Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June '15 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
(Arthaus Musik)
Richard Strauss's second opera, while nowhere near as memorable as the masterpieces Elektra and Salome (which followed and made his career), contains enough of the composer's typically sumptuous melodies and signature vocal writing to make it worth hearing, and this 2014 Palmero, Italy, staging does the job. Thanks to heroic singing by Nicola Beller Carbone and Dietrich Hentschel as the central lovers, it's a pleasantly diverting musical experience. The Blu-ray looks fine, the music sounds tremendou, and the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Forger
If John Travolta isn't very credible as an expert art forger working on a new project (a famous Monet canvas) while dealing with his grumpy father and terminal ill son in Philip Martin's middling melodrama, there's partial compensation in the supporting performances. Christopher Plummer makes an amusingly grizzled grandfather and Tye Sheridan a  believable dying teen, while Jennifer Ehle has a nice cameo as the kid's estranged mother and Abigail Spencer punches up an underwritten detective role. The movie looks sharp on Blu; lone extra is a short featurette.

Get Hard 
(Warner Brothers)
When you pair Will Farrell and Kevin Hart in a movie about a rich banker going to prison who hires a thug (so he thinks) to prep him for the big house, you know exactly what you'll get: a lot of racial—if not outright racist—jokes and gags, many going on too long for meager comic returns, especially in the longer uncut version. Director Etan Cohen knows what viewers want, so lets Farrell and Hart go through their usual shtick, providing hearty laughs amid the dross. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and Farrell and Hart interviews.

The Happiness of the Katakuris 
(Arrow USA)
Even by the usual standards of Japanese director Takashi Miike, The Katakuris (2001) is demented and daffy, its surrealist touches, claymation sequences, song-and-dance numbers and even karaoke scenes adding up to a lot of initial delight but, since it shoots its black-comic wad early, it becomes a limping, draggy farce by its end. Those movie buffs who are on Miike's wavelength will no doubt get more out of it than the rest of us; it must be said that you won't see anything like it, for better or (mostly) worse. The Blu-ray image sparkles; extras include a Miike commentary and interview, making-of documentary and cast interviews.

I Am Evel Knievel 
(Virgil Films)
In the 1970s, among the most famous men in the world was a death-defying motorcycle-jumping stuntman who made headlines even when he failed spectacularly, as when he fell into the Snake River Canyon or crushed many bones attempting to jump 13 buses. Evel Knievel the icon is profiled in this hagiographic but still interesting documentary by directors Derik Murray and David Ray: his sons, wives, fans and friends (like Matthew McCoanughery, Kid Rock and Guy Fieri) attest to his being a rock-solid symbol of the American pursuit of happiness. The hi-def image looks decent; extras are two featurettes.

This action flick, directed by James McTeigue (who made his debut with V for Vendetta), makes scant sense, but once it gets going—after special agent Milla Jovovich, lone survivor of an explosive attack, is simultaneously tracked by and tracking assassin Pierce Brosnan—it rarely lets up during its diverting 90-minute running time. The finale, set in Times Square on New Year's Eve, stretches credulity to the breaking point, but so what? This definition of mindless fun looks superb on Blu-ray. Extras comprise a featurette and deleted scenes.

The Who—Live at Shea Stadium 1982
Rolling Stones From the Vault—The Marquee Club 1971
(Eagle Rock)
The Who's final tour as a functioning band—for its underrated It's Hard album in 1982—stopped at Shea Stadium for two nights; this hard-hitting two-hour show, mixing then-new and classic tunes like "Eminence Front," "Cry If You Want" and a Quadrophenia medley, was filmed the second night. Roger Daltrey's vocals had toughness and feel he's since lost, Pete Townshend was in exceptional wind-milling form, and John Entwistle's bass and Kenney Jones' drums were in lockstep throughout. Extras comprise five songs from the first night at Shea.

The Rolling Stones were at their peak at the time of this 1971 London concert, even if it's only 8 songs in 38 minutes (with 4 songs from the yet unreleased Sticky Fingers showcased): Mick's cutting vocals, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor's guitar interplay and the rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts take center stage. The accompanying CD includes the same tracks; extras are alternative takes of "Bitch" and "I Got the Blues." 

DVDs of the Week
Marcel Ophuls and Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais 
Legendary directors Marcel Ophuls and Jean-Luc Godard sat down for a discussion in Geneva, Switzerland, which begins by Godard's childhood reminiscences of World War II after seeing Ophuls' classic 1972 documentary epic The Sorrow and the Pity, which prompts Ophuls to candidly discuss the film's initial hostile reception in France. The two men's engaging 45-minute conversation about their films and their lives remains fascinating throughout, especially for fans of the directors, although it has the feel of a DVD extra rather than its own full-fledged release.

(Film Movement)
Aidan Gillen's excellent portrayal of Tom, a man whose life has unraveled since his beloved teenage son died in a tragic car crash, provides the emotional center of director Simon Blake's atmospheric, hard-hitting thriller. The intensity of Gillen's acting is sometimes difficult to watch, but it's equally difficult to look away from, especially when events spin out of control once Tom becomes embroiled in a local gang feud. Extras are deleted scenes and Gillen/Blake interviews.

Stop The Pounding Heart 
(Big World Pictures)
In this slow-moving but absorbing hybrid of documentary and unscripted drama, director Roberto Minervini introduces a strictly religious couple and their 12 children who live on a farm in the American South: the kids are home-schooled, and we watch as teenage daughter Sara deals with unknown feelings after she meets a young man. Sara's confusion over what her own faith and her parents taught her provides Minervini with the heart of his film, and with utmost delicacy he creates a low-key, uncondescending exploration of an insular community; in Sara Carlson he has found the perfect vessel for his spiritually questioning filmmaking. 

CD of the Week
Isabel Leonard—Preludios
It’s not surprising that American mezzo Isabel Leonard’s new recital CD comprises songs from Spain; the daughter of an Argentine mother, Leonard loves singing in Spanish, and it shows throughout this recording in her ebullient performances, whether it's the songs of the great Manuel de Falla or folk tunes from poet Federico Garcia Lorca. It’s also nice to hear Frederico Mompou and Enrique Granados, while Xavier Montsalvatge’s masterly cycle, Cinco canciones negras (Five Black Songs) shows off Brian Zeger’s sensitive piano accompaniment and Leonard’s natural exuberance singing this music. It’s true that Cinco is the go-to Montsalvatge, even though he composed so many other enduring, but rarely heard, songs. But any spotlight on this Catalan master is  always welcome, and Leonard’s vocal beauty makes the entire disc a must-hear.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Music Review—The New York Philharmonic's Finale(s)

New York Philharmonic
Performances June 10-13, 17-24, 2015
Various locations, New York, NY

Honegger—Jeanne d'arc au bucher/Joan of Arc at the Stake (Alpha DVD)

Cotillard (center) in Joan of Arc at the Stake (photo: Chris Lee)
The New York Philharmonic ended its current season with indoor and outdoor finales: an overdue Avery Fisher Hall hearing of Arthur Honegger's emotive oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake with a powerful Marion Cotillard was followed by 50th anniversary celebrations of the orchestra's city parks concerts (with a final indoor concert on Staten Island).

Cotillard was the main draw for the Honegger concert, and she did not disappoint, finding expressivity and subtlety in the title speaking role of the French teenager condemned to death for heresy in 1431. But Honegger's vibrant oratorio, sensitively played by the Philharmonic under music director Alan Gilbert, is the real deal: unafraid to combine high and low, sacred and profane, secular and liturgical in his majestic setting of Paul Claudel's poetic text, Honegger provides heroic musical moments for two choruses, soloists, speakers and orchestral players. 

It's too bad that this unimpeachable work was so clunkily directed by Côme de Bellescize, who takes what Honegger's music so slyly, even sarcastically alludes to—the jury as sheep, the judge a pig, the secretary an ass—then adds cartoonish costumes and a leaden way of unnecessarily literalizing everything to make a far from ideal staging of this eloquent masterpiece. 

To better experience Cotillard's sublime portrayal in Honegger's towering oratorio, track down the new
DVD on the Alpha label (right) of a 2012 Barcelona performance: his emotional music and her brave, fearless portrayal shine through far more than in Bellescize's trendy staging. And the close-ups of Cotillard's tear-filled face at the finale are far more satisfying than straining to watch her standing behind the orchestra at the rear of the Avery Fisher stage during the climax.

A few days later in Central Park, Charles Dutoit conducted a program of French music and Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet. The mood was festive right from the opener, Hector Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, while Camille Saint-Saëns' Third Violin Concerto had Renaud Capuçon as the triumphant soloist. After intermission, Petrushka and Ravel's La Valse were played to appreciative applause, even if it was nearly impossible to hear the subtleties of Stravinsky outdoors.

But that quibble couldn't ruin a beautiful night, capped as it was by a rousing fireworks display.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

June '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Beyond the Reach 
The premise of Jean-Baptiste Leonetti's singleminded thriller—after ultra-rich businessman (Michael Douglas) inadvertently kills a local man while hunting, his guide (Jeremy Irvine) refuses to go along with the cover story and ends up being chased down in the desert—is stretched thin even with its scant 90-minute running time. Douglas relishes playing such an odious character, while Irvine flexes his biceps throughout; the cat-and-mouse action is diverting enough, if unmemorable. The movie looks good on Blu-ray, and the extras are a Douglas/Leonetti commentary and a making-of featurette.

The Cat Returns 
Spirited Away 
The magical Studio Ghibli animation stable continues re-releasing its innovative and visual inventive films on wonderful hi-def discs. 2002's The Cat Returns is a charming tale of a young girl who enters a feline world after saving a cat prince from certain death, but 2001's Spirited Away—one of Hayao Miyazaki's best—is another beast entirely. Concerning a young girl (again) whose parents become pigs, it's a breathtaking phantasmagoria about a fantastic, forbidding but enticing world that only Miyazaki could have imagined. Both Blu-rays look exquisite; extras from the original DVD releases are included.

The Fisher King 
Terry Gilliam's 1991 fantasy is, despite the bravura lunacy going on around his main characters, his most heartfelt film: the sympathetic portrayals by Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges and Mercedes Ruehl (who won a deserved Oscar) keeps the drama earthbound and intelligible even when Richard LaGravenese's script threatens to go off the rails. Gilliam's dazzling direction juggles the bizarre fantastical stuff and the humanity underneath in a way unequalled in his other films, while his outlandish visuals look spectacular on Criterion's new hi-def transfer; extras feature Gilliam's commentary; new interviews with Gilliam, LaGravenese, Bridges, Ruehl and Amanda Plummer; 2006 Williams interview; and deleted scenes with Gilliam commentary.

The Lazarus Effect 
In a university lab, as a pair of married scientists and their assistants work on re-animating dead animals, the husband's beloved partner is accidentally electrocuted...so he forces the reluctant assistants to bring her back to life. There are consequences, obviously, when she returns: the lab itself becomes a place where death is inevitable. A serviceable premise leads to a guilty-pleasure horror flick, an 80-minute Twilight Zone ripoff that hits on familiar, and cheap, scare tactics. The always dull Mark Duplass plays the husband; the always lively Olivia Wilde plays the wife. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras are featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.

The Sunshine Boys 
(Warner Archive)
George Burns won the 1975 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a retired vaudevillian making a last attempt at performing with his ex-partner, played by Walter Matthau; I don't know if it's the tired material, Neil Simon's scattershot script or Herbert Ross's stilted directing, but neither Burns nor Matthau are very interesting in this frenetic, trite and mean-spirited look at show biz friendship/hateship. Richard Benjamin, who gives the movie's most fully realized performance as Matthau's exasperated nephew-agent, also provides a commentary full of fond reminiscing about the movie, which looks OK on Blu. Other extras are screen tests and an MGM featurette.

(Cohen Film Collection)
Abderrahmane Sissako's daring, even startling study of how terrorism affects everyday life is set in the eponymous African city, where ordinary people go about their business despite being harassed by local Muslim fanatics who want the world to revolve around their seventh-century vision of their religion. Sissako's film, despite its pessimistic premise, is filled with humor and humanity, especially in his depictions of women, seen as far more hardy than the men on either side of the conflict. The movie looks gorgeous in hi-def; lone extra is a half-hour New York Film Festival press conference. 

Welcome to Me 
Kristen Wiig plays another of her troubled characters in Shira Piven's offbeat black comedy about a woman who wins the lottery, goes off her meds and transforms herself into her own version of Oprah, who does the most outrageous things in front of live and TV audiences. While the one-joke plot doesn't leave much wiggle room for three-dimensional characterizations, Wiig gives her usual intense performance, although a touch of the smugness has crept into her acting since leaving SNL. The Blu-ray looks decent; lone extra is a making of featurette.

(Warner Archive)
This patently ludcrous 1981 horror film about—I kid you not—Native Americans who turn into supernatural wolves and tear apart unsuspecting victims in New York City is not the finest hour for anyone involved. Director Michael Wadleigh, who made Woodstock, shows a less than sure touch; Albert Finney, Gregory Hines and Diane Venora look embarrassed to be involved; and Manhattan itself, whose locations are utilized extensively, shows off plenty of awe-inspiring shots of the late, lamented World Trade Center, courtesy of cinematographer Gerry Fisher, also responsible for the risible thermo-night photography that's supposed to be the creatures' POV. The movie looks surprisingly good, and grainy, on Blu-ray.

DVDs of the Week
Manuel de Falla—When the Fire Burns/Nights in the Garden of Spain 
Barbara Hannigan—Concert/Documentary 
These DVD releases pair musician portraits and concert performances. Manuel de Falla—When the Fire Burns features an emotional overview of the life and art of Spain's greatest 20th century composer, who died in Argentina in 1946 (he left home when Franco's fascist regime took over); there's a scintillating performance of his masterpiece Nights in the Garden of Spain with pianist Alicia de Larrocha as soloist. Barbara Hannigan—Concert/Documentary introduces the tremendously talented Canadian soprano whose specialty is fiendishly difficult modern music; the 51-minute documentary shows a versatile singer branching out into conducting, while the 71-minute 2014 concert—in which she conducts and sings Mozart and Ligeti, whose stratospheric Mysteries of the Macabre is a Hannigan calling card—rounds out a thoughtful glimpse at a brilliant artist. 

Me Without You 
(First Run)
Thrilling performances by Michelle Williams and Anna Friel as opposites who become long-time friends, then drift apart over the years, dominate Sandra Goldbacher's engaging and lively 2001 comedy-drama. Although tied down by melodramatic subplots involving families and romantic relationships, Williams' mousy Holly and Friel as the gregarious Marina make this a intimate journey through the lives of two ordinary but extraordinary women.

Roman de Gare 
(First Run)
Claude Lelouch, whose career pretty much consisted of A Man and a Woman in 1966, made this quirkily involving mystery in 2006, when he attempted a comeback against all odds: he made the movie using a pseudonym so no one would know it was he. Despite an accomplished cast headed by Fanny Ardant, Dominique Pinon and Audrey Dana, Lelouch and co-writer Pierre Uytterhoeven twist themselves into pretzels making their jumbled storyline about a famous writer, her ghost writer and an escaped serial killer into something meaningful. It remains interesting, but its varied strands start to unravel as it goes along.

That Show with Joan Rivers 
(Film Chest)
In the late '60s when she was still a promising young comedienne, Joan Rivers hosted her own talk show on the local NBC affiliate in New York, and 29 episodes from the first season in 1968-9 are included on four discs; they show an already formidable comedic force with scathing observations about everything from marriage to being a young Jewish woman in New York. Her guest list is also quite impressive, ranging from Ed Sullivan and Barbara Walters to James Earl Jones and even Johnny Carson, her long-time friend who was her biggest booster then quickly turned to stone whenever her name was mentioned. 

CDs of the Week
Keith Jarrett—Barber/Bartok Concertos 
Creation (ECM)
Composer-pianist Keith Jarrett, who recently turned 70, has straddled the classical and jazz worlds for decades, shown by two new CDs that bring together some of his live recordings from the mid '80s and from last year. On the classical disc, he  performs 20th century concerto masterworks by Barber and Bartok in concerts from 1984 and 1985, along with his own brief improvised encore, with enthusiasm and discipline. On Creation, nine of his own improvisational solo pieces—performed at different concerts in 2014 and sequenced on the disc to mimic a large-scale work—unfortunately sound half-baked, without much variety despite the obvious virtuosity that Jarrett brings to his playing.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Theater Reviews—Sam Waterston in 'The Tempest' in Central Park; Chris Noth in 'Doctor Faustus' Off-Broadway

The Tempest
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Michael Greif
Performances through July 5, 2015
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Doctor Faustus
Adapted by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader, from the play by Christopher Marlowe; directed by Andrei Belgrader
Performances through July 12, 2015
Classic Stage Company, 123 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Waterston and Carpanini in The Tempest (photo: Joan Marcus)
Whether or not The Tempest represents Shakespeare’s symbolic leave-taking of the theatre, there's no denying its powerful evocation of the theatrical magic conjured for audiences by performers and creators. But for this Central Park staging, director Michael Greif comes to grief right from the storm that starts the exiled Duke Prospero's plot machinations in motion. 

Heretofore foolproof comic bits of the island's monster Caliban and clowns Trinculo and Stephano are off-handedly offered; the scenes among the shipwrecked survivors are handled in a desultory manner; the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand palls; and the masque accompanying their wedding is a shambles despite astounding gymnastics.

Greif has set designer Riccardo Hernandez erect the director's adored scaffolding, which never suggests the play's glistening isle; costume designer Emily Rebholz has created drab clothing for everyone, while bafflingly giving the same leather vest to both Caliban and Prospero's sprite Ariel; and composer Michael Friedman, whose banging percussion is part of a burgeoning onstage cliche, supplies songs and incidental music of forgettable quality. At least lighting designer David Lander does achieve some illuminating moments of visual poetry.

Trinculo and Stephano's comic relief is crudely provided by the usually able Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Danny Mastrogiorgio. Ariel and Caliban can played any number of ways, except as here: Chris Perfetti's Ariel is a disastrous mess, while Louis Cancelmi's Caliban is impressive in his physical contortions, far less so in his mealy-mouthed way of speaking.  Although Juilliard student Francesca Carpanini is a fetching, well-spoken Miranda, Ferdinand is played by Rodney Richardson, who tends to unnecessarily bark or shout his lines. He does provide an audience-pleasing flip, however.

Finally, there's Sam Waterston's Prospero. Anyone who saw him as King Lear a few seasons back shouldn't be surprised that he can't do Prospero properly either: his croaking voice is all wrong for Shakespeare's poetry, his odd enunciations are distracting, as are his pauses and stressing syllables in the wrong places. He also has no sense of the majesty, pathos, resentment and, finally, forgiveness in Prospero: he's best at hopping giddily when his machinations are working to bring Miranda and Ferdinand together. 

I didn't expect Waterston to approach the best Prospero I've seen, Christopher Plummer, but I hoped that this stage veteran could at least make a respectable showing. I was wrong.

Noth and Grenier in Doctor Faustus (photo: Joan Marcus)
I don't know if Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus can still work onstage at this late date, but I can empahtically state that, as adapted by David Bridel and this production's director Andrei Belgrader, it most assuredly cannot. 

Marlowe's 17th century take on the Faustian legend explores what awaits those who, like Faustus, get bored with life and sell their soul for a chance at immortality. Belgrader turns this still rich ore into a messy staging that never decides if it wants to be an update to the supposedly enlightened 21st century or a sitcom-level spoof of the play's more dated elements: instead, it keeps a foot in both camps, making for a protracted, fitfully amusing but mainly dull pageant. (The continuous attempts at audience participation underline Belgrader's desperation, as if viewers will enjoy what they're watching more if they are part of it.)

Zach Grenier nicely underplays Mephistopheles as a tired demon,  resigned to dealing with men like Faust and forcing himself to feign interest. Chris Noth—who certainly looks the part of the intelligent but arrogant man of science who wants spice in his life, his soul be damned—finds humor in Faust, although, thanks to Belgrader's misdirecting, only fleetingly projects the protagonist's complexity. Lithe dancer Marina Lazzaretto disrobing as Helen of Troy perks things up at the end, but this misbegotten Faustus never gives the devil, or Marlowe, his due.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

June '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Yet another perceptive coming-of-age exploration by French director Celine Sciamma—whose earlier wonderful movies about children, Water Lilies and Tomboy, are classics of a kind—Girlhood follows black teenagers living in the projects outside Paris, zeroing on Marieme, whose abusive older brother causes her to join a group of "cool" girls. The alternating exhilaration and confusion of adolescence is dramatized with liveliness and sympathy by Sciamma, and Karidja Touré’s Marieme is a protagonist of charming awkwardness that makes this another painfully truthful portrait by who now can be considered a major director. The Blu-ray image looks sharp; lone extra is a Karidja Touré interview.

A Master Builder 
My Dinner with Andre 
(Criterion Collection)
The pairing of playwright-actor Wallace Shawn and playwright-director Andre Gregory always fills me with dread, from their cinematic collaborations with Louis Malle to their New York stage work. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt with their latest, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Master Builder, gestating for 17 years and finally filmed by Jonathan Demme, who gives an otherwise risible production a professional gloss. Updating a problematic play provides no illumination, and Shawn himself is disastrous as the bitter aging architect; slightly better are Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce and Larry Pine.

Then there's My Dinner with Andre, the self-indulgent 1981 film directed by Louis Malle that brought Shawn and Gregory fleetingly into the cultural spotlight, recounting the men's catching up on old times and discussing topics of supposed intellectual heft. Some find it life-changing; I find little of interest. The Criterion transfers are superlative; extras feature new and vintage interviews. 

Run All Night 
(Warner Bros)
In this violent tale of revenge and honor killing, Liam Neeson plays a longtime hitman on the run one last time: he's killed the shady son of an old friend and mob boss and now tries to clear his own estranged son's name while taking the fall himself. Director Jaume Collet-Serra stylishly stages car chases and shoot-outs that border on the ludicrous; but despite the script's many holes, a committed cast brings it home: along with the usual laconic Neeson, there's Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Common and the criminally underused Genesis Rodriguez. The movie's nighttime grit transfers well to Blu-ray; extras comprise featurettes and deleted scenes.

Slash Live at the Roxy 
(Eagle Rock)
At the legendary L.A. club The Roxy, Slash and his band The Conspirators—which includes his own ace in the hole, singer Myles Kennedy—blast through 17 songs (13 in the main concert and 4 bonus tracks), many from the new album World on Fire with a couple from Velvet Revolver and the rest from a certain band Slash was in 20-plus years ago. With Kennedy's controlled banshee-like vocals leading the way (he can sound like Axl Rose without imitating him outright), and with Slash's memorable riffs and ultra-melodic solos, this is crushing hard rock at its best: standouts are "Rocket Queen" and "World on Fire." The Blu-ray image and sound are first rate, but obviously the bonus songs should be part of the concert proper.

Wild Tales 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Argentine director Damian Szifron's omnibus film comprising six exaggerated stories of vicious vengeance is not as clever as it thinks it is, as Szifron reverts to obvious Twilight Zone-hammering irony at every turn (including a real hammer at a pivotal point in one story), despite each self-contained episode being extremely well-shot and well-acted. The opening pre-credit sequence works superbly as a tasty intro, and the final demented wedding reception is hilariously nasty, but the other four are bludgeoning and shrill "ironic" tales of ordinary madness. The movie looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras are making-of and Toronto Film Festival footage.

DVDs of the Week
Generation Baby Buster 
(Cinema Libre)
As director Terra Renton notes, not every woman wants to get pregnant, and Renton’s very personal documentary explores the stories of some who've decided to do (or not do) just that, despite the still prevalent ostracizing by our society over such extremely private decisions. Renton talks with everyone from childhood experts to those, like her, who remain child-free, and it’s her presence, steely but willing to hear all sides, that makes this a most engaging documentary on a thorny subject. Extras comprise additional interviews.

King Lear 
Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen has written some of the most strikingly original operas of the past 40 years—notably his first two, The Horseman and The Red Line—and he continues his winning streak with his dramatically piercing adaptation of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy: unlike German Aribert Reimann's Lear (a notable example of atonalism), Sallinen writes in a thoroughly melodic if astringent musical idiom. His operatic equivalences of the Bard's poetically diabolical crushing of every possible light in the darkness is evident in the accomplished writing and performers like Matti Salminen as Lear, Lilli Paasikivi as daughter Cordelia and Aki Alamikkotervo as the Fool, which allow Sallinen's brave gamble to work brilliantly in this 2002 Helsinki world premiere production. 

180 Days—Hartsville 
In the second installment of a PBS series exploring the precarious current state of American education, Jacquie Jones and Garland McLaurin's two-part documentary spends a full year among students and faculty in Hartsville, South Carolina, to shine a light on a public school system that, despite a district that is in abject poverty, has a 92% graduation rate. Such an anomaly is not a one-off: despite the success of the local schools, the district’s new superintendent rightly worries about how students who are graded by standardized testing can survive in an increasingly non-standardized 21st century world environment.

CD of the Week
An American in Paris—Original Broadway Cast Recording 
(Masterworks Broadway)
What was really the best musical of the just-completed Broadway season (sorry, Fun Home), An American in Paris not only stars two dizzyingly talented triple-threat dancer-actor-singers Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, but also features George Gershwin’s glorious music, head and shoulders above anything being composed by today’s practitioners on the Great White Way. In addition to timeless tunes like “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “’S Wonderful,” there are the instrumental pieces like the classic title ballet, which showcases Rob Fisher’s arrangements and Christopher Austin’s Tony-winning orchestrations. Of course, since this is primarily a dancing show—Christopher Wheeldon rightly won the Best Choreography Tony Award but was robbed for Best Director—the music is only half of what makes it such a masterly musical, but that half is touched by pure genius.    

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

June '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Camp X-Ray 
Guantanamo Bay is the setting for writer-director Peter Sattler's straightforward account of the unlikely friendship between a female American soldier and a Muslim man she guards inside the notorious prison. Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi give strong portrayals of the confused young woman and equally bemused detainee who discover their common humanity; too bad Sattler's weakness for repetition makes for a saggy midsection: 15 to 20 minutes could have been cut. The hi-def transfer looks superb; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

The Duff 
An amusing riff on high school a la John Hughes, The Duff stands for "Designated Ugly or Fat Friend," which is what Bianca discovers she is as while navigating the land mines of high school's hallways, classrooms and online bullying. It's funny despite an obvious moral hammered home at the end, with a percolating cast led by Mae Whitman as Bianca, Skyler Samuels and Bianca Santos as her prettier friends and Bella Thorne, who effortlessly embodies the hottest girl in school. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras include gag reel and featurettes.

Island of Death 
In director Nico Mastorakis's demented 1976 horror flick Island of Death, a weirdly religious couple visits the Greek isle of Mykynos and proceeds to kill everybody immoral, irreligious or plain not worth living; its insane plot and laughably bad acting aside, there's a certain chuztapah to the inventive murderous ways, including a beheading, a hanging from a flying airplane and impaling a nude woman on a blade through a door. Society, Brian Yuzna's 1989 gore-splattered mess, has an absolutely lunatic finale in which the hero improbably escapes—maybe to set up a sequel that mercifully never came. One point of interst is Devin Devasquez, a Playboy playmate who showed off her best attributes. Both movies look properly grainy on Blu-ray; extras comprise interviews and featurettes.

Killing Jesus 
Bill O'Reilly's "killing" cash cow, which has already done in Lincoln, Kennedy and Patton, goes after even bigger game in this stillborn adaptation of his best-selling book about the crucifixion of Christ that adds nothing dramatically, philosophically or cinematically to what we've seen onscreen for deacdes, from King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told to The Passion of the Christ. Lacking the grandiosity of the reverent Biblical epics and the out-and-out sadism of Mel Gibson's movie (although it tries), the movie also features a blank slate in Haaz Sleiman's Jesus, although Pontius Pilate—a foolproof role—is well-played by Stephen Moyer. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.

The Pillow Book 
(Film Movement Classics)
Peter Greenaway's 1996 Tokyo-set drama of vengeful calligraphy written on men's bodies was the beginning of his fall from arthouse grace following the extreme violence of The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover and The Baby of Macon: its unwieldy mix of visual experimentation, eclectic music from U2 to Japanese songs and Greenaway's own formal elegance never coheres into anything beyond empty if stimulating images. The Blu-ray—with a new Greenaway commentary covering the first 38 of the film's 127 minutes—has a transfer which shows the varied aspect ratios within the square 1.33:1 frame, cutting down considerably the visual information one can see. Too bad the hi-def transfer isn't like that for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which utilized the entire 16:9 widescreen for its varied ratios.

Thank Your Lucky Stars 
(Warner Archive)
This 1943 musical revue fills its two-hour running time with appearances by the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, some of whom (Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Errol Flynn) might be surprising in this context, while others—Bette Davis, Dinah Shore, Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith—make it a glittering paean to the Great American Songbook. The enjoyable musical numbers are the main interest of this embodiment of the era's "that's entertainment!" type of moviemaking. The restored film looks perfect on hi-def; extras comprise vintage cartoons, shorts and a radio broadcast.

DVDs of the Week
(Music Box)
Writer-director-star Ronit Elkabetz and her brother, co-writer-director Shlomi, have made a remarkably gripping study of the difficulties middle-aged Viviane has getting a divorce (or gett) from her husband in Israel. Humanizing a managerie of characters—Viviane, her husband, her lawyer, his brother/court representative and the three-man panel of judges—the talented siblings' stunning look at how modern society butts heads with ancient law gives as much weight to their characters' pauses, silences and gestures as they do the words that alternately wound and heal. Extras comprise a making-of featurette and interviews.

Once a Thief 
(Warner Archive)
The grit and grime of working-class criminals underscores this 1965 cop drama about a former thief tempted with one last big score by his brother while a relentless detective bears down on him, his innocent wife and young daughter. The screws are tightened by Ralph Nelson's taut direction and Zekial Marko's precsise script (based on his own novel), and even if the finale is too convoluted, the acting by Alain Delon, Van Heflin, Jack Palance and Ann-Margret help finesse the plot holes to keep things moving. 

Pretty Little Liars—Complete 5th Season 
(Warner Bros)
Aria, Emily, Hanna and Spencer are joined by Alison—presumed dead last season—to find answers to seemingly unanswerable questions, as the mysteries continue unabated for what is now a quintet of "liars" in the popular ABC Family series' fifth season. The five-disc set, which includes 25 episodes, also contains a plethora of bonus features: several featurettes, cast interviews, a look inside the series' 100th episode, a fan appreciation episode and deleted scenes.

Tough Being Loved By Jerks 
(Kino Lorber)
Daniel Leconte’s account of the 2007 trial of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo after being sued over its publication of cartoons deemed offensive to Muslims has an added poignance after the horrific January events when its editorial staff was cut down by extremists. (Many of those interviewed by Leconte are now dead.) Leconte's cameras record editorial meetings where cartoons, columns and cover art are discussed, and he sits down with everyone involved—from editors and cartoonists to aggrieved Muslims—to arrive at a thorough overview of a still-volatile subject, allowing all sides to speak openly.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"The Way We Get By," "Permission"

The Way We Get By
Written by Neil LaBute; directed by Leigh Silverman
Closes June 21, 2015
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Written by Robert Askins; directed by Alex Timbers
Closes June 14, 2015
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York, NY

Seyfried and Sadoski in The Way We Get By (photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Neil LaBute has made a career out of random shocks, but his latest The Way We Get By makes it look as if the well is running dry. Positioned somewhere between earlier taboo-busters as Wrecks and Fat Pig and recent LaBute-lite works like Reasons to Be Pretty, the new play is pleasantly bland but ultimately forgettable.

After covering incest with Wrecks, LaBute kinda sorta returns to the subject with his two-hander about the aftermath of a one-night stand between Doug and Beth, twenty-somethings who tiptoe around each other the next morning until they finally confront an inescapable fact that will impact their decision to become a couple. For 80 minutes, they sift through their feelings, fears and personal histories, all to little avail because, in LaBute's hands, their story has all the urgency and excitement of watching the mirowave heat up one's leftovers. 

Lame jokes about Doug's Star Wars t-shirt (which Beth wears after their night of sex) and Beth's annoying unseen roommate garner easy chuckles, but the psychology of two people unsure of where they stand in their relationship is bypassed for facile moments like Doug guiltily stopping Beth from going down on him, even though they just had a wild night of satisfying sex. 

LaBute's facility with dialogue sounds, in its hemming and hawing, like twenty-somethings earnestly trying to break through their inarticulateness, while Amanda Seyfried and Thomas Sadoski give engaged and engaging performances. Leigh Silverman adroitly directs on Neil Patel's perfect apartment set, but Doug and Beth's morning-after predicament remains less than earth-shattering.

The cast of Permission (photo: Jenny Anderson)
Permission emanates from the pen of Texan playwright Robert Askins, who wrote the Tony-nominated Hand to God. Askins undoubtedly knows the people about whom he writes, and he has a genuinely skewered perspective: but Hand to God trafficked in juvenile humor and Permission unfortunately follows suit.

Friends Eric and Zach and their wives Cynthia and Michelle are eating dinner at Zach's home:  when Eric and Cynthia see Zach spanking Michelle for percevied indiscretions, they discover that CDD, Christian Domestic Discipline, is being practiced and start using it themselves. Eric is also interested in Jeanie, his cute student assistant at the local college where he is acting head of the Computer Science department, and soon finds himself juggling a willingly disciplined Cynthia, a reluctantly discplining Zach and a confused Jeanie, who believes she's joining a swinging marriage cult after her tryst with Eric.

As in Hand to God, Askins treats a valid comic subject in a trashy way; the earlier play copped cheap laughs from its foul-mouthed hand puppet, and Permission is no less risible. Rather than explore the mingling of religion, patriarchy, sexual pleasure and hypocrisy in a serious but amusing way, Askins again reverts to the lowest common denominator with glib jokes about things like gluten, kale, Facebook and Matlock reruns. 

Director Thomas Kail plays into the frivolity by staging the play like a sitcom, letting the audience chuckle at rather than with these stick figures. Only Nicole Lowrance's performance shows she's aware that the play should have multiple layers: her Michelle is strong, smart, sexy and sympathetic. But for the most part, Elizabeth Reaser's Cynthia, Justin Bartha's Eric, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe's Zach and Talene Monahon's Jeanie approach caricature. Permission ends up lacking the courage of its convictions, preferring cheap laughs to stinging adult satire.