Tuesday, April 26, 2016

April '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
And Then There Were None
The classic Agatha Christie mystery, a.k.a. “Ten Little Indians,” returns in this fitfully entertaining yarn that is, quite simply, too long: I know it was made to fill out three one-hour television time slots, but stretching out the story with plentiful flashbacks to the victims’ previous lives strangles the tautness that was Christie’s stock-in-trade. It’s certainly a first-class production, with strong performances by Charles Dance, Toby Stephens, Miranda Richardson, Maeve Dermody and Sam Neill, among others. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include featurettes and interviews.

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
(Olive Films)
In Costa-Gavras’s 1988 Betrayed, Debra Winger and Tom Berenger are superb as an undercover FBI agent and the possibly racist murderer she falls for; too bad Joe Eszterhas’ script and Costa-Gavras’s direction highlight the illogical plot holes instead of the stars’ far more interesting character dynamics. 1972’s Dead Pigeon, made in Germany and one of the more bizarre items in director Samuel Fuller’s career, is an alternately fascinating and frustrating drama about an American detective looking for his partner’s killer. Both films have good hi-def transfers; the lone Pigeon extra is the documentary Return to Beethoven Street: Sam Fuller in Germany.

Haven—Complete Final Season

(e one)
In the final season of this offbeat supernatural drama based on Stephen King’s novella The Colorado Kid, the population of the supposedly idyllic seaside town uncovers still more unsettling stories and reveals dark secrets. The large cast—led by Emily Rose, Eric Balfour, Adam Copeland and Lucas Bryant—is able to remain straight-faced throughout, a not inconsiderable fat under the circumstances. The series’ 13 episodes all look impressive on Blu; extras include featurettes, interviews and commentaries.

The Merchant of Venice
(Opus Arte)
Although I’m not too enamored of director Polly Findlay’s modern-dress vision of one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays, she does have an authentic Shylock in actor Makram J. Khoury, who provides this disjointed production with its most dramatic moments. It’s also unfortunate that Findlay has cast Patsy Ferran, a charmless and one-note Portia, who especially looks bad next to the far more engrossing Khoury. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras include interviews, featurettes and Findlay’s commentary.


Even though Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino are top-lined in this legal thriller, it’s Josh Duhamel’s show all the way, so your mileage may vary if you’d rather see two past-their-prime legends as the leads instead of mere support, but the main problem with director Shintaro Shimosawa’s routine drama is its inconsistencies, which grow more desperate as it all continues. Still, the cast does decent work—aside from the men, there are Malin Akerman, Julia Stiles and Alice Eve all scoring in thankless parts—which somewhat mitigates the absurdity that’s mostly on display. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Outlaw Gangster VIP—The Complete Collection
Another shining example of Arrow’s growing hi-def collection of films that have been either neglected or simply ignored, this set of the six films in the Outlaw Gangster series—fast-paced, trashily entertaining Japanese gangster flicks churned out starting in 1968, and begun by director Toshio Masuda and star Tetsuya Watari—is the latest gem of a release. The movies themselves are mainly disposable but sturdy entertainments; the hi-def transfers of all six features are stellar; and the extras include a commentary, visual essay and 42-page booklet.

The Stuff
The Zero Boys
These wacky, grisly mid-80s horror flicks have been brought back from obscurity for whoever wants them. The Stuff, a 1985 entry by Larry Cohen (best known for It’s Alive), is a risibly silly chiller about a new dessert that turns its eaters into…well, something. There’s a surprising then-name cast involved, including Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Moriarty, Paul Sorvino, Garrett Morris and Danny Aiello, while the premise is just whacked-out enough to keep one watching. As for The Zero Boys, Nico Mastorakis’ 1986 slasher entry, neither the deer-in-the-headlights performers nor the less-than-clever ways that people are killed off help matters, while one of Hans Zimmer’s earliest (and synth-laden) scores is only a temporary reprieve. The hi-def transfers are decent enough; extras include intros, interviews and audio commentaries.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

April '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead
The long, strange history of the National Lampoon—once America’s most irreverent humor magazine, notable for controversial covers like the iconic dog with a gun to its head, while also spinning-off to radio and TV shows and movies like Animal House and Vacation—is satisfyingly recounted in Douglas Tirola’s documentary. New and vintage interviews illuminate the behind- the-scenes vibe, including glimpses of such veterans as P.J. O’Rourke, Matty Simmons, Doug Kenney and John Hughes. There’s a solid hi-def transfer; extras comprise more than an hour of interviews and deleted scenes.

This celebrated 1978 bit of Australian erotica, finally released in hi-def, stars the effervescent Glory Annen as a naïve young woman who blossoms sexually after discovering the delights of carnality. Director John D. Lamond isn’t after subtlety, even if the soft-core sex scenes seem far less racy today; coupled with two bonus mid-‘70s films by Lamond, The ABCs of Love and Sex and Australia After Dark, this is a fine introductory set for those interested in adult-film history. Extras are audio commentaries and outtakes.

The Fool

The Major
(Olive Films)
Russian director Yury Bykov, who debuted with 2010’s To Live, followed up with these tough, vivid depictions of the current lawlessness in Putin’s Russia. 2014’s The Fool is an allegory about a plumber who, blowing the whistle on a dangerously teetering apartment complex, tells the local authorities, who are incompetent and corrupt. 2013’s The Major is an allegory about local police arrogantly protecting one of their own after he runs over a young boy on an icy road: they will eliminate anyone who questions the official report, including the boy’s mother, who witnessed the whole thing. There’s much to admire and provoke in Bykov’s cinema. The hi-def transfers are exemplary.

The Revenant
In which for two hours and 35 minutes, Leonardo DiCaprio undergoes impossibly rigorous physical treatment—including the infamous bear sequence—for which he won his supposedly long-overdue Best Actor Oscar. DiCaprio is impressive in a role that’s more a test of physical stamina than outright acting, but most ungainly about the film is director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s crude technique that overrelies on stunts, CGI and Emmanuel Lubezki’s admittedly miraculous camerawork—although Lubezki has done it before, and better, for Terrence Malick—to tell a story that, without these frills, is merely mundane. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a 45-minute making-of documentary.

Theory of Obscurity
(Film Movement)
The Residents have been the most famous—or infamous—music/video collective of the past half century that’s managed to hide its identity from the world, and Don Hardy’s mostly amused, occasionally bemused documentary recounts its bizarre and extended career, as discussed by many people around the band’s members. But not the guys themselves: they remain—coyly but playfully—anonymous. At least it seems that way: maybe some of the members are posing as mere collaborators. The film looks fine on Blu; extras comprise featurettes, outtakes, performances and interviews.

Veep—Complete 4th Season
Silicon Valley—Complete 2nd Season
Some of Veep’s barbed humor got noticeably smoothed out when Selina Meyer became president, forcing an edgy if uneven satire to sometimes turn desperate in its attempt to return to earlier glory. Although Julie-Louis Dreyfus is fine in the lead, it’s the supporting cast—led by Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale and Timothy Simons—that keeps it from jumping the shark completely. Silicon Valley, the one-joke Mike Judge comedy, has stretched itself perilously thin, and even if the actors transcend their caricatured characters, it will be interesting to see if the humor can find more depth in its upcoming season. Both shows look quite good on Blu; extras include deleted scenes and, on Valley, commentaries.

DVDs of the Week
Cinema’s Exiles—From Hitler to Hollywood
(Warner Archive)
This endlessly fascinating 2007 PBS documentary about how so many emigres from Germany’s film industry—the world’s best by the early 1930s—were able to flee the country after Hitler came to power and, in several instances, resuscitate their careers in Europe and Hollywood is narrated by Sigourney Weaver. With its generous use of many vintage interviews—including with directors Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder—and archival footage of the likes of Marlene Dietrich, this absorbing cautionary tale is far more than a mere piece of distant film history.

Flight 7500
This schlocky thriller about a trans-Pacific flight that begins to go badly out of control when a healthy passenger suddenly dies is at least short at 80 minutes, but even its brevity can’t cover up the many crazy contrivances that proliferate, and culminate with a twisty and insane denouement. The mainly no-name cast actually works hard—even poor Leslie Bibb, who rarely gets the good roles she deserves, does what she can as a veteran flight attendant—but it ends up being for naught.

Grace and Frankie—Complete 1st Season
The unlikely chemistry between Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as two long-time antagonists who together must deal with the aftermath of their husbands leaving them after admitting they’ve been carrying on an affair with each other is what makes Grace and Frankie watchable, even when the series itself tries (and fails) to balance showing the characters’ new relationships. Happily, alongside Fonda and Tomlin, the rest of the cast (starting with Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston as the soon-to-marry husbands) is also up to the task. Extras include featurettes, gag reel and commentaries.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

April '16 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The Forest
The setting for Jason Zada’s lackluster thriller, a real Japanese forest—one of the top sites in the world for suicides—is a decent horror-movie idea, but there Zada’s inspiration ends. It’s too bad, for there are a few frightening moments, and actress Natalie Dormer is sympathetic and unsettling as protagonist twin sisters (and Zada rightly focuses on her piercing eyes), but overall this tepid shocker relies on a none-too-original ending twist. The movie does looks sumptuous on Blu; extras are a making-of featurette and Zada’s commentary.

Jackie Robinson
For their latest historical documentary, legendary filmmaker Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon examine the life of the first black player to play in the big leagues and one of the most important individuals of the 20th century. Although at times the usual template—talking heads, narrators, vintage photos and film footage—seem to tread water, this four-hour portrait of American race relations remains a must-see. The primary witness is Rachel, Jackie’s still-sharp 92-year-old widow; the appearance of the Obamas, whose relationship mirrors the Robinsons of a strong woman as backbone for her husband’s historic accomplishments, is a real coup. The hi-def transfer is flawless; extras comprise a conversation with the filmmakers, outtakes and a featurette.

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun
Based on a novel by Sebastian Japrisot (whose One Deadly Summer and A Very Long Engagement were adapted into movies with Isabelle Adjani and Audrey Tautou, respectively), this labored mystery about an innocent young woman suspected of murder has been directed with stylishness but incoherence by Joann Sfar. Even though his leading lady Freya Mavor makes a formidable femme fatale, she is unable to make this empty vessel anything more than derivative. It all looks splashy enough on Blu, at least; extras are a Sfar interview and featurette.

This unpleasant drama masquerading as existential art cinema is director (and The Departed screenwriter) William Monahan’s pretentious, overwrought tale of an artist who meets up with his murderous doppelgänger while wandering in the desert. It’s as risible as it sounds, so Oscar Isaac and Garrett Edlund must be commended for playing it with straight faces; deglamorized French actress Louise Bourgoin is at sea as the protagonist’s girlfriend: neither she nor we have any clue what’s going on. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

The Story of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps
Blood on the Fields
(Arthaus Musik)
Igor Stravinsky’s once-controversial, now-classic ballet caused a riot in 1913 but is now part of the standard repertoire, and 1999’s revealing The Story of… provides Russian conductor Valery Gergiev’s thoughts on the work—with Stravinsky himself chiming in through vintage interview footage in both English and French—along with orchestral excerpts Gergiev leads. In 1996’s informative documentary Blood, composer Wynton Marsalis discusses his own large-scale composition of the same name, a jazz-classical hybrid that won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The Blu-ray visuals look decent enough.

(Warner Archive)
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest classics, this absorbing 1941 mystery stars Joan Fontaine—in the only Oscar-winning performance ever in a film by the Master of Suspense—as a woman sure that her ne’er-do-well husband (Cary Grant) is intent on killing her. Only Hitchcock could turn the screws so tightly on viewers while gleefully manipulating their responses without ever losing them completely. Even if it cops out at the end (can’t let matinee idol Grant be the bad guy), it’s still a singularly Hitchcockian achievement. The black-and-white Blu-ray transfer looks superb; lone extra is a retrospective featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Chantal Akerman—Four Films
Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who killed herself last year at age 65, was a fixture in certain cinematic circles, although I found her most renowned films like Jeanne Dielmann and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna too single-minded to justify their extended running times. On the other hand, her non-fiction films—four of which are collected here—more interestingly if explicitly espouse their political viewpoints. The films—From the East (1993), South (1999), From the Other Side (2002), Down There (2006)—are complemented by an extra, Chantal Akerman: From Here, a 2010 conversation with the director about her singular career.

In his uneven study of Kermit, a young man who, fresh out of jail for a youthful mistake, returns to his trailer-trash town to start anew and falls for Rachel, a young woman moonlighting as an exotic dancer to help her sick mom, writer-director Hank Bedford shows sympathy for those down on their luck without condescension; inserting real people discussing their meager lives, however well-intentioned, tends to turn the story proper into melodrama. Yet impressive acting by Chris Zylka (Kermit) and Riley Keough (Rachel) and persuasive support by musical stalwarts Faith Hill (Kermit’s mom) and Steve Earle (Kermit’s uncle) help greatly. Extras include Bedford and Zylka’s commentary, interview and deleted scenes.

House of Lies—Complete 4th Season
Episodes—Complete 4th Season
The Odd Couple—Complete 1st Season
In the fourth season of House, even more unethical than usual wheeling and dealing continues, as Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell continue to provide balance between over-the-top and right on-target; Episodes, in its fourth season, with Matt LeBlanc persuasively playing someone named “Matt LeBlanc,” has finally found its comedic footing. However, despite the best efforts of Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon, the first season of the reboot of The Odd Couple shows that Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, masterly stars of the original sitcom, are irreplaceable. Odd Couple extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and a gag reel.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Theater Reviews—Two Plays by Danai Gurira, 'Familiar' & 'Eclipsed'

Written by Danai Gurira; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Performances through April 10, 2016
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Written by Danai Gurira; directed by Liesl Tommy
Performances through June 19, 2016
Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

The cast of Familiar (photo: Joan Marcus)

It's rare for any playwright to have two plays running in New York simultaneously, but Danai Gurira—better known to some (not me) as an actress in TV’s The Walking Dead—has done it with Eclipsed on Broadway and Familiar off-Broadway.

Familiar, though the lesser work, is in no way negligible. Set in Minneapolis, the play concerns the Chinyaramwiras, a Zimbabwean-American family frenziedly making preparations for daughter Tendi’s impending wedding. Youngest (and prodigal) daughter Nyasha has just arrived from New York while mother Marvi (short for Marvelous) rues the arrival of her eldest sister Anne from the home country, since Marvi hopes that Tendi’s wedding to local man Chris will further the family’s American success story. But—needless to say—complications ensue.

Gurira has everyone and everything in their places for her amusing, at times insightful if too, um, familiar comedy, smartly balancing arguments for assimilating with those for retaining ultural customs—Aunt Anne wants to resurrect an elaborate Zimbabwean ritual for Tendi’s ceremony, whose working out takes up a good chunk of the overlong first act—and finding the humorous absurdity in both sides.

With this group of people who speak normally and fight over every little thing both serious and frivolous, Gurira’s stage family is recognizable and real. If she relies too much on the strictures of drawing-room comedy, snowballing into Neil Simon slapstick at the close of Act I, it’s certainly forgivable.

Rebecca Taichman thoughtfully directs on Clint Ramos’ spectacular set, which exactingly captures the family house's solidly upper-middle class interior. The acting is forceful and funny across the board, with standouts being Tamara Tunie’s headstrong Marvi, Ito Aghayere’s  Nyasha and Joe Tippett's surprisingly sympathetic turn as Chris’s brother Brad, whose arrival is just one of many bizarre interludes in a distinctly unfamiliar day for the Chinyaramwira family.

Lupita Nyong'o (center) in Eclipsed (photo: Joan Marcus)

Stronger still is Eclipsed, set during the Liberian Civil War in the early 2000s. We meet several unnamed women in a worn-down shack, each of them designated by a number, since they are “wives” for one of the warlords, who periodically calls one of them to his bed while the others sit and wait around. 

If spending two-plus hours in such company seems depressing or enervating, the reality is far from that: Gurira's potent, probing play illuminates our shared humanity, even in a place where social and cultural structures have broken down and been replaced by wholesale degradation, destruction and slaughter. The women form a bond—at one point, the only literate one among them begins reading from Bill Clinton’s autobiography, which becomes a source of endless consternation, amusement and even hope—and it’s only in the second act, when the newest arrival joins another "wife" as a rebel soldier, does Eclipsed threaten to unravel.

That it doesn’t is a tribute not only to Gurira’s incisive and unsentimental writing but also the spot-on production by Liesl Tommy, who directs five miraculous actresses (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is the lone marquee name, but she’s just one-fifth of a marvelously harmonious ensemble) on Clint Ramos’ imaginatively dilapidated set.

Familiar is worth attending and Eclipsed is a major achievement: playwright Danai Gurira has arrived in New York.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

April '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Banshee—Complete 3rd Season 
The third season of this extremely violent but rarely dramatically potent Cinemax series ratchets up the excessive gore at the expense of coherent storytelling and plausible characters: jettisoning anything resembling credibility in order to oversell the next bludgeoning, killing or decapitation is a recipe for becoming less interesting as it continues. It has stylishness in spades, including its ultra-attractive cast, but then the blood-letting begins again and it loses any dramatic momentum. The hi-def transfer is impeccable; extras include commentaries, deleted scenes and featurettes.

Death Walks Twice 
(Arrow USA)
Italian giallo master Luciano Ercoli directed his future wife, actress Nieves Navarro—who went by her stage name Susan Scott—in a pair of bloody thrillers as a clichéd damsel in distress: both 1971's Death Walks in High Heels and 1972's Death Walks at Midnight lean on Scott's winsome personality to follow her through convoluted mysteries that are minimally psychological but maximally trashy. As always, Arrow has included both films in a classy boxed set that features a 60-page booklet, new hi-def transfers, and interviews, featurettes and introductions/ commentaries.

King Priam
(Arthaus Musik)
While I've never been a fan of British composer Michael Tippett, his 1962 opera King Priam is strongly dramatic and musically cohesive; based on Homer’s Iliad, it’s a knottily-plotted tale, and Nicholas Hytner's 1985 film (with Rodney McCann as Priam, Sarah Walker as Andromache, Neil Jenkins as Achilles and Anne Mason as Helen of Troy) is a tough, taut interpretation. Conversely, it’s simply too bad about choreographer Maguy Marin's 1989 production of Cinderella, Sergei Prokofiev's most beguiling ballet: child-like masks and costumes, which may have looked charming onstage, instead come off mildly creepy on TV. Video and audio for both discs are fine.

Losing Ground 
Another valuable addition to Milestone Films' growing library of resurrected historically and artistically important American films and filmmakers, this two-disc set features this astute 1982 character study by provocative writer-director Kathleen Collins (who died six years later at age 46) starring Seret Scott and Bill Gunn as an artistic couple with marital problems: Collins’ genius was for showing her characters as people, not simply as black people. Also included are The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, the 1980 debut collaboration between Collins and cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, a probing 1982 Collins interview, and new interviews with Scott, Gray and Collins' daughter. The film has been lovingly restored in hi-def.

Michael Collins 
(Warner Archive)
Liam Neeson's commanding portrait of the Irish independence leader from his political beginnings until his untimely (and mysterious) death in 1922 is the center of Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic, a fluid, exciting drama on a dense, difficult subject. Complementing Neeson is superb support by Stephen Rea, Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman and Brendan Gleeson, which offsets Julia Roberts' unmagnetic presence (and wavering accent) as Collins' fiancée. The film's belated but welcome appearance on Blu-ray helps viewers better appreciate Chris Menges' tangy cinematography; extras are an hour-long, illuminating South Bank Show episode about Collins' life and a Jordan interview.

(Anchor Bay)
I don't get the current mania for trying to make Jason Sudekis—who was merely a comic journeyman on Saturday Night Live—a leading man in the movies, but this low-energy character study of a dead pop star's widow rediscovering her importance as muse thanks to a music professor leaves a gaping hole at its center with his casting. Happily, the widow is played by Rebecca Hall, an actress of rare grace, vulnerability and truthfulness, so all is not lost. Small roles are well-handled by Blythe Danner, Richard Masur, Dianna Agron and Griffin Dunne, helping Hall to fill the Sudekis void. The film looks decent on Blu; extras are making-of and music featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Brotherly Love
A Fine Pair 
(Warner Archive)
Although their films aren't very memorable, two star pairings provide mostly indifferent vehicles with occasionally interesting moments. 1970's unsubtle Brotherly Love, about a man's more-than-familial interest in his sister, stars Peter O'Toole and Susannah York as misfit siblings, and they get more out of the problematic relationship than it deserves. Similarly, 1968's Fine Pair, set in shabby New York and photogenic Italy, teams Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale for a forgettable caper chase picture that promises little but delivers some entertainment thanks to its stars’ presence.

Jacqueline du Pré—A Celebration 
(The Christopher Nupen Films)
Supremely gifted English cellist Jacqueline du Pré stopped performing at age 28 due to her battle with multiple sclerosis, which she sadly lost at age 42, in 1987; the loss to the music world is immeasurable, as this disc of vintage interview clips with contemporaries, friends and loved ones discussing her force of personality, musicianship and happiness (her nickname was Smiley) shows. We see her performing, especially the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she is most closely associated with, and hear her discuss her own love for music, and the three-plus hours of footage become a riveting portrait of a great and humane artist.

Ron Taylor—Dr. Baseball
Invisible Scars 
(First Run)
The 20-minute short Ron Taylor—which recounts his baseball career, quitting the big leagues at 35 to become a doctor, then returning to baseball in a medical capacity—was made by sons Drew and Matthew as a loving document of their dad's overlooked career. In Invisible Scars, co-director Johnna Janis opens up about sexual abuse as a youngster and how it affected her ever since: interviews with experts and victims paint a troubled portrait of how people are affected by such a tragedy, but there’s also an optimism that many—including Janis herself—are defiantly taking charge of their own lives. Taylor extras are a directors' interview and film festival Q&As; Scars extras are extended interviews.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Theater Review—Classic Musical "1776" Returns, via Encores

Book by Peter Stone; music & lyrics by Sherman Edwards; directed by Garry Hynes
Performances through April 3, 2016
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

The cast of 1776 at Encores! (photo: Joan Marcus)

Forget Hamilton. 1776 remains the champion of Revolutionary-era American musicals, and the current Encores! semi-staging furthers its case for uniqueness, brilliance and sheer entertainment, all intact since its 1969 Tony-winning production.

Smartly directed by Garry Hynes with appropriate nods to the original director, Peter Hunt (who also helmed the classic film version with original cast members William Daniels, Howard da Silva and Ken Howard), 1776 is buoyed by what is probably the greatest musical book in Broadway history: Peter Stone provides savvy, droll and endlessly quotable dialogue for the Founding Fathers (some of which came directly from them), who come vividly to life as merely flawed men who are, as Ben Franklin sagely notes, "trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed."

But although Stone's book is the show's backbone—indeed, it would also make a wonderful straight play—Sherman Edwards' delightful songs further humanize the men (and women) who played the main roles in founding our country, and hearing his music played by the excellent Encores! Orchestra under conductor Ben Whiteley is a special treat.

Hynes' exceptional cast is led by Santino Fontana (an amusingly pig-headed John Adams), John Laroquette (an endlessly witty Ben Franklin) and John Behlmann (a sober, dashing Thomas Jefferson); if none is up to the level of the original performers, Fontana, for one, sings more powerfully than William Daniels. Nikki Renee Daniels charmingly dispatches Martha Jefferson's pretty paean to her husband, "He Plays the Violin," while Christianne Noll's articulate, funny and golden-voiced Abigail Adams makes a perfect foil to Fontana's John, especially in their glorious duets, "Till Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours."

Edwards' score contains great songs allowing supporting characters to shine: Bryce Pinkham, as John Dickinson, gives a marvelous reading of that cutting hymn to Conservative values, "Cool Cool Considerate Men"; Alexander Gemignani brings down the house as Edward Rutledge, the Southern slave owner, when he sings "Molasses to Rum," that powerful rebuke to Northern hypocrisy when it comes to the "peculiar institution"; and John-Michael Lyles, as the courier who delivers General Washington's distressing dispatches to Congress, is quite moving in the emotional soldier's ballad "Momma, Look Sharp."

It might have been chosen by Encores! to ride the coattails of Hamilton, but 1776 is, in all respects, the superior show.

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—Kenneth Lonergan's 'Hold on to Me Darling' & Richard Nelson's 'Hungry'

Hold on to Me Darling
Written by Kenneth Lonergan; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances through April 17, 2016
Atlantic Theater, 320 West 20th Street, Brooklyn, NY

Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Performances through April 3, 2016
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Kenneth Lonergan and Richard Nelson write plays which ring true with the messiness of real life, however diffuse or undramatic. Lonergan's unwieldy plays often bump up against melodrama or soap opera, with characters bordering caricature and realistic dialogue that rises to a sort of quotidian poetry that provide a fiery aliveness. Nelson has pared down his writing to the essence of drama: a group of people sitting around, talking about nothing—and everything—for 90 or so minutes, laying bare our shared humanity.

Adelaide Clemens and Timothy Olyphant in Hold on to Me Darling (photo: Doug Hamilton)

Lonergan's Hold on to Me Darling begins as a sort-of soap opera parody, as fantastically successful country crossover singer/movie star Strings McCrane struggles with the aftermath of his beloved mother's death: his impulsive decisions—from deciding to marry the lovely (and already married) Nancy, who gave him a massage in his hotel room, to sleeping with his distant cousin Essie after seeing her at the funeral, to quitting show biz to start a feed store with his brother Duke in their Tennessee hometown—mark someone who has never been able to deal with life on its own terms and has instead done what any multi-millionaire celebrity would: think only of himself.

For over two and a half hours, Lonergan allows his protagonist to careen wildly between sanctimony and satire, sometimes in the same scene. The biting dialogue, always Lonergan's strong suit, manages the seemingly impossible task of alternating between realism and ridiculous self-indulgence. But whatever is said, even Strings and Duke's amusing asides like "Jesus Christ in a downtown Memphis hair salon" or "Jesus Christ on the Tour de France," always sounds exactly right for whoever is speaking. Even the final scene, when Lonergan introduces a major character who was mentioned earlier, works handily, even while wearing its heart on its sleeve a bit too sincerely.

As Strings, Timothy Olyphant initially seems to be channeling an Elvis impersonator and Tim Robbins' colorful Nuke Laloosh in the movie Bull Durham: but even skating on the thin ice of caricature doesn't derail Oliphant's outsized but fully realized portrait. As the women in Strings' life, Jenn Lyon (Nancy) and Adelaide Clemens (Essie) are sympathetic and touchingly funny, C.J. Wilson makes an hilariously deadpan Duke, Keith Nobbs is amusingly harried as Strings' assistant Jimmy and Jonathan Hogan makes the most of his brief onstage time as Mitch.

The play's eight locations are astonishingly realized on Walter Spangler's brilliant revolving set, while Neil Pepe's direction is acutely in tune with Lonergan's off-kilter but penetrating observations on how persons interact while building or tearing down the walls pervading many relationships.

The cast of Hungry (photo: Joan Marcus)

Richard Nelson's Hungry begins a new cycle, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. On the heels of his Apple Family Plays, an extraordinary quartet of dramas that looked at one family, the new group of plays—of which Hungry is the first—can't hope to live up to such a high standard.

And indeed, though it is intelligent, humane and beautifully acted, Hungry marks a major playwright treading water, returning to a well that seems to be drying up. The Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, NY (where playwright Nelson lives) has gotten together after a memorial service for Thomas, famous writer and brother of George and Joyce, both visiting his home where his widowed third wife Mary lives. George's wife Hannah and Thomas's first wife Karin have also joined them, as well as their elderly mother Patricia. 

Nelson's observations are personal and often poignant, the brief discussion of politics is trenchant, and there is enough naturally arising humor to gloss over his creaky central conceit: that the entire 100-minute play takes place at the kitchen table with the women making dinner and dessert while discussing things both mundane and serious, including various states of hunger.

But Nelson remains an economical writer and director, and his ensemble—Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders and Amy Warren—is as unbeatable as the one in the earlier plays. (Sanders and Plunkett are the sole holdovers.) So, although Hungry leaves us hungry for more, I look forward to sampling the next two installments.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

March '16 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Bicycle Thieves 
Vittorio De Sica's classic—one of those films appearing in all-time greatest polls, as well as being part of any Cinema 101 class—remains an emotionally devastating journey that, along with De Sica's own Shoeshine and Robert Rossellini's Rome Open City, introduced the world to Italian neo-realism. Made in 1948 with amateur performers on the streets of post-war Rome, the film continuously flirts with soap opera but never succumbs; Criterion's new Blu-ray includes a flawless hi-def transfer and the usual illuminating extras: interviews, neo-realism featurette and 2003 documentary on screenwriter Cesare Zavattini.

Gesualdo—Death for Five Voices
Ken Russell's View of The Planets 
(Arthaus Musik)
Two idiosyncratic directors provide their unique takes on two musical masters in two highly personal films. Werner Herzog's 1995 Gesualdo recounts the murderous life of a 16th century Italian composer; although more straightforward than usual, the grim material is weighty and bizarre enough to keep Herzog busy for an hour. In 1983, Ken Russell made his own full-length video, with found footage, of Gustav Holst's The Planets; although coming perilously close to self-parody—shots of Hitler and the Nazis are out of Russell's usual playbook—the editing and sequencing of shots is a singular Russell fingerprint. Both films look soft on Blu; although the box lists it, Gesualdo does not include a bilingual Herzog commentary.

The Hateful Eight 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Quentin Tarantino takes such pride in his movie knowledge that his extensive thievery from other, better films is given a pass by many who should know better: unsurprisingly, his latest self-indulgent mess might be his most obnoxious movie yet. For nearly three hours, an octet of annoying characters gets together and, unsurprisingly from the horrible title, proceed to one-up one another. When not showing a weirdly enervating fantasy about a well-endowed black man, Tarantino gratuitously revels in geysers of blood and (of course) the N-word. Robert Richardson's 70mm cinematography is wasted on the static, interior-bound story, because of which the perfectly adequate hi-def transfer suffers. Extras comprise two featurettes.

Kill Me Again 
(Olive Films)
In John Dahl's disappointing 1989 film noir, then-new off-screen couple of Val Kilmer and wife Joanne Whalley Kilmer are mired in a ridiculously overwrought plot that provides a few scattered moments of tense drama amid routine, recycled moments from better crime dramas. Dahl directs stylishly, and there's a nicely creepy turn by Michael Madsen as the bad guy, but Kilmer and Whalley-Kilmer—at sea throughout—end up dragging the whole movie down. The Blu-ray transfer is quite good.

A New Leaf 
(Olive Films)
Elaine May, who wrote and directed this 1971 black comedy before moving onto Mikey and Nicky (1976) and, more infamously, Ishtar (1987), plays a lonely heiress who marries financially ruined playboy Walter Matthau, after which he tries to get rid of her in any way possible. May's scattershot script has amusing episodes alongside strained ones, and as director she glosses over some good ideas to inexplicably concentrate on lesser ones. But it has a freshness and daring that hasn’t dated, and both leads are in top form. The movie looks good and grainy on Blu.

Noma—My Perfect Storm 
For those unaware (like me), Noma is a Copenhagen restaurant chosen best in the world several years running, and Pierre Deschamps' portrait of Noma chef Rene Redzepi is sharp and focused, even lucky: when a norovirus fells several diners at the restaurant, cameras record Redzepi and his associates' incredulous, bemused reactions. Redzepi is forcefully foul-mouthed but engaging, and his unique spin on Nordic cuisine leads to beautifully photographed glimpses of his delectable dishes. The film and the food look splendid on Blu; extras include deleted scenes.

Point Break 
(Warner Bros)
In this unnecessary remake of the vapid 1991 Kathryn Bigelow film, an FBI agent and extreme-sports athlete goes up against the ultimate daredevil villain in a movie almost fully bereft of human interaction, instead becoming an excuse for an unending series of excellent stunt sequences awkwardly staged by director Ericson Core. The astonishing stunt work and photography notwithstanding, most of the movie’s two-hour running time has little in the way of interesting plotting, dialogue and acting. The film looks great on Blu; extras include behind-the- scenes featurettes and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Killing Them Safely 
(Sundance Selects)
The history of the Taser—which quickly entered law enforcement annals as a most effective weapon—is skeptically recounted by director Nick Berardini, who looks at the many incidents of related fatalities when otherwise healthy people died after encountering Taser-wielding cops. Although the jury's still out on causality, such incidents bring into question the Taser’s efficiency and safety, and despite claims to the contrary by interested parties, even law enforcement officials are starting to gainsay its usefulness.

(Sundance Selects)
In this sympathetic portrait of Europe’s immigrant crisis, Italian director Jonas Carpignano shoots his gaze at a laborer from Burkina Faso who arrives in Italy prepared to work and send money back to his wife and young daughter: he soon finds that the hard part was not leaving and making the journey to a new country; instead, there is no shortage of difficulties for him and others in their adopted home. Carpignano takes the measure of his protagonist with intelligence, grace, and not a little humor, ending on a sad but telling incident between our hero and his family back home. 

Turn: Washington's Spies—Complete 2nd Season 
(Anchor Bay)
The second season of Turn continues to chronicle the dangerous adventures of spies who did much of the dirty work for General Washington during fraught times for the ragtag Continental Army against the more imposing, better-trained British troops. The year is 1777, and events including the horrible winter at Valley Forge and the first arrival of French troops to fight with the colonial army are persuasively dramatized, and the presence of someone named Benedict Arnold portends much traitorous behavior to come. Extras are deleted scenes, extended scenes and featurettes.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Broadway Musical Reviews—Revival of 'She Loves Me'; Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's 'Bright Star'

She Loves Me
Music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; book by Joe Masteroff
Directed by Scott Ellis; choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Opened March 17, 2016
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

Bright Star
Book and music by Steve Martin; lyrics & music by Edie Brickell
Directed by Walter Bobbie
Opened March 23, 2016
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski in She Loves Me (photo: Joan Marcus)

It’s hard to believe, but the team behind the 1963 musical She Loves Me—lyricist Sheldon Harnick, book writer Joe Masteroff and composer Jerry Bock—would the very next year create the earthshaking Fiddler on the Roof. By contrast, She Loves Me is a modest, intimate show based on Hungarian Miklos Laszlo's play, which also spawned the film The Shop Around the Corner and its trite update, Nora Ephron's You’ve Got Mail. 

The simple story is set in a Budapest parfumerie in 1934, as salesman Georg trades lonely-hearts letters with a young woman he has yet to meet. Enter fiery Amalia, who lands a much-needed job in the store: needless to say (and unbeknownst to either of them), they are the pen pals, and their mutual attraction on paper belies their constantly getting on each other’s nerves at work. It's no spoiler to say that they are destined to fall in love.

She Loves Me fills this unoriginal plot with romance and humor, heartbreak and redemption, along with some of the sturdiest songs to grace the Great White Way. Although none of them lives on separately from the show like Fiddler’s “Sunrise, Sunset” or “If I Were a Rich Man,” the perfectly pitched songs—from beautiful ballads "Will He Like Me?" and "Dear Friend" to charmers "I Don't Know His Name" and "Twelve Days to Christmas"—make a completely harmonious whole.

The rapturous new revival at Studio 54 takes place on David Rockwell’s enormously pleasing jewel-box set, the outside of the store opening into intricate, eye-catching interiors of such enchantment that the audience rightly cheers the dazzling décor. Director Scott Ellis, who provides the entire performance with perfectly paced rhythms, has also cast the show nearly flawlessly: Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, Gavin Creel and Jane Krakowski—who again shows off her incredible gifts for physical comedy—make a memorable store staff.

If Zachary Levi is merely an adequate Georg, that’s entirely forgotten whenever the radiant Laura Benanti's Amalia is onstage. Finally getting the leading-lady role she’s long deserved, this luminous actress effortlessly shows off her musical-comedy strengths—priceless line readings and facial expressions, gorgeous singing, lithe movement—and makes the most of her opportunity. 

Elegantly directed and sharply performed, this She Loves Me revival is, with Laura Benanti at its center, unmissable.

Carmen Cusack (center) in Bright Star (photo: Nick Stokes)

Bright Star, the inconsequential new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, is supposedly based on a true story, which it tells with all the persuasiveness of your average soap opera. Spanning more than 20 years, the parallel plots encompass young love, adoption, mistaken identity, and finding one's way in the world in ways that are more dramatically (and comically) suspect than one would expect from Martin, one of our most literate writers.

Set in North Carolina in the '20s and '40s, Bright Star features so many cliches and caricatures that at first it seems its creators are putting us on: indeed, when the big plot twist (easily guessed in advance) is finally explained, it's done for laughs, since it's so patently absurd. But mostly this is a painfully earnest show with a negligible bluegrass score of mind-numbing sameness, the lone exception being "I Had a Vision," an emotionally trenchant number that describes the fallout after a woman finds out from her ex-lover what happened to their son 22 years earlier.

Brickell's superficial lyrics actually feature howlers like "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do/When a man's gotta do what he's got to." Martin has, in his occasionally adroit book, come up with enough witty lines to make one wish that there was more of his smart humor to balance the rote melodramatics that drag down the show.

Director Walter Bobbie applies a welcome light touch, especially in the amount of detailed movement on Eugene Lee's spare set, which comprises desks, chairs and shelves moved on and off by cast members, along with a cabin housing several musicians at center stage. Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes are particularly adept at making the songs come alive visually, a needed diversion whenever the creaky plot and repetitive music become too much.

Two accomplished performances, from a compelling and forceful Carmen Cusack and a lively and polished Hannah Elless, help brighten this too often dim Bright Star.