Tuesday, July 19, 2016

July '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Belladonna of Sadness
This 1973 animated classic by renowned anime director Eiichi Yamamoto tells a terrifying tale of revenge that’s also quite erotic: its brilliantly drawn sequences of intimacy—as often as not violent as they are sexual—are reminiscent of artists like Klimt, but with an irresistibly singular style all their own. Despite its relative obscurity, this is a towering work, coincidentally made the same year as another, quite different animated masterpiece: Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet. The new hi-def transfer is spellbinding; extras are new interviews with Yamamoto, art director Kuni Fukai and composer Masahiko Satoh, all of whom contribute mightily to the film’s success.

Crimes of Passion
Despite a fearless performance by Kathleen Turner as a fashion designer by day who becomes uninhibited hooker China Blue by night, Ken Russell’s 1984 adult escapade is notable for producer Barry Sandler’s laughable script and a dull John Laughlin as the married father who falls for Turner. Even as Anthony Perkins’ bravura turn as a hypocritical preacher falls by the wayside, Turner’s sheer bravery keeps one watching. The hi-def transfer is excellent; two cuts of the film—the director’s cut is five minutes longer—are included, as are a commentary by Russell and Sandler, interviews with Sandler and composer Rick Wakeman, deleted scenes and music video.

The Daughter of Dawn 
A true historical artifact, this 1920 silent feature—directed by Norbert Myles and comprising a cast of real-life American Indians photographed in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains—was recently discovered and beautifully restored. David Yeagley’s dramatic music helps overcome the stilted story and performances, but the history shown in the film remains manifest. Milestone’s Blu-ray has a sparkling transfer; extras are eight short featurettes on the film’s background and importance.

The Magicians—Complete 1st Season
This new Syfy network series—based on an elaborate fantasy novel by Lev Grossman—combines razzle-dazzle and sleight of hand with conventional campus drama, taking too long to achieve an entertaining balance. But the fresh and charming cast—particularly the three main actresses Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley and Jade Tailor—makes sitting through the scattered longueurs worthwhile. The hi-def transfer is phenomenal; extras comprise deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurette.

One of Alain Resnais’ most fluid and subtle explorations of time, memory and forgetting, this 1963 masterpiece has a brilliant script by Jean Cayrol, extraordinary acting by Delphine Seyrig as a woman who remembers little of the past and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée as her stepson haunted by memories from the Algerian war, and a brittle and atmospheric modernist score by Hans Werner Henze. But most of all, it has Resnais’s attention to the minutiae of mise-en-scene, making this cinema in its purest, most potent form. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is remarkable in its details and look; extras comprise vintage interviews with Seyrig and Henze, new interview with Resnais expert François Thomas and an excerpt from the 1980 documentary Une approche d’Alain Resnais, révolutionnaire discret.

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys 2
Return of the Killer Tomatoes
The second batch of playful, fast-paced gangster “Nikkatsu” films from mid-60s Japan—Tokyo Mighty Guy, Danger Pays and Murder Unincorporated—concentrates on stars Jo Shishido and Akira Kobayashi, who make their way through these flicks with glee and panache. Conversely, 1988’s sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes is an in-joke that can’t rise above its ineptitude even with handsome young George Clooney and lovely young Karen M. Waldron on hand. The hi-def transfers are sharp and clean; Nikkatsu extras comprise featurettes on Shishido and Kobayashi, and Tomatoes extras include an interview with star Anthony Starke and commentary with writer-director John De Bello. 

DVDs of the Week 
This haunting feature, based on a true story of a Welsh town where dozens of teen suicides were recorded over several years, manages to be metaphysical without losing its grip on its unsettling reality. Director Jeppe Ronde's moody, subtly scary exploration of the unique dynamic among teenagers in a small village is seen through the intelligent eyes of Sara (portrayed by the winningly natural Hannah Murray), whose father is a police inspector charged with investigating mysterious deaths among the local teens.

Marguerite & Julien
(Sundance Selects)
Based on a script by Jean Gruault—who originally wrote it for Francois Truffaut—this alternately troubling and frustrating drama about incest (based on two characters from French literature) was directed by Julie Donzelli, who tries to replicate what Truffaut may have made this film into—simultaneously lighthearted and tragic—into something only fitfully satisfying. The acting is not the problem: Anais Demoustier especially gives a noble performance of depth, feeling, sorrow, sexuality and unbridled goodness. But Donzelli is unable to make all the various strands and tonal shifts cohere, leaving the movie (and us) in a muddle.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July '16 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Adderall Diaries
The Green Room
Stephen Elliott’s book The Adderall Diaries makes a bumpy transition to film: novice writer-director Pamela Romanowsky can’t balance the varied strands of her protagonist’s life—abusive childhood, difficult adulthood, creative block—with James Franco, Amber Heard, Ed Harris, Cynthia Nixon and Christian Slater left adrift as a result. The effective claustrophobic thriller Green Room is too single-minded to transcend its genre: no one cares who lives or dies among those at a remote Oregon rock club. The killings—bludgeonings, shootings, slicing-and-dicings and pit-bull maulings—become numbing after awhile, and writer-director Jeremy Saulnier badly errs with one of the lamest final dialogue exchanges ever. Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; Adderall extras are deleted scenes, making-of featurette and Romanowsky’s commentary, and Room extras are Saulnier’s commentary and making-of featurette.

Slasher—Complete 1st Season
(Scream Factory)
If originality means little, then enjoy this derivative but creepy Canadian horror series (shown on the Chiller network), which begins with the ultraviolent murders of a husband and his pregnant wife by a hooded Halloween hoodlum, then jumps ahead to follow their grown daughter who—and why not?—moves into the house where they were killed. Of course it’s completely absurd, but the ongoing series of murders soon takes on a Seven vibe that’s enough to keep it on track. The visuals look quite good on Blu; lone extra is an on-set featurette.

Writer-director duo David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s 1993 debut is a snail’s-paced, self-satisfied homage to/rip-off of superior movies about paranoia and identity like The Manchurian Candidate and The Face of Another. Despite professional actors like Dennis Haysbert and Mel Harris and Greg Gardiner’s tangy B&W photography, the overall vibe is of an efficient amateurishness. It does look authentically grainy on Blu; extras comprise directors’ commentary with fan Steven Soderbergh, new making-of featurette, deleted scenes and the duo’s first short, Birds Past.

The Swinging Cheerleaders
Jack Hill’s 1974 softcore drive-in movie gets the T&A part right, thanks to a trio of gregarious leads: Rainbeaux Smith, Colleen Camp and Rosanne Katon before becoming a Playboy Playmate, which makes the stiffly acted story of uncovered campus corruption on the gridiron expendable. The film has been nicely restored in hi-def; extras comprise a new Hill commentary and interview, 2012 post-screening Q&A with Camp, Katon and Hill, and additional archival interviews.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown 
(Warner Archive)
Lumbering for 135 minutes, this 1964 adaptation of the Broadway musical by the man behind the classic The Music Man falters in nearly every way; even Debbie Reynolds’ portrait of a woman who is never beaten down is outsized and generic at the same time, despite a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Meredith Willson’s songs are as forgettably similar as his Music Man tunes were true classics; at least director Charles Walters uses the beautiful Colorado scenery to good effect. The film (shot in Panavision) looks terrific on Blu; lone extra is a featurette.

Van Gogh
(Cohen Film Collection)
In Maurice Pialat’s superlative 1991 biopic, actor Jacques Dutronc is mesmerizingly understated as the Dutch painter living out his final days in obscurity and mental instability in northwestern France. Pialat displays with utmost artistry and no artifice the uniqueness of artistic creation; one of Pialat’s greatest films, this masterpiece will haunt the viewer for days afterward. The film’s incredibly rich colors and shadings are preserved on Blu; voluminous extras comprise interviews and over an hour’s worth of deleted scenes, although inexplicably missing are Pialat’s early Van Gogh short and an interview with Pialat himself (both included on the superior European release).

DVDs of the Week 
My Golden Days
French director Arnaud Desplechin’s captivating and complex comic drama is a two-hour memory piece about the main character of his 1996 masterpiece My Sex Life (or How I Got into an Argument) and his adventures as a young man. It feels, if anything, too short: to breathe more, it needs another 30 minutes or so to flesh out every characterization, relationship, storyline. Still, this wonderfully, generously Dickensian view of life in all its permutations has energy, insight, and the unbeatable Mathieu Amalric at his harried best. So why isn’t this often-dazzling, visually stimulating film on Blu-ray? Extras comprise a Desplechin interview, casting session and featurette on the actors.

The Preppie Connection
Dramatizing the true story of a group of affluent college students who rely on a working-class interloper to smuggle cocaine directly from Colombia for their parties during the greed-is-good Reagan ‘80s, director/co-writer Joseph Castelo has fashioned an interesting cautionary tale of excess and privilege that remains relevant today. Thomas Mann is a mite obvious as the local preppie who doubles as the buyer, while Lucy Fry convincingly plays the unattainable beauty who falls for him. Extras are commentaries by Mann and Castelo and behind the scenes featurette.

The Silence of Mark Rothko 
The Next Big Thing
Marjoleine Boonstra’s Silence succinctly recounts the career and art of Mark Rothko through interviews with experts, glimpses at his monumental paintings and works that influenced him, and even the appearance of his son Christopher, who reads from his father’s own writings about art. Frank van den Engel’s Next Big Thing amusingly (and sometimes bemusedly) shows how the contemporary art scene has become entirely cost-driven, with ultra-rich collectors making sure that, when they pony up millions of dollars for artworks, it’s worth it to their bottom line. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

July '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Back in the Day
This inept mash-up of Rocky and Goodfellas takes the measure of a boxer from the streets who avenges the deaths of his mom and best friend both on those responsible and those he meets in the ring. Despite a few accomplished actors—Alec Baldwin and Annabella Sciorra, both wasted—Paul Borghese’s amateurish film, based on William DeMeo’s rudimentary script, is populated by a bunch of negligible  performers who seem to be reading their lines phonetically (especially Mike Tyson in a risible cameo appearance). The film looks decent on Blu.

Blood and Black Lace
Mario Bava’s lively 1964 giallo, which concerns several comely models who get their comeuppance by a killer with a white stocking over his head, is foolish in the extreme, but also moves quickly without dawdling over the usual inconsistencies that are often fatal to the genre. American actor Cameron Mitchell seems out of place, but that’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things. Arrow’s new hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include a documentary on the film, Blood Analysis; commentary by Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas; interviews; alternative opening titles; and The Sinister Image: Cameron Mitchell, an episode of a 1987 TV profile series.

Hollywood in Vienna—The World of James Horner 
(Varese Sarabande)
Honoring Hollywood composer James Horner in 2013—two years before his untimely death—this concert at the Austrian capital’s famed Konzerthaus plows through several of his greatest hits, from his scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (which sounds suspiciously like Prokofiev) and Aliens to Braveheart and Avatar. There are also smash songs like Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On”—sung here by Ildiko Raimondi, while Deborah Cox dazzles in her own vocal performances—and everything is played with verve by the ORF Radio-Symphony Orchestra under David Newman’s baton. The hi-def video and audio are terrific; extras comprise a Horner symposium and short featurette.

Ray Harryhausen—Special Effects Titan
In 2013, the FX genius Ray Harryhausen died, leaving such a monumental legacy among so many top Hollywood directors that it’s amazing to hear that he was never nominated for, let alone win, an Oscar for his innovative stop-motion effects work. But, as this 2011 documentary makes clear through interviews with everyone from Spielberg and Cameron to Landis and del Toro (along with their own visual effects wizards), his legend lives on, not only in groundbreaking films from Mighty Joe Young (1949) to Clash of the Titans (1981), but in his singular way of working outside the Hollywood system. Extras include additional interviews, deleted scenes, Q&As and an audio commentary.

DVDs of the Week 
All-American Bikini Car Wash
When a movie has this title, what you see is what you get: a parade of scantily-clad young women in various stages of wetness while they wash cars. It’s mindless but harmless, unless you count the bare breasts, but even that seems less hypocritical than dutiful. The performances are non-existent, and there’s little going on, but you could do worse looking for escapist fare that harkens back to the heyday of mid-70s drive-in fodder. Extras are a commentary by actress/2015 Miss Asia USA Ashley Park; a gag reel and featurettes.

Elstree 1976
The ultimate in Star Wars fanboyism, Jon Spira’s documentary comprises interviews with people who were extras or had bit parts in the original 1977 George Lucas classic—some, like David Prowse, who played Darth Vader (but didn’t voice him, as Prowse explains in a funny aside), had careers before and after—and elicits observations on the shoot, acclaim and legacy. There are almost too many talking heads (my eyes glazed over halfway through the 100-minute running time), but there are interesting anecdotes galore; of course, your mileage may vary if you are—or aren’t—a huge fan of the films.

The Family Fang 
(Starz/Anchor Bay)
In this probing broken-family drama, Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman play the grown offspring of performance-artist parents—played with gleeful relish by Maryann Plunkett and Christopher Walken—whose disappearance might be their most infamous stunt or the real (and fatal) thing. Although director Bateman displays an uncertain tone covering such wide emotional and chronological territory, the well-tuned performances help navigate the film’s troubled and unsettling waters. The lone extra is Bateman’s commentary.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

June '16 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
In this well-meaning but hopelessly belabored look at the life of a good man who’s been seriously wounded in an attack in front of his Manhattan apartment building, director-writer-actor Tim Blake Nelson’s film is as gooily sentimental as the Oscar-winning Crash, with no discernible point: characters, relationships and dialogue only allow the drama to lumber from A to B. Wasted is a cast comprising Sam Waterston, Gretchen Mol, Corey Stoll, Michael K. Williams and Nelson himself, all of whom could do better with far better material. The movie looks fine on Blu.  

Clouds of Sils Maria
Olivier Assayas' biggest failure since 2007’s Boarding Gate finds the usually luminous Juliette Binoche at her self-consciously mannered worst as an actress returning to the stage in a play she made her mark in two decades earlier, this time opposite a far younger superstar (the always intriguing Chloe Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart looks lost in the thankless role of Binoche's assistant; sadly, her appearance is mainly a study in the vintage T-shirts. Assayas moves his camera with characteristic fluidity, although endless shots of the Alps (where this was shot, beautifully, by Lorick Le Saux) do little but provide an unnecessary metaphor for the movie, its morose leading lady and the pretentious play she's stuck in. Le Saux’s visuals soar in hi-def; extras comprise Assayas, Binoche and Stewart interviews and the 1924 short Cloud Phenomena of Maloja.

Eye in the Sky 
The confused, complicated world of drone warfare is dramatized with almost too much discernment by director Gavin Hood, who parses the agonizing split-second decisions military and political leaders make to shoot down imminent threats to our security. In his final screen role, Alan Rickman has the proper gravitas as the lieutenant general in charge, but Helen Mirren seems unduly constricted by her role as the colonel who makes the call, and Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul play the drone operators so weepily when things go awry that the movie turns into a liberal guilt-ridden morality play flattening the ethical concerns at its center. There’s a stellar hi-def transfer; two short featurettes are extras.

(Cohen Media Group)
In this often dry comedy, two brothers who haven’t spoken in decades find their precious flocks of sheep decimated by disease and have to decide how to keep themselves afloat after such a financial disaster. Director Grimur Hakonarsen has a way with his deadpan material, and his cast—led by the actors playing the warring middle-aged siblings—is perfect, yet there’s a nagging sense that everything’s a little too pat, a little too neat, judging from the too-cute final shot. The wintry landscapes look breathtaking in hi-def; extras are a Hakonarsen interview and short film, Wrestling.

(Warner Archive)
Thirty-four years after its release, this crass Blake Edwards farce about a woman who impersonates a man to get a singing job in a Paris nightclub in the mid-1930s has finally had current transgender events catch up with it, giving it added relevance. Although it’s not nearly as funny or daringly radical as its defenders say, its set design, costumes and Henry Mancini’s music are first-rate, as are Julie Andrews in the lead and Robert Preston as her drag-dressing best friend; Lesley Ann Warren provides deliciously bimboish support. Finally on Blu-ray, the movie looks strikingly colorful in hi-def; the lone extra is an entertaining and informative Andrews and Edwards commentary.

DVDs of the Week
I, Anna
(Icarus Films)
Director-writer Barnaby Southcombe’s 2012 neo-noir about a murder investigation that may or may not involve an attractive grandmother is equally fascinating and off-putting. Although the plot itself is humdrum, there are persuasive performances by Charlotte Rampling as Anna, Gabriel Byrne as the detective whose own ethics come into question when he refuses to consider her a suspect, and the sadly underused Hayley Atwell as Anna’s daughter raising her own small child.

King Georges 
(Sundance Selects)
This sunny portrait of French restaurateur Georges Perrier, one of the America’s most celebrated chefs and proprietor of the elegant Philadelphia restaurant Le Bec-Fin, shows his final days there, before it closed in 2010. Perrier’s old-fashioned personality—he screams and swears his head off at his loyal and talented kitchen staff—might make a sour note for some, but his ebullience and mentorship (one of his best assistants opens his own upscale Philadelphia restaurant) are the backbone of director Erika Frankel’s always engrossing documentary.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—Alan Ayckbourn’s “Hero’s Welcome” & “Confusions”; “Taming of the Shrew” in Central Park

Hero’s Welcome & Confusions
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Performances through July 3, 2016
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

The Taming of the Shrew
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Performances through June 26, 2016
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Alan Ayckbourn's Confusions (photo: Tony Bartholomew)
The titles of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays may seem simple, even obvious, but his usually one- or two-word titles, simultaneously descriptive and ironic, take on great import. The two plays brought to New York as the glittering centerpieces of the Brits Off Broadway Festival from Ayckbourn’s home base, the St. James Theatre in Scarborough, Yorkshire, are cases in point.

Confusions, a 1974 compendium of hilarious shorts, unaccountably has never previously been done in New York, while Hero’s Welcome is the latest—and 79th!—play by the prolific dramatist; both are written, directed and acted with utmost generosity, flair and seriousness of purpose.

Comprising five raucous one-acts—concerning, in order, a harried mom who treats adults as children, her playboy husband who puts the make on two young women at a bar, two couples who have dinner as a harried waiter tries to do his job, a disastrous town picnic that gets worse by the minute, and five people sitting on park benches trying to communicate with (or avoid) others—Confusions could be seen as a knee-slapping two hours of theater or a profoundly melancholy but humane comic portrait.

Either way it can’t fail to score, but the latter is Ayckbourn’s default position: no matter how archly his people act toward one another, how difficult the paces he puts them through, or how thoroughly messy their relationships are, there’s always a twinkle in the playwright’s eye that becomes a glimmer of hope for his assorted heroes and fools, lovers and fighters, narcissists and introverts, and everyone in between.

Alan Ayckbourn's Hero's Welcome (photo: Tony Bartholomew)
That comic complexity comes to the fore in Hero’s Welcome, in which Ayckbourn explores with sublime subtlety the fallout when a man, 19 years after leaving acrimoniously, returns to his hometown as a war hero with a foreign wife in tow, hoping to shake up the staid townspeople, among whom are his former fiancée (whom he jilted at the altar, pregnant) and his former best friend.

And that’s just the start of the serious weight placed on the shoulders of these often weak-kneed characters; as always, Ayckbourn balances tragedy and comedy precariously but, in the long run, beautifully. He chides them, but always affectionately. Even when sordid revelations pile up—and physical ailments and death rear their heads—the play, amazingly, marches on to an ending that’s anything but blissful but which still shines with hopefulness about the future.

Ayckbourn directs both plays with precision and control on Michael Holt’s gloriously realized sets that comprise a quintet of playing areas for Confusions and three distinct homes for Hero’s Welcome, without nothing crammed onto 59 E 59’s small stage. The acting company is, unsurprisingly, beyond compare: Evelyn Hoskins sweetly plays the pivotal role of the hero’s young wife Madrababacascabuna (Baba for short) in Hero, while five wonderfully agile performers—Stephen Billington, Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon, Charlotte Harwood and Richard Stacey—enact several roles superbly in both plays.

It’s worth singling out Ayckbourn and performers for Confusions’ miniature masterpiece, Between Mouthfuls. The conceit—a pair of actors at each table are only heard speaking when the waiter comes within earshot—is ingenious but not show-offy; but the effortlessness of Billington, Boag, Dixon, Harwood and Stacey and Ayckbourn’s deft direction make this one-act among the most sheerly pleasurable twenty-plus minutes in all of my decades of theater going.

A scene from The Taming of the Shrew (photo: Joan Marcus)
Along with The Merchant of Venice, it’s The Taming of the Shrew that’s the most problematic Shakespeare play: as the title spells out, it dramatizes an independent but wayward young woman being tamed by her superior husband. Of course, as with all Shakespeare, there’s plenty of room for re-interpretation and illumination, since the text is pregnant with the possibility of multiple readings.

But Phyllida Lloyd’s Delacorte Theater solution is to blow it up and graft unoriginal and unamusing business onto it to make it more “today,” like blaring 35-year-old Pat Benatar and Joan Jett songs and having a beauty pageant framing device that allows for a Donald Trump voice impression. It all shows off Lloyd’s cleverness at the expense of Shakespeare.

What goes on is a way to deal with the text’s sexism without confronting it outright. If that’s the case, however, why do the play at all? But political correctness can’t bury Shakespeare’s artistry and insight, especially if Kate’s final, brilliant if non-P.C. soliloquy of self-abasement in front of her husband Petrucchio is considered tongue in cheek—which Lloyd apparently does not subscribe to.

In any case, Lloyd has made a distaff Shrew that turns Shakespearean era all-male performance practice on its head without dealing with the sexism at the play’s core. Janet McTeer, flailing about like Bill Nighy in drag, hams mightily from the outset, scoring cheap if occasionally effective comic points. Much of the rest of the cast fades into one another with little distinctiveness, although Judy Gold steps out of character briefly for a funny if superfluous monologue as a 21st century male chauvinist, i.e., Donald Trump.

Finally (and happily), Cush Jumbo makes a seductively feminine Kate, even if Lloyd overdirects her to constantly stomp around the stage in anger, to ever-diminishing returns. Otherwise, she sounds, looks and acts exactly right. Here’s hoping Jumbo gets another chance to portray Kate in a real production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

June '16 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Cornbread, Earl and Me
If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium
I’ll Take Sweden
(Olive Films)
A low-key drama and two farcical travelogues are on deck this month, starting with 1974’s Cornbread, a sober study of mistaken identity transforming lives in a black Chicago neighborhood forever; the film gains immeasurably by quietly powerful acting by Moses Gunn, Laurence Fishburne and Rosalind Cash. In 1969’s Belgium and 1965’s Sweden, various stars are touring the Old World: Belgium, featuring European Ian McShane, Senta Berger and Joan Collins, has a lovely performance by American Suzanne Pleshette, while Sweden—a middling Bob Hope vehicle—has a young Tuesday Weld as her most appealing. The films look better than ever on Blu-ray.

London Has Fallen
This action-packed sequel to Olympus Has Fallen reteams Aaron Eckhart as President and Gerard Butler as his most trusted secret service agent: now they are among world leaders overrun by a group of diabolical—and murderous—terrorists at a the British prime minister funeral in London. Explosions and gunplay take up an inordinate amount of the movie’s 91-minute running time, but anyone in the mood for mindless action and a granite-like Butler—the rest of the cast, which includes Angela Bassett and Morgan Freeman, is largely wasted—then this will provide a brief thrill. The film looks superb on Blu; extras are two featurettes.

Midnight Special 
(Warner Bros)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi drama about a boy with supernatural powers and his father’s desperate attempts to keep him away from the authorities starts out intriguingly, but after a ridiculous scene in which the boy is kidnaped by thugs, the movie veers off the road and never recovers. Soon Nichols completely loses control, culminating in a CGI-powered finale that’s staggering in its incoherence. Even the cast seems cowed: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Sam Shepard, Kirsten Dunst and little Jaeden Lieberher give performances that look like they’re in different movies. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are featurettes and interviews.

Power—Complete 2nd Season
(Starz/Anchor Bay)
The trappings and allure of legal and illicit power are on display throughout the unsubtle but entertaining second season of this 50 Cent-produced series, which follows its characters through the worlds of hip-hop, entertainment, illegal drugs and law enforcement with an increasingly jaundiced, even bemused eye. Of course, there’s always time for a romp or two in bed, which the performers have become increasingly adept at, and blood is spilled at ever more regular intervals. The series’ 10 episodes have stellar high-def transfers; extras include several featurettes.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon 
They Were Expendable
(Warner Archive)
This pair of films starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford represented the high-water mark of their collaborations, which extended from 1939’s Stagecoach to 1963’s Donovan’s Reef. 1945’s Expendable has Wayne as one of several seamen who fought the Japanese in the pacific following Pearl Harbor; though overlong, it brings to life the heroism of the everyday sailor. 1949’s Yellow Ribbon, by contrast, is one of the director-star combo’s most effective westerns, shot in picturesque Monument Valley and starring Wayne as a cavalry officer winding down his long and distinguished career. Both the B&W Expendable and color Yellow Ribbon (which won the Best Cinematography Oscar) have great hi-def transfers; Ribbon extras are Ford’s home movies.

DVDs of the Week
Fear of 13
We Monsters
(First Run)
In Fear of 13, convicted killer Nick Yarris makes what for him is a sane, rational decision: to get off death row and be executed. Utilizing Errol Morris’s well-worn devices of reenactments and interviews, director David Sington nevertheless creates a chilling study of mortality. German director Sebastian Ko examines morality in We Monsters, as divorced parents of a teenage girl—who insists she killed the friend who disappeared when they were alone—decide to protect her at all costs. This frighteningly realistic scenario is acted to perfection by Mehdi Nebbou (dad), Ulrike C. Tscharre (mom) and Janina Fautz (daughter) under Ko’s persuasive direction. The lone extra on 13 is Sington and Yarris’s Q&A.

Going Away 
(Cohen Media Group)
French actress Louise Bourgoin sinks her teeth into one of those meaty but messy roles actresses love: a tattooed, independent single mother with sundry problems who will do anything for her young son. Her chemistry with Pierre Rochefort as the teacher who finds himself watching over the boy—and, by extension, the mother—one weekend, keeps Nicole Garcia’s otherwise routine 2013 romance afloat; young Mathias Brezot also contributes nicely as the son.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“Indian Summer,” “Radiant Vermin”

Indian Summer
Written by Gregory S. Moss; directed by Carolyn Cantor
Performances through June 26, 2016
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Radiant Vermin
Written by Philip Ridley; directed by David Mercatali
Performances through July 3, 2016
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, NY

Owen Campbell and Elise Kibler in Indian Summer (photo: Joan Marcus)

Of course Indian Summer is set on a beach: that it’s a beach on Rhode Island, the smallest of our 50 states, is Gregory S. Moss’s conceit. Our teenage hero is Daniel, one of the “summer people” staying with his widowed grandfather George for the summer—or until his erstwhile mother returns from wherever she went after dropping him off. He is befriended by cute 17-year-old local girl Izzy—after initially insulting her Sicilian heritage; Izzy’s 27-year-old boyfriend Jeremy is not only the personification of “musclehead” but also a man desperate to hold onto his girl by any means necessary.

Despite his lunkheadedness, Jeremy notices that Daniel and Izzy are becoming quite friendly and compatible, despite their initial antagonism. If Moss can’t quite make his almost love triangle plausible, he has a knack for gentle observation and the occasional wistful moment, like the lovely scene that opens Act II: Daniel and Izzy, after spending the entire night (platonically) on the beach, sit in the sand and discuss what they would say if they ran into each other here ten years from now.

The next scene, of Jeremy pathetically enlisting Daniel to help him plan to propose to Izzy—which Daniel goes along with because he’s absolutely sure Izzy will turn Jeremy down flat—also adeptly blends equal parts humor, heartbreak and sentiment. But the elephant in the room is George our erstwhile narrator, who late in the play has Izzy wear his dead wife’s dress and talk to him as if she were his wife. The resulting scene, unlike the two preceding it, isn’t memorably melancholic or sweet, but instead downright creepy.

Still, Moss writes nicely turned conversational dialogue and Carolyn Cantor directs straightforwardly on Dane Laffrey’s sandbox of a set in which the actors frolic for 90 minutes. Jonathan Hadary might be a bit too obvious as George, but Joe Tippett brings feeling to Jeremy’s ripped abs and Owen Campbell makes a properly pimply and confused Daniel.

But Elise Kibler carries the play on her shoulders as Izzy, a tough yet tender, raw but romantic young heroine. Playing the only character interacting with the others, Kibler gives a nuanced and persuasive performance that elevates Indian Summer past its sentimental leanings to achieve an overarching melancholy like watching the last sunset on the beach at the end of summer.

Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey in Radiant Vermin (photo: Carol Rosegg)

With Radiant Vermin, Philip Ridley has made an fitfully amusing black comedy that acidly looks at the new normal: middle-class couple Ollie and Jill—in their attempt at upward mobility in a society that no longer easily allows it—discovers a sure-fire way to become and remain affluent: (gulp) murder.

Ridley has gleeful fun with how his couple goes about its diabolical plan, which takes on greater urgency when Jill gets pregnant. But there’s not much underneath the surface, and introducing a mysterious real estate agent who may have something to do with their doings is something intriguing that’s been left unexplored.

Despite the shrillness—one ridiculously overwrought sequence has the couple acting out a dinner party from hell that seems to last forever, and with few chuckles—the actors do their very best to keep it afloat. Sean Michael Verey, an amusingly hangdog Ollie, has thick glasses framing a rubbery face of sheer ingenuity, while Scarlett Alice Johnson makes an absolutely winning Jill: she more than complements her costar by bringing needed heart to the proceedings, of which director David Mercatali should have made better use.