Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September '14 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Come Morning 
When a grandfather takes his grandson hunting in the nearby woods, the 10-year-old accidentally shoots a neighbor who's part of a clan with whom this family has feuded, setting in motion an unlikely but inevitable chain of tragic events. Although it has a shopworn plot with predictable twists, this low-budget thriller by writer-director Derrick Sims (who also edited and photographed) is a potent piece of tense realism, with authentic performances by Michael Ray Davis as the old man and Thor Wahlestedt as the young boy. The movie's graininess looks fine on Blu-ray; extras include a commentary, featurette and deleted scenes.

Doctor Who—Deep Breath 
In his first go-round as the venerable Doctor Who, the great British actor Peter Capaldi materializes, along with his faithful assistant (the very fetching Jenna Coleman), in Victorian London, as a rampaging dinosaur terrorizes the city. Although Capaldi seems a bit out of his element in this debut episode, his character's behavior is explained away cleverly, and future episodes do find him gaining his footing: and here's hoping that he will also gain the mass audience he finally deserves. The Blu-ray looks superb; extras include featurettes and a prequel scene only shown in theaters.

Ghost in the Shell—25th Anniversary 
(Anchor Bay)
Anime master Mamoru Oshii made this arresting sci-fi study that brilliantly blends traditional and computerized animation techniques in 1995: so why is this being called the 25th anniversary edition? (Actually, the original manga, or comic book, was published in 1989.) Quibbling aside, this is a remarkable film, both visually and thematically, that's remindful of Blade Runner and Fantastic Planet, but without aping either of those films' equally unique stylishness. The hi-def transfer is first-rate, but there are, strangely, no extras.

Rose Byrne, the talented and delightful Australian actress has had the misfortune to star in two of my recent comic betes noire: the execrable Bridesmaids and this laughless look at a young couple whose homey suburban existence is uprooted when an entire frat house moves in next door. This is a horribly misguided comedy from the get-to, especially when the game Byrne must interact with the awfully one-note Seth Rogen, whose movie stardom simply escapes me. Director Nicholas Stoller and writers Brendan O'Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen throw anything into the mix, and the result is sophomoric and infantile. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include an alternate opening, deleted scenes, gag reel and featurettes.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—40th Anniversary 
(Dark Sky)
Tobe Hooper's 1974 low-budget shocker—made when the world was to going to hell in a handbasket (Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, for starters)—is anything but artful, but it has much less gore than you thought it had, and its tidy 83 minutes strip away anything extraneous, which keeps the shocks coming right until the end. The 40th anniversary edition includes an excellent new film transfer (which has audio and video glitches that novices won't notice but real fans will) and four commentaries, along with an extra disc containing full-length documentaries about the film, deleted scenes and casting calls.

We Are the Best! 
This gently satiric portrait of pre-teen girls in early '80s Stockholm rebelling against parents, teachers and fellow students by putting together an awful punk band mines familiar territory for Swedish director Lukas Moodysson: the troubles of the family unit, best shown in his earlier, and superior, Together and Show Me Love. His gimmick of the girls playing the absolutely worst songs ever makes this perversely charming and heartfelt, and he gets wonderfully natural portrayals from the three girls. Maybe Moodysson will take the laurels he's received for this minor but charming film and probe more deeply in his next film. The hi-def transfer looks great.

DVDs of the Week
(Virgil Films)
A Rochester family is marked by malaise after an unexplained tragedy that happened just before the current wintry year of 2002, epitomized by the matriarch keeping herself busy watching VHS tapes of her absent daughter, in this earnest but plodding drama, directed with little distinction by Pieter Gaspersz from a soggy script by Sabrina Gennarino (who plays another daughter). Despite a strong performance by the always welcome Kathleen Quinlan as the mother, the movie allows its "secret" to loom so large that the when it's finally revealed, it's a dramatic and psychological letdown.

Bill Morrison—Collected Works 1996 to 2013 
This four-DVD, one-Blu-ray set brings together 16 features and shorts by a singular filmmaker who cannily marries found and archival film footage with contemporary musical scores to create dream-like, often surreal cinematic experiences: these include his provocative 2011 masterpiece about coal mining, The Miners’ Hymns; and last year's The Great Flood, which blends vintage film jazz guitarist Bill Frisell's music to provide stark beauty amid the 1927 floods inundating the Mississippi delta. Also included are Morrison's formally rigorous 2002 feature Decasia (the only one appearing on a Blu-ray disc), 2010's Spark of Being, a demented updating of Frankenstein, and short films like The Film of Her, with music by Polish modernist Henryk Gorecki. 

The Lusty Men 
(Warner Archive)
In Nicholas Ray's offbeat 1952 western, a former rodeo rider (Robert Mitchum) befriends a desperate husband (Arthur Kennedy) and convinces him to start bucking broncos; meanwhile, the man's wife (a sultry Susan Hayward) finds herself both disgusted by and secretly attracted to the broken-down rodeo man. Amidst the exciting archival rodeo footage is a smartly observed character study, with Ray's incisive direction and top-notch portrayals by all three stars giving this a gravitas it probably doesn't deserve. Although restored and looking better than it ever has, this definitely should have been released on Blu-ray.

Motown 25—Yesterday Today Forever 
This 1983 TV special became legendary the moment Michael Jackson, during "Billie Jean," moonwalked for the first time, sending the music world into a frenzy; but, as this set shows, there were also memorable performances like Marvin Gaye's impassioned "What's Going On," Stevie Wonder's exuberant medley of hits from "Signed Sealed Delivered" to "Sir Duke" and Diana Ross and the Supremes' grand finale, which begins with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." The two-hour show (hosted by a mostly subdued Richard Pryor) is housed on the first disc with a behind-the-scenes featurette; disc two hosts rehearsal footage of Gaye, who's also remembered by music-biz people; and disc three comprises additonal interviews and featurettes.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

September '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Arrow—Complete 2nd Season 
Little House on the Prairie—Complete 3rd Season 
The lively second season of Arrow, about a bow-and-arrow wielding superhero pointedly not called "Green Arrow," shows Oliver Queen and his costumed alter ego vowing to fight crime without killing anyone—a rule made to be broken, of course. In the third season of the beloved Little House (1976-77), the Ingalls family (parents Michael Landon and Karen Grassle, daughters Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson) continue to present moral guidance to viewers without cloying sentimentality. The Blu-ray images look stunning on Arrow and lovely on Little House; Arrow extras comprise commentaries, deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes, while the lone Little House extra is a featurette with new interviews.

Burt's Buzz 
In this engaging profile of Burt Shavitz, face and founder of the Burt's Bees franchise, Jody Shapiro introduces us to a man who's always wanted to do things his way: preferably alone. But he allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by a woman who marketed his products and became a multi-millionaire from them. Any lingering bitterness from that experience clouds but doesn't overwhelm Shapiro's breeze character study: and when the ornery but likeable Burt travels to Taiwan, he's treated as a rock star. The movie looks terrific in hi-def; extras are superfluous shorts by Isabella Rossellini.

The Great Race 
(Warner Archives)
Blake Edwards' fractured 1965 mess fits in perfectly (or imperfectly) with the gargantuan canvas that infected comedies of its era like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World: the serviceable plot about an international car race from New York to Paris (don't ask) is DOA. Even with a cast comprising Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn, Edwards hits all the wrong comic notes; all that's left are stunning locations, wonderfully rendered on Blu-ray. Lone extra is a vintage-of featurette.

Hangmen Also Die 
(Cohen Media)
Fritz Lang's fact-based drama about the inevitable reprisals after the assassination of Nazi "hangman" Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia is too long at 135 minutes and has an awkward script by Bertolt Brecht that lurches from scene to scene. Still, this 1943 English-language production—which tantalizingly has German language interludes with no subtitles—tackles seriously and with minimal Hollywood melodramatics the complex political realities of its time. The B&W film looks stunningly good on Blu-ray; extras comprise Richard Pena's commentary and featurette on the film's history and legacy.

The Last of the Unjust 
(Cohen Media)
Claude Lanzmann, who made the seminal Holocaust documentary Shoah, again illuminates man’s ultimate humanity to man in this nearly four-hour, penetrating examination of the Czech concentration camp at Terezin, a Nazi “show camp” for the Red Cross's benefit. Structured around Lanzmann's 1975 Rome interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, last of the camp’s Jewish Elders, the film is colored by shades of grey in what many simply see as “good vs. evil.” Murmelstein, engaging and thoughtful, even demolishes Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” description of Adolph Eichmann, with whom he interacted. New footage of Lanzmann reciting from Murmelstein’s valuable book on Terezin is awkwardly inserted, but never detracts from his film’s cumulative power. The Blu-ray image is good enough; lone extra is a brief Lanzmann interview.

Queen Live at the Rainbow '74 
(Eagle Rock)
This concert from 1974's Sheer Heart Attack tour at the legendary London venue shows a band that's already disciplined, cocksure and incredibly entertaining, and for old-time Queen fans, the song list could scarcely be bettered: alongside classics like "Now I'm Here" and "Keep Yourself Alive" are album tracks largely ignored in later set lists, like "Liar," "Son and Daughter" and the brilliantly crazed, heavy-hitting tunes from the grievously underrated Queen II—"Ogre Battle," "Father to Son" and "White Queen." Freddie Mercury already shows why he's a peerless onstage frontman, while Brian May's scintillating guitar, Roger Taylor's pummeling drums and high harmonies and John Deacon's sturdy bass lines coalesce to form a truly classic quartet. The 80-minute show (which needs to be longer) has acceptable video quality and fantastic sound; five bonus tracks from an earlier Rainbow concert are included.

DVDs of the Week
Age of Uprising 
Jackpot (Music Box)
Anchored by the impressively craggy Mads Mikkelsen as a 16th century horse trader seeking vengeance when he loses his family and livelihood, Arnaud des Pallières' Age of Uprising is an entertaining adventure based loosely on a novella by the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist. Although based on a story by Jo Nesbo (whose work was also the basis for the trippy thriller Headhunters), Jackpot never gains any momentum with its silly plot about a group of annoying low-lives fighting over lottery winnings. Age extras are Mikkelsen and des Pallières interviews and deleted scenes; Jackpot extra is a making-of.

Casting By
(First Run)
Casting By, which introduces the unsung casting directors who filled movies like Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and The Graduate with stars like Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, is crammed with film clips and many interviews of casting pioneers Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stallmaster and admirers like Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese. Evergreen, a fascinating behind the scenes look at Washington state's race to legalize marijuana, evenhandedly examines the passionate warring factions debating the bill's fairness, including advocates like travel writer Rick Steves. Evergreen extras include the short film The Future of Legalization and additional interviews.

(Music Box)
(Virgil Films)
In Pawel Pawlikowski's evocative B&W chamber drama Ida, a novice nun accompanies her worldly but troubled aunt to discover the truth about her dead parents; beautifully shot, the film's vivid characterizations are complemented by unerring authenticity of time and place (it's set in 1960s Communist Poland). Korengal, Sebastian Junger and late photographer Tim Hetherington (who was killed in Libya) return to the U.S. soldiers they profiled in Restrepo for another sad, scary and haunting view of the effects of Afghan combat. Ida extras include on-set footage, director's Q&A and interview; Korengal extras comprise Junger's commentary and discussion.

Reign—Complete 1st Season
The first season of this diverting costume drama about a teenage Mary Stuart, the future Queen of Scots, is set in the year 1557, as Mary is sent to France to prepare her for the British throne. Although the show tries to imitate dramas like The Tudors or The Borgias, and their blend of political and sexual chicanery. The resulting mish-mash gains the most from a solid cast led by young Aussie actress Adelaide Kane as Mary, along with the voluptuous costumes and location scenery; extras include making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Keeping viewers at arm’s length, while his raison d'etre, mars estimable director Aleksandr Sokurov’s bizarre attempt to turn Goethe’s classic into farce; although containing characteristically fluid camerawork (shot in Academy ratio by Bruno Delbonnel), the film is often tepidly humorless despite its being more lighthearted than usual for Sokurov. Because of the director's uniquely dream-like visual style, the movie looks pulled this way and that, but if you know what you're in for—who else but those familiar with Sokurov will watch this?—then there are intermittent pleasures to be had. 

Fed Up 
(Anchor Bay)
Stephanie Soechtig's advocacy documentary demonizes sugar in the fight against the current frightening epidemic of obesity while also demanding that our government stop subsidizing the junk food industry at the same time it fights for healthy eating. Inevitably, in a 90-minute feature important information gets short shrift, but the stories of several children trying to deal with weight problems are heartrending. Another quibble: narrator Katie Couric (co-executive producer with Laurie David) mispronounces "grocery" as "groshery." The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras comprise deleted scenes and a Spanish-language version of the film.

God's Pocket 
Based on Pete Dexter's novel, this drama tries hard to find the scalding humor in ordinary people's tragic everyday lives (and deaths), but actor-turned-director John Slattery is unable to to get a handle on and balance the constant tonal shifts. And despite a game cast—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins and John Turturro, for starters—the film's plot unspools more interestingly than the characters do, so the story's sharp turns overwhelm the performers' otherwise sharp characterizations. The movie looks terrific on Blu-ray; extras are Slattery's commentary and deleted scenes.

The Roosevelts—An Intimate History 
Ken Burns' latest documentary comprises 14 hours and 7 episodes of American history that explores the greatness of two of our ablest presidents, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Franklin's wife Eleanor, who may have been more famous and popular than either. Made in Burns' usual way—archival footage and photographs are shown while narrator Peter Coyote and actors Edward Herrmann (FDR), Paul Giamatti (TR) and Meryl Streep (Eleanor) speak their actual words—The Roosevelts is another valuable American history lesson, this time reminding all of us what progressivism has accomplished. The hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise deleted scenes with Burns' intro, making-of featurette and 13 bonus videos..

Willow Creek 
(Dark Sky)
Writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait is late to the game with his riff on The Blair Witch Project about a couple hoping to discover clues to Bigfoot's existence but instead finding  worse horrors when they get lost in the woods. Aside from the fact that the movie's hero and heroine act so idiotically that they deserve their fate, there's no denying that the "found-footage" mania ran its course years ago, and Goldthwait has little in the way of scares and twists to add. The Blu-ray looks first-rate; extras include Goldthwait and his stars' commentary and a making-of featurette. 

DVDs of the Week
Burning Bush 
The 1968 Prague Spring, a brief flicker of democracy during Czechoslovakia's Communist rule, occurred while Polish director Agnieszka Holland was attending film school in the Czech capital; that closeness to the mesmerizing immediacy of history in the making has informed her three-part, epic exploration of some of that history—the aftermath of student Jan Palach's self-immolation as a form of protest. Holland made this as a mini-series for HBO Europe and is a master at the rhythms of dramatic arcs in vogue on TV (she's directed episodes of The Wire and Treme and the recent Rosemary's Baby), and hers is an exciting version of history writ large, with gloriously lived-in performances by Tatiana Pauhofova, Ivan Trojan and Jaroslav Pokorna, among many others. But why isn't Burning Bush on Blu-ray?

The Equalizer—The Complete Series 
This compelling police drama ran on CBS from 1985 to 1989 and not only showcases a charismatic Edward Woodward as the title man for hire who will do the dirty work for his often helpless clients but is also a time-capsule snapshot of Manhattan (with many shots of the World Trade Center, which will always pull me out of whatever I'm watching for a few moments).

Woodward does yeoman's work throughout, and is joined by many guest stars, several at the beginning of their careers (Kevin Spacey, Cynthia Nixon, Stanley Tucci) and others veterans of the small and large screen (E.G. Marshall, Maureen Stapleton), while Philip Bosco leads an impressive list of New York stage actors who got in on the fun, like Tammy Grimes and Laila Robins.

This 30-disc set includes all 88 episodes and contains several enjoyable, if somewhat superfluous, extras aside from a 45-minute retrospective featurette: there's A Congregation of Ghosts, Woodward's last completed film before his 2009 death, and CI5: The New Professionals, a 1999 espionage series with Woodward that was a big hit in Europe.

The German Doctor 
(First Run)
In this tantalizing could-be true story, Nazi refugee Josef Mengele sets up shop in Argentina, where there is already a substantial post-WWII German-speaking population: in the process, the amiable monster becomes unusually close to a family, especially the young wife and her vulnerable little daughter (a remarkable Florencia Bado). Director Lucia Puenzo—who also adapted her own novel—never strays far from melodrama, but the cast is top-notch and the inevitable tension is, generally, smartly underplayed. 

Inspector Manara—Complete Seasons 1 & 2
With his blue eyes, wavy hair, sideburns and moustache, actor Guido Caprino plays up the physical attarctiveness of Inspector Luca Manara to the hilt in this ingratiating if thinly stretched police drama in which the atypical chief inspector (in both looks and manner, natch) annoys nearly all his male colleagues but enchants all his female ones—natch. It's fun and entertaining, even if the cases that are solved are less than enthralling, while the cast swings between overplaying and ignoring the obviousness of the conceit.

Years of Living Dangerously 
In this multi-part series calmly foretelling our doom from climate change, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman leads a pack of celebrities—Don Cheadle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Munn, Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Matt Damon, America Ferrera—to spell out matter-of-factly the road to ruin we are on. There is some optimism in seeing so many people of every stripe trying to help out, which temporarily tempers the obvious conclusion that we are in trouble. Extras comprise hours of material, including deleted scenes and interviews.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

September '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Any Given Sunday 
This 1999 football epic is another typically overwrought Oliver Stone film, providing equal parts mesmerizing gridiron action and preposterous melodrama, while also showcasing the usual overacting by Al Pacino and James Woods, and the usual underwhelming presence of Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J and Jamie Foxx. The NFL cameos are legion: Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas, Warren Moon, Emmitt Smith, Terrell Owens and even coach Barry Switzer apear. Stone's preferred 157-minute "directors' cut" is on the Blu-ray, while the original cut—six minutes longer—is only on an accompanying DVD. The hi-def image looks stunning; extras include commentaries by Stone and Foxx; deleted/extended scenes; music videos; outtakes; features, both old and new.

Night Moves 
Kelly Reichardt's exploration of a trio of radical environmentalists who decide to destroy a dam as the ultimate protest takes an unexpected turn when an innocent person dies in the explosion and the three must deal with the mortal (and moral) consequences. Fine performances by Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning form the dramatic center, while Reichardt's low-key approach to the Hitchcockian thriller pays dividends that makes this her most successful movie since her debut, Old Joy. The movie looks excellent on Blu-ray.

Supernatural—Complete 9th Season 
Vampire Diaries—Complete 5th Season 
These two popular series on the CW network receive their latest Blu-ray releases. In the most recent, 23-episode season of Supernatural—whose latest season begins this fall—Sam and Dean Winchester find themselves battling a plethora of powerful and unearthly beings, while the fifth, 22-episode season of Vampire Diaries—whose sixth season also returns soon—finds the human body count piling up on campus after Elena (the toothsome Nina Dobrev) begins school. Both dramas look sensational in high definition; Supernatural extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel, a 2013 Comic-Con panel and several commentaries, while Vampire extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

They Came Together 
Director/co-writer David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter have concocted a sophomoric parody of rom-coms, beginning with its unfunny double entendre title. Some might defend this trite, desperate gag-o-rama by saying "but it's supposed to be inane—that's the point"; but the pair's endless succession of old, stale gags and one-liners is fully bad enough to be rejected by Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and even the Zucker brothers. Paul Rudd has an effortlessness that almost redeems some of the sorry material, while Amy Poehler's in-your-face attitude fits the movie to a T. The hi-def images look good; extras include Wain/Showalter commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, table reading.

Words and Pictures 
In this perfectly serviceable rom-com, Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche bring needed star quality to a sappy love story by Gerald Dipego, whose script (and its title) makes so explicit the literal differences between their characters—he's an English teacher/poet, she's an art teacher/painter—that it mitigates the low-key pleasures the movie does afford, despite hackneyed subplots that add 20 minutes to a movie that should be no longer than an hour and a half. Director Fred Schepisi once again shows his stylish professionalism, but it would be nice if he got hold of a meaty script again: alas, the days of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, A Cry in the Dark and even Last Orders are gone. The sharp Blu-ray image shows off Ian Baker's sumptuously burnished photography; extras comprise a Schepisi commentary and making-of featurette.  

DVDs of the Week
Cesare Mori
Donna Detective 
The compelling true story Cesare Mori follows a detective who, against all odds, went up against the Sicilian Mafia after World War I and cleaned up a lot more than what one would have thought possible; Vincent Perez is particularly appealing in the lead role of the fearless "iron prefect" who used the same harsh methods of the Cosa Nostra to apprehend their leaders. Lucrezia Lante della Rovere's portrayal of the title character in Donna Detective—a harried but brilliant female chief inspector who must balance her personal and professional lives unlike any of her male colleagues—makes this Italian Prime Suspect a must-see as she time and again upends the chauvanistic attitudes of those men who are in charge or are under her charge. 

The Galapagos Affair 
In this weirdly fascinating true-life murder mystery, directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller lay out with precision and dexterity a who's who of bizarre characters who descended on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s, where jealousy and possible adultery led to the disappearance of two of their denizens. Affair is both first-rate investigative journalism and a shimmery documentary about the natural wonders of these beautiful but near-desolate islands; revolving narrators include Cate Blanchett, Connie Nielsen, Sebastian Koch and Diane Kruger. Extras include deleted scenes and directors' Telluride Festival Q&A.

Lolly Madonna XXX
Nasty Habits 
(Warner Archive)
Richard C. Sarafian's strident Lolly (1973) charts a deadly feud between two Tennessee families, jumpstarted when an innocent young woman is kidnapped; despite veteran actors like Rod Steiger and Robert Ryan—and young bucks like Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid and Gary Busey—the movie is blunt to the point of dullness. Likewise, the bumpily satirical Habits (1977), based on Muriel Spark's novel, is an occasionally funny look at political machinations in a nunnery following the Mother Superior's demise; this unsuccessful take-off on Watergate wastes Glenda Jackson, Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

The Midnight Special 
Producer Bert Sugarman's late-night pop-music series, which ran from 1972 to 1981, featured the biggest stars of the time performing their hit songs without lip-synching, and this six-disc set crams some six dozen performers from 21 (out of 450) episodes, representing just the tip of the iceberg of who played on the show over its 8-plus years. Included areJohn Denver (who sang on and hosted the series pilot), the Doobie Brothers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates, Aerosmith and ELO, giving energetic live versions of hits like "Take Me Home Country Roads," "Jesus Is Just Alright," "American Girl," "Show Me the Way," "Sara Smile," "Train Kept A-Rollin" and "Strange Magic." Extras comprise bonus songs, interviews and featurettes.

Matt Wolf's detailed documentary eloquently explores the invention of a generation that we now take for granted: the "birth" of teenagers. Coming to terms with unruly young people has always been difficult for adults, and the chasm that grew following the Industrial Revolution and two world wars is shown by Wolf as the deciding factor in the coming of age of adolescence (and adolescents). Mixing archival footage with dramatic reenactments and narrated diary entries by Jena Malone, Ben Winshaw and others, Teenage is wise beyond its years. Extras comprise Wolf's commentary, making-of featurettes and more archival footage.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Theater Reviews—A.R. Gurney's 'The Wayside Motor Inn' & Shaw Festival 2014

The Wayside Motor Inn
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through September 28, 2014
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Shaw Festival 2014
Arms and the Man
Written by Bernard Shaw
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Written by Tennessee Williams
When We Are Married
Written by J.B. Priestley
Performances through October 26, 2014
Niagara on the Lake, Canada

Ismenia Mendes and David McElwee in The Wayside Motor Inn (photo: Joan Marcus)
A. R. Gurney, America's most civilized, genteel playwright, paints particular portraits, usually of society's upper crust, as in The Cocktail Hour or The Dining Room. His writing more recently became political, disgusted and alarmed as Gurney was over the Bush administration; I wonder if he will write anything about Obama. But much of his career has been one urbane work after another. It's no wonder that Love Letters—which consists of an actor and actress reading letters to each other—is being revived on Broadway this fall with rotating pairs of performers.

When his 1977 comedy-drama The Wayside Motor Inn premiered, it wasn't very well received, since it was more experimental than usual for Gurney: five unrelated stories about five pairs of regular (not affluent) people were played out near-simultaneously on the same set. And indeed, in the first act of director Lila Neugebauer's pleasing revival, there's a sense that, as the plots move forward in a sterile room in the title inn situated near Boston, not much happens in these quotidian lives on an ordinary day.

But, as the second act makes clear, Gurney's point is that there are no (or rare) grand epiphanies or intense dramas in our lives. The closest is a brief heart episode that Frank, sixty-ish husband to nagging wife Jesse, has when alone in the room, or when irate dad Vince tears teenage son Mark's favorite shirt when he refuses to wear a preppy pink one to the meeting Vince arranged for him with an important Harvard alum. 

Indeed, most of what happens is everyday, like college couple Phil and Sally trying to be alone together, or married traveling salesman Ray trying to talk inn employee Sharon (she of the wryly funny pronouncements about the horrible state of the world) into a date, or the escalating arguments betwwen divorcing husband Andy and wife Sharon when she stops by his room and discovers that he swiped beloved family photo albums.

Life goes on for these people, who may be a little wiser or worse for wear after a few hours holed up in this motel room: or maybe not. Either way, Gurney's play comprises typically elegant dialogue and construction, even if the multi-story conceit owes much to Alan Ayckbourn, who did much better by it in How the Other Half Lives, and makes similar ingenious sleights of hand far less gimmicky than Gurney does here. 

Still, director Neugebauer guides the busy stage traffic deftly, while Andrew Lieberman's exacting set and Kaye Voyce's vivid costumes take us right back to the late '70s. In a strong cast of ten, Ismenia Mendes etches a fiercely believable portrait of Sally's sexual confusion (Mendes is fast becoming, after Family Furniture and this, a go-to Gurney favorite), while Jenn Lyon makes a sexy, flirty Sharon.

Every summer, a trek to Niagara on the Lake is good for the soul. This idyllic country town is home to delectable wines made by award-winning wineries, along with housing the Shaw Festival: sampling the wines and attending plays (and, lately, musicals) performed by the best repertory acting troupe around are annual traditions I try not to miss.

Seeing several performances at Shaw allows one to watch the same performers splendidly enact different roles, whether comic, dramatic, farcical, tragic or musical. And so it is this year, starting with the exquisite Deborah Hay, who not only gives a remarkable portrayal of floozy chanteuse Sally Bowles in Peter Hinton's engrossing staging of Cabaret, but also sympathetically plays Dorothea, who is another Tennessee Williams attempt to reincarnate Blanche Dubois in his gauche one-act A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, this season's lunchtime presentation, staged rather toothlessly by director Blair Williams.

In Cabaret—whose obviously symbolic spiral staircase set by Michael Gianfrancesco is utilized to the hilt by director Hinton, at times to the show's detriment—the amazing Hay leads an array of accomplished actors like veterans Benedict Campbell as Herr Schultz and Corinne Koslo as Fraulein Schneider. In the seminal role of the Emcee, Juan Chioran copies neither Joel Grey nor Alan Cumming, instead coming up with an equally compelling interpretation of his own, with none of the excessive campiness that marred Cumming's return to the part on Broadway this spring. 

Attending the Shaw Festival leads to blissful discoveries. This season, it's J. B. Priestley's When We Are Married, an hilariously frenzied comedy (premiering in 1938) about three Yorkshire couples, married on the same day in the same chapel 25 years ago, finding out on their Silver Anniversary that they are not legal. These proper Victorians set about dealing with the possibility that they've been living in sin for a quarter-century in drolly humorous ways, while director Joseph Ziegler makes a masterly ringmaster in the Shaw's new production, which has a crackerjack cast led by Claire Jullien as one of the "wives" and Thom Marriott as one of the "husbands."

Jullien also appears in (and pretty much steals) a disappointing revival of Arms and the Man, Bernard Shaw's magisterial exploration of war and peace, both on the battlefield and the boudoir. Would that director Morris Panych didn't irrelevantly push this classic comedy toward farce, with unfelicitous results. But even in such a wayward production, Shaw's caustic humor and still-relevant observations remain a theatrical force to be reckoned with.

The Wayside Motor Inn
Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Shaw Festival 2014
Niagara on the Lake, Canada

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Blend Call the Midwife and Mad Men together and you get this swanky but serious '60s hospital soap opera following the jumbled lives of doctors, nurses, patients and their fragile families in a soon-to-explode cultural powder keg in pre-swinging London. The series introduces Otto Powel, the dashing head of the gynecological ward who provides safe but highly illegal abortions, and his elegant but complicated wife Elizabeth: Jack Davenport and Natasha Little play these characters with persuasive conviction, supported by a superior supporting cast. The Blu-ray looks smashing.

Haven—Complete 4th Season 
(e one)
The Walking Dead—Complete 4th Season 
(Anchor Bay)
In the fourth season of Haven—based on Stephen King's novel The Colorado Kid—the small Maine title town is still dealing with the supernatural afflictions that have been unyielding for decades; although risible throughout, there's a guilty pleasure quality to the show, and Emily Rose makes a most attractively flawed heroine. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead stumbles around through a fourth year of post-apocalyptic battles among human and zombie survivors, but it does so with a singlemindedness that keeps many fans coming back for more. Both series look spectacular on Blu-ray; Haven extras are featurettes, interviews, commentaries, deleted scene and blooper reel, and Dead extras are featurettes, commentaries and deleted scenes.

High School Confidential! 
(Olive Films)
In the late 1950s, with rock'n'roll gaining traction among the younger set, Jack Arnold's 1958 drama about rowdy doings in a suburban high school—drug use, drug selling, drag racing—is a prime example of a not very good genre, with Jerry Lee Lewis himself providing the boppin' title tune. Although the acting is mostly embarrassing (especially Russ Tamblyn as an undercover cop pretending to be a horny, drug-adled teenager), there are memorable turns by Mamie Van Doren as a sexy aunt and Jan Sterling as a sexy single teacher; as a cautionary tale it's worthless, but as an hysterical piece of camp, it's worth a look. The B&W photography looks fine on Blu-ray.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson—
'Thick as a Brick' Live in Iceland 
(Eagle Vision/Universal)
Although his voice is now pretty much shot, former Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson still performs his band's classic 1972 album Thick as a Brick in its entirety, paired with (what else?) Thick as a Brick II, which he recorded and released in 2012. Accompanied by a solid backing band, Anderson blows through both albums in front of a racuous audience, showing that, even if his best days are behind him, he made an important contribution to '70s progressive rock. The Blu-ray image and sound are first-rate; extras include Anderson interview and additional songs.

Music from the Big House 
(Matson Films)
Bruce McDonald's documentary about Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli performing concerts with inmates at the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary is a rousing and soul-stirring example of how even convicted rapists and murderers find solace in music. Although McDonald allows the men to speak for themselves, frankly discussing their criminal pasts, his film avoids moralizing to concentrate on Chiarelli and the men's music-making. Steve Cosens' B&W photography looks stunning in HD; extras include bonus concert footage, additional scenes and a music video.

The Originals—Complete 1st Season 
Yet another stylish-looking drama series about sexy young vampires, The Originals has the added smarts of being set in New Orleans—where Anne Rice originally set her classic novel Interview wth a Vampire—bringing the Big Easy's visual lushness into the plotline itself. When the predictable machinations of the undead start to pall over these 22 episodes, there's an attractive cast and even more attractive locations to help out. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras include commentaries, featurettes and unaired scenes..

DVDs of the Week
Citizen Koch 
The rise of the billionaire Koch brothers and the sudden formation of the Tea Party after Obama's 2008 election are front and center in Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's valuable documentary, which also brings into the mix the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society (founded by the Kochs' father) and the current rabidly pro-business Republican party. This damning document should be seen by people of all stripes to see how big money and ultra-rich donors are ruining our political system, but those who would most benefit probably won't come near this movie. Extras include extended and deleted scenes, a conversation with Michael Moore and a Sundance Film Fest "Meet the Artists."

History Detectives—Special Investigations 
This entertaining PBS series follows a trio of investigators—Wes Cowen, Kaiama Glover and Tukufu Zuberi—who set out to unearth fresh evidence and perspectives on several unsolved mysteries from our country's past, traveling around America and beyond to try and crack "cold cases" like the disappearances of Jimmy Hoffa and Glenn Miller, Civil War sabotage and murders of servant girls in Texas. Admittedly, there's a slightly cheesy quality to the entire series, as the trio continually (and breathlessly) acts as if the probes are really solving these long unresolved mysteries, but it remains a guilty pleasure.

Out of the Clear Blue Sky 
On September 11, the Cantor Fitzgerald firm lost 658 employees—the most loss of life for any company in the World Trade Center attacks—affecting not only the firm's very survival but many surviving spouses, children, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, etc. Danielle Gardner's affecting documentary gives human faces to this unthinkable tragedy, recounting how CEO Howard Lutnick (who lived because he took his son to his first day of school) and survivors have made it through to today, not only emotionally but financially. Despite annoying overuse of dramatizations, this tough but tender film is a stark reminder that a lot happened to innocent people, both on that unforgettable day and for years afterward.

Richard Lewis—Bundle of Nerves 
An bottomless well of exaggerated tics, comedian Richard Lewis's act builds on Woody Allen's Jewish neurotic, this two-disc set is a perfect introduction to his unique brand of stand-up. Disc one comprises his hilarous 1997 HBO special, Magical Misery Tour, which was filmed at NYC's Bottom Line; and his first TV special, 1979's Diary of a Young Comic, an uneven but often sharp debut. Disc two consists of the 1995 film Drunks, a heartfelt but scattershot comic drama that stars Lewis and Dianne Wiest; and an exclusive new fetaure, House of a Lifetime, which shows off the comedian's many collections. Extras are Lewis intros on all four titles, and commentaries on Diary and Drunks.

Sol LeWitt 
Chris Teerink's sympathetic 76-minute 2012 documentary portrait of one of America's leading conceptual artists—who died in 2007—is an informed appreciation of, and introduction to, the notoriously private LeWitt and his personal art. Teerink's camera explores various works—in particular the 3-mile long installation Wall Drawing #801: Spiral—and conducts several  interviews with colleagues who bring to life his art and life; it's a little dry and academic, but never less than enlightening.