Wednesday, December 7, 2016

December '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s delightful children’s book might be too determined to conjure up the magical and the sentimental simultaneously, but at its best, it shows that Spielberg still has no equal making movie enchantment that pleases both children and adults. Mark Rylance is a perfect Big Friendly Giant; even motion-capture photography can’t obscure his expressiveness and emotional hugeness. The little girl Sophie is wonderfully played by Ruby Barnhill, and Janusz Kaminski’s dazzling cinematography, John Williams’ lively score and Joe Letteri’s phenomenal special effects add to the fun, even if ultimately pales in comparison to a classic like E.T. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include featurettes, interviews and an appreciation of scriptwriter Melissa Mathison, who died after the film was finished.

Heart of a Dog
When performance artist Laurie Anderson’s beloved dog Lolabelle died, she dealt with her grief by making this lovely little valentine of a film that’s part catharsis, part shaggy-dog story and 100% pure emotion. At its core, Anderson deals with loss—not only Lolabelle, but also (though unmentioned) husband Lou Reed—even providing insightful personal observations about New York post-Sept. 11 and our current security state. The film’s visuals are more than adequate on Blu-ray; extras include a discussion with Anderson, deleted scenes and her Concert for Dogs, which she performed in Times Square.

Howard’s End 
(Cohen Film Collection)
The peak of the uneven James Ivory-Ismail Merchant-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala team’s career was this absorbing 1992 adaptation of E.M. Forster’ classic novel about the shifting relations and attitudes among the different classes in Edwardian England: it’s old-fashioned filmmaking done so well that it’s transfixing to watch. Ivory’s directing and Jhabvala’s writing were never equaled by them before or after, while the cast—Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter and Vanessa Redgrave for starters—is flawless. The restored film has a spectacular film-like sheen on Blu-ray; extras include a new Ivory interview, vintage Ivory and Merchant interviews, on-set interviews and featurettes.

The Quiet Earth
(Film Movement Classics)
In New Zealand director Geoffrey Murphy’s 1985 sci-fi drama, scientist Zac believes he’s the last person on earth after “The Effect” caused a mass disappearance: soon he meets a young woman, Joanne, and later, Api, a Maori man. This weird ménage a trois (of sorts) is interesting for awhile, but Murphy loses control with a dissatisfying open-ended final sequence that’s visually breathtaking but hollow. Bruno Lawrence is riveting, especially when he’s onscreen alone for the first part of the film. The new hi-def transfer is sharply detailed; the lone extra is an entertaining commentary by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse with film writer Odie Henderson.

DVDs of the Week 
Ants on a Shrimp
(Sundance Selects)
Maurice Dekkers’ documentary, which follows chef Rene Redzepi (of Copenhagen’s famed Noma restaurant) traveling to Japan to open a Noma in Tokyo in a tightly compressed five weeks, is captivating in its numerous fly-on-the-wall glimpses of Redzepi dealing with colleagues, balancing the very real cultural differences between East and West and fixing any number of bugaboos targeting such an ambitious endeavor. Best of all are priceless moments such as the looks on several faces when something called “sperm emulsion” is unveiled for eating.

The IT Crowd—The Complete Series
The punning title—referring to a makeshift IT department of a small company—is the best joke of this painfully uneven four-season-long British sitcom that largely wastes a talented cast: Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade and Katherine Parkinson manage to elevate some of the humor, despite its essential crudeness. (The awful laugh track doesn’t help matters.) The series’ fans will love that this is finally available on DVD, since all 25 episodes—and a true bonus, the never-before-seen finale episode, The Internet Is Coming—are included on the five-disc set.

Neither Heaven nor Earth 
(Film Movement)
Director Clement Cogitore turns the vast wastelands and battlefields of Afghanistan—where a battalion of French soldiers fights a never-ending battle with mostly vaporous enemy forces—into a metaphysical hellhole where men mysteriously disappear, to the growing dread of the squad and its increasingly bemused leader (played by a terrific Jeremie Renier). Although Cogitore doesn’t quite grasp his demanding concept in full, enough of war’s confusion and futility are intensely conveyed to make this a welcome addition to the genre. Extras are Cogitore’s commentary (in English) and his 30-minute short, Among Us.

CD of the Week
American Moments—Neave Trio
The estimable young ensemble, the Neave Trio, doesn’t take the easy way out on this recording; instead of Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn, they tackle a trio of trios that aren’t as well-known: one (from 1909) by a teenaged prodigy named Erich Wolfgang Korngold, another composed around the same time as Korngold’s by the American Arthur Foote, and another written a generation later by a young man named Leonard Bernstein. These attractive works are performed by the Neave musicians with well-proportioned brio, elegance and muscularity; Korngold’s youthful but effortlessly mature work especially sounds bracing and graceful in their hands.

Monday, December 5, 2016

2016 New York Film Festival Roundup

54th New York Film Festival
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY
September 30-October 16, 2016

The two best films at the recent 54th New York Film Festival were made by a playwright becoming a major director in his own right and a long-time festival veteran.

Casey Affleck and director Kenneth Lonergan on the set of Manchester by the Sea

With Manchester by the Sea (now playing), his third film in 16 years, playwright Kenneth Lonergan has made a searing, emotionally devastating (but often hilarious) study of Lee, a divorced man—harboring memories of a horrific tragedy that ended his marriage and destroyed his family—who, when he returns to his hometown after his beloved older brother dies, is made guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. Lonergan’s marvelous script is crammed with his usual brilliantly realistic dialogue spoken by many compellingly realized characters; his extraordinary directing comprises his effortless handling of a jumbled chronology and his uncanny way of knowing when to allow silence or to use music—Lonergan even gets away with Albinoni’s by now overexposed “Adagio” to carry one of the film’s most pivotal sequences. The sublime acting starts with Casey Affleck (who, as Lee,  carries the film on his shoulders without giving away his emotions), and includes Lucas Hedges as Lee’s caustic nephew, Michelle Williams as his ex-wife and partner in misery, Kyle Chandler as his brother, Gretchen Mol as his brother’s ex (and nephew’s estranged mom), and priceless appearances in small roles by veteran stage performers like Stephen McKinley Henderson, Missy Yager, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Heather Burns and even Matthew Broderick. To cap things off, Lonergan provides himself with one of the best (and funniest) director cameos since Hitchcock.

Dave Johns (left) and director Ken Loach (right) on the set of I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach never shies from wearing his heart on his sleeve, and even when he becomes didactic, his filmmaking is filled with so much fury and justified anger that even something like I, Daniel Blake (opens Dec. 23)—in which a middle-aged man is put through an emotional and physical ringer by a horribly inefficient British welfare bureaucracy—threatens to, but never does, become a melodramatic soap opera, thanks to the forceful honesty, hurt and humanity in every frame. Paul Laverty’s curt script is bluntly effective, as is Loach’s unsentimental, understated direction; and the acting by Dave Johns—a dead ringer for Phil Collins—is devastatingly truthful in its depiction of the dignity retained by someone caught in grinding government machinery.

Always a major part of the festival, documentaries this year made a huge leap: Ava Duvernay’s 13th (on Netflix) was the first non-fiction film to be selected for Opening Night. Duvernay’s exhaustive subject—how the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, has incarcerated more Americans than ever (mostly non-whites)—begat an intelligent, impassioned documentary that thoughtfully shows how blacks have been treated since the Civil War, with dozens of talking heads discussing those sundry racial issues that are still at stake.

Other documentaries tackled subjects from bank chicanery to Broadway. Anyone outraged that no big bank execs were punished for actions that led to the 2008 financial meltdown—except for mere billions of dollars in fines, but far more in bailouts and bonuses—will be enraged anew by Abacus—Small Enough to Jail, director Steve James’ probing look at how tiny Abacus Bank in New York’s Chinatown was the only financial institution hauled into court. (And, as James shows, overreach by New York’s attorney general was the bigger story.) Best Worst Thing To Ever Have Happened (now playing) engagingly charts the difficult birth of Merrily We Roll Along, composer Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince’s biggest flop, as director Lonny Price—one of the leads in the original 1981 Broadway production—looks back affectionately at its original failure and its second life of worldwide revivals. And in Hamilton’s America (on PBS), the biggest Broadway smash in decades is dissected to death: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s flawed but entertaining hip-hop founding-fathers musical doesn’t deserve such hagiographic treatment, like Public Theater head Oskar Eustis ludicrously equating Miranda with Shakespeare or noted theater critics Jimmy Fallon and Michelle Obama calling it the greatest piece of art ever. Sigh—don’t these people see classic films, read serious literature or look at great sculpture and paintings?

But the festival’s best documentary was My Journey Through French Cinema (opens spring 2017):
Bertrand Tavernier, director of
My Journey Through French Cinema
 even at a staggering 190 minutes, Bertrand Tavernier’s personal chronicle of what most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth is done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably, that you wish it would go on for several more hours (at least the end credits hint at a Part 2!). As always with Tavernier, there are marvelous anecdotes, brilliant insights, treasured observations: when discussing composer Maurice Jaubert among the greats of ‘30s and ‘40s cinema, Tavernier’s passion comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his marvelously attuned personality to all things cinematic.

With Duvernay, there were other notable female directors at the festival. New Zealand’s Allison MacLean returned home for The Rehearsal, a sharp look at a young man from the sticks who arrives in the city to attend acting school, where he learns responsibility and maturity. MacLean’s fresh group of actors is led by James Rolleston as the young man and Alice Englert as the underage girl he falls for; there’s also the always watchable Kerry Fox as head acting instructor. I may be the lone dissenter when it comes to Maden Ade’s Toni Erdmann (opens Dec. 25), an overlong, occasionally funny but stretched-beyond-its-slender-means portrait of a practical-jokester father who surprises his successful daughter in Bucharest—only to bug her mercilessly. The problem is that dear old dad is nothing more than a plot device instead of a living, breathing character; indeed, when Ade drops him into his daughter’s life, the director seems to be trolling her own movie. Despite impressive performances by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, it ends up as frustrating and irritating as her previous film, Everything Else. (New drinking game: every time the father pops his false teeth in—or takes them out—take a drink. You’ll be blotto in no time.)

After an auspicious start to her career (debut All is Forgiven and more accomplished follow-ups, The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love), French director Mia Hansen- Løve has regressed: her shallow 2014 feature, Eden, gives way to Things to Come (now playing), starring a somnambulistic Isabelle Huppert as a philosophy professor with a long-term marriage, two teenage children and a psychosomatic mother who suddenly finds herself freed, as she says: “I got divorced, my children have moved out, and my mom died. I’m free.” What could have been an insightful portrait of a middle-aged woman beginning several new chapters is instead turned by Hansen-Love into a meandering soap opera that not even the redoubtable Huppert can save.

Huppert is also front and center in Elle (now playing), a slick, exciting and stylish thriller that does little to counter the charge that Paul Verhoeven makes provocative but empty thrillers. Huppert plays a video-game design executive whose rape by a masked intruder sets her on an increasingly dangerous course of revenge, at the same time she’s juggling difficult relationships with her best friend (with whose husband she’s carrying on an affair), her ex-husband, her barely-adult son and the memory of her murderous father. The amazing Huppert nearly makes this contradictory character real; even if she’s boxed in by Verhoeven and writer David Birke’s conceits, she gleefully takes over Elle.

For his new film-buff’s film Julieta (opens Dec. 21), Pedro Almodovar tries his hand at aping Hitchcock, but although there’s style galore, there’s little of the rigorous craft Hitchcock poured into even his most outrageous creations. Almodovar bases his film on a trio of short stories by Alice Munro, but there’s a curious lack of feeling; not helping matters is Alberto Iglesias’s insistent and misleadingly portentous score (not to mention tossed-in music by Grieg and Debussy). Although leavened by the presence of Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte as the title character at ages 50 and 25, Julieta finds Almodovar, despite typical juicy roles for his actresses, coming up with ever diminishing returns. Similarly, Olivier Assayas—who made Personal Shopper (opens Mar. 10) with Kristen Stewart in mind—has made an almost total failure in which he forgets his strengths: namely empathy and artistry. Stewart’s title character is also a medium who attempts to contact her recently deceased twin brother—also, naturally, a medium—while getting involved in what turns out to be a brutal murder. Not helped by a bogus script, Stewart sleepwalks (or Vespa-rides) through it all, coming to life only when she’s stalked by a stranger on her phone.

Graduation (opens Feb. 10), Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s latest slow-building study, follows a small-town bureaucrat looking for a way—legally or illegally—to have his daughter pass her all-important exams, the difference between getting a needed scholarship to a British college or staying in their crumbling burg. As always with Mungiu, the moral dilemma isn’t entirely clear until, finally, the film explodes in a series of sequences from which the conflicted protagonist can no longer hang on to his own moral stance but grasps at straws to stay above water. The performances are unerringly true, though parts of Mungiu’s narrative—like the father’s fairly open relationship with a woman at his daughter’s school—beggar belief.

Another Romanian director, Cristi Puiu, demands equal patience from viewers: Sieranevada is his third consecutive film of at least 2-1/2 hours’ duration, after his masterpiece The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and its tepid follow-up, Aurora. The nearly three-hour Sieranevada (its title is never explained) follows a doctor and his wife as they arrive at his parents’ apartment for his father’s memorial service. Puiu chronicles, alternately amusedly and bemusedly, interactions among family members that run from the mundane to the profane to the ridiculous: an inordinate amount of time is spent among brothers-in-law over whether the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job. Puiu specializes in extraordinarily long takes in the close quarters of the apartment, while his cast’s familial camaraderie transcends the film’s ultimate flimsiness. 

With Neruda (opens Dec. 16), Chilean director Pablo Lorrain has made a fascinatingly free-form hybrid of the biopic and fiction about poet Pablo Neruda, the beloved Chilean Communist and thorn in the side of the authorities: by adding a made-up character of a police detective (Gael Garcia Bernal) who tracks the anti-government rebel, Lorrain turns Neruda’s life into an analytic mélange of fiction, politics, the cult of personality and biographical facts, with the brilliant actor Luis Gnecco a dead ringer for Neruda.

As a retired music critic living in a Rio apartment she refuses to sell to the building’s developers in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius (now playing), Sonia Braga gives a fiercely committed performance that lets us inside the world of a widowed 68-year-old breast cancer survivor in all her complexity, whether it’s ambivalent relationships with her grown children and women friends, still-aroused sexuality and deep loathing for those trying to get her to move out. Braga’s sensual appearance—that long mass of black hair still puts one in mind of her breakthrough nearly 40 years ago in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands—outclasses Filho’s unsubtlety: his three-part film begins with a long flashback to our heroine as a young woman, includes two—count ‘em, two—blasts of Queen on the soundtrack (since Braga’s character wrote a book on the great Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, it’s surprising we don’t hear his music until the final scenes), and culminates with a colony of termites becoming an outsized plot development and hoary metaphor.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

November '16 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 
Beware of the CHUDs (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers), hiding in Manhattan’s sewers and fatally mauling their victims in this dopey but guilty-pleasure 1984 horror flick by director Douglas Cheek, who knows that he has silly material but runs with it, resulting in a mindless entertainment strongly aided by its cast. Then-unknown actors John Heard, Daniel Stern, Kim Geist, John Goodman and Jay Thomas do their best. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise two commentaries, new crew interviews, extended shower scene and NYC locations featurette.

Heart—Live at the Royal Albert Hall
(Eagle Rock)
Ann Wilson’s magnificent voice is a freak of nature, as she proves throughout the 90-minute concert she and sister Nancy’s band played in June at London’s fabled Royal Albert Hall, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra sitting in for some tunes, giving depth and elegance to “Dreamboat Annie” and “Sweet Darlin’,” among others; but it’s Ann’s pipes on “Alone,” “Beautiful Broken” and “Barracuda” that really propel the show. The audio and video are superb, the Wilson sisters interview is interesting, but director James Russell botches it by continually cutting away from Ann singing to pointless glimpses of views from the cheap seats or to audience members—whom we don’t care about—singing along.

Poldark—Complete 2nd Season 
Ross Poldark knows all about drama, and the series’ second season finds him in so many near-fatal—or at least life-changing—scrapes that it becomes second nature for him to squeeze his way out of them in this ravishing-looking remake of the classic BBC drama series based on Winston Graham’s books. Aidan Turner is a dashing Poldark, Heida Reed a bewitching Elizabeth—Ross’s ex-fiancée who’s still dangerously nearby—and Eleanor Tomlinson a spunky, feisty Demelza, Poldark’s wife. The 10 episodes have been given top-notch hi-def transfers; extras include interviews and featurettes.

Private Vices, Public Virtues 
(Mondo Macabro)
Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó, who died in 2014 at age 92, made this visually unique Italian-Yugoslav co-production in 1976, featuring his customarily lyrical cinematography, with gorgeous colors and stunningly choreographed movement. There’s not much else to tempt non-Jancsó fans, unless you count plentiful nudity—it’s of a piece with the rest of his singular artistry, although it does wear out its welcome before its 105 minutes finish. The hi-def transfer looks exquisite; the film soundtrack is in Italian or English, and contextual extras are interviews with co-writer Giovanna Gagliardo, actress Pamela Villoresi and historian Michael Brooke.

Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow—Memories in Rock 
(Eagle Rock)
As part of last year’s Monsters of Rock festival at two sites in Germany, guitarist extraordinaire Ritchie Blackmore brought the latest incarnation of his band Rainbow for a fervid two-hour concert featuring such Rainbow favorites as “Since You Been Gone” and “Man on the Silver Mountain” along with Deep Purple classics like the ubiquitous finale, “Smoke on the Water.” Blackmore’s playing is inspired, while vocalist Ronnie Romero does great impersonations of Ian Gillan, Ronnie James Dio and Graham Bonne). Audio and video are first-rate; two CDs provide an audio recording of the entire concert.

Throughout its eight one-hour episodes, director Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff’s series explores how recording, video and other technical innovations have changed the way music is created and how we absorb it. Even if such a format inevitably makes it more of a general overview than an in-depth examination, the historical performance clips and interviews with luminaries from George Martin and Paul McCartney to Rick Rubin and Tom Petty are something to see, especially in the first two (and best) parts, The Art of Recording and Painting with Sound. The Blu-ray looks fine; extras include even more interviews, including Ringo demonstrating rock’n’roll drumming.

Time After Time 
(Warner Archive)
In Nicholas Meyer’s sensationally entertaining 1979 time-travel adventure, Malcom McDowell makes a witty and sympathetic H.G. Wells, who lands in modern-day San Francisco in his own time machine—chasing Jack the Ripper (a perfectly creepy David Warner), who loves the chaotic 20th century. A terrifically clever premise and undeniable if offbeat chemistry between McDowell and Mary Steenburgen as the woman who aids Wells make this a grand diversion. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Meyer and McDowell commentary.

DVDs of the Week
True New York
When Two Worlds Collide
(First Run)
Anthologies don’t come more absorbing than True New York, comprising five documentary shorts about some incredible characters living in a New York City not usually shown: teens cliff-jumping in the Harlem River; workers at a Queens yellow-cab depot; an artist who draws interiors of all of New York’s subway stations; a financial whiz who takes over his father’s halal slaughterhouse; and a Harlem street performer who regales drivers on the FDR Drive. In Heidi Brandenburg & Mathew Orzel’s astonishing documentary When Two Worlds Collide, Peruvian indigenous people and government forces clash over the destruction of valuable rainforest by companies that those in power have given the green light to. Angry rhetoric soon devolves into violent, fatal clashes—it’s a timely and depressing look at authoritarian control. True extras include filmmaker interviews.

CDs of the Week 
Gidon Kremer—Complete Concerto Recordings
(Deutsche Grammophon)
One of the great violinists of the late 20th—and early 21st—century, Gidon Kremer is best known as a remarkably agile and inspired interpreter of modernist composers like Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina (both of whom are generously represented here), but this 22-CD set—which collects all of Kremer’s concerto recordings for DG since his 1979 Beethoven/Schubert disc—shows Kremer’s versatility as well as his virtuosity. So we get his extraordinarily expressive readings of works by Bartok, Berg and Shostakovich as well as Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn; Tchaikovsky, Bernstein and Rorem along with Vivaldi, Schumann and Paganini. Even in the occasional dud, like Philip Glass’s repetitious and unmusical concerto, Kremer gives a scalding performance that almost makes one believe it is worthy of his talent. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

November '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
One of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s most vividly visual filmscapes, this episodic 1990 fantasy doesn’t connect in any way but its stories are heartfelt—if at times diffuse—reminders of how life on this planet is both precious and filled with man-made horrors. The best segments, at the beginning and end, present Kurosawa’s singular cinematic vision at its most colorful: the middle segment, on Vincent van Gogh (with Martin Scorsese miscast as the painter), gloriously bursts into dazzling primary colors. Criterion’s excellent release comprises an eye-poppingly beautiful hi-def transfer; Stephen prince commentary; Making of “Dreams,” a 150-minute on-set documentary; Kurosawa's Way (2011), a 50-minute feature with many filmmaking admirers discussing Kurosawa; and new interviews with assistant director Takashi Koizumi and production manager Teruyo Nogami round out this excellent set.

(Olive Films)
In Christopher Hampton’s choppy 1995 biopic Carrington, Emma Thompson embracingly embodies the title character, whose love for avowed homosexual writer Lytton Stratchey (a powerful Jonathan Pryce) was forever unrequited; Hampton gets much right, but he meanders too often to no discernable point. Abel Gance’s J’accuse, a strong but strident 1938 anti-war tract, showcases several formidable actors (Victor Francen, Jean-Max, Line Noro, Paul Amiot) who point Gance’s polemic in the right direction. Both films have nicely restored transfers.

Hannie Caulder 
(Olive Signature)
This 1971 revenge western stars a comely but wooden Raquel Welch as a frontier woman who survives a rape by three outlaws, then tracks them down after they kill her husband in cold blood. Director Burt Kennedy is unsure whether he’s making an exploitation flick or a serious drama about a woman’s degradation and redemption, ending up in a no man’s (or woman’s) land uneasily poised between two extremes. Robert Culp is gamely appealing as the hired gun who helps Hannie, while Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin and Jack Elam are an appropriately despicable bunch of hombres. The film looks quite good on Blu-ray; extras are a director Alex Cox (Walker, Repo Man) commentary and two featurettes.

Looking—Complete Series and Movie
This HBO series about a trio of gay men who are close friends explores their relationships, both platonic and intimate, over the course of two seasons and 16 episodes—along with a full-length film which reunited the friends a year later at a wedding. The five-disc Blu-ray set brings together all of the episodes and the film, all showcasing the rich, sensitive performances in the leads by Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett. The hi-def transfers are first-rate; the 16 episodes contain audio commentaries.

One-Eyed Jacks 
Marlon Brando’s lone directing effort was this overambitious 1961 western in which he plays a gunslinger who, after going to prison because of his partner’s betrayal, spends the rest of the long movie getting his ultimate revenge. The always-charismatic Brando is never less than watchable, Karl Malden fine as his nemesis and Slim Pickens steals scenes as Malden’s lackey, but there’s a huge hole left by Pina Pellicer’s amateurishly stiff performance as the woman Brando loves. It’s undeniably gorgeous to look at, as Charles Lang’s splendid cinematography gains in color and detail in Criterion’s restored hi-def transfer. Extras include a Martin Scorsese intro, Brando voice-recording excerpts made during production and video essays on Jacks’ production history and Brando’s making a western.

DVDs of the Week
The Syndicate—All or Nothing
The acting is the main thing is two new British television series, as well as one from Down Under. Capital is a clever drama tinged with mystery and paranoia, helped along by an ace cast led by Toby Jones, Rachael Stirling, Lesley Sharp and Gemma Jones; The Syndicate—which follows the servants at a ritzy mansion who win the lottery—features a stellar ensemble headed by Alice Krige, Polly Walker and Anthony Andrews. The intense Australian prison drama Wentworth—emphatically not a rip-off of Orange Is the New Black—also features a plethora of superb performers: Danielle Cormack, Nicole da Silva, Kris McQuade, Leeanna Walsman and Kate Atkinson. Wentworth extras include an hour of on-set featurettes and several interviews.

The Childhood of a Leader 
Actor Brady Corbet’s haunting directorial debut, a Fascist allegory for our time, is an absorbing tale of a rambunctiously wild child—son of an American ambassador in Europe—who quickly discovers that he can have his way at any cost, including the lives of his parents. Although the finale unsubtly depicts the adult leader beginning his reign in front of cheering crowds—the showy camerawork and blatant score are showy undercut the power of the images—overall, this is an unsettling and pertinent expose, which features a brilliant performance by Berenice Bejo as the boy’s mother.

Lo and Behold—Reveries of the Connected World
Another of German director Werner Herzog’s endlessly fascinating documentaries—as opposed to his trite and unconvincing fictions—is this playfully serious study of how the virtual world has encroached on the real one, most likely to our ultimate peril. As usual, Herzog seeks out the most interesting if unlikely people to talk with, all in his own, charmingly accented English; that inimitable voice also provides the alternately amused and bemused narration. Lone extra is a Herzog interview.

CD of the Week 
Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert—L’Aiglon
Two master French composers did that rare thing, joining forces to collaborate on an opera. The unsurprisingly tuneful but surprisingly coherent result (musically and dramatically) contains both charming and intense music, with a flavorful libretto based on Edmund Rostand’s play about Napoleon’s son. This recording—conducted by Kent Nagano, leading a lovely performance by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra—gets all the little details right and builds the opera to a taut finale; there’s exquisitely idiomatic singing by sopranos Anne-Catherine Gillet and Helene Guilmette and baritones Marc Barrard and Etiene Dupuis. Too bad this rarity—first performed in 1937 then infrequently done since—wasn’t given a staging that we could watch on DVD or Blu-ray.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—“Terms of Endearment” with Molly Ringwald

Terms of Endearment
Adapted by Dan Gordon; directed by Michael Parva
Performances through December 11, 2016
59e59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Molly Ringwald and Hannah Dunne in Terms of Endearment (photo: Carol Rosegg)
I’ve never read Larry McMurtry’s novel Terms of Endearment, so I don’t which parts playwright Dan Gordon used for his stage adaptation. But since I know James L. Brooks’ film of the book—which swept the 1983 Oscars—pretty well, it’s striking how many of the best lines in this alternately sardonic and sentimental comedy-cum-tragedy about the volatile relationship between a headstrong widow and her only daughter are taken directly from the screen version.

Of course, in the movie, writer-director Brooks had such acting luminaries as Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Debra Winger and Jeff Daniels—all at their considerable best—at his disposal. Their long shadows unfortunately hang over the stage version of Terms, efficiently directed by Michael Parva and tidily if a bit too obviously adapted by Gordon.

This is not to blame the very capable actors: Molly Ringwald is, like MacLaine, a simultaneously appealing and exasperating matriarch Aurora Greenaway; Hannah Dunne gives feisty daughter Emma a tangy Texas twang a la Winger, but smartly never apes her outright; Jeb Brown treads lightly around the scene-stealing Nicholson performance as the aging but still womanizing astronaut Garrett Breedlove; and Denver Milord makes a likable Flap, Emma’s put-upon husband, who was so memorably played by Jeff Daniels.

But even with such solid acting, whenever the all-time classic dialogue tumbles out of the characters’ mouths—Aurora (“Why should I be happy about being a grandmother??!!”), Garrett (“If you wanted to get me on my back, all you had to do was ask”); and Emma (“I don't give a shit, mother, I'm sick”)—anyone with passing familiarity with the movie will miss the legendary spins put on it by MacLaine, Nicholson, Winger, et al. It earns the tears it gets at the end, but this Terms of Endearment sits uneasily between the screen and the stage.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes from the Field”

Notes from the Field
Written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith; directed by Leonard Foglia
Performances through December 11, 2016
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Anna Deavere Smith in Notes from the Field (photo: Joan Marcus)
We need Anna Deavere Smith more than ever. Her form of documentary theater—where she “plays” real-life individuals discussing whatever subject she has to hand, starting with Fires in the Mirror, about the Crown heights riots, and continuing with Twilight Los Angeles 1992, House Arrest and Let Me Down Easy—returns with Notes from the Field, another provocative and wide-ranging exploration of a peculiarly American problem: the uneasy relationship between education and the penal system.

The starting point for Smith is the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. But Smith is after something more substantial than simple racial politics: she charts a more systematic failure in how people who need help are treated, often being thrown them in prison instead. The words of the NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill—who bookends the show with remarkably clear-headed pronouncements on race, education and prison—puts it into perspective by saying “one of the huge investments that we made was in the criminal justice system. And that investment was made at the expense of other investments.” Namely, she elaborates, education and mental illness. And so it begins…

Smith introduces school officials like Philadelphia principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman and teacher Stephanie Williams, who continue fighting the good fight even while having little in the way of ammo to fight with, as Williams willingly admits: “It's like me running a jail without a gun…I can’t throw you in a closet, I can't do any of that. It's just like, I gotta keep you in order just by being me!”

There’s Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant, speaking to an emotionally charged audience at Gray’s memorial service, where he gives his own take on why Gray ended up dead in the back of a police van: “in a subtlety of revolutionary stance, (Gray) did something that black man were trained to—taught—know not to do. He looked police in the eye. I want to tell this grieving mother, you are not burying a boy, you are burying a grown man. Who knew that one of the principles of being a man is looking somebody in the eye.”

And, most poignant of all, there’s John Lewis, Congressman and former 1960s civil rights protestor, who was seriously injured marching with Martin Luther King. Lewis’s story about meeting ex-Klan members who apologize to his face for their viciously racist actions against him and them crying genuine tears over it is heartrending and hopeful.

As always, Smith’s chameleon-like ability—indeed, genius—to bring out the nuances in 19 very different people underlines the fact that this is a moral dilemma, not a partisan one, which is something we desperately need during this uncertain time in our country. Leonard Foglia’s astute direction shifts the visuals often enough to keep the performance from stagnating—particularly the use of a video camera to bring subjects into closer focus—and the appearance of Marcus Shelby occasionally playing an upright bass, which at times enters into a duet of sorts with Smith that makes the subject matter even more urgent.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—Classic Musical “Finian’s Rainbow” Returns

Finian’s Rainbow
Music by Burton Lane; book by E.Y. Harburg & Fred Saidy; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Adapted & directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances through December 31, 2016
Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

Ryan Silverman and Melisa Errico in Finian's Rainbow (photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Irish Rep’s revival of the 1947 musical, Finian’s Rainbow, is stripped-down musically (a four-piece ensemble led by piano and harp), but such a small-forces staging allows this charming show—with a smart, sassy book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, clever lyrics by Harburg and sweetly beguiling music by Burton Lane—to inhabit such a tiny space so engagingly.

The story, a messy mix of the magical and mundane, has progressive racial attitudes for its day—and for our day too, it now appears. Irish immigrant Finian (the delightful Ken Jennings) and his marriageable daughter Sharon (the delightfully plucky Melissa Errico) arrive in America with a crock o’gold Finian stole from a leprechaun, which he hopes helps them become rich in their new country.

The pair settle in Rainbow Valley, Missitucky, where Sharon falls in love with handsome local yokel Woody (a nice turn by Ryan Silverman), leprechaun Og (a too campy Mark Evans) slowly turns human while searching for the lost gold, and racist Senator Rawkins (an amusingly blustery Dewey Caddell) gets his comeuppance when he’s transformed into a black man.

Combining standard ethnic jokes with standard romantic comedy, the show bubbles along nicely, spurred on by wonderful Lane-Harburg songs like “Old Devil Moon” and “Look to the Rainbow,” and spirited dance numbers choreographed by Barry McNabb, particularly “Dance of the Golden Crock,” performed with gusto by young dancer Lyrica Woodruff.

The whole shebang is wrapped up with a reprise of one of the score’s most soaring melodies, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” Director Charlotte Moore obviously loves Finian, and it shows: even in her scaled-down version, it’s an unalloyed pleasure.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

November '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Citizen Kane—75th Anniversary
(Warner Brothers)
Rightly celebrated as The Great American Movie, Orson Welles’ towering debut remains a remarkable cinematic achievement, with an innovative narrative structure that still works its strange magic 75 years later. And the sterling Blu-ray transfer only enhances Gregg Toland’s lustrous B&W compositions, as well as throwing Welles’ youthful genius into sharp relief: he never topped himself in the next 40+ years of making (or trying to make) movies, although he came close with his follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons. Warner Brothers’ latest Blu-ray release comes on the heels of its stacked 70th anniversary edition in 2011; there are fewer extras this time around: Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich commentaries, still photography with Ebert commentary, interviews and world premiere footage.

Doc Savage
(Warner Archive)
In one of the laziest superhero movies ever made, Ron Ely (TV’s Tarzan) plays the “Man of Bronze” in Michael Anderson’s 1975 camp fest, which isn’t very amusing, exciting or entertaining throughout its turgid 112 minutes. Aside from a nice performance by Pamela Hensley in the sole female role (she’s of course just eye-candy), this remains an often cringe-worthy flick that probably won’t warrant repeat viewings even for camp fans. The film does have a sparkling transfer, so there’s at least that.

Finding Dory 
The latest animated Pixar juggernaut is this cute tale of a fish with short-term memory loss who gets by with a little (actually a lot) of help from her friends—including some voiced with aplomb by Albert Brooks and Ed O’Neill. Ellen DeGeneres provides the engaging voice of Dory, while the clever director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) is back for more, which brightens up this sequel immensely. The hi-def transfer is spectacular; extras (spread out over two discs) include shorts, featurettes and deleted scenes.

The Goodbye Girl
(Warner Archive)
Richard Dreyfuss won the 1977 Best Actor Oscar for his fresh and ingratiating comic portrayal of a down-on-his-luck actor who befriends—and soon falls for—the dumped girlfriend of the guy who sublet a Manhattan apartment to him, along with her adorable little daughter. Neil Simon’s script is funny and tender in equal measure, Herbert Ross’s directing brings everything into comedic and romantic harmony, and Marsha Mason and 10-year-old Quinn Cummings are as terrifically irresistible as Dreyfuss. The hi-def transfer is solid and detailed.

Lone Wolf and Cub 
Six films’ worth of a samurai and a stroller-bound toddler, filed with geysers of blood and stylized violence might seem a bit too much, but that’s what this boxed set brings together: the half-dozen Lone Wolf films, made in a creative spurt by four directors between 1972 and 1974. Although it’s overkill (pun intended), there’s great fun in watching our hero vanquish opponents with the greatest of ease, all with his kid watching the increasingly bloody proceedings. All of the films have stunning new transfers and are complemented by extras comprising Shogun Assassin, the American recut of the first two films, which was a hit over here; interviews; and featurettes.

The Rolling Stones—Havana Moon
(Eagle Rock)
Mick, Keith and what’s left of the boys performed in Havana last March in front of over a million fans, who responded ecstatically to a sharp and polished performance that’s highlighted by bulls-eye versions of “Angie” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (complete with choir) among the handful of timeless tracks on the set list. The band sounds as tight as ever, and extras feature an additional five songs that were cut from the concert film for some reason, the best of which is a surprisingly funky “Miss You.” Both hi-def audio and video are outstanding.

DVDs of the Week 
Art21: Art in the Twenty-First Century—Season 8
The latest series of programs dealing with several cutting-edge artists from across the country and the world touches down in Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Vancouver to profile four artists in each city, all of whom are making their own mark and staking their own claim in an increasingly fractured and crowded art market in the age of the internet. The most interesting of these artists are both from L.A.: Edgar Arceneaux, whose investigation of history includes his reenactment of Ben Vereen’s discomfiting performance at President Reagan’s 1981 inaugural ball, and Liz Larner, whose remarkable sculptures play with time and space.

Okinawa—The Afterburn
(First Run)
The still unresolved status of the island of Okinawa—under the control of the United States, with its army bases, since the end of the Second World War—is encountered head on by director John Junkerman, who interviews survivors from both sides of the incredibly bloody and drawn-out battle, along with Americans and Japanese who either lived or were stationed on the island in the intervening decades. Although he is clearly on the side of those many who are still loudly protesting the presence of the U.S. military bases, Junkerman cuts to the heart of and illuminates a still polarizing subject for Americans and Japanese alike. Extras comprise additional interviews.

CD of the Week 
Lang Lang—New York Rhapsody
(Sony Classical)
Now that he’s reached classical super-stardom, pianist Lang Lang can make any kind of album he wants, including this pell-mell stew of pop and Broadway tunes, jumbled together and turned into ersatz light-jazz, which adversely afflicts Don Henley’s “New York Minute,” Alicia Keys’ “New York State of Mind,” and even Lou Reed’s “Boulevard,” mashed-up insipidly with “Summertime” by George Gershwin. These New York-inspired tunes are rounded out by a flashy version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Lang has always been an idiosyncratic player, but too often on this disc he sounds like a mere cocktail-bar ivory tickler.