Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—Broadway's "Hamilton" and Off-Broadway's "Love & Money"

Book, music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; directed by Thomas Kail
Performances began July 13, 2015
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Love & Money
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Mark Lamos
Performances through October 4, 2015
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Renee Elise Goldsberry, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo in Hamilton (photo: Joan Marcus)
There is so much that's good about Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's rollicking musical about one of our least-known Founding Fathers, that it's too bad that the show is not the instant classic so many are touting it as.

Unlike In the Heights, Miranda's breakthrough show—and the "game-changer" for musicals that everyone is belatedly saying Hamilton is—whose hip-hop inflected songs were actual emotional outpourings of its characters, the rapping rhymes of Hamilton, Jefferson, Burr and Washington sit uneasily on their tongues. Admittedly, what Sherman Edwards composed for his Founding Fathers in 1776 wasn't any more authentic, but those men (as portrayed by the likes of William Daniels and Howard da Silva) at least retained their dignity, while the characters in Hamilton sometimes approach parody. 

That's especially true of King George III, whose sardonic appearances as, first, the colonies' ruler, later a defeated monarch, and lastly a bemused and amused observer of the new nation puts the show dangerously close to silly Something Rotten territory, however deliciously Jonathan Groff embodies the British tyrant.

Miranda's lyrics are clever—often very clever—but also flirt with the sophomoric: "raise the glass to the four of us/tomorrow there'll be more of us" isn't the most inspiring couplet. Miranda's score mainly soars when the entire cast sings variations of "whoa whoa" and Thomas Kail's extraordinarily savvy directing and Andy Blankenbuehler's astounding choreography come to the rescue. 

In fact, the staging and movement in this show are so prominent that there's almost too much of it. There are precious few moments when characters are allowed to just sing without being upstaged by other doings—and the large stage turntables, stairs and a second tier that allow for even more movement throughout—and so the nearly three-hour Hamilton becomes, quite literally, exhausting.

It's too bad: shorn of 20 or so minutes, Hamilton would be the astute and theatrically exciting analysis of our country's complex, multi-hued early history that its being described as. As it is, it's at times exhilarating and always entertaining; even Miranda's stumbling attempts at profundity—the thick irony of "My Shot," the recurring duels, the wedding rewind, the bathetic summing-up finale—work well onstage, thanks to Kail and Blankenbuehler's breathtakingly inventive and cohesive visual structure, upon which Miranda's ambitious if not fully realized musical concept sits.

The indefatigable cast is tremendous, led by Miranda's self-confident Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry's golden-voiced sister-in-law Angelica, Phillipa Soo's gorgeous-sounding wife Eliza, Daveed Diggs's strutting Thomas Jefferson and Leslie Odom, Jr.'s charmingly villainous Aaron Burr, whose own complicated history deserves a show of its own someday.

Maureen Anderman in Love & Money (photo: Joan Marcus)
One of his most featherweight works, A.R. Gurney's Love & Money touches on this eloquent playwright's pet themes of the foibles of the rich and entitled in such a way that, at a mere 75 minutes, it's a mere blueprint for a more incisive play.

Sharply directed by Mark Lamos, Gurney's comedy introduces Cornelia Cunningham (an excellent Maureen Anderman), an Upper East Side widow about to enter an old folks' home for the affluent—there are even retired professors!—who has decided to give much of her wealth away to many charitable organizations. When her lawyer Harvey Abel (an amusingly flustered Joe Paulik) arrives to go over details of her will and trust (her children are dead and her two grandchildren are, she says, not entitled to much), he also brings her a letter from a young man in Buffalo, who insists he is her long-lost grandson.

A little later, Walker Williams (an unfortunately charmless Gabriel Brown) arrives and, after surprising them with the color of his skin, charms the pants off Cornelia, who acts like she believes his story of being the offspring of an affair between Cornelia's daughter and his father during a trip to Manhattan. Her skeptical lawyer digs up informaton that puts Walker's story under a microscope, while Cornelia's loyal maid Agnes (Pamela Dunlap, typical but funny) is also not fooled by the interloper.

Whether Walker is in fact her grandson or not is not the point—it does get resolved, by the way—instead, the play is an excuse for Gurney to provide jokes and observations about class, race, affluence, education and culture, none very penetrating but amusing at times, summed up by Cornelia's rather pedestrian quip about her lack of interracial romance: "The closest I've ever come to an affair with a black man is to vote for Obama."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

August '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Day for Night 
Francois Truffaut's tenderly funny valentine to cinema was an award-winning hit in 1973, but today it might be hard to see what the fuss was about, since Truffaut shows the behind-the-scenes machinations, squabbles and love affairs on the set of a commercial movie, which showed how far he’d come from his earlier auteurist works as one of the French New Wave of the ‘60s. Still, this is accomplished and effective filmmaking, with in-jokes galore and the calm presence of Truffaut himself as the movie-within-movie director: Day for Night also kickstarted the careers of glamorous European actresses Jacqueline Bisset and Nathalie Baye. Criterion's transfer is immaculate; extras include vintage and new interviews, a 2003 documentary and a segment about the Truffaut/Jean-Luc Godard fracas touched off by Godard’s loathing of this film.

A masterly dissection of the “new” Russia—in which oligarchs outpace the working classes at a rate even greater than the U.S.—Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2012 drama is best when extraneous details fall away and we are left with the naked pain and desperation of the title character, a former nurse (now married to a gazillionaire) whose own family is ignored by her rich husband. Too bad Philip Glass’s self-parodic music trashes every scene it’s heard in; sensibly, Zvyagintsev (who more recently made the interesting if fatally flawed Leviathan) builds the most powerful moments—beginning with the evocative opening shot—with silence that speaks volumes more than broken Glass. The movie's immaculate compositions are given new life on Blu-ray; extras are a 30-minute Zvyagintsev interview and 40-minute making-of.

La grande bouffe 
(Arrow USA) 
Italian provocateur Marco Ferrari's infamous 1973 black comedy purports to satirize Western culture's mass consumerism by chronicling a quartet of middle-aged male friends who decide to eat and screw themselves to death: it's a pretty feeble idea which Ferrari does little with except have the men overindulge in food and women until they give up the ghost one by one. There's amusement in watching four of Europe's most civilized actors—Philippe Noiret, Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli and Ugo Tognazzi—act brutishly and barbaric, but the 130-minute movie wears out its welcome by repeating itself until it, too, dies an overdue death. The film has been wonderfully restored in hi-def; extras include vintage interviews and featurette and an audio commentary.

Hell on Wheels—Complete 4th Season 
(e one) 
NCIS—Complete 12th Season 
For the fourth season of Hell on Wheels, the sturdy Anson Mount as our hero Cullen and colorful Colm Meaney as head of the Union Pacific Railroad make this down-and-dirty depiction of the post-Civil War West worth watching. In its 12th season, NCIS continues its pursuit of evildoers from international pirates to cyberterrorists with a solid cast led by Mark Harmon, Emily Wickersham and Pauley Perrette. Both series look terrific on Blu; Hell extras are featurettes and interviews, while NCIS extras are featurettes, deleted/extended scenes and audio commentaries (a Best Buy exclusive includes an extra DVD with more bonus features).

La Sapienza 
(Kino Lorber) 
Eugene Green has been a favorite on the festival circuit for years, but his latest feature demonstrates his empty stylishness: ostensibly a study of two couples—one middle-aged and on the outs, the other young and just starting out—La Sapienza comprises 100 minutes of stilted, vacuous dialogue, stiff, emotionless acting, nicely-photographed exteriors and interiors of sublime Italian buildings (the protagonist is an architect) and Monteverdi vocal music that wells up on the soundtrack to give an air of artiness to the proceedings. The movie looks luminous on Blu, at least, and could be a travelogue of gorgeous Italian architecture; extras are a Green interview and 2006 Green short, Les Signes, which in 32 minutes makes that usually expressive actor Mathieu Amalric as zombie-like as the rest.

Welcome to New York 
Abel Ferrara has taken the torn-from-sordid-headlines story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French presidential hopeful accused of raping a maid at a Manhattan hotel, and turned it into a fierce and even moral drama about a sex-crazed man with power finally being called to account for his actions. A gigantic Gerard Depardieu (in girth as well as stature) bares all in a commanding performance, while Jacqueline Bisset gives the man's wife a knowingly icy elegance. For once, Ferrara has found a sordid, nasty tale worth telling that he doesn't muck with. The hi-def transfer is impressive. 

DVDs of the Week 
Bottoms Up 
Knifed Up 
These 45-minute documentaries are semi-serious glimpses at the ultra-serious American epidemic of plastic surgery—the obsession with, in the first, big butts and, in the second, everything else—which amateurishly use talking heads who alternate one-liners with more cogent observations, and a plethora of video footage and photographs, mostly of celebrities but occasionally of “regular” people who went too far in their quest for physical perfection. There are a few moments that are genuinely disturbing—as, most notably, when we see a bit too much of a woman's butt enlargement operation—but too much of this is superficial and jokey, their abbreviated running times militating against any in-depth analysis.

5 to 7 
In this wish-fulfillment fantasy by writer-director Victor Levin, a 20ish writer meets a gorgeous and oh-so-willing French housewife on Fifth Avenue and begins an affair in which he discovers how the French deal with adultery: unlike puritanical Americans, her husband and children welcome him as a friend of the family. Although Anton Yelchin is too dull to deserve his character's lucky fate, Bérénice Marlohe is so exquisite, elegant, refined—in other words, so French—that she makes this threadbare 90-minute rom-com seem more substantial than it is. Well-used Manhattan locations (this is also, of course, a Woody Allen homage) are another plus. A short making-of is the lone extra.

It Happened Here 
The ongoing discussion of campus rape is not going away, even if shoddy journalism like that in Rolling Stone forced it to unfairly take a hit, since—as this strong documentary shows—male college students continue to rape female college students. Director Lisa F. Jackson follows several victims who are forthcoming after initial reluctance at sharing their stories, their clear-eyed truth-telling and activism permeate the film, especially when they come up against obvious circling the wagons from clueless institutions like the University of Connecticut, whose (female) president defended the school against their accusations.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

2015 Summer Festivals—Shaw Festival, Caramoor, Bard Summerscape

Shaw Festival
Performances through November 1, 2015
Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada

Caramoor Summer Music Festival
Performances through August 2, 2015
Katonah, NY

Bard Summerscape
Performances through August 16, 2015
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Canada's Shaw Festival continues to be the premier summer theater destination, not only for its lovely lakeside location (whose cool breezes and usually moderate temperatures are the opposite of New York's sultry weather) but for its mostly superior productions of plays by Shaw and his contemporaries and—straying from the festival's original mandate—classic musicals and new plays by writers influenced by Bernard Shaw. 

Julie Martell (center) in Sweet Charity (photo: Emily Cooper)
This summer's musical, Sweet Charity, has two long shadows: it's based on Federico Fellini's classic 1956 film, The Nights of Cabiria, starring his beloved wife Giulietta Masina; and the original Broadway production, by Bob Fosse, starred his beloved wife Gwen Verdon. So that's four legends of film and theater towering over any production of this musical, which has a beguilingly tuneful score by Cy Coleman and an amusingly sassy book by Neil Simon.

Happily, multifaceted singer-dancer-actress Julie Martell brings her own mix of lovable naivete and hard-as-nails New York toughness to the lead role of Charity, and a large and merry cast surrounds her. Ken MacDonald's nicely evocative '60s New York sets, Cameron Davis's astute projections, Bonnie Beecher's lively lighting and Charlotte Dean's dead-on costumes complement the boisterous choreography of Parker Esse and solid direction by Morris Panych, which combine to make this Charity sweet indeed.

Harveen Sandhu (center) and Patrick McManus (right) in Pygmalion (photo: Emily Cooper)
The same cannot be said for a new production of Pygmalion, one of Bernard Shaw's supreme masterpieces that's best known as the basis of the beloved musical My Fair Lady. Shaw's biting satire of class warfare has been pointlessly updated to the present day by director Peter Hinton (who did similar damage to Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan a couple of summers back), in the hopes that everyone "gets" that Shaw's 100-year-old play is still relevant today.

Well, of course it is, and we don't need Hinton's sledgehammer introductions of pontificating TV talking heads and other video footage, an extraneous fashion show—yes, you read that right— and lousy contemporary songs to alert us to that fact. (When Vaughan Williams' elegaic Tallis Fantasia is heard during a scene, the effect in this confused context is of sheer irrationality.) 

And, contrary to his published director's note, Hinton has "modernized" more than just dialogue about financial matters in order to push stodgy old Shaw into the 21st century. Whereas in the original, Eliza Doolittle famously used the expletive "bloody" to shock Shaw's upper-crust phonies, now she uses a more infamous F-word. It's good for an easy laugh—and feigned shock from an audience desensitized to hearing it by now—but little more. 

In such a farrago, the actors don't stand a chance: even experienced Shaw Fest vets like Patrick McManus and Mary Haney as Henry Higgins and his mother are defeated by their director; poor McManus even has to fight off a collapsing chair in a painfully unfunny bit of slapstick. For her part, Harveen Sandhu is everything you would want in an Eliza: maybe she'll get to play her again in a more felicitous production of Pygmalion.  

Dialogues des Carmélites: Jennifer Cheek, conductor Will Crutchfield, Alisa Jordheim (photo: Gabe Palacio)
From Canada to two musical oases north of the city, each staging opera this summer. Caramoor, an estate in Katonah, 45 minutes north of Manhattan, hosts a music festival each summer that includes classical, jazz and folk, along with two operas in the "Bel Canto at Caramoor" series. However, this summer—in addition to Donzietti's bel canto La Favorite—a mid-20th century masterpiece was performed: Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites.

It was a wise choice for the outdoor Venetian Theater: Poulenc's extraordinarily moving drama about a group of martyred nuns during the French Revolution was given a forceful reading by conductor Will Crutchfield and his skilled orchestral forces, choir and singers, led by the formidable Jennifer Cheek's young nun Blanche and Alisa Jordheim's breakout performance as the novice nun Constance.

Directed adroitly if minimally on the cramped stage by Victoria Crutchfield (the conductor's talented daughter), this Carmelites was involving musical drama of the highest order.

A scene from The Wreckers (photo: Cory Weaver)
Would that I could say the same about Ethel Smyth's middling The Wreckers, this summer's operatic offering at the annual must-attend Bard Summerscape, on Bard College's campus two hours north of New York. Smyth was a contemporary of Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, the subject of this summer's Bard Music Festival, which is why her 1908 opera—never before staged in America—was chosen, but a sketchy libretto and long, arid stretches of uninspired music drag it down.

Smyth's melodies are remindful of Wagner, Strauss and particularly Bizet and Carmen, but without reaching the emotional or dramatic heights of those masters. And director Thaddeus Strassberger forced the poor performers to navigate what looked like a precarious setup of crates that could at any moment send them tumbling into the orchestra pit. As it is, only soprano Sky Ingram made any vocal or dramatic impression in a cast that might have been more capable in more sympathetic circumstances. 

Leon Botstein ably conducted the American Symphony Orchestra, but the end result was indifference toward an operatic oddity with little to recommend it. Perhaps Chavez's only opera, The Visitors, should have been staged instead.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

NYC Theater Review—'Cymbeline' in Central Park

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through August 23, 2015
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Lily Rabe and Raul Esparza in Cymbeline (photo: Carol Rosegg)
That Shakespeare jumped the shark with Cymbeline, a late-career romance that includes so many wild plot twists and crazy final-act revelations and reversals it's as if the Bard had decided to send up his entire playwriting career in one fell swoop, is pretty indisputable.

So it's not surprising that director Daniel Sullivan plays fast and loose with its many eccentricities for his Central Park staging, jettisoning the ancient Britain and Renaissance Rome settings, doing the usual Delacorte dumbing down by making things cruder and more farcical, and excising one of Shakespeare's most famous dream sequences: the appearance of the god Jupiter on an eagle.

The problem with this approach is that Cymbeline, for all its inconsistencies (literary luminaries Bernard Shaw and Samuel Johnson famously hated it), is a carefully constructed and ultimately moving exploration of love, death and reconciliation. By treating it as a string of entertaining scenes with added song and dance interludes, Sullivan ends up merely skimming the surface of Shakespeare's deep, dark, often sorrowful text.

His fast-paced three hour production thrives on audience participation, a desperate strategem for any director: the performers get to play to and ackowledge a few dozen spectactors sitting in several rows placed on either side of the stage, which makes for fun but unnecessary interaction. There's also much bric-a-brac at the sides of the stage (which looks salvaged from earlier Delacorte productions), including piles of crates—not to be confused with the trunk featured in the famous bedroom scene—on which are stamped King Lear and Hamlet and, unaccountably, oversized cutouts of Napoleon on horseback and an armored tank. 

None of this really adds anything, but doesn't really detract either. What does detract are the mediocre performances of the Delacorte's current "it" couple, Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, whose inflated reputations as top-flight Shakespeareans continues to mystify. Rabe, whose Imogen never reaches the poetic heights of one of Shakespeare's most sympathetically drawn females, fleetingly rises to the occasion when disguised as a boy, while Linklater fails to impress in not one but two roles (nine performers enact some two dozen roles throughout). As both the heroic Posthumous and the idiotic Cloten, Linklater falls equally flat.

Others fare better. Kate Burton makes a gleefully evil stepmother as the Queen and doubles amusingly as banished old man Belarius, whose "sons" are integral to the convoluted plot revelations, while Patrick Page is a well-spoken and quietly elegant King Cymbeline. Best of all is the villainous Iachimo of Raul Esparza, whose charismatic performance works despite Sullivan making him a Rat Pack-era Sinatra. 

Esparza beautifully sings "Come, thou monarch of the vine," lifted from Anthony and Cleopatra (the not inapposite music is by Tom Kitt), dances sinuously when given the chance, and is the lone cast member who sounds like he understands what he's saying, especially in the bedroom scene, when he takes the measure of the sleeping Imogen to gather proof that he slept with her to win a bet with Posthumous.

If only Sullivan had given Esparza more Shakespearean songs to sing, I wouldn't have minded that his Cymbeline isn't really Cymbeline at all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

August '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Barely Lethal 
This comic caper about a lethal assassin who, because she's a teenage girl, decides to become a "normal" high school kid, works on and off for 90 minutes, growing increasingly desperate to balance its Sixteen Candles homage with warmed-over Spy Kids-like action. Kyle Newman's movie at least has Hailee Steinfeld, an accomplished and charming actress who holds the screen formidably since her memorable 2010 debut in True Grit: with the likes of Samuel Jackson and Jessica Alba wasted, Steinfeld is the only one worth watching. The movie looks good on Blu; extras comprise a commentary, deleted scenes and featurette.

Brother's Keeper 
In a faith-based drama with a twist even O. Henry would have rejected, a high school senior is framed for murder in 1950s Georgia and his identical twin brother takes matters into his own hands to set everything right. It's too bad hamfisted director Joshua Mills' inability to tell a straightforward story without obvious religious symbolism drags down his competent cast. Some may find its message emotionally or spiritually satisfying, but it would have been more so without such heavyhanded writing and directing. The movie looks fine on Blu.

The Dovekeepers 
This collaborative followup to The Bible by actress Roma Downey and husband Mark Burnett is an equally leaden and laugh-inducing mini-series, the opposite of Alice Hoffman's original novel about the events leading to the mass Jewish suicide at Masada around A.D. 73 through the eyes of several women. This could have been gripping television, but if the visuals (well-chosen costumes, sets and locations) look OK, actresses Cote de Pablo, Rachel Brosnahan and Kathryn Prescott can do little, while someone like Sam Neill does even less. The superior hi-def transfer is the best thing about this release. 

Far from the Madding Crowd 
The latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel about the free-spirited Bathesheba Everdene and the very different men she juggles has been directed crisply by Thomas Vinterberg and well acted by the always remarkably Carey Mulligan and, as her suitors, Tom Sturridge, Michael Sheen and Matthias Schoenaerts; too bad it loses out to John Schlesinger's longer 1967 film. (Over)length is necessary, but Vinterberg's version clocks in at exactly two hours, making it more like Cliffs Notes. It looks gorgeous, of course, but there's a lack of sweep and grandeur amid the intimacy of Hardy's classic story. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras comprise deleted scenes, an alternate ending and crew and cast interviews.

The French Lieutenant's Woman 
John Fowles' novel about an affair between a Victorian woman and a dashing man was long considered unfilmable, and the middling 1981 adaptation by director Karel Reisz, from a clever but unsatisfying script by Harold Pinter, does nothing to dispel that theory: by making the story a parallel affair between that couple and the contemporary movie stars portraying them, it crudely visualizes Fowles' intelligent conceit. The Criterion Collection, of course, goes all out with its new Blu-ray edition: stunning hi-def transfer, new interviews with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, and a South Bank Show episode from 1981 with vintage interviews of Reisz and Pinter.

Hot Pursuit 
(Warner Bros)
Anne Fletcher's mostly unfunny odd couple/buddy comedy, which stars Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon as a hot tamale fugitive and tomboyish Southern cop on the run together (don't ask), might have been more palatable if the actresses had switched roles, but that would have forced the filmmakers to come up with something original and humorous. Neither actress can overcome the sexist jokes thrown her way for 85 minutes; except for a decent opening title sequence, the movie is DOA. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras are featurettes and an alternate ending.

For this Divergent follow-up, it's up to Shailene Woodley and her rockin' short haircut to save the world—or at least post-apocalyptic Chicago—from Jeanine (a bored-looking Kate Winslet), who wants all divergents hunted down. Woodley is terrific, as always, but even she finds it hard to keep a straight face when speaking many howlers in the dialogue or perform nonsensical stunts in several unexciting action sequences. Whether director Robert Schwentke or Veronica Roth's original novel is to blame is immaterial, as we await the next installment of what's becoming another underwhelming dystopian young person's fantasy with trepidation. The movie looks very good on Blu; extras are a commentary and featurettes.

(Cinema Guild)
In Lisandro Alonso's western, a foreigner in late 1800s Patagonia looks for his teenage daughter a la The Searchers, but that cliched plotline is merely a pretext for Alonso's artful location camerawork and impressive editing, which partially compensate for the lackluster acting and script. The claustrophobia induced by the square 1.33:1 frame provides tension, but Viggo Mortensen's hero has been directed so laconically that he literally fades into the background after awhile. The film has received a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise a 30-minute New York Film Festival press conference and two Alonso shorts.

A Little Chaos 
In his pleasant if uninspired directorial debut, Alan Rickman stars as the king of France in this fictional tale of the first female landscape designer (Kate Winslet) in a 17th century field dominated by men: Matthias Schoenaerts plays the head Versailles Gardens designer who has eyes for Winslet. It's all very pretty (with enticing costumes and sets) but also pretty forgettable; Schoenaerts and Winslet are hamstrung by the middlebrow romance, Rickman's king is less droll than dull and Stanley Tucci's foppishness quickly turns enervating. The Blu-ray transfer is impeccable; surprisingly, there are no extras.

DVDs of the Week
Flamenco Flamenco 
(Music Box)
Legendary Spanish director Carlos Saura's brilliant career making music and dance films continues with this 2010 exploration of the indigenous Spanish art form, a follow-up to his own 1995 documentary, Flamenco; once again, stupendous performances of flamenco's greatest practitioners are superbly recorded by Saura and his frequent collaborator, the master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Saura and Storaro's deftly (and intricately) choreographed camera movements create yet another intoxicating musical journey. Too bad that, on DVD, voluminous extras (short Saura interview, a look at the performers and a 100-minute making-of documentary) are included, which make the movie's transfer less than scintillating. 

Stephen Belber, who adapted his own play, also directed this occasionally involving drama about an aging ballet dancer-teacher and his surprising relationship with a couple that's come to interview him. Although the dialogue has bite and some wit, the machinations that trigger what happens to the trio are too contrived to take seriously, even if the intimate final scenes have a sort of tenderness to them that's likely due to the sensitive acting of Carla Gugino, the calm at the center of the overacted storm of Patrick Stewart and Matthew Lillard.  

Person of Interest—Complete 4th Season 
(Warner Bros)
Rookie Blue—5th Season, Volume 2 
(e one)
The fourth season of Person finds the investigators as often as not being investigated themselves, all the while coming to terms with bleak ending of season 3; solid acting by Michael Emerson, Sarah Shahi, Jim Caviezel and the rest of the team is what propels the season's 22 fast-paced episodes. In the first 11 involving episodes of Blue's 5th season, the men and women of the precinct try to deal with the physical and psychological aftereffects of two of their own being shot at last season's end. Person extras are featurettes, Comic-Con panel and gag reel; Rookie extras are a featurette and webisodes.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
The Casual Vacancy 
(Warner Bros)
Based on J.K. Rowling's post-Harry Potter novel, this four-hour HBO miniseries is crammed with stellar performers like Michael Gambon, Rory Kiear, Julia McKenzie and Simon McBurney, but director Jony Campbell and writer Sara Phelps haven't summoned a sense of urgency about the various misdeeds, dilemmas and disasters surrouding everyone in the picturesque town of Pagford. I don't know if Rowling's underlying book suffers similarly (numerous changes were made), but the miniseries comes across as a vacuous but pretty-looking Masterpiece Theatre wannabe. The movie looks quite good on Blu; extras are three behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Child 44 
This '50s Cold War thriller, with its dark, dank Russian locations and murky secret-police operatives engaging in a widespread coverup of a series of killings, is Gorky Park-lite, even if it's based on Tom Rob Smith's first novel about agent Leo Demidov, played with steely-eyed resolve by Tom Hardy. Director Daniel Espinosa keeps things moving, and there's strong support from Noomi Rapace and Gary Oldman, but the movie alternates between fast-moving sequences and meandering among its dreary characters and locations. The Blu-ray transfer is top-notch; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

(Warner Bros)
Joe Dante's  intermittently delightful 1987 comic fantasy, with amusing (and Oscar-winning) special effects, is too satisfied with its cleverness, which prevents its ever really taking off; it also pretty much coasts on Dennis Quaid's and Martin Short's screen personas, which moots the effectiveness of the entire inside-the-body experience. And unfortunately, there's also the usual dead space occupied by a tiresome Meg Ryan trying desperately to act. On hi-def, the movie's visuals are still eye-popping; the lone extra is a commentary by Dante and others.

War and Peace 
(Arthaus Musik)
Playing Czech composer Leos Janacek's first great tragic heroine in Jenufa, German soprano Michaela Kaune performs with sensitivity and intelligence, bringing Kristof Loy's flimsy production to surging life with help from conductor Donald Runnicles and the the Berlin Opera orchestra and chorus; hi-def video and audio are first-rate. In Sergei Prokofiev's masterly War and Peace, based on Leo Tolstoy's massive novel, 1000 pages of dense prose have been stunningly transformed into a stirring four-hour stage drama. The Kirov Opera's 1991 production by director Graham Vick has been transferred to hi-def with a disappointingly soft image; at least conductor Valery Gergiev and several Russian singers give Prokofiev's varied score a lively intensity. 

Madame Bovary 
Sophie Barthes is the latest director to take a crack at Gustave Flaubert's classic novel about a  young woman whose boredom as a country doctor's wife leads her to several affairs, disgrace and death; while Barthe gets the physical production's details right, her casting drags Flaubert's heroine down into superfluous melodramatics. Mia Wasikowska might be the right age for Emma, but she never gets past acting like a petulant teenager, while someone like Paul Giamatti is utterly too contemporary to play the local pharmacist; Henry Lloyd-Hughes fares better as Emma's husband Charles. The film does look sumptuous on Blu.

The Salvation 
Those who like their violence gruesomely nasty will find it in this western by Danish director Christian Levring, in which the perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen plays an immigrant whose just-arrived wife and young son are murdered by low-lifes whom he kills before facing the wrath of a vengeful widow and her brother-in-law. Whether one responds to its singlemindedness will depend on how much one cares about wall-to-wall, blood-filled revenge. Along with Mikkelsen, Eva Green makes the most of a thankless role as the mute widow and Nanna Oland Fabricius has a lovely if too-short presence as the ill-fated wife. The movie's spaciousness looks great on Blu; lone extras are behind-the-scenes and interviews.

Showdown in Little Tokyo 
(Warner Archive)
Why this loud but empty 1991 action flick is worthy of a Blu-ray upgrade over more worthy titles is even more mysterious than the goofy look on star Dolph Lundgren's face whenever he attempts to act or show emotion. Director Mark L. Lester has never met a cliche he didn't like, and fans of Tia Carrere will be disappointed to know that a body double did her nude scenes (although years later Carrere did pose nude for Playboy, for what it's worth). The hi-def transfer is good.

DVDs of the Week
Any Day 
(Anchor Bay)
What could have been a gritty study of an ex-con deal with the harsh realities of the post-prison world is turned by writer-director Rustam Branaman into a mawkish, sentimental drama cobbled together with the gracefulness and intelligence of a fourth grader's first book report. The sloppiness in Branaman's writing—every story arc is so predictable that it's easy to guess the risible twists and turns—destroys a game cast led by Sean Bean as the ex-con, Kate Walsh as his sister and Eva Longoria as an unlikely neighborhood beauty whom our hero meets grocery shopping. 

Every Secret Thing 
(Anchor Bay)
Amy Berg made the fascinating documentary West of Memphis; for her feature debut, she takes Nicole Holofcener's bumpy adaptation of Laura Lippman's novel—about two girls, who once caused a toddler's death, caught in another missing child controversy—and turns it into an occasionally gripping psychological mystery. Fine acting by Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, Abigail Breslin and Danielle Macdonald as the girl at the center of the case help smooth over a script that merely skims the surface of its serious themes. Extras comprise deleted scenes.

Viva Verdi—The La Scala Concert 
For the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi's birth, this 2013 concert at Milan's famed La Scala Opera House shows a different glimpse of the great opera composer with a selection of purely instrumental sections of his operas, played with verve by the Filharmonia della Scala orchestra and conductor Riccardo Chailly, all of whom have Verdi's music in their blood. The operas excerpted include Jerusalem, Nabucco, Giovanna d'Arco, I vespri siciliani, and La forza del destino, whose thunderous overture closes a triumphant performance of Verdi without any vocalists.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—"Shows for Days," "Amazing Grace"

Shows for Days
Written by Douglas Carter Beane; directed by Jerry Zaks
Performances through August 23, 2015
Mitzi E. Newhouse @ Lincoln Center Theater, New York, NY

Amazing Grace
Book, music & lyrics by Christopher Smith; directed by Gabriel Barre
Opened July 16, 2015
Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street, New York, NY

LuPone in Shows for Days (photo: Joan Marcus)
For Douglas Carter Beane, nothing succeeds like excessive zingers. His latest play, the awkwardly titled Shows for Days, is full of them, and they overwhelm this sentimental, sketchy autobiographical memory play about how he began in theater. His teenage alter ego Car hangs around a local Reading, Pennsylvania, theater group, first doing grunt work, then writing lively cast bios and finally penning a full-length play put on by the troupe.

Beane populates his play, narrated by the grownup Car, with a caricatured whiny young actress, aggressive bisexual actor, mincing veteran actor, lesbian jack/jane of all trades and domineering diva. There are scattered amusing moments and one-liners, but Beane is much too concerned with demonstrating theater's sacredness, whether it's in a small town or at Lincoln Center, and with pulling back the curtain on what goes on offstage, with in-joke references that get titters of recognition from a few insiders and crickets from the rest of the audience.

If Shows for Days is a trite exercise in hagiographic autobiography, director Jerry Zaks knows how to smooth over its worst impulses by staging it as zestily as possible, even if most of his game cast is unable to escape the clutches of Beane’s clichéd characters. Only the legendary Patti LuPone is able to transform the diva Irene into a sharply-etched portrait of a hurricane-like life force, not so much bulldozing but tapdancing her way through the play, giving even Beane’s weakest lines a sense of hilarious urgency. Shows for Days would be even more forgettable without LuPone's brilliant artistry.

Young and Foy in Amazing Grace (photo: Joan Marcus)
The story of John Newton—18th century British slave owner turned militant abolitionist who wrote one of the most beloved songs ever—is certainly fascinating, but the musical made from it, Amazing Grace, contents itself with melodrama, unsubtle explications of slavery's evil and songs that never approach Newton's own quiet hymn, which has accumulated heavy baggage over the centuries: most recently, President Obama sang it at the memorial service for nine murdered Charleston churchgoers.

Since the song "Amazing Grace" has been placed at the very end—where it's performed twice, first by the cast then, after curtain calls, by the cast and the audience in a communal celebration—we must endure 2-1/2 hours of mediocre tunes, lyrics, dramatics and dimestore psychology as Newton changes from a man who thought slavery was natural (his father ran a booming slave-trading business) to a fervent abolitionist.

Since Newton also penned some 200 songs, surely a couple could have gotten into the show; instead, Christopher Smith's mainly unmemorable numbers, which comprise pseudo-spirituals and pseudo-big ballads, predominate in director Gabriel Barre's well-paced staging. Most impressive is the first-rate physical production by set designers Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, costume designer Toni-Leslie James and lightning designers Ken Billington and Paul Miller, whose accomplished work climaxes with a marvelously realized tableau of Newton being saved from drowning by his loyal slave Thomas at the close of the first act.

Josh Young's strong-voiced Newton, Erin Mackey's beguliling Mary (Newton's longtime sweetheart), Chuck Cooper's tough but tender Thomas, Laiona Michelle's sympathetic slave Nanna and Harriett D. Foy's hypnotic Princess Peyai of Sierra Leone (who sold her own people and treated the shipwrecked Newton as a sex slave) are all but drowned out by the heavyhanded mediocrity of the music, lyrics and book. Despite good intentions, Amazing Grace never illuminates its important story for its audience.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Cemetery Without Crosses 
(Arrow USA)
An unabashed tribute to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, French director-actor-cowriter Robert Hossein made this entertaining 1969 revenge shoot-em-up at the height of the craze: it passes by harmlessly enough, with an interesting hanging at the opening that's followed by lots of vacant stares and pauses that do little more than fill up the 90-minute running time. Hossein himself plays the hero of sorts with little nuance, while French actress Michele Mercier plays the femme fatale with an enthusiasm belying her lack of acting ability. The film looks fine for its age on Blu; extras are three Hossein interviews.

The Erotic Rites of Dr. Frankenstein 
(Kino Lorber)
In Jess Franco's (deliberately?) mistitled thriller, after the famous doctor Victor Frankenstein is killed, his own daughter Vera has to take on the ultimate bad guy, a wizard and his assistant, a blind bird-woman (of course!). Although the movie is anything but erotic, it's a mildly enjoyable yarn that shows off Franco's eye for female pulchritude and sharp European locations, which combine to keep it watchable. The movie looks OK but a little soft on Blu; lone extra is a commentary.

(C Major)
Although Franz Schubert wrote magnificent songs and chamber music, his operas never made it far in the repertoire, which gnawed at him in his brief life (he died at 31 in 1828): this engaging production of his most accomplished dramatic work has all hands coming together musically, vocally and directorially. Peter Stein's 2014 Salzburg staging of this romantic epic is well done, while the singers—Julia Kleiter, Georg Zeppenfeld, Markus Werba—and musicians (under Ingo Metzmacher's able baton) present Schubert's rich melodies the way they were meant to be heard. The hi-def image and sound are first-rate; extras are interviews.

Life on the Reef 
The Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast, the largest coral reef system on earth, is so large it can be seen from outer space: in Nick Robinson's engrossing three-hour documentary, above- and underwater HD cameras present an educational look at this amazing part of our world. The eye-popping colors, the bountiful variety of marine life, and even glimpses at human disasters (there's a heartstopping moment when a rescue plane is dispatched for a burning boat with more than a dozen people aboard) make this a must-see nature epic. The Blu image is stunning, unsurprisingly.

Rolling Stones from the Vault: Hyde Park Live 1969 
(Eagle Rock)
When the Stones performed at Hyde Park, it was only two days after former member Brian Jones died, and there's a weird moment when Mick Jagger recites a Shelly poem before the assembled throng; the rest of the 55-minute concert film—out of running order and only containing half of the show's songs—consists of ragged but straight-ahead rock'n'roll. The band performed "Honky Tonk Women" for the first time, its sleazy vibe already in evidence; other highlights are "Midnight Rambler" and "Sympathy for the Devil," the latter accompanied by African tribal drummers. Too bad this historic concert is so truncated, but fans won't care.

Der Rosenkavalier 
(Arthaus Musik and Opus Arte)
Richard Strauss' grandest opera has been a staple since its 1911 premiere, so it's too bad that the 2014 Glyndebourne, England, staging is so undistinguished: although Kate Royal, a formidable singing actress, succeeds royally in her first attempt at the Marschallin, the others performing the greatest female trio in opera history—Tara Erraught and Teodora Gheorghiu—are not up to her level. A better trio is in the 2004 Salzburg Festival staging, with Adrienne Pieczonka, Miah Persson and Angelika Kirchschalger (the best Octavian in recent memory) do wonders with Strauss' characteristically gorgeous vocal lines, especially in that final, unforgettable trio that becomes a meltingly lovely duet. The new version looks fine and the earlier one looks decent on Blu. Extras on the Glyndebourne disc comprise interviews.

3 Hearts 
(Cohen Film Collection)
A love triangle between a man and two sisters sounds enticing, but in Benoit Jacquot's clumsy hands, it turns out less exciting than a trip to the dentist: don't blame actor Benoit Poelvoorde, directed to be either sullen or moody by turns; too bad neither of his leading ladies, charmless Chiara Mastroianni and one-note Charlotte Gainsbourg, are worthy of his time and trouble. Jacquot's silly machinations include his laying on portentous music and omniscient narration with a trowel, all to no avail. The film looks good on Blu; lone extra is a 30-minute Jacquot Q&A.

The Water Diviner 
(Warner Bros)
For his directorial debut, Russell Crowe tackles an expansive yet intimate true story of an Australian farmer who travels to Turkey to find out what happened to his three sons, who fought in the battle of Gallipoli. Crowe is, as usual, taciturn in the lead role, but as director he has an easy grasp (like fellow Aussie Mel Gibson) for action juxtpasoed with sentimental domestic scenes. There's also an immaculate performance by Ukrainian beauty Olga Kurylenko, and the emotional family bonds are enough to see us to the end despite the glaring flaws. Andrew Lesnie's gritty photography has been superbly transferred to hi-def; extras are making-of and Gallipoli featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
With his entry in an unwelcome tradition of normal young women falling for obnoxious guys, director-writer Sam Esmail harks back to earlier films—The Sixth Sense and Annie Hall come up in the first few minutes—in a desperate attempt to make his conventional romance seem unconventional. Mixing the chronology of the relationship is another ruse to hide the flimsiness of his conceit; if Emmy Rossum is her usual adorable self, Justin Long too easily enacts the typically annoying creep. 

Count Your Blessings
The High Cost of Loving 
(Warner Archive)
In Blessings, Jean Negulesco's 1959 romantic comedy, Britisher Deborah Kerr doesn't forgive French husband Rossano Brazzi's many dalliances while in the army for nine years, does the unthinkable and divorces him: this medium-concept material is partially redeemed by the charming pair of Kerr and Brazzani, with Maurice Chavalier lending gallant support as Brazzani's uncle. Jose Ferrer directs and stars in High Cost, a 1958 comic romp about an office worker with a pregnant young wife who thinks he's about to lose his job: after a sublime silent opening sequence, the movie settles down to routine comic asides about office and home life, with Gena Rowlands scoring in her debut as the wife.

Our Daily Poison 
Journalist Marie-Monique Robin made this documentary about the chemicals that keep being put into our food supply in 2010, but even in the lightning-fast internet era, it's still a wake-up call about an industry more interested in manufacturing more rather than healthier food. Robin, who enlists the assistance of experts in the field from Europe and the U.S., buttresses her argument with vintage clips that show that this is not merely a 21st century liberal issue. A personal quibble: in her narration, Robin pronounces "grocer" as "grosher," which I find gross!

(First Run)
A worthy Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee this year, Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze's drama about an elderly man who nurses opposing wounded soldiers during the Georgian war of the 1990s nestles its allegorical account of warfare's insanity and futility inside an unassumingly subtle drama about pure goodness. Without wielding a sledgehammer, Urushadze still hammers home pertinent points about adversarial mania among ancient enemies, and his flawless cast embodies these men not simply as types, but as real people, which adds to  the film's low-key but real power. Lone extra is a five-minute on-set featurette.