Tuesday, November 24, 2015

November '15 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Code Unknown 
Austrian director Michael Haneke—the enfant terrible of contemporary European cinema—made this extraordinarily unsettling and prescient drama in 2000, and its premise about unmoored refugees in Europe still resonates, perhaps even more so now than it did in a pre-Sept. 11 world. Although Juliette Binoche is top-billed—and magnificent, as always—this is an ensemble cast in every sense of the word, whose relative unfamiliarity gives Haneke's film an authentic quasi-documentary look. The Criterion Blu-ray’s sharp image is marred by artifacts; extras include a Haneke intro, two Haneke interviews and an on-set documentary.

Deep in My Heart
Passage to Marseille 
(Warner Archive)
One of the more unheralded Hollywood musicals of its time, 1954's Deep in My Heart tells the life story of Broadway composer Sigmund Romberg (Jose Ferrer), cramming no less than 22 of his tunes into Stanley Donen’s sturdy musical biopic like the title song; but best of all are great song-and-dance numbers by Gene Kelly and his brother Fred, and by Ann Miller, who positively kills it on "It." In Michael Curtiz’s 1944 Passage to Marseille, Humphrey Bogart plays a French resistance fighter who leads a group of escaped prisoners from French Guiana. This nail-biting drama, a reunion of the star and director of Casablanca, daringly utilizes the flashbacks-within-flashbacks technique of the novel it’s based on. Both films have superlative hi-def transfers, Deep in color and Passage in B&W; extras include vintage cartoons and shorts.

(Arthaus Musik)
The Tsar's Bride 
(Bel Air Classiques)
Benjamin Britten's grandest opera, Gloriana premiered for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, dramatizing the fraught era of Her Majesty's earlier namesake: this glittery 1984 staging complements the laser-like focus of Sarah Walker as Elizabeth I. Britten's dramatic instincts rarely fail him, even if some of his music here is less than his best. The Tsar's Bride, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's classic 19th century opera, is transformed by director Dmitri Tcherniakov into a pointless Eurotrash exercise that needlessly modernizes a drama inextricably linked with Russian history. The amazing soprano Olga Peretyatko impresses in the title role, at least. Both operas look and sound good on hi-def.

No Escape 
(Anchor Bay)
Poor Owen Wilson and Lake Bell have to pretend to be interested as they implausibly dodge all manner of southeast Asian terrorists and other villains, all while managing to protect their two young daughters from most of the mayhem. Pierce Brosnan, who shows up periodically as a shadowy British secret agent, is fun as a kind of gruff 007, but whenever he’s not onscreen, the movie just goes through the action-movie motions. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise a commentary, deleted scenes and interviews.

Director Carlo Lizzani’s 1967 spaghetti western stars Lou Castel—who made such an impression in Marco Bellocchio’s extraordinary debut 1965’s Fists in the Pocket—as a gunman who helps rid a Wild West town of a cartel of bad guys. Castel gives a solid performance, and even director Pier Paolo Pasolini shows up as a priest, while Lizzani showed that there’s more to the then-revived western genre than the Sergio Leone epics that are most remembered. The new Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras include interviews with Lizzani and Castel.

Ricki and the Flash 
One of Jonathan Demme's most inconsequential films stars Meryl Streep as a has-been rocker whose vagabond lifestyle screeches to a halt when she returns to her adult children's lives after decades. Demme's offhand style keeps things going even when little happens—which is often—but even though Streep finds some depth in Ricki, Diablo Cody's script has so little conflict that there's more drama over what song Ricki and her band (including a game Rick Springfield) will do next. Kevin Kline and Audra MacDonald shine as Ricki's ex and his new wife, while Mamie Gummer (Streep's real-life daughter) plays her onscreen daughter with little persuasiveness or charm, unfortunately. The movie looks good on Blu; extras are featurettes and deleted scenes.

The Voyeur 
(Cult Epics)
That unapologetically sleazy Italian director Tinto Brass made this quasi-pornographic 1994 drama that at times cleverly (and at other times ineptly) shows a married man sexually dealing with his gorgeous but unhappy young wife and his elderly—but still virile—father’s sexy and seemingly willing nurse. There’s a fine line between erotica and porn that Brass nonchalantly criss-crosses, and there are genuinely erotic moments, mostly involving Katarina Vasilissa as the voyeur’s young wife. Lone extra is a Brass interview.

DVDs of the Week
Exhibition on Screen—The Girl with the Pearl Earring 
Exhibition on Screen—The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them 
(Seventh Art)
These succinct 90-minute documentaries illuminate the background of some of the most famous artworks ever painted: and the often elusive geniuses behind them, from the Vermeer masterpiece hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands, to the French masters' works in such institutions as Paris' Musee d'Orsay. One quibble: since these amazing paintings need high-definition to do justice to their unique use of color, it's too bad that these are DVDs and not Blu-rays, which would further show off their every nook and cranny. But for anyone who loves art—and Dutch and French art in particular—these are most informative overviews.

Gone with the Wind—The Remarkable Rise and Tragic Fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd
The fast rise—and horrific fall—of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of the best Southern rock bands of the 1970s, is chronicled in this almost too exhaustive documentary that includes tasty archival footage of the band performing some of their best songs from “Sweet Home Alabama” to “Gone with the Wind,” and interviews with surviving members, producer Al Kooper and music experts. That the band proper ended in 1977 with the plane crash that killed charismatic frontman Ronnie Van Zandt and others is inarguable, despite a band claiming to be Skynyrd that's still touring: but the band's legacy remains great songs. Extras are additional interviews.

Stations of the Cross 
(Film Movement)
Director Dietrich Bruggemann's austere drama follows troubled teenager Maria, whose family belongs to a morally strict church, and who slowly realizes that maybe not everything in the world is evil, causing rifts at home and at school. Bruggemann's formal style—14 chapters mimicking the stations of the cross at Jesus’ death—is equally strict, although it isn't hard to decipher how it ends, but his intelligence and rigor, coupled with Lea van Acken's astonishing portrayal of Marie, makes this a must-see movie that's not easily forgotten. Extras are a director's commentary and Bruggemann's short, One Shot.

The Wind in the Willows 
(Warner Archive)
In this 1987 Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass’s adaptation of the beloved children’s story by Kenneth Grahame, an amusing cast led by Charles Nelson Reilly, Roddy McDowell, Jose Ferrer and Eddie Bracken  voice the animals who play out the wise and timeless tale. With a half-dozen tuneful numbers sung by the likes of Judy Collins (who handles the title song), Willows has the typically basic Rankin-Bass animation, but for those looking for pleasant if not particularly compelling family fare, you could do worse.

CDs of the Week
Carl Nielsen—Symphonies and Concertos 
New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert has made it his mission to record the most important orchestral works of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and this four-disc set brings together his six symphonies and concertos for violin, flute and clarinet. The orchestra's playing on the symphonies—especially the masterly Fourth, the Indistinguishable—is energetic and expressive, and the concerto soloists—violinist Nikolai Znaider, flutist Robert Langevin and clarinetist Anthony McGill—acquit themselves admirably; these live performances provide a valuable glimpse of a composer often overshadowed by his Nordic contemporary Jean Sibelius.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On Broadway—'Misery' with Bruce Willis; 'Allegiance' with George Takei

Written by William Goldman; directed by Will Frears
Performances through February 14, 2016
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Music & lyrics by Jay Kuo; Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione
Directed by Stafford Arima; choreographed by Andrew Palmero
Performances through September 25, 2016
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in Misery (photo: Joan Marcus)

Misery began as a trashily effective Stephen King novel, followed by a trashily effective Rob Reiner movie, which won an Oscar for Kathy Bates as the ultimate deranged fan, Annie Wilkes, who first saves the life of her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, then takes her revenge after reading his latest novel and discovering he killed off her favorite character, Misery Chastain.

It's a clever enough conceit, as some of King's story ideas are, even if—after devouring his novels as a gullible teenager—I realized how excess verbiage and an aw-shucks style made his books unreadable once I became aware of good writing. William Goldman—who also wrote the script for the Reiner movie—has streamlined the story further for the stage, distilling the cast to three: Paul, Annie and Buster, the local sheriff who finally pays for his inopportune visits.

In a trashily effective—if not especially taut—90 minutes, Misery onstage provides the same thrills of its earlier incarnations, although why this version is necessary is another question. It serves as a vehicle of sorts for Bruce Willis as Paul, who spends most of his time either prone in bed or in a wheelchair, hunt-and-peck typing out a new novel. Willis barks out his crude lines credibly enough and even gets in a few profanity-laced insults at the woman Paul comes to loathe after initially thanking her for digging him out of his car in a blizzard.

But the play, movie and novel all belong to Annie, and onstage Laurie Metcalf gives a persuasive and just enough over-the-top portrayal of a self-sufficient woman who just happens to be crazy. Metcalf happily doesn't ape what Bates did in the movie, making Annie more pathetically than evilly monstrous in her desperate attempts to "keep" her beloved author.

Will Frears directs efficiently on David Korins' revolving set, which cleverly shows off Annie's house from the bedroom where much of the action takes place to her kitchen and outside porch. Despite its lack of forward momentum, this Misery gets the job done.

Lea Salonga and George Takei in Allegiance (photo: Matthew Murphy)

A painfully earnest venture, the new musical Allegiance covers the same ground as Alan Parker's film Come See the Paradise: that horrible moment in American history when, after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up Japanese-Americans and sent them to internment camps. Such worthy subject matter needs exploring, but both the 1990 film and the musical are marred by contrived storytelling and slathered-on sentimentality.

Through clunky expository dialogue that over-elaborates about everything—there's discussion of the term "gaman," which someone actually explains to another character (but really us) that "it means 'to carry on'"—implausibly soap-operaish plot turns (including the fatal shooting of our hero Sammy's pregnant fiancée Hannah) and perfunctory songs that alternate between soaring ballads and soaring anthems, Allegiance dramatically wrong-foots it at nearly every turn.

What helps improve things are the staging and performances. Stafford Arima's directing and Andrew Palermo's choreography move the large cast about fluidly, making even a problematic sequence as soldier Sammy leading his unit into a suicide mission in Italy work, with Howell Binkley's boldly impressive lighting putting us in the midst of the carnage; similarly, Binkley and Palermo visually illuminate a wordless sequence about the Hiroshima atomic bomb. 

Telly Leung is an engaging and charismatic Sammy and Lea Salonga makes a belated (and welcome) return to Broadway by showing off her beautiful, clear-as-crystal voice as Sammy's sister Kei, while Star Trek actor George Takei—on whose family's experiences the show is based—is immensely likable as both the kids' grandfather Ojii-Chan and the older Sammy. Also making strong impressions (despite having little to work with) are Katie Rose Clarke as the idealized nurse Hannah and Christopheren Nomura as Sammy and Kei’s stern father Tatsuo.   

Based on a gut-wrenching subject that current events keep relevant, Allegiance relies on a first-rate cast and production to provide its emotional force.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

November '15 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Bat
A Bucket of Blood 
(The Film Detective)
In 1959’s The Bat, an especially disjointed horror movie about a faceless man (the actor has a stocking over his head) who terrorizes women, Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price help mitigate the fact that it’s forgettable in nearly every way. Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (also 1959), which follows a crazed artist whose bizarre and lethal new way of creating is exposed as murder, is so insane that even uniformly bad acting doesn't entirely bury it: the nutso premise helps keep it afloat for its brief 65-minute duration. The hi-def transfers are acceptable, nothing more.

Before We Go 
(Anchor Bay)
A guy smarting over a breakup and a gal who missed the last train out of Grand Central Station meet cute(ly) and bond over a night together in Manhattan has more contrivance than would seem possible in a 90-minute drama. Although his directing debut is far from auspicious, Chris Evans does well as the sax-playing good Samaritan, while Alice Eve gives an even more nuanced portrayal of the woman he helps out. The Blu-ray transfer looks terrific; lone extra is a brief Evans interview.

Black Sails—Complete 2nd Season 
(Anchor Bay)
In the second season of this explosive high-seas guilty pleasure, the storylines and pirate intrigue both thicken while the women (played with zest by Jessica Parker Kennedy, Hannah New and Clare Paget) steal scenes pretty consistently from their male costars. This season’s 10 episodes should satisfy those who like their pirate soap operas alternately intimate and epic. The series looks sumptuous on Blu-ray; extras comprise several featurettes.

Eric Clapton—Slowhand at 70: Live at the Royal Albert Hall
Nazareth—No Means of Escape 
(Eagle Rock)
To celebrate his 70th birthday, Eric Clapton performed at London's Royal Albert Hall in May by running through his five-decade career as the preeminent British blues guitar god. His incendiary guitar work on "Key to the Highway" and "Crossroads" remains peerless, but it's surprising that he still insists on digging out the dull acoustic version of "Layla" instead of the fiery original. But that's the only quibble with this memorable two-hour musical showcase.

Although not as well-known as Aerosmith or Guns'n'Roses—just two artists influenced by them—Scottish hard-rockers Nazareth have endured for four decades, despite member changes and other ups and downs, as this release's 50-minute retrospective documentary and new 75-minute concert show. "Love Hurts" and "Hair of the Dog" would be career highlights for any artist. Both releases look and sound spectacular in hi-def. Slowhand includes the entire concert on two CDs; Escape has additional interviews and an acoustic number.

The Hobbit—Battle of the Five Armies: Extended Edition 
(Warner Bros)
In the final film of his epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's first Middle Earth adventure, director Peter Jackson continues the drawn-out narrative he began with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: but The Hobbit is but one-third the size of Rings, so why stretch it out nearly as long, along with the extra 20 minutes added to the extended edition? Whatever the reason, it all looks fantastic on Blu-ray, and fans will find much to admire. But the real motherlode is the two discs' worth of extras—nearly ten hours—of everything you'd want to know (and some things you didn't) about Jackson’s onscreen vision, along with a commentary and the final part of a New Zealand featurette. 

Kurt Cobain—Montage of Heck 
(Universal Music)
More than 20 years after his suspicious death, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain still exerts a strange hold on his many fans, as that legendary aura has only grown: and that’s sort of what director Brett Morgen punctures in his fastidious, evenhanded documentary that's built around Cobain’s own recordings and drawings, shown to touching effect along with well-used (because not overdone) animation. Interviews with Kurt’s widow, family members and a former bandmate—Krist Novoselic, not Dave Grohl, who was apparently unavailable, to the film’s detriment—round out this defiantly unhagiographic portrait. On Blu, the film looks quite good; extras comprise bonus interviews.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. 
(Warner Bros)
In this noisy reboot of the ‘60s TV espionage drama starring Robert Vaughn, director Guy Ritchie goes for the glitz, overwhelming a game cast—Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and the usually spectacular Alicia Vikander—with so much inane plot twistiness, loudly thudding action sequences and colorful international locales that whatever might have made this an entertaining two hours has turned to mud. Ritchie’s insistence on flashy gadgetry and visual gimmickry over coherent storytelling and better acting makes this pale in contrast to the original series. The film does look first-rate on Blu; extras are several featurettes.

Mr. Holmes 
In director Bill Condon's engaging fantasy, 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes' retirement is shaken by things beyond his control, especially his own fading memory: he attempts to find some semblance of peace before he completely loses command of his mental faculties. Ian McKellen makes a fun Holmes, Laura Linney is her usual commanding self as his housekeeper, and Milo Parker is superb as her young son who finds the key to Holmes' final sleuthing days. The film's hi-def transfer is sharp and clear; extras are two very brief featurettes. 

Two Men in Town 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Alain Delon might have been a pretty face but he also could get down and dirty with the best of them, as in Jose Giovanni’s 1973 drama about an ex-con who, even while falling in love and starting anew, can never escape the cycle of violent crime, especially when a nosy detective ends up dead. Veteran actors Jean Gabin and Michel Bouquet also give fully-realized performances, giving this familiar tale more authenticity. The restored film has received an immaculate transfer; lone extra is an audio commentary.

DVDs of the Week
Marie's Story 
(Film Movement)
This unforgettable drama about a deaf and dumb French teenage girl could be the Gallic Miracle Worker, but shrewd director Jean-Pierre Ameris has instead made an enriching study of how two disparate and desperate people discover that they can spiritually feed each other, even with blindness, deafness and mortality at the forefront. Ameris works miracles with deaf actress Ariana Riviore as Marie, whose onscreen forcefulness is complemented by Isabelle Carre who, as the nun who becomes Marie's Annie Sullivan, gives a bracing portrayal of grace and bravery. The movie looks and sounds glorious, its striking cinematography and sound (including sparingly-used solo cello music) underscoring this unique relationship. Extras are an interesting 26-minute making-of featurette and an Iranian short, Motherly, about a deaf woman. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment 
A disturbing psychological study underlining the questionable methods of Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo, Kyle Patrick Alvarez's drama recounts Zimbardo's 1971 prison experiment, which attempted to see how quickly people act as dominating guard or cowering prisoner. Although it makes pertinent points about people subjected to cruelty and torture—and the Abu Grahib scandal exploded in 2004, Zimbardo was brought up—the movie almost too unrelentingly explores its subject in two hours, which creep by so slowly as to become  diminishing returns, despite excellent performances by a cast led by Billy Crudup's Zimbardo. Extras comprise a director commentary and featurettes.

A Tale of Two Thieves 
(Virgil Films)
The 1963 great train robbery, which has entered crime lore as one of the most daring heists ever, still raises questions about exactly what happened and who was involved, and Chris Long's documentary places one of the men—Gordon Goody—squarely at its center. Goody, now in his mid-80s, discusses his own criminal career and part in the robbery. Even at a mere 69 minutes, the movie feels padded, its robbery reenactments and archival footage of swinging London and interviews with other, marginal people complementing Goody's tale. It makes for an interesting but less than enthralling documentary about a rich subject.

CDs of the Week
Guillaume Lekeu—Complete Works 
When he died at age 24 in 1894, Belgium's Guillaume Lekeu was already an accomplished composer, but the biggest tragedy of his early death from typhoid was that it snuffed out in its infancy the artistic career of someone who was already a prolific and important artist, as this eight-disc set of all of his extant works proves. 

I was mainly familiar with Lekeu’s chamber music, and this set's string quartets, trios and sonatas comprise lengthy, yearning movements similar to the structure of the late, great Schubert quartets and quintets, with solo piano pieces and songs that are equally accomplished. The orchestral music, which has hints of Wagner throughout, sounds less essential than the chamber work but still shows off a first-rate orchestrator and melodist. The performances by many different soloists and ensembles are first-rate on these discs, and the music is varied enough to, once again, let us bemoan what was lost when Lekeu died and exalt in what he did compose.

Monday, November 16, 2015

On Broadway—Keira Knightley's Debut in 'Thérèse Raquin'; Mike Bartlett's 'King Charles III'

Thérèse Raquin
Adapted by Helen Edmundson, based on Emile Zola's novel; directed by Evan Cabnet
Performances through January 3, 2016
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

King Charles III
Written by Mike Bartlett; directed by Rupert Goold
Performances through January 31, 2016
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan in Thérèse Raquin (photo: Joan Marcus)

Making her belated Broadway debut is an intense, trenchant Keira Knightley as the title character in Thérèse Raquin, an adaptation of Emile Zola's tragic 1871 novel (and 1873 play) about a stifled young wife who takes a lover, helps him kill her husband and is literally hounded to death by the husband's restless spirit.

Giving a typically fierce and intelligent portrayal of the drab, spinsterish woman craving for physical intimacy with someone other than her loathsome husband Camille, Knightley throws caution to the wind embodying Thérèse, who literally jumps into the arms of Laurent, her husband's boyhood friend who conveniently appears one day, consummating an intense affair that leads to murder and madness.

Helen Edmundson's adaptation is unafraid to be melodramatic—Zola was a master at making melodrama thrillingly poetic—which creates a space for the characters to act as if they're in soap opera which in a way they are. Director Evan Cabnet cannily twists the screws ever more tightly and tautly, with Beowulf Borritt's arresting set—properly claustrophobic inside the family home and ironically spacious outdoors—preparing the couple to march inexorably to the ultimate comeuppance. 

Aside from Knightley's controlled, incisive acting, Judith Light is at first funny then later most affecting as Camille's smothering mother: she's especially good in the extremely tense moments when she tries (but fails) to finger Thérèse and Laurent as Camille's killers after an incapacitating stroke. Gabriel Ebert perfectly shows off Camile's annoying cloddishness, while Matt Ryan, a charismatic Laurent, has such palpable chemistry with Knightley that the adulterers' sexual encounters are charged with the lustful energy that makes Thérèse Raquin such smoldering theater.

Lydia Wilson and Tim Pigott-Smith in King Charles III (photo: Joan Marcus)

Mike Bartlett, author of King Charles III, made a provocative splash with his play Cock a few seasons ago: the New York Times defiantly still refuses to print its title (they nonsensically call it Cockfight Play). His latest, a big hit in London and proving to be the same on Broadway, is a speculative drama, or "future history" as he calls it, about the death of Queen Elizabeth and the ascension of Prince Charles to the throne: a good enough subject about which a lucid and lacerating political drama could be written.

But Bartlett wants more, so he makes his play faux-Shakespeare: rhyming couplets, blank verse, ghostly apparitions, Prince Hal in the form of Harry, Lady Macbeth in the form of Kate. Such gimmickry does his play a disservice by leaning so heavily on the Bard: there's a moment when Kate alludes to King Lear by saying "For nothing comes from nothing said," and at the performance I attended, a woman behind me excitedly whispered to her companion, "I know where that's from!" Don't we all, dear lady.

After taking the throne, King Charles wants to become more hands-on running the monarchy and gets involved in defeating a bill that makes freedom of the press a thing of the past. However, the prime minister, the opposition leader and Charles' own son William—next in line to the throne—want him to stand down and allow the political process to play out without royal interference. This disagreement, soon embroiling the new king in abdication talk, is the crux of the little conflict the play has, which is probably why Bartlett dives fully into Shakespeare allusions that give gravitas to what, in essence, is basically (to take a cue from Bartlett and steal from the master) much ado about nothing.

Director Rupert Goold gives King Charles III a high gloss that adds Shakespearean elements of its own: but his often effective pageantry doesn't prop up the ginned-up national crisis at the play's center. The second act, in which very little happens dramatically and is often excruciating to sit through, also isn't helped by Jocelyn Pook's music, which lands somewhere between excruciating Philip Glass minimalism and hollow choral writing. 

Goold and Bartlett have trouble fitting the subplot about restless Prince Harry and his commoner girlfriend Jess into the main storyline, so much so that Richard Goulding's Harry and Tafline Steen's Jess seem to be in a completely different play: in this, King Charles III falls far short of Shakespeare's miraculous ability to juggle multiple plots and slip effortlessly between high tragedy and low comedy.

Happily, the cast, which avoids easy caricature, is smashingly good, with Goulding (Harry) and Steen (Jess) joining formidable costars Oliver Chris (William), Lydia Wilson (Kate) and Margot Leicester (Camilla), with Goulding and Leicester actually looking like their real-life counterparts. If the worthy Tim Pigott-Smith is only intermittently overwhelming as he speaks Charles' soliloquies, it's because Bartlett's words aren't nearly as pregnant or penetrating as Shakespeare's. That's an impossibility for pretty much every writer, but since Bartlett himself has made the comparison, it must be pointed out, much to his play's detriment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November '15 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
A.D.—The Bible Continues 
With their sequel to The Bible, which proceeded from the Creation to the aftermath of Christ's resurrection, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett produce another multi-part mini-series, now starting with Jesus's crucifixion to the apostles' martyrdom. The exceptional production values don't fully compensate for the mixed bag of actors, which runs the gamut from scenery-chewers to stiff zombies. A.D. makes an unpersuasive case for reviving sword-and-sandals spectaculars, even wasting such veterans as Greta Scacchi and Joanne Whalley. The hi-def transfer is spectacular; extras are several featurettes.

Best of Enemies
A televised meeting of the minds came during the 1968 presidential campaign when Gore Vidal and Bill Buckley—liberal and conservative intellectuals, respectively—squared off for a series of convention debates which ended up degenerating into nasty name-calling. Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's engaging documentary shows it wasn't their best moment but still made for riveting television. In a breezy 90 minutes, their lengthy and estimable careers in politics, the arts and celebrity punditry are illustrated alongside plenty of invaluable archival footage, while talking heads from Dick Cavett to the late Christopher Hitchens give the measure of both men and their era. The film looks good on Blu; extras are a directors' interview and added interviews.

The End of the Tour 
David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008, has become the Kurt Cobain of authors, a genius whose early death robbed the world of his insightful writing; this adaptation of David Lipsky's memoir about his time with Wallace for a Rolling Stone magazine profile plays into that narrative but also humanizes him, thanks to playwright Donald Margulies' smart, resonant script. Jason Segal and Jesse Eisenberg effectively portray both Davids—Wallace and Lipsky, respectively—and director James Ponsoldt drolly peeks behind the myth's curtain to show the real man. The film has a superb hi-def transfer; extras are a commentary by Ponsoldt, Margulies and Segal; interview with composer Danny Elfman; making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.

Full Moon in Paris
The Marquise of O 
(Film Movement Classics)
Director Eric Rohmer's 1984 Full Moon in Paris presents yet another of his scatterbrained heroines who juggles men before deciding whom to choose. As usual with Rohmer, it's excessively talky without being particularly insightful, and low-key without any particular subtlety. Most interesting is an early appearance by that fine actor Fabrice Luchini. By contrast, Rohmer's 1976 The Marquise of O, a German-language adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's classic short story, is a winner in nearly every way, especially in its “stagebound” visuals and Edith Clever’s touching portrayal of the cluelessly pregnant heroine. Too bad Bruno Ganz is so disastrously uncharming as her insistent wooer: such great filmmaking doesn't need such a black hole at its center. Both movies look better than ever in new hi-def transfers; extras are archival interviews with actors and with Rohmer.

Home Fires 
Even though there's a strong sense of deja vu in this six-part mini-series about women left behind during the early months of World War II in England—wives, widows, spinsters, all doing their part, as best they can, toward the war effort—the far stronger sense of place and showing how war affects so many different people in different ways is palpable. Of course, the large and accomplished cast, led by Francesca Annis, Samantha Bond, Ruth Gemmell and Clare Calbraith, makes this impossible to look away from, even when one feels that one has already seen it, or at least something like it. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent.

(Deutsche Grammophon)
These Met Live in HD broadcasts start with Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth, the least of his Shakespearean adaptations (Otello and Falstaff easily outclass this); but it has flavorful music, especially in Lady Macbeth's unsettling sleepwalking scene, performed here by the fearless Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as she does everything: grabbing it by the throat. She's the best thing in an otherwise proficient, uninspired staging. Far better is Renee Fleming's signature role as the water nymph in Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka, in which the most famous American soprano sings one of opera’s greatest hits, "Song of the Moon," in her lusciously creamy voice. Dvorak's beguiling and tuneful opera receives a stellar production. Both operas look and sound perfect in hi-def. Short backstage interviews are extras.

Toy Story That Time Forgot 
This latest Toy Story sequel might seem like a Disney money grab—it's only a 22-minute short that could easily have been an extra on a repackaging of the other films—but the short itself is funny and even poignant, and I enjoyed it cutting to the chase without an extra hour of often repetitive padding that the full-length movies abound in. In any case, the gang's all here—the voices are Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, etc.—for some throwaway fun. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras comprise featurettes, deleted scenes and a commentary.

DVDs of the Week
A Borrowed Identity 
In Eran Riklis's adaptation of Sayed Kashua's novel Dancing Arabs, the complicated relationships between Israeli Arabs and Jews are unsparingly shown through the eyes of Eyad, an Arab student attending a high-class Jerusalem high school who falls for the sweet Jewish girl  Naomi. Through the persuasive performances of Tawfeek Barhom and Daniel Kitsis as the teens, Riklis expertly charts a sometimes comic, sometime tragic trajectory of two young people who, whether they admit it or not, have the weight of their families' history on their backs. 

A French Village—Complete 1st Season 
In the first season of this overstuffed but absorbing French TV drama, a small French village's denizens deal with their country's surrender and subsequent Nazi takeover: watching men, women and children resist, collaborate or—as often likely—do both as the Germans infiltrate their homes and very lives makes for 12 episodes of captivating can't-miss TV. The rich and harmonious ensemble—led by the glorious Audrey Fleurot, who played an ambitious public defender in the great French serial Spiral, as the wife of the town's lone doctor and acting mayor—is flawless: equally memorable are Nade Dieu and Marie Kremer as women caught in the occupation’s many traps. Here's hoping MHz releases the next several seasons soon.

Hotel Paradiso 
(Warner Archive)
Based on a French farce by Georges Feydeau, this desperate 1968 attempt to find frolicsome comedy amid slamming doors, misunderstandings and adulterous escapades doesn't provide much froth, despite comic veterans like Alec Guinness and Robert Morley and even glamorous Gina Lollobrigida, obviously game for much more than she's allowed to do. It's too bad that director-producer Peter Glenville has taken lavish costumes, sets and a fool-proof plot and turns it into 98 minutes of franticness in search of laughs.

CDs of the Week
Maurice Ravel—Complete Piano Works 
Ravel—Piano Concertos 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Ravel—L'Enfant et les sortilèges/Shéhérazade 

If any French composer embodied savoir faire, it was Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), whose elegant, civilized music can be heard in all its glory on three enchanting new recordings. On his two-disc traversal of Ravel's solo piano works, German pianist Hinrich Alpers plays with scrupulous restraint while giving these mostly short but still major works the breathing room they deserve, from the exquisite set of tone poems, Miroirs, to the lively Valses nobles et sentimentales. As a bonus, Alpers fleetly performs memorial works by Ravel contemporaries Casella and Honegger, along with four newly commissioned ones by current composers.

Ravel's two dazzling piano concertos are given buoyant readings by soloist Yuja Wang, with Lionel Bringuier conducting the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich. Alongside Ravel’s masterpieces, Wang plays the F sharp major Ballade by Ravel's teacher Gabriel Fauré, which has the elegance of his pupil’s music as well as its refinement, which Wang's illuminating interpretation brings to the fore.

Maestro Seiji Ozawa, who recently turned 80, leads the Saito Kinen Orchestra in very fine renditions of two wonderful Ravel works: the one-act opera L'Enfant et les Sortilèges and orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade. Ozawa's affection for the composer is never in doubt, but it's his main singers who are most impressive: Susan Graham catches the exotic nuances of Shéhérazade, while Isabel Leonard—a guarantee of quality whatever she sings—makes an irresistible child in L'Enfant.

Ricky Ian Gordon—27 
(Albany Records)
An occasionally playful and intelligent opera about Gertrude Stein, Ricky Ian Gordon’s 27 floats along well enough, but only infrequently catches in its music the culture shock that stamped Stein's Paris and the artists in her circle. Stephanie Blythe makes a grand Gertrude and Elizabeth Futral a beautiful-sounding Alice B. Toklas, Stein's long-time partner: Alice's aria after Gertrude's death is the musical highlight. Michael Christie crisply conducts members of the St. Louis Symphony in this world premiere; too bad there’s no DVD or Blu-ray to highlight what looks like, from the CD booklet photos, 27's far from negligible visual component.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Broadway Review—‘On Your Feet’

On Your Feet!
Songs by Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine; book by Alexander Dinelaris
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; directed by Jerry Mitchell
Opened November 5, 2015
Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York, NY

Ana Villafañe in On Your Feet! (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The jukebox musical began by marrying a slapdash story to a famous pop-song catalog, as in Mamma Mia (Abba) or Movin' Out (Billy Joel). A sub-genre soon arose, with songs commenting on the lives of the actual artists who wrote and/or performed them, like Jersey Boys (Four Seasons) and Beautiful (Carole King).

Continuing that trend, On Your Feet! tells the story of multi-million-selling Latina pop star Gloria Estefan, her husband/producer Emilio and their band Miami Sound Machine: it packs a lot of hits ("Conga" and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You," for starters) into 2-1/2 hours, and a lot of cliches into Alexander Dinelaris's book—no surprise coming from a co-writer of the overrated movie Birdman.

The show tracks Gloria and Emilio's rise from the local Miami scene to dealing with record execs like the clueless mogul who scoffs at their attempt to crossover to English-language songs. Once they hit it big, there's no stopping them: at least until a 1990 bus accident knocked the grievously injured Gloria out of commission for 10 months, until she made her famous comeback singing "Coming Out of the Dark" on the following year's American Music Awards.

That comeback is the stirring climax of the musical, which otherwise is your basic rags-to-riches tale done with just enough tartness to avoid too much sentimentality. Even if the music becomes repetitive after awhile, those catchy hits just keep coming, with the appreciative audience treating the show like an actual Gloria Estefan concert. That illusion is helped immeasurably by one of the best Broadway debuts in recent memory.

Ana Villafañe, a remarkably talented actress whose boisterous singing voice booms out over the excellent onstage band, has created as memorable a characterization as Beautiful's Jessie Mueller did as Carole King. Too bad her costar John Segarra makes such an awkward Emilio; sure, there are the constant jokes about his heavily accented English, but Segarra makes Gloria's husband seem more robotic than simply uncomfortable.

Nearly matching Villafañe's exhilarating performance is Andrea Burns, who invests Gloria's anti-show biz mother with emotion, authenticity and authority. Burns also makes the most of her showstopping flashback, dancing and singing in a pre-Castro Cuban club: so much so that it makes one wish that she had a larger part in Gloria's onstage story.

With Sergio Trujillo's droll choreography and Jerry Mitchell's crafty direction combining to seamlessly weave the show's potentially clumsy flashbacks into the musical whole, On Your Feet!—despite some missteps—sticks the landing.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Broadway Review—A.R. Gurney's ‘Sylvia'

Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through January 24, 2016
Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Annaleigh Ashford in Sylvia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Sylvia is A.R. Gurney's most obvious (and probably only) crowd-pleaser: his kind-of shaggy-dog story, in which an affluent Upper East Side couple discovers that the stray that husband Greg brought home from Central Park is the wedge making them drift apart: Greg wants to keep her, while wife Kate does not.

The play's gimmick is that Sylvia, the adorable pooch, is played by an actress who speaks Sylvia's dialogue: sometimes to herself, other times to Greg and Kate, with whom she has actual conversations. The effect, while silly, is comically inspired and, depending on the actress playing the part, at times exhilarating.

When I saw Sylvia during its off-Broadway premiere run, Sarah Jessica Parker played her rather too cutesily: she was funny, of course, but not poignant. (I wouldn't be surprised if her replacement, Jan Hooks, found a better balance.) In this slick, brassy revival by director Daniel Sullivan, Sylvia is in the extremely capable hands of Annaleigh Ashford, an adroit physical comedienne who is also quick on her feet with a line or an ad-lib (especially, at the performance I attended, when an audience member's cell phone went off) and able to make us feel for her as...well, a human being.

Whenever Ashford barks—"hey hey hey hey!" is how Gurney has written it—it could be love, hate, anger, affection or irritation, and Ashford varies her tone and timbre to suit the occasion. The actress's showiness is out of necessity since it's a show-offy role, but Ashford smartly underplays as much as possible, and it's to her credit that she makes Sylvia (pooch and play) funnier and more affecting than it has any right to be.

Matthew Broderick long ago perfected his laconic, lazy-sounding line readings, which serves him well as Greg, whose midlife crisis (according to Gurney) comprises spending more time with a canine than with his wife Kate, who is played with her usual killer comic timing by Julie White. Even an underwhelming one-liner like calling Sylvia "Saliva" is done by White with a certain flair, even subtlety.

But subtlety is lacking in Robert Sella's portrayals in three minor roles, especially the two women he plays: a marriage counselor and old friend of Kate's. Perhaps Sullivan felt that Gurney's paper-thin play needed embellishing and so has Sella overact to the detriment of the small-scale joke at the play's center. But that isn't enough to derail this minor but entertaining comedy from one of our true living masters, with a true star turn by Annaleigh Ashford.

Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Theater Reviews—‘The Bandstand' & 'The Humans’ off-Broadway

The Bandstand
Music by Richard Oberacker; book & Lyrics by Oberacker and Robert Taylor
Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbueler
Performances through November 8, 2015
Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ

The Humans
Written by Stephen Karam; directed by Joe Mantello
Performances through January 3, 2016
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Corey Cott and Laura Osnes in The Bandstand (photo: Jerry Dalia )
A swing musical about the shards left from World War II—when men came home emotionally and physically shattered, and women found themselves widows—The Bandstand, with original songs and a book by Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor evoking the era of Benny Goodman as it probes the mental morass of characters looking to finally put the war behind them, does a precarious, semi-successful balancing act between entertainment and psychological study.

Donny Novitski (and yes, there are Polish jokes) returns to Cleveland adrift. He survived the war, but his best buddy Michael, who played in a band with him near the front, died in battle. His survivor’s guilt makes him reluctant to visit Michael's widow Julia to tell her how he died. Meanwhile, he puts together a local band comprising other military men, and when he discovers Julia is a singer too, she joins the group; they also enter a radio contest to try and win a trip to New York City to perform on a national show and in a movie. The predictable trajectory of the story—romance! heartbreak! near-tragedy! happy ending!—is the weakest part of the show.

Oberacker’s music is a sturdy swing-music pastiche that purrs along nicely until the climactic number, an impassioned song called “Welcome Home,” comes out of nowehre, pouring out of Julia’s lungs and the men’s instruments, an affecting admittance of how damaged they still are. The polished cast begins with Corey Cott’s Donny, a nervy bundle of contradictions whose singing and music-making are nothing less than survival mechanisms. The rest of the band comprises Joe Carroll as drummer Johnny, Brandon J. Ellis as bassist Davy, Geoff Packard as trombonist Wayne, Joey Pero as trumpeter Nick and James Nathan Hopkins as sax player Jimmy, all of whom cannot only sing and act well but also persuasively play their instruments.

And, as Julia, there’s the magnetic Laura Osnes, one of our very best singing actresses—and someone who goes from strength to strength with every appearance—showing once again that she can summon not only great beauty but great power in her voice: her raw rendition of "Welcome Home" is guaranteed to leave every last audience member an emotional wreck. 

Andy Blankenbueler’s stylish direction and lively choreography keep the show on the right track even when it bogs down in trite familiarity, such as introducing Donny's parents for no good reason and allowing the usually indispensable Beth Leavel to be saddled with unnecessary baggage as Julia’s sitcom-level mother. (She still sings beautifully.) But whenever Osnes and company let loose with another tune, most of the flaws of The Bandstand are forgiven.

The cast of The Humans (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Stephen Karam’s The Humans, Erik and Deirdre arrive from Scranton to spend a snowy Thanksgiving with youngest daughter Brigid and her older boyfriend Richard in a Chinatown apartment they've just moved into. While oldest daughter Aimee came on Amtrak from Philadelphia, mom and dad drove with the girls' grandmother Fiona, seemingly in the early throes of Alzheimer's.

For 95 minutes, the family talks, argues, yells, apologizes, eats and, finally, calls it a night so the visitors can make it home. Karam writes believable conversational dialogue, knowing when to withhold information only to let it appear naturally later on. Several family secrets are spilled during the course of the evening, and Karam is able to make us feel that we too have lived with these people, getting to know them fairly intimately over the course of his one-act play.

But—of course there’s a "but"—Karam is a slave to contrivance, making The Humans similar to a TV sitcom trying to get serious and illuminate its characters' psychology. The convenient layout of Brigid and Richard’s apartment (perfectly rendered by designer David Zinn)—two distinct floors separated by a winding staircase—makes it too easy for characters to overhear others who think they are safe from prying ears. There always seems to be somebody (and it's always the person being discussed) who catches something he or she shouldn’t have. 

Karam also drags poor Sept. 11 into this mix: Erik and Aimee went to the city that morning because—surprise!—Aimee had a job interview at the World Trade Center, and for awhile Erik couldn’t track Aimee down and thought she had perished. These people have enough in their daily lives to deal with without giving them some ginned up near-tragedy to add to their back story.

Finally, there’s the play's very structure: would a 60-year-old man and his 61-year-old wife take his sickly 79-year-old mother in a car for a three-hour plus drive in snowy weather to New York, only to plan to leave the same day after visiting their daughter for a mere hour and a half? (Forget that Erik has too much too drink so Aimee calls a car for them instead.) At the very least these people would stay over somewhere and start fresh in the morning. 

Reservations aside, Joe Mantello’s always engaging staging and a top-flight ensemble—even among such veterans as Reed Birney (Erik), Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre) and Cassie Beck (Aimee), Sarah Steele is a formidable presence as Brigid—help make The Humans seem more incisive and truthful than it really is.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

November '15 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Amour Fou 
(Film Movement)
The murder-suicide pact of poet Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel is the jumping-off point for director Jessica Hausner's potent dissection of passion, madness and art: her obvious antecedent is Eric Rohmer's minimalist 1976 adaptation of Kleist's novella The Marquise of O, with its unadorned editing and camera setups, affectless acting and no musical soundtrack. But Hausner doesn't slavishly ape that blueprint, which was a way of creating theater on film; instead, she has created an intelligent and robust work of art punctuated by bursts of onscreen music-making that underscore the art and artistry in her story and in Kleist’s life. The movie looks striking on Blu; extras are deleted scenes, Hausner interview and commentary, and her short film, Oida

Black Cats 
Tenderness of the Wolves 
In Arrow's most attractive-looking set to date, two films loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story are brought together. Lucio Folci's The Black Cat (1981) and Sergio Martino's Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) are both definitively of their era, with mainly schlocky shocks, but Cat's cast (led by that consummate ham Patrick Magee) and Vice's femme fatale Edwige Fenech (so enticing that she gets her own bonus featurette as a ‘70s sex symbol) make these true guilty pleasures. 

Ulli Lommel's 1973 Tenderness, conversely, is similar to the campy films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who appears in, but supposedly disliked, the film); Lommel's dramatization of a grisly real-life murderer who seduces then kills young men, cuts up their bodies and sells the parts to restaurants is clinical in the extreme, yet never comes to sickening life. All three films have been beautifully restored; extras include featurettes, interviews, location featurettes and commentaries.

The Exorcism of Molly Hartley 
Apparently this is a sequel to The Haunting of Molly Hartley, which I either missed or completely forgot about: in any case, this is little more than a brazen Exorcist ripoff, with an opening scene that, astonishingly, closely follows the climax of William Friedkin's 1973 classic. The rest of the movie follows the worn-out formula of medicine failing to cure the unfortunate young woman, and religion comes to the rescue. Sara Lind (Molly) and Gina Holden (psychiatrist) could be persuasive under far better circumstances. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include featurettes and hidden-camera footage.

The Gift 
Writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton’s Fatal Attraction-type thriller, which thrives too readily on the inconsistencies that populate the genre, smartly stars Edgerton himself, who plays the villain with a nervy mix of nastiness and shyness, and Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who bring an appealing realism to the terrified couple, which helps smooth over many implausible moments. The nastiness, eventually involving possible rape and impregnation, piles up illogically, but it's done so slickly that most viewers won't mind. The movie has an excellent Blu-ray transfer; extras include Edgerton's commentary, featurette, a less effective alternate ending and deleted scenes.

Inside Out 
In what's Pixar's cleverest conceit yet—with a big (uncredited) assist to the hilarious orgasm segment of Woody Allen's classic Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex—this gorgeous animation concerns a young girl whose life is uprooted by moving to a new neighborhood and new school, as her various emotions battle one another inside her brain’s control center. The 95-minute movie wears out its welcome (75-80 minutes would have sufficed), but inventive animation and stand-out voice cast (Diane Lane as Mom and none other than Lewis Black as Anger take top honors) make this a worthwhile watch. The hi-def transfer is splendid; extras include two shorts, Lava and Riley's First Date?, and several featurettes.

Special Effects Collection 
(Warner Bros)
This set of four films from the primitive era of special effects—1933’s Son of Kong, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and 1954’s Them!—might not mean much to anyone who's grown up on (or been spoiled by) today's CGI, which renders nearly anything possible onscreen. But for anyone who wants to relive the days of really cheesy visual effects—whose shoddiness is accentuated by Blu-ray's greater resolution—then by all means watch these often risible but entertaining thrillers of yore, filled with giant apes, radioactive giant dinosaurs and mutant ants. Extras include commentaries and featurettes.

(Warner Bros)
Any list of unnecessary reboots includes the comic adventures of the Griswold family as they travel to the infamous Walley World: Ed Helms and Christina Applegate take over the roles closely related to those originally played by Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo in the far-from-classic 1985 original. Writers-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley manage to come up with some bad-taste 2015 comic equivalents, but they desperately end up resorting to Chase and D’Angelo cameos to save their movie. The film looks sharp on Blu; extras are featurettes, gag reel and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
The Civil War—A Film by Ken Burns 
Ken Burns' classic mini-series, which brought his signature documentary style to the masses with its nine-hour exploration of the destructive War Between the States, celebrates its 25th anniversary with a long-awaited restoration, allowing Burns' now iconic visuals to be seen in a way they never have. In addition to the original series, the six-disc DVD set includes a 16-page collectors' booklets and several hours' worth of extras, including the featurettes Making The Civil War: 25 Years Later and Restoring The Civil War; complete interviews with historian Shelby Foote in high definition; and additional interviews that didn't make the final cut.

Do I Sound Gay? 
Seymour—An Introduction 
(Sundance Selects)
Do I Sound Gay? is director David Thorpe's exploration of his own (and others’) voice: is there such a thing as a gay voice, and if so, why? He speaks with Dan Savage, Tim Gunn and David Sedaris, voice counselors and other experts, and even though the results are equivocal, Thorpe goes on interesting tangents, such as showing long-time stereotypes in the entertainment world, from swishy minor characters to Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. In Seymour—An Introduction, a diverting portrait of octogenarian Seymour Bernstein, director and admirer Ethan Hawke follows the chatty, personable pianist as he discusses his life, career, art and teaches his students: there’s also, not coincidentally, a lot of good music, as Seymour performs (and talks about) Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven, and even his own compositions, both in the film and in the welcome 45-minute bonus recital.

Independence Day
Rapa Nui 
(Warner Archive)
In Robert Mandel's 1983 drama Independence Day, restrained, believable performances by Kathleen Quinlan and David Keith overcome cliched, tepid writing as two small-towners who find each other look to escape their constricting lives; also memorable is a newcomer named Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking as Keith's put-upon married sister. Rapa Nui, Kevin Reynolds' 1994 historical epic, gains points for authenticity—it was shot on location on Easter Island—Sandrine Holt's beautifully modulated portrayal and the impressive physical production, which compensate for a trite story and other wooden actors.