Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Best Night Ever
Cocaine Cowboys Revisited
Best Night Ever could be called a female Hangover, except that there are actually scattered laughs in this inane attempt to ape that unfunny blockbuster—it also tries to be a found-footage movie, as one of the Vegas bachelorette party gals records everything. Game actresses are defeated by increasingly desperate material. An extended version of a documentary, Cocaine Cowboys Revisited is a thorough expose of Miami as the bloody battleground for violent drug dealers in the ‘70s-‘80s. Interviews with participants and archival footage bring viewers closer to what happened and why. Both discs have good hi-def transfers; extras include deleted scenes and, on Best, interviews.

Black Jack
(Cohen Media)
Ken Loach’s 1979 costume drama—an anomaly in his long career of politically aware films—is a pleasantly minor adaptation of a children’s adventure novel about a gruff adventurer and two children in mid-18th century England. Though made on a shoestring, Chris Menges’ low-key 16mm photography glistens, thanks to Loach’s fastidious eye for detail, which helps overcome variable acting from mostly unknowns. The grainy Blu-ray image is soft but palatable; extras are a Loach commentary and deleted scenes.

With so many nature documentaries proliferating on TV and the big screen, new ones must distinguish themselves from the others—all of which have gorgeously-looking HD-photography—and the six-part Earthflight does just that. By putting tiny HD cameras on the backs of actual birds and showing them in flight all around the world, the programs find a new way to astonish viewers by giving a literal bird’s-eye view of the marvels in our world, both natural and man-made. Of course, the hi-def images look absolutely stunning, whether taken in Asia, Antarctica, Europe or North and South America.

Forgetting the Girl
(Ram Releasing)
What begins as a mildly intriguing portrait of a Manhattan photographer doing headshots for aspiring actresses—and who fails to personally connect with any of them, despite his efforts—turns into an unsatisfying slasher flick. For awhile, this study of a loner and loser with unresolved issues nods seems psychologically acute, then descends into routine blood and gore. Christopher Denham is extremely good as the protagonist, and Anna Camp—who appears in far too few movies and plays—is delectable as the one female who responds to him. The Blu-ray image is decent; extras include deleted scenes, director commentary and web videos.

The Making of a Lady
Murder on the Home Front
From a story by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who wrote The Secret Garden), Lady follows a young woman marrying a widower who immediately leaves home—she soon must deal with his cousin who decides he wants to take over the estate. Director Richard Curson Smith’s tidy 90-minute mystery, which slowly builds in tension, has slyly restrained performances by Linus Roache and Lydia Wilson. Murder—a slow-moving WWII drama about another young woman (a very good Tamzin Merchant) who works with a pathologist to solve murders in a London preoccupied with German bombings—is a handsomely mounted if unexceptional mystery. Both films have fine hi-def transfers; Murder extras comprise cast and crew interviews.

Paths Through the Labyrinth
(C Major)
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, a 1950s avant-gardist now one of our most renowned classical composers, is still going strong at age 80, with an astonishing array of orchestral works, operas, chamber music and film scores. Director Anna Schmidt’s superb documentary follows Penderecki for a year, still composing, conducting and living life as a major artist, along with admiring interviews with his wife; director Andrzej Wajda; and musicians Anne Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (whose own classical forays ape Penderecki). Well-chosen clips from Kubrick’s The Shining and Wajda’s Katyn illustrate how cinematic Penderecki’s own music really is. The hi-def image is stellar; extras are Greenwood and conductor Lorin Maazel interviews.


(Weinstein/Anchor Bay)
This heart-tugging drama about an Irish woman’s search for the son she gave up 50 years ago while among the Magdalene Sisters in a Catholic convent stars a marvelously understated Judi Dench and an amusingly bitter Steve Coogan as journalist Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the brilliant book about her quest. Stephen Frears’ economical direction and Dench and Coogan’s interplay are the main draws of this mere skimming of Sixsmith’s account, in which Philomena’s son’s rich, varied and surprising life is developed in 420 pages—perhaps a sequel, Michael, will do justice to his life story? The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras are Coogan and cowriter Jeff Pope’s commentary, interviews with Dench and the real Philomena Lee, and a Coogan Q&A.

DVDs of the Week
In Claire Denis’ fragmented, convoluted attempt at film noir, a sea captain must deal with his brother-in-law’s suicide and the disappearances of his weak, estranged sister and niece, all while carrying on an affair with a woman married to a terrifyingly evil corporate capitalist. Although Denis’ eye remains unerring—her cinematographer is, as usual, the great Agnes Godard—her narrative sense has never been her strong suit, and the movie’s central mysteries are slowly, unsatisfyingly brought to a close. Still, a solid cast led by the always watchable Vincent Lindon and the amazing young actress Lola Creton helps smooth over many bumps.

The Children Nobody Wanted
Life According to Sam
(Warner Archive)
Children, an earnest, honorable 1981 movie about Tom Butterfield’s efforts to create a home for mistreated young boys in the small Missouri town where he attends college, gains credibility from Fred Lehne’s lively Tom and a young Michelle Pfeiffer as his lovely girlfriend. The difficult to watch Life, a documentary about children with the incurable disease  progeria, which causes rapid—and fatal—aging, focuses on Sam Berns (who sadly died last fall at age 17), a sparkplug who put a brave face on the disease. Sam extras include Berns’ speech and a PSA with Berns and Dave Matthews.

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony
(First Run)
Wherein a determined group eventually puts together a performance of British composer Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, all 120 minutes, 400 choristers and 200 musicians’ worth! I find Brian’s music even more bloated than Bruckner, but kudos to those loyal fans who persevered and finally saw their dream come to fruition. Director Randall Wood presents their story engagingly, even including biographical tidbits of Brian himself, although the reenactments of events in the composer’s life are ludicrously staged.

In the Name of
(Film Movement)
In Malgoska Szumowska’s engrossing melodrama, a closeted priest hides his sexual proclivities while mentoring young men and resisting the advances of an attractive young local woman. Although contrivances start to creep in after an interesting opening, the natural performances help ground it in a credible reality that keep the film from going off the melodramatic rails. Lone extra is an Israeli short with a similar theme, Summer Vacation.

The Last Time I Saw Macao
(Cinema Guild)
This sleight-of-hand film combines documentary, mystery and visual essay to create a fascinating hybrid: beginning as a reverie about the disappearance of the protagonist’s close friend, it morphs ever more cleverly and ends up an illuminating if occasionally mystifying drama. Co-directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata—who narrates his return to the Portuguese Pacific colony where he grew up to find his friend—provide beautiful imagery amid their narrative misdirection. Extras include an interview with the Joaos and a pair of their shorts, Red Dawn and Mahjong.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Broadway Roundup—‘Bullets Over Broadway’ Becomes a Musical; Denzel Stars in ‘Raisin in the Sun’

Bullets Over Broadway
Book by Woody Allen; directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
Previews began March l1, 2014; opened April 10
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

A Raisin in the Sun
Written by Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Kenny Leon
Previews began March 8, 2014; closes June 15
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Braff and Cordero in Bullets Over Broadway (photo: Paul Kolnik)
The gleefully silly Bullets Over Broadway is this season’s lone movie-to-musical adaptation that actually works. Woody Allen’s original 1994 movie mixed pompous theater people, murderous mobsters, hilarious one-liners and even song and dance into a memorable stew of unbridled nonsense that won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Dianne Wiest (her second) as the ultimate theatrical diva.

Set during Prohibition in 1929 New York City, Bullets’ colorful kaleidoscope of giddy cinematic caricatures was set amidst Carlo di Palma’s tangy cinematography, Jeffrey Kurland’s canny costumes and Santo Loquasto’s lustrous sets, making it one of the most visually splendid of Allen’s movies.

And its plot is right up there with Allen’s cleverest short stories like “Retribution” or “The Kugalmass Episode.” Struggling playwright David Shayne finally gets financing for his first Broadway play, but with one condition: he must cast Olive Neal, the talentless girlfriend of the rich mobster bankrolling the show. A neophyte director protecting his own work, David also has to deal with the rest of his cast, especially legendary actress Helen Sinclair, with whom he’s falling in love, as well as Cheech, the henchman keeping an eye on Olive for his boss and who has many ideas about how to improve David’s play.

To make this madcap send-up work onstage, book writer Allen has the perfect collaborator in Susan Stroman, who did double duty choreographing and directing the immortal Contact, and who’s already expert at transforming movies into stage shows, having done the trick with Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Young Frankenstein and more recently with Big Fish. Stroman’s fertile imagination is definitely in its element with the show’s many song-and-dance numbers, all 1920s standards sung by the cast, whether or not the tunes themselves have anything to do with what’s happening onstage (Greg Kelly, who also orchestrated, has penned new lyrics that refer to the plot and characters).

Stroman’s originality is in evidence from the rousing curtain-raiser “Tiger Rag” to the pointless but giddy closing number “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Stroman adroitly moves from high-kicking chorus girls to a magnificent gangsters’ tap-dance, and her magisterial pacing knows just when to reprise or cut off a number to keep the show’s momentum from faltering. And there are, of course, major assists from Loquasto’s dazzlingly sleight-of-hand sets, William Ivey Long’s flamboyant costumes and Donald Holder’s snazzy lighting.

The cast is also up to snuff. Vincent Pastore is great fun as the gruff mob boss who breaks into growling song, and Nick Cordero gives hilariously comic menace to the artist in hitman’s clothing that is Cheech. Old pros Karen Ziemba and Brooks Ashmanskas provide belly laughs as two delightfully daffy performers in David’s play, with Ziemba going above and beyond for delicious interplay with her beloved pooch Mr. Woofles (played by a stage natural named Trixie). Lenny Wolpe makes a funny teddy bear as Julian Marx, David’s agent, while Betsey Wolfe’s Ellen is a sweetly adorable—and crystalline-voiced—girlfriend for our playwright hero.

As the ultimate bimbo Olive, Helene Yorke shrewdly adopts the same grating voice as Jennifer Tilly in the movie, but does so much more with the character—that she sings and dances simultaneously badly and well helps immeasurably—that she takes Olive to a  higher level. Marin Mazzie, up against memories of Dianne Wiest’s Oscar-winning turn, makes Helen Sinclair her own, as much a comic diva as Wiest but with the added bonus of her own powerhouse singing voice—she even spins that immortal line, “Don’t speak,” in an original way. As David, Zach Braff tries a bit too hard to keep up with the talent around him but settles into an amiably goofy Matthew Broderick groove that fits snugly. But it’s Stroman’s dazzling showmanship that keeps Bullets Over Broadway buoyantly on-target.

Washington and Okonedo in A Raisin in the Sun (photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
 Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is one of those touchstone plays, like Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey into Night, that feels familiar even for those who haven’t seen it. So another Broadway revival only a decade after an ill-fated staging with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs is unsurprising, especially since a Hollywood superstar wanted to star in it.

Hansberry’s 1959 play about the Youngers, a poor black family in Chicago, still feels fresh and has a rigorous intelligence that blends comedy and tragedy in a pinpoint study of social, economic and political injustice. In his new production, director Kenny Leon catches those qualities for the most part; when his staging occasionally stalls, another potent or prophetic Hansberry line of dialogue propels the play forward.

Much has been made of 59-year-old Denzel Washington playing 35-year-old son Walter Lee Younger: actually, in this production, we are told he’s 40. Although Washington looks younger than his age, if not a man of 35 or 40, he has a youthful bearing that nicely complements the accumulating desperation of a man who feels he’s failing his family. Although Washington’s natural charisma makes him one of the most likeable actors around, his edgy side springs forth onstage, in Fences a few seasons back and now in Raisin.

As Walter Lee’s younger sister, the wonderfully named Beneatha, Anika Noni Rose gives a beautifully modulated portrayal of a young woman finding her own way in a crushingly anti-female and anti-black culture, choosing to study to be a doctor until she discovers her African heritage. Likewise, Sophie Okonedo—a Broadway novice—has a slightly mournful quality as Walter Lee’s harried wife Ruth that serves her in good stead: her lovely, subtle performance is at the heart of Hansberry’s timeless tale.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Dead Kids
This trio of thrillers provides a glimpse of the “Ozploitation” genre from Australia and New Zealand from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s: Dead Kids, written by future Oscar winner Bill Condon, lives up to its titles (it was also called Strange Behavior); Patrick finds its horrific carnage in a comatose killer’s mental state; and Thirst is a weird vampire movie like no other. Of course, these movies are acquired tastes of the highest order, but they all deliver what they advertise, so lovers of B-movie bloodfests will rejoice. The Blu-ray transfers are adequate; extras comprise commentaries, interviews and featurettes.

Funny Face
Hi-def programming is all about getting to watch a glamorous star like Audrey Hepburn on Blu-ray, as in this pair of charming romantic comedies. Billy Wilder’s sentimental but tough Sabrina (1954) gets by on an attractive cast led by Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, while Stanley Donen’s colorful musical Funny Face (1957) stars Hepburn as a book shop owner turned model who falls for photographer Fred Astaire; its real glories—aside from Hepburn—are Gershwin songs and Paris locations. Both movies have been visually spiffed up for their hi-def debuts; extras comprise vintage featurettes.

Grudge Match

When Sylvester Stallone resurrected Rocky Balboa to re-enter the ring at an advanced age, it was played straight, unlike this fuzzy flick that pits Sly against Robert DeNiro in a fight for the (old) ages that erases their iconic boxing characters (remember Raging Bull?) from memory by duking duke it out in the most unbelievable way possible. DeNiro seems to be having fun spouting nasty jokes while Stallone sleepwalks yet again, maybe to offset Kevin Hart’s irritating motormouth promoter. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras include featurettes, alternate openings and ending and deleted scenes.

The Hobbit—The Desolation of Smaug
The second part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is—despite much slow, repetitive action, thanks to Jackson’s decision to stretch out material for one three-hour film into three—more worthwhile than the first film, which dragged and sputtered interminably. Here, better pacing, more fully realized creatures and plot strands, along with fantastic special effects work make one look forward to the final installment this Christmas. The Blu-ray image is unsurpassable; extras include several on-set featurettes.

Nurse 3-D
If you love trashy horror movies, this splattering-blood spoof will be up your alley, especially if you pine for sexy young women parading around in nurse outfits that would seem too risqué for a porn flick. Paz de la Huerta plays a crazed young nurse who kills with impunity, and Katrina Bowden plays her latest victim—neither actress is known for her thespian skills. Lots of blood and gore are sprayed toward the camera, but as one-note sick jokes go, it’s mild stuff. In hi-def, the effects look campier in 3-D than in 2-D; extras include making-of featurettes and director commentary.

(Warner Archive)
It’s hard to believe that this messy 1970 mash-up by co-directors Nicolas Roeg and Douglas Camwell was once considered shocking and edgy; but 44 years on, this seems like the epitome of the time-capsule movie, as hippies face off against squares in a dated drama best seen as a window into a long-gone world. Mick Jagger’s androgynous presence still holds up, but his performance of the sub-Stones tune “Memo from Turner” does not. Still, the movie has gained a cult following, whatever that’s worth. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are retrospective and vintage featurettes.

A Touch of Sin

Director Jia Zhang-Je focuses his laser-like lens on modern-day China, whose economy resembles America’s—the rich get richer, the poor get poorer—as the bottom drops out. Based on four incidents of violence as a last resort for desperate people, Jia links them narratively: the marvelously self-contained first section, about a persecuted miner who resorts to murder after insults threaten his manhood, is filled with powerful imagery of a corrupt society rotting from within. But the three episodes that follow essentially repeat the first without its unsettling seriousness. This draining, frustrating experience would have been masterly if Jia had expanded his first segment instead of undercutting its insightful observations with the others. The superlative Blu-ray transfer is the lone extra.

DVDs of the Week
Broadchurch—Complete 1st Season
(e one)
This gripping mini-series about two detectives looking into a murder case in a small seaside town fascinatingly explores how a young boy’s killing affects the psyche of the area’s inhabitants, who find themselves under a national microscope due to the crime’s heinousness. As the detectives, Olivia Colman and Daniel Tenant juggle the smart-alecky aspect of similar characters with more interestingly shaded portrayals. Extras include deleted scenes and a behind the scenes featurette.

The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts—Fully Roasted

This six-disc compilation of 17 infamous Dean Martin Roasts comprises roastees such as Hugh Heffner, Redd Foxx, Zsa Zsa Gabor and then California Governor Ronald Reagan, roasted by celebrities like Orson Welles, Charo, Henry Fonda, Henny Youngman, Jonathan Winters and Shelley Winters. If the jokes and one-liners are too non-PC today—all but proclaimed on the box itself with a back cover warning—then viewers’ mileage may vary. Extras are bonus sketches, featurettes and interviews.

Over the course of several years, Michael Winterbottom filmed this story of a dad who, while imprisoned, realizes that his family—wife and children both—has been moving on and growing up without him. This low-key (except for Michael Nyman’s annoying score) drama, shot in sequence to mirror the actual aging of the performers, is anything but gimmicky: Winterbottom, as so often, gives an insightful take on ordinary lives. Extras include a deleted scene.

The Fiery Angel
(Arthaus Musik)
Sergei Prokofiev’s electrifying opera—about the horrific visions of a young nun haunted by demons during the Inquisition—is seen in this seminal 1993 production at St. Petersburg, Russia’s Mariinsky Theater. Director David Freeman’s mesmerizing staging allows the visuals to run riot, a perfect complement to Prokofiev’s thunderous music, sung by superb Russian singers like Galina Gorchakov as the troubled heroine, with conductor Valery Gergiev leading the orchestra and choir with remarkable intensity. This opera packs a wallop, even in plain old stereo and standard 1.33:1 framing.

Mayberry RFD—Complete 1st Season
Medical Center—Complete 4th Season
(Warner Archive)
Mayberry RFD, a spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show, debuted on network TV in 1968, and Ken Berry’s gentle Sam Jones quickly became an audience favorite, as these disarming 26 episodes demonstrate. For the fourth season of the popular drama Medical Center (which aired in 1972-73), our Los Angeles hospital heroes—played by Chad Everett and James Daly—save the lives of guest stars that run the gamut from William Devane and Larry Hagman to Stefanie Powers and Barbara Eden.

CDs of the Week
Gil Shaham—1930s Violin Concertos
(Canary Classics)
An amazing array of masterworks for the violin appeared in the 1930s—their composers obviously affected by the volatile worldwide political situation, as the rise of Fascism led to World War II—each different in tone, themes and execution. Violinist Gil Shaham gives impassioned readings of extraordinary works by Samuel Barber, Alban Berg, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten, a treasure trove of enduring artists’ responses to their era. Since this is only Volume 1, we can anticipate more from Shaham: here’s hoping he tackles concertos by Paul Hindemith, William Walton, Karl Szymanowski and Sergei Prokofiev, to name a handful of other important composers.

Hans Werner Henze—Symphonies 2 & 10
The gap between Hans Werner Henze’s second and tenth symphonies is enormous—nearly 53 years, the second premiering in 1949 and the tenth (his last) in 2002, a decade before his death at age 86—but they are still unmistakably the work of the same master composer, who was a master of orchestration and texture. The second, though written by a young composer, is mature in outlook; the tenth, written by a veteran in his mid 70s, displays the still-youthful vigor of the greatest symphonist of the last half of the 20th century. This stellar recording ends conductor Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-sinfonieorchester Berlin’s valuable Henze symphony cycle.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Broadway Musical Reviews: Idina Menzel in ‘If/Then’; ‘Les Miz’ Returns

Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey; music by Tom Kitt; directed by Michael Greif
Previews began March 5, 2014; opened March 30
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Les Miserables
Music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; adaptation by Trevor Nunn & John Caird; directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Previews began March 1, 2014; opened March 23
Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Menzel in If/Then (photo: Joan Marcus)
I wasn’t a fan of Next to Normal, the bi-polar musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which played with adult themes in a juvenile rock style to the tune of a Pulitzer Prize. The same could be said for their new musical, If/Then, which expends pop/rock energy on a basically gimmicky conceit familiar from the 1998 movie Sliding Doors (itself based on Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 movie Blind Chance).

If/Then proceeds on simultaneous paths for its heroine, Elizabeth—a thirty-something divorcee who returns to New York after living in Phoenix for a dozen years—depending whether or not she answers her cell phone. She’s either Liz, a glasses-wearing city planner who falls in love with Josh, a soldier just returned from Iraq; or Beth, an unemployed activist, sans glasses, who begins seeing her old college boyfriend Lucas. The show toggles back and forth by rote, each section dogged by Kitt and Yorkey’s antiseptic—and interchangeable—tunes.

Between the lackluster songs and superficial exploration of Liz/Beth’s lives, If/Then resembles a show made by committee, with very little human element. Although set in cosmopolitan New York and featuring couples that are straight, gay and lesbian, the musical never feels organic: instead, its sharp edges have been filed down to the point that, aside from gratuitous use of the F-word (a song called “What the Fuck” gets huge laughs), If/Then will pass muster with the unfinicky Wednesday matinee crowd.

Yorkey’s book cutesily shows the differences between Liz and Beth’s differing roads taken by, say, having one attend a Yankee game (with a joke about how good they are) and the other a Mets game (with a joke about how bad they are). To make matters worse, among easy jokes that condescend to Phoenix, the Olive Garden and even Brooklyn, the creators decide that the drama needs tragic undertones, so they throw in an Iraq war casualty and a near plane crash, which give portentous—and pretentious—“weight” to the heroines’ possible paths.

The usually resourceful director Michael Grief comes to grief with unending gimmickry that extends from the thematic concept to the visuals: there are mirrors and doorways (actually door frames) that constantly—and redundantly—underline the sense of looking at life from varied perspectives. At least Greif’s set designer Mark Wendland and lighting designer Kenneth Posner make the staging look snazzy.

An able supporting cast—led by Anthony Rapp (as Lucas) and LaChanze (as lesbian sidekick  Kate)—gives its all, and both Liz and Beth are played with smarts, sass and vulnerability by Frozen’s “Let It Go” girl Idina Menzel, who deserves a better musical than this….or Rent, or even Wicked. Although saddled with mind-numbing songs, Menzel is such a pro she even turns the limp noodle of a showstopper, “Always Starting Over,” into something like an emotional, rousing climax. Menzel gives this fizzle of a show a toughness and honesty it otherwise lacks.

The cast of Les Miserables (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Coming on the heels of the commercially successful movie version, the beloved mega-musical Les Miserables returns to Broadway in a prepackaged roadshow production featuring Matt Kinley’s functional sets (based on author Victor Hugo’s own drawings—originally seen in early editions of his eponymous novel—and used here as evocative backdrops), Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland’s decent costumes and Paule Constable’s dramatically inventive lighting.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell’s solid staging, which gets its audience to its final destination with little fuss, is populated with cast members who do their thing with sometimes inspired proficiency. If Caissie Levy’s Fantine belts out the soaring “I Dreamed a Dream” less memorably than Anne Hathaway did in her Oscar-winning turn, at least Nikki M. James’s spunky Eponine gives a heartrending version of “On My Own,” a song I’ve never warmed up to.

I’ve always found the comic-relief couple Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier problematic, especially in their unnecessary wedding appearance for “Beggars at the Feast”; it’s the end of a long show, so please leave the stage and let’s get to the finale! Here, Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle mug even more outrageously than Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter did in the movie: the pair’s first number, the hilarious “Master of the House,” scores, but then again it always does.

As the antagonistic leads, Will Swenson (Javert) and Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean) are well-matched. Swenson, who makes a physically and vocally imposing Javert, really nails his big number, “Stars,” after which he’s put through an impressively staged suicide that draws gasps and applause. As Valjean, Karimloo has a large voice that he doesn’t push most of the time, even going subtly soft for an achingly lovely rendition of “Bring Him Home.” His acting is a little on the broad side, but in a show of monumental gestures, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
At Middleton
(Anchor Bay)
Unless you are an Andy Garcia and/or Vera Farmiga completist, you’ll want to bypass director/cowriter Adam Rodgers’ cutesy piece of forced whimsy about parents who meet and kinda sorta fall for each other when visiting the campus of Middleton College with their kids, who are incoming students. Although the two stars—and Spencer Lofranco and Vera’s youngest sister, Taissa Farmiga, as the kids—shine, they must battle trite dialogue and silly rom-com antics that add up to not much. The Blu-ray looks fine.

Brian May/Kerry Ellis—
The Candlelight Concerts/Live At Montreux 2013
(Eagle Rock)
Queen guitarist Brian May and vocalist Kerry Ellis team for an odd-couple pairing that works niftily, May’s signature guitar stylings—both acoustic and electric—complementing Ellis’ crystalline but powerful voice. Along with a healthy helping of Queen songs that includes left-field choices as “Life Is Real” (Freddie Mercury’s tribute to John Lennon that Ellis dedicates to Mercury), there are wonderful covers like George Harrison’s “Something” and even a schmaltzily effective “Born Free.” The hi-def transfer and audio are stunning to see and hear; the lone extra is a performance of “Nothing Really Has Changed” for its surprised—and touched—writer, Virginia McKenna.


Alain Robbe-Grillet—who wrote Alain Resnais’ 1961 surreal masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad—made his directorial debut two years later with this playful but contrived bit of nouveau-roman filmmaking about a man trying to piece together his relationship with a beautiful but mysterious young woman in Istanbul. The lusciously photographed movie has the lovely Francoise Brion as an asset; too bad her real-life husband, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, is less than scintillating as the protagonist. The hi-def image is excellent; the lone extra is a half-hour Robbe-Grillet interview.

Little House on the Prairie—Complete 1st Season
The first season (1974-75) of the beloved television series about the Ingalls family—with parents Michael Landon and Karen Grassle and daughters Melissa Sue Anderson and Melissa Gilbert—arrives on hi-def, its 24 episodes (and the original pilot movie) intact. The show looks far better on Blu-ray than it ever has; extras include a 40th anniversary documentary and Landon and Gilbert’s screen tests.

Meet Him and Die

This watchable but fairly routine thriller directed by Franco Prosperi has a notable appearance by a dubbed Martin Balsam as a mob boss who befriends a failed robber in prison. A few decent chase sequences and shootouts can’t alleviate the lethargic pacing until a final, predictable climax. Even Elke Sommer in a bathing suit doesn’t help much. The hi-def transfer preserves the grain nicely; lone extra is a short intro.

DVDs of the Week
Altar of Lust/Angel on Fire
A Saint, A Woman, A Devil
(Vinegar Syndrome)
This trio of vintage adult flicks shows that, back in the ‘70s, actual plotlines—however paper-thin—were concocted so the sexcapades had some sort of context, as opposed to today’s “gonzo” online porn. Altar (1971) features someone named Erotica Lantern, Angel (1974) follows a man who returns from the dead in the body of horny Darby Lloyd Rains, and Saint (1977) stars Joanna Bell as a pious woman who turns into a nymphomaniac (take that, Lars von Trier).

Joseph Andrews

(Warner Archive)
With 1977’s Joseph Andrews, director Tony Richardson tried to rekindle the spark of his Tom Jones, which swept the 1963 Oscars, but this costume farce comes off less original, less funny and less sexy, despite the efforts of Richardson’s cast (Ann-Margret and Peter Firth head it) and the handsome physical production. 1983’s Testament—director Lynne Littman’s stolid exploration of the effects of a nuclear attack on the ordinary people of a small US town—has one big plus: Jane Alexander’s extraordinary portrayal of a mother caught up in horrific events.

The Punk Singer
Kathleen Hanna, leader of post-punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre—who dropped out of the spotlight a decade ago because she had nothing more to say—gets a proper appraisal in director Sini Anderson’s straightforward documentary portrait. Interviews with Hanna show her to be as honest as ever in Anderson’s look back at her career, which also includes interviews with her many collaborators and her husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. Extras are deleted scenes and additional interviews.


(Cinema Guild)
Matias Pineiro’s compact feature follows an actress in a theatrical troupe rehearsing Shakespeare whose life is a mess of romantic entanglements. If the movie ultimately is like much ado about nothing, there’s wit in the characterization and dialogue, while Agustina Munoz is an appealing heroine: and there’s the always mesmerizing Buenos Aires as a backdrop. Extras include Pineiro and Munoz’s commentary and a filmed Pineiro play.

When Jews Were Funny
(First Run)
Alan Zweig made this amusing if diffuse exploration of Jewish humor that comprises talking heads like Shecky Green, recently deceased David Brenner (RIP!), Marc Maron and Howie Mandel discussing their comic heritage and telling their favorite Jewish jokes. It’s a pleasant journey that Zweig short-circuits with a rambling, self-serving interviewing style, turning it into a muddled personal diary that culminates with a clip of the 61-year-old director dad and his adorable young daughter. Extras are bonus interviews.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Broadway Roundup: ‘Rocky’ Becomes a Musical & ‘All the Way’ Has Bryan Cranston as LBJ

Book by Thomas Meehan & Sylvester Stallone; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens Directed by Alex Timbers
Previews began February 13, 2014; opened March 13
Winter Garden Theatre, 50th Street & Broadway, New York, NY

All the Way
Written by Robert Schenkkan; directed by Bill Rausch
Previews began February 10, 2014; opened March 6
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

Seibert and Karl in Rocky (photo: Matthew Murphy)
When Sylvester Stallone created the iconic Rocky Balboa for his captivating, Oscar-winning 1976 movie, I doubt anyone would think the Philly boxing hero would be a candidate for a Broadway musical. Well, these days it seems everything becomes a musical—this season alone, there’s The Bridges of Madison County, Bullets over Broadway, Aladdin and Heathers—so why not Rocky? As this proficient but unnecessary musical makes clear, the real question is: why?

The main problem is that Rocky doesn’t need to be a musical. Anyone remotely familiar with the movie might find it off-putting that the movie is basically reenacted onstage—with the same dialogue—only to be stopped at times for musical numbers that feel shoehorned in from elsewhere. Since director John G. Avildsen’s movie is filled with ordinary people straining to get past their inarticulateness, to suddenly have an onstage Rocky Balboa talk to his trusty turtles then burst into lucid, muscular song, crooning “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” provides a disconnect that continues throughout the show.

There are decent musical moments. The haughtily arrogant champ Apollo Creed seems perfectly at home belting “Patriotic” with a trio of backup singers in tow after he decides to choose a local fighter for the big New Year’s bout. And Adrian, Rocky’s painfully shy girlfriend, has a gentle love song, “Raining,” that’s at least partly in character. But Lynn Ahrens’ banal lyrics are no substitute for the low-class poetry in Stallone’s original movie script: his repeated “yo Adrians” and “you knows” are more authentic than sung lines as “and today’s Thanksgivin’/and I’m sorta free/’cept I got no one but turtles/for company/and I was hopin’ that you’d go out with me.”

It’s a given that “Gonna Fly Now,” the original’s rousing theme song, and “Eye of the Tiger,” Rocky III’s faceless anthem, would appear—the former at the beginning and the latter during the too-long training sequences opening Act II—but what’s surprising is that none of Stephen Flaherty’s songs surpasses them. In fact, Flaherty’s generic power ballads and rockers pale next to Bill Conti’s alternately rousing and intimate movie music—indeed, the show’s most notable sounds feature tantalizing bits of Conti’s score.

Andy Karl’s Rocky adroitly blends Stallone’s original persona with his own take that never steps out of lowly character even while loftily, if incongruously, singing. Margo Seibert’s Adrian is as mousily endearing as Talia Shire, Danny Mastrogiorgio’s Paulie is more an amusing pest than the genuine nuisance Burt Young so memorably was, and if Dakin Mathews’ Mickey can’t hope to equal Burgess Meredith’s charmingly crusty trainer, he comes across with engaging klutziness.

As impressive as director Alex Timbers’ physical production is—utilizing Christopher Barecca’s inventive sets, Christopher Akerlind’s supple lighting and David Zinn’s sensible costumes—it reaches its apogee (or the ultimate in gimmickry) at the end, when audience members in front are herded onto the stage to sit in bleachers as the championship ring is moved into their places, giving everyone a better view of the fight. Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine’s vigorous fight choreography takes over so completely that, after watching Rocky and Apollo (the excellent Terence Archie) prodigiously fake so many upper cuts and feints—even in slow motion— everyone exiting Rocky will be humming its body blows, not songs.

Cranston as LBJ in All the Way (photo: Evgenia Eliseeva) 
A larger than life figure standing six foot four inches and owning a proudly abrasive Texan personality, President Lyndon Johnson was a formidable political opponent to anyone who got in his way. And in All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s serious and engrossing play about Johnson’s politicking for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and his own 1964 election, Bryan Cranston’s towering portrayal of LBJ is less a matter of height (the actor, who’s shorter, has two-inch lifts in his shoes) than of precision. Giving a big, blustery performance that teeters on the edge of caricature, Cranston deftly exhibits the crusty personality that tempered LBJ’s good-natured charm, the anchor of an endlessly resourceful portrait of a politician for whom unscrupulousness comes naturally.

Although his play could be seen as a cautionary tale for the current president—who for five years has met a hardened opposition party every step of the way—Schenkkan isn’t interested in mere polemics, for he has a rich subject that not only comprises Johnson himself, but the many people and events that revolve around him during a particularly fraught period of our history. The play begins on November 22, 1963—when Johnson assumed the presidency after JFK’s assassination—and ends on Election Day 1964 when LBJ gets four more years in the White House. What happens is well-known, but it’s how we get there, thanks to Schenkkan’s apposite writing, Bill Rausch’s savvy directing and the performances of Cranston and a large cast, that make All the Way a sharp and meaty theatrical event.

Surrounding Johnson on all sides of the political spectrum are FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (a subtly squalid Michael McKean), racist Alabama governor George Wallace (Rob Campbell, good and slippery), LBJ mentor and Southern Dixiecrat senator Dick Russell (played by John McMartin, who oozes smugness like nobody’s business), spineless senator and wannabe VP candidate Hubert Humphrey (a cogent portrayal by Robert Petkoff) and civil rights agitator Martin Luther King (a fiery Brandon J. Dirden). As LBJ skillfully makes deals with, ignores or inflames these people, Schenkkan shows how this brilliant tactician combined opportunism and what he believed was the right thing. (Schenkkan’s new play, The Great Society, will take the measure of the man during his second presidential term.)

Standing front and center during this lengthy but riveting drama is Cranston’s LBJ. Sidling up to a crony, mentor or opponent to tell him another profane yarn filled with homespun and hard-won wisdom, Cranston lays bare the brazen duplicity that was Johnson’s weapon: he was your best friend who also stabbed you in the back. And All the Way shows how high risk brought high reward for our 36th president.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
The Americanization of Emily
(Warner Archive)
Arthur Hiller’s uneven 1964 satire—from Paddy Chayefsky’s hit-or-miss script—shows how idiotic war is as a skeptical navy man goes ashore on D-Day since his superiors want one of their own to be first to die heroically on Omaha Beach. Acted with gleeful urgency by James Garner, James Coburn, Julie Andrews and Melvyn Douglas, Emily scatters its shots far too widely, which Hiller and Chayefsky would repeat in The Hospital seven years later. The Blu-ray image is good; extras comprise Hiller’s commentary and on-set featurette.

The lost continent has been found in this entertaining retelling of Greek myths and legends, as a group of ancient-world “three musketeers” named Hercules, Pythagoras and Jason deals with the likes of the Medusa, the Minotaur and Pandora’s Box. Although it’s done lightheartedly, the actors look a little embarrassed to be spouting banal dialogue masquerading as wit; but at least there’s the wonderful Juliet Stevenson as the Oracle. The locations—the series is shot in Morocco and Wales—look stupendous on Blu-ray.

Carlos Kleiber—I Am Lost to the World
(C Major)
One of the most renowned 20th century conductors, German-born Carlos Kleiber was also a major recluse, according to Georg Wubbolt’s first-rate documentary. His  Beethoven and Wagner conducting was sublime, as clips of his work show, and his attentiveness to detail was second to none—as attested to by his many colleagues and friends who are interviewed—but he rarely performed, and if this this doc doesn’t get to the heart of his troubles, it’s still a riveting portrait of a talented artist. The hi-def transfer is decent.

German tenor Jonas Kauffmann, the hottest voice in opera today, dominates these 19th century French opera stagings. He’s a powerhouse in the title role of Charles Gounod’s Faust, dueling with Rene Pape’s equally mighty Mephistopheles, in Des MacAnuff’s entertaining 2011 Met Opera production. Kauffmann is also formidable vocally and dramatically in the title role in Werther, Jules Massenet’s lyrical romantic tragedy based on Goethe’s novel, with fantastic support from soprano Sophie Koch as the woman he can never have. The hi-def video looks fine, while the music sounds strong throughout; Faust extras include brief cast and director interviews.

The Hidden Fortress

Fanboys know it—if at all—as the inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars (which he readily admits in an included interview), but Akira Kurosawa’s spectacularly entertaining 1958 adventure The Hidden Fortress is a singular B&W widescreen epic seen mainly through the eyes of two nobodies who inadvertently rescue a princess. It works as both a Kurosawa classic and a popcorn movie for anyone to devour; rarely has the Japanese master been so beguilingly light-hearted. 

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece Persona, one of the most profound studies of human behavior ever captured on film, comprises a character study of immense psychological depth and penetrating acting by two Bergman muses, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. The films’ hi-def transfers are luminous; extras include commentaries and interviews (on both discs), an episode of It’s Wonderful to Create (on Fortress), and on-set footage and documentary Liv & Ingmar (on Persona).

Mysterious Skin
Gregg Araki’s best-known film, which helped launch Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career in 2004, is an ambitious adaptation of Scott Heim’s book about two friends who deal with sexual abuse at the hands of their little league coach differently. There’s persuasive acting by Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet as the boys and Elisabeth Shue as Gordon-Levitt’s mom, which gives Araki the chance to explore this subject matter with more assurance than in his other films. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras include an Araki intro and commentary, new Gordon-Levitt, Corbet and Heim interviews and deleted scenes.

The Past
(Sony Classics)
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won the 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar for A Separation, returns with another look at the effects of a crumbling marriage—this time,  on an Iranian husband, his French wife, her children and her Arab fiancée. Farhadi’s script has much to offer, but ultimately—as in the earlier film—there’s less than meets the eye, as the accumulation of details starts to overwhelm his focus. Still, it’s superbly acted, especially by Berenice Bejo, who showed her comedic side in the frivolous The Artist (did that really win Best Picture?) and demonstrates her raw dramatic chops. The Blu-ray looks sharp; extras include Farhadi’s commentary and Q&A and a making-of.

DVDs of the Week
The Big House
(Warner Archive)
George Hill’s 1930 jailhouse drama—which won Oscars for writing and sound—is dated by muted violence and a squeaky-clean look at hard prison life, but some tough-mindedness remains, thanks to the accomplished cast which works within the narrow strictures of the era. For added historic interest, both the French and Spanish language versions of the film are included, shot with different casts by different directors on the same locales and with the same (translated) script.

Camille Claudel 1915
(Kino Lorber)
Even though he’s using a movie star for the first time—the usually luminous Juliette Binoche has been scrubbed down to resemble the famed French sculptress during her lengthy stay in an asylum—director Bruno Dumont has made another typically rigorous and disturbing exploration of extreme behavior. As usual, Binoche holds the screen—and Dumont’s many close-ups—with intelligence, assurance and anything but star-turn theatrics, but Dumont’s method of casting real non-actors to populate the asylum is questionable at best, mitigating the film’s unblinking look at such a sadly illuminating case of an artist whose life took a tragic turn.

When Samantha screws a shady guy from a party, she becomes victim to a most insidious STD that turns her by degrees into a zombie in writer-director Eric England’s initially intriguing but ultimately risible horror movie. Despite Najarra Townsend’s charged performance—she makes Samantha’s physical and mental deterioration plausibly frightening—England’s movie relies far too much on shock effects. Extras are two commentaries, a making-of and Townsend’s audition.

Let the Fire Burn
This devastating documentary recounts the incendiary standoff between Philadelphia police and radical black group MOVE in 1985, which ended with dozens of people dead (including several children) and the destruction of the group’s headquarters and dozens of houses in a conflagration set—and pointedly not controlled—by authorities. Director Jason Osder, who cannily utilizes archival footage from the era, unravels one of the most egregious misuses of power against civilians in our history. As a sad postscript, sole child survivor Michael Ward—shown being interviewed afterwards—mystifyingly died last year in a cruise ship pool at age 40. Extras are a 2002 Ward interview and an insightful Q&A with Osder.

Belgian Cesar Franck composed this tragic opera when merely 20 in 1842 and it was never performed in his lifetime: receiving its 2012 world premiere in Leige, Belgium, it shows an accomplished, mature musical hand. Film director Jaco van Dormael shows a real affinity for opera with smart pacing and striking visuals, leads Isabelle Kabatu and Marc Laho are strong singers and performers, and Paolo Arrivabeni conducts the opera house’s orchestra and chorus, which sings the extended—and vocally ravishing—finale.