in the man’s life.

Ferzan Ozpetek's Naples in Veils
Finally, Naples in Veils is another of Ferzan Ozpetek’s elegant but empty dramas, as mysterious Naples co-stars in this weird tale of a medical examiner—after an amazing one-night stand with a young stud—discovers that not only might he be the corpse she’s conducting an autopsy on, but that he may have a twin brother, whom she (naturally) begins to fall for. As always, Giovanna Mezzogiorno invests the heroine with as much humanity, honesty and charm as she can, but Ozpetek’s too busy being cutesy and slippery to allow anything original to seep through.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Lily Thorne's “Peace for Mary Frances”

Peace for Mary Frances
Written by Lily Thorne; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through June 17, 2018
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron in Peace for Mary Frances (photo: Monique Carboni)

Lily Thorne’s Peace for Mary Frances is obviously a labor of love. Unfortunately, it’s also a labored play that attempts to do too much with too many characters, ending up far less than the sum of its parts.

As 90-year-old matriarch Mary Frances continues physically deteriorating, her daughters Fanny and Alice, son Eddie and granddaughters (Alice’s daughters) Helen and Rosie must come to terms with her mortality while dealing with seemingly everyone’s still-festering animosity. Add to this a loaded family history: Mary Frances’s grandmother was able to get out of Turkey (while pregnant with Mary Frances’s father) while the Armenian genocide was happening a century ago. That’s a lot of baggage for one script. 

Although Thorne is sympathetic to her characters, she writes too many melodramatic, even sitcomish confrontations for them: notably, the endlessly bickering Fanny and Alice often nearly coming to blows over the vastly different paths their lives have taken, which their mother’s dying has only exacerbated. 

Then there’s their lazy brother Eddie, who comes off as an afterthought compared to his sisters, popping in and out at random, which seems more an authorial intrusion than a believable character arc; indeed, when Eddie happens to be the only one in the house with Mary Frances at play’s end, there’s something artificial about it. That neither Fanny nor Alice is present might be a realistically anticlimactic real-life event, but it still feels like a dramatic cop-out.

The family’s conflicts are contrived and often risible. Helen and Rosie’s appearances don’t add anything, and making Helen an actress in a successful TV show who’d recognized by a hospice employee is good for a stray laugh but not much else. Also, their constant traveling between Manhattan and Mary Frances’s suburban Connecticut home with Rosie’s infant always in tow (no babysitter or significant other available?) smacks of arbitrariness. 

Amid such messiness, director Lila Neugebauer has difficulty getting the play to cohere dramatically, comically and emotionally: even Dane Laffrey’s two-tier set, with the living room and kitchen to the left and Mary Frances’s bedroom to the right, is an awkward fit on the cramped stage, which further drains the scenes of their immediacy and intimacy.

Paul Lazar can’t get a handle on the sketchily drawn Eddie; likewise Natalie Gold, who goes through the motions as Rosie. The always winning Heather Burns has heartfelt moments as Helen, Johanna Day fiercely channels Fanny’s simmering anger at herself and others, and the gifted J. Smith Cameron unsurprisingly makes Alice the emotional heart of the play. 

As Mary Frances, Lois Smith is by turns cantankerous, irascible and amusing: but, as with Thorne’s play, she’s never as devastating as she should be. Sadly, the final moments of Peace for Mary Frances—which should be quite shattering—pass by with barely a whimper.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

May '18 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 
Beyond the Hills 
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s long but absorbing chronicle of the divergent paths of two female friends—one refusing to leave the convent and the other taking desperate action to change her mind—is as uncompromising as the director’s other films, as the slow-moving and seemingly repetitive sequences pay off by the end in an accumulation of narrative and psychological detail. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is splendid; extras include a Mungiu interview, making-of featurette, deleted scenes and the 2012 Cannes Film festival press conference with Mungiu and his convincing lead actresses Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan.

The 15:17 to Paris 
(Warner Bros)
In Clint Eastwood’s turgid re-telling of a real-life event, three American servicemen disarm a terrorist on a train, avoiding a horrific loss of life—but only after they take a trip to Europe, where they take selfies, flirt with young women and drink heavily. The actual train sequence is tautly shot, but before that we are subjected to 70 minutes of borderline ineptitude to fill the running time, from the heroes’ troubles in grade school and their joining the service to their aborted vacation. And having the three men play themselves—along with a fourth who was shot and badly wounded, unsurprisingly unsettling to watch as he recreates his own near-death experience—is a failed gimmick since no one has any dramatic weight onscreen. This is a strangely remote movie on a highly charged subject. It looks fine on Blu; extras are brief, uninformative featurettes.

Game Night  
(Warner Bros)
The question must be asked again: why isn’t Rachel McAdams the biggest female star in the world? She should be as huge as Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock were in their heyday, but she has never gotten her due, despite an Oscar nomination for Spotlight. Her effortless charm is the main draw of this silly but often funny flick about a couple whose regular game nights are upped several notches by the hubby’s shady brother. Jason Bateman does fine as the husband, but despite his and McAdams’ easy rapport, it all runs out of steam and gets quite ridiculous by the end. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras include a making-of featurette and a gag reel.

Red Sparrow 
Francis Lawrence’s at times plodding but still intense espionage thriller covers too many locales, characters and story threads which threaten to derail the main plot line, and with it Jennifer Lawrence’s commanding performance as a Russian ballerina turned deadly spy. But despite its overlength and unnecessarily extreme violence, the movie works, mainly because Lawrence (no relation to her director) is so indelible an onscreen presence; she helps paper over a lot of flaws, including her lack of chemistry with Joel Edgerton. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras include several featurettes and deleted scenes.

The Two of Us  
(Cohen Film Collection)
French director Claude Berri’s feature debut with this sentimental but affecting tragicomedy about an eight-year-old Jewish boy sent to live with an elderly Catholic couple during the height of the Nazi occupation. Despite occasional mawkishness, the bond between the boy and the crusty, anti-Semitic old man—enacted with honesty and humor by young Alain Cohen and the great Michel Simon—takes hold of and envelops the viewer until the emotionally charged finale. The restored B&W film is a knockout on Blu; extras include an audio commentary and brief archival interviews with Simon. 

DVDs of the Week
ACORN and the Firestorm 
(First Run)
Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s cogent documentary recounts a shameful episode in recent political history—the demonizing and ultimate demise of the liberal grassroots organization by the typically disingenuous and misleading campaign headed by the benighted likes of Breitbart and Fox News. Through interviews with ACORN staff and the young woman who pretended to be a prostitute in a video dishonestly edited that helped sink the organization, this film presents a thoughtful and forceful cautionary tale for our fractured, volatile times.

This amusing if slight comedy gets much of its energy from the legendary Isabelle Huppert, slumming but still irresistible as a middle-aged former contestant on the televised Eurovision song contest who meets a young boxer at the factory where she works who coaxes her back in front of a microphone. Director Bavo Defurne smartly keeps Huppert front and center, whether throwing herself into a relationship with the boxer (a deadpan Kévin Azaïs) or singing for the first time in decades. It’s minor stuff made diverting enough for 90 minutes by Huppert’s presence.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

May '18 Digital Week IV

CDs of the Week
Béla Bartók—Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Ondine) 
The violin concertos of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), separated by 30 years, are the works of first a youthful virtuoso gaining his footing and then of a sublime master. That’s not to say that the first concerto (1908) is in any way inferior; in soloist Christian Tetzlaff’s dazzlingly capable hands, it’s a beguiling, buoyant piece of music (Bartók wrote it for a young woman violinist he was head over heels for), while the second concerto (1938) is, simply, a mesmerizing masterpiece. Both are played with great feeling by Tetzlaff and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu.

William Walton—Viola Concerto and Other Works (Chandos)
William Walton (1902-1983) has a reputation as a facile composer who penned Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare scores and royal coronation marches, but his output was far more wide-ranging and substantial than that. The works on this disc combine his facility for memorable melodies with his skill for equal parts darkness and light. The impassioned Viola Concerto, despite being revised twice—the second time more than 30 years after it was first composed in 1929—manages to retain a completeness all its own, buoyed by soloist James Ehnes’ lovely playing. The Sonata for String Orchestra—a transcription of his own A Minor Quartet—and Partita for Orchestra alternate between verve and lyricism; conductor Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra bring out the works’ musicality.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg/Dmitry Kabalevsky—Concertos (Capriccio) 
The remarkable renaissance continues for Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1918-1996), who has gone from nearly unknown to towering genius thanks to a flurry of recordings and performances over the past decade or so. This disc pairs his striking and lyrical Violin Concerto (1959)—played with apt vigorousness by Benjamin Schmid—with two attractive concertos by another under-the-radar Russian, Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987), Weinberg’s contemporary in the Soviet music sphere.  Claire Huangci dispatches the lively 1961 Piano Fantasy (after Schubert’s solo piano classic) with tuneful ease, while Harriet Krijgh makes the most of the melodious Cello Concerto No. 1 (1948-9). Cornelius Meister sensitively leads the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in all three works.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

NYC Theater Review—Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”

Long Day’s Journey into Night
Written by Eugene O’Neill; directed by Sir Richard Eyre
Performances through May 27, 2018
BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey into Night (photo: Richard Termine)
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play, is an epic-length exploration of a self-destructive family—the father, retired stage actor James Tyrone; his morphine-addled wife Mary; and their sons, alcoholic Jamie and poetic but sickly Edmund (the author’s self-portrait)—in which  the four characters take turns psychologically and emotionally pummeling one another and themselves, building into a dramatically potent accumulation of vitriolic acid that, in the right hands, makes for a shattering theatrical experience.

O’Neill himself went to a sanatorium for TB around the time the play is set (1912), which lends credence to the notion that this incriminating but insightful glimpse into the disastrous effects of a family’s self-destruction helped lead to his own successful playwriting career. (Ironically, although he wrote this play in 1941-2, it wasn’t staged until three years after his 1953 death, for which he posthumously won the Pulitzer and Tony Awards.)

Sir Richard Eyre’s London production, in the cozy confines of the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has many faults, led by Rob Howell’s angled and expressionist set, which though it generously allows for Peter Mumford’s gorgeously textured lighting, is too refined and elegant for what should be a semi-rundown Connecticut summer cottage. Although aware of the broken music in O’Neill’s painful, at times melodramatic words, Eyre too often overemphasizes the tragic aspect of these people bumping up against one another like small craft in a tempest-tossed harbor, allowing wincingly overdone moments among the capable cast. 

While Rory Keenan makes an aggressively cynical Jamie, Matthew Beard’s Edmund is a lanky, blurry portrait of a would-be artist; neither actor either acquits himself admirably or embarrasses himself. Similarly, Jeremy Irons is too boisterous as James, with overly hammy line readings and gesticulations getting in the way of his performance—that despite the fact that James Tyrone is an actor…and an elderly, hammy one at that.

Lesley Manville’s Mary should be the heart of this Journey, and despite a distractingly flat American accent, she often has searingly dramatic moments as the drug-addicted wife and mother in denial about everyone, including herself. It’s too bad, then, that Eyre coaxes her into forced or overstated histrionics, which end up giving her final, poignant lines of dialogue far less resonance than they—and O’Neill—deserve after 3-1/2 hours of unparalleled emotional devastation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

May '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Unforgotten—Complete 2nd Season 
(PBS Masterpiece)
In the second season of this compulsively watchable PBS Masterpiece series, investigators Cassie Stuart and Sunny Khan once again focus on an initially baffling cold case: the remains of a body found crammed in a suitcase, the deceased killed 27 years before, and (again) no shortage of suspects. The twists and turns of the investigation are compelling throughout all five hours, thanks to smart writing and finely-shaded performances by Sanjeev Bhaskar and especially Nicola Walker as the detectives. It all looks supremely good on Blu.

The London Symphony Orchestra and music director Sir Simon Rattle tackle a pair of uncompromising works in this excellent 2016 performance: the imposing, epic Romanticism of Anton Bruckner’s hour-long Symphony No. 8, and the subtle shadings of Olivier Messiaen’s 25-minute Coleurs de la Cite Celeste/Colors of the Celestial City. The playing, of course, is stupendous, particularly by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the exceptional soloist in the Messiaen work; hi-def video and audio are both fine.

Two Thousand Maniacs 
In what was his finest moment of gory exploitation, Herschell Gordon Lewis directed this ridiculously silly 1964 splatter flick about clueless Northerners who stumble upon murderous Southerners and find themselves victims in a re-litigation of the Civil War. It’s nuttily entertaining in its way (and based on the musical Brigadoon, of all things); an extra Lewis feature, Moonshine Mountain—also 1964—is less interesting foolishness. The films look decent in hi-def; extras include Lewis’s intros to both films and Maniacs commentary, video essays, interviews and an appreciation. 

DVD of the Week
Marx Reloaded 
Jason Barker’s breezy 52-minute documentary, from 2011, filters the devastating effects of the then-recent financial collapse through a Karl Marx lens, offering the failures of capitalism as proof that it’s time to take a fresh look at Marx and see how relevant his ideas are in an era of even greater financial inequality. Barker interviews several philosophers, including the famous Slovenian Slavoj Žižek, and includes a dated parody of The Matrix in its occasionally amusing animated segments. The lone extra, Marx for Beginners, is a diverting six-minute 1978 short.

CD/DVD of the Week 
Messiaen—Catalogue d’Oiseaux/Catalogue of Birds 
Olivier Messiaen’s compositions are drenched in birdsong, from his chamber and orchestral works to even his masterpiece, his lone opera Saint Francois d’Assise. But it’s his massive, multi-part Catalogue of Birds—seven books of thirteen pieces, each based on a bird from a specific region of France, and composed in 1956 to 1958—that’s the apotheosis of these works. And who better than fellow French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard to do justice to this often treacherously demanding music, especially the 30-minute centerpiece, The Reed Warbler. On three CDs, Aimard purposefully traverses some of Messiaen’s greatest solo piano music; on DVD, the pianist introduces each of the pieces, along with discussing Messiaen’s technique and legacy.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

NYC Theater Review—Alan Ayckbourn’s “A Brief History of Women” at the Brits Off Broadway Festival

A Brief History of Women
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Performances through May 27, 2018
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Laura Matthews in Alan Ayckbourn's A Brief History of Women (photo: Tony Bartholomew)
Something new from Alan Ayckbourn is always cause for rejoicing, even when it’s relatively minor like his 81st play, A Brief History of Women. (He’s already completed his 82nd.) Not quite farce or satire but pitched somewhere in between, this play in four parts lets silliness and bad behavior butt heads with the sympathy the playwright extends to even his most risible characters.

The protagonists are Anthony Spates and Kirkbridge Manor; the former appears first as a naïve 17-year-old footman to a rich family at the manor in 1925, then reappears in each of the play’s three following scenes, each taking place 20 years after the previous one. The manor house changes along with Spates—it’s a girls’ school in 1945 (Spates teaches there), an arts center in 1965 (Spates runs the place) and a hotel in 1985 (Spates is the retired manager)—leading one to ask if those changes are for the better. 

That question isn’t answered, however, because although Spates and the house figure in all four scenes, they are mainly bystanders to the human comedy going on around them over a 60-year span. The teenage Spates gets his first real kiss from the lady of the house after her elderly husband has a heart attack, while the 37-year-old teacher looks on helplessly as his lover (still shattered by the death of her fiancée during World War II) fatally climbs on the rocket that climaxes the school fireworks display. At age 57, the arts center’s head ends up as the back half of a cow, rehearsing with the actress who just discovered her director husband’s cheating on her, while the retired (and widowed—he married the cow’s front half) 77-year-old returns to the hotel, where he meets the original lady of the house, now well into her 90s.

The glory of Ayckbourn’s writing is that, even when it’s a minor work—at least when compared to the masterly The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, Intimate Exchanges, Comic Potential and Private Fears in Public Faces, to name just a handful—there’s always an especially felicitous observation or an empathetic moment that tears your heart out, like Women’s lovely and understated finale: an unforeseen reunion brings closure to Spates’s entire life…and that of the manor itself. 

Director Ayckbourn treats writer Ayckbourn’s work nimbly, including the droll use of sound as the characters move from one room to another, the invisible opening and closing doors allowing conversations to rise or fall as rooms are left and entered. These and other adroit touches work handily on Kevin Jenkins’s spiffy set, which brings the ever-changing house to life over six decades, and his clever costumes visualizing the passing of the years.

Playing two dozen characters, the formidable cast of six—Anthony Eden as the delectably hangdog Spates, aging 60 years but remaining ageless, laugh-out-loud scene-stealer Russell Dixon, and the versatile and funny Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears, Frances Marshall and Louise Shuttleworth—keeps the play shuttling forward, even when Ayckbourn himself nearly sabotages it with a drawn-out third episode in the arts center concerning a “Jack and the Beanstalk” rehearsal that goes on far too long.

But even the occasional hiccup can’t erase another noteworthy Alan Ayckbourn stage event.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

May '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
La Belle Noiseuse
(Cohen Film Collection)
French director Jacques Rivette’s overlong dramas are mainly self-indulgent exercises, but his four-hour 1991 film about the volatile relationship between a famous painter and his young muse is—along with his two-part 1993 biopic about Joan of Arc—his best work. Rivette’s technique is often like watching paint dry; add in the usually amateurish performances, and it’s downright painful. But here, the volatility between artist and muse is artfully presented and persuasively enacted by Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Beart, along with the intricacies of creating art that are shown in real time. It all looks splendid on Blu; extras include vintage interviews with Rivette and with screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, along with film historian Richard Suchenski’s commentary. Now let’s get a hi-def release of Divertimento, Rivette’s two-hour alternate cut of this material, composed of entirely new shots and sequences.

The Golden Cockerel 
(BelAir Classiques)
This is the second staging to be released on Blu-ray in the past year of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical final opera about an aging Tsar whose title bird warns him of danger. If this version—staged in 2016 in Brussels by Laurent Pelly and conducted by Alain Altinoglu, leading the Le Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus—is less memorable than the smashing Mariinsky production, it’s a serviceable account of Rimsky’s colorful score. In the title role, soprano Sheva Tahovel and dancer Sarah Demarthe are very fine; hi-def audio and video are good.

Julius Caesar  
(Opus Arte)
One of Shakespeare’s most potent tragedies is given a compelling staging by director Angus Jackson at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. The straightforward telling lucidly dramatizes the hubris and nobility of those involved. Strong acting by Andrew Woodall (Caesar), Alex Waldmann (Brutus), James Corrigan (Marc Antony) and Hannah Morrish, whose Portia who can hold her against these men, provide a laser focus. The hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras include Jackson’s commentary, actor interviews and historical featurette.

Sex, Lies and Butterflies 
This newest documentary from PBS’s long-running Nature series focuses on those beautiful insects whose unique life-cycle—from cocoon to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly—is shown in the most extraordinarily intimate detail. Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the 53-minute feature follows scientists analyzing the intricacies of these delicate creatures, including moths (obvious relatives of the butterflies); on Blu-ray, the stunning hi-def camerawork allows us to see, as it were, the very folds of these exquisite insects in all their glory.

DVDs of the Week 
David Hockney at the Royal Academy of the Arts 
(Seventh Art Productions)
For this latest Exhibition On Screen release, Britain’s most famous living painter presents two large exhibits of his recent work: in 2012, his colorful California landscapes, painted on an iPad, of all things; and his 2016 exhibition of 82 intimate portraits and a still life, each done in the course of three days. Hockney is engaging and amusing during the discussions of his work; we get to see someone who has been painting for decades still reinvigorated by his art and still re-inventing himself.

Laugh-In—Complete 4th Season 
This latest Laugh-In release comprises the entire 1970-71 season of the classic comedy-variety show, which was hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, pitch-perfect ringmasters for the series’ usual bizarre stew of corny jokes, goofy skits, musical interludes and political satire. As usual, the stars are an always game crew of regulars (like Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Arte Johnson, Lily Tomlin) and a far-flung array of guest stars running the gamut from Rod Serling and Orson Welles to William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. Along with 26 full episodes, there are bonus interviews with Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson. 

CD of the Week 
Jesus Christ Superstar—Live in Concert 
(Masterworks Broadway)
NBC’s recent live version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s most popular rock musical was a high-energy affair, which helped cover up flaws in the staging, acting and singing. Still, for the most part, this gets by on adrenaline alone, which is why Alice Cooper’s Herod is transfixing in his big scene and why Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas scores so highly whenever he’s singing. Conversely, John Legend’s Jesus has little charisma, and although she has a lovely voice, Sara Bareilles doesn’t do justice to Mary Magdalene’s standard “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  Lacking the necessary visual component, this CD is an adequate record of the performance, which is highlighted by Norm Lewis absolutely killing it on “This Jesus Must Die.” 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Broadway Review—Shaw’s “Saint Joan” with Condola Rashad

Saint Joan
Written by Bernard Shaw; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through June 10, 2018
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Condola Rashad and Daniel Sunjata in Saint Joan (photo: Joan Marcus)
Joan of Arc has attracted artists for centuries, and Bernard Shaw was no exception. His 1923 classic  Saint Joan dramatizes how the 15th century French teenager managed to convince military and royal leaders to give her an army against the English, which she did spectacularly and successfully until she was finally captured, tried and burned at the stake.

But in his play, Shaw decided to forego—except for the long, engrossing trial scene in which competing dogmas and ideologies are put to the test—showing the obvious “big” scenes: we never see Joan in battle, we never see her capture or her execution. As always, Shaw’s interest was in the psychology, politics and morality; with Saint Joan, he had a huge canvas on which to work out such themes, even finding room for a playful epilogue that might seem to belong to a more irreverent treatment.

What a director must do is keep Saint Joan fluid without degenerating into static scenes of exposition and dialogue. Daniel Sullivan partially solves that with some judicious if not entirely necessary cutting: Shaw’s words are so poetic and pregnant with meaning that even too many of them aren’t problematic. Sullivan’s sober atmosphere also helps his mainly absorbing production from tripping itself up.

Scott Pask’s uncluttered set is dominated by what appear to be organ pipes hanging from the ceiling, which also allow Shaw’s words to remain center stage. And the males surrounding Joan—the French and British military and religious leaders and the Dauphin, the French regent who later became King Charles VII—are enacted by several serious stage actors like Jack Davenport, Patrick Page, John Glover, Walter Bobbie and Daniel Sunjata, all of whom provide a perfect balance of gravity leavened with humor. 

Only Adam Chanler-Berat falls prey to overacting, making the Dauphin more boyish and immature than Shaw calls for—inexperienced and foolish is one thing, but foppish and campy is quite another. Condola Rashad’s Joan is well-spoken and girlish—sometimes too much so, as when she looks out into the audience with wide eyes to show off her youthfulness—but rarely compellingly tragic: as technically accomplished as she is, Rashad only finds Joan’s soul in her fleeting final moments begging for mercy from her prosecutors.

Saint Joan—which has been accurately described as “a tragedy without villains”—is one of Shaw’s most complex works, and Rashad and Sullivan provide an intermittently challenging interpretation.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

May '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Les Girls 
(Warner Archive)
This clumsily executed 1957 musical comprising Cole Porter’s beguiling tunes recounts the friction among the partners in a famous cabaret act, with Gene Kelly doing his usual razzle-dazzle alongside his main ladies Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, who all are worthy of the praise Porter showers on them. Too bad George Cukor’s curiously flatfooted direction keeps this from taking off like the best movie musicals of its era do. The colorful widescreen compositions look excitingly alive in hi-def; extras are an archival featurette hosted by Elg and a vintage cartoon.

The Insult 
(Cohen Media)
In Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s volatile Beirut-set feature, hurled insults between a local and a Palestinian laborer spiral into a national case that is judged in the media and the courtroom. Doueiri’s taut story raises the stakes between the two men at first, but then becomes more strident and contrived, so much so that its power is diminished. Still, Doueiri’s formidably authentic actors lend the film the gravitas it needs. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is an informative 33-minute interview in which Doueiri discusses (in English) his film’s genesis.

Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame In Concert 
(Time Life)
This invaluable two-disc set for music fans collects the most recent quartet of Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies: 2014, 2016 and 2017 in Brooklyn and 2015 in Cleveland. Not surprisingly, the highlights are many: 2014 features the remaining members of Nirvana with singers Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Lorde; 2015 brings a Ringo and Paul reunion for Starr’s belated solo induction; 2016 finally admits both Deep Purple and Cheap Trick; and 2017 does the same with both ELO and Yes (with Geddy Lee playing bass in place of the late, great Chris Squire). Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

12 Strong 
(Warner Bros)
After the Sept. 11 attacks, an elite troop of U.S. Special Forces goes to Afghanistan to kick-start the War on Terror by (at first begrudgingly and later more willingly) teaming with the North Alliance to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda. This straightforward and effective dramatization of the group’s heroics has been directed by the workmanlike Nicolai Fuglsig, and the heroes are enacted with true grit by Liam Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Pena, among others. The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; extras comprise two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Ilan Ziv’s exhaustive six-part feature documents the history of capitalism, from Adam Smith’s incisive and misinterpreted insights (like his legendary phrase, “invisible hand”) to the 2008 global collapse, which—according to many renowned economists—wasn’t supposed to happen. Through interviews with sundry experts and witty sequences explaining integral concepts, Ziv has made a thorough, impactful look at what, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst of all possible economic systems—except for all others.

A Violent Life 
(Distrib Films)
The Mediterranean island of Corsica (Napoleon’s birthplace) isn’t usually in movies, especially as shown in Thierry de Peretti’s gritty drama, whose protagonist returns from Paris to the raw, violent isle he grew up on after his best friend (and fellow gang member) is murdered. Through clever flashbacks, de Peretti trenchantly explores the underbelly of a modern society whose everyday life is gripped by crime and a regional fractionalism so severe that it’s led to a separatist movement against the arrogant French state.