Friday, May 22, 2015

New Broadway Reviews—"The King and I" and "Wolf Hall: Parts 1 and 2"

The King and I
Book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Richard Rodgers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Opened April 16, 2015
Lincoln Center Theater @ Vivian Beaumont, 65th Street & Broadway, New York, NY

Wolf Hall: Parts 1 & 2
Adapted by Mike Poulton from Hilary Mantel's novels
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Opened April 9, 2015
Winter GardenTheatre, 1634 Broadway between 50th & 51st Streets, New York, NY

Watanabe and O'Hara in The King and I (photo: Paul Kolnik)
Best known as the 1956 movie starring the immortal Yul Brynner, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I  has brilliantly melodic songs that do the heavy lifting of creating character and moving the story forward: "Getting to Know You," "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance?" are only a few numbers in what's among Broadway's greatest hit parades.

That director Bartlett Sher and actress Kelli O'Hara already collaborated on a terrific Rodgers & Hammerstein show—South Pacific, at Lincoln Center in 2008—boded well for their reunion on another R&H spectacular. In 1996, a worthy King and I Broadway revival featured a smashing turn by Donna Murphy as Anna Leonowens, the English schoolteacher who arrives in the kingdom of Siam to teach the many school-age children of the brusque King, robustly played by Lou Diamond Phillips. But as good as Murphy was (she won a Tony), that production didn't have the internal coherence of the current one. 

Bartlett Sher's directing is simultaneously expansive and intimate, once again (as in South Pacific) using the problematic Vivian Beaumont stage to great effect. From the opening scene of Anna and son Louis arriving to scenes of Anna teaching her charges and the climactic dance scene, Sher's sure hand effortlessly balances the musical-comedy tropes that underlie the serious, humane drama that's the core of the show, with help from his stellar collaborators: the fluidly sliding sets of Michael Yeargan, the spot-on costumes of Catherine Zuber, the magical lighting of Donald Holder, the peerless sound design of Scott Lehrer and the fine orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. 

The magisterial acting, which runs from the two leads to the delightfully individual children (played by the most talented pack of kids on a Broadway stage) begins with Ruthie Ann Miles, who brightened the otherwise forgettable Here Lies Love; she brings emotional intensity to the King's wife Lady Thiang, especially during her dazzling rendition of "Something Wonderful." As the King's concubine Tuptim, Ashley Park splendidly displays young love's crushing disappointment, especially in her and, as Tuptim's beloved Lun Tham, Conrad Ricamora's haunting duet, "I Have Dreamed." 

The King himself is played by Ken Watanabe with a brawny physicality and compelling charisma that easily overcomes his often garbled English and less than musical bearing. Watanabe also has an undeniable chemistry with Kelli O'Hara, whose Anna is another in this glowing actress's growing gallery of indelible characters. Like Nellie in South Pacific, O'Hara's Anna is more than the sum of its parts; her intelligent and nuanced portrayal stands comparison with Murphy's earlier triumph.

Miles and Leonard in Wolf Hall (photo: Johan Persson)
Hilary Mantel turned Wolf Hall into a cottage industry in three media—her original novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies; a six-hour televsion mini-series recently on PBS; and two full-length plays currently on Broadway. I haven't read the books, but found it fascinating how the TV series and plays tell the same engrossing story of British royal history—with Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell and Anne Boleyn—in varying ways, just like earlier notables from Shakespeare (whose All Is True was a collaboration with John Fletcher) to the Showtime series The Tudors.

Mike Poulton's adaptations, credible history and thrilling drama, concern Oliver Cromwell, who begins as Cardinal Woolsey's right-hand man, then soon becomes—after Woolsey is convicted of treason and executed—King Henry's must trusted advisor. Cromwell famously fashions a way for the King to head the Church of England (and be excommunicated by the Pope) when Henry divorces wife Katharine because she bore him no male heirs and marries Anne Boleyn. Of course, Anne also only gives him a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I), so her head too is soon on the chopping block, as Henry makes way for his latest conquest, Jane Seymour.

Even if it sometimes plays like a high-class soap opera—the occasionally soaring dialogue never approaches Shakespearean poetry—Wolf Hall is a sweeping historical pageant created by Jeremy Herrin, with valuable assists from Christopher Oram's elegant costumes and sets, Paule Constable and David Plater's lighting and Stephen Warbeck's appropriate music.

The actors are exemplary throughout, led by Peter Eyre's sardonic Woolsey, Nathaniel Parker's hearty Henry, Lydia Leonard's intelligent Anne and Ben Miles' dynamically engaged and aggressively caustic Cromwell. Compare Miles' Cromwell with Mark Rylance's on TV for a textbook case of how actors can play the same role totally differently yet equally compellingly. Rylance was quietly forceful while Miles literally stalks the stage; in Herrin's most theatrical invention, Cromwell is nearly always onstage prowling from one side to the other as he encounters new sets of antagonists.

Unlike the TV version, onstage Cromwell is often bedeviled by Woolsey's ghost, with whom he discusses important matters not unlike the soliloquies of Shakespearean drama; contrarily, a most pressing matter like Anne's execution, which is only alluded to onstage, is presented in all its drama and urgency in the mini-series.

These onstage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies definitely stand on their own as brilliantly illuminated dramatizations of one of the most familiar, but endlessly fascinating, stories in English history.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

May '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
American Sniper 
(Warner Brothers)
With this biopic about Chris Kyle, the lethal sniper who terrorized insurgents during his four tours of duty in Iraq, Clint Eastwood has made a surprisingly conventional war movie, flattening out any moral ambiguity by making Kyle a surprisingly one-dimensional hero whose inner struggles are dramatized on the level of a Lifetime Channel movie. It's effective for what it is but could have been much more, especially considering the tremendous acting of Bradley Cooper as Kyle and the equally stunning Sienna Miller as his wife Tyla. The movie looks good on Blu; extras are two featurettes.

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man 
(Shout Factory)
This bumpy 1991 action flick, which pairs Don Johnson and Mickey Rourke as a modern-day cowboy and his biker buddy, has a ramshackle story over which director Simon Wincer displays little control, ultimately turning to desperate outbursts of cartoonish and realistic violence. Rourke is already becoming a self-parody, Johnson gets points by playing it straight, and Vanessa Williams pops up to sing a couple of silky numbers in a nothing role. The hi-def transfer looks fine; lone extra is a vintage featurette. 

(Warner Archive)
Richard Donner's 1985 medieval adventure yarn about cursed lovers transformed into a hawk by day (her) and a wolf by night (him) soars whenever Giuseppe Rotunno's glistening photography shows off incredible Italian locales and sunsets, but falls down whenever Matthew Broderick's utterly—and wrongly—contemporary petty thief is onscreen. On the plus side, Michelle Pfeiffer has never looked more enchantingly lovely in Rotunno's golden-hued lighting, and the movie does work its spell for those in an unfinicky romantic mood. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate.

(Arrow USA)
This brash, sardonic 1969 yakuza thriller follows a mobster just out of prison who finds that, with his boss near death and his gang broken up, there's a deadly rival for both a young woman and his very life. Director Yasuharu Hasebe's widescreen black and white compositions allow this epic story to play out on an equally expansive canvas, and his unflagging pace glosses over any holes in plotting and flimsy character development. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include interviews.

The River 
In 1951, French director Jean Renoir traveled to India for his first color film, a visually opulent but dramatically inert adaptation of Rumer Godden's book about three sisters in Calcutta. Although Renoir's painterly eye—like his artist father's—was impeccable, The River lacks the narrative propulsion and wisdom about human behavior of his all-time masterpieces The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion. Still, this ravishing film looks even more exquisite on Criterion's Blu-ray release, whose plethora of extras includes Renoir and Martin Scorsese intros, a video essay and a documentary, Around The River, on Renoir and the film.

DVDs of the Week
CPO Sharkey—Complete 1st Season 
It's hard to believe, but in 1976, when his insult humor ("you hockey puck" was one of his few inoffensive lines) was in vogue and he was a Tonight Show regular, Don Rickles actually starred in this alternately amusing and cringeworrthy sitcom as a long-time navy officer dealing with recruits who are bumpkins and ne'er-do-wells. The first season, comprising 15 episodes, has decent laughs, most of them—and the warning on the box bears this out—instances of his usual sense of humor that is too politically incorrect for today's audiences. The lone extra is a hilarious bit on Carson in which, for once, Rickles himself is the butt of the joke.

Every Little Crook and Nanny 
(Warner Archive)
Evan Hunter's rollicking farcical novel about a resourceful nanny pitted against a group of underworld criminals was turned into a plodding 1972 movie by director Cy Howard that fatally lacks the book's unsubtle but skewed humor. Despite a formidable cast that includes Victor Mature, Lynn Redgrave, Dom DeLuise, Isabel Sanford, Pat Morita and Austin Pendleton, the pedestrian movie plods along for 100 minutes without ever settling into a comic groove.

Matisse—From MOMA and Tate Modern 
(Seventh Art)
The recent exhibit Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs—showcasing the French master's final decade, when he created a startling series of richly colored paper cut-outs that underscored his dazzling creativity and originality—was a smash at London's Tate Modern and New York's Museum of Modern Art. This smart but sober 90-minute documentary overview comprises close-up views of its many highlights, informative interviews with curators and experts, well-chosen excerpts of Matisse's own words and glimpses at his storied career.

A Year in Champagne 
(First Run)
This stimulating documentary about the region of France where the original bubbly is made entertainingly explores the background of the world-renowned sparkling wine itself, including visits to some estates that have made the beloved stuff for centuries. But director David Kennard also gives a valuable primer on the history of the hardscrabble land where grapes are grown, which is drenched with the blood of both World Wars. Extras are additional scenes and short films.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

May '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The Firebird 
Jiri Kylian—The Choreographer 
(Arthaus Musik)
The excellent 2003 Canadian film of Igor Stravinsky's classic ballet The Firebird—which features two supreme dancers, Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksandar Antonijevic, showing off James Kudelka's spectacular choreography—also includes the Kirov Orchestra under the great Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performing Stravinsky's irresistible music. In the 1991 documentary portrait Jiri Kylian—The Choreographer, the Czech master discusses his storied career from the former Czechoslovakia to Europe and America, alongside ample glimpses of his ballet work, making this a must for aficionados of dance.

Mr. Selfridge—Complete 3rd Season 
In the third season of this series about the American entrepreneur whose innovative department store changed the face of London in the early 1900s, Selfridge has lost his beloved wife and throws himself into memoralizing her with a scheme to open a home for returning soldiers from the recently completed Great War. The storylines, which better integrate Selfridge's grown children and his employees in often intriguing subplots, take the weight off the too-contemporary performance by Jeremy Piven in the title role; the rest of the ensemble picks up the slack considerably. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise behind-the-scenes footage.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne 
(Arrow USA)
Polish director Walerian Borowczyk has a fervid cult following, but I've never acquired a taste for his hysterical dramas that mingle the horrific and quotidian in obvious ways, like this risible 1981 riff on Robert Louis Stephenson's Jekyll/Hyde story. In the title roles, Udo Kier and Marina Pierro are both inapposite, he too feminine, she far less so, while several pointless hardcore inserts add little to Borowczyk's shrill, cartoonish vision. The movie looks sharp on Blu-ray; extras include an audio commentary, short films and interviews.

Winter Sleep 
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has distinguished himself as a master of deliberate character studies in which psychological insights are slowly unveiled by characters' meandering conversations, like this 195-minute dissection of a middle-aged hotel owner who lords his arrogance over everyone—his young wife, his tenants, his neighbors, his colleagues. The penetrating dialogue and landscapes that are astonishing in their emptiness underscore the frayed relationships in this overlong but worthwhile drama. The hi-def transfer is first rate; too bad the 140-minute making-of documentary, available on other Blu-ray releases, wasn't included.

DVDs of the Week
Blood on the Vine—Complete 3rd Season 
(MHZ Networks)
In this breezily entertaining TV series, veteran French actor Pierre Arditi is a wine expert who becomes an unofficial detective looking into the murders of people related to vineyards throughout France. Despite the inherent absurdity of the premise, Arditti has the right amount of vigor and amusement bordering on bemuseument, and the locales (Alsace, Burgandy, the Champagne region) are perfectly chosen for the dastardly deeds which are always solved, like Ellery Queen or Quincy, by each episode's end.

The Dance Goodbye 
Sagrada—The Mystery of Creation
(First Run)
In The Dance Goodbye, director Ron Steinman chronicles New York City Ballet star Merrill Ashley after her 1997 retirement following 31 years dancing with the company: a bright, articulate but restless woman, Ashley looks for her place in life once her career ends, and there are plentiful clips from her brilliant career that complement interviews with Ashley herself. Sagrada, Stefan Haupt's documentary about the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi's marvelous—and perpetually unfinished—cathedral soaring above his beloved Barcelona, brings together those working on this gigantic structure for decades since Gaudi's death and those who knew him personally and professionally to create an illuminating portrait of a genius whose belief in both God and the brilliance of man was his enduring legacy. Sagrada extras are additional scenes.

Horizon 6 
(RCO Live) 
In this DVD/CD release of new compositions performed by the Royal Concertgebuow Orchestra at its musical home in Amsterdam, Holland, the best of the batch is Mysterien by Louis Andriessen, one of the most high-profile of modernist Dutch composers; his first orchestral work since 1967 is played with verve by the musicians led by conductor Mariss Jansons, shown live in performance on the DVD. The CD comprises five other works, variable in quality, by other leading contemporary Dutch composers: the Violin Concerto by Michel van der Aa, given a scintillating performance by soloist Janine Jansen, is by far the most memorable of these.

The Nun 
(Film Movement)
In this straightforward adaptation of Diderot's classic novel, actress Pauline Etienne gives a quiet but virtuosic portrayal of the eponymous 18th century nun who believes her calling is not the church and who withstands heresy, hypocrisy, physical and mental degradation and even lesbian overtures from a mother superior (played by Isabelle Huppert) to, she hopes, finally be free to decide for herself about her own life. There is also Guillaume Nikloux's restrained direction, which provides the necessary understanding and honesty to his heroine's story, which is slow-moving but ultimately shattering.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

May '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Accidental Love 
The back story to this feeble attempt at a political farce is more interesting than what's onscreen: it was made in 2008 as Nailed, directed by David O. Russell and with rising young stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel in the leads. For various reasons (but primarily because it was so bad), Russell quit, and the movie has been in limbo until now. Directing credit goes to pseudonymous Stephen Greene, while Gyllenhaal (who looks like a kid) and a trove of familiar supporting faces like Kirstie Alley, James Brolin, Katherine Keener, James Marsden and Tracy Morgan are undermined by the material. Biel actually shows a flair for light comedy; too bad it's wasted on this embarrassing addition to the resumes of all involved. The hi-def transfer is OK.

Dancing on the Edge 
This stylish mini-series set in 1930s London engrossingly captures the behind the scenes and onstage drama that occurs when a rising black jazz ensemble makes it big among the aristocracy and upper-class audiences. Although the storylines filling five 90-minute episodes and a 60-minute finale start to resemble soap operas and trashy novels, wonderful musicmaking, strong acting (from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode, Jacqueline Bisset, Janet Montgomery and John Goodman) and director Stephen Poliakoff's credible era atmosphere more than compensate. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras include cast and crew interviews.

42nd Street 
(Warner Archive)
In this splashy 1933 musical, Broadway music and dancing merge for a beautifully done last 20 minutes: unfortunately, there's that first hour-plus, which laboriously puts the movie's wooden characters through their routine paces. No matter: what Lloyd Bacon's direction lacks in precision, it makes up for with panache, helped by tunes like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the title song, set to Busby Berkeley's smart production numbers: that's entertainment, indeed. On Blu-ray, the restored film sparkles; extras are featurettes and two vintage cartoons, including Shuffle Off to Buffalo, which has a warning label about its era's ethnic stereotyping.

Frank Sinatra 5-Film Collection 
(Warner Brothers)
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra's birth, this five-disc set collects some of his best and most popular onscreen roles, from his early musical appearances in 1945's Anchors Weigh, 1949's On the Town and 1955's Guys and Dolls; to the fun but sluggish gangster movies Oceans 11 (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). The vivid color and ebullient musical scores of Town and Dolls make them the pick of the litter, and Sinatra has fun duking it out with Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons. The Blu-ray transfers of all five films are excellent; extras include a 32-page photo book, vintage cartoons, featurettes, commentaries and a Tonight Show segment with Sinatra as guest host.

(Warner Brothers)
Martin Scorsese's 1990 drama about mobster Nick Pileggi is considered one of the great gangster films and, although Scorsese's direction and Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta's acting are stupendous, there's a sense that it is all too much, that Scorsese rubs our noses in the bad guys' gleefully violent lives. Still, such superior cinematic craft is exciting to watch, and this may be the final truly accomplished and memorable film of Scorsese's career (despite later entries as Casino, The Aviator and the Oscar-winning The Departed). This 25th anniversary set features an improved hi-def transfer, 36-page photo book and new 30-minute documentary; older extras include two commentaries, featurettes and interviews.

Mr. Turner 
(Sony Classics)
Director Mike Leigh smartly chose his collaborators for his impressively mounted 2-1/2 hour drama about the last 25 years of the great but controversial 19th century British artist J.M.W. Turner: cinematographer Dick Pope and actor Timothy Spall. Pope's luminous photography suggests but doesn't ape Turner's rough-and-tumble canvases of striking beauty, while Spall's miraculous portrayal of the cantankerous genius avoids caricature and hamminess: even his growl, which in lesser hands would be an affectation, is a natural manifestation of the artist's personality. The superb hi-def transfer allows further appreciation of the film's visual luster; extras comprise Leigh's commentary, a deleted scene and behind the scenes featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Legacy 
(MHZ Networks)
In this gripping high-class Danish soap opera, renowned artist Veronika Gronnegaard inconveniently dies after telling a family friend that she is Veronika's real daughter to whom she's bequeathing her mansion, to the consternation of her three "official" grown children. The infighting among these squabbling siblings—whose emotional ebbs and flows never wane, whether the battles are legal or personal—is dramatized with blood and guts by the tremendous cast (which includes two performers familiar to eagle-eyed foreign-film fans, Trine Dryholm and Jesper Christiansen), which carries this bingeworthy 10-hour drama enough to keep us waiting with bated breath for the second season, already showing on Danish television.

Lost Rivers 
For centuries, cities sprung up at the confluence of rivers and over time, those rivers were buried underground as cities grew and the waters became more polluted and disease-ridden; as Caroline Bacle's timely and relevant documentary shows, reclaiming the rivers is the prudent and environmentally sound thing to do. Places as far-flung as Toronto, Yonkers and London are working through the difficulties of bureaucratic red tape and natural barriers to make their original waterways more accessible to the public, with varying (but on the whole satisfactory) results so far. Extras comprise 14 additional scenes.

Miss Julie 
Liv Ullmann's restrained adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's tragic drama has the passion and complexity the director obviously learned from her mentor Ingmar Bergman, and features a thoroughly believable Samantha Morton as the housekeeper. Too bad that Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie and Colin Farrell as her aristocratic father's valet are too contemporary to disappear into their period roles, despite valiant attempts. Ullmann's directorial efforts have been sadly overlooked on disc, especially her best films Private Confessions (not on DVD or Blu-ray) and Faithless (not on Blu-ray). Extras are Chastain and Ullmann interviews.

The Murder of a Cat 
(Anchor Bay)
The seamy underbelly of suburbia has been done to death, and director Gillian Greene and writers Christian Magalhes and Robert Snow have little new or fresh to say in this scattershot black comedy triggered by the killing of a nerdy momma's boy's feline friend. As a showcase for Blythe Danner, recent Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, Greg Kinnear and underrated Nikki Reed, it's watchable, but the movie is never as smart, funny or edgy as it pretends to be.

My Mistress 
(Film Movement)
This unsatisfying taboo drama about a 16-year-old who befriends an unhappily married—and improbably sexy—neighbor who happens to be not only a gorgeous Frenchwoman but also an S&M expert provides few answers to why Emmanuelle Beart went to Australia to make it. She and Harrison Gilbertson do what they can with Gerard Lee and director Stephen Lance's flimsy script, but their relationship, in and out of bed, is never made plausible. Beart looks stunning in her various latex outfits, at least. Extras comprise interviews, but—contrary to the box cover—there was no Beart interview on my copy.

Monday, May 4, 2015

New Broadway Musicals—"The Visit" and "Something Rotten"

The Visit
Book by Terrence McNally; music & lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Directed by John Doyle
Opened April 23, 2015
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Something Rotten
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O'Farrell; lyrics by Karey & Wayne Kirkpatrick; music by Wayne Kirkpatrick
Directed & choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Opened April 22, 2015
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Chita Rivera, left, and cast of The Visit (photo: Thom Kaine)
That the ageless Chita Rivera is a living legend is beyond dispute, and that composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have created challenging Broadway musicals like Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman (which starred a Tony-winning Rivera) and The Scottsboro Boys is unquestioned. But the trio's latest—and final—collaboration, The Visit, shows that even the greatest artists have off days.

Based on the classic The Visit of the Old Lady by German playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit follows Claire Zachanassian, the world's richest woman, who returns to her dreary backwater hometown with revenge on her mind, offering billions to the town and its poor inhabitants if local merchant Anton Schell—her first lover who impregnanted the teenage Claire, abandoned and rigged a paternity trial against her, forcing her into a sordid life of prostitution and several wealthy husbands—is killed. 

At first, everyone is aghast, since all assumed Claire returned with charity in mind to help the downtrodden town back to its feet. However, the denizens—including Anton's wife and children—slowly decide that money is far better than morality, and they start availing themselves of pricey items on credit. From there, Durrenmatt's play (and Gottfried von Einem's expressive 1971 opera based on it, which I saw in 1997 at New York City Opera in a less than felicitous production) becomes a shocking and blackly comic expose of hypocrisy and greed.

What the Kander & Ebb Visit originally was I don't know, since I missed previous productions. But it seems obvious that its two-act structure with 23 songs gave the story ample time to work out its deliberate and inexorable march from morality to mortality. But Terrence McNally's book crudely squeezes everything into a lone 95-minute act, offering characters so perfunctorily sketched that they border on caricature, and whose motivation is all but non-existent.  

McNally's book does have a nicely inventive touch. The young lovers Clare and Anton, embodied by two dancers, move around and among the others (the efficient choreography is by Graciela Daniele), joining the aged couple in several striking tableaux. As embodied by the personable John Riddle and exquisite Michelle Veintimilla, they are the best members of a supporting cast that makes a powerful chorus but whose individual performances are one-note.

Kander and Ebb's songs, while not their best, manage to convey the lost love, abandonment, vengeance and dishonesty that accompanies these dark lives...and deaths. Having the blind eunuchs employed as Clare's footmen sing in falsetto (the voices belong to the talented Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer) provides appropriately off-putting vocals that nod to Einem's more successful operatic adaptation.

Playing Claire, a woman of hard-won wisdom after a difficult lifetime of experience, allows the 82-years-young Rivera to sing, dance and act with unsurpassed skill. But director John Doyle unaccountably underuses her, letting her wander in and out of the set when she should be front and center throughout.  

Doyle also has the townspeople dress in rags and heavy, dark eye makeup, which makes them look like rejects from a high school production of The Threepenny Opera. Doyle's staging consists almost entirely of moving the suitcases and coffin for Anton that Claire brought with her around the stage continuously; later, the color yellow, because it's in the script and the title of one of the songs, becomes an arresting but hollow visual motif against the dreary monochrome backdrop. 

Doyle's original gimmick was staging Sondheim musicals with performers playing their own musical instruments; now that he's branched out, his limitations have become sorely evident, especially in his bland stagings of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, Stephen Sondheim's Passion and now this unenthralling The Visit.

Brian d'Arcy James and Christian Borle in Something Rotten (photo: Joan Marcus)
There's something to be said for a Broadway musical that takes 20 minutes' worth of solid material and stretches it out to 2-1/2 hours, which is what the 10-time Tony nominated Something Rotten does. While its hokey, anachronistic songs and juvenile humor were anticipated by Spamalot, The Producers and even The Book of Mormon, and its eagerness to please its audience (which duly responds in kind) seems desperate, there's undeniable, if disposable, fun to be had.

Twin brothers Nigel and Nick Bottom are playwrights in 1595 London, just as Shakespeare hits his stride with his latest, Romeo and Juliet. To finally surpass the Bard, Nick visits a soothsayer to try and steal William S.'s biggest future hit; Nick is told that something called a musical will become all the rage onstage, so the brothers go ahead and write the world's first: Omelette (said soothsayer misheard Hamlet). 

And that's it. Those who laugh themselves to tears whenever Shakespeare plays are parodied or even mentioned—the show is awash in lines from the Bard's oeuvre, greeted with applause or laughter depending on how many audience members recognize them—or when Shakespeare himself (an agreeably hammy Christian Borle) struts onstage as the world's first rock star will find Something Rotten irresistible. The rest of us will find a fitfully amusing and exasperating musical.

There are solid comic turns from Brian d'Arcy James, who sings, dances and cracks wise as Nick; Brad Oscar, who's feverishly funny as the soothsayer Nostradamus; and Brooks Ashmanskas as Brother Jeremiah, a puritan whose endless double entendres are marred only by the actor's milking every single joke for maximum audience approval.

The book, lyrics and music by Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell are pastiches of pastiches, some of which work while others mostly cause groans. Savvy director Casey Nicholaw's clever choreography winks at its audience with allusions to countless other shows, especially during the rousing but dragged-out showstopper "A Musical," which perfectly summarizes the unapologetically over-the-top Something Rotten.

The Visit
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Something Rotten
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Friday, May 1, 2015

New Broadway Musicals—"Fun Home" and "It Shoulda Been You"

Fun Home
Book & lyrics by Lisa Kron; music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Sam Gold
Opened April 19, 2015
Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY

It Shoulda Been You
Book & lyrics by Brian Hargrove; music by Barbara Anselmi
Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Opened April 14, 2015
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Lucas and Cerveris in Fun Home (photo: Joan Marcus)
That there's never been a musical quite like Fun Home is both its blessing and curse. Based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic memoir about her dysfunctional family, Fun Home has a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, which pull the show in different directions, derailing its effectiveness at every turn.

Alison, a 40-year old graphic artist, puts her life into words and pictures; flashing back to her youth, Fun Home shows a nine-year-old Alison, her brothers and her parents: Bruce, their closeted father, a high-school teacher, predatory pedophile and funeral home director; and their mother Helen, whose coldness underlines her inability to deal with Bruce's behavior. A third Alison is a 19-year-old Oberlin College freshman, unsure of her own sexuality, who's befriended by—and soon becomes lover to—headstrong Joan; when she brings Joan home to meet her parents, Alison forces them to deal with her lesbianism head-on, causing her emotionally tortured father to make a fateful decision that haunts his daughter to this day.

For the most part, Kron's book adeptly distills Alison's coming to terms with her sexuality and her complicated relationship with her parents, even if motivation and psychology are often hazy. If all three Allisons are adroitly drawn—and played by three wonderfully individual actresses, youngster Sydney Lucas, college-age Emily Skeggs and adult Beth Malone—her family is more cursorily sketched, with Helen quite a blank (poor Judy Kuhn has little to do) and Bruce maddeningly indistinct. 

Therefore, it's to the credit of that incredible chameleon of an actor Michael Cerveris that Bruce becomes the most sympathetic character onstage; the quietly commanding Cerveris even does wonders with Bruce's climactic song, an aria of lament and suffering that would lie there inert without the actor's great skill and compassion.

And that's the weakness of Fun Home: Tesori's score. The small ensemble plays beautifully, and when the music underscores the action, its restraint is dramatically effective. But when the characters break into song, there's a lack of variety, melody and emotion that prevent the numbers from soaring; similarly, Kron's competent lyrics would work better as dialogue, instead of being set to Tesori's music. With a couple of compelling exceptions—namely the kids' crowd-pleasing anthem, "Come to the Fun Home," and Bruce's aforementioned final song—the musical numbers rarely advance the story or provide any insight into these characters. 

Even with Sam Gold's endlessly resourceful direction on David Zinn's gloriously lived-in Victorian house set, Fun Home is fatally unmusical.

Howard and Boggess in It Shoulda Been You (photo: Joan Marcus)
Basically a song-filled sitcom, It Shoulda Been You is the Broadway equivalent of madcap shows like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, its farcical wedding day providing 100 minutes of hokey but harmless fun, thanks to a bunch of veteran comic troupers.

On the morning of Rebecca Steinberg's wedding to Brian Howard at a posh hotel, mania reigns among those present: Rebecca's big-boned sister Jenny, handling last-minute details for their domineering Jewish mother Judy, whom their father Murray avoids when he can; Brian's WASPy parents, alcoholic Georgette and dull George; maid of honor Annie and best man Greg, Rebecca and Brian's closest friends, respectively; wedding planner Albert, cleaning up messes; hotel workers Mimsy and Walt, commenting sardonically on the proceedings; and Rebecca's ex, Marty Kaufman, who arrives to implore her not to marry.

Slamming-door farce is not book writer Brian Hargrove's strong suit, so he concentrates on tired Jew/Gentile jokes, cracks about Jenny's weight, and the inevitable "gay reveal" so in vogue right now. Hargrove's banal "moon"/"June" lyrics and Barbara Anselmi's interchangeable songs don't help either, but at least their director (and Hargrove's significant other) David Hyde Pierce knows all about great timing, so the show ends up resembling an actual comedy. Pierce's talented cast also makes the most of its chances to shine, especially the ladies.

Tyne Daly is the ultimate overbearing Jewish mother as Judy, Lisa Howard is a funny and touching Jenny, Harriet Harris is an hilarious Georgette, and the always delectable Sierra Boggess shows off masterly comic chops and an exquisite singing voice as Rebecca. Her showstopping "A Little Bit Less Than" proves that, even in an ensemble, some performers are more equal than others.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Blind Woman's Curse
Massacre Gun 
(Arrow USA)
1970's Blind Woman's Curse, Teruo Ishii's colorfully choreographed bloodbath, follows dragon-tattooed female yakuzas being tailed by a vengeance-minded victim who skins their tattoos off their backs: it's as lunatic as it sounds, but its relentlessly fast pace keep it moving. Yasuharu Hasebe's 1967 Massacre Gun, about a mobster who retaliates after he is forced by his employers to execute his girlfriend, is crammed with poetically violent sequences and formidable widescreen B&W photography. Both films have been given striking new Blu-ray transfers; extras include an audio commentary on Curse and interviews on Gun.

Brokeback Mountain 
(Bel Air Classiques)
La Favorite 
(Opus Arte)
Already an Oscar-winning movie, Brokeback Mountain is now an opera, with a libretto by the original story's author, Annie Proulx, and music by composer Charles Wuorinen, whose blocks of unmelodic material aren't exactly tailor-made for this tale of two male sheep herders who fall in love, complicating their increasingly difficult home lives. Generous performances by Daniel Okulitch and Tom Randle, along with Heather Buck as one of their wives, made this sing pleasingly at its 2014 Madrid world premiere. Gaetano Donizetti's La Favorite, one of the Italian bel canto master's lesser-known operas, has been given a thoroughly impressive 2014 revival in Toulouse, France, starring American mezzo Kate Aldrich in a career-defining performance as the heroine Leonor. Both hi-def transfers and music are excellent; extras comprise backstage interviews.

Cancer—The Emperor of All Maladies 
Based on Siddhartha Mukherjee's encyclopedic book, this thoroughly involving three-part Ken Burns-produced mini-series is a simultaneously heartbreaking but heartening journey through centuries of medical, governmental and charitable attempts to attack the disease that humankind still cannot control. Director Barak Goodman's compiling of interviews, archival footage and an arresting history of the disease and our increasing knowledge of it makes for a riveting six hours; that Edward Herrmann died of brain cancer after completing his narration for the film is but one sadly illuminating back story. On Blu-ray,the film looks fine; extras are additional scenes.

Inherent Vice 
(Warner Bros)
Thomas Pynchon's rambling 2009 novel, nominally a detective yarn set in 1970, is all but unfilmable, with its countless asides and plentiful characters, and Paul Thomas Anderson's exquisitely wrought adaptation hasn't solved those basic problems (but who could?). A strand of a storyline keeps getting interrupted, just like the book, but in Anderson's hands, it's even more scattershot and jokey, despite strong performances by a mumbling Joaquin Phoenix and revelatory Catherine Waterston, whose leggy beauty and fierce intelligence overwhelm the film and its talented but erratic director. The movie's L.A. location shooting looks sumptuous on Blu-ray; extras are extremely brief featurettes/trailers. 

Last Days in Vietnam
Rory Kennedy's incisive, unforgettable documentary returns viewers to the final weeks in 1975 when a mere handful of United States military men and diplomatic envoys had to decide whom to help among their South Vietnamese allies as the enemy made its way unopposed to the capital Saigon. Using riveting first-hand accounts by those who were in Vietnam and those who were in Washington (including Henry Kissinger), new and archival interviews and stunning video footage and photographs, Kennedy sears an era already familiar to those who lived through it into our collective memory; included are the 100-minute theatrical release and two-hour PBS American Experience version, which is obviously preferable. The hi-def transfer is excellent.

Wolf Hall 
Based on Hilary Mantel's acclaimed novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, this absorbing six-hour mini-series chronicles one of history's great dramas: how Oliver Cromwell rose from obscurity to become King Henry VIII's closest confidante during scandals that centered on his marriages to wives Catherine of Algernon and her successor Anne Boleyn. Intelligently scripted by Peter Straughan, well-directed by Peter Kosminsky and splendidly acted by a large cast led by Mark Rylance (Cromwell), Damian Lewis (Henry) and Claire Foy (Anne), this straightforward but fascinating historical fiction could also serve as a documentary about its era. The Blu-ray transfer is terrifically detailed; extras comprise making-of featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Little Accidents 
(Anchor Bay)
A small-town mining accident that kills ten men leads to recriminations, threats of lawsuits and the death of the teenage son of the mine's manager and his wife, who ends up finding solace in the arms of the lone survivor of the disaster. If this all sounds too melodramatic to work, it is: writer-director Sara Colangelo never makes any of her film's relationships plausible, despite suitably authentic performances across the board, with Elizabeth Banks and Chloe Sevigny standouts as mothers dealing with the accident's fallout in differing ways. 

Xavier Dolan's passionate character study was shot in a nearly square aspect ratio for much of its length, presenting the clashing but loving relationship between a frustrated widow and her ADHD teenage troublemaker of a son as boxed-in and intimately as possible. Later, when the son celebrates freedom as the image "stretches" to a more familiar large-screen ratio, it's a gimmicky moment that summarizes this alternately insightful and maddeningly cliched drama, held together by a transcendent performance by Quebecois actress Anne Dorval in the title role.

Music Releases of the Week
The Ides of March—Last Band Standing: 
The Definitive 50 Year Anniversary Collection 
(Ides of March Records)
This boxed set by a mainly forgotten rock-pop-R&B band from Chicago with one smash hit to its credit (1970's "Vehicle") comprises four CDs with dozens of singles and album tracks, and a DVD that features a 2014 concert from last year that reunited the band at Chicago's House of Blues, along with interviews, vintage television footage from Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" among other shows and a video for the band's new tune "Last Band Standing." Guest musicians include Steve Cropper and Buddy Guy; the band's leader Jim Peterik went onto '80s fame with schlock-rockers Survivor, whose "Eye of the Tiger" and other hits are performed on the DVD concert, along with songs by .38 Special and Sammy Hagar that Peterik co-wrote.

Rush—A Farewell to Kings 
(Mercury Blu-ray Audio)
The 1977 followup to the Canadian progressive-rock trio's breakthrough 2112 consolidates their sound with epic tracks like the title cut, "Xanadu" and "Cygnus X-1," all-time audience favorite—and first Rush power ballad—"Closer to the Heart," and agreeable filler in the form of "Cinderella Man" and "Madrigal." The intricate instrumental interplay of drummer Neil Peart, bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson is wonderfully preserved on this Blu-ray Audio disc, whose remixing makes for an enveloping audio experience. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

New Broadway Musicals—"Finding Neverland" & "Doctor Zhivago"

Finding Neverland
Music & lyrics by Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy; book by James Graham
Directed by Diane Paulus
Opened on April 15, 2015
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Doctor Zhivago
Music by Lucy Simon; lyrics by Michael Korie & Amy Powers; book by Michael Weller
Directed by Des McAnuff
Opened on April 21, 2015
Broadway Theatre, Broadway and 53rd Street, New York, NY

Morrison and Grammer in Finding Neverland (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Broadway musicals based on hit movies are now a cottage industry, and two more (albeit with literary pedigrees as well) have just opened on Broadway.

Dramatizing how playwright J.M. Barrie wrote his classic Peter Pan after being inspired by his unusual friendship with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her sons (five of them in real life, four in the show), Finding Neverland is based on the 2004 movie with Johnny Depp—itself based on Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan—which was a popular and critical Oscar-winning hit. 

The musical, like the movie, is unabashedly sentimental: James Graham's book streamlines Barrie's complex relationship with the Davies family to a series of delightful frolics he has with the boys and Sylvia in Kensington Gardens, and sets them against humorous backstage scenes and domestic friction at Barrie's home. Director Diane Paulus shrewdly stages all of the action with breathtaking inventiveness, which climaxes with a truly stunning coup de theatre at Pan's opening night performance at the Davies' home.

Paulus' theatrical wizardry is made possible by her superb technical cohorts: Scott Pask's cleverly constructed sets are remindful of Barrie's art by looking like children's book illustrations, Kenneth Posner's radiant lighting deftly encompasses the show's mix of reality, fantasy and stage chicanery, and Suttriat Anne Larlarb's apt costumes steer clear of ostentation. 

Glee's Matthew Morrison, whose Barrie is appealing to adults and reassuring to children, not only masters a difficult Scottish brogue but also sings with it, an amazing feat. The always welcome Kelsey Grammer, as American impresario Charles Frohman—who financed Barrie's plays—is both touching and funny, even selling a goofy Cheers joke that brings a raucous audience response. 

Laura Michelle Kelly's Sylvia has a lovely voice and sweet-natured presence, and as Sylvia's mother, Carolee Caramello showcases her powerful lungs in a part that doesn't allow her to steal any scenes. The four Davies boys are played by the charmingly natural quartet of Alex Dreier, Sawyer Nunes, Christopher Paul Richards and Aidan Gemme, delightful as the real-life Peter.

Finding Neverland, an unapologetically crowd-pleasing entertainment, works almost perfectly, despite Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy's lyrics and songs, which are adequate at best, derivative and tuneless at worst. Still, the show takes its willing audiences on a fantastic journey.

Barrett and Mutu in Doctor Zhivago (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Doctor Zhivago, a stillborn musical run-through of the classic 1965 David Lean movie—itself based on Boris Pasternak's novel about the love affair between a married doctor-poet and a radical young woman—slogs through decades of upheaval in early 20th century Russia, from World War I and the Russian Revolution to the civil war between the Reds and Whites.

Director Des McAnuff, book writer Michael Weller, lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers and composer Lucy Simon seemed to realize how difficult their task is. The movie clocks in at three hours-plus and the book runs a whopping 600 pages, so to distill those many events, characters and relationships into a workable narrative is problematic. Indeed, onstage the story lurches along stiffly, characters run on and off quickly, the years race by with onstage surtitles to remind us when and where we are. McAnuff's haphazard directing doesn't help matters: there's no flow or fluid pacing, and the musical numbers are particuarly incoherent, like the Act II opener of women cutting down crops in the fields.

As Zhivago, Tam Mutu has the exotic quality Omar Sharif had in Lean's beloved movie but, although he sings well, he never believably inhabits the character. As Lara, the usually delightful Kelli Barrett—here saddled with an unbecoming blonde wig—gives an uncharacteristically weak performance. Her singing voice is still thrilling to hear, but she remains distinctly and contemporarily American, closer to her Sherrie from Rock of Ages than to Pasternak's Russia.

Korie and Powers' lyrics are so trite that it becomes easy to guess what their next rhyme is, while Simon's songs are bland and forgettable: including Maurice Jarre's ultra-hummable "Lara's Theme (Somewhere My Love)" from the movie is a further musical misstep. There are moments when the orchestra promises more operatic sweep than Simon provides, and makes one wonder what Zhivago would sound like if composed by someone like Sergei Prokofiev, who unfortunately died four years before the 1957 novel was published. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

New Broadway Plays—"Hand to God" and Renee Fleming in "Living on Love"

Hand to God
Written by Robert Askins; directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel 
Performances through July 26, 2015
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Living on Love
Written by Joe DiPietro; directed by Kathleen Marshall
Performances through August 2, 2015
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Boyer (front center) and cast of Hand to God (photo: Joan Marcus)
A decent idea for a 10-minute Saturday Night Live skit stretched well past what its meager laughs provide, Robert Askins' play Hand to God goes on for two hours flogging the same dead horse: Bible Belt religious zealots. In a small Texas town, attractive widow Margery occupies her time by leading a hand-puppet class in the local church basement with three teenage misfits: nerdy Jessica, dopey Timothy and Margery's own son Jason. They are awful  puppeteers, but it's something for them to do. 

After class, Pastor Greg makes his feelings known to Margery under the guise of "comforting" her, but she rebuffs him; meanwhile, lunkheaded Timothy's crude double entrendres improbably attract her to him instead. Shy Jason, who has a crush on Jessica, finds that his puppet Tyrone has a mind—and mouth—of his own, and becomes increasingly vulgar in saying what Jason cannot bring himself to say about the others...and himself. He barricades himself in the basement room with Tyrone, and Pastor Greg tries ending the satanist siege of his church.

If the superior Avenue Q didn't sate your thirst for witnessing puppets curse and simulate sex on a Broadway stage, then Hand to God might prove a slightly diverting time. This infantile play has cartoonish characters whose relationships are implausible from the get-go: would Margery begin having sex with Timothy, becoming so enamored of him that even when her son's puppet situation has gotten serious—Tyrone bites Timothy's ear—she jumps his bones again in Pastor Greg's office, where Jessica, followed by the pastor, would inconveniently walk in on them?

Or, later, when Jason remains in the room with his puppet, why would Jessica climb in through an outside window (she could just walk through the door like everyone else) to engage Jason in a duel with her own voluptuous puppet, seducing Tyrone, which leads to the horny puppets  going at it? Even it makes for a cheap laugh, it makes no sense: these teens could barely work their puppets earlier but now complete intricately choreographed movements that might tax even veteran puppeteers.

Askins purports to make some sort of statement about hypocrisy and religion, but aside from a few genuinely funny moments, Hand to God is little more than a string of not very original sketches. Although Beowulf Boritt comes up with a clever set (which, as the curtain lifts on Act II, gets the show's biggest applause when we see what the demonic puppet has wrought), director Moritz von Stuelpnagel pitches his talented cast to remain in hysterical mode throughout.

Stephen Boyer's tricky dual performance is a physical tour de force, as he alternates between Jason and Tyrone's voices effortlessly; Sarah Stiles's Jessica isn't far behind during their dragged-out sex scene. Michael Oberholtzer's Timothy is an amusingly dumb bully, Geneva Carr's Margery is a sympathetic and sexy harried mom and Marc Kudisch 's Pastor Greg is a properly confused clergyman caricature. But Hand to God deserves less than the hand audiences and reviewers are giving it.

Fleming and Sills in Living on Love (photo: Joan Marcus)
Creaky and old-fashioned, Living on Love lurches from one tired joke to the next as it tries—and usually fails—to recapture the luster of the classic comedies of yesteryear. Even when it was first performed in 1985, Garson Kanin's Peccadillo—in which an over-the-hill conductor and his opera singer wife jealously compete at completing their memoirs with help from young, attractive ghostwriters—was a tired throwback, and Joe DiPietro's clumsy adaptation makes it  even more rickety.

What saves it from being a complete wash-out is director Kathleen Marshall's adroitness at staging physical comedy on Derek McLane's sparklingly appointed Fifth Avenue townhouse set. And Marshall's cast (with the glaring exception of Jerry O'Connell, frantic and unfunny as ghostwriter Robert Samson) is attuned to the needs of such fluffy onstage antics.

As the Maestro, Douglas Sills zanily overplays but is never hammy; his fractured English is funnier than it has any right to be, his comic timing is impeccable, and his hair overacts even more—and even more hilariously—than he does. As ghostwriter Iris Peabody, Anna Chlumsky shows she's as adept as physical comedy as she is with her deadpan line readings in In the Loop and Veep. As the Maestro and Diva's butlers, Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson are good ringmasters, although they are saddled with an annoying plot reveal it shares with, of all things, It Shoulda Been You.

Then there's the Diva herself, Renee Fleming. A famous soprano at the Metropolitan Opera and opera houses around the world for the past 20 years, Fleming makes an auspicious Broadway stage debut as a parody of a diva not far removed from herself. As a veteran singing actress in operas by Strauss and Mozart, she unsurprisingly has got the comic timing and charming ability to work an audience down: she also shows off her still lovely vocals here and there, including a sweetly-sung duet on Irving Berlin's "Always" with Sills. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

April '15 Digital Week III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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