Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—"The Invisible Hand"

The Invisible Hand
Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Ken Rus Schmoll 
Performances through January 4, 2015
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY
nytw.org


Ally and Kirk in The Invisible Hand (photo: Joan Marcus)
With his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced doing boffo biz on Broadway (and a likely front-runner for the Tony Award), let's see if playwright Ayad Akhtar is not just a one-trick pony. Happily, The Invisible Hand—which shrewdly shows how money is the root of all evil, whether capitalism or terrorism—proves he isn't: it's another smart, provocative, hard-hitting and all too relevant drama.

After Nick Bright, a broker working in Citibank's Pakistan office, is mistakenly kidnaped—the target was his boss—the group who did the deed decide to try and extort money from the bank for his ransom. But the $10 million they are asking is, in Nick's own words, far too much for someone of his relatively minor stature; but his captors remain steadfast, assuming the dirty American bank will cough up the money.

After weeks in captivity, Nick makes a deal with the men: he will use $3 million from his own offshore acount to invest in the market until he raises $10 million. The group's head, the respected elder Imam Saleem, agrees to allow his protege, the hot-headed Bashir—a London-born Arab who is in Pakistan to wage jihad like, he says, the many leftists who turned into freedom fighters against Franco in the Spanish Civil War to assuage their guilt over living comfortably in the West—to become Nick's financial "assistant."

Although their investments begin well, a brilliantly written and staged scene shows how Nick quickly realizes that working financial angles for his captors has a plethora of moral quagmires: especially after their immediate windfall comes after a prominent Pakistani and his wife (both of whom he knew socially) are killed in a terrorist attack at a wedding. Parallelly, Bashir becomes giddy, almost scarily so, when he sees the ease with which they've made $700,000 in 10 minutes. 

Akhtar's writing skillfully treads the blurred lines separating freedom fighters from terrorists and surviving at all costs from doing what's morally right: he adroitly positions his characters and their explosive behavior in the front lines of the so-called war on terror. If Disgraced found tough insight into that war through two couples in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment, then The Invisible Hand is its flip side: a dispatch from that endless war, with lives on the line for nothing more than cold hard cash.

Since the play began life as a one-acter, there's a noticeable difference in the writing: act one has a simple but forceful elegance that underlines its brutal truths about both sides; after intermission, there are blunter statements of physical and mental brutality. Some may find the sheer viciousness of the play's final moments too obvious, but it works perfectly as the only possible ending for a story that's been leading to ever more dangerously fraught situations for everyone involved.

Ken Rus Schmoll directs with alternate muscle and finesse on Riccardo Hernandez's starkly imposing set (with bonus points for Tyler Micoleau's exquisitely evocative lighting), while the actors—Justin Kirk (Nick), Usman Ally (Bashir), Dariush Kashani (Imam) and Jameal Ali (Dar, a gun-toting minion)—give firmly commanding performances in roles that could easily have become caricature.  All of that, combined with Akhtar's assured script, makes The Invisible Hand another winner by New York's playwright of the moment.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
At the Devil's Door 
(IFC Midnight)
An unapologetic ripoff of other (and some better) fright flicks, writer-director Nicholas McCarthy's lackluster horror film sets up its premise so lazily that whatever happens—from the death of main characters to a dragged-out, unsuspenseful finale—will probably be met with indifference by most viewers. A game cast (led by Glee's Naya Rivera and a sorely underused Catalina Sandina Moreno) has little to do, while bumps in the night and other would-be scares do little more than add to a frighteningly dull 93 minutes. The movie looks good on Blu-ray; extras comprise a making-of featurette and deleted scenes with McCarthy's commentary.

Carmen 
(Decca)
Georges Bizet's classic opera, a sure-fire crowd-pleaser with some of the most famous music ever written, gets an uneven 2009 Zurich staging, but at least conductor Franz Welser-Most leads the Zurich Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a blisteringly dramatic reading. It's unfortunate that Matthias Hartmann's production decides to scuttle time and place, while the cast—Vesselina Kasarova as Carmen, Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose and Isabel Rey as Micaela—is polished but infrequently inspired. On Blu-ray, the visuals and audio are equally impressive.

Inspector Lewis—Complete 7th Season 
(PBS)
At first, Inspector Hathaway soldiers on without his partner, Detective Inspector Lewis, and has problems dealing with his new partner, Lizzie Maddox—until D.I. Lewis returns from retirement, helping both himself and Hathaway as they become an unbeatable pair once again. The three 90-minute Oxford-set mysteries that make up the seventh season are filled with the series' usual fine acting (Kevin Whately, Laurence Fox, Angela Griffin, Claire Holman) and intelligent writing. The Blu-ray image is quite good.

Stonehearst Asylum 
(Millennium)
In this unsettling adaptation of a lesser-known Poe story, director Brad Anderson romps through the all-too-familiar halls of a shadowy insane asylum, with his cast chewing the scenery in high style: Ben Kingsley as the head of the asylum, Michael Caine and Kate Beckinsale as inmates (with Kate an impossibly glamorous one). The daft twist ending, though drawn out too much, still perfectly closes the gleefully ludicrous tale, which retains the blackly humorous Poe flavor. The hi-def image looks excellent; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

This Is Where I Leave You 
(Warners)
This comic drama about a dysfunctional family sitting shiva after the father dies has its share of funny lines, but director Shawn Levy's penchant for triteness and sentimentality prevents his film from being anything more than an intermittently entertaining mess. Good performances by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Debra Monk and Connie Britton help smooth over the unnevenness, but at 103 minutes, this overdone soap opera is stretched too thin. It all looks attractive on hi-def; extras include featurettes, outtakes and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Altina 
(First Run)
Altina Schinasi was a renaissance woman: painter, sculptor, bon vivant and sexually liberated, she was ahead of her time—so far, in fact, that even today some people might be shocked at her long, eventful and unapologetic life, which is recounted in her grandson Peter Sanders's admiring and loving documentary. What shines through from archival interviews with her and new interviews with friends, lovers, husbands, family and admirers, is her love—even lust—for a life well-lived: that she also helped Holocaust refugees and made an Oscar-nominated film about the Nazis are merely more reasons to have her story told. Extras are 18 minutes of additional interviews.

Bob Marley—Uprising Live!
Justin Hayward—Spirits...Live  
(Eagle Rock)
Before his death in 1981, Bob Marley went on a world tour, and his Germany concert—filmed for posterity—contains the hallmarks of a great Marley show: opening act Threes, featuring wife Rita, sings back up for Marley and the Wailers, with highlights being "Jamming," "No River No Cry" and an encore of "Lively Up Yourself." Uprising Live! is a terrific souvenir of an indelible talent at his best. 

Longtime Moody Blues frontman Justin Hayward toured with stripped-down versions of his classic-art rock band's songs—his acoustic guitar and three sidemen (and woman)—and his Spirits...Live concert will satisfy Moody Blues fans with renditions of "Tuesday Afternoon" (the show's opener), "Nights in White Satin" and "Question" that are interesting alternate takes of the group's overblown arrangements. Lone Hayward extra is a backstage featurette.

French Affairs 
The Little Bedroom 
(Cinema Libre)
French Affairs, a by-the-numbers Gallic roundelay, follows two pairs of lovers with more amusement than bemusement, but director Pierre-Loup Rajot doesn't do anything particularly unique or telling, while his mostly obscure cast can't make the comedy or drama very interesting.  The Little Bedroom, a minor gem by co-writers/directors Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond, stars the always persuasive Michael Bouquet (who was last seen as the aging painter in Renoir), who provides the gravitas needed to prevent this old-age drama from becoming syrupy.

Levitated Mass 
(First Run)
When I saw Michael Heizer's gargantuan rock outside the L.A. County Museum of Art last year, I thought it was a gimmick, something that would automatically draw visitors. (It does.) Doug Pray's fascinating documentary makes clear that getting the rock there, an enormous logistical and even political challenge, is a story far more interesting than Heizer's "art" itself. Bringing the huge (340-ton) rock from its original spot miles away to Los Angeles was the responsibility of dozens of people, an oversized road vehicle and signing off by nearly two dozen town officials en route. But for what? To paraphrase what someone says, "It's a rock. It's nature. Not art." Extras comprise three short featurettes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

December '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Anna Netrebko— Live from the Salzburg Festival 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
The biggest superstar in the opera world, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko combines intense musicality with the sheer force of her personality to dazzle audiences in any number of dramatic and comedic roles, and this set brings together a trio of her flavorful performances in productions from Austria's long-running summer Salzburg Festival, all of which show off her range. There's her sexy Violetta (in that oh so stunning dress) in 2005's La Traviata, her charming Susanna in 2006's The Marriage of Figaro and her sympathetic Mimi in 2012's La Boheme. The hi-def transfers and surround-sound audio are top-notch on all three releases. 

Astral City: A Spiritual Journey 
(Strand Releasing)
Brazilian medium Chico Xavier's 1944 novel Nasso Lar became this 2010 film, about a doctor who finds himself in a 'spiritual city" after his death, that was among Brazil's most expensive and popular. Director Wagner de Assis visualizes the afterworld with lushness and pomposity, befitting the new age sensibilities of the book, while Philip Glass's retread score pounds away at your brain mercilessly. The visual beauty is the Blu-ray's main attraction; lone extra is a making-of featurette. 


Eric Clapton—Planes, Trains and Eric 
(Eagle Rock)
Filmed during his recent Mid and Far East tour, Eric Clapton plays his patented blend of blues-rock that's been his musical bread and butter since the 60s: just a few examples of his artistry are "Tell the Truth," "Key to the Highway," "Cocaine" and "Hoochie Coochie Man" (although I wish he'd put that sleep-inducing acoustic "Layla" to bed). Most interesting, though, are interviews with Eric and his band members, who ruminate on his decision to retire from performing to spend more time with his family: he sounds  indecisive, the others are crushed; we'll see if he goes through with his promise. Hi-def visuals and audio are terrific; extras are two songs and featurettes. 

Justified—Complete 5th Season 
(Sony)
Based on Elmore Leonard's short story "Fire in the Hole," the fifth season of Justified finds its brooding protagonist, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, not divulging a secret that could threaten both his career and his life. Timothy Oliphant gives Givens gravitas, while Michael Rappaport also scores as a ruthless crime family head. The hi-def image looks flawless; extras include commentaries, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette, with added Blu-ray exclusives comprising eight more featurettes.


The Picture of Dorian Gray 
(Warner Archive)
Oscar Wilde's classic horror tale of a rake who stays young while his portrait ages instead became a very effective 1945 film adaptation by director Albert Lewin, who smartly keeps the horror psychological, like Wilde. In the title role, Hurd Hatfield is perfectly smarmy, as is George Sanders as the man who eggs him on, while Harry Stradling's B&W photography (with color inserts during the painting sequences) is appropriately ominous. On Blu-ray the movie looks smashing; extras are a commentary with costar Angela Lansbury and two unrelated shorts.

Time Bandits 
(Criterion)
Terry Gilliam's first solo extravanganza behind the camera—his co-directing debut with fellow Monty Pythoin alum Terry Jones, 1977's Jabberwocky, is best forgotten—is this delightfully demented 1981 fantasy about a young boy and group of dwarves who fall through holes in time, meeting historical characters like Napoleon (Ian Holm) and Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Gilliam's imaginative movie is a wondrous prelude to even more extravangant fantasies Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Criterion's hi-def transfer is luminous; extras comprise a commentary, a new featurette, 1998 Gilliam interview and 1981 Shelley Duvall appearance on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show.

DVDs of the Week
Forbidden Hollywood—Volume 8 
(Warner Archive)
The eighth volume in Warners' collection of Hollywood "pre-code" dramas (made before the motion picture industry began enforcing the Hays code in 1934) comprises a quartet of films probing the seamy side of sex, drugs, crime, etc. The four films are Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, Hi Nellie and Dark Hazard, and they feature such luminaries as James Cagney, Ray Milland, Norma Shearer, Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson; whatever they lack in polish they more than make up for in star wattage.

A Life in Dirty Movies 
(Film Movement/Ram Releasing)
Joe Sarno, who made several successful sexploitation flicks until hardcore porn went mainstream in the mid '70s with Deep Throat, is lovingly remembered in Wiktor Ericsson's documentary. Sarno (who died in 2010 at age 89) comes across as earnest and sincere, and those who talk about him—mainly his wife and former lead actress Peggy Sarno, and a few film historians—discuss him with reverence and appreciation in equal measure. Extras include expanded interviews with adult-film stars Annie Sprinkle and Jamie Gillis and featurettes.


Marius & Fanny 
(Kino Lorber)
It's hard to equal Marcel Pagnol's 1930s trilogy of films—Marius, Fanny and Cesar—which tell engrossing, heartwarming stories of a hardheaded old man, his equally headstrong son and a beautiful young woman, but damned if Daniel Auteuil doesn't resurrect Pagnol's humanist spirit in his sturdy remakes of the first two films, which deal with Marius and Fanny's courtship, separation and reunion. Auteuil himself makes a tough-as-nails Cesar, Raphael Personnaz is a handsome, dashing Marius and newcomer Victoire Belezy is an even better Fanny (beautiful, smart, irresistible) than Orane Demazis in the original. Too bad Auteuil didn't remake Cesar: maybe that's next? Extras are short featurettes.

A Summer's Tale 
(Big World)
Eric Rohmer's 1996 entry in his Tales of the Four Seasons series—the others were made in 1990 (Spring), 1992 (Autumn) and 1998 (Winter)—is less irritating than usual, thanks to a lightness of touch the director is usually at pains to create, but here it works effortlessly in a story of a young man juggling three women, unsure of whom to decide on. Melvil Poupaud, Amanda Langlet, GwenaĆ«lle Simon and Aurelia Nolin are all beguiling, while Rohmer's dialogue is witty and realistic; the attractive landscapes of Brittany seal the deal. But why is there no Blu-ray, when all of Rohmer's films have been released in hi-def in Europe?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Off-Broadway Reviews—"Grand Concourse," “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations),” "A Christmas Memory"

Grand Concourse
Written by Heidi Schreck; directed by Kip Fagan
Performances through November 30, 2014
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
playwrightshorizons.org

A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
Written by Sam Shepard; directed by Nancy Meckler
Performances through January 4, 2015
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
signaturetheatre.org

A Christmas Memory
Book by Duane Poole; music by Larry Grossman; lyrics by Carol Hall
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances through January 4, 2015
Irish Repertory Theatre, 103 East 15th Street, New York, NY
irishrep.org

Mendes, Moreno and Tyler Bernstine in Grand Concourse (photo: Joan Marcus)
How unfortunate that Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse closed after a relatively short run, for this modest but insightful character study deserved an extension. But that seems to be the way of things: when engrossing works like this or Adam Bock's A Small Fire a few seasons back deserve a second life—or even a longer first life—in New York, they rarely get their just due.

It's too bad, for Schreck's play, set in a Bronx soup kitchen and revolving around four characters—Shelley, a nun who runs the place; Emma, a confused 19-year-old and a new volunteer; Oscar, the kitchen's handsome handyman; and Frog, one of the elderly men who frequent the place—is a low-key, eloquent look at how disparate people come together, and explores whether they are selfless or selfish: most likely a combination of the two.

That's not to say that Grand Concourse is perfect—there's a finale that feels tacked on, especially coming after a penultimate scene which seemed to say all that needed to be said about these characters, and especially about the volatile relationship between Shelley and Emma—but there's an economical precision to Schreck's mostly believable dialogue. Kip Fagan resourcefully directs a magisterial quartet—Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Shelley), Bobby Moreno (Oscar), Lee Wilkof (Frog) and Ismenia Mendes (Emma), fast becoming an essential performer on New York stages, and who is well on her way to being one of our best actresses—that pours added compassion and humor into Schreck's already excellent script.

Judith Roddy and Stephen Rea in A Particle of Dread (photo: Matthew Murphy)
The plays of Sam Shepard, from Curse of the Starving Class to The Late Henry Moss, often deal with Oedipal issues of absent or abusive father figures. His latest, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), declares its intentions in its subtitle, but the rather trite updates to and borrowings (to say it as nicely as possible) from the enduring Greek myth suggest that Sheaprd doesn't have too much to say whatever continuing relevance Oedipus might have today.

Instead, a playwright who has made virtues of structural disjointedness and violent outbursts among his often crudely drawn characters here goes so far over the edge that it's difficult to take anything that occurs onstage seriously (or even comedically). Taking place in what looks like the remains of an asylum, A Particle of Dread—a typically resonant Shepard title—radiates out from the central murder to encompass dual characters like Oedipus/Otto, Jocasta/Jocelyn and Antigone/Annalee, along with a ludicrous pair of forensic detectives and two onstage musicians.

Sheaprd's dialogue is portentous and ponderous in equal measure, while Nancy Meckler's staging—except for a vividly realized hanging (for which Michael Chybowski's striking lighting design deserves a lion's share of the credit)—can't harness the essential shallowness in Shepard's concept, and so resorts to putting Frank Conway's evocative set awash in blood both literal and figurative. Of a game cast, only Stephen Rea makes an impression as Oedipus and Otto, but there are times when he seems as confused as the rest of us. 

Robinson, Spagnuolo and Ripley in A Christmas Memory (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Based on Truman Capote's classic short story, A Christmas Memory is a perfectly pleasant holiday musical set in Alabama in 1933 and 20 years later, where we meet adult Buddy, returning as a successful writer to the old—and now vacant, except for the loyal black servant, Anna—family home. Memory is a series of flashbacks to young Buddy's last Christmas with the trio of eccentric cousins who are raising him, notably Sook, with whom he bonds by making annual Christmas fruitcakes, one of which is even sent to the new President, FDR. The adult Buddy looks on, narrates and even enters scenes with his younger self.

The two-hour show is a sometimes sleepy but sweet concoction that will warm the hearts of those in the mood for sentimental holiday fare, agily directed by Charlotte Moore and containing several polished songs by composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Carol Hall. Ashley Robinson and Silvano Spagnuolo memorably play Buddy as a grown-up and a young kid, and Alice Ripley is heartbreaking as cousin Sook, even if she tends to sing to the back row as if she's in a large Broadway theater, compromising her naturally beautiful voice. She should tone it down as effectively as the rest of this small-scale but engaging production does. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

December '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Expendables 3 
(Lionsgate)
The lazy formula for an increasingly turgid series of action-adventure yarns has calcified: in addition to those graying and/or balding actors who have been around since the first two—Stallone, Lundgren, Statham, Jet Li, Schwarzenegger—is another batch of over the hill vets like Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas and even Kelsey Grammer: but for my money, the biggest loss is the lack of Charisma Carpenter. Even by the shallow standards of the first two movies, E3 comes across as explosions and gunplay in search of something remotely resembling a story. The Blu-ray image is fine; extras include a gag reel, featurettes and on-location documentary.

The Giver 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Lois Lowry's mega-popular young-adult sci-fi novel has become a movie that feels like an outline, as all of the original story's beats are hit, but without much resonance: you feel like a character in the movie after seeing it because it's erased from your memory immediately. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep look uneasy as The Giver and The Chief Elder, respectively, while Brenton Thwaites is adequate as Jonas, the young man being trained as the new Giver. Philip Noyce cleverly shoots in B&W then gradually changes to color, but that's about the extent of the originality on display in the direction (or the script, for that matter). The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are featurettes, a deleted scene and a script reading by Lloyd Bridges (whom son Jeff wanted as The Giver way back when).

Jeff Beck—Live in Tokyo 
(Eagle Rock)
One of the all-time great blues-rock guitarists, Jeff Beck is still going strong at age 70, as demonstrated by his scintillating fretwork in a Tokyo concert from this past April: Beck's effortless style trumps all on well-chosen covers like Hendrix's "Little Wing," the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" and even Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi." Beck's equally superb band—comprising guitarist Nicholas Meier, bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Jonathan Joseph—keeps up with him throughout, as the concert culminates in an unforgettable rendition of Beck's own "Why Give It Away." The image and sound are excellent; extras are interviews and song list commentary. 

The Paradise—Complete 2nd Season 
(BBC)
The second season of this stylish costume drama co-produced by PBS' Masterpiece and the BBC centering around a large department store in 1870's London was also its last, mainly because it didn't bring in as many viewers of the more successful (and entertaining) Mr. Selfridge. Perhaps if the creators had kept their adaptation of Emile Zola's novel The Ladies' Paradise in its original French setting, it would have worked better; at least the cast—Joanna Vanderham, Emun Elliott, Sarah Lancashire and Elaine Cassidy, for starters—is top-notch. On Blu-ray, the visuals look sensational.

What If 
(Sony)
Daniel Radcliffe has certainly proven there's life after Harry Potter with interesting performances in several hit-or-miss movies; unfortunately, this fey rom-com about friends who try to remain platonic despite their mutual attraction is less romantic, funny and charming than it could have been. For that blame Zoe Kazan, an actress who in the right part can be forceful but an irresistible young woman is beyond her. If Megan Park—who plays Kazan's sexy sister—starred opposite Radcliffe, we might have had something. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Abuse of Weakness 
(Strand Releasing)
Catherine Breillat, who had a stroke 10 years ago at age 56, made this bitter, self-pitying drama about what happened afterward, when she was bilked by a charismatic “bad boy.” Played by the fearless Isabelle Huppert, director Maud Schoenberg (Breillat’s stand-in) won’t allow a stroke to slow her down, despite a limp and hand curled into a claw. The stroke itself is harrowing, and Breillat continues in that vein by showing a talented artist giving herself up to a man she knows will ruin her. Portuguese rapper Kool Shen is good as Breillat/Huppert/Schoenberg's nemesis, but Huppert is impossible to look away from, especially in that final unyielding close-up that peers into the depths of her soul.

Apaches 
(Film Movement)
Exploring bored young people on crime sprees like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and Bertrand Tavernier's far subtler L'Appat (Fresh Bait), Corsican director Thierry de Peretti, follows local kids who casually break into a home and, after swimming and partying, take off with valuable jewelry that leads them to a showdown with a local crime boss. Unfortunately, neither the performers nor the characters are differentiated enough, the situations are all too familiar, and director-writer de Peretti provides little insight. The lone extra is a short film from Italy, Margerita.

Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years 
(PBS)
One of TV's longest-running music series, Austin City Limits has for four decades presented the best contemporary pop, rock and country music, and this all-star celebration concert—hosted by Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow, both of whom also perform—features an array of artists for jam sessions, from Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson to Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. Highlights are guitarist Gary Clark Jr. doing a blistering "Bright Lights" and the Foo Fighters knocking Roky Erickson's "Two Headed Dog" out of the park. Extras include additional performances and two making-of featurettes. 

The Fan 
(Warner Archive)
In the aftermath of John Lennon's murder, Edward Bianchi's 1981 thriller about a famous movie star stalked by a deranged fan while starring in a Broadway musical seemed a victim of bad timing and bad taste; three decades later, it's simply awful moviemaking, as veterans Lauren Bacall, James Garner and Maureen Stapleton come off particularly badly, and younger names like Michael Biehn (overdoing the murderous fan) don't make much of an impression. This is best as a time-capsule of Manhattan—particularly the theater district—during its pre-Disneyfication days.

Penance 
(Doppelganger)
Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his name with creepy but stylish tales of horrific behavior, and this five-part mini-series for Japanese television is no different: it follows four women many years after one of their friends was brutally murdered by a maniac when they were young children. Psychologically penetrating but painfully slow—its barebones plot fleshed out to 4-1/2 hours—Penance will appeal mainly to fans of Kurosawa's other work, although it is far better than his recent deadly feature Real. Extras comprise interviews with Kurosawa and his performers.

DVD/CD of the Week
Heart & Friends—Home for the Holidays 
(Frontiers)
For their 2013 holiday concert in their hometown of Seattle, Ann and Nancy Wilson of the band Heart host an enjoyably eclectic selection of holiday tunes and Heart hits, many with well-chosen guest singers who help out on this festive occasion. There are Sammy Hagar, Richard Marx, Train lead singer Pat Monahan and Shawn Colvin, the latter of whom sings a lovely "Rocking" and duets with Ann on "Love Came Down at Christmas." Ann's vocals, of course, remain incomparable, whether on Joni Mitchell's opening "River," a stately, choir-driven "Stairway to Heaven" or Heart's own "Barracuda" and "Even It Up." (The latter only shows up on the CD, not the DVD, a surprising omission.) 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Alive Inside 
(City Drive)
How music burrows through the frayed brain cells of those suffering from Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases is brought to exhilarating life in Michael Rossato-Bennett's documentary, which shows several people who miraculously escape from their moribund existence when they hear music that's familiar from their past. There are scenes here, in which a light is turned on and a patient's face glows with life, that are among the most inspirational onscreen moments ever. The Blu-ray looks good; extras include added scenes and interviews.

Automata 
(Millennium)
What starts as a lackluster knockoff of Blade Runner soon turns into an original (but equally lackluster) tale of a future world in which robots—surprise!—turn out less benevolent than humans planned them to be. Although Antonio Banderas doesn't play a robot, he acts just like one, while his offscreen ex-wife Melanie Griffith gives an embarrassingly earnest performance; at least Danish actress Birgitte Hjort Sorensen is sexy and fiery as Banderas' onscreen (and pregnant) wife. The impressive effects are the best thing about the film, which looks excellent on  Blu-ray; extras include a behind the scenes featurette.

L'Avventura 
(Criterion)
Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 masterpiece of ennui and alienation remains a marvelous example of the great Italian filmmaker's singular vision, as his characters start to recede further  from each other and landscapes and architecture become symbolically oppressive. The brilliant B&W photography and elliptical editing were in many ways unsurpassed by the director, even though his next two films, La Notte and L'Eclisse, came close. Criterion's hi-def transfer looks wondrous; extras include a commentary, Jack Nicholson reading, director Olivier Assayas' analysis and an hour-long documentary, Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials.

The Damned 
(IFC Midnight)
Unlike many show-offy thrillers that tell their outlandish tales of possessed people, The Damned distinguishes itself by not being very distinguished: we've been down this road before, and director Victor Garcia and writer Richard D'Ovidio do little to alleviate the non-tension and feeling of deja vu that permeates the entire enterprise. The best one can say is that The Damned has the courage of its convictions, ending on a darker note than most such movies do. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are cast and crew commentaries and a making-of featurette.

The Last Play at Shea 
(Virgil)
Billy Joel's final concerts at Shea Stadium, before the New York Mets' ballpark made way for CitiField, are memorialized in this fleet 90-minute movie that's part concert film, part documentary. Joel's career and the Mets' history are shown alongside footage of Joel's live performances with special guests like Garth Brooks, Tony Bennett (who sang "New York State of Mind") and Paul McCartney who was accompanied by Billy and his band on Beatles' classics "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Let It Be." Too bad neither concert is documented in its entirety. The hi-def transfer looks sharp and the music sounds great; extras include a Joel interview, two additional songs and time-lapse of Shea giving way to CitiField.

The November Man 
(Fox)
In this hackneyed but exciting espionage thriller, Pierce Brosnan returns to his 007 days as a former CIA agent who battles a protege tasked with eliminating him amid the picturesque locations of Belgrade and surrounding Serbian environs. Director Roger Donaldson things taut despite implausible twists and turns, but Brosnan, the impossibly gorgeous Olga Kurylenko as the woman he's protecting and the film's breathless pace makes it work. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras are Donaldson and Brosnan's commentary and three making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Beyond the Edge 
(Sundance Selects)
I have never been a fan of reenactments in documentaries, for too often, they are uninteresting dramatizations that turn the films they are part of into fictional accounts of real events; that is the lone flaw in Leanne Pooley's otherwise estimable film about the amazing Mount Everest ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Such a riveting real-life adventure remains gripping even with unnecessary reconstructions, and there's enough genuine archival footage and the words of the men themselves to give a sense of the scale of Hillary's achievement. 

Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection—Volumes 1 & 2 
(Warner Archive)
These enjoyable boxed sets return us to a time when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were two of the biggest entertainers in Hollywood, and the films they made together showcased not only their comedic talents, both also their singing and even dancing. Although the films vary wildly in quality—the Frank Tashlin-directed films, 1956's Hollywood or Bust and 1955's Artists and Models, are by far the most memorable of the 13 features spread out over 7 discs—but they all contain hints of the delicious chemistry the duo had.

Lines of Wellington 
(Film Movement)
Valeria Sarmiento's star-studded war epic, set during the Napoleonic Wars, features the Emperor himself (Mathieu Amalric) and his British archenemy, General Wellington (John Malkovich), while other famous faces flit by, from Michel Piccoli to Catherine Deneuve. But the bulk of its 2-1/2 hour running time is on war's effects on ordinary civilians and soldiers; this is humane work from director Sarmiento, who took over when her partner, Raul Ruiz, died in pre-production. Extras are a 30-minute making-of featurette and unrelated Australian short, Two Laps.

When Comedy Went to School 
(First Run)
The Borscht Belt, which introduced new generations of comedians—mostly, but not exclusively, Jewish—receives an entertaining gloss by directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, who explore the beginnings of Catskills comedy resorts with lots of vintage footage and interviews with veterans like Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl,  Jackie Mason, Milton Berle and Jerry Stiller. Narrated by a wry Robert Klein, this documentary is both humorous and informative about an aspect of show biz history too often relegated to cliches and stereotypes.  Extras are several additional scenes.

Monday, November 24, 2014

New York Theater—Revivals of "Sticks and Bones," "Major Barbara" & "Side Show"

Sticks and Bones
Written by David Rabe; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through December 14, 2014
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
thenewgroup.org

Major Barbara
Written by Bernard Shaw; directed by David Staller
Performances through December 14, 2014
Pearl Theatre Company, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
pearltheatre.org

Side Show
Book & lyrics by Bill Russell; music by Henry Krieger; directed by Bill Condon
Opened November 17, 2014
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY
sideshowbroadway.com


Schentzer, Hunter, Pullman and Ullmann in Sticks and Bones (photo: Monique Carboni)
The Vietnam War's legacy lives on four decades after its ignominious end, and our current "endless war" footing in the Middle East ensures that comparisons to that earlier unwinnable conflict will continue for the foreseeable future. So a revival of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones—one of the first plays to deal honestly with how returning soldiers from Vietnam were treated—seems especially timely, and it's to the credit of Scott Elliott, director of The New Group's strong production, that no unnecessary parallels are made between that war and today. None is needed, in any case: the play, clunky as it sometimes is, speaks for itself.

We are in the Middle America home of dad Ozzie, mom Harriet and teenage son Rick, all blissfully and ignorantly going about their everyday lives, when eldest son David (the author's obvious stand-in) returns home from Southeast Asia, not in a body bag, but something worse: as a blind and bitter shell of himself. Haunted by the ghost of the young Asian woman he fell in love with, David in his alternating fury and futility forces his narrow-minded family members to deal with their own prejudices and misconceptions.

Rabe's rage is palpable in this 1972 drama, which alternates between satirical family scenes and darker explorations of David's psyche. Rabe pushes the sitcom parodies and psychology both too far and not far enough, creating an uneasy blend of innocence and panic: the dialogue, cutting in its ordinariness but failing when trying to be lofty and poetic, catches the era's confusion, especially in scenes involving Father Donald, a priest whose self-serving attacks on David  come perilously close to caricature. 

But Rabe's aim is mostly true, and even if some things simply don't work—Zung's ghost is an underused apparition until the final scene, which combines horrific explicitness with clumsy symbolism—Sticks and Bones sears the memory. Elliott's explosive staging features several fearless actors: Raviv Ullmann as Rick, Ben Schentzer as David, Richard Chamberlain as Father Donald, and Holly Hunter as Harriet. But, as Ozzie, Bill Pullman goes above and beyond the call of duty, giving emotional resonance to a father whose blinded son's return forces him to take stock of his life and the choices he's made, which culminates in a pool of David's own blood.

Cabell (center left) and Daily (center right) in Major Barbara (photo: Richard Termine)
Major Barbara, one of Bernard Shaw's classic comedies, hits on lofty subjects like rich vs. poor, war vs. peace, and materialism vs. spirituality dazzlingly but, as usual with Shaw, effortlessly. The title character, Barbara Undershaft, a headstrong young woman who's an officer in the Salvation Army, is shattered when she discovers that the organization has accepted "blood money" in the form of a donation from her estranged father Andrew, a millionaire industrialist who has made his fortune from manufacturing weapons of war. 

Shaw explores the dynamics of a family in which matters of money matter as much, if not more so, than matters of the heart and soul. David Staller's mostly straightforward staging allows Shaw's words to speak loudly and clearly, especially in the capable hands of Dan Daily, a stalwart Andrew, and Hannah Cabell, an intelligently-spoken Barbara. But Staller has commissioned a wrongheaded unit set by James Noone—comprising two gold-edged staircase on either side of the stage—which forces the cast to run up and down said stairs for no reason. And beginning both acts with the supporting cast entering in street clothes, mumbling lines as they put on their costumes, creates an unnecessary distancing effect that obscures the play's genius.

Padgett and Davie in Side Show (photo: Joan Marcus)
Turning one of the saddest stories ever into a musical, Side Show is a biopic of Violet and Daisy Wilton, Siamese twins who were in a freak show before going to Hollywood for an appearance in Tod Browning's 1932 classic movie shocker Freaks, about the extent of their celebrity aside from the usual gawking. Despite leaving behind the exploitative conditions of the freak show, they were exploited by everyone else, ending up destitute and alone together, forever conjoined.

It's prime material for dramatic treatment, though it's problematic as a musical: a straight play (to say nothing of a book or movie) would theoretically dig deeper into the intricacies of their plight. As it is, Side Show the musical glides along with show biz surfaces at its core: we learn precious little about the sisters in Bill Russell's book (with additions by director Bill Condon) aside from them as briefly famous celebrities, always freaks in the eyes of others. 

Russell's serviceable lyrics rarely illuminate the sisters' relationships with each other, their side show boss, Sir, or the men who put them in show biz, Terry Connor and Buddy Foster. Henry Krieger's mediocre songs are either meandering ballads or soaring belters, the latter of which is the show's high point, the sisters' paean to each other, "I Will Never Leave You." Bill Condon's staging cleverly evokes the movies and has a cinematic feel, notably in the opening freak show menagerie and the closing Freaks set. Condon is aided immensely by spectacular work by set designer David Rockwell, makeup and mask creators David and Lou Elsey, costumer Paul Tazewell and lighting wizards Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

In a large and talented cast, David St. Louis scores as Jake, the sideshow's "cannibal king" who becomes Violet and Daisy's trusted bodyguard; Robert Joy makes an appropriately creepy Sir; and Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik's bland handsomeness and top vocal chops serve them well as Terry and Buddy, who are the sisters' romantic and business partners.

Erin Davie's Violet and Emily Padgett's Daisy carry the weight of the show on their shoulders, giving their all vocally and histrionically; they manage to look and sound alike as the twins attempt to navigate their way through one bad roll of the dice after another. They make the most out of the climactic duet "I Will Never Leave You," but also manage to make touching many minor, individual moments. If the show leaves them, finally, only compelling enough to gawk at, that's show biz—and Side Show—for you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Doors—Feast of Friends 
(Eagle Rock)
At the peak of their few years of fame, The Doors filmed themselves while on tour in the summer of 1968, and the resulting document, never completed at the time, has been restored and is finally being given a belated release. Mostly a time-capsule curio in the crowded market of rock group documentaries, the finished product might be manna for Doors fans but less so for the rest of us. The hi-def image looks decent; extras include Feast of Friends: Encore, comprising left-over footage; The Doors Are Open, a British TV documentary; a live performance of "The End" with interviews.

Into the Storm 
(Warners)
Climate change exacts its just desserts, but unlike Sharknado 1 & 2's tongue-in-cheek campiness (not that I'm defending those ridiculous movies!), this is purely serious and stern-faced melodrama, and the stick figures populating a town inundated with non-stop tornadoes and superstorms are such a dim bunch that it's easy to root for Mother Nature against most of them. The special effects are quite impressive—like the death of one unfortunate cameraman in a fiery funnel cloud—and it's all wrapped up in a quick 85 minutes, which helps, at least partly. On Blu-ray, the movie's disastrous events play out quite thrillingly; extras are three featurettes.

Pete Kelly's Blues 
(Warner Archive)
A monotonous Jack Webb directs and stars as jazz cornetist and band leader Pete Kelly in this alternately tough-as-nails and sentimentalized look at the musician's life on and off stage, dramatizing his battles against a crime boss and his relationships with women, played with vitality by Janet Leigh, Jayne Mansfield and (most impressively) Peggy Lee. Director Webb smartly peppers his uneven drama with wonderful musical performances, including two Ella Fitzgerald showstoppers, while the movie's color Cinemascope photography comes across richly on Blu-ray. Extras are two period shorts.

Prince Igor 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Rusalka 
(Euroarts)
Alexander Borodin's intermittently gripping Igor receives a bizarre, messy 2014 Metropolitan Opera revival by director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who ruins the opera's best moments—the famous "Polovtsian Dances"—with an unimaginative poppy field in which the dancers scamper about: Borodin's unexciting music is presented well by conductor Giandrea Noseda, and the title role is given over to the towering Russian bass Ildar Abdrazikov. Antonin Dvorak's masterly romantic fantasy Rusalka (based on the fairy tale Undine) sounds beautiful thanks to Myrto Papatanasiu's magnetic performance in the title role, but its visual tackiness stems from director Stefan Herheim's wrongheaded concept: Rusalka the mermaid is a hooker in a red light district. Puh-lease. On Blu-ray, video and audio are splendidly realized; extras are interviews.

Worricker—Turks & Caicos  
Worricker—Salting the Battlefield 
(PBS)
In his trilogy about a British agent battling new-fangled globally destructive forces, writer-director David Hare has an ace in the hole: actor Bill Nighy, whose casual, snarky coolness goes a long way toward validating these films (and the original, 2012's Page Eight) as searing indictments of our post-Sept. 11, post-meltdown world gone amok. Turks follows Nighy's Johnny Worricker on an island paradise, confronting ultra-rich bad guys; Salting finds him on the run before a climactic showdown with his nemesis, the British prime minister. Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Walken and Winona Ryder provide solid support, Hare's dialogue is often snappy and witty, but Nighy himself is the main attraction. The hi-def transfers are superior; extras are making-of featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Guns of Darkness
Twilight of Honor 
(Warner Archive)
In 1962's Guns of Darkness, neither David Niven nor Leslie Caron—as a couple in a war-torn republic—can do much in a flimsy tale about a coup that turns their brave act of mercy for an ousted leader into treason; that director Anthony Asquith has little affinity for such starkly melodramatic material goes without saying. 1963's Twilight of Honor has a formidable cast that makes its routine courtroom dramatics watchable, despite director Boris Sagal's leaden pacing: there's Richard Chamberlain as an idealistic defense attorney, Claude Rains as his mentor, Joan Blackman as Rains' available daughter, Joey Heatherton as the accused's wife and James Gregory as a pompous district attorney.

K2—Siren of the Himalayas 
(First Run)
An illuminating look at the 2009 expedition to scale the world's most dangerous mountain, Dave Ohlson has made a tense, exciting document of a story that's both tragic and triumphant: some climbers failed to ascend K2, but at least they weren't killed—which as many of a quarter are. The film's heroine, Germany's Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, became the first to scale all mountains 8000 meters or higher; interviews with her and other members of the climb make personal their group's bravery, teamwork and death-defying difficulties. Ohlson also recaps a 1909 Italian expedition, complete with narration, stills and newsreel footage, which provide an enriching historical perspective. Extras include a deleted scene, updates and more interviews.

Master of the Universe
Slow Food Story 
(Kimstim)
The enterprising label Kimstim's latest intriguing documentaries that otherwise might have escaped notice start with German director Marc Bauders' Masters of the Universe, about the culpability and duplicity of those running (and ruining) the financial system during the 2008 economic collapse; Bauder introduces Rainer Voss, a chatty trader who candidly discusses what happened, why and by (and for) whom. Stefano Sardo's Slow Food Story is a lively account of how Italian foodie Carlo Petrini became a heavy-hitter in the anti-fast food movement, which emphasizes local, healthy alternatives to the corporate behemoths that control most of the world's (bad) food production.

Next Year Jerusalem 
(First Run)
When a group of residents at an old-age home in Columbus, Ohio finally took a long-gestating and unlikely "field trip" to Israel, director David Gaynes was on hand to record a unique, historic and breathtakingly emotional journey that was much more than obviously metaphorical traveling through time and memory. Among the many people—from the "tourists" and those who came with and filmed them to those whom they met when they arrived in the Holy Land—affected by events presented in this stirring documentary are its viewers. Extras are seven deleted scenes.

Tosca's Kiss 
(Icarus)
Daniel Schmid—the unconventional Swiss director who died in 2006—made this memorably  offbeat 1984 documentary about the first nursing home for retired opera singers, located in Milan, Italy: the film follows the home's residents, who sang arias by the world's great composers, including the man who founded it, Giuseppe Verdi, Italy's (and one of the world's) best opera composers. The basis for Dustin Hoffman's likable directorial debut, 2012's Quartet, this funny and moving film deserves to be more than just the prelude to a famous actor's first foray behind the camera; happily, now that Hoffman "presents" its restoration and DVD release, it will get more widespread recognition.