Tuesday, May 23, 2017

May '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Get Out
(Universal)
After nearly $200 million and near-universal critical praise, Jordan Peele’s writing-directing debut can’t hope to live up to such excessive audience and reviewer hype, and it doesn’t—it’s an effective little horror comedy that tries far too hard to hit both its jokey and scary beats, all at the service of a heavy-handed metaphor for current race relations. Such a combo is a tall order for any filmmaker, and Peele, for all his talent, tips his hand far too early and ends up grasping for bizarre and unique moments and settles for well-worn horror-movie tropes, from skittering, atonal music a la The Shining to “normal” suburban dwellers a la The Stepford Wives. The film has a crisp, vibrant look on Blu-ray; extras include Peele’s commentary, Q&A with Peele and cast, making-of featurette, and deleted scenes and alternate ending with Peele commentary.

The Climber
Cops vs. Thugs
Wolf Guy
(Arrow)
Say this for Arrow Video: they keep seeking out and finding obscure and, in many cases, forgotten genre films, usually crime dramas or thrillers from Europe or the East. Sometimes, they hit a bulls-eye; others are a near-miss; and still others are whiffed on completely. These new releases—all made, coincidentally, in 1975—are a mix of near- and total miss. The Climber is a no-nonsense piece of Italian gangster cinema with hyped-up action but little resonance, Cops vs. Thugs is a superficially stylish yakuza picture from Japan, and Wolf Guy is a brutal but bloodless Japanese actioner. All three films have excellent hi-def transfers, as always with Arrow; extras include interviews with directors, stars and producers, and video essays.

Dheepan 
(Criterion)
French director Jacques Audiard makes audacious films that skirt the line between gritty reality and over-the-top melodrama, like his best-known features A Prophet and Rust and Bone; his latest follows a family fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka that finds the Parisian projects they’ve moved into resembles their homeland in more ways than one. Audiard’s sympathetic eye and ear are coupled with authentic unprofessional actors who are often mesmerizing, but Dheepan is too on the nose in its depiction of wartime struggles breaking out in a new, supposedly more civilized, home. The Criterion Blu-ray has a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include a commentary by Audiard and cowriter Noe Debre, deleted scenes with their commentary, new Audiard interview and interview with lead actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan.

The Jacques Rivette Collection
(Arrow Academy)
I’ve never been simpatico with the jerky rhythms and crudely improvisatory feel of Jacques Rivette’s films (even if his stature has grown over the years), and this collection of three of his features—1976’s Duelle, 1976’s Noirot and 1978’s Merry-Go-Round—does nothing to upwardly reappraise him: if anything, these scattershot, diffuse, often dreary and seemingly endless pictures drop him down a few more pegs. Aside from La Belle Noiseuse and the two-part Joan of Arc—which, to be sure, were brightened considerably by the presence of magnificent performers like Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Piccoli and Sandine Bonnaire—I’ve found little of substance or interest in nearly every other Rivette film. At least there’s Arrow’s now-expected outstanding presentation— gorgeously-designed boxed set with splendid new hi-def transfers, informative bound book, new interviews with Duelle actresses Hermine Karagheuz and Bulle Ogier, appreciation by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and 50-minute archival Rivette interview.

XX 
(Magnet)
Omnibus films are almost always hit-or-miss, and this four-parter of creepy tales by a quartet of female directors (a notable feat in itself) is no exception. Best are Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box, an intense bit of family fright, and Roxanne Benjamin’s straight-out horrific Don’t Fall. Annie Clarke’s debut The Birthday Party and Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son have great payoffs following middling set-ups. Overall an enjoyably unsettling set (connected by Sofia Carrillo’s stop-motion animation), and there’s one great performance: Natalie Brown as the mom in The Box. The hi-def transfer is superior; extras are director interviews and on-set featurettes.

DVD of the Week
Birth of a Movement
(PBS)
The outright racism of D.W. Griffin’s 1915 film classic The Birth of a Nation stung right from the start, as this insightful PBS documentary makes clear, along with the still difficult balancing act for many scholars of defending Griffith’s numerous cinematic innovations while dealing with his explicitly anti-black, pro-KKK stance. Talking heads like Spike Lee, Henry Louis Gates and Reginald Hudlin discuss the film’s impact on them both personally and professionally, and many clips from the film itself demonstrate both Griffith’s genius and bigotry.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Theater Review—Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” with Dianne Wiest

Happy Days
Written by Samuel Beckett; directed by James Bundy
Performances through May 28, 2017
Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
tfana.org

Dianne Wiest in Samuel Beckett's Happy  Days (photo: Gerry Goodstein)
It’s her voice that does it. Despite the deep, throaty intonations of her signature line, “Don’t speak!”, hilariously repeated throughout Woody Allen’s 1994 classic Bullets Over Broadway, Dianne Wiest is known for her fragile, even squeaky voice that flutters and fibrillates. But as Winnie—the defiantly unflappable heroine of Samuel Beckett’s shattering comedy about mortality, Happy Days—Wiest gathers reservoirs of strength almost entirely through that unique instrument: that’s because Winnie, initially buried up to her waist in a mound of sand, finds herself trapped up to her neck at the end.

With easy mastery, Wiest displays Winnie’s unbridled brightness throughout her two-hour near-monologue—occasionally interrupted by appearances by Winnie’s husband Willie—punctuating her dialogue with the hopeful exclamation “happy days.” Wiest’s Winnie is sympathetic without being pathetic, and optimistic without being naïve, her precise and subtle gestures punctuating the hilarious (and often devastating) prattle that Beckett wrote to demonstrate her last, desperate attempt to stave off inevitable extinction.

James Bundy perceptively directs on Izmir Ickbal’s impressive set of an arid landscape, adhering closer to Beckett’s stringent stage directions than did Deborah Warner’s 2008 staging at BAM with Fiona Shaw. Jarlath Conroy’s amusing Willie complements Wiest, who finds the poignancy and sadness in Winnie’s final song, leaving a collective lump in the throat of the entire audience.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

May '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Accidental Tourist
(Warner Archive)
One of Anne Tyler’s most satisfying novels—about an emotionally distant travel writer reeling from his young son’s death and grieving wife’s leaving him who finds redemption and love—became director Lawrence Kasdan’s best film in 1988. This melancholy romantic comedy with few false Hollywood moments is also a showcase for extraordinary performances by William Hurt (husband), Kathleen Turner (wife) and especially Oscar-winning Geena Davis as the new woman. The movie’s subdued colors look impressive on Blu; extras are Kasdan’s intro, deleted scenes, vintage making-of featurette and Davis’s commentary.

Africa’s Great Civilizations
(PBS)
For his latest entertaining history lesson, Henry Louis Gates travels to the great continent to explore nearly a quarter of a millennium’s worth of civilizations that thrived, traded and battled with and often defeated their adversaries from Europe and Asia. Throughout these six hour-long episodes, Gates speaks engagingly with experts who provide edifying discussion and also goes to the actual locations—from Zimbabwe and Ethiopia to Zanzibar and Timbuktu—which look ravishing in their uniqueness and importance on Blu-ray.

Good Morning 
(Criterion)
A humanist filmmaker blessed with uncommon grace and rigor in equal measure, Yasujiro Ozu was the rare artist who could elevate the quotidian into the sublime, as in this gentle but hilarious 1959 comedy about two young boys who refuse to speak until their parents get them a television set. Ozu’s films contain enough wit and insight, laughter and tears to be worth any discerning viewer’s time; that Criterion has included Ozu’s amusing silent comedy, 1932’s I Was Born, But… (Good Morning’s forerunner), with Donald Sosin’s 2008 musical score, is a delightful bonus. There’s a first-rate new hi-def transfer; other extras are a fragment of Ozu’s 1929 silent A Straightforward Boy, interview with David Bordwell and video essay by David Cairns.

The Loved One
(Warner Archive)
Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s sly novel might have been racy and daring in 1965, but half a century has dulled its edge and muted its satiric depiction of Southern California as a land of shallow slickness compared to the more cultured Old World. The movie is best seen as a time capsule that features cameos by stars of the day from Jonathan Winters and John Gielgud to Liberace and Milton Berle. Haskell Wexler’s exquisite B&W widescreen compositions look even more luminous in hi-def; the only extra is a featurette.

Seven Days in May 
(Warner Archive)
In John Frankenheimer’s tense 1964 Cold War thriller about a U.S. president whose disarmament overtures towards Russia triggers an attempted military coup by a cabal of right-wing generals, an array of stars makes this a deliciously paranoid drama in the manner of Frankenheimer’s own The Manchurian Candidate. Frederic March (president), Burt Lancaster (bad guy), Kirk Douglas (good guy), and Ava Gardner (love interest) are all in top form; the hi-def transfer brings the striking B&W visuals to the fore, and there’s a Frankenheimer commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Between Us
(IFC)
Writer-director Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s dreary and pretentious drama of a longtime, just-married couple whose wedding-day argument turns into a chance for both to cheat comes to life only when that amazing and underrated actress Olivia Thirlby gets a chance to shine. Too bad Thirlby is stuck in the contradictory part of an intelligent, confident woman who ends up screwing a performance artist she just met to get a measure of revenge against her husband, who ends up not what she does. The banal ending—which fails to be happy and deep simultaneously—perfectly summarizes the director’s pretentiousness, at the expense of his actors.

The Great War 
(PBS)
PBS’s excellent American Experience series tackles the complexities of the First World War in a three-part, six-hour documentary which illustrates how it was the first modern war, one which brought America global prestige and power but also increasing political difficulties back home. The must-see program brings together precisely chosen newsreel footage, images, speeches, songs, etc. (along with Oliver Platt’s narration) to give a robust flavor of an era of true devastation and destruction—and a slight hopefulness that there would be no Second World War in the future.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

New Musical Revivals—“The Golden Apple” at Encores!; Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” at Classic Stage Company

The Golden Apple
Music by Jerome Moross; written by John Latouche; directed by Michael Berresse
Performances May 10-14, 2017
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY
nycitycenter.org


Pacific Overtures
Book by John Weidman; music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Directed and designed by John Doyle
Performances through June 18, 2017
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

Ryan Silverman and Mikaela Bennett in The Golden Apple (photo: Joan Marcus)
The Golden Apple is the kind of musical Encores! was made for: an almost forgotten show that ran off-Broadway in 1954, then transferred to Broadway—the first musical ever to do so—only to close after a few months. Now, for all of us who’ve never seen or heard it in the ensuing 60-plus years, it’s back for a few performances.

Most noteworthy is Jerome Moross’s beguiling, sung-through score, closer in spirit to operetta (and opera) than your garden-variety Broadway musical. The infectious and witty songs are in a variety of styles within the Moross’s distinctly Americana vernacular; John Latouche’s accompanying lyrics run the gamut from solid to stolid, with clever and welcome tongue-in-cheek rhymes. But Latouche takes the heroic Greek myths of The Odyssey and The Iliad and, by transplanting them to the year 1898 during the Spanish-American War in the fictional town of Angel’s Roost in Washington State, makes them utterly ridiculous.

Luckily, the story’s silliness doesn’t derail the show:  Michael Berresse’s adroit staging—the usual Encores! mix of concert and full production—features Allen Moyer’s droll sets, William Ivey Long’s sassy costumes, and Joshua Bergasse’s lively choreography for the many dance sequences. Moross’s songs are given full-voiced loveliness by newcomer Mikaela Bennett, as Penelope; she belies her inexperience—this is the Juilliard student’s first professional production—with a powerful but not show-offy voice and a scary heaping of stage confidence. 

Lindsey Mendez, an amusing Helen, steals scenes right and left while giving a beautiful rendition of the show’s solo standout, “Lazy Afternoon.” Ryan Silverman’s robust Ulysses joins Bennett’s Penelope for Moross’s romantic duets, “It’s the Going Home Together” and the finale “We’ve Just Begun.” The non-singing Barton Cowperthwaite dances up a storm as Paris, a hot-air balloon traveling salesman who kidnaps Helen.

Rob Berman and his Encores! orchestra give Moross’s charming music the best possible platform, but an inane plot and large cast make The Golden Apple a doubtful Broadway revival any time soon.

Geroge Takei (center) in Pacific Overtures (photo: Joan Marcus)
Pacific Overtures was made for Broadway: its huge cast and expansive storyline about the opening of Japan (starting with the 1853 landing of American Commodore Matthew Perry) need a big stage to house Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s problematic but thought-provoking show exploring the fallout of the West’s introducing the East to “progress.”

Unfortunately, John Doyle—who tinkers with everything he touches, usually Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, Passion) and opera (his disastrous Peter Grimes at the Met)—has downsized Pacific Overtures in its staging and its music, which reduces it to a highlights performance with tantalizing bits of pointed commentary strewn throughout its intermissionless 85 minutes. 

Doyle’s spare but evocative visuals—the stage splits through the audience like an unfurling scroll—are complemented by his suggestive blocking, as the ten performers mimic stylized Japanese movements. But why Doyle has cut several songs—including those that make a strong case for the show’s musical supremacy among Sondheim aficionados—and instead kept a more obvious satirical rant like “Please Hello,” in which stereotypically arrogant Western representatives convince the Japanese to bow to their cultural superiority, is puzzling.

In a generally fine cast, George Takei’s stately presence as The Reciter stands out. Too bad Doyle’s unfocused production reduces a provocative piece of theater—with a punning title (taken directly from Commodore Perry) that speaks volumes about its intentions—to a stale deconstruction mistaking poverty for intimacy. One awaits Doyle’s next move with increased trepidation.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

May '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Kiju Yoshida—Love + Anarchism
(Arrow Academy)
One of the unsung luminaries of the Japanese New Wave, director Kiju Yoshida has made relatively few films, his reputation hinging on the three features in this must-have boxed set: his magnum opus, 1969’s epic Eros + Massacre, presented in its 165-minute release version and the stunningly original 215-minute director’s cut; and his subsequent features, 1970’s Heroic Purgatory and 1973’s Coup d’Etat. Yoshida’s political trilogy (simultaneously hip and historical, free-form and rigidly structured) are screaming to be discovered anew thanks to flawless hi-def transfers that bring to life his ingenious B&W compositions, along with contextualizing extras: intros by scholar David Desser and Yoshida, commentaries by Desser and a 30-minute featurette about Eros featuring Yoshida.

Brain Damage
(Arrow)
Frank Henenlotter’s grubby 1988 gorefest introduces a brain-eating parasite named Edgar who finds a willing young idiot to do his murderous bidding: this is the kind of tongue-in-cheek horror flick where a young woman, ready to perform fellatio on our hero, instead ends up with Edgar in her mouth, and he burrows through her mouth to suck out her brain. There’s definitely an audience for this type of low-budget schlock, but credit must be given to Edgar creator Gabe Bartalos, who comes up with a crafty little monster. It looks good and grainy on Blu; extras include interviews, featurettes and a commentary.

Serial Mom 
(Shout/Scream Factory)
John Waters’ silly 1994 satire has grown in relevance since then, as Kathleen Turner’s murderous middle-class mom who gets off in a sensational trial remains one of her best, most deadpan creations. Although the movie keeps beating the same dead horse for 95 minutes, the collection of misfits in Waters’ cast—Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard as Turner’s family, Patty Hearst as a juror and Mink Stole as a bitchy accuser—makes it a fun watch. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras include two commentaries (one by Waters and Turner and one by Waters solo), featurettes and a conversation with Waters, Turner and Stole.

Things to Come
(Sundance Selects)
After an auspicious career start (All Is Forgiven, The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love), French director Mia Hansen-Løve has regressed with her shallow 2014 feature Eden and her latest, with a somnambulistic Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy professor with a long-term marriage, two teenage children and a psychosomatic mother who suddenly finds herself unmoored; as she says: “I got divorced, my children have moved out, and my mom died. I’m free.” Instead of an insightful look at a woman beginning a new life, Hansen-Løve makes a meandering soap opera that not even the redoubtable Huppert can save. The director’s unerring eye and beautifully composed shots look ravishing on Blu-ray, at least.

CD of the Week 
Mahler Third Symphony—Budapest Festival Orchestra
(Channel Classics)
It takes a village to perform Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony—if not as many as his Eighth (the aptly, and only slightly exaggeratedly, titled “Symphony of a Thousand”)—thanks to a large orchestra, two choirs, alto soloist and a conductor who can marshal all of those forces into a cohesive whole that plays some of Mahler’s most sublimely emotional music. And that’s what conductor Ivan Fischer does with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, Cantemus Children’s Choir, Chorus of the Bayerischer Rundfunk and singer Gerhild Romberger, all of whom perform brilliantly in this magnificent 95-minute journey through one of Mahler’s most momentous compositions.

Monday, May 8, 2017

2017 Tribeca Film Festival Roundup

15th Tribeca Film Festival
New York, NY
April 19-30, 2017
tribecafilm.com

Bobbi Jene
At the Tribeca Film Festival, documentaries usually dominate my viewing, and this year was no different. A triple winner of awards at the festival (Best Documentary, Best Cinematography and Best Editing), Bobbi Jene is an excruciatingly personal chronicle of American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, who performed with the Israeli troupe Batsheva for ten years before deciding to return to the States. Her passionate commitment to her art and her emotional journey from Israel back home is gracefully recounted by director Elvira Lind, who begins her film by showing Bobbi Jene dancing in the nude: this intimate portrait only becomes more so as it goes along.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait
In Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (opened May 5 in New York), director Pappi Corsicato presents Schnabel, one of the contemporary art world’s biggest names, in all his personal and professional glory. Interviewing wives, daughters, friends, colleagues and admirers (among them Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe)—along with the man himself—Corsicato also makes canny use of Schnabel’s own archive of home movies and photos, along with new footage of his most recent work. By saving Schnabel’s greatest achievement—his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar—for last, Corsicato shows that his subject has an artistic seriousness to match his penchant for self-promotion and celebrity.

Elián
If there’s another Cuban besides Fidel Castro who can be ID’d by his first name, it’s Elián Gonzalez, and Elián (opens May 12 in New York) provides a concise overview of how the little boy became a symbol of the simmering tensions between the United States (good) and Cuba (evil) after he was discovered floating alone in the water in late 1999. The coup by directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell is an interview with the now-grown up Elián, who stands by his love and adoration for his “god” Fidel and his lack of sympathy for his Miami relatives, who are still angered by our government snatching him from them at gunpoint in the spring of 2000 and returned to his father. There’s even a discussion of whether President Clinton and his attorney general Janet Reno’s handling of the situation could have led to Al Gore’s defeat in Florida, which would make the Elián Gonzalez affair an even biggest historical event than it already is.

A Gray State
Not surprisingly, several of this year’s docs tackle relevant political issues. A Gray State calmly dissects what led to the disturbing deaths of Iraqi vet and fringe right-winger David Crowley, his Muslim wife and their young daughter: there’s copious footage of Crowley making his paranoid dystopian movie, Gray State, and director Erik Nelson allows conspiracy theorists who think the government shut Crowley up to vent their predictable but misplaced anger. Eerily complementing Nelson’s film, David Byars’ No Man’s Land chronicles the stand-off between right-wing militants and government forces at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year, evenhandedly presenting both sides with astonishing footage of the take-over, stand-off and trial, at which the men were found not guilty. As an incredulous observer notes, if these were Black Lives Matter protestors, the outcomes of the stand-off and trial would most likely have been far different.

Two National Geographic docs had world premieres ahead of their network broadcasts. Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s searing Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS (premieres June 11) is a meticulous and frightening exploration of how the Islamic State took advantage of the broken country after Assad allowed it to spin into chaos. Entirely comprising archival footage—some of which has not been seen until now—Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s LA 92 (now showing) paints a vividly ugly picture of Los Angeles before, during and after the riots triggered by the infamous “not guilty” verdict for the policemen accused of beating Rodney King.

Finally, two films show how we humans adversely affect our planet. The Sensitives introduces several people who have adverse reactions to simply trying to live a normal life: whatever the reason, anything their body perceives as toxic makes them so sick that they have to live in enclosed places. Director Drew Xanthopoulos sympathetically shows their plight and a possible cure: an advocate for their rare malady who is one of the “sensitives” herself. Mark Grieco’s A River Below is a consistently surprising study of the near-extinction of the Amazon’s pink river dolphins, as their hunters and the activists trying to save them do battle in a showdown that raises pertinent questions about the ethics—or lack of such—of both sides.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Broadway Review—Paula Vogel’s Play “Indecent”

Indecent
Written by Paula Vogel; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Opened April 18, 2017
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street
indecentbroadway.com

The cast of Indecent (photo: Carol Rosegg)
When two women kissed on a Broadway stage in 1923 in Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, it caused a scandal. The show was shut down, something that didn’t happen during many European stagings since the Polish-Jewish playwright Asch wrote it in 1907. But the unique prudishness of the United States—even in a culturally rich and ethnically diverse city like New York—demonstrated that intolerance rears its ugly in many ways.

Paula Vogel’s play Indecent follows the complicated and haunting history of God of Vengeance, from its first reading in a Warsaw, Poland, literary salon to its being enacted one act at a time in the Lodz Ghetto by performers who don’t know if they’ll get to perform the last act before the Nazis round up everyone. An acting troupe is introduced, and the performers are seen onstage and off, their personal lives intertwined with the fictional but very real characters they play in Vengeance. Pivotal scenes are reenacted from various productions of the play, giving a real sense of not only its historical importance, but also its enduring dramatic interest.

Indecent is stimulating without being particularly illuminating, despite an early image of ashes spilling out of the characters’ clothing powerfully evoking what happens to concentration camp victims. But even if it’s admittedly manipulative, Vogel and her sensitive director Rebecca Taichman make effective use of Brechtian stage devices that allow the non-linear narrative to flow more interestingly than it might have otherwise.

The klezmer-like music performed onstage is nicely integrated into the drama, with the versatile instrumentalists joining in on the action at times (the ingenious choreography is by David Dorfman). The outstanding performers, all of whom play multiple roles, are led by the winning actress Katarina Link, whose intimate scenes with Adina Verson—not only in their censored onstage kiss but their warm offstage relationship—are the linchpin of the plays God of Vengeance and Indecent.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
I Am Not Your Negro
(Magnolia)
Remember This House, a book James Baldwin never finished, survives in manuscript form and is a personal reminiscence of three civil rights leaders who were murdered: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Director Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary—nominated for an Oscar this past year—makes intelligent use of Baldwin’s own words (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) to make the persuasive case that Baldwin’s views on racism in America have never been more relevant. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras are two Peck interviews (one of them an hour long) and Jackson interview.

Animal Kingdom—Complete 1st Season
(Warner Bros)
Based on the gritty 2010 Australian film that garnered an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver as the matriarch of a petty crime family, this new series moves the action to the heart of southern California, a more uneasy fit than in the Outback. Still, Ellen Barkin is fun as lead villainess Janine “Smurf” Cody, who keeps her four sons under control, and the series goes off on interesting tangents after a prolonged set-up over the first few episodes. The hi-def image is excellent; extras include deleted scenes and six featurettes.

Detour 
We Are X
(Magnet)
In Detour, a straitlaced young man goes on a drinking bender and finds himself “befriended” by a crazed redneck and his stripper girlfriend; too bad that this derivative road-trip drama is not nearly as interesting as writer-director Christopher Smith thinks. We Are X is NOT a documentary about the legendary L.A. punk band but instead a fascinating look at the popular Japanese rock outfit that’s been led for decades by Yoshiki, an intense and conflicted artist. Both films have exemplary hi-def transfers; extras are deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and (on We Are X) live performances and a fan video.

A Dog’s Purpose
(Universal)
Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s best-selling novel, this sanctimoniously sappy drama about a reincarnated dog’s various lives with various owners—good, bad and indifferent—is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that makes no bones about rubbing our noses in its canine cuteness and tear-inducing melodrama. Adorable dogs notwithstanding, director Lasse Hallstrom has come a long way (down) from his breakthrough classic, My Life as a Dog, for which he got Oscar nominations for writing and directing way back in 1988. The film has a natural look on Blu; extras include deleted scenes, outtakes and two featurettes.

The Rounders 
Spencer’s Mountain
(Warner Archive)
Henry Fonda, in a long career, made several forgettable movies. Like these two: 1964’s The Rounders teams Fonda and Glenn Ford in a frivolous western about a couple of aging cowboys dealing with a bucking bronco. 1963’s Spencer’s Mountain—a predecessor to The Waltons—finds Fonda playing a father of nine in this sweetly unassuming if too saccharine family drama. Both films have luminous hi-def transfers; Spencer extras are vintage featurette and vintage Fonda interviews.

The Wheeler Dealers
From Hell It Came
(Warner Archive)
1963’s The Wheeler Dealers is a harmless and rather pointless Arthur Hiller romantic comedy with an amusing James Garner as a typical Texas millionaire and glamorous Lee Remick as a hard-edged New York gal who falls for him. 1957’s From Hell It Came has one of the most absurd monsters ever—half-man, half-tree—terrorizing whoever crosses its path. It’s so bad that it might be worth a look just for its extreme lousiness, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. The hi-def transfers are excellent.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Broadway Musical Reviews—“Bandstand” and “Anastasia”

Bandstand
Book & lyrics by Robert Taylor & Richard Oberacher; music by Richard Oberacher
Directed & choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Opened April 26, 2017
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
bandstandbroadway.com

Anastasia
Book by Terrence McNally; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Opened April 24, 2017
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street
anastasiabroadway.com

Laura Osnes in Bandstand (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
I saw Bandstand in 2015 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse as The Bandstand. Losing its definite article isn’t the only change for Broadway, as this sentimental but affecting musical about a group of bebop-playing WWII vets from Cleveland who enter a songwriting contest that takes them to Manhattan has dropped some fat and added more inventive movement courtesy of director (and Tony-winning Hamilton choreographer) Andy Blankenbuehler.

But its ace in the hole remains Laura Osnes, who plays Julia, widow of a soldier killed in the war who starts singing with the band after Donnie Nowitski—her husband’s closest friend in the army who was in the foxhole when he was killed—checks in on her as he promised he would.

Osnes is the emotional center of a show that also generously allows each of the bandsmen—scarred by the war in his own way—to work out his demons by playing the music he loves. And Blankenbuehler has ingeniously visualized those ghosts and the weight on each vet’s shoulders with astonishingly effective choreographed movements.

Richard Oberacher’s toe-tappingly swing-inflected music at times digs into a well of melody and emotion, notably for the mournful but exhilarating climax, “Welcome Home,” which Osnes knocks out of the park with her impassioned, nakedly soul-baring vocal performance.

Corey Cott is a likable piano-playing Donnie, Beth Leavel a sturdy presence as Julia’s mom (still a thankless role, unfortunately) and the actors playing the band members—Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, Nate Hopkins, Geoff Packard and Joey Peroa, all playing their own instruments—give as good as they get as dramatic and musical foils.

But it’s up to Osnes—backed by fierce instrumental backing by the onstage sextet—to bring Bandstand home by putting us through an emotional wringer for a few glorious moments.

Christy Altomare in Anastasia (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Anastasia is the latest critic-proof Broadway musical. I don’t know how long it will run, but the legions of satisfied youngsters in the audience—how many parents can afford to pay Broadway prices to bring their kids to see it?—demonstrate that it’s being done right. At least for them.

Based on two movies—the 1956 drama for which Ingrid Bergman won the Best Actress Oscar and the 1997 animated movie with Meg Ryan, of all people, voicing the title character—the musical is a hodgepodge that never decides on a direct course but instead meanders, hoping to keep both kids and parents happy. Six songs (including the Act I climax, “Journey to the Past”) are from the 1997 version, and the rest are new, undistinguished ones from the same team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

Terrence McNally’s rambling book precariously balances outright fantasy (Anastasia survived the Russian royal family’s 1917 slaughter by the Bolsheviks) and historical drama (Gleb, a Bolshevik apparatchik, tracks down Anya, a girl who purports to be Anastasia, and is caught between his duty and his attraction to her).

Despite the silliness, director Darko Tresnjak’s staging is filled with handsome trappings: dreamy ballet choreographed by Peggy Hickey, enticing costumes by Linda Cho, agreeable sets by Alexander Dodge and, best of all, consistently imaginative projections by Aaron Rhyne which make liberal use of HD photography to show off two of the world’s most beautiful cities, St. Petersburg/Leningrad and Paris, where the action is set. Too bad the show is longer than it needs to be: at least 20 minutes could be cut, like the lame attempts at humor, endless ballroom scenes, and appearances by the ghosts of the dead Czar’s family to haunt our heroine’s dreams.

As Anya, supple-voiced Christy Altomare credibly transforms from street-sweeper with amnesia to elegant princess. Derek Klena’s Dmitry, who falls for Anya, is appealingly goofy, and John Bolton’s Vlad—Dmitry’s friend—gets the most out of his comic moments. As Gleb, Ramin Karimloo looks uncertain but compensates with strong singing, and Mary Beth Peil’s regal Dowager Empress doesn’t condescend to her part or the material.

Overlong, not tuneful enough, too derivative: Anastasia is all that and more. But for those who just want a pretty package, it will do nicely.