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.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"Rasheeda Speaking," "Abundance"

Rasheeda Speaking
Written by Joel Drake Johnson; directed by Cynthia Nixon
Performances through March 22, 2015
The New Group @ Pershing Sq Signature Ctr, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
thenewgroup.org

Abundance
Written by Beth Henley; directed by Jenn Thompson
Performances through March 28, 2015
TACT @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
tactnyc.org

Pinkins and Wiest in Rasheeda Speaking (photo: Monique Carboni)
Joel Drake Johnson's Rasheeda Speaking tries to be provoking and honest in its look at racism through Ileen and Jaclyn, co-workers in a doctor's office. At the beginning, Ileen and Dr. Williams are worried about how Jaclyn will behave when she returns to work after bouts of anxiety attacks and other seemingly fabricated excuses for not performing her job.

The doctor's latent racism comes out in his comments about how Jaclyn (who's black) has a bad attitude and how the hard-working Ileen (who's white) deserved a recent promotion to office manager. When Jaclyn returns, she uses their obvious discomfort to her advantage: finding out that Ilene is keeping tabs on her behavior for the Human Resources Dept., she quickly turns the tables, transforming the normally competent and calm Ilene into a bundle of nerves. (The play's title comes from Jaclyn's way of unsettling jittery white people—including an elderly patient who cavalierly speaks racially charged comments—by answering the phone as Rasheeda, a "scarier" name.)

For a tight 90 minutes, Johnson's slick but glib comedy alternates salient points with more contrivances than his transparent play can hold, with the many implausible goings-on showing  the playwright's puppeteer strings. Far more believable, in novice director Cynthia Nixon's adroit staging, are the excellent performances of Tonya Pinkins (Jaclyn) and Dianne Wiest (Ilene) who, by avoiding caricature, make Rasheeda Speaking seem a truer statement on an incendiary subject than it really is.

Kelly McAndrew and Tracy Middendorf in Abundance (photo: Marielle Solan Photography)
In her 1989 play Abundance, Beth Henley—whose earliest works Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest remain her best—travels the Old West to introduce Bess Johnson and Macon Hill, who become mail-order brides to a pair of frontiersmen, Jack Flan and Will Curtis. Over the years, the women learn to live off the land while discovering that the difficulties of prairie life can scar them physically and psychologically to the point of madness, as Macon finds when Bess disappears for several years after being taken away by local Indians.

Henley, whose unique voice comprises a dazzling way with words, transplants her homespun Southern-bred poeticism a century earlier and further west. The opening, when the women meet at a train station awaiting their husbands, includes pearls of offbeat wisdom: 

BESS: I—I'm just hoping my husband ain't gonna be real terrible ugly.
MACON: Well Bess, I hope so too.
BESS: It don't mention nothing about his looks in the matrimonial ad.
MACON: Well, now that ain't good news. Folks generally like t'feature their good qualities in them advertisements.

Unfortunately, Henley's initial invention and astute observation peter out quickly; her hackneyed plotting overtakes her quirky characters so much that, by the end, Abundance has turned tedious. The director of this revival, Jenn Thompson, can't make Henley's episodic script cohere; neither can the game cast, except for Tracy Middendorf, as the charmingly goofy Bess, who has a real freshness that brings to mind the young and enchanting Annette Bening.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Theater Reviews—"The Audience," "The Mystery of Love and Sex"

The Audience
Written by Peter Morgan; directed by Stephen Daldry
Performances through June 28, 2015
Broadhurst Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY
theaudiencebroadway.com

The Mystery of Love and Sex
Written by Bathsheba Doran; directed by Sam Gold
Performances through April 26, 2015
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, New York, NY
lct.org

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in The Audience (photo: Joan Marcus)
Already an Oscar winner for playing Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' 2006 drama The Queen, Helen Mirren now may win a Tony for playing her in The Audience, a play by Peter Morgan (who also wrote The Queen's script). But Morgan and Mirren are not merely repeating what they did in The Queen: the film documented the rocky relationship between the monarch and new prime minister Tony Blair following the death of Princess Diana, while the play is a cleverly constructed conceit about the Queen's private weekly meetings about policy and politics over six decades with eight of England's prime ministers while she has been its monarch.

This engrossing drama is resolutely not a mere procession of prime ministers from Winston Churchill to David Cameron; instead, the chronology is jumbled (John Major, in 1995, comes first; the last—who appears several times during the play, where it's suggested he was Elizabeth's "favorite"—is Harold Wilson in 1975), and the Queen is also visited several times by herself as a child, showing her as a precocious, questioning young princess.

Morgan adroitly combines the political and the personal, as the Queen gets chummy with some of the men, whereas others—like the lone female, Margaret Thatcher—she keeps at arm's length. Of course, it's impossible to say if these recreations are in any way accurate: is the Queen really as articulate, insightful, witty and funny as she is here? Mirren is simply sensational, but always subtly: even when making a clever comment, she says it offhandedly, casually, which makes it less implausible than it might be otherwise. She is also unerringly true to her character, whether she's a wide-eyed 25-year-old newcomer having her first meeting with Churchill in 1953 or a tired 86-year-old in a 2015 meeting with her current prime minster, David Cameron. 

Like the woman she plays, Mirren never hogs scenes; her marvelous ability to underplay allows her costars to shine individually. Although Dylan Baker's Major and Judith Ivey's Thatcher approach caricature, the rest are finely illuminating in their impersonations. Most impressive are Richard McCabe's all-too-human, self-effacing Wilson and Dakin Matthews' brusquely entertaining Churchill. Jeffrey Beevers stays on the right side of camp as the Queen's Equerry, who literally sets the stage for the audience in the theater, while Sadie Sink and Elizabeth Teeter alternate as a charming young Elizabeth.

Magisterial throughout are Bob Crowley's sets and costumes, Rick Fischer's lighting and Ivana Primorac's hair and make-up (with a special assist to stagehands helping Mirren in her quick changes onstage). Morgan somewhat surprisingly barely touches on Tony Blair—he's briefly seen defending the imminent Iraq invasion—but since he figures so prominently in The Queen and two TV films Morgan wrote (The Deal and The Special Relationship), he isn't really missed.

Shepherded by the skillful director Stephen Daldry, The Audience is an intelligently wrought slice of you-are-there history.

Diane Lane in The Mystery of Love and Sex (photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The biggest mystery of Bathesheba Doran's ambitious but heavyhanded The Mystery of Love and Sex is why the playwright embraces so many cliches as she rattles off provocative pronouncements on her title subjects, along with many others.

If her story is unoriginal—white girl Charlotte and black boy Jonny have been such close friends since they were nine years old that their discussing marriage while they attend college together rattles her parents, sassy Southern belle Lucinda and famed crime novelist and "New York Jew" Howard—fresh insights and observations can still be wrung from it. But at nearly every turn, Doran ratchets up narrative implausibilities and racial and religious stereotypes while dutifully checking off Important Events in her characters' lives (suicide attempt, divorce, adultery, homosexuality), resulting in often risible melodramatics.

Doran has a keen ear for dialogue, so some conversations ring true; then there are the other moments where what's said sounds force-fed by the playwright instead of the natural back-and-forth among real people. Two gratuitous nude scenes and a wordless and pointless brief appearance by Howard's father further the sense that Doran, on shaky ground, grasps at straws to keep the audience on her side.

Sam Gold directs with impressive control, and his cast is equally good: Gayle Rankin and Mamoudou Athie are appealing as Charlotte and Jonny, while Tony Shaloub dances precariously but thrillingly on the edge of cartoonishness as Howard. Best of all is Diane Lane—in her first New York stage appearance in an astonishing 37 years, when she was 13—who remains one of our most captiviating and incisive actresses. As Lucinda, she even smokes and drinks bewitchingly.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

March '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
Believe Me 
(Virgil Films)
This labored comedy about hypocrisy and faith follows a desperate college student who bilks many easily fooled churchgoers out of their money by donating to his phony charity, with all of the spoils helping to pay for his large tuition bill. It's all predictable (and harmless) enough, but its attempts at inspirational drama grate quickly; in a game cast, Johanna Braddy shines as the romantic interest who just may derail his plan. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are outtakes and deleted scenes.

La Bete et la Belle 
(Opus Arte)
I never would have thought that the powerful but highly idiosyncratic music of Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti (who died in 2006) would work for dance, but this highly original ballet by director-choreographer Kader Belarni has proven me wrong. Although there's also Ravel and Haydn fragments, Ligeti's rhythmically haunting pieces are the perfect soundscape for this bizarrely brilliant variation on Beauty and the Beast, with phenomenal dancing. Both the Blu-ray video and audio are excellent.


Innocence 
(Cinedigm)
This mild would-be thriller concerns a teenage girl who, while mourning her dead mother, is slow to notice that the Manhattan prep school she just started attending features bizarre student suicides and unnaturally attractive (and young) teachers. Meanwhile, the irresistible school nurse has wormed her way into her dad's confidence, and she's nothing like what she seems (duh). This scattershot movie probably won't even pass muster with its target audience of teenage girls, but the always fascinating Kelly Reilly (as the nurse) provides a reason for others to watch. The movie's hi-def transfer is excellent. 

Late Phases: Night of the Lone Wolf 
(Dark Sky)
In this standard-issue werewolf flick, our hero—living in a senior-citizen complex—is also blind: part of the supposed fun is that, despite not seeing anything, he has to fight off nasty creatures pretty much by himself. While it is as dopey as it sounds, Nick Damici gives a heroic portrayal of a man hellbent to survive despite his handicaps, and there are trite in-jokes as former TV and movie sexpots Tina Louise and Karen Lynn Gorney appear as geriatrics. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras comprise a director's commentary and featurettes.


The Liberator 
(Cohen Media)
Cramming just highlights of South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar's eventful if tragically short life is something even a two-hour film can't do with precision, and that's the main failing of an otherwise exciting biopic by director Alberto Arvalo, which features Edgar Ramirez's powerful portrayal of Bolivar as man and myth. With a rousing musical score by Venezuelan composer-conductor Gustavo Dumadel, Arvalo's film might be a Cliffs Notes epic, but it's splendidly realized nonetheless. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras comprise a Dumadel intro and an in-depth making-of featurette.

Life of Riley 
(Kino Lorber)
For his final film, master director Alain Resnais—who died last March at age 91—unveils another puckishly illuminating adaptation of an Alan Ayckbourn play (after Smoking, No Smoking; and Coeurs): it's amazing how well the sensibilities of the French filmmaker and British playwright mesh. In his version of Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy of manners about three couples' adulterous travails, Resnais uses comic-strip backdrops, stylized sets and exaggerated performances (including regulars like his wife Sabine Azema and Andre Dussolier, both too old for their characters) for his lovely last valentine to art and humanity. The Blu-ray transfer is superb; extras are cast interviews.

Life Partners 
(Magnolia)
The usually sunny Leighton Meester stars in this bumpy but watchable exploration of BFFs whose relationship is put to the test by each's straight and gay romantic trysts. The always delightful Meester doesn't rely solely on her natural charm as a psychologically and sexually messed-up 30-year-old; as her closest friend, Gillian Jacobs does a fine job with an even more contradictory character in an interesting but inessential rom-com about more self-absorbed young people. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras behind the scenes featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Low Down 
(Oscilloscope)
In this scathing, honest adaptation of Amy-Jo Albany's memoir, Elle Fanning and John Hawkes give bruising and brilliant performances as teenage Amy-Jo and her drug-addicted but talented jazz musician father, Joe Albany. Set in 1974 Los Angeles, Jeff Preiss's film, while not entirely depressing, unblinkingly features suicide, drug taking, mental and physical abuse, etc.; Fanning and Hawkes (along with Glenn Close, Leda Headey and Flea in small roles) make it worth spending two hours on. Extras are a director's commentary, Amy-Jo Albany interview, on-set featurette.

Outlander—Season One, Volume One
The Red Tent 
(Sony)
Outlander, the Starz network's new time-traveling series, opens its first season with genuine tension as WWII British combat nurse Claire Randall is suddently transported back two centuries to a Scotland embattled by raging war; in the lead role is the skillful Caitriona Balfe. The overlong but absorbing TV film The Red Tent stars Minnie Driver, Morena Beccarin, Debra Winger and Rebecca Ferguson in a sumptuous Old Testament drama based on a novel that tells the story of Jacob's daughter Dinah. Outlander extras include featurettes.

The Pet 
(Breaking Glass)
In the wake of 50 Shades of Grey, any movie with a sexual angle is getting a push, like this nominally provocative but crudely amateurish drama by director D. Stevens, who labors under the delusion that showing well-heeled men keeping submissive women in cages and on leashes is some kind of insightful comment on our sexual culture. Too bad there's so much wrong, like cliched writing and directing, inept acting and no inadvertent comedy to alleviate the dullness. The lone extra is a director interview.


The Story of Women in Art 
Understanding Art: Baroque & Rococo 
(Athena)
These art history documentaries, made for British TV, feature many unknown or overlooked artists alongside the Rembrandts and Vermeers of the world. Amanda Vickery's The Story of Women in Art gives a diverting overview of female artists through the centuries, from the great Italian Artemisia Gentileschi to French Impressionist Berthe Morisot and American modernist Georgia O'Keeffe. Waldemar Januszczak treks across much of Europe in his terrifically entertaining Understanding Art guide, exploring generations of artistic innovations from the likes of sculptor Bernini and painter Tiepolo. Januszczak's hour-long documentary about forgotten 17th century British painter William Dobson is the lone extra.

Watchers of the Sky 
(Music Box)
Edet Belzberg's compelling, heartbreaking documentary centers around Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term 'genocide' and whose intensely moral compass still guides those seeking justice against perpetrators of mass atrocities in Bosnia and Darfur at the international court in The Hague, Holland. Based on Samantha Power's award-winning book A Problem from Hell (Power is also featured in the film),  Belzberg's film is a worthy examination of the ongoing fight to put recognizably human faces on extraordinary evil. Extras include additional interviews and scenes.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Beyond the Lights 
(Fox)
In her long-awaited followup to 2008's The Secret Life of Bees (her only previous feature was 2000's affecting Love and Basketball), writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood has made a melodramatic but involving film about an up-and-coming star singer and the bodyguard with whom she falls in love. Memories of Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston notwithstanding, Prince-Bythewood explores this familiar tale with sensitivity, and there's a star-making performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw—even better here than in her breakthrough, Belle—as the budding superstar. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras comprise a commentary, music video, featurettes and deleted scenes with commentary.

The Captive 
(Lionsgate)
Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan returns with this stylish but hackneyed drama about how the disappearance of a young girl affects her parents' relationship, as well as those in law enforcement and those behind her abduction. As usual, Egoyan's pretentiousness gets in the way: convoluted plotting, wedded to inapposite allusions to Mozart's Queen of the Night (the movie's original title), detracts from the tense goings-on. The Blu-ray transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise Egoyan's commentary, deleted scenes, alternate ending and featurette.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—10th Anniversary 
(Warners)
Tim Burton's 2005 adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book won't usurp the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka from classic status, yet Burton's treatment of the material—whimsical but dark, with a bizarrely fey Johnny Depp as the opposite of Wilder's charming Wonka—is perfectly attuned to his usual sensibility. In fact, this was Burton's last fully-realized work until the recent Big Eyes finally approached his best earlier films, Ed Wood and Big Fish. The hi-def transfer is transfixing; extras include Burton's commentary, an "in-movie" experience and featurettes.

The Humbling 
(Alchemy)
This erratic adaptation of Philip Roth's choppy 2009 short novel is worth recommending for the fine supporting performances of Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin and Dylan Baker, but it is otherwise hamstrung by its two leads. Greta Gerwig plays the lesbian who becomes the lover of a washed-up actor, played by Al Pacino; although theirs is an intriguing chemistry, they otherwise do little with their roles, and for this (as well as the cop-out ending in Buck Henry and Michal Zebede's script) we must blame director Barry Levinson, who doesn't do much to make Roth's story more compelling. The hi-def transfer is good; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Kiss Me Kate 3D 
(Warners)
Cole Porter's classic song-filled riff on The Taming of the Shrew became George Sidney's colorful backstage 1953 movie musical, with outstanding performances by Ann Miller, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson—and a spectacular assist by a young dancer/choreographer named Bob Fosse. If the Shakespearean allusions remain creaky, they are happily overshadowed by great Porter tunes like "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and "I Hate Men." The Blu-ray transfer shows off a terrific restoration in both 2D and 3D; extras are Cole Porter in Hollywood: Too Darn Hot, hosted by Ann Miller; vintage short about Manhattan; and vintage cartoon.

Midsomer Murders—Set 25 
(Acorn)
In the six 90-minute mysteries that make up this newest set of the popular Midsomer Murders, chief inspector John Barnaby is joined by new partner Charlie Nelson for a series of investigations into an array of killings throughout the local countryside and even abroad. The best episodes are The Christmas Haunting and Let Us Prey, both with a welcome gallows humor, and (the show's 100th episode) The Killings of Copenhagen, which for fans of the great Danish series Borgen has the delectable Birgitte Horjt Sorensen as a local detective. The Blu-ray transfer looks splendid; extras are featurettes and interviews.

New England Patriots—Super Bowl XLIX Champions 
(Cinedigm/NFL)
In one of the most competitive and exciting Super Bowls yet, the New England Patriots captured their fourth NFL Championship with a nail-biting 28-24 win over defending champs Seattle Seahawks, helped by a controversial last-minute play call. This Blu-ray not only includes the game in sparkling HD, but also many extras for Patriots fans, including Media Day and post-game coverage, featurettes, and interviews with Coach Bill Belichick, Rob Gronkowski and MVP Tom Brady.

DVDs of the Week
The Better Angels 
(Anchor Bay)
Is A.J. Edwards merely a pseudonym for Terrence Malick (one of the film's producers)? If not, then Edwards has absorbed Malick's singular style—camerawork, editing, music, sights and sounds of nature—and put it to use to prop up his aimless chronicle of young Abraham Lincoln growing up on an Indiana farm. To be sure, there are discernible differences—this has been shot in immaculate B&W by Matthew J. Lloyd, and Edwards' scope doesn't reach Malick's grandiose heights—but, despite moments of beauty, it comes off as a second-rate imitation.

Captive 
(First Run)
This tension-filled dramatization of a real hostage crisis—based on a pre-Sept. 11 kidnaping of a group of innocent tourists and foreign workers at a Philippine resort by Islamic separatists, or "freedom fighters"—is directed by Brillante Ma. Mendoza as a believable recreation of the excruciating everyday horrors of months in captivity in the wild. Although the always excellent Isabelle Huppert as a French social worker is this engrossing movie's obvious selling point, the entire cast of realistic unknowns provides the grounding that makes this an absorbing two hours.

The J. Geils Band—House Party 
(Eagle Rock)
Before hitting it big in the early '80s with playful hits like "Love Stinks" and "Centerfold," the J. Geils Band was playing R&B flavored tunes, both originals and covers, as this 1979 concert, shot for German television, shows. The group—Peter Wolf on vocals, J. Geils on guitar, Magic Dick on harmonica, Seth Justman on keyboards, Daniel Klein on bass and Stephen Bladd on drums—is in rip-roaring form on originals like the opener "Jus' Can't Stop Me" and covers like the closing "First I Look at the Purse." Also included is a CD of the same concert.  

Michael Collins 
(Warner Archive)
Liam Neeson's commanding portrait of the leader who began the road to Irish independence until his untimely (and mysterious) death at age 31 in 1922 is the intense center of Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic, a fluid, exciting drama on a dense, difficult subject. Great acting by Stephen Rea, Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman and Brendan Gleeson offsets Julia Roberts' unmagnetic presence (and wavering accent) as Collins' fiancee. Although this film needs a hi-def restoration, not least to appreciate Chris Menges' cinematography, the lone extra—an hour-long South Bank Show episode with Jordan being interviewed and experts discussing Collins' life—is illuminating.

Return to the Wild 
(PBS)
The tragic story of Chris McCandless, immortalized by the book and movie Into the Wild, has become modern mythology, his death also affecting many people personally, as this ultimately touching hour-long PBS documentary demonstrates. Chris's family members discuss their son or brother, and while the family is currently estranged—the children, including Chris, accused their father of physical abuse—both parents speak, along with his sisters, who also make the emotional trek to Alaska to visit the rusted-out bus where he met his end. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Off-Broadway Review—"Lives of the Saints"

Lives of the Saints
Written by David Ives; directed by John Rando
Performances through March 27, 2015
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
primarystages.com

Rooth, Ellrod and Hutchinson in Life Signs, from
David Ives' Lives of the Saints (photo: James Leynse)
In Lives of the Saints, David Ives again shows off his mastery of the deceptively difficult short-play form. As in his earlier All in the Timing, what Ives does in his brief one-acts other playwrights can't do in 90 minutes or two-plus hours of stage time: the ability, in just a few fleet scenes, to create a world inhabited by realism and absurdism, and characters we laugh with, or at, or both. That Ives often pulls all of this off simultaneously is nothing short of astounding.

Lives of the Saints comprises six short plays, each funny and intelligent on its own, but with the cumulative effect of hilariously supple writing making the whole more substantial than the sum of its parts. The opener, The Goodness of Your Heart, which pits neighbors against each other over the "gift" of a widescreen televsion, takes perfect aim at the current annoyance of those self-entitled dopes who think that the world is theirs alone. Soap Opera is a farcical dismantling of that longtime afternoon TV scourge, has a Maytag repairman in love with his washing machine. A doctor's office is the setting for Enigma Variations, as "Mrs. Dopplegangler" (two of them) complains to Dr. Bill (two of them) that her life is filled with deja vu.

The second act comprises more delectable one-acts. The excruciatingly funny Life Signs, in which a just-dead Park Avenue matriarch begins to prattle on in front of her grieving son and Southern Belle wife, confessing her own (and her daughter in law's) hidden sexual indiscretions, is followed by It's All Good, an ingeniously conceived short about a successful New York writer returning to his old Chicago neighbrohood, where he meets himself as he would have been if he hadn't left. The final sketch, Lives of the Saints, sympathetically shows two chatty middle-aged Polish ladies preparing a funeral breakfast in their local church basement.

Ives' masterly writing zeroes in on everyday lives, thanks to the playwright's innate sense of comic irony and absurdism, which also includes a goodly amount of belly laughs. The alternating digs of disagreeing friends in Goodness, the laundry list of washing machine puns in Soap Opera, the loony confessions of a cadaver in Life Signs: Ives can mine humor and humanity in any situation. And even when brilliant ideas falter—the doubling down of the antics of Enigma, the non-ending to It's All Good, the introduction of actors providing kitchen sound effects for the ladies in Saints—there's always something else to take their place.

On Beowulf Boritt's crafty stage designs, director John Rando has a shrewdly loose leash on his talented cast: of this superlative quintet, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth are first-rate, while Arnie Burton and Carson Ellrod go even further, with a winning repertoire of voices, accents and facial expressions and inflections that change in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Birdman 
(Fox)
One of the most annoying of recent Oscar-winning Best Pictures comprises Emmanuel Lubezki's relentlessly mobile Oscar-winning photography, scenery-chewing performers delivering moronic dialogue dreamed up by four Oscar-winning writers and Alejandro G. Inarritu's  too-clever but Oscar-winning directing, which add up to a headache-inducing cartoon about acting, show biz and (mostly) whatnot. As Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and others ham mercilessly, Amy Ryan scores by her relative restraint, while the caricatured critic (played with notable embarrassment by poor Lindsay Duncan) is only part of the movie's ludicrous treatment of Broadway theater. So much is nonsensical—like a final sequence featuring a hospital window a few floors up which a patient can open and climb out of—that this should be called Birdbrain. It does look alluring on Blu-ray; extras include an Inarritu and Keaton interview and a 30-minute making-of featurette.

The Connection 
In the Land of the Head Hunters 
(Milestone)
These releases continue Milestone's remarkable streak of restoring forgotten classics. Independent-film trailblazer Shirley Clarke's 1961 feature The Connection finds drama in a group of addicts and jazz musicians who populate a dilapidated New York apartment and who talk and riff for an arrogant documentary filmmaker while waiting for their drug connection to arrive.

An even more vital restoration, In the Land of Head Hunters, is famed photographer Edward S. Curtis' 1914 foray into feature filmmaking, and its immersion in the world of Native Americans before white settlers arrived is far more than a mere historic document. The spectacular restorations of both films look great in hi-def; Connection extras include interviews and featurettes, and Land extras include a 1973 version of the film, audio commentary, and film reconstruction and making-of featurettes.

Far from the Madding Crowd 
(Warner Archive)
In this beautifully shot 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's epic novel, director John Schelesinger goes the David Lean route by following the plot faithfully (courtesy Frederic Raphael's literate script) and having attractive performers in the leads, as Julie Christie's Bathsheba plays with the men in her life, played by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. But Schlesinger errs in substituting gigantism for subtlety. Freddie Francis' exquisitely wrought camerawork and Richard Rodney Bennett's varied musical score are also undeniable assets. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; lone extra is a vintage 10-minute on-set featurette.

Fellini Satyricon 
(Criterion)
Federico Fellini's free-wheeling, flagrantly unfaithful 1969 adaptation of Petronius' memoir of Rome is the epitome of the adjective "Felliniesque": the freaks and grotesques that populate this world are less ancient Roman denizens and more Fellini's own fantastical creations. Of course, this stunning-looking film has extraordinary photography, sets and costumes, but the superimposition of Fellini onto the material makes it most memorable. The Criterion Blu-ray transfer is immaculate; extras include a commentary, behind-the-scenes diary, hour-long on-set documentary Ciao Federico!, archival Fellini interviews, new interview with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and new featurettes about the adaptation and famous on-set photographs.

Horrible Bosses 2 
(Warners)
The first Horrible Bosses was mostly mediocre, a fitful comedy with few laughs; but the sequel emphasizes the first word of its title to stultifying effect, especially when allowing Charlie Day and Jason Sudekis—neither remotely funny here—to dominate the asinine proceedings. If you want to hear Jennifer Aniston curse like a sailor, this might be your best chance, but even that isn't enough to save a movie that (aside from Kevin Spacey's hilarious cameo) is dead on arrival, whether in the 105-minute original or even deadlier 115-minute extended cut. The Blu-ray looks fine; extras comprise several featurettes.

Der Rosenkavalier 
(C Major)
Richard Strauss's magnificent 1911 opera is many things: a lament for the middle-aged Marschallin, who loses her young lover Octavian; a romance of young love between Octavian and sweet Sophie; and a farce about foolish middle-aged von Ochs, Sophie's erstwhile suitor. The music is gloriously melodic, as always with Strauss, and the characters are expertly etched by his best librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthall. Last summer's Salzburg Festival staging (by Harry Kupfer) keeps liberties to a minimum and has the characters front and center, with superlative musical portrayals by Krassimira Stoyanova (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian) and a meltingly lovely Mojca Erdmann (Sophie); Franz Welser-Most conducts a sympathetic account of Strauss' music. The Blu-ray video and audio are first-rate.  

Stray Dogs 
(Cinema Guild)
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's slow-moving films are not everyone's cup of tea, although many reviewers swear by his impossibly long, static takes that delve into people's interior lives: still, those shots can go too far, making us wonder whether shots of seven or eight minutes can convey just as much in half that time. This drama about a single father in Taipei struggling to raise his children is his latest contemplative examination, highlighted by several astoundingly long takes, especially the final two shots, which run twelve and seven minutes repectively; aside from making us marvel at his actors' ability to do little for so long, they don't really add anything of substance. The hi-def transfer is stunning; extras are Tsai's 55-minute film Journey to the West (also in HD) and his 70-minute master class at Paris's Cinematheque Francaise.

DVDs of the Week
Above Suspicion—Complete Collection 
(Acorn)
The offbeat (not entirely sexual nor entirely platonic) chemistrty of Kelly Reilly and Ciarin Hinds as a newish detective and her hard-bitten boss is delicious to watch in this well-scripted, superbly-acted series of taut mysteries that, unfortunately, ran its course after four television films, all included in this boxed set. Here's hoping that someday there's a follow-up feature film—or another series—with these two fascinating characters....and performers. Extras comprise behind the scenes featurettes and interviews.

Altar 
(Cinedigm)
What begins as a familiar but stylish haunted house movie set in misty Yorkshire soon becomes a lumbering "dad goes crazy" flick that recalls and—as discordant music swells on the soundtrack—downright steals from The Shining. Matthew Modine (who was in Kubrick's Shining follow-up, Full Metal Jacket) plays the father with an obviously crazed glint in his eye while, sadly, Olivia Williams—a resourceful actress whose roles rarely suit her talents—is little more than a screamer here, like Shelley Duvall in (of course) The Shining. Writer-director Nick Willing's cheat of an ambiguous ending shows his desperation.


August Wilson—The Ground on Which I Stand
Shakespeare Uncovered—Series 2 
(PBS)
The revealing American Masters episode, August Wilson—The Ground on Which I Stand, chronicles the career (which ended far too early upon his death in 2005 at age 60) of the trailblazing playwright, whose singular 10-play cycle encompassed the 20th century black experience in America.

In the second series of the entertaining, informative Shakespeare Uncovered, six actors each analyze one of the Bard's classic plays: Joseph Fiennes (Romeo and Juliet), David Harewood (Othello), Hugh Bonneville (A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Morgan Freeman (The Taming of the Shrew) provide enjoyable hours, but best are Kim Cattrall's look at Antony and Cleopatra and Christopher Plummer's illuminating overview of the most despairing of Shakespeare's masterpieces, King Lear. Wilson extras include additional segments.

Star 80 
(Warner Archive)
Bob Fosse's unlikeable 1983 masterpiece, which tells the depressing, sordid story of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten and her discoverer, slimy Paul Snider, is Fosse's own cautionary morality tale of the seamiest side of show business, as the director artfully rubs our noses in watching how Snider got Stratten her big break, only to rage against her when she finally outgrows his low-class ways, finally killing her, then himself, in 1980, when she was 20 and on the cusp of stardom. That Eric Roberts pretty much repeated his performance as Snider for much of his career doesn't make it any less poweful, while Mariel Hemingway makes a sweetly naive Dorothy. It's too bad that Warner Archive released Star 80 without any restoration, compromising Sven Nykvist's dark, moody cinematography; this classic deserves a Blu-ray with contextualizing extras, which we probably won't get any time soon.