Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Doors—Feast of Friends 
(Eagle Rock)
At the peak of their few years of fame, The Doors filmed themselves while on tour in the summer of 1968, and the resulting document, never completed at the time, has been restored and is finally being given a belated release. Mostly a time-capsule curio in the crowded market of rock group documentaries, the finished product might be manna for Doors fans but less so for the rest of us. The hi-def image looks decent; extras include Feast of Friends: Encore, comprising left-over footage; The Doors Are Open, a British TV documentary; a live performance of "The End" with interviews.

Into the Storm 
(Warners)
Climate change exacts its just desserts, but unlike Sharknado 1 & 2's tongue-in-cheek campiness (not that I'm defending those ridiculous movies!), this is purely serious and stern-faced melodrama, and the stick figures populating a town inundated with non-stop tornadoes and superstorms are such a dim bunch that it's easy to root for Mother Nature against most of them. The special effects are quite impressive—like the death of one unfortunate cameraman in a fiery funnel cloud—and it's all wrapped up in a quick 85 minutes, which helps, at least partly. On Blu-ray, the movie's disastrous events play out quite thrillingly; extras are three featurettes.

Pete Kelly's Blues 
(Warner Archive)
A monotonous Jack Webb directs and stars as jazz cornetist and band leader Pete Kelly in this alternately tough-as-nails and sentimentalized look at the musician's life on and off stage, dramatizing his battles against a crime boss and his relationships with women, played with vitality by Janet Leigh, Jayne Mansfield and (most impressively) Peggy Lee. Director Webb smartly peppers his uneven drama with wonderful musical performances, including two Ella Fitzgerald showstoppers, while the movie's color Cinemascope photography comes across richly on Blu-ray. Extras are two period shorts.

Prince Igor 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Rusalka 
(Euroarts)
Alexander Borodin's intermittently gripping Igor receives a bizarre, messy 2014 Metropolitan Opera revival by director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who ruins the opera's best moments—the famous "Polovtsian Dances"—with an unimaginative poppy field in which the dancers scamper about: Borodin's unexciting music is presented well by conductor Giandrea Noseda, and the title role is given over to the towering Russian bass Ildar Abdrazikov. Antonin Dvorak's masterly romantic fantasy Rusalka (based on the fairy tale Undine) sounds beautiful thanks to Myrto Papatanasiu's magnetic performance in the title role, but its visual tackiness stems from director Stefan Herheim's wrongheaded concept: Rusalka the mermaid is a hooker in a red light district. Puh-lease. On Blu-ray, video and audio are splendidly realized; extras are interviews.

Worricker—Turks & Caicos  
Worricker—Salting the Battlefield 
(PBS)
In his trilogy about a British agent battling new-fangled globally destructive forces, writer-director David Hare has an ace in the hole: actor Bill Nighy, whose casual, snarky coolness goes a long way toward validating these films (and the original, 2012's Page Eight) as searing indictments of our post-Sept. 11, post-meltdown world gone amok. Turks follows Nighy's Johnny Worricker on an island paradise, confronting ultra-rich bad guys; Salting finds him on the run before a climactic showdown with his nemesis, the British prime minister. Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Walken and Winona Ryder provide solid support, Hare's dialogue is often snappy and witty, but Nighy himself is the main attraction. The hi-def transfers are superior; extras are making-of featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Guns of Darkness
Twilight of Honor 
(Warner Archive)
In 1962's Guns of Darkness, neither David Niven nor Leslie Caron—as a couple in a war-torn republic—can do much in a flimsy tale about a coup that turns their brave act of mercy for an ousted leader into treason; that director Anthony Asquith has little affinity for such starkly melodramatic material goes without saying. 1963's Twilight of Honor has a formidable cast that makes its routine courtroom dramatics watchable, despite director Boris Sagal's leaden pacing: there's Richard Chamberlain as an idealistic defense attorney, Claude Rains as his mentor, Joan Blackman as Rains' available daughter, Joey Heatherton as the accused's wife and James Gregory as a pompous district attorney.

K2—Siren of the Himalayas 
(First Run)
An illuminating look at the 2009 expedition to scale the world's most dangerous mountain, Dave Ohlson has made a tense, exciting document of a story that's both tragic and triumphant: some climbers failed to ascend K2, but at least they weren't killed—which as many of a quarter are. The film's heroine, Germany's Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, became the first to scale all mountains 8000 meters or higher; interviews with her and other members of the climb make personal their group's bravery, teamwork and death-defying difficulties. Ohlson also recaps a 1909 Italian expedition, complete with narration, stills and newsreel footage, which provide an enriching historical perspective. Extras include a deleted scene, updates and more interviews.

Master of the Universe
Slow Food Story 
(Kimstim)
The enterprising label Kimstim's latest intriguing documentaries that otherwise might have escaped notice start with German director Marc Bauders' Masters of the Universe, about the culpability and duplicity of those running (and ruining) the financial system during the 2008 economic collapse; Bauder introduces Rainer Voss, a chatty trader who candidly discusses what happened, why and by (and for) whom. Stefano Sardo's Slow Food Story is a lively account of how Italian foodie Carlo Petrini became a heavy-hitter in the anti-fast food movement, which emphasizes local, healthy alternatives to the corporate behemoths that control most of the world's (bad) food production.

Next Year Jerusalem 
(First Run)
When a group of residents at an old-age home in Columbus, Ohio finally took a long-gestating and unlikely "field trip" to Israel, director David Gaynes was on hand to record a unique, historic and breathtakingly emotional journey that was much more than obviously metaphorical traveling through time and memory. Among the many people—from the "tourists" and those who came with and filmed them to those whom they met when they arrived in the Holy Land—affected by events presented in this stirring documentary are its viewers. Extras are seven deleted scenes.

Tosca's Kiss 
(Icarus)
Daniel Schmid—the unconventional Swiss director who died in 2006—made this memorably  offbeat 1984 documentary about the first nursing home for retired opera singers, located in Milan, Italy: the film follows the home's residents, who sang arias by the world's great composers, including the man who founded it, Giuseppe Verdi, Italy's (and one of the world's) best opera composers. The basis for Dustin Hoffman's likable directorial debut, 2012's Quartet, this funny and moving film deserves to be more than just the prelude to a famous actor's first foray behind the camera; happily, now that Hoffman "presents" its restoration and DVD release, it will get more widespread recognition.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

November '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Arabella 
(Unitel)
A Recital with Renee Fleming 
(Arthaus Musik)
One of Richard Strauss's most magically melodic operas, the romantic Arabella is the perfect showcase for the still-ravishing soprano Renee Fleming, whose artistry is complemented by director Florentine Klepper's sumptuous 2014 Salzburg production. A Recital with Renee Fleming, shot in 2012 in Vienna, presents the singer performing lushly romantic lieder by Germanic composers Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold and, yes, Richard Strauss; pianist Maciej Pulski lends artful support. The Blu-ray image and sound are first-rate.

Frontera 
(Magnolia)
This didactic illegal immigration melodrama—about a wrongful murder rap pinned on a good, no-nonsense border crosser—has authentic location atmosphere courtesy director-co-writer Michael Berry, and a plethora of good performances by Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Michael Pena (as the accused killer) and Eva Longoria (deglamorized—but still impossibly luminous—as his cruelly abused wife). But too bad it's all at the service of a heavy-handed, Crash-like examination of a complicated issue, which militates against its getting through to those whom it aims to convert or reinforce those already on its side. The hi-def transfer is spot-on.

Genesis—Three Sides Live 
(Eagle Rock)
On Genesis' 1981 Abacab tour, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks (augmented by concert-only members Chester Thompson and Daryl Stuermer) played hits like "Misunderstanding" and "Turn It on Again" alongside album cuts like "In the Cage," "Afterglow," the current album's epic title track and "Dodo/Lurker." The 83-minute concert film has a chunk of the show's running time missing: too bad it's never been found, since, with all of the backstage and interview footage included, the actual music is probably a little more than an hour. What we do get, though, is a band at the top of its game. The image is variable, the sound good, extras are audio-only versions of seven songs, including the rarely-performed "Fountain of Salmacis."

Michael Nyman—Make It Louder, Please! 
(Arthaus Musik)
British minimalist composer Michael Nyman's career is examined through a concert and documentary, Composer in Progress, in which Nyman and his band members discuss his unique music and how difficult it is to perform; surprisingly, although his music is best known from Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion movies, neither is interviewed by director Silvia Beck. 2009's Michael Nyman in Concert, from Halle, Germany, features Nyman's best known compositions, including several from Greenaway's films The Draughtsman's Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts and Prospero's Books, played with precision and enthusiasm by Nyman at the piano and his band. Hi-def transfers are adequate; the sound is solidly presented.

Monty Python Live—One Down, Five to Go 
(Eagle Rock)
The British comedy troupe's 2013 reunion at London's O2 Arena was greeted with hosannas from longtime fans, and if the performance itself is more nostalgia than cutting-edge comedy—replays of old skits on a video screen alternate with onstage reenactments of beloved skits like "Dead Parrot" and "Nudge Nudge"—the impression is that of a money grab, however skillful and, yes, funny. The title, of course, refers to the absence of Graham Chapman, so far the lone Python member to die: the others will, no doubt, eventually follow. The hi-def image is excellent; extras include interviews, featurettes and backstage footage.

The One I Love 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Early in this confused sci-fi drama about a shaky married couple whose attempts to repair their relationship is complicated by the appearance of their doppelgangers, the husband tells his wife that it's like The Twilight Zone. Not quite: Rod Serling would have wrapped this up in 30 minutes, not 90, and far more satisfactorily. Director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader seem pleased with their not that original concept, in the process forgetting to make it dramatically involving; Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass's blank caricatures do little to differentiate among the couples. The Blu-ray image is superlative; extras are McDowell and Duplass's commentary and visual effects reel.

Tammy 
(Warners)
Melissa McCarthy again plays an obnoxious, crude but oh so lovable slob in a comic misfire that's a major miscalculation by star-cowriter McCarthy and cowriter-costar-director husband Ben Falcone: they desperately try to tug at the heartstrings but never let go of the stereotypes they traffic in from the start. Along with McCarthy, Susan Sarandon (McCarthy's improbable grandmother) and Allison Janney (McCarthy's improbable mother) do little with such flimsy material. The extended version provides a few extra minutes of would-be laughs and sentiment; the Blu-ray image looks fine, and extras comprise featurettes, gag reel and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
A Five Star Life 
(Music Box)
This lighthearted romantic comedy is a terrific showcase for Margherita Buy, one of Italy's most elegant actresses, who beautifully plays Irene, a 40ish woman who visits luxury hotels as a critic, but whose personal life (at least compared with her former fiancee and happily married sister) is a mess. Director Maria Sole Tognazzi tells her story in a fleet 82 minutes, enough to let us get to know Irene, mainly through Buy's effortless charm; costar Stefano Accorsi's provides strong and humorous support as her ex.

JFK—The Private President 
(First Run)
In this 52-minute German documentary from 2013, the enduring legend of Camelot is revived with heretofore unseen home-video footage, returning us to the glamorous (but too brief) era of JFK and Jackie in the international spotlight. Interviews with brother RFK's sons and insiders like advisor Ted Sorensen provide further access, and those who want still more of anything of even tangential  to the inexhaustible fount that is the Kennedys will find it.

The Mystery of Happiness 
(Strand)
What starts as an aimless bromance between middle-aged men sharing ownership of a company shifts gears when one of them disappears and his seemingly clueless wife steps in and makes the remaining one's life a living hell....until they come to discover more about each other and themselves (of course). Director Daniel Burman doesn't always adroitly handle the film's shifting tones, but the superb lead performances by Ines Estevez and Guillermo Francella provide ample compensation, as does a nicely understated ending.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

November '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
America—Imagine the World Without Her 
(Lionsgate)
Conservative icon Dinesh D'Souza has made another rambling and incoherent pseudo-documentary that shows how "scary" and "unAmerican" Barack Obama is, tying him to radical leftists presented as if they are mainstream. With no arguments made on their own merit, D'Souza uses straw men and false equivalencies to hammer home his belief that, contrary to those who insist on "shaming" our country, it is absolved of any sins, for the simple reason that everybody else also did it (slavery, genocide, etc.). D'Souza even brings up his own indictment for breaking campaign finance law, basically admitting, "Yes, I'm guilty, but so are others. So that means Obama is after me!" Fox News viewers will find everything they believe dutifully confirmed; the rest of us will shake our heads and realize that fact-based reality will remain out of their reach. The hi-def image looks good; extras include extended interviews and scenes.

Good People 
(Millennium)
This gritty little thriller about a dull-witted American couple in London who decide to spend dirty money they find and fall prey to a mobster whose drug cash it is, is mercifully short (90 minutes) and features the always reliable Tom Wilkinson as a relentless detective and Sam Spruell as a casually brutal gangster. Unfortunately for director Henrik Ruben Genz, he's saddled with James Franco and Kate Hudson, who don't make a credible couple; the movie also wastes the delightful Anna Friel in a nothing role. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; lone extra is a brief making-of. 

Planes—Fire and Rescue 
(Disney)
Although Disney's animated spin-offs are usually routine money grabs, that's not entirely the case with Planes—Fire and Rescue, an amusing adventure that's dedicated to our brave firefighters. Set in Piston Park National Park, the movie follows a group of aircraft which protects the valuable public land from wildfires: nothing earth-shattering, it's diverting enough, at least for younger kids. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras are featurettes, deleted scenes, music video and new animated short film.

Possessed 
Yankee Doodle Dandy 
(Warner Archive)
The tightly-wound 1947 thriller Possessed—a story of murder and insanity about an unhinged woman convinced that her current husband's dead wife is haunting her, as is an old flame who's marrying her young stepdaughter—is distinguished by Joan Crawford in eye-popping crazed mode. As George M. Cohan in the exhilarating 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney sings, dances and acts up a storm as the versatile entertainer who, against all odds, became a beloved American icon. Cagney's joyous Oscar-winning turn and Cohan's terrific tunes are the main reasons to watch. Both films look magnificent in their hi-def restorations; extras include commentaries and featurettes.

Santa Sangre 
(Severin)
Maverick director Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1989 hallucinatory drama is, like all of his films (which include the even more lunatic El Topo and The Holy Mountain), a love-it-or-hate-it experience: I hated it, even while conceding the visual imaginativeness at work. But there's no doubt that other viewers' mileage may certainly vary, especially if one has a stronger stomach for Jodorowsky's brand of all-purpose surrealism. The film looks solid on Blu-ray; extras include Jodorowsky commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, Jodorowsky interviews and short films, featurettes and full-length documentary Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre.

DVDs of the Week
Borgen—Complete Series 
(MHZ)
This gripping Danish mini-series—which skillfully straddles the line separating politics from personal lives—is finally available in a boxed set of its three seasons, comprising 30 compelling one-hour episodes that follow Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female prime minister, from obscurity to simultaneous fame and infamy. The backstabbing and deal making (and deal breaking) of contemporary politics is shown in all its dramatic fascination, and with a peerless cast led by Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as go-getting journalist Katrine Fonsmark, Borgen is an exceptional drama about the machinations of politics and media that deserves the much-abused label "binge-worthy." 

A Coffee in Berlin 
(Music Box)
This ramshackle comic drama follows a 20-something slacker (the appealing Tom Schilling) who, after getting tossed from his girlfriend's apartment, spends a fateful day wandering around the German capital running into various people (including a female former classmate who still holds a grudge for him labeling her "Roly Poly Julia" back in the day), until a brush with mortality gives him a new outlook on life. Director Jan Ole Gerster's low-key, improvisatory style partially compensates for the fact that the movie is, finally, too slight, even with a relatively brief 85-minute running time. Extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes.

Dormant Beauty 
(Kino Lorber)
Italian master Marco Bellocchio's latest provocation, made in 2012, was barely released here, but his thought-provoking exploration of Italy’s own right to life debate (Terri Schiavo was the U.S. equivalent during the infamous Bush years), as usual with Bellocchio, provides no easy answers. It intelligently informs the personal, professional and religious lives of several characters, played splendidly by Isabelle Huppert, Toni Servillo, Maya Sansa, Alba Rohrwacher and the director’s son Pier Giorgio. But Kino again drops the ball by not releasing a Blu-ray of a major film by a major director, along with no extras; get the hi-def Italian release!

Hugh Hefner 
(MVD)
Director Tony Palmer, who made his name with an assortment of enlightening biographies of composers from Henry Purcell to Igor Stravinsky, hits a brick wall with his 1973 glimpse at Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. For a vapid hour, Hef and assorted bimbos extol the virtues of the Playboy lifestyle, sounding vacuous and self-absorbed throughout. Adding to the absurdity is Palmer's desperate use of music from Wagner's Ring to underscore shots of Hef's private jet and mansion; any similarity to King Ludwig's pomposity is strictly coincidental.

One Day Pina Asked... 
(Icarus)
I'm no fan of Belgian director Chantal Akerman, whose films are minimalist in all the wrong ways: conception, execution and artistry. But her hour-long 1983 documentary about the wunderkind German modern-dance choreographer Pina Bausch is a watchably straightforward overview of a vital visual artist's work. Of course, I prefer Wim Wenders' Pina, which was a much more affecting chronicle of Bausch's patented dances, but Akerman's film is nothing to sneeze at either.

Monday, November 3, 2014

New York Theater Reviews—"On the Town," "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," "The Belle of Amherst"

On the Town
Music by Leonard Bernstein; book & lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green; directed by John Rando
Opened October 16, 2014
Lyric Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
onthetownbroadway.com

Lips Together, Teeth Apart
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Peter Dubois
Performances through November 23, 2014
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
2st.com

The Belle of Amherst
Written by William Luce; directed by Steve Cosson
Performances through January 25, 2015
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
belleofamherstplay.com


Johnson, Yazbeck and Alves in On the Town (photo: Joan Marcus)
The fizzily entertaining On the Town earns the sobriquet "old-fashioned musical," thanks to Leonard Bernstein's gloriously hummable songs (like the immortal "New York, New York" and "Lonely Town"), book writers Comden & Green's witty lyrics, and the perfect (if overfamiliar) plot for a feel-good musical: three sailors on leave have 24 hours in the big city to frolic with their newly acquired gals.

Director John Rando, a master of comic pacing, pushes this revival to the giddiest of heights. The ace orchestra, led by James Moore, plays Bernstein's timeless songs with a plushness that's welcome on Broadway. Beowulf Boritt's tongue-in-cheek set design and projections make for an appropriately cartoonish Manhattan. Jess Goldstein's zesty costumes, Jason Lyons' luminous lighting and Joshau Bergasse's colorful choreography (with a nod to Jerome Robbins' original ballet) round out the savory physical trappings.

The cast is mostly top-notch, led by three sailors—Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson and especially Tony Yazbeck—who act, sing and dance up a storm as they prowl the city looking for companionship. As their women, Alysha Umphress and Elizabeth Stanley are riotous without excess campiness, and New York City Ballet's Megan Fairchild makes Miss Turnstiles the pure idealization of innocent girlishness, with her chirpy voice and impossibly slender frame twirling, spinning and pirouetting her way into her man's (and the audience's) heart.

If only Rando didn't let Jackie Hoffman mug mercilessly (and, for the most part, unfunnily) in four parts, the undeserving beneficiary of coarse book updates by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins, which unsurprisingly—but sadly—get the biggest audience reactions. So this On the Town is only four-fifths of a classic musical, as if the city itself had one of its boroughs cut off.

Lysy, Chernus, Chimo and Ferrera in Lips Together, Teeth Apart 
(photo: Joan Marcus)
When Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart premiered in 1991, the AIDS epidemic was in full rage, and the playwright's anger over the unfathomable loss of so many was palpable. However, the play now comes off as an historical artifact, at least in Peter Dubois' misguidedly staged and cast production that's disjointed and off-kilter throughout; whether it's the direction or writing is difficult to say: likely an unfelicitous combination of both.

Two straight couples—Sally and Sam Truman, and Sam's sister Chloe and John Haddock—spend July 4th weekend at Sally's brother's beach house on Fire Island (the gorgeously appointed set is by Alexander Dodge), which he left to her after dying of AIDS. Their cozy bonhomie is only a facade, since Sally and John (the latter of whom, it is also revealed, has cancer) are having an affair, while Chloe's relentless chirpiness starts to grate on everyone, even Sam. Their conversations, and especially the awkwardly inserted soliloquies, expose their homophobia, sexism and racism in all their incoherence; but neither playwright nor director provides a realistic grounding for the characters' seemingly arbitrary contradictions.

Similarly, many details ring false, like Chloe peppering her conversation with elementary French or her improbably deep knowledge of Broadway musicals, except when she thinks the famous Gypsy overture is actually from Annie. And that none of these people will jump into the beach house's beautiful in-ground pool because there's a worry that the water might be tainted with HIV doesn't work on any level: this heavily metaphoric bit of homophobic behavior comes at a time when people were far less frightened by the hysterical pronouncements about how one could catch the deadly disease. 

America Ferrera's Sally is pleasantly bland, Michael Chernus' Sam and Austin Lysy's John are even larger blanks, while Tracee Chimo—fresh off her overpraised romp in Bad Jews—goes so far over the top as Chloe that she seems to be in a door-slamming farce that McNally did not write. Maybe she can join the cast of McNally's farce It's Only a Play when this closes.

Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Even for those of us who never saw it originally, The Belle of Amherst—William Luce's one-woman play about poet Emily Dickinson—is associated with actress Julie Harris, who turned it into a cottage industry and walked off with the Best Actress Tony in 1976. In Steve Cosson's lucid new staging, Dickinson becomes more coyly coquettish, even mischievous, in the capable hands of Joely Richardson.

If the real Dickinson was somewhere in between the two interpretations, this is, after all, a fictionalization of her life, and she may have been as charming as Richardson's shrewd performance shows her as. There's never an anachronistic sense of making her a proto-feminist, and Richardson—who also recites several of Dickinson's poems in an graceful but conversational manner—is nothing less than commanding throughout her piquant two-hour monologue.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Broadway Review—Sting's Musical "The Last Ship"

The Last Ship
Music & lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan & Brian Yorkey
Directed by Joe Mantello
Performances began September 29, 2014
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY
thelastship.com

The Last Ship (photo: Joan Marcus)
Sting's best solo album, 1991's The Soul Cages, was crammed with his most personal songs, referencing his life growing up in England's shipbuilding region and taking the measure of his grief and anger over his father's death. The opener, "Island of Souls," a lyrically elegant dirge, distills— in a mere six-plus minutes—the plot of Sting's new Broadway musical The Last Ship, about a young man who returns to his small seaside hometown after years on the ocean.

The concise, powerful imagery of "Island of Souls" echoes throughout the 2-1/2 hour The Last Ship which, though superbly staged and acted—the show might even provoke a tear or two from its audience's eyes—has little sense of real drama, let alone tragedy, while the title ship is built; instead it hits on every imaginable dramatic cliche.

Unsurprisingly, the haunting "Island of Souls" opens the show, its lyrics changed, as it introduces Gideon Fletcher—not Billy as in the original song—as the hero. Sting's own hometown Wallsend is the setting for the tired plot that's been concocted by book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Gideon (the sympathetic Michael Esper) comes back home from his 15 years at sea and expects both his father Joe (a ship riveter who disowned Gideon when he left) and his first love Meg (the lively, lissome Rachel Tucker) to remain where he left them so long ago. But he's too late: Dad recently died and Meg has a teenage son Tom (the scrappy Collin Kelly-Sordelet) and a lover, Arthur (the strong-voiced Aaron Lazar), the only smart local working to salvage scrap from the town's beloved—but shuttered—shipyard. 

The rest of the men, now unemployed, spend their time drinking in the pub where Meg works and bemoaning their fate: cheaper labor in Asia has made them expendable. Leave it to jolly old Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate, having great fun with the cliched drunken Irish priest character) to have an idea—and the capital—for the men to take over the yard to build one last ship, which will be launched....but to where? This naggingly important question is never answered, making The Last Ship more heavily symbolic than it need be and keeping it from reaching its tragic-dramatic potential.

David Zinn's set, comprising the shipyard's dingy steel girders and catwalks, bleeds authenticity, but since other shows have used these visuals it seems instantly passe, however harrowingly lit by the talented Christopher Akerlind. Joe Mantello's direction provides as much variety as one can squeeze out of a show set in a shipyard and a pub, while Stephen Hoggett's repetitive choreography, consisting of his increasingly familiar odd gestures and foot-stomping, is indistinguishable from his work on the musical Once.

Sting's new songs, dragged down by a certain sameness on his own recording last year, are enthusiastically fleshed out onstage by the rock-steady cast and Rob Mathes' striking arrangements; still, the four older Sting tunes ("Island of Souls," "All This Time," "When We Dance" and "Ghost Story") are far superior to the batch composed for the show. 

The Last Ship is a worthy, serious musical—no Disneyfied Synchronicity The Jukebox Musical for Sting—but it's also been torpedoed by its book of banalities.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Begin Again 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
In John Carney's belated follow-up to his overrated romance Once, Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley totally outclass their material as a washed-up music exec and jilted young singer who hit it off professionally during a song-filled Manhattan summer. The indefatigable Ruffalo and ultra-charming Knightley (and tremendously affecting Hailee Steinfeld as Ruffalo's teenage daughter) partly compensate for a cutesy premise, Carney's cheesy melodramatics and lifeless Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine as a pop star who dumps Knightley. The authentic New York location shooting—the movie's most salient feature—looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras are a making-of featurette and music videos.

Death Comes to Pemberley 
(PBS)
Miss Marple—Volume One 
(BBC)
The three-hour mini-series Death Comes to Pemberley is a slow-moving adaptation of P.D. James's clever mystery novel based on the characters in Pride and Prejudice; despite ravishing costumes and locations and a fine cast led by Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth, Death unfortunately founders. The first Blu-ray release of Miss Marple, an adaptation of Agatha Christie's sleuth, features four one-hour episodes that showcase Joan Hickson's low-key but witty performance as the no-nonsense detective. Both shows look OK on hi-def; Marple extras are a featurette and A Very British Murder, Part 1, the beginning of a three-part series about British interest in murder mysteries.

Moebius 
(Ram)
South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk's grandiosely yucky horror movie follows a family dragged into depravity and possible insanity after the actions of a philandering father and vengeful mother. In a movie with no dialogue, it becomes absurd after awhile that absolutely no one would be talking about what is going on, especially as it escalates further into outright lunacy. Under the creepy circumstances, actress Lee Eun-Woo—who plays the grandmother, the mother and the father's and teenage son's lover—deserves some kind of medal for bravery. The Blu-ray transfer is top-notch; extras comprise interviews and a post-premiere Q&A.

The Vanishing 
(Criterion)
George Sluizer's unnerving 1988 chiller is one of the scariest movies ever made, and that it's done with such an economy of means—nary a drop of blood is spilled, and the horrifying ending leaves one shaken for awhile afterward—is a testament to the director's artistry. (That his own misguided 1993 American remake had an absurdly happy ending tacked on, proves that.) On Criterion's Blu-ray release, the film looks better than ever; extras comprise interviews with Sluizer (who recently died) and actress Johanna ter Steege, whose memorable—if necessarily brief—debut this was.

Whitey—United States of America vs. James J. Bulger 
(Magnolia)
In his latest revealing documentary, director Joe Berlinger recounts how the FBI made Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger into an informant, in the process allowing him to kill or have killed whomever he wanted without any blowback: he always had cover thanks to his relationships with certain agents. For decades, Bulger terrorized Boston neighborhoods, offing dozens of mostly innocent people, and Berlinger makes a compelling (and scary) case that the government is as guilty of his crimes as he is. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras include deleted scenes and Sundance Film Festival interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Behaving Badly 
(Vertical)
In director Tim Garrick's raunchy misadaptation of Ric Browde's book While I'm Dead...Feed the Dog (written by Garrick and Scott Russell), teenager Rick Stevens must juggle dealing with an alcoholic mother, his best friend's horny mom, the hot classmate he wants to date and her angry ex-boyfriend, among others. Although it's hit or miss all the way, parts of it are very funny, and there are finely tuned comic performances by Natt Wolff as Rick, Mary Louise Parker as his mom, a still gorgeous Elisabeth Shue as his friend's sexy mom and Selena Gomez as the girl of his dreams.  

Cannibal 
(Film Movement)
Do we really need a movie about a respected tailor named Carlos who kills unsuspecting women and eats them, only to find himself falling for Nina, sister of a woman whom he killed and ate earlier? The answer is not really, even if actors Antonio de la Torre (Carlos) and Olimpia Melinte (Nina) make their bizarre characters semi-believable. The problem is that despite director Manuel Martin Cuenca keeping actual gore to a minimum, his premise itself is so grisly that no matter how well done—or, more likely, despite that—Cannibal can't shake a nagging feeling of an unholy alliance between elegant filmmaking and ugly plotting. Lone extra is Ogre, a French short.

Level Five
On Strike! 
(Icarus)
Avant-garde French director Chris Marker (who died in 2012 at age 91) made Level Five in 1996, a typically playful but dense sci-fi film that both predates and anticipates the digital and virtual culture we've since become accustomed to. Far more interesting, however, is On Strike!, a compilation of  two documentaries, 1968's Be Seeing You, chronicling a French strike and factory takeover, and 1969's Class of Struggle, a portrait of a young woman at a watch factory and her own radicalization. The lone extra, La Charniere, is a 13-minute audio recording of a post-screening debate among the workers shown in Be Seeing You. 

Mona Lisa Is Missing 
(Midair Rose)
When Vincenzo Peruggia stole the "Mona Lisa" from the Louvre in 1911, he kept it hidden in plain sight for over two years before it was finally seized when he attempted to sell it to Italian authorities hoping to return it to what he thought was its homeland, as director Joe Medeiros shows in his highly entertaining, often lighthearted look at the theft and its aftermath. A surprising amount of extras include 12 featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, an alternate ending and a director's commentary that's as fun as the movie itself.

The Wild Geese 
(Severin)
This uneven 1978 action flick stars Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore and Hardy Kruger as semi-retired mercenaries who get back together to train a band of commandos to go into an unnamed African country to spring a corrupt leader from jail. Director Andrew V. McLaglen does the bare minimum, falling back on lazy scriptwriting (by Reginald Rose) and acting that could charitably be called competent. There's occasional bloody fun (in both senses), but two-plus hours is far too long for such meager dramatics. Extras include audio commentary with Moore, McLaglen interview and featurettes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

2014 New York Film Festival Wrap-up

New York Film Festival 
September 26-October 12, 2014
Film Society of Lincoln Center
New York, NY
filmlinc.com

The Wonders
Despite the big-name directors whose new films were unveiled at the 52nd New York Film Festival—David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Mike Leigh, John Boorman—I was most looking forward to seeing The Wonders (no distributor), the sophomore feature by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, whose stunning debut, Corpo Celeste, was a highlight of the 2011 Festival. 

However, Rohrwacher's explicitly autobiographical new film is almost inevitably a letdown after her enormously affecting first feature: Rohrwacher grew up in a bilingual household with a German father and Italian mother (played here by Alice's sister Alba Rohrwacher, last seen in Marco Bellochio's dazzling Dormant Beauty), and the eldest of film's four children, a 12-year-old daughter, is likely the director's self-portrait. But, despite its probing intelligence and haunting performances, too much of the film is given over to a bizarre reality TV show, which pits local families against one another for prizes, and a too obviously metaphoric subplot about a delinquent German boy who comes to live with the family. A near-constant, Felliniesque parade of freaks elbows its way into an otherwise lively and refreshing small town milieu, Satyricon uneasily grafted onto I Vitelloni.  

Mia Hanson-Love's first three films are intensely intimate studies of relationships, reaching their apogee with 2011's Goodbye, First Love; too bad she jettisoned her strengths to make Eden (opens Spring 2015), a shallow, monotonous exploration of the '90s garage rave scene, in which a fictional DJ duo rubs shoulders with Daft Punk, if you please. The movie's unflattering protagonist, Paul, treats every woman in his life—starting with his mother—abominably; Hanson-Love was obviously influenced by her brother Sven, who co-wrote the script but I hope is not the model for Paul. There are interesting recreations of the Paris and New York rave scenes, but Eden criminally wastes the usually terrific Laura Smet and allows Greta Gerwig to give a scandalous non-performance in a pivotal role.

In Two Days, One Night (opens Dec. 24), chameleon Marion Cotillard impressively plays a harried woman who keeps her dignity as she visits her coworkers' homes to ask that they vote to save her job instead of to selfishly get a bonus. Belgium's Dardenne brothers follow their usual strict moral code, but their premise is flawed, or at least how they dramatize it: if such a small company allows its workers to choose between a bonus and an employee, how exactly does it work? Is it a one-time-only bonus? (One worker's salary is a lot more than the 1000-euro bonus all the other employees would receive.) That aside, the narrative does have a sense of urgency, not just because Cotillard has only the title time frame in which to save her job, but because the actress once again lays bare unvarnished emotional truths in every gesture, however miniscule. 

The Blue Room
For his latest directorial effort, French actor Mathieu Amalric daringly adapts The Blue Room (now playing), a novel by the great Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon: his tense, nail-biting thriller is all the more remarkable for what's crammed into a 76-minute running time. Amalric plays a devoted father and husband having an affair with an old flame: when their spouses meet untimely ends, suspicion naturally falls on the adulterous couple. As in the book, Amalric avoids linear plot progression to enter his character's confused mindset: is he culpable or merely a dupe? The movie is a study in careful visual and narrative compression—the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1 greatly helps—rendering our anti-hero incapable of escaping the net he's in. There's sublime acting by Amalric, his real-life paramour (and cowriter) Stephanie Cleau as the fellow adulterer and Lea Drucker as his wife, and a brittle chamber orchestra score by Gregoire Hetzel, which adroitly gives way (at the chilling ending) to a perfectly chosen Bach-Busoni piano piece.

The New York Review of Books, one of our most venerable literary institutions, was born in 1963 when Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein decided that The New York Times book reviews were lacking. Over the next half-century, the journal has gone from primarily book reviews to rarely book reviews, but it has remained among the most intellectually rigorous literary journals. The 50-Year Argument (on HBO), directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi's paean to the Review, includes interviews with many of its contributors, along with editor Epstein (she died in 2006), but if this 90-minute documentary doesn't deeply analyze its intellectual arguments from Vietnam to the War on Terror, it is second to none as an historical glimpse at an important era in our country's intellectual history.

For his first foray into comedy, L'il Quinquin (opens Jan. 2), French director Bruno Dumont retains his usual milieu of a seaside town in Northern France to explore tough-minded characters in a brutal, heartless world. The blackness of his previous work remains, but it's pitched toward bitter humor instead of bitterly humorless drama. Dumont's borderline inept sheriff (played by a game Bernard Bruvost) has so many facial tics and twitches that the character goes beyond parody, while the eponymous title kid busies himself by chasing foreign kids with his equally blockheaded friends, yelling racist epithets at them as they do so: young Alane Delhaye—who, with his hearing aid, looks like an old bald man—makes an utterly persuasive and charismatic Quinquin. Originally a four-part mini-series for French TV, the 200-minute film has its lulls, but its bizarrely humorous moments—centered around the story's mysterious murders which, for all the time they take up, are essentially MacGuffins—hint at a new direction for the usually dour director.

Considering its prestigious Opening Night slot, I hoped that David Fincher could elevate Gillian Flynn's trashy novel Gone Girl (now playing), but working from her equally trashy screenplay gets the best of him: this glossy but uninvolving  2-1/2 hour adaptation of one of the least deserving bestsellers in recent years is as close to a hack job as Fincher has ever made. There's a choppiness and lack of rhythm that's shocking coming from Fincher, whose Zodiac is a textbook example of how to pace a slow-moving story. Flynn's satirical targets are obvious—blueblood New Yorkers, moronic Midwesterners, white trailer trash, the media, fatuous TV hosts, ambulance-chasing lawyers—and Fincher indulges her so much that the movie quickly becomes tiresome. There's a lone moment of effective, substantive filmmaking in a brief shot of the accused husband's bar overrun with patrons now that he's a notorious possible wife-murderer. But the very casting is ineffectual: Ben Affleck's chiseled jaw and Rosamund Pike's ice-queen look don't make their acting any better; only Carrie Coon gives a fully realized performance as Ben's twin sister. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's hackneyed music sounds at times like Penderecki outtakes from The Shining. But that's as close as Fincher comes to Kubrick the master, who would have made a far more potent film than this. 

With Tales of the Grim Sleeper (on HBO in 2015), his first film in the New York Film Festival since 1993's Aileen Wuornos documentary, intrepid director Nick Broomfield canvases the streets of south central L.A. to probe the strange case of the "grim sleeper" who was arrested by the LAPD in 2010 for the serial killings of 10 women since the mid-80s—but there may have been dozens, or even hundreds, more. Broomfield keeps his well-earned goofball persona on ice for the most part, but his outsider status in South Central allows him to talk to those who knew the accused—friends, women who survived encounters with him, even his own son—none of whom spoke with (or were even approached by) the police. Guiding Broomfield and his son, cinematographer Barney Broomfield, through a never-ending maze is former hooker/crack addict/"Grim Sleeper" survivor Pam Brooks, an amazing character in her own right. Brooks is another example of how Broomfield's methodology works: diving headfirst into a story, he often surfaces miles from where he entered, which is what makes his documentaries unique—they often go off on tangents that end up as important as his ostensible main subject. 

In The Clouds of Sils Maria (opens Spring 2015), Olivier Assayas' least memorable film since 2007's Boarding Gate, the usually luminous Juliette Binoche is self-consciously mannered as an actress returning to the stage play with which she made her mark two decades earlier, playing the older woman opposite a volatile young superstar actress (the always intriguing Chloe Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart looks lost in a thankless role as Binoche's assistant; her appearance is, sadly, solely a study in the vintage T-shirts her character wears. Assayas moves his camera with characteristic fluidity, although the endless shots of the Alps (where the film was shot, beautifully, by Lorick Le Saux) do little but provide an unnecessary metaphor for the movie, its morose leading lady and the pretentious play she's stuck in.

Life of Riley
For his final film, Life of Riley (opens Oct. 24), Alain Resnais—who died in March at 91—unveils another puckishly illuminating adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play (after Smoking; No Smoking; and Coeurs): it's amazing how well the sensibilities of the French filmmaker and the British playwright mesh. In his version of Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy of manners about three couples and their adulterous travails, Resnais utilizes comic-strip backdrops, stylized sets and exaggerated performances from his cast (including regulars like his wife Sabine Azema and old friend Andre Dussolier, both too old for the characters they're playing) for this lovely valentine to art and humanity from a master at the top of his game. Fifty-five years after its premiere, the power of Resnais' debut feature Hiroshima Mon Amour (now playing) has not diminished; instead it remains a psychologically penetrating portrait of not only a couple but of 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, coming soon to Blu-ray players everywhere.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Deep Purple with Orchestra—Live in Verona 
(Eagle Rock)
For the British hard rockers' 2011 outdoor concert at a gorgeous ancient Roman amphitheater in Verona, Italy, the group—comprising original members Ian Paice (drums), Ian Gillan (vocals) and Roger Glover (bass), with guitarist Steve Morse and keyboardist Don Airey—is abetted by the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt orchestra, led by conductor Stephen Bentley-Klein, which brings a welcome and heavy richness to such Purple tunes as the opening "Highway Star" and "Woman from Tokyo." But the undoubted audience favorites are all-time classics "Perfect Strangers," "Hush" and, of course, "Smoke on the Water." The band is in fine form, and even if Gillan can't hit all the notes, there's still a strength to his singing. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great. Bonuses are encore tracks (why not just have the full concert uninterrupted?).

The Following—Complete 2nd Season 
(Warners)
A year after closing the gruesome case of serial killer Joe Carroll, ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy finds himself once again ensnared in a bizarre and murderous cult of Carroll followers—and could the serial killer himself still be alive? Throughout its 15 high-wire-drama episodes, this dramatic series ratches up the psychological tension, although the implausibilities in plot and characterizations keep this from being better; the cast, by an appropriately stern-faced Kevin Bacon as Hardy, does the best it can. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras comprise deleted scenes, featurettes and an alternate ending to the season finale.

Snowpiercer 
(Anchor Bay)
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's first English language film is a stylishly empty post-apocalyptic dystopia about a future Ice Age where a speeding train holds humanity's survivors, and where a class war is brewing between the haves and have-nots on board. There's not much tautness or excitement in this two-hour adventure, and the direction often allows the pace to slacken, which doesn't help. Also unhelpful are performances that are either wooden (Chris Evans' hero) or hopelessly overwrought (Ed Harris, John Hurt, Alison Pill, a mercilessly mugging Tilda Swinton). On Blu-ray, the movie looks appropriately icy; extras comprise a critics' roundtable commentary, with a second disc of featurettes and interviews.

Supermensch 
(Anchor Bay)
Shep Gordon, the title mensch, took Alice Cooper's career into the stratosphere in the early '70s, then went on to manage stars as diverse as Teddy Pendergrass, Ann Murray and Emeril Lagasse. For director (and good friend) Mike Myers, Shep is one of the friendliest, most honorable people in the world, as multi-millionaires go: his admittedly varied and interesting life encompasses the pop music scene of the '70s and '80s, and tidbits like how he got a wheelchair-bound Pendergrass to perform at Live Aid are the juiciest kind of morsels. The hi-def image looks good; no extras.

Tasting Menu 
(Magnolia)
This lightweight but amiable lark spends 85 minutes in a Catalan restaurant on the night it's shuttering its doors, and the special diners comprise VIPs and ordinary people who get entangled—in an out-of-left-field twist—in an attempt to rescue survivors of a sunken boat that containing the restaurant's musicians and dessert! Director/co-writer Roger Gual and writer Javier Calvo cleverly intertwine the various characters, and the actors from Stephen Rea and Fonanula Flannagan to Claudia Bassols and Marta Torne give it all, making this delicious if ultimately not very filling. The Blu-ray image looks superb; no extras.

DVDs of the Week
Corpus Christi 
(Breaking Glass)
Terrance McNally's play Corpus Christi—about a gay Jesus and apostles—premiered in New York in 1998 with metal detectors and a police presence, so to say it's controversial is an understatement. Nick Arnzen and James Brandon's effective documentary shows how a recent production of the play affects its cast, director, creator and protesters (who of course haven't seen it), giving it life beyond the stage. The play itself is honest and heartfelt, as are the people who discuss its importance in their lives. Extras comprise scenes from the play, deleted scenes and additional interviews.

For a Woman 
(Film Movement)
Diane Kurys—who hasn't been represented stateside since 1999's Children of the Century—wrote and directed this engrossing story of two sisters who find, after their mother's death, what she, their father and his brother did as Russian Jews in Paris during the volatile post-WWII era. Kurys finds a fresh way to tell a familiar story, and her actors, led by Benoit Magimel, Micholas Duvauchelle and Melaine Thierry as a dangerous love triangle, give trenchant performances. A bit of soap opera prevents it being truly first-rate, but it's heartening to see that Kurys still makes interesting and mature films after nearly 40 years. Lone extra is a short French film.

The Last Sentence
(Music Box)
Swedish director Jan Troell—whose most recent masterpiece was Everlasting Moments—usually makes films about real people with a love and understanding of the complications in even the most ordinary of lives. His protagonist in his new film is Torgny Segerstedt, a Swedish journalist who was unafraid to mock Hitler and the Nazis, which placed his reputation and his country's neutrality in jeopardy. Troell films it with his customary intelligence and probing camera (shot in evocative B&W); too bad his cast (which features well-known actors like Pernilla August) isn't quite up to the task. Still, it's a serious, sober film whose message resonantes across the decades. The lone extra is an extraordinary making-of documentary, the 44-minute A Close Scrutiny, by Troell's daughter, actress Yohanna Troell.

Nuclear Nation 
Uranium Drive-In 
Wagner's Jews 
(First Run)
Atsushi Funahashi's Nuclear Nation devastatingly recounts the aftermath of the tsunami which crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, and how it not only displaced an entire town—Futaba, where the plant is located—but destroyed the psyche of its people. Suzan Beraza's Uranium Drive-In unblinkingly looks at how the promise of a new mining plant in a depressed part of Colorado is a boon for some desperate people and a bane for others. Finally, Hilan Warshaw's Wagner's Jews delves into the anti-Semitic ravings of the great German composer, who literally used many Jewish artists to keep his music front and center even as he belittled their race. Most thought-provoking are the comments by several scholars who discuss whether Wagner should be performed in Israel. Extras include interviews and deleted scenes.

Violette 
(Kino/Adopt)
Martin Provost, who made a compelling biopic about French painter Seraphine Louis a few years ago, returns with another provocative, encompassing biography: this time of French writer Violette Le Duc, an unsung member of the mid-20th century literary set that included Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet. Le Duc's violent life and art are brought to vivid life by Provost and his superb actresses: Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kilberlein as Simone give the kind of effortless but intensely focused portrayals that uncover psychological truths about both of these fascinating women.