Tuesday, April 21, 2015

April '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Echoes 
(Anchor Bay)
When a young writer with nightmarish visions brought on by her inability to sleep stays at her boyfriend's glass house in the desert to get needed seclusion, her problem gets worse, as people begin dying...could she be the cause? This stylishly superficial horror film makes scant sense, but that's part of the fun; there's also a committed lead performance by the excellent actress Kate French, who makes this far more watchable than it deserves to be. The movie looks sharp on Blu-ray.

Everly 
(Anchor Bay/Radius)
In Joe Lynch's cartoonish action thriller, a steady stream of gun-toting men and women (and the occasional canine) comes to finish off a prostitute after her mobster boss gives the word, and for whom she devises new and ingenious ways to survive their attacks. Such silliness overstays its welcome even at a scant 90 minutes, but there is literally bloody entertainment for awhile as Salma Hayek—sporting a huge back tattoo like any self-respecting femme fatale—explosively lights up the dozens of bad guys and gals. The Blu-ray transfer is good; extras comprise two commentaries and a music video.

Fortitude 
(Sky Vision)
As bleak and cold as its Arctic locale, this multi-part series follows several morose characters tied together by a murder that upsets a quiet, dying title town trying to become economically relevant as a tourist destination. An outside detective brought in to lead the investigation is another thorn, but that's merely the tip of a messy soap-opera iceberg that opens a pandora's box of secrets, to mix metaphors. A sterling cast, led by Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, Sofie Grabol and a less than usually annoying Stanley Tucci, helps the beautifully shot series become more than just a dramatic oddity. The hi-def transfer is stunning; extras are cast and crew interviews.

Mark of the Devil 
Day of Anger 
(Arrow USA)
In his 1969 horror flick Mark of the Devil, director Michael Armstrong tackles religious hysteria with schlocky aplomb, and terrifically deadpan actors like Herbert Lom and Udo Kier as witch hunters and voluptuous beauties like Ingeborg Schoner and Oliviera Vico as potential victims keep this blood-spilling, body-burning thriller moving to its predictable but satisfying conclusion. Too bad 1967's Day of Anger, Tonino Valerii's routine western, becomes more absurd as it goes along, never approaching Devil's "guilty pleasure" status; Valerii's directing is barely competent, and his mostly (dubbed) Italian cast doesn't interact believably with Lee Van Cleef's gunslinger. Both films look superbly grainy on Blu; extras comprise a Devil commentary, as well as featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

Mysteries of the Unseen World in 3D 
(Virgil Films)
This IMAX movie, plunging us into the midst of an amazing world we can't see with the naked eye, uses both time-lapse and high-speed photography to show the "nanoworld," where insects with dozens of eyes and creatures even tinier than they exist, like strains of bacteria (both beneficial and harmful) that live on our own bodies. Forrest Whitaker narrates with the right balance of authority and awe; the 40 minutes' worth of incredible footage includes owls flying in slo-mo, grass growing right before our very eyes and God's eye views of the heretofore invisible traces of civilization on earth. The Blu-ray, in both 3D or 2D, looks spectacular; lone extra is a 15-minute making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week
Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed 
(Strand Releasing)
David Trueba's engagingly nostalgic drama set in Spain in 1966 (when John Lennon was on location filming How I Won the War with director Richard Lester) is a subtle critique of the stifling Franco era that smartly plays as a sweet-natured character study. An exceptional acting trio—Javier Camara as a middle-aged Fab Four-obsessed teacher wanting to meet Lennon, Fransesc Colomer as a teenager running away from his dictatorial dad, and (in the movie's most graceful performance) Natalia de Molina as a pregnant young woman who left her convent—provides endearing grace notes to keep the focus on the film's central relationships. Extras comprise deleted scenes and a featurette on Pat Metheny's acoustic guitar arrangements for the film.

Population Boom 
(First Run)
Maker of the documentary Plastic Planet, Austrian director Werner Boote unleashes another provocation, this time bucking conventional wisdom coalesced around the belief that the world is overpopulated, and it's only a matter of time before we its irreversible effects. Speaking with many experts in their fields from around the globe, Boote questions whether mankind must reduce its seven billion-plus inhabitants or else: will industrialized nations let go of their demand that developing nations stop developing? Whether one agrees or not, Boote raises necessary questions about our very survival.

A Tale of Winter 
(Big World Pictures)
The second of French director Eric Rohmer's Tales of the Four Seasons is this slight if sweet-natured 1992 study of a young woman who, five years after a fling (and a daughter), juggles two men while hoping that the father of her child will reappear. As always with Rohmer's films, the talkiness is less penetrating and interesting than he thinks, while a bad French performance of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale brings the movie to a screeching halt for several minutes. Why Rohmer's women seem borderline dim-witted—the heroine gave the original paramour the wrong address, which is why they are apart—is a quirk others seem to appreciate more than I. 

Whitney 
(Lionsgate)
Actress Angela Bassett made her directorial debut with this Lifetime Channel biopic about  Whitney Houston, who died of a drug overdose in 2012: recounting her problematic relationship with, marriage to and separation from fellow singer Bobby Brown, it's a surprisingly (semi) warts and all portrait. At 88 minutes, it's nowhere near in-depth, but it's worth seeing thanks to Bassett's sincerity, Yaya DaCosta's canny portrayal of Whitney, and singer Deborah Cox's spot-on renditions of several of the star's biggest hits.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—Ibsen's "Ghosts," Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

Ghosts
Written by Henrik Ibsen; adapted and directed by Richard Eyre
Performances through May 3, 2015
BAM Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
bam.org

Hamlet
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through May 10, 2015
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

Howle, McKenna and Manville in Ibsen's Ghosts at BAM (photo: Stephanie Berger)
Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, which scandalized audiences after its 1882 premiere by tackling such topics as sexually transmitted diseases, illegitimate children, euthanasia and religious hypocrisy, is considered far milder stuff today, so directors and adapters make it more playable for modern audiences. Case in point is Richard Eyre's compelling version that took London by storm two years ago, which gives Ibsen's already fast-moving story an even greater urgency. 

Ghosts concerns widow Helene Alving, who is making plans for her dead husband's memorial service, for which her beloved artist son Oswald has finally returned from Paris. Her long-ago paramour Pastor Manders arrives to discuss plans for an orphanage she built in her husband's memory, while her servant girl Regina tries avoiding her carpenter father Jacob, who wants her to live with him instead of staying in the Alving home.

When Helene confesses to a shocked Manders that her late husband was no paragon of virtue—in one of his many affairs, he fathered Regina, unbeknownst to Jacob or to Oswald, who wants to take her back to Paris and marry her—the family's symbolic ghosts break loose. Later, a metaphorical but very real blaze destroys the orphanage, which may be, as Manders says, a sign from God about the family's immorality. (Manders convinced Helene to forego insurance for the orphanage because God would take care of the place.)

Eyre's lucid adaptation and cogent directing aptly underline the anguished intimacy of Ibsen's drama: what might be musty and old-fashioned becomes simply spellbinding. This is helped immeasurably by Tim Hatley's striking set, which comprises translucent walls through which characters can be seen in a milky haze, and Peter Mumford's magisterial lighting, which makes such ghostly imagery plausible.

The strong cast comprises Charlene McKenna's Regina, Brian McCardie's Jacob, Will Keen's Manders and Billy Howle's Oswald, whose final scene is heartrending. And hovering above all is Lesley Manville as Helene Alving, an emotionally piercing performance by an actress known for her splendid work in several Mike Leigh films. This is the second excellent staging of Ghosts I've seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, following Ingmar Bergman's intensely personal adaptation in 2003.

Allen and Sarsgaard in Shakespeare's Hamlet at CSC (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Hamlet is often described as the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind, but director Austin Pendleton and actor Peter Sarsgaard have turned it into the tragedy of a man who seems to have has lost his mind. From the moment Sarsgaard walks onstage, clean shaven and bald, it's as if he just escaped from a hospital ward (on the show's Playbill cover, he looks more Hamlet-like in a full  beard and full head of hair). 

What Sarsgaard does onstage—shrieking laugh, bizarre intonations, voice rising to a high-pitched squeal while speaking Shakespeare's glorious poetry—is at odds with his usual intelligence and naturalness onstage. That the ghost of Hamlet's father is never seen in this production reinforces the possibility that Hamlet's own mixed-up mind forces him into his actions. It's just too bad that Pendleton and Sarsgaard never make this a plausible or well thought-out interpretation. Pendleton's production, in fact, is a bumpy ride throughout; the small cast, cramped stage, minimalist set and modern costumes confuse, rather than illuminate, matters.

Alongside Sarsgaard's meandering performance, Penelope Allen makes an unregal Gertrude and Lisa Joyce a fetching but dull Ophelia; Stephen Spinella, an unpersuasive Polonius, resorts to hamminess in desperation. Best of all is Harris Yulin's dignified Claudius, but no staging of Hamlet should have as its focus the prince's murderous uncle and stepfather.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Big Eyes 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
In Tim Burton's most fully realized film since 2004's Big Fish, the stranger-than-fiction true story of Margaret Keane, who ghostpainted a series of popular (and infamous) works in the '50s and '60s, is brought to vividly outlandish life, helped by a solid script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (veterans of the equally weird biopics Ed Wood—Burton's best film—and The People vs. Larry Flynt). Although Christoph Waltz is typically hammy as husband Walter Keane, who took credit for the paintings, Amy Adams sympathetically plays Margaret in a subtle characterization that fuels Burton's engrossing exploration of art, pseudo-art and popular culture. The colorful visuals look terrific on Blu; extras include a making-of featurette and Q&As with Burton, Adams, Margaret Keane and others.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken 
(Alchemy)
A riveting real-life tale, director Daniel Alfredson's fast-paced, involving thriller recreates the kidnapping of a Heineken beer company heir in Amsterdam in 1983, when he and his driver were held for 23 days by a group of criminals who were paid $35 million in ransom; although all the men were eventually caught, very little of the money was recovered. Anthony Hopkins makes a perfectly bemused Heineken, and Jim Sturgess and Sam Worthington are convincing as the gang's leaders. The hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras are deleted scenes.

Mad as Hell 
(Oscilloscope)
The Young Turks is an internet phenomenon that's spawned a massive online presence and popularity, and its frank-talking founder Cenk Uygur is profiled in director Andrew Napier's examination of how politics and the media intersect in the 21st century. With uncontrolled rage, Uygur goes after Republicans and Democrats indiscriminately, as he speaks truth to power online and on TV, where he had brief runs as host on both MSNBC and Current TV. The movie, primarily television/internet footage and talking-head interviews, looks decent enough on Blu; extras comprise several featurettes.

The Missing 
(Anchor Bay/Starz)
This tightly-wound eight-episode mystery drama recounts the unbearable pain and anger brought on husband Tony and wife Emily when their five-year-old Oliver disappears while on vacation in France (the series was shot on location in Belgium). With menace in the air, The Missing slowly moves toward its shocking denouement, following the glacial pace of investigations and simultaneous deterioration of the relationship of the grieving Tony and Emily, played impeccably by James Nesbitt and Frances O'Connor. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are short featurettes.

The Voices 
(Lionsgate)
This almost jaw-dropping fiasco, which follows the adventures of an cheerful serial killer who has conversations with his cat and dog and, eventually, the severed heads of female co-workers whom he butchers, does nearly everything wrong. Director Marjane Satrapi has an insistently strident tone (is she really the maker of Persepolis and Chicken with Plums?), Michael R. Perry has delivered a ham-fisted script and, most depressingly of all, several fine actors are called on to do their worst work, from Ryan Reynolds as the lovable anti-hero to the usually adorable Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick as two of his victims. The Blu-ray at least looks good; extras include featurettes. extended and deleted scenes.

The Way Things Go 
(Icarus)
Considered the "merry pranksters of contemporary art," Peter Fischli and David Weiss collaborated on elaborately-scaled, dementedly crafted chaos that included an exquisitely wrought contraption that was filmed for posterity in 1987 for this endlessly entrancing 30-minute feature. In an astonishing domino effect, the artists built up a 100-foot-long structure, comprising household and tool-shed items like tires, kettles, and pieces of wood that affect one another in a painstaking chain reaction of self-destruction that is worth watching again and again if only to continue asking yourself, "How (and why) did they do that?" The Blu-ray looks adequate, considering the source material (a DVD is also included).

DVDs of the Week
The Book of Negroes 
(e one)
Based on a novel by Lawrence Hill, this extraordinarily detailed, often tough to watch mini-series might be seen as a Roots for a new generation, but after all, the sorrowful history of American slavery has literally thousands of individual stories, and Aunjanue Ellis's is as valid and as drama-worthy as any. She was kidnapped by African slave traders as a young girl, taken to America and sold to South Carolina masters; years later, she ends up in England, where she becomes a leading proponent of abolition of the slave trade. Striking production values and superb acting—especially by Aunjanue Ellis as our valiant heroine—this mini-series is a must-watch. Extras include deleted scenes, interviews and a featurette.

Happy Valley 
(Music Box)
The shameful Penn State scandal, in which beloved football coach Joe Paterno was excoriated then fired when he did the barest minimum when confronted with evidence that one of his long-time assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was a serial pedophile, is exasperatingly recounted by evenhanded director Amir Bar-Lev. Everyone has his say, from those who defended Paterno and Penn State, like the coach's widow, to those, like Sandusky's adopted son, who first defends his father then admits to being molested and joins the other accusers. This is a chilling firsthand account of how a closely-knit community was torn apart and how it continues to deal with such heinous crimes. The lone extra is a director interview.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not 
(First Run)
Audrey Tautou's eternal cuteness becomes a tragic mask for a severely damaged protagonist in writer-director Laetitia Colombani's unsettling, blackly comic thriller about an unhinged young woman, Angelique, in love with a doctor, Loic (Samuel Le Bihan), who has a pregnant wife (Isabelle Carre) whom Angelique feels is in the way of their happiness. Colombani smartly balances Angelique's buoyant but clueless happiness with Loic's matter-of-fact uneasiness in a boldly unconventional drama that only missteps at the very end, when the mental-health profession is called into question in a cavalier way for the sake of a "shock" ending.

One Step Beyond 
(Film Chest)
Even though it debuted on television a few months before the more celebrated Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond carved out its own niche with spellbinding half-hour stories of strange goings-on that ran the gamut from vaguely supernatural to outright inexplicable. Narrator/host John Newland took on the Rod Serling role here, and sharp viewers will track down many stars just starting out or at the tail end of their careers, from Warren beatty, Suzanne Pleshette and Yvette Mimieux to Joan Fontaine and Norman Lloyd. The six discs contain 70 episodes of the series.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Broadway Reviews—Vanessa Hudgens in "Gigi" and the Gershwins' "An American in Paris"

Gigi
Book/lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner;  adapted by Heidi Thomas; music by Frederick Loewe
Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; directed by Eric Schaeffer
Performances through October 4, 2015
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY
gigionbroadway.com

An American in Paris
Book by Craig Lucas; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; music by George Gershwin
Choreographed and directed by Christopher Wheeldon
Performances through November 22, 2015
Palace Theatre, Broadway & 47th Street, New York, NY
anamericaninparisbroadway.com

It's only a coincidence, but two musicals opening on Broadway were once '50s movie musicals directed by Vincente Minnelli: the six-time Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) and nine-time Oscar-winning Gigi (1958). 

Cott and Hudgens in Gigi (photo: Margot Schulman)
Gigi was once a Broadway flop in 1973, when book writer-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe expanded the original movie into a stage version with additional songs. The new Gigi has an adaptation by Heidi Thomas that de-fangs the premise from French novelist Colette's 1944 story: the idea of a 15-year-old girl being prepped as a courtesan for rich older men won't fly in 2015, so it's been entirely flattened, its bubblyness excised, and the result, while entertaining, is like drinking sparkling cider, not Moet et Chandon, on New Year's Eve.

The retooling of Gigi was obviously done with an eye on the box office: it would be unseemly for preteens and teens to see High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens onstage and their parents having to explain lecherous oldsters ogling her. So Gigi has become a quite independent (and legal) 18 and is wooed by a Gaston barely a few years older; this makes for a cute rom-com a la High School Musical but destroys Gigi's going up against a society that allows its young women to become men's playthings.

More damagaing is director Eric Schaeffer's production, which is about as French as Starbucks coffee: although Derek McLane's belle epoque sets dazzle and Catherine Zuber's elegant costumes catch the eye, the hard-working cast huffs and puffs without ever finding that certain je ne sais quoi that should never be so strained. To start from the bottom, steely-voiced Corey Cott's Gaston is so whiny and charisma-starved that it's impossible to believe him as Paris's most eligible bachelor. 

Likewise, Howard McGillin is too bland as his uncle Honore; he has none of Maurice Chevalier's effortless urbanity in the movie. In his defense, McGillin doesn't get to sing the movie Honore's signature song, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," which has been given instead to Gigi's conniving grandmother Mamita and Aunt Alicia so the old man is no longer seen as a charming pedophile. The irrepressible Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty give much needed oomph and humor to Mamita and Alicia, even if Hoty overplays a bit too much. 

How is Hudgens as Gigi? She's pretty, perky, plucky, polished and professional. She sings well, moves stylishly, looks sumptuous in her gorgeous gowns, and even does an impressive cartwheel in one of choreographer Joshua Bergasse's too-busy dance numbers. It's not her fault that she plays the watered-down 21st century Gigi perfectly: her fans will love it, while those partial to Lerner & Loewe (even though most of these songs are second-rate, especially coming soon after their classic My Fair Lady) probably won't.

A scene from An American in Paris (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Far more satisfying is An American in Paris, which has staggeringly inventive choreography by the show's director, Christopher Wheeldon. Like Minnelli's movie, which starred Gene Kelly in the story of former American GI Jerry Mulligan—who stays in the French capital after World War II to be a painter, fall in love and dance to Gershwin music—Wheeldon's Paris is a vivacious delight from the start.

Craig Lucas's book retains the outlines of the movie's plot. Jerry falls for the lovely Lise, a shop clerk who here wants to be a ballet dancer—as does Adam Hochberg, an American expatriate tasked with composing a short dance work for Lise at the behest of Milo Davenport, a young American woman with money to throw at French culture, and who has own designs on Jerry's talent. Then there's Henri Baurel, whom the two American men befriend, who's trying to launch a song-and-dance career without his highbrow parents noticing, and who is (unbeknownst to both Jerry and Adam) kinda sorta engaged to Lise.

Lucas' book is far more overstuffed than it needs to be, but luckily Wheeldon covers the stage with so many visual and dancing delights that it doesn't really matter. It all starts with Bob Crowley's freewheeling and mobile set designs, an endless variety of panels and mirrors that are rolled, pulled and pushed around the stage, morphing into various Parisian landmarks and, with the help of 59 Productions' animated, impressionistic projections and Natasha Katz's resourceful lighting, can at one remove stand in for a romantic walk along the Seine or, in the musical's disturbing opening, the end of the Nazi occupation and the return of a free Paris. 

Throughout all of this visual ingenuity—which runs dry in the second act, most likely to concentrate on the climactic ballet of the title—Wheeldon does not skimp on the dancing. His incredibly busy but always original choreography rarely comes up for air, especially in such exciting set pieces as the moody opening number set to Gershwin's Concerto in F or the first act's closing number to Gershwin's boisterous Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture, not to mention the beautifully structured final ballet that smartly avoids what Gene Kelly did so sensationally in the movie. Likewise, the many song interludes, which include such Gershwin staples as "S'Wonderful," "The Man I Love" and "Shall We Dance?" are staged stylishly, and are greatly helped by the intoxicating arrangements by Rob Fisher.

The large and talented supporting cast comprises such first-rate performers as Brandon Urbanowitz as self-deprecating narrator Adam, Jill Paice as Milo, Max von Essen as Henri, and a scene-stealing Veanne Cox as Henri's snooty mom. But, as good as they are, the leads are even better. Robert Fairchild from the New York City Ballet plays Jerry and Leanne Cope from London's Royal Ballet plays Lise: that they are both phenomenal dancers is no surprise; that they are also exceptionally good singers and gifted actors is the icing on the very tasty cake that is An American in Paris.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

April '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Grantchester 
(PBS)
In this slow but absorbing PBS Mystery series, small-town vicar Sidney Chambers (discovering that most people will talk to a priest) aids skeptically hard-nosed detective Geordie Keating in criminal investigations plaguing the countryside, and showing a seamier side of early 1950s rural England. In the leads, James Norton (Chambers) and Robson Green (Keating) have a pleasing rapport, while an expert supporting cast and well-honed scripts make these six hour-long episodes irresistible. The Blu-ray transfer is impeccable; extras include a making-of featurette, behind the scenes footage, cast interviews.

The Immigrant 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co.)
Is there nothing Marion Cotillard can't do? Sure, the French actress was Oscar-nominated for her amazing performance in Two Days, One Night (that she lost is another reason why the Oscars are a joke), but she should have also been nominated for her powerful portrayal of an early 20th century Polish immigrant who becomes a prostitute as she tries to survive in her new country. Writer-director James Gray's potent drama has shrill moments (mainly involving the cliched men in her life, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner), but whenever Cotillard is onscreen, bathed in the glow of Darius Khondji's luminous photography, it's magical. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are Gray's illuminating commentary and a brief feaurette.

Manh(a)ttan—Complete 1st Season 
(Lionsgate)
This ambitious new series explores the lives of the scientists of the infamous Manhattan Project, who moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico with their families to create the atomic bomb and, by extension, all the moral and political fallout that came with it. Although at times it overreaches, the fine acting of John Benjamin Hickey as one of the lead scientists and Olivia Williams as his wife and the overriding theme of secrecy on the governmental and personal level, compensates. The hi-def transfer is good; extras are commentaries and featurettes.

Shania Twain—Still the One Live from Vegas 
(Eagle Rock)
For her return to performing—after an exile of eight years due to a vocal problem, during which she got divorced and remarried (to the ex of the woman whose affair with her husband prompted Twain's breakup)—the Canadian country-pop superstar did a residency in Las Vegas that was a 90-minute greatest hits show. Starring alongside Twain are her spectacular costumes and hairdos, dancers and backup singers, an elaborate stage set including a horse she rides in on, and a bunch of (mostly) bombastic hit tunes; still, it's the singer's ingratiating personality that helps it go down so smoothly. Hi-def visuals and audio are excellent; extra is an hour-long tour feature, directed by Twain's husband.

Singles 
(Warner Bros)
Cameron Crowe's 1992 followup to his directorial debut Say Anything, which follows self-conscious 20-somethings looking for love in Seattle during the early '90s grunge scene, now plays like a time capsule of when grunge exploded: there are concert sequences of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and members of Pearl Jam, including lead singer Eddie Vedder, in supporting roles. Aside from its great soundtrack, Singles is notable for giving Bridget Fonda, one of the most natural and alluring Hollywood actresses ever, one of her best roles: where has she gone? The hi-def transfer looks quite good; extras include many deleted scenes, a gag reel and concert footage.

Wild 
(Fox)
In Jean-Marc Vallee's middling adaptation of the awfully named Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her long wilderness trek after her mother's death, Reese Witherspoon gives an energetic but bland performance as a woman trying to set a new course in life after some soul-searching. Vallee, who made the far better Dallas Buyers Club, is unable to invest this film with the same kind of emotional immediacy, even with Thomas Sadoski as her ex and Laura Dern as her dying mom lending gravity that's otherwise lacking in Witherspoon's surface portrayal. The film looks great on Blu; extras are a commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Gunned Down—The Power of the NRA 
(PBS)
This hard-hitting episode of Frontline explores the history of the National Rifle Association, and how it morphed from a sportsman's club to a powerful Washington lobby, dead set against any gun control legislation, no matter how incremental. Led by the conscienceless Wayne Lapierre, the increasingly radical organization has become so intensely disengenuous in its public pronouncements and hypocritical in its arguments about the right to bear arms that there seems no way back to the conservative (in both senses) group it once was. 

If You Don't, I Will 
(Film Movement)
A long and stable marriage is put to the test when, during a hike in the woods, wife Pomme decides to stay while husband Pierre returns to their comfortable middle-class life; a week apart forces both to question their roles in a relationship that may or may not have run its course. Writer-director Sophie Fillieres and her extraordinary actors, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, have created a richly adult tale that, although it nearly loses its balance toward the end, is kept from tottering over the edge by sheer force of talent. Extras comprise director and actors' interviews.

Pelican Dreams 
(Cinedigm)
In this gentle but wise documentary, director Judy Irving follows the journey of Gigi, a California brown pelican captured on the Golden Gate Bridge, as a jumping-off point to explore these magnificent creatures, which the director calls "flying dinosaurs" because of their link to ancient animals. The superb footage of the birds living in the natural habitat of the Channel Islands off the coast of California gives way to a touching denouement, when Gigi finally flies away back to nature. Extras are deleted scenes and mini-movies.

The Simon Wiesenthal Collection 
(Docurama)
This invaluable 11-documentary boxed set, which provides a wide-ranging spectrum of Jewish history and the unavoidable shadow of the Holocaust, includes two excellent Oscar-winning Best Documentaries: 1982's Genocide and 1997's The Long Way Home. Even though all of the films are worthwhile, those most worth exploring are a trio of more recent films by director Richard Trank: 2007's I Have Never Forgotten You, about Nazi-hunter Wiesenthal himself; 2010's Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny, and 2013's The Prime Ministers, a history of the early years of the state of Israel.

Song One 
(Cinedigm)
In writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland's syrupy romantic melodrama, Anne Hathaway plays Franny, the sister of Brooklyn musician Henry who sits at his bedside after he's seriously injured in an accident: she soon ends up falling for James Forester, the popular singer-songwriter who was Henry's idol. Though well-acted by Hathaway and Mary Steenburgen as her mother, the 88-minute movie bogs down with the same-sounding songs of Johnny Flynn, who plays the supposedly charismatic James without much conviction. Extras comprise deleted scenes and soundtrack featurette.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

New York Theater Reviews—"The Heidi Chronicles" and "Placebo"

The Heidi Chronicles
Written by Wendy Wasserstein; directed by Pam MacKinnon
Performances through August 9, 2015
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York, NY
theheidichroniclesonbroadway.com

Placebo
Written by Melissa James Gibson; directed by Daniel Aukin
Performances through April 5, 2015
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
playwrightshorizons.org

Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs in The Heidi Chronicles (photo: Joan Marcus)
When Wendy Wasserstein won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play for The Heidi Chronicles, she became the first—and so far only—female American playwright to win the Tony. Wasserstein went on to write two more substantial plays (1992's wondrously warm The Sisters Rosensweig and 1997's political character study, An American Daughter) before her untimely 2006 death at age 55 of lymphoma.

The semi-autobiographical Heidi Chronicles covers a quarter-century in the life of Heidi Holland, a feminist art historian whom we meet giving a 1989 lecture about obscure female artists through the ages. From there, we jump back to several pinpoint, razor-sharp scenes between 1965 and 1989, as Heidi moves from naive co-ed to grad student to independent career woman, always dealing with her fraught relationships with the men in her life: Peter, whom she meets cute at a 1965 dance and who remains her backbone (and who is, she later discovers, gay); and Scoop, the self-confident letch who seduces Heidi at a 1968 New Hampshire Humphrey campaign headquarters and becomes her sometime lover until he finally marries another woman.

Several women are semi-constants in Heidi's ever-changing life, but—as the bittersweet but optimistic ending shows—she remains on her own: even the momentous decision (which foreshadows Wasserstein's own a decade later) that closes the play is made alone.

Wasserstein's episodic play, which comprises 13 scenes set during a 24-year period, takes the pulse of the playwright's generation socially, culturally and politically. The otherwise adroit director Pam MacKinnon has turned this entertaining revival into a time capsule, as each scene change is accompanied by a hit song from its era by Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oates, etc. And many projections on John Lee Beatty's agile set design display momentous events or celebrities like the failure of the ERA amendment and Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan. Unmerited complaints that Heidi is dated stem from MacKinnon spoonfeeding her audience.

Wasserstein mixes humor and heartbreak with a touch of the sentimental, but her zippy one-liners hit with equal force and finesse, and Heidi herself remains an endearing combination of self-empowerment and naivete. In the original production, Joan Allen gave a magnificent portrayal shot through with humanity and tenderness. Although Elisabeth Moss does well as Heidi—she nails the great monologue scene where Heidi confesses her own disappointments and failures in what was supposed to be a celebratory speech—she lacks Allen's effortless charm, a crucial component of the character.

With the stark exception of Tracee Chimo—who plays several supporting roles with an unnecessary brashness that's the actress's stock-in-trade—MacKinnon has fashioned a fine supporting ensemble, led by Bryce Pickham's ever-loyal Peter and Jason Biggs' often disloyal Scoop. A strain of melancholy pervades at the end, as we realize that this talented playwright, who worked out her neuroses and frailities for all to see, is no longer here to chart where we're headed in the 21st century. Maybe more Wasserstein revivals will further remind us what we're missing.

Carrie Coon and Alex Hurt in Placebo (photo: Joan Marcus)
Like its namesake, Placebo seems an impersonation of a play, and the main problem is that writer Melissa James Gibson seems to care very little about the four characters she's put onstage, making them pawns for her to move around at will, not caring how implausible or downright deranged their actions and dialogue become.

Louise, a lab researcher who keeps tabs on women taking a new drug for their lack of libido (a sort of female viagra) checks on a 40-ish patient, Mary, who may have been given a placebo instead. Louise, who's also getting flirty with another researcher, Tom, whom she meets in the laboratory break room, has a home life in shambles: her live-in boyfriend, Jonathan, has hit a wall writing his dissertation on Pliny the Elder, while her 59-year-old (unseen) mother is on an oxygen machine.

Though too-familiar territory, it's fertile enough for any good writer. Instead, Gibson ignores her own content and context and allows the characters to go off on tangents, endlessly parsing nearly everything they say, like discussing the correct pronunciation of "Pliny" or "bogeyman" or punning on "needing" and "kneading" and on "oral" and "aural."

Consider this bit of dialogue:

LOUISE: But it's not insurmountable.
JONATHAN: Well, depends on your definition of mountable.   

Would a supposedly intelligent PhD candidate not know that "surmountable" is the correct word? In any case, it doesn't matter, as long as Gibson gets a cheap laugh. 

Later sequences become even more irritating, as when Louise and Tom listen to a recording of patients loudly having sex, then repeat what they've heard. Or when Louise and Tom sprint back and forth to the break room candy machine for minutes on end, choosing items but never taking them out of the machine. Or, in the final scene, Louise and Jonathan, who are about to break up, toss their apartment keys back and forth, since Louise commented on Jonathan's inability to do so. None of this makes any pertient or intelligent commentary on relationships, but Gibson (who wrote scripts for the current House of Cards season, by far its weakest) seems most interested in getting momentary reactions from the audience, no matter how little her play and its characters cohere narratively and psychologically.

Carrie Coon is an incisive actress but, although she has her moments as Louise, even she can't create a sympathetic character out of such disparate, self-contradictory fragments. Likewise, director Daniel Aukin, who fashions a clever mise-en-scene that overlaps the play's various settings, can do little else, lost as he is in Gibson's meanderings.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Daryl Hall John Oates—Live in Dublin 
(Eagle Rock)
Amazingly, Philly-soul masters Hall & Oates had never played Dublin before this 2014 concert in the Irish capital's Olympia Theatre, as the legendary pop duo performs a charged 90-minute set of their greatest '70s and '80s hits to a boisterous response from the singalong crowd. Daryl Hall is in fine voice on classics like the opening "Maneater" and the mid-show peak of "She's Gone" and "Sara Smile," while John Oates sings lead on lesser-known songs "Back Together Again" and "Las Vegas Turnaround." While some of the '80s hits haven't aged well—like the climactic blast of "Kiss on My List" and "Private Eyes"—no one in the audience or onstage seems to mind. The hi-def image and audio are first-rate; extras are Hall and Oates interviews.

The Roommates/A Woman for All Men 
(Gorgon)
These early '70s sexploitation movies by director Arthur Marks would be right at home on Cinemax after midnight, with their kitschy combination of sex and murder: The Roommates follows nubile young women being followed by a killer; A Woman brings a sexy young wife between an old patriarch and his sons. Marks has made perfectly watchable trash, although The Roommates suffers from a plethora of amateurish acting; at least A Woman has Keenan Wynn as the father, Andrew Robinson as one of the sons and Judy Brown as the femme fatale. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras include a Marks commentary and interviews with Marks, Brown and Roberta Collins (from Roommates).

The Sure Thing 
(Shout Factory)
Rob Reiner's innocuous comedy about collegian John Cusack, who must decide between hot blonde of his dreams Nicolette Sheridan and levelheaded fellow student Daphne Zuniga, hasn't really dated in the 30 years since its release: it's still the same safely mainstream rom-com it was back in 1985. Although Cusack, Zuniga and Sheridan do their level best with their flimsy characters, Reiner's middlebrow sensibility ends up making this pleasant but blandly forgettable movie anything but a sure thing. The Blu-ray transfer is good; extras include several vintage featurettes.

Les vepres siciliennes 
(Warner Classics)
One of Giuseppe Verdi's most obscure grand operas was given a rousing 2013 revival at London's Royal Opera House, and director Stefan Herheim's concept of setting the story in the Parisian opera house for which the work was composed happily doesn't make hash of the riveting historical drama. Conductor Antonio Pappano leads a gripping account of Verdi's score; singers Lianna Haroutounian, Bryan Hymel, Michael Volle and Erwin Schott (better known as Mr. Anna Netrebko) can scarcely be improved upon. The hi-def image and audio are equally excellent; extras comprise two backstage featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Disorder 
(Icarus)
Using found footage from several videographers, in 2009 Huang Weikai stitched together an unsettling cinematic collage that alarmingly shows how China's fast-paced modenization has wrought many unexpected  consequences to both dwellers in the cities and suburbs and animals both domesticated and wild. Unforgettable images include a massive mess of pigs roaming a highway, hucksters pretending to be hit by some of the many cars on the road in order to extort the innocent drivers, and bystanders protesting police brutality being brutalized themselves. A perfect complement to Huang's hour-long documentary, his earlier Floating (2005), explores the life of a street musician in rural China.

Hot Legs/California Gigolo 
(Vinegar Syndrome)
These late-'70s X-rated features creak along for 75 or so minutes as their flimsy plots vie for primacy with explicit sex scenes, starting with Hot Legs, which stars an able actor named Richard Pacheco—one of the few "porn" actors as believable out of bed as in—in a typically dumb sex comedy. California Gigolo stars the one and only John Holmes as the biggest stud in Hollywood: his lack of acting talent is usually overlooked by unfinicky adult-film connoisseurs, but there's also his complete inability to look like he actually enjoys having sex on camera. 


Sinkholes
Sunken Ship Rescue 
(PBS)
Two Nova PBS specials explore notable recent news stories; first up is Sinkholes, which dissects these hazardously collapsing dangers that can occur slowly, over time, or in the blink of an eye, bringing death and destruction in their wake. The accompanying video footage is both hard to watch and hard to look away from. Sunken Ship Rescue recounts the amazing resurrection of the ill-fated cruise ship Costa Concordia, which hit a reef off the Italian coast and sank, killing dozens. Engineers lift the ship from its semi-submerged position and safely move it in history's biggest-ever ship recovery operation.

Sukkah City 
(First Run)
Sukkahs, temporary structures that Jewish people live in every fall during the holiday of Sukkot, are built according to basictenets in the Bible; "Sukkah City" is the brainchild of Joshua Foer, creator of a contest for architects to design sukkahs from which a dozen were chosen,  financed, built and displayed in Manhattan's Union Square Park one September weekend in 2010. Jason Hutt's engaging film, which shows the process for those whose designs were selected, culminates in a remarkable sequence of the 12 sukkahs being shown to the park's crowds. Extras comprise short featurettes like The Yeshiva Boys, which shows two young students who discuss whether these sukkahs are kosher.

CDs of the Week
Simone Dinnerstein—Broadway-Lafayette 
(Sony Classics)
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein cleverly links the centuries-old Franco-USA alliance with the affinities between American and French composers (using the downtown New York City subway stop on Broadway and Lafayette Streets for the cover shoot is a nice touch, too). Two works are warhorses, but since they are Maurice Ravel's scintillating piano concerto and George Gershwin's equally amazing Rhapsody in Blue, who's to argue? The newest work, The Circle and the Child, a concerto by French-American Philip Lasser, was written for Dinnerstein, while her precise playing makes it seem as if all these works are hers: she gives brightness and clarity to Ravel and Gershwin's jazzy syncopations. 

Weinberg—Violin Concerto/Symphony No. 4 
(Warner Classics)
Now that his splendid and thoroughly original music has been rediscovered, Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (who died in 1996) receives another memorial to his talent with the latest must-listen disc of his work, which pairs his muscular Violin Concerto with his vigorous fourth symphony. Persuasively performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under sympathetic conductor Jacek Kaspszyk, Weinberg's Fourth Symphony pulsates throughout with taut energy, while violin soloist Ilya Gringolts brings out the concerto's marvelous musical touches.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Divine Move 
(CJ Entertainment)
In this action-packed Korean drama, a professional player of the game GO, framed for his brother's murder, returns from prison to extract revenge on one of his opponents, and a final game between them becomes an orchestrated orgy of violence. So what if director Jo Bum-Gu doesn’t know the meaning of the word subtle: that’s not his aim. Instead, he builds slowly (and sometimes dully) to a final blast of brutally balletic gore, the reason fans of this genre are watching anyway. The Blu-ray transfer is dazzling, and the lone extra is a making-of.

IMAX Island of Lemurs: Madagascar 
(Warner Bros)
The lemurs of Madagascar—an island off Africa's coast that's the only place on earth where these adorable creatures live—are seen in their singular glory in this amusing and eye-opening 40-minute film narrated by Morgan Freeman. By now the formula is familiar, but it still works: these stunning IMAX nature documentaries have beautiful cinematography, exotic locales and nature to show off. The hi-def transfer is luminous, both in 3D and in 2D; extras are several featurettes.


Into the Woods 
(Disney)
Director Rob Marshall has already done (or done in) two classic Broadway musicals, Chicago and Nine, winning an Oscar in the process, so what could he do to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s decidedly adult take on familiar fairy tales? Since the source material is fairly indestructible—both the original stories and the twisted Sondheim/Lapine version—the movie is more entertaining than Marshall's previous flops. Still, there's his questionable casting, led by Meryl Streep's scenery-chewing that's far more corrosive onscreen than it would have been onstage, where I saw Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams do far more with her role of the Wicked Witch. Anna Kendrick, a sweet-voiced Cinderella, should be doing Broadway with her fine comic and musical chops. The movie has a lustrous look on Blu; extras are Marshall's commentary, behind the scenes featurettes and a new Sondheim song.

Live at Knebworth 
(Eagle Rock)
This concert to end all concerts, held to raise money for music therapy, was held at London’s Knebworth House on June 30, 1990, and featured the biggest British rock and pop acts of the time, from Paul McCartney, Elton John and Eric Clapton to Mark Knopfler, Phil Collins and Genesis. The daylong event, trimmed to a mere three hours, means each act only gets a few tunes, instead of the full performances many of them deserve. Still, there are memorable musical moments, like Tears for Fears’ “Badman’s Song,” Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page tearing up on a rarely-heard Zeppelin number, "Wearing and Tearing." On hi-def, the video is passable but the sound is terrific.

Pioneer 
(Magnolia)
Based on a true story about the 1980s' Norwegian oil boom, this tense thriller dramatizes the perils lying in wait for divers who had to reach the sea's bottom to help bring up the oil through the pipelines laid down there. Director Erik Skjoldbjærg, who made the atmospheric thriller Insomnia (the original, of course), precisely captures the claustrophobia and danger of the mission, and is aided by an accomplished cast that includes familiar faces like Stephen Lang and Wes Bentley. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are making-of featurettes.

Son of a Gun 
Vice 
(Lionsgate)
Ewan McGregor's intense portrayal of an ex-con whose robbery plan goes spectacularly wrong is the main reason to watch Son of a Gun, a routine heist movie by director Julius Avery, which also includes a nice bonus in the fetching actress Alicia Vikander. In Vice, whose dystopian futuristic setting harkens back to the superior Westworld, Bruce Willis stars as creator of a resort where people can live out their fantasies with help from human-looking "artificials," until one of them escapes. Both films look good on Blu-ray; Gun extras are a commentary and making-of, and Vice extras are a commentary, making-of and interviews.

Vice & Virtue 
(Kino Classics)
Based on de Sade’s novel Justine, Roger Vadim set his 1963 adaptation in WWII era France, where two women—played by Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve—act out their destinies as kept women by the Nazis: one willingly, the other not. Too bad Vadim’s basic lack of filmic sense doesn't allow him to intelligently explore the exploitation of women during wartime; his B&W drama has little to offer other than the pleasure of watching two glamorous French actresses at work. The hi-def transfer is exquisite.

The Way He Looks 
(Strand)
Brazilian director Daniel Ribeiro has made an unsentimental study of a blind teenager’s burgeoning (and confusing) sexuality as he falls for a fellow male classmate, much to the consternation of his female best friend. With winningly natural performances by his talented young actors, particularly Ghilherme Lobo in the lead, Ribeiro has made a wonderfully focused drama that's never condescending. Extras include I Don't Want to Go Back Alone, Ribeiro’s original 2010 short film, deleted scenes and cast and crew interviews. 


DVDs of the Week
All at Sea
The Doctor's Dilemma
Where the Spies Are 
(Warner Archive)
A trio of British matinee idols headline a trio of middling '50s and '60s pictures, starting with Alec Guinness in All at Sea, a mild 1957 Ealing Studios comedy now more dated than daring, though it has its occasional amusing moments. In The Doctor's Dilemma, Anthony Asquith's 1958 adaptation of a barbed and witty Bernard Shaw comedy, Dirk Bogarde is appropriately smarmy as a sickly artist living with lovely Leslie Caron; various medical men are played by Alistair Sim, Robert Morley and John Robinson. Then there's the frantic but mostly frivolous 1965 spy drama, Where the Spies Are, in which David Niven looks hopelessly lost, except when he unsurprisingly perks up whenever the gorgeous Francoise Dorleac appears.

Code Black 
(Music Box)
Physician-turned-cirector Ryan McGarry’s startling and intimate documentary about Los Angeles County Hospital’s always-busy emergency room—where more lives are lost (and saved) than anywhere else in the country—shows the selfless dedication of the men and women working long, thankless hours to treat the seriously injured and sick. In the age of Obamacare, where health care and people’s lives themselves are being troublingly politicized by lawmakers, places like L.A.'s "C booth" have become ground zero in the ongoing battle for humane and affordable treatment. Extras include a McGarry interview and short film.

Dixie Ray Hollywood Star 
(Vinegar Syndrome)
From the Golden Age of adult films, Anthony Spinelli's 1983 homage to detective movies features then-porn superstar John Leslie as a Sam Spade-like private dick on a case that leads him to the beautiful, eponymous actress at its center. Along with the faithful '40s atmosphere, the movie includes plentiful sex scenes between Leslie and some of the biggest porn actresses of that time like Lisa Deleeuw and Kelly Nichols, which remains its main claim to fame.

Mondovino 
(Icarus/KimStim)
Jonathan Nossiter’s absorbing 10-hour, 10-part 2004 mini-series about the surprisingly cutthroat world of wine and wine-making is an exhaustive and endlessly fascinating look at one of the most profitable industries in today’s world, with a global expansiveness that moves from California to Tuscany and Burgundy to Argentina. Nossiter interviews wine makers, wine importers, wine salesmen, wheelers, dealers and superstars like infamous tastemaker and critic Robert Parker; the adroit editing juggles disparate characters and story lines that meander around and often overlap with one another. Like a fine wine, Mondovino has a full-bodied, delectable lushness that’s worth drinking in.