Friday, February 27, 2015

Off-Broadway Review—"Lives of the Saints"

Lives of the Saints
Written by David Ives; directed by John Rando
Performances through March 27, 2015
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Rooth, Ellrod and Hutchinson in Life Signs, from
David Ives' Lives of the Saints (photo: James Leynse)
In Lives of the Saints, David Ives again shows off his mastery of the deceptively difficult short-play form. As in his earlier All in the Timing, what Ives does in his brief one-acts other playwrights can't do in 90 minutes or two-plus hours of stage time: the ability, in just a few fleet scenes, to create a world inhabited by realism and absurdism, and characters we laugh with, or at, or both. That Ives often pulls all of this off simultaneously is nothing short of astounding.

Lives of the Saints comprises six short plays, each funny and intelligent on its own, but with the cumulative effect of hilariously supple writing making the whole more substantial than the sum of its parts. The opener, The Goodness of Your Heart, which pits neighbors against each other over the "gift" of a widescreen televsion, takes perfect aim at the current annoyance of those self-entitled dopes who think that the world is theirs alone. Soap Opera is a farcical dismantling of that longtime afternoon TV scourge, has a Maytag repairman in love with his washing machine. A doctor's office is the setting for Enigma Variations, as "Mrs. Dopplegangler" (two of them) complains to Dr. Bill (two of them) that her life is filled with deja vu.

The second act comprises more delectable one-acts. The excruciatingly funny Life Signs, in which a just-dead Park Avenue matriarch begins to prattle on in front of her grieving son and Southern Belle wife, confessing her own (and her daughter in law's) hidden sexual indiscretions, is followed by It's All Good, an ingeniously conceived short about a successful New York writer returning to his old Chicago neighbrohood, where he meets himself as he would have been if he hadn't left. The final sketch, Lives of the Saints, sympathetically shows two chatty middle-aged Polish ladies preparing a funeral breakfast in their local church basement.

Ives' masterly writing zeroes in on everyday lives, thanks to the playwright's innate sense of comic irony and absurdism, which also includes a goodly amount of belly laughs. The alternating digs of disagreeing friends in Goodness, the laundry list of washing machine puns in Soap Opera, the loony confessions of a cadaver in Life Signs: Ives can mine humor and humanity in any situation. And even when brilliant ideas falter—the doubling down of the antics of Enigma, the non-ending to It's All Good, the introduction of actors providing kitchen sound effects for the ladies in Saints—there's always something else to take their place.

On Beowulf Boritt's crafty stage designs, director John Rando has a shrewdly loose leash on his talented cast: of this superlative quintet, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth are first-rate, while Arnie Burton and Carson Ellrod go even further, with a winning repertoire of voices, accents and facial expressions and inflections that change in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
One of the most annoying of recent Oscar-winning Best Pictures comprises Emmanuel Lubezki's relentlessly mobile Oscar-winning photography, scenery-chewing performers delivering moronic dialogue dreamed up by four Oscar-winning writers and Alejandro G. Inarritu's  too-clever but Oscar-winning directing, which add up to a headache-inducing cartoon about acting, show biz and (mostly) whatnot. As Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and others ham mercilessly, Amy Ryan scores by her relative restraint, while the caricatured critic (played with notable embarrassment by poor Lindsay Duncan) is only part of the movie's ludicrous treatment of Broadway theater. So much is nonsensical—like a final sequence featuring a hospital window a few floors up which a patient can open and climb out of—that this should be called Birdbrain. It does look alluring on Blu-ray; extras include an Inarritu and Keaton interview and a 30-minute making-of featurette.

The Connection 
In the Land of the Head Hunters 
These releases continue Milestone's remarkable streak of restoring forgotten classics. Independent-film trailblazer Shirley Clarke's 1961 feature The Connection finds drama in a group of addicts and jazz musicians who populate a dilapidated New York apartment and who talk and riff for an arrogant documentary filmmaker while waiting for their drug connection to arrive.

An even more vital restoration, In the Land of Head Hunters, is famed photographer Edward S. Curtis' 1914 foray into feature filmmaking, and its immersion in the world of Native Americans before white settlers arrived is far more than a mere historic document. The spectacular restorations of both films look great in hi-def; Connection extras include interviews and featurettes, and Land extras include a 1973 version of the film, audio commentary, and film reconstruction and making-of featurettes.

Far from the Madding Crowd 
(Warner Archive)
In this beautifully shot 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's epic novel, director John Schelesinger goes the David Lean route by following the plot faithfully (courtesy Frederic Raphael's literate script) and having attractive performers in the leads, as Julie Christie's Bathsheba plays with the men in her life, played by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. But Schlesinger errs in substituting gigantism for subtlety. Freddie Francis' exquisitely wrought camerawork and Richard Rodney Bennett's varied musical score are also undeniable assets. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; lone extra is a vintage 10-minute on-set featurette.

Fellini Satyricon 
Federico Fellini's free-wheeling, flagrantly unfaithful 1969 adaptation of Petronius' memoir of Rome is the epitome of the adjective "Felliniesque": the freaks and grotesques that populate this world are less ancient Roman denizens and more Fellini's own fantastical creations. Of course, this stunning-looking film has extraordinary photography, sets and costumes, but the superimposition of Fellini onto the material makes it most memorable. The Criterion Blu-ray transfer is immaculate; extras include a commentary, behind-the-scenes diary, hour-long on-set documentary Ciao Federico!, archival Fellini interviews, new interview with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and new featurettes about the adaptation and famous on-set photographs.

Horrible Bosses 2 
The first Horrible Bosses was mostly mediocre, a fitful comedy with few laughs; but the sequel emphasizes the first word of its title to stultifying effect, especially when allowing Charlie Day and Jason Sudekis—neither remotely funny here—to dominate the asinine proceedings. If you want to hear Jennifer Aniston curse like a sailor, this might be your best chance, but even that isn't enough to save a movie that (aside from Kevin Spacey's hilarious cameo) is dead on arrival, whether in the 105-minute original or even deadlier 115-minute extended cut. The Blu-ray looks fine; extras comprise several featurettes.

Der Rosenkavalier 
(C Major)
Richard Strauss's magnificent 1911 opera is many things: a lament for the middle-aged Marschallin, who loses her young lover Octavian; a romance of young love between Octavian and sweet Sophie; and a farce about foolish middle-aged von Ochs, Sophie's erstwhile suitor. The music is gloriously melodic, as always with Strauss, and the characters are expertly etched by his best librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthall. Last summer's Salzburg Festival staging (by Harry Kupfer) keeps liberties to a minimum and has the characters front and center, with superlative musical portrayals by Krassimira Stoyanova (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian) and a meltingly lovely Mojca Erdmann (Sophie); Franz Welser-Most conducts a sympathetic account of Strauss' music. The Blu-ray video and audio are first-rate.  

Stray Dogs 
(Cinema Guild)
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's slow-moving films are not everyone's cup of tea, although many reviewers swear by his impossibly long, static takes that delve into people's interior lives: still, those shots can go too far, making us wonder whether shots of seven or eight minutes can convey just as much in half that time. This drama about a single father in Taipei struggling to raise his children is his latest contemplative examination, highlighted by several astoundingly long takes, especially the final two shots, which run twelve and seven minutes repectively; aside from making us marvel at his actors' ability to do little for so long, they don't really add anything of substance. The hi-def transfer is stunning; extras are Tsai's 55-minute film Journey to the West (also in HD) and his 70-minute master class at Paris's Cinematheque Francaise.

DVDs of the Week
Above Suspicion—Complete Collection 
The offbeat (not entirely sexual nor entirely platonic) chemistrty of Kelly Reilly and Ciarin Hinds as a newish detective and her hard-bitten boss is delicious to watch in this well-scripted, superbly-acted series of taut mysteries that, unfortunately, ran its course after four television films, all included in this boxed set. Here's hoping that someday there's a follow-up feature film—or another series—with these two fascinating characters....and performers. Extras comprise behind the scenes featurettes and interviews.

What begins as a familiar but stylish haunted house movie set in misty Yorkshire soon becomes a lumbering "dad goes crazy" flick that recalls and—as discordant music swells on the soundtrack—downright steals from The Shining. Matthew Modine (who was in Kubrick's Shining follow-up, Full Metal Jacket) plays the father with an obviously crazed glint in his eye while, sadly, Olivia Williams—a resourceful actress whose roles rarely suit her talents—is little more than a screamer here, like Shelley Duvall in (of course) The Shining. Writer-director Nick Willing's cheat of an ambiguous ending shows his desperation.

August Wilson—The Ground on Which I Stand
Shakespeare Uncovered—Series 2 
The revealing American Masters episode, August Wilson—The Ground on Which I Stand, chronicles the career (which ended far too early upon his death in 2005 at age 60) of the trailblazing playwright, whose singular 10-play cycle encompassed the 20th century black experience in America.

In the second series of the entertaining, informative Shakespeare Uncovered, six actors each analyze one of the Bard's classic plays: Joseph Fiennes (Romeo and Juliet), David Harewood (Othello), Hugh Bonneville (A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Morgan Freeman (The Taming of the Shrew) provide enjoyable hours, but best are Kim Cattrall's look at Antony and Cleopatra and Christopher Plummer's illuminating overview of the most despairing of Shakespeare's masterpieces, King Lear. Wilson extras include additional segments.

Star 80 
(Warner Archive)
Bob Fosse's unlikeable 1983 masterpiece, which tells the depressing, sordid story of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten and her discoverer, slimy Paul Snider, is Fosse's own cautionary morality tale of the seamiest side of show business, as the director artfully rubs our noses in watching how Snider got Stratten her big break, only to rage against her when she finally outgrows his low-class ways, finally killing her, then himself, in 1980, when she was 20 and on the cusp of stardom. That Eric Roberts pretty much repeated his performance as Snider for much of his career doesn't make it any less poweful, while Mariel Hemingway makes a sweetly naive Dorothy. It's too bad that Warner Archive released Star 80 without any restoration, compromising Sven Nykvist's dark, moody cinematography; this classic deserves a Blu-ray with contextualizing extras, which we probably won't get any time soon.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

February '15 Digital Week III

A Day in the Country 
A masterpiece in miniature, Jean Renoir's buoyant 40-minute short might be his profoundest statement mainly because he refrains from making one: this graciously comic look at a city clan's eventful visit to the country is an absolute delight to watch. Renoir's lively visuals are reminiscent of his father's lustrous paintings, while his generosity and sympathy lie with his characters, foibles and all. This unfinished classic (finally released 10 years after it was shot in 1936) has been given the first-rate Criterion treatment, from the wonderful restoration to voluminous extras comprising a 90-minute compilation of outtakes, Un tournage a la campagne; interviews; a video essay; Renoir's introduction; and screen tests.

Earth—A New Wild 
In this gorgeous-looking five-part study, Dr. M. Sanjayan's travels are turned into a new kind of nature documentary, which shows how humans and animals are inhabiting our magnificent planet, both apart and together. The episodes, which feature one aspect of our mutually beneficial relationship—Home, Plains, Forests, Oceans, Water—also examine ways we can preserve our precious natural resources for ourselves and the future. The Blu-ray visuals are, naturally, eye-popping; lone extra is bonus Sanhayan interview.

Fear Clinic 
(Anchor Bay)
If not for Robert Englund—best known as Freddy from the Nightmare on Elm Street series—this thriller about people dealing with a horrific past event through hallucinations that are becoming murderously real would be even more routine than it is. Englund is solid as the doctor whose risky treatments might be the cause of some grisly deaths, but flimsy motivation and scare tactics won't appeal to any but the least finicky horror fans. The movie looks good in hi-def; lone extra is an on-set featurette.

The Homesman 
Director Tommy Lee Jones, who stars in this western as an outlaw who helps a spinster take a trio of women driven mad by the harsh frontier existence to a safe house, has made a sturdy, solid picture that's a bit too slow and studied for its own good; surprisingly, Jones gives a curiously uncontrolled performance that mars the straightforward filmmaking on display. The film, though, belongs to Hilary Swank, who as the spinster gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance, even if the occasionally harrowing drama (based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout) severely shortchanges her, throwing the story out of whack in its final half-hour. The western vistas look spectacular on Blu-ray; extras include three substantial on-set featurettes. 

This mild comic study about Megan, a 20ish slacker who befriends high school student Annika and her father, with whom she becomes romantically involved, limps along without committing for 100 minutes, essentially aping its idle protagonist. With a too-familiar script by Andrea Seigel and uneven direction by Lynn Shelton, it's still worth a look, thanks to committed acting by Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray; extras are Shelton's commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

Life Itself 
Steve James' documentary about Roger Ebert's final years is an affecting portrait of the famous movie lover who faced mortality with bravery and humor, especially after horribly disfiguring cancer treatments that only prolonged the inevitable (he died in 2013). There's no denying the importance of the phenomenally popular movie review show starring Ebert and fellow Chicago reviewer Gene Siskel—who died of a brain tumor in 1999—but James shows how Ebert kept his love of cinema in proper perspective, as only one aspect of his gregarious love for life. The Blu-ray has a first-rate transfer; extras are deleted scenes, James interview and featurettes.

Mariinsky II Gala 
(Arthaus Musik)
When the Mariinsky Theatre opened its ultra-modern concert hall, Mariinsky II, on May 2, 2013, the cream of the crop of its stable of singers, musicians and dancers, alongside international stars, converged on St. Petersburg for the ultimate gala concert, led by the indefatigable conductor Valery Gergiev. Among dozens of highlights, there are Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko, the immortal Placido Domingo and luminous ballerina Diana Vishneva. The two-hour performance features Russian composers Tchaikvsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and works by Wagner, Mozart and Verdi. The Blu-ray's image and sound are extraordinary.

Le Pont du Nord 
(Kino Lorber)
French director Jacques Rivette's fanatical cult marches on despite a painfully mediocre cinematic output: his 1981 Paris-set film pairs a middle-aged ex-con and a paranoid 20ish loner, who together battle a menagerie of men named Max for a red-herring filled "mystery" that wears out its slender welcome long before its two-plus-hour running time expires. Amid the eternal beauties of Paris locations—which, to Rivette's credit, bypass the usual tourist traps (except for the Arc de Triumphe) for less photographed areas—actress Bulle Ogier and daughter Pascale (who tragically died in 1984, one day short of her 26th birthday) traipse around with little rhyme or reason. There's enough willful obscurity and symbolism to delight Rivette fans; for the rest of us, it's heavy going. The Blu-ray looks splendid; extras are two video essays.

(Cohen Film Collection)
In this 1942 dramatization of jazz's evolution, trumpeter Jackie Cooper falls in love with piano player Bonita Granville, but their romance rightly takes a back seat to the glorious musical performances from the likes of Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. Director William Dichterle provides enough breathing space for the musicmaking to make viewers overlook the bumpily melodramatic plotting and pacing. The restored film looks tremendous on Blu; extras comprise nine jazz shorts featuring such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Bille Holliday, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith.

The World Made Straight 
When she was Derek Jeter's girlfriend, Minka Kelly was just another pretty face, but her strong portrayal of a young woman caught in a cycle of drugs, violence and sexual exploitation catches all the nuances of what could have been a paper-thin character. Too bad the rest of the film (despite solid acting by Noah Wyle, Jeremy Irvine and Adelaide Clemens) isn't up to her forceful portrayal, instead getting bogged down by back-country in-fighting and Civil War memories that make this downbeat melodrama meander for two hours. There's an excellent hi-def transfer.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Off-Broadway Review—"Between Riverside and Crazy"

Between Riverside and Crazy
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through March 22, 2015
Second StageTheatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Rosal Colon in Between Riverside and Crazy (photo: Carol Rosegg)
If there's a reason to see Between Riverside and Crazy, the less-than-scintillating play by Stephen Adly Guirgus, it's Stephen McKinley Henderson. This superlative actor, who has too often been relegated to secondary roles or as part of ensembles in August Wilson plays—where he's stolen countless scenes—finally gets a role he can sink his teeth into. As Pops, the widowed NYPD retiree living in an enormous rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment, Henderson dominates the proceedings with his gravelly voice, formidable frame and an affecting twinkle in his eye that invites the audience to share in the grand old larcenous time he's having.

Pops—first seen at his kitchen table with Oswaldo, his son Junior's friend, soon followed by Junior's bimbo girlfriend Lulu, and finally Junior himself—is mad at the world, and himself, for how his life has gone. He was shot a few years ago by a rookie white officer, forcing his retirement, and his ensuing squabble with the city is not going his way; meanwhile, his landlord is hoping to get him out of his incredibly cheap apartment and his former partner, Audrey, and her fiancee Dave are trying to talk him into finally settling with the city. Through all this, he might as well be hosting a halfway house for his ex-con son Junior and Junior's shady friends. 

As usual with Guirgis plays, this is a world not often seen onstage: the multi-ethnic diversity of his characters, most of whom are living on the margins of society, bursts into vivid life thanks to his unerring ear for their authentically slangy talk. However, although his grasp of the language of these marginal people is convincing, he often goes too far just for laughs: early on, for example, Pops has to ask who Ben Affleck is, while later, he nonchalantly tosses off a Justin Bieber reference. Would Pops really know about one and not the other?

Guirgis is also on shaky ground when putting his characters through their paces. When the supposedly sterile Pops is seduced by a Brazilian church lady hoping to get money out of him, he ends up having a miraculous orgasm; later, when he finally agrees to the city's settlement, he wants Audrey and Dave to throw in something personal as their part of the bargain: her $30,000 engagement ring. And everyone's relatively happy ending—even Oswaldo, who earlier cold-cocked Pops when he wouldn't give him his credit card—underlines Guirgis's desperate strategems in getting from A to B, with the contradictory behavior on display less like the messy but real complexity of life and more the improbable contrivances of the playwright.

Still, Crazy is never less than entertaining in Austin Pendleton's generous and well-paced production, which allows the terrific cast the ample breathing room that Guirgis's breathless torrents of dialogue rarely do. Walt Spangler's outstanding apartment set, which provides a comfortably lived-in backdrop to the fuzzy goings-on, also doubles as a frame through which to watch the acting genius of Stephen McKinley Henderson.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

February '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 
Judith Viorst's beloved children's book about a young boy whose crappy day extends to his mom and dad as well has been expanded into this sweet-natured feature that, at a breezy 80 minutes, is the perfect length for children and adults to enjoy the unwanted shenangians to which the characters find themselves subjected. Playful but sympathetic performances by Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner as the parents and Ed Oxenbould as Alexander help put Viorst's magical story across onscreen. The Blu-ray image looks fab; extras include featurettes and bloopers.

Force Majeure 
Reminiscent of Michael Haneke's better films, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund's intelligent exploration of a seemingly happy family coming apart by a snap judgment during an avalanche at the skiing lodge where they are staying is filled with superb acting, perceptive writing and precise direction. Too bad that Ostlund pushes everything just a bit too far, like the lodge's janitor who always seems to be around and an ending that basically repeats what's been shown during the preceding two hours. Still, truly provocative black comic dramas come along all too rarely. The movie (and its eye-catching Alps locale) looks great on Blu-ray; extras comprise a featurette and an interview with Ostlund and lead actor Johannes Bah Kuhnke.

Left Behind 
(e one)
Poor Nicolas Cage: this Oscar-winning actor has churned out garbage for the past 20 years, with his latest an inert adaptation of an end-of-the-world novel in which The Rapture occurs (and millions of people are "disappeared") as Cage pilots a commercial jet and wonders what has become of his family, including his born-again wife. There's little tension in this mostly risible attempt at making a straight-faced drama, with the biggest foolishness saved for the finale, in which the pilot is guided to an emergency landing by his pickup truck-driving daughter, who singlehandedly makes a runway. The acting is, to be charitable, undistinguished: alongside Cage's evident embarrassment is the sorry state of Lea Thompson's career. It all looks presentable in hi-def; extras are cast-crew-author interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The Retrieval 
(Kino Lorber)
This low-key but intensely haunting drama set during the Civil War finds the moral grey area in the story of a black teenager who works with white bounty hunters retrieve runaway slaves: he bonds with the fugitive free black man he's supposed to help cature. Writer-director-editor Chris Eska, who knows his history and his filmmaking, visualizes the boy's inner struggle in a few brief words, glimpses or interactions; his unheralded and largely unknown cast is perfect, while his eye unerringly captures the right shot or moment of clarity. The hi-def transfer is understated but excellent; extras comprise Eska's commentary, deleted scene with commentary, post-screening Q&A with Eska and cast, and stunt rehearsals.

Richard Pryor—Omit the Logic 
Marina Zenovich's absorbing documentary chronicles the innovative comedian who died in 2005; although it was supervised by his widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor (the last of five wives and seven marriages), but doesn't skimp on a life that was often overtaken by drugs, self-destructive impulses and serious relationship issues. While there's little new or revelatory included here, this free-wheeling overview of a legendary artist's erratic career includes plentiful clips of Pryor at work onstage, on TV or onscreen that showed his comedic genius. There are also sundry interviews with friends, colleagues and family members like his son Richard Pryor Jr., Mel Brooks, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are additional interviews.

The events that overtook Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari after covering Iran's presidential election—including an appearance on The Daily Show that led to his being captured, interrogated and tortured by the Iranian secret police—compelled Jon Stewart to do "penance" for contributing to Bahari's plight by writing and directing his first feature based on what happened. This earnest, well-crafted dramatization has a certain flair, but a more accomplished filmmaker would have given Bahari's story more immediacy and vibrancy. Still, even though Gael Garcia Bernal makes a passive hero, Kim Bodina's powerful if pathetic villain provides much of the story's urgency. The striking imagery is given a first-rate Blu-ray presentation; extras are short featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Color of Time 
(Anchor Bay)
In this impressionistic biopic about American poet C.K. Williams, a dozen director-writers alternate episodes about the artist's life and work, and the results, while at times individually memorable, never coalesce into anything more than a scattershot look at a complicated individual. James Franco, along with several other actors, plays Williams, and is outclassed at every turn by Jessica Chastain and Mila Kunis as his mother and wife, respectively. At 76 minutes, the effect of the film is of several minor shorts strung together haphazardly.

Once Upon a Time Veronica 
(Big World Pictures)
Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes' unsparing but delicate study of a young, sexually free woman, just out of medical school, who has difficult decisions to make about the direction of her life, professionally and personally. Gomes' film is far more subtle than this summary makes it sound, as his assured writing and directing are immeasurably aided by the fierce, unforgettable Hermila Guedes as Veronica; she is an actress unafraid to bare herself physically and emotionally to create an indelible character worth watching and rooting for.

Rocks in My Pockets 
In chronicling the remarkably sturdy hold mental illness has had on several generations of her own family, Latvian director Signe Baumane has fashioned a wholly and boldly original way to deal with its distressing and downbeat heaviness. By providing her own amusingly drawn animation—remnisicent of the playful Bill Plympton—and her own narration (in both Latvian and English), Baumane underlines the importance of her and her relatives' plight without sacrificing her ultimate seriousness of purpose. 

(First Run)
In this gritty character study, a teenage delinquent is shipped off to the tranquil suburbs to stay with his aunt and uncle, but instead of going straight, he falls in with his cousin's own gang, which tags buildings at night with their colorful—and illegal—graffiti. Director Helier Cisterne's small but potent drama explores, without condescension or excuses, how a young man can, despite (or because of?) the watchful eye of his elders, continue down the wrong path. There are remarkable performances all around from a (to these eyes) largely unknown cast.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

February '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Before I Go to Sleep 
Despite a compelling performance by Nicole Kidman as a woman whose memory goes blank every morning as she pieces together fragments of what's happened to her, this tepid thriller from S.J. Watson's novel never transcends its clever premise. The main problems are the story's nonsensical elements—like why her doctor doesn't know what's going on with her husband (well-played by Colin Firth)—and an ending that too patly wraps everything up. On Blu-ray, the movie looks great; extras include short featurettes.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein)
Three films—Her and Him, about a relationship from each side's POV, and a recut version that tells both stories—are still not enough for writer-director Ned Benson to insightfully examine two people through thick and thin, despite some good moments. On the plus side, there's another memorable turn by the always magnetic Jessica Chastain as Eleanor (named after the Beatles song, of course), nakedly emotional, always real, never grandstanding. Her tough, powerful piece of acting overwhelms the otherwise fine James McAvoy. The Blu-ray images are quite good; unless one counts all three films on two discs, the lone extra is a Chastain/McAvoy Q&A.

Maison Close: Season One 
(Music Box)
This steamy French series, which seems tailor-made for an American reboot on HBO or Showtime or another pay-cable channel with plenty of nudity, is set in Parisian brothel in 1871—a politically fraught time in France—and examines the personal, professional and sexual lives of the prostitutes, madam, clients and authorities (which were often one and the same). Beautifully shot and with sumptuous costumes and sets, the series sometimes lags behind in characterizations and storylines, but, overall, the first season's eight episodes are bingeworthy. On Blu-ray, the series looks terrific.

Open Windows 
Nacho Vigalondo's enjoyable trashy thriller features Elijah Wood as a geeky superfan who's been unwittingly brought into a convoluted plot that involves his favorite movie star, played by the actress who will forever be known as an ex-porn queen, Sasha Grey. Although the story strands become so entangled that all of it becomes laughably silly to watch at times, the movie cleverly uses the internet and technology for its nefarious purposes, Wood is properly harried, and even Grey is more than just a pretty face (and body, as a gratuitous nude scene shows). The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are a making-of featurette and special effects reel.

Love Is the Devil 
Based on Charlotte Roche's controversial book, Wetlands explores a teenage girl's burgeoning sexuality as it holds sway over a male nurse while she recovers from an operation. Such frank subject matter, explored matter-of-factly by director David Winendt, is not for everyone, but with his fearless star Carla Juri, Winendt has made a funny and honest look at teen sexuality. In John Maybury's striking 1999 biopic about painter Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil, Derek Jacobi skillfully embodies the flamboyant artist, while Daniel Craig convincingly embodies Bacon's hunky lover, George Dyer; Maybury's dazzling direction finds visual equivalents for Bacon's painful, often intentionally ugly art. Both movies have decent Blu-ray transfers; Love includes a Jacobi/Maybury commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Days and Nights 
Credit actor and first-time writer-director Christian Camargo for having the audacity to transplant Chekov's classic play The Seagull to rural New York State in 1984 (lots of Reagan allusions), following a fading movie star, her offbeat family and servants, but little of it is memorable, let alone masterly, in the hands of someone who cannot approach Chekhov's genius. The depth of the play's feelings, emotions and relationships are jettisoned, and although there are good performances by Allison Janney, Katie Holmes and Juliet Rylance, the men are interchangeably bland, which doesn't help.

Hector and the Search for Happiness 
In this quirky comedy, Simon Pegg plays an analyst who wants to find out what happiness is, so he leaves his faithful girlfriend Clara in London; as he goes from China to Africa to Los Angeles, Hector finds that happiness means different things to different people. If little of this is earth-shattering, outstanding sequences like one on a plane with a terminally ill woman are worth sitting through the sometimes snail's-paced storytelling to see. Excellent acting by Pegg, Rosamund Pike as Clara, and—in small but pivotal roles—Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard and Ming Zhao (as an impossibly gorgeous student Hector picks up in China) goes a long way to alleviate a lengthy and bumpy ride. Extras comprise director Peter Chelsom's commentary and two featurettes.

Sex(ed) The Movie
(First Run)
This informative, amusing and often unsettling documentary shows how sex education has been brought to Americans over the decades, with snippets of now uproarious sex-ed films that show how changing moral codes colored what children were taught. Director Brenda Goodman also corrals astute commentators and ordinary people to provide a runnning commentary about the distinctly American puritanism of dealing with sex. Extras include two vintage sex-ed films, including 1961's A Respectable Neighborhood, about a VD outbreak and directed by Irvin Kershner (who went on to make The Empire Strikes Back); and deleted scenes.

CD of the Week
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Anna Netrebko, the superstar soprano currently essaying the title role of the blind heroine in Tchaikovsky's rarely-heard one-acter at the Metropolitan Opera this month, also sang it in Essen, Germany, in 2012, from which this vibrant live recording was made. Netrebko's dramatic chops, which let her perform whatever she wants even if it doesn't snugly fit her voice, give this saggy, blunt drama some gravitas; of course, Tchaikovsky's gift for melody is on display, with the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra and Chamber Choir under conductor Emmanuel Villaume providing sturdy musical support. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"Da," "The Road to Damascus"

Written by Hugh Leonard; directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances through March 8, 2015
Irish Rep, 103 East 15th Street, New York, NY

The Road to Damascus
Written by Tom Dulack; directed by Michael Parva
Performances through March 1, 2015
New York Theatre Workshop, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

O'Reilly and O'Brien in Da (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Hugh Leonard's intimate memory piece, Da, is an affecting comic drama unashamed to wear its heart on its sleeve. In this lovely elegy to his own father, Leonard paints an achingly personal portrait of a son remembering his 'da' with complicated and conflicted emotions: Charlie Tynan, while sifting through his dad's belongings following the old man's funeral, is visited by both his father's ghost and his own memories of life with his parents while growing up in that same house. 

Throughout, Da is funny and joyous, sad and painful, at times ponderous and slow-going, but always real and humane: in short, it honestly conveys one man's relationships with his parents—and especially with his hard-headed but not hard-hearted father—in a way that allows every audience member to see the universal truths that Leonard shows so unpretentiously.

The Irish Rep's lively production, under Charlotte Moore's precise direction, is led by two forceful performances: Ciaran O'Reilly as the exasperated Charlie and Paul O'Brien as a jovial Da, capture the humanity that makes Leonard's 1978 Tony Award-winning play memorable.

Polonsky and Collins in The Road to Damascus (photo: Carol Rosegg)
In the not too distant future, Islamic terrorist groups are still overrunning the Middle East, especially Syria. And, after midtown Manhattan is shaken by a deadly bombing that's been traced back to Syria, the new American president—the first third-party winner in decades—weighs his few options, which include a devastatingly lethal strike on the capital city of Damascus. However, the brand new (and first) African pope has made it clear that he will go to Damascus as a human shield if American bombs go off in retaliation for the New York terrorist attack. 

So goes The Road to Damascus, a new play by Tom Dulack, which shows a future U.S. and world not far removed from our own, in which our current global crises are given greater urgency, and where terrorists and statesmen are strange, if sometimes unwilling, bedfellows. Our nominal hero is State Department agent Dexter Hobhouse, who's on friendly terms with the Pope's closest advisor, Roberto Guzman, who alerts him to His Holiness's decision about Syria, while Pope Augustine is friendly with a popular international journalist of Chechen Muslim extraction, Nadia Kirilenko, who's also (no surprise here) Dexter's lover. When Hobhouse disappears after meeting the Pope in Rome, both State and the NSA try and figure out whether he has jumped to the other side.

Dulack writes scenes of palpable tension and excitement, tautly building the drama to its breaking point. Don't expect any insights about how politics, religion and terrorism intersect, but rather enjoy a perfectly paced thriller that's compelling and all too pertinent, thanks in large part to Michael Parva's confident direction, Brittany Vasta's clever sets and Graham Kindred's magnificent lighting. The sterling company of actors—led by Rufus Collins' properly frumpy Dexter, Larisa Polonsky's sexy and ruthless Nadia and Liza Vann's foul-mouthed NSA agent Bree Benson—is the icing on a very entertaining, if unsettling, cake.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Adua and Her Friends 
Antonio Pietrangeli's 1960 neo-realist drama—which sympathetically follows a quartet of prostitutes who decide to open a restaurant when a new Rome law closes all of the city's bordellos—sounds treacly and melodramatic in the extreme. But Pietrangeli's sensitive direction, assisted by the wonderfully realistic portrayals of Simone Signoret, Emmanuelle Riva, Sandra Milo and Gino Revere as the women, provides a powerful dramatic trajectory for this compassionate and insightful character study. The B&W film's transfer looks good enough if a bit waxy; extras include an introduction and Pietrangeli short.

By the Gun 
"By the numbers" more accurately describes this wheels-spinning crime drama about a flashy young gangster (Ben Barnes) doing things on his own—including picking up the adorable daughter (Leighton Meester) of a rival—against his boss's wishes. Director James Mottern and writer Emilio Mauro follow the blueprints of other, better films, but do little more than make a hollow recreation of them, drowning veteran actors like Harvey Keitel and Toby Jones in a tsunami of banalities. The hi-def transfer looks good; extras are a commentary and deleted scenes.

La Cienaga 
Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's auspicious debut feature is a blackly comic 2001 exploration of a bourgeois extended family dealing with hidden tensions that threaten to bubble up to the surface. Although there is more provocation than substance in her visual and dramatic symbolism, at least Martel was onto something interesting, which unfortunately was not followed through with her increasingly hermetic films The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman. The Criterion hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include interviews with Martel and filmmaker Andrés Di Tella.

Downton Abbey—Complete 5th Season 
The final season of the PBS/Masterpiece smash hit comprises nine episodes that wrap up the various story strands, from an ongoing murder investigation to a wedding and a farewell. Although there is some obviousness in the writing—a discussion of someone named Hitler and his new group the Nazis is an example of 20/20 hindsight—that's a mere quibble when the production values remain impeccable, the acting generally outstanding and the storytelling sheerly entertaining. The hi-def transfer looks smashingly good indeed; extras are three featurettes.

The Drop 
The late James Gandolfini—who seems to be in more films since he died than before—is at his disheveled best in this violent, uneven but generally compelling crime drama by writer Dennis Lehane, playing a bartender in a drop bar who doesn't trust his partner after a suspicious robbery. Although he could have played the role in his sleep, Gandolfini has a formidable presence that outshines costar Tom Hardy's sleepy sidekick; happily, chameleon actress Noomi Rapace is also on hand, and her performance makes us forget how ludicrously implausible her character is. Director Michael R. Roskam has a good eye for Brooklyn locations; the Blu-ray looks solid and extras are Roskam/Lehane's commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
All Neat in Black Stockings 
(Warner Archive)
This late-'60s artifact came out in the wake of such successful farces as The Knack and Alfie, which show a young man seducing attractive "birds" without a thought, until he meets a young woman who turns his head and stops him in his tracks. Victor Henry plays a window washer ladies' man who is upended by the bird played by Susan George, one of the most delectable bits of typecasting in movie history. The comedy is creaky, the sentiments sexist, but it works, mostly due to Henry and George's chemistry.

Art & Craft 
Mark Landis, who donated his own forgeries of master paintings to museums as gifts, is chronicled in Art & Craft, Sam Cullman,  Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker's eye-opening documentary exploring the complications of art forgery, mainly through the eyes of Matt Leininger, who exposes Landis's chicanery. In Coherence, four couples at a dinner party discover, as a comet flies overhead, that theirs is one of many realities; as Twilight Zone ripoffs go, it's an OK diversion, but writer-director James Ward Birkit trips himself up trying to outsmart viewers. Art extras are commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, Q&A; Coherence extras are commentary, behind the scenes featurettes.

Bird People 
For the first two-thirds of its two-hour running time, Pascale Ferran's ambitious character study of two lonely people—an American businessman and a French cleaning woman—who don't meet until the very end is beguiling in how it displays the minutiae of their lives through an exhilarating combination of formal precision and alternating narratives. But when the film's heroine (played by the always excellent Anais Demoustier) transforms into one of the title creatures, all bets are off, and Ferran's movie limps along to an enervating, diffuse, predictable finale.

The Green Prince 
(Music Box)
In the impossible-to-believe-it's-true category is this forcefully engrossing documentary portrait of Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian whose father was a Hamas leader and who became, against all odds (and even credulity), an informant for Israel's version of the FBI, Shin Bet, under the auspices of agent Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Director Nadav Scirman adroitly explores the dynamic—and dynamite—relationship between the two men, an unlikely pairing that throws a wrench into the accepted narrative of the Middle East's political situation. Extras include interviews and featurettes.