Tuesday, August 23, 2016

August '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Ash vs. Evil Dead—Complete 1st Season
The original Evil Dead movies, which sprayed sophomoric humor and gore all over the screen, became cult items, and this jokey half-hour comedy-horror TV series is simply more of the same: which I guess is the definition of reboot. There’s a certain amusement in seeing the hero Ash fornicating with a gorgeous but devilish stranger in a bar bathroom, but after awhile, the infantile jokes, torn limbs and exploding heads make strange bedfellows throughout these 10 episodes. There’s a good hi-def transfer; extras are audio commentaries on all episodes and featurettes.

The Bloodstained Butterfly
Microwave Massacre
1971’s Butterfly is more sober than the usual entries in the bloody Italian giallo genre, instead concentrates on the intricacies of police work and the courtroom than the actual bloodletting. Still, director Duccio Tessari knows how to put the screws to his victims, which will satisfy giallo fans. 1983’s Microwave Massacre—a movie as idiotic as its title—is a thoroughly inept horror flick about a man who starts eating people after killing his annoying wife. Badly acted, written (by Craig Muckler) and directed (by Wayne Berwick), it’s never repellent, just stupidly risible. Both films have nicely grainy transfers; extras are commentaries, featurettes and interviews.

The Duel 
For its first hour, Kieran Darcy-Smith’s western is a slow-moving, even enervating drama that doesn’t balance the usual aspects of the genre with an offbeat plot about a magnetic preacher who runs a violent town—and gets the new sheriff’s young wife to fall under his spell. It’s only in the last 45 minutes or so—when the sheriff extracts his revenge—that things get occasionally exciting. Liam Hemsworth and Alice Braga are a believable sheriff and wife, but Woody Harrelson is too much Woody Harrelson to make an interesting antagonist. The hi-def transfer is fine; lone extra is a director/production designer commentary.

Endeavour—Complete 3rd Season
(PBS Masterpiece Mystery)
Detectives Endeavour Morse and Fred Thursday return to solve crimes in the area around Oxford University in the highly charged year of 1967 in this mystery series’ highly entertaining third season, comprising four involving 90-minute episodes. The final episode, appropriately titled Coda, is a quite shocking finale; throughout the entire series, Shaun Evans (Endeavour) and Roger Allam (Thursday) give masterly lead performances. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise a making-of featurette and interviews with Evans and Allam.

The Huntsman—Winter’s War 
This unnecessary sequel/prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman misfires badly despite a high-pedigree cast led by Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain, who shows herself as a capable action heroine (maybe a reboot of Alien is in her future?). Chris Hemsworth is a handsome but remote hero, while director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan hits the same visual and emotional buttons so frequently so that his film wears out its welcome well before the halfway point. The film does look ravishing on Blu; extras include director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, extended cut of the film, a gag reel and several featurettes.

(Olive Films)
Cowriter-director Brian Dannelly’s predictable but funny 2004 satire of ultra-religious teenagers dealing with the usual adolescent problems (namely, sex and sexual identity) relies on an ensemble of superb young performers—Mandy Moore, Heather Mazzarato, Jena Malone, Patrick Fugit, even Macaulay Culkin—as well as veterans like Mary Louise Parker and Martin Donovan. Olive’s hi-def transfer is better than what was available previously; extras include two commentaries (one with Malone and Moore, the other with Dannelly, cowriter Michael urban and producer Sandy Stern) and two featurettes.

DVDs of the Week 
Dark Horse
(Sony Pictures Classics)
This heartwarming story of a group of ordinary Welshmen and women who buy a bedraggled foal and watch him become a spectacularly successful racehorse is recounted in this unabashedly sentimental documentary by director Louise Osmond, who uses music, copious horse racing footage and informal interviews to create a pleasing equine portrait. When the horse has a nearly fatal setback, I doubt that no one is rooting against him and all those who believed in him to make the ultimate—and nearly impossible—comeback on the racetrack.

The First Monday in May
With unprecedented access, director Andrew Rossi goes behind the scenes at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to show off both its mounting the large-scale (and extraordinarily popular) 2015 China fashion exhibition and that spring’s Met Gala preparations, overseen by ubiquitous Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour. The fly-on-the-wall footage candidly chronicles the nail-biting prep that goes on until the very last moment, including intimate scenes of the sunglasses-wearing Wintour. Extras comprise a Rossi interview and three deleted scenes.

(IFC Films)
When Congressman Anthony Weiner’s political career was interrupted by his self-inflicted 2011 sexting scandal, it was a cautionary tale about hubris, arrogance and ego; so the fact that directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg got to follow Weiner and his wife (and Hillary Clinton aide) Huma Abedin during his abortive 2013 NYC mayoral run is nothing short of amazing. This is a warts-and-all film about politics that no one would have allowed themselves to be shown in such a way: it’s strange that Huma okayed it, but her husband’s head is so big that it’s unsurprising he allowed this hilariously embarrassing portrait to result. Too bad there are no extras: Weiner’s commentary would have been priceless.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

August '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Warner Archive)
Tennessee Williams’ once-daring Pulitzer Prize-winning play about desperate Maggie the Cat and her uninterested husband Brick was made into a moderately faithful film in 1958 by Richard Brooks, who directs Elizabeth Taylor’s luminous Maggie and Paul Newman’s believable Brick; best, however, is Burl Ives as a gloriously over-the-top Big Daddy: Ives is a scene-stealer of the first order. Warner Archive’s hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are a commentary by Williams biographer Donald Spoto and 10-minute featurette narrated by Ashley Judd, a luscious Maggie on Broadway in 2003.

The story of a group of teenagers who made a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark over seven summers starting in 1981 is recounted in this engaging documentary by directors Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon, who also follow the now-adult filmmakers for one last hurrah: to finish the final shot of their film, a difficult action sequence that was a highlight of Spielberg’s original. Interviews with those involved—along with admiring fans like Eli Roth and John Rhys Davies—and glimpses of the amateur movie itself (and on-set glimpses at the final shoot) make this a must for movie buffs of all stripes, showing that movies make adults into kids again. The film looks good on Blu; extras include commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes from the Raiders remake and Q&A from 2003 remake premiere.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon 
The Pride and the Passion
(Olive Films)
Otto Preminger and Stanley Kramer, two of Hollywood’s most famous directors, made more negligible than good films. Preminger’s Junie Moon (1969) is a weirdly engrossing study of a misfit trio—acid burn victim (Liza Minnelli), shy epileptic (Ken Howard) and wheelchair-bound homosexual (Robert Moore)—trying to find friendship and love when they set up house together. The principals are quite good, and if Preminger can’t quite make us empathize with them, there’s enough of a real-life spark to make this a fairly successful comic drama. Conversely, Passion might be the superficial Stanley Kramer’s worst film, a bloated and empty 1957 epic set during the Napoleonic wars with a pell-mell ensemble of miscast stars: Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra, whose Spanish accent must be heard to be disbelieved. Olive’s fine hi-def transfers are appropriately grainy.

The Vampire Diaries—Complete 7th Season
(Warner Bros)
With actress Nina Dobrev—the most compelling reason to watch this diverting series about young and attractive bloodsuckers in small-town America—gone, Diaries had to basically reboot itself for another season. The resulting 22 episodes are a decent attempt to do so, with more in the way of starring roles for actresses Kat Graham and Candice King while still showing off actors Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder. The series looks excellent on Blu; extras comprise deleted scenes, gag reel, Georgia PSA, directors’ interview and 2-15 Comic-Con Panel.

DVDs of the Week 
The Affair—Complete 2nd Season
I was quickly turned off by the first season of The Affair which, despite estimable acting by the two central couples—played by Dominic West, Maura Tierney, Joshua Jackson and Ruth Wilson—was fatally damaged by co-creator-writer (and erstwhile playwright) Sarah Treem’s tendency to overload her characters’ dialogue and relationships with triteness and heavy-handedness. The second season doesn’t follow suit, and is all the better for it: the characters are far more interesting now than they were then. Extras comprise featurettes and bonus disc with two episodes of Showtime’s series Billions.

11 Minutes
(Sundance Selects)
Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski continues his unimpressive filmmaking—after the equally forgettable Four Nights with Anna and Essential Killing—with this pretentious and dull narrative of 11 minutes in the lives of several characters, culminating with one of the most ludicrous finishes I’ve seen in any movie. At least—for some—there’s the loveliness of actress Paulina Chapko, but for most others, there will be a big “huh?” followed by a shrug…except, that is, for those who continue pretending that Skolimowski (who made the far superior Moonlighting in 1982) remains a major artist.

Exhibition Onscreen: Goya—Visions of Flesh and Blood 
Renoir—Revered and Reviled
(Seventh Art)
Based on London’s National Gallery exhibit of Francisco Goya’s portraits, Goya—Visions is an intermittently intriguing overview of the Spanish master’s life and art; the talking heads and several masterpieces in close-up are far more fascinating than the flat-footed documentary re-creations of him at work. Far richer is Renoir—Revered, which concentrates on French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s last two decades of work, based on Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation’s huge Renoir collection. Interviews with experts (notably the Barnes’ Martha Lucy) are illuminating, as are glimpses of several of his most expressive later paintings.

Diane Kruger gives a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance as an abused French housewife who—after thinking she’s killed her no-good drunk hubby while on vacation near Death Valley—goes off to Vegas, inadvertently beginning a new relationship with a reluctant American loner. Co-writer-director Fabienne Berthaud can’t get a handle on her tone or her characters’ relationships, but with Kruger at the top of her game, it doesn’t matter. This flawed film showcases a flawless performance, along with exceptional support by Gilles Lellouche, Q’Orianka Kilcher and Norman Reedus.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Theater Review—“Troilus and Cressida” in Central Park

Troilus and Cressida
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through August 14, 2016
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Andrew Burnap, John Glover and Ismenia Mendes in Troilus and Cressida (photo: Joan Marcus)

One of the most complex plays in the entire canon, Troilus and Cressida is problematic to stage for many reasons: the language is among Shakespeare’s most dense and knotty; the plotlines swing violently to and fro among romance and farce, tragedy and wartime action; and there’s not one character who is in the least sympathetic. (It’s not surprising that it was probably never performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and rarely done since.)

What keeps Troilus relevant is its relentless sarcasm, which gives it a startlingly modern approach. Set during the Trojan War, the Greeks continue to lay siege to the city of Troy in retaliation for Trojan Prince Paris stealing Greek king Menelaus’ beautiful wife Helen. In Troy, King Priam’s son Troilus and young Cressida fall in love—thanks in part to the wily involvement of the degenerate old Pandarus—but she is soon sent to the Greeks as part of a hostage exchange.  

Shakespeare constantly reexamines his characters, which comprise heroes, cowards and everybody in between: prominently sandwiched among warriors Hector, Ajax and Achilles (the latter, sick of fighting, prefers to stay in his tent with close friend Patroclus) is the snide and condescending Thersites, whose caustic zingers are a running commentary on the lunacies of love and war we are witnessing.

Daniel Sullivan directs this summer’s Central Park Troilus as a modern-dress, military-fatigues production, which director Mark Wing-Davey did with his ill-advised Delacorte Theater staging in 1995, the last time it was performed in New York. Parallels between the seven-year siege of Troy and our own endless wars are obvious and don’t spelling out, but Sullivan doesn’t trust audiences to make their own connections, so he clutters the stage with needless gadgetry and heavy-handed “ideas.”

So the play opens with Pandarus—played by John Glover with gleeful disgust, supplemented by a pronounced limp that physicalizes his “diseases” mentioned at play’s end—speaking the opening soliloquy into a microphone while carrying around a tape recorder. Later, there are cell phones and video cameras, a slide show presented by Ulysses (a curiously distant Corey Stoll), Hector retching after killing an adversary in battle, and most ridiculously, machine guns for the climactic battle scene, which loses any sense of the poetic weight that Shakespeare provides by forcing men to lay down those guns and pull out knives to finish one another off. So why use such supposedly lethal weaponry in the first place?

Admittedly, the play is notoriously difficult to stage, especially on a unit set like the Delacorte’s: the play’s 24 scenes lurch from besieged Troy to a Greek encampment to a battlefield. But David Zinn’s industrial-looking set is too rigid to cope with copious scene changes and his costumes are standard-issue fatigues and gym outfits, with a glaring exception: Ulysses wears impeccably tailored suits. Robert Wierzel’s artful lighting and Mark Menard’s bludgeoning sound design are closer to the mark.

It’s ironic that the play is titled Troilus and Cressida, since the couple is barely onstage together. At least Sullivan has two fine young actors in the eponymous roles: Andrew Burnap makes an ingratiating Troilus, and Ismenia Mendes—a wonderful Hero in a 2014 Delacorte Much Ado About Nothing—belies her youth and relative Shakespearean inexperience to give a piercingly truthful portrayal of one of the Bard’s most complicated young women.

Too bad the rest of the cast is all over the map: John Douglas Thompson has little of his usual zest as Agamemnon, Louis Cancelmi’s Achilles is far too shrill (although that’s partly excused by the fact that Cancelmi replaced an injured David Harbour shortly before opening), and Alex Breaux’s brainless Ajax and Tom Pecinka’s ostentatious Patroclus are even more frivolous than Central Park audiences usually get.

At least there’s Bill Heck’s dignified Hector and Max Casella’s acidly funny Thersites; but Sullivan’s directorial hodgepodge makes a mess of Shakespeare’s psychologically acute study of love and death.

Troilus and Cressida
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

August '16 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Female Prisoner Scorpion—The Complete Collection
These four cult films following the travails of Scorpion, who after her time in prison vows to get back at the powerful man who sent her to prison (Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion; Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41; Beast Stable; #701’s Grudge Song), were made in a flash in 1972-73, and if that shows in the slightness of the story and characters, there’s so much action and gleeful stylistic flourishes that this set is nothing less than trashy, frenzied fun—not least with the stunning Meiko Kaji in the title role. It’s too bad, however, that the new hi-def transfers are problematic, with some of the colors off, occasionally muting some of the visual excitement. Plentiful extras include interviews new and old, visual essays, appreciations and a lavish booklet.

The Girlfriend Experience
(Starz/Anchor Bay)
The original Girlfriend Experience, which failed to make a mainstream star of porn veteran Sasha Gray in 2009, was one of director Steven Soderbergh’s most disposable works, and that same feeling permeates this inert 13-episode mini-series. Although Riley Keough is far more plausible as a student who becomes an upscale escort for often-loathsome older men, creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz never really do much original or interesting with the material, which promises insight and titillation but provides too little of both. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras comprise three on-set featurettes.

The Tunnel—Complete 1st Season 
This 2013 French-British remake of the original 2011 Danish-Swedish series The Bridge (which is currently shooting its fourth and last season) is more credible and absorbing than the 2013 American-Mexican dud, also named The Bridge. Stephen Dillane and Clemence Poesy are superbly mismatched—then later, equally well-matched—as British and French detectives who pair up to solve a series of increasingly bizarre and lurid crimes. The 10 intelligently constructed episodes build to a creepy climax. The series looks sumptuous on Blu, and extras are interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Careful What You Wish For
(Anchor Bay)
In this tepid knockoff of Body Heat, a sleepwalking Nick Jonas plays a young man who has an affair with the impossibly gorgeous young wife of the older rich businessman who takes the vacation home next door to his family. That she is played by the impossibly gorgeous Isabel Lucas is one of several hard-to-believe twists, with my favorite (aside from the twist ending) the quickie the couple has behind the local convenience store just as hubby walks up to the back door to have himself a smoke—but ends up deciding not to.

Dark Diamond 
(First Run)
In Arthur Harari’s twisty and elegantly-shot thriller, a young man decides to avenge his father’s death on the rest of his wealthy, diamond-dealing family by infiltrating the business and plotting the perfect heist. Although Harari doesn’t bother with a subtle approach in this convolutedly plotted thriller, he smartly shows the intricacies of the diamond business just enough to prepare us for the ramifications—personal and moral—when his protagonist’s imaginative revenge slowly but inexorably takes shape.

Meet the Guilbys
(First Run)
In directors-writers Arthur DeLaire and Quentin Reynaud’s meandering road-trip comedy, an occasionally amusing but most often exasperating dysfunctional family travels to attend the mother’s estranged father’s funeral. Although there are nicely understated performances by Isabelle Carre and Stephane de Groodt as the matriarch and patriarch of a brood of mix-and-match stepchildren, after 80 minutes of forced melodramatic whimsy, the whole thing completely dissolves from memory.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Broadway Review: "Cats" Returns

Music & lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber; directed by Trevor Nunn
Opened July 30, 2016
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

The cast of Cats (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Sure, it’s cheesy and dated, but something about Cats keeps it from becoming wincingly awful: whether it’s the large, lively cast of human felines; the eye-catching direction of Trevor Nunn; the clever, even witty, sets and costumes by John Napier; Natasha Katz’s luminous lighting; or the famous score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who already had Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita under his belt when Cats premiered in 1982 (and still had The Phantom of the Opera in his future).

It’s partially all of those, but it’s mainly what happens at the end of the first act. After an hour of synthesizer-pulsating songs (even the catchiest, like the opener “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” are afflicted with the disease) that sound like bizarre Emerson, Lake and Palmer outtakes, suddenly a sumptuous melody wells up and Grizabella sings “Memory,” one of the greatest Broadway ballads and one of those instantly memorable tunes that Webber had to hand: at least in his early musicals.

Leona Lewis (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Superstar and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita, “Memory” bowls over the rest of the score and show, something which even Webber realizes: in Act II, we not only get two reprises but also variations on and hints of that hummable melody throughout. Webber, knowing he’s written his own “Yesterday,” unapologetically milks it for all it’s worth. British pop star Leona Lewis sings the hell out of it during its final incarnation at the end of the show, but the rest of her performance is stiff and wooden, which says more about her stage inexperience than about Grizabella’s aloofness.

Best of the rest of a harmonious cast are Quentin Earl Darrington’s dignified Old Deuteronomy, Eloise Kropps’ agily tap-dancing Jennyanydots and Ricky Ubeda’s astoundingly athletic Mr. Mistoffelees. It’s too bad that choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler merely spiffs up Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, which survives in the cast’s cat-like poses and movements. Why bring such an inventive—and award-winning—choreographer on board only to handcuff him?

That ultimately is the curse of this new Cats: despite Trevor Nunn’s protestations to the contrary, this is old fur in new bottles, and however entertaining, there was a missed chance to make it resonate for a new generation of theatergoers, not simply traffic in nostalgia for the older ones.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—Richard Strand's “Butler”

Written by Richard Strand; directed by Joseph Discher
Performances through August 28, 2016
59 E 59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Williams and Adamson in Butler (photo: Carol Rosegg)

On the heels of J.T. Rogers’s Oslo—a splendid three-hour historical drama as riveting and absorbing as the best thrillers—comes Richard Strand’s Butler, which, though more modest in scope (and length: it’s about two hours), is an accomplished dramatization of actual events that’s exciting and immediate.

Although his subject—the Civil War—is more remote than the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine, Strand invests Butler with passion and incisiveness, and his good old-fashioned dramaturgy makes for an intelligent and thought-provoking play.

Butler’s eponymous Union Major General protagonist—who has just taken over Virginia’s Fort Monroe at the beginning of the War Between the States in the spring of 1861—must immediately deal with a burgeoning crisis: should he return three slaves who escaped from the Confederate army and came to the fort to find shelter—and, they hope, freedom—in the hands of the Union army?

Strand is able, in the space of two hours, to bring to life each of his characters—Butler, escaped slave Shepard Mallory, Butler’s adjutant Lieutenant Kelly, and the Confederate Major Cary, who arrives to take the slaves back—and allow them to argue succinctly (if at times wrongheadedly) about their own points of view on slavery and property, secession and the war, and President Lincoln’s directive governing the return of escaped slaves.

At times, Strand doesn’t entirely trust his material, allowing his characters to banter aimlessly like a TV sitcom, but such occasional flat stretches don’t hurt the drama’s forward momentum. For the most part, the dialogue feels real and true, not simply sounding like mouthpieces of the author, who finds levity enough to balance the serious subjects under discussion.

Smartly, Strand does not bend his subject matter to shoehorn in obvious parallels to our own continuing racial divide; audiences will tease out connections for themselves, as when Butler refuses Cary’s demand to return the slaves with a comment about the Confederacy’s hypocrisy: “Virginia has claimed to be no longer a part of the United States. She has made that claim and I will take her at her word.”

On Jessica L. Parks’s wonderfully detailed small-scale set of Butler’s office, Joseph Discher’s straightforward direction is complemented by a quartet of marvelous performances: David Stitler’s amusingly arrogant Major Cary, John G. Williams’ simultaneously confident and desperate Shepard Mallory, Benjamin Sterling’s likably bemused Kelly, and Ames Adamson’s enjoyably larger-than-life Major General.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

August '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Although she is front and center as Anita Hill in this alternately rote and involving biopic about the controversial 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, Kerry Washington gives a generously understated performance that’s structured to emphatically not steal the show. The rest of the cast—especially Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden and Wendell Pierce as Thomas himself—is also strong, despite Rick Famuyiwa’s routine direction. There’s a solid hi-def transfer; extras comprise cast interviews.

Dementia 13
(Film Detective)
Francis Coppola’s directorial debut was this middling 1963 attempt at terror about a madman who begins murdering members of a family long mourning the premature death of a young daughter. A scant 75 minutes, at least it doesn’t drag on too long, but in Coppola’s neophyte hands, it stumbles and bumbles its way to a not very startling conclusion. Even accomplished actors like Patrick Magee come off stilted in a film that’s of little interest except to die-hard Coppola fans. The hi-def transfer is good.

The Knick—Complete 2nd Season 
The second season of this Steven Soderbergh-directed series about a drug-addicted doctor, his colleagues and patients in turn-of-the-last-century Manhattan consolidates its credentials as a persuasive and absorbing trip through Gotham’s checkered and always colorful history; acing the lead performances are Clive Owen, Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson, Andre Holland and Juliet Rylance. All ten episodes are included; the visuals look splendid in hi-def, and extras include commentaries, featurettes and episode “post-ops.”

(Cohen Media)
In this fictionalized and Gallicized version of the true story of a rich dilettante who loved to sing in public even though she had no talent for it, Catherine Frot gives a delicious portrayal of a woman willing to remain clueless about her own manufactured reality because she loves being around art and artists. Director Xavier Giannoli—whose marvelous debut film, 2003’s Eager Bodies, never got released here—keeps a sure but light touch in this often exhilarating study of seriocomic lunacy. The film looks excellent on Blu; extras are a Giannoli interview and deleted scenes.

Mother’s Day 
Garry Marshall’s final directorial effort was another multi-character melodrama that stays strictly on the surface when it isn’t burrowing toward silliness and worse: Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Jason Sudekis are never able to rise above the stereotypes, cheap jokes and sentimentality that the movie wallows in. Sad to say, Marshall made a lot of unimpressive movies, but his legacy as one of the great TV titans (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley) remains. The film has an excellent hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes and a gag reel.

Sing Street
(Weinstein/Anchor Bay)
Director-writer John Carney already consolidated his music bona fides with his previous Once and Begin Again, both of which wedded insightful sequences of music-making with saccharine relationships, and his latest film follows suit. This story of teenagers in Dublin in 1985 has its indisputable charms, notably when Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor meets and falls for adorably intelligent Raphina, played with impossible charm by Lucy Boynton. But since there’s a lot of dross that one must wade through, Sing Street is of a piece with his earlier work. The film has a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are a making-of featurette, Carney conversation and cast auditions.

To Have and Have Not 
(Warner Archive)
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made their first screen appearance together in Howard Hawks’ loose 1944 adaptation of Earnest Hemingway’s novel, with a screenplay co-authored by William Faulkner. As an American amidst the French resistance on the island of Martinique during World War II, Bogie is his usual strong but silent self, and Bacall—in her film debut—shows remarkable poise for a 19-year-old, glamorous, tough as nails and with a sultry singing voice. The hi-def transfer is superb; extras comprise a vintage featurette, vintage cartoon and Bogie-Bacall radio broadcast.

Tristan und Isolde
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Even though director Katharina Wagner’s staging at her great-grandfather Richard Wagner’s own shrine to his operas at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival is dramatically wobbly, the performers in what is essentially a two-character, four-hour romantic drama—tenor Stephen Gould and soprano Evelyn Herlitzus—are up to the task and, coupled with Christian Thielemann’s rigorous leading of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, make this a musically vital performance. Both hi-def visuals and audio are superb; extras comprise interviews with Gould and Thielemann. But it’s too bad that the director herself didn’t discuss her (and her great-grandfather’s) work.

DVD of the Week 
In Country
(Warner Archive)
Norman Jewison made this earnest, occasionally treacly 1989 melodrama about a Vietnam vet whose teenage niece wants to know about the father she lost over there when she was too young to remember him: it ends with a powerful visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bruce Willis gives a sympathetic performance as the uncle, but stealing the film—par for the course during her too-brief career—is Emily Lloyd as the niece. Lloyd disappeared far too soon, but her remarkably authentic, true-to-life portrayals always elevated whatever she was in, including this scattershot but touching drama.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Film Review: New Documentary "Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil"

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil
Directed by Pieter van Huystee
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY
Through August 9, 2016

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil

It’s been 500 years since the death of Hieronymus Bosch—one of the most modern of all painters—and Pieter van Huystee’s fascinating documentary, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, is a fine introduction to his art and a fly-on-the-wall peek into tumultuous art-museum machinations as institutions out-do one another to have the most comprehensive Bosch show during his death quincentenary. 
Huystee has unprecedented access to both Bosch’s paintings—several of the known two-dozen or so in existence are shown in ultra close-up (something you don’t see even if you’re one of those annoying museumgoers who stick their noses in the canvas)—and the behind-the-scenes work by archivists from Netherlands’ Noordbrabants Museum in the city of Bosch, hosting an exhibition celebrating its most famous namesake (several other members of the Bosch family also painted, muddying painting attributions). These researchers visit Madrid’s Prado—home to several of Bosch’s greatest works, including the colossal The Garden of Earthly Delights—and other museums in order to analyze Bosch’s paintings and (they hope) pry something for their exhibit.
Although the politics behind museum lending—“you lend me yours, I’ll lend you mine, unless mine is more valuable”—is always intriguing (especially when it’s discovered that another museum is trying to steal the Noordbrabants’ thunder by opening a Bosch exhibit before theirs), the detailed studying of several of the painter’s exuberant but nightmarish panels is the main interest of Touched by the Devil. (The film’s title comes from the many owls in Bosch’s paintings which, in the Middle Ages, were considered symbolic of ill omens.)
After so many centuries and so many parodies, Bosch’s flamboyant paintings may seem like mere clichés, but actually seeing these dramatically and philosophically dense glimpses of hellfire and apocalypses out of the Book of Revelations underlines their continued relevance and modernity. These acid-trip visions of sheer irrationality comprise menageries of creatures that are anything but benevolent: mutant fish and reptiles, conjoined human-animal hybrids and ordinary people whose faces are garishly cartoonish.

When I saw Bosch’s masterpiece Temptation of St. Anthony in Lisbon, I was stunned by its brashly confident combination of exhilaration, fear and excitement. Although that painting isn’t shown, Huystee’s film gets the essentials of Bosch’s art—and its continued reverberations a half-millennium later—right.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

July '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Barbershop—The Next Cut 
(Warner Bros)
For much of its running time, this quite belated sequel has very little happening: its shaggy-dog plot strands allow its characters to often just sit around and talk to, at and through one another. The funniest moments include those conversations, as the zingers fly, the insults are generated and the cast simply goes with the flow. Standouts in the cast for their witty asides are Cedric the Entertainer, Anthony Anderson and Eve. There’s a quite good Blu-ray transfer; extras include a featurette, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

I Am Wrath 
John Travolta—nearly unrecognizable under what looks to be a mash-up of make-up and plastic surgery—plays a pseudo-Charles Bronson in this sub-Death Wish revenge flick about a man who tracks down the killers of his wife (poor Rebecca DeMornay), who was offed in front of him. The plot gives nobody a chance to do anything resembling acting, and the clichéd story beats, which are hit every step of the way, keep this from even becoming a guilty pleasure. The hi-def transfer looks decent; lone extra is a director and writer commentary.

(Virgil Films)
The souped-up DeLorean that was the centerpiece of the beloved Back to the Future trilogy is also front and center of Steve Concotelli’s engaging documentary that recounts how it’s being restored to its pride of place among the most famous movie memorabilia. It seems that saving a relic from a 30-year-old fantasy film isn’t worth the slavish attention the car receives, but I’m obviously an outlier: I enjoyed the original but hated the two sequels. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras include a commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

The Outsider
(Olive Films)
1980’s The Outsider is director-writer Tony Luraschi’s involving drama about the IRA, with a largely unknown cast underpinning its straightforward exploration of how an Irish-American celebrity finds himself transformed into propaganda when he returns to Ireland. In 1997’s Hoodlum, Laurence Fishburne adroitly plays real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson and the 1920s Harlem mobster scene. Bill Duke’s colorful production includes an array of stars, from Tim Roth as Dutch Schultz and Andy Garcia as Lucky Luciano to Vanessa Williams as Johnson’s sexy moll. Both films’ solid hi-def transfers have sparkling grain.

A Perfect Day 
Set in the war-torn former Yugoslavia in 1995, this drama about a group of war-zone rescuer workers has a lot of strong moments of insight mixed with charcoal black comedy while it shows (for the millionth time) the absurdity of war. But director Fernando Leon de Aranda never brings its tonal shifts into some kind of coherence, all but stranding a game cast led by Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko and Melanie Thierry. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are interviews and making-of featurettes.

The Perfect Match 
Alone among his friends, Charlie remains the same skirt chaser he’s been since high school, earning derision and envy from all around him: when he meets the magnetic Eva, he begins a full-blown romantic relationship that threatens to destroy his rep. This mildly amusing rom-com is greatly helped by its two stars, Terrence J and Cassie Ventura, who persuasively and charmingly play Charlie and Eva. It’s too bad that the supporting cast, especially poor Paula Patton, is pretty much wasted. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras are featurettes and a commentary.

The Ratings Game  
(Olive Films)
Danny DeVito’s feature directorial debut was this satiric 1984 movie (the first made for Showtime) in which he stars as a desperate man intent on making it in Hollywood. There are few original ideas but good laughs from a solid supporting cast including DeVito’s future wife Rhea Perlman, Gerrit Graham, Kevin McCarthy and George Wendt. It’s all a far cry from DeVito’s more daring efforts The Wars of the Roses and Hoffa, but still has its intermittent moments. The film looks acceptable but soft in hi-def; extras are four DeVito-directed shorts, deleted scenes and a featurette.

Silk Stockings 
(Warner Archive)
The teaming of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse is what most distinguishes Rouben Mamoulian’s classy 1957 adaptation of the Broadway musical about a possible Cold War thaw between an American in Paris (Astaire) and a Russian envoy (Charisse). The splendid widescreen compositions maximize the extraordinariness of Astaire’s and Charisse’s dancing, and Cole Porter’s tunes are equally memorable. The Blu-ray transfer is good, if not sparkling; extras are a vintage featurette and two musical shorts.

DVDs of the Week 
Born to Be Blue 
Anchored by Ethan Hawke’s bravura performance as Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter whose career was constantly being interrupted by his drug addiction (of which he died in 1988 at age 58), director-writer Robert Budreau has made a fascinating impressionistic look at a musical artist’s career. There’s an equally great supporting portrayal by British actress Carmen Ejogo as the woman in Baker’s life; their splendid scenes both together and apart make this fictionalized biopic a must-watch. Extras are deleted scenes and a making-of.

Five Days One Summer 
(Warner Archive)
Director Fred Zinnemann—who won Best Director Oscars for From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons—ended his career with this turgidly melodramatic 1982 entry starring an embarrassed-looking Sean Connery as an older man in love with a much younger woman, who soon becomes interested in a much younger man. Although Zinnemann lived another 15 years, the scathing reviews for this swore him off directing. The Swiss Alps are enchanting, but the acting by a blank-eyed Betsy Brantley and wooden Lambert Wilson is anything but.

The Last Diamond  
(Cohen Media)
In this diverting if implausible heist picture, the always beguiling Berenice Bejo charms as a woman who stupidly allows a stranger into her life without the slightest bit of questioning that he may not be whom he seems. Director Eric Barbier tries too hard to make this lighthearted—think Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief—but, although Bejo easily equals Grace Kelly’s elegance, Yves Attal is certainly no Cary Grant. Extras comprise interviews with Bejo, Attal and Barbier and a short making-of featurette.