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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

June '16 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Le Amiche
Although one of his lesser works, this 1955 melodrama was an important stepping stone for Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni on his way to cinematic maturity: this study of young women and their relationship troubles hints at his later mastery in L’Avventura and L’Eclisse, for example. Unsurprisingly, Criterion’s transfer of this brooding black-and-white drama is stellar, but its extras are lacking: there’s a relatively mundane conversation on Antonioni between two scholars and a slightly more informative interview with another scholar.

Director Francisco Lara Polop’s 1984 soft-core flick, while it has a certain cache among that era’s B-movie cognoscenti, is merely a competently made, indifferently acted tale of an comely heiress who’s been kidnapped by a band of lesbian terrorists. Nice location shooting and Jewel Shepard’s endearing pseudo-Marilyn Monroe bimbo as our eponymous heroine make it watchable, along with ample—but by no means explicit—nudity and sex scenes. There’s a decent hi-def transfer.

Every Thing Will Be Fine 
German director Wim Wenders has made some clunkers, but his latest, impossibly pretentious exercise in dramatic ponderousness leaps to the top of that list. James Franco sleepwalks through the movie as a writer whose life is altered by a fatal car accident, while Rachel McAdams, Marie-Josee Croze and ever-sullen Charlotte Gainsbourg suffer quietly at his side. It seems like Terrence Malick-lite, but even Malick’s failures like To the Wonder (also with poor McAdams) had lustrous visuals and eclectic music on the soundtrack to compensate. Not so Wenders: Alexandre Desplat’s diverting score notwithstanding, Wenders’ usual impeccable control deserts him, shooting this in 3D for no discernable reason. It all looks fine on Blu; extras are interviews with cast (but not Franco) and Wenders and behind-the-scenes footage.

Grantchester—Complete 2nd Season
In the second season of this offbeat detective series, Reverend Sidney Chambers and inspector Geordie Keating consolidate their personal and professional relationships as they investigate another bizarre series of crimes. If the plots are less than original, it doesn’t matter because the  real reason to watch is the chemistry between James Norton and Robson Green, who invest their parts with as much authenticity and even humor as possible under the circumstances. The hi-def transfer is quite good; extras include featurettes and interviews.

Under the Sun of Satan
(Cohen Film Collection)
Maurice Pialat’s magnificent 1987 chamber film is an intimate character study of a failing priest with a dark side and the young woman who may be his salvation—or damnation. Based on a novel by Georges Bernardos (whose work was also the basis of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette and Diary of a Country Priest), Pialat’s masterpiece has absorbing performances by Gerard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire and Pialat himself as an older priest who gives Depardieu guidance. The film’s grainy hi-def transfer is illuminating; substantial extras—a second disc’s worth—comprise new and vintage interviews, along with an hour of deleted scenes and on-set footage.

A War
In Tobias Lindholm’s powerful drama, parts of a Danish soldier’s life are shown in straightforward yet subtle detail: as he leads his men through horrible firefights, his absence from his family back home forces his wife to raise their children alone; later, he is put before a civilian tribunal after he is accused of war crimes for calling an air strike that kills innocent children. Not in the least didactic, Lindholm’s film is a raging inferno of emotion and adrenaline, culminating in a courtroom sequence remarkable for its nuanced and compelling view of all sides. Pilou Asbæk—so good in the TV series Borgen—is brilliant as our hero, and Tuva Novotny matches him scene for scene as his wife. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; the paucity of extras includes brief servicemen and -women’s reactions, short making-of and Lindholm interview.

DVDs of the Week 
A French Village—Complete 3rd Season
With the war on for several years now, the inhabitants of the Nazi-controlled village of Villeneuve must contend with a new wrinkle: the rounding up of Jews in the local school. The endless greys of wartime have rarely been examined so thoroughly and even entertainingly as in this series, and the cumulative dramatic impact of its third season is enormous. Once again, the acting is superlative from top to bottom, with standouts Robin Renucci as the town’s decent mayor and Audrey Fleurot as his unfaithful wife.

No Home Movie
Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s suicide last fall came directly following the death of her beloved mother, and her poignant if meandering final documentary explores that relationship in depth. Natalia was a Holocaust survivor who was always Chantal’s reservoir of strength, shown in the many conversations between them, whether in person or via Skype. Although the film, like so many others of Akerman, wears out its welcome before it ends, its tragic real-life epilogue gives it a gravitas missing from much of her oeuvre.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

June '16 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Best Intentions
(Film Movement Classics)
Bille August made this 1992 masterpiece from Ingmar Bergman’s script which recounts how his mother and father met, married and started a family—not the most original story, but when filmed with such artistry, written with such insight and acted with such forcefulness by Pernilla August and Samuel Froler as Ingmar’s parents and other great Swedish actors like Max von Sydow and Ghita Norby, it becomes three gripping hours that simply fly by. In fact, it’s too bad that the original five-hour Swedish TV version isn’t included as an extra, because more of this family’s saga would always be welcome. The film looks absolutely splendid on Blu; the lone extra is Bergman’s extraordinary 1984 short, Karin’s Face, comprising only pictures of his mother as Bergman explores his family history with his usual mastery.

The Confirmation
Gods of Egypt
Clive Owen and Jaeden Lieberher make a nice pair as an estranged dad and his young son in Bob Nelson’s understated drama The Confirmation; Maria Bello is wonderfully real as Owen’s ex and Lieberher’s mom, but the contrivances that Nelson builds up in the movie’s second half nearly destroys whatever sympathy was earned earlier. In Gods of Egypt, director Alex Proyas has made another movie that swallows up his actors with over-the-top CGI: these tales beg for a campy, Clash of the Titans treatment, but instead the likes of Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are reduced to cardboard by the visual miasma that fills the screen. Both films have excellent hi-def transfers; Confirmation extras comprise two featurettes, Gods extras are storyboards, featurettes and interviews.

King and Country—Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings 
(Opus Arte)
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to perform Shakespeare’s classic tetraology of history plays—Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2 and Henry V—was an inspired one under Gregory Doran’s accomplished direction and the flawless acting of David Tennant as Richard, Antony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, later Henry V. All four plays have been given superlative productions: costumes, sets and lighting are peerless, supporting casts are magnificent and Doran’s pacing is perfect. For those unable to get to the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon home, this set is the next best thing: the filmed performances look first-rate, with extras including Doran’s commentary on all four plays and interviews with historians, scholars, actors and creative team and crew.

Mr. Right
This black comedy about a hitman who falls for a young woman desperate for any sort of relationship is often wrongheaded and hits many sour notes as it attempts to balance rom-com deconstruction with gleeful Tarantino-lite violence. Despite that, director Paco Cabezas has smartly cast Sam Rockwell as the hitman and Anna Kendrick as his girl, and their tart, tongue-in-cheek performances give the movie more amusement and staying power than it deserves. It looks good on Blu; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Rolling Stones—Totally Stripped 
(Eagle Rock)
During its 1995 tour, the Rolling Stones played a trio of semi-acoustic shows at smaller venues and even re-recorded some re-arranged songs in the studio, and the resulting 91-minute film glimpses not only some of the performances but also the interplay among band members during the studio sessions. The best performances are of warhorses like “Gimme Shelter” and “Let It Bleed” and lesser-known but still worthwhile cuts like “Faraway Eyes” and “Dead Flowers.” The documentary has good if not overwhelming hi-def audio and video; the accompanying CD includes 14 songs from those fabled Amsterdam, Paris and London shows.

Vinyl—Complete 1st Season
Martin Scorsese directed the two-hour pilot episode of this new HBO series about machinations at a record company in the 1970s, which was the best two hours of the series so far: all of the usual melodramatics are present and accounted for, including lame “appearances” by actors aping David Bowie, Led Zeppelin etc. It ultimately—and disappointingly—adds up to little that’s compelling or interesting, even if it is well-acted by a top cast that’s led by Bobby Cannavalle as the head honcho and a revelatory Olivia Wilde as his wife. The hi-def transfer is quite good; extras include features and commentaries.

Another visually arresting and hugely popular animated Disney feature, this spoof of buddy pictures has its share of laughs and tugging at the heartstrings—especially with the anthropomorphic animals at the heart of its success—but the constant punning, sight gags and pop-culture references become enervating after awhile, especially when everything’s dragged out to an overlong 108 minutes. The computer-generated animation has a flawless Blu-ray transfer; extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and characters, Easter eggs and a Shakira music video.

DVDs of the Week
Casual Encounters
Taran Killan is not my idea of a leading man, but he’s better at anchoring flimsy indie comedies than fellow former SNLer Jason Sudekis: still, Killan’s limited acting skills tend to show the same face over and over again. But at least he’s a believable ordinary schlub whose girlfriend leaves him publicly after his latest screw-up. More surprising is Brooklyn Decker as Killan’s nerdy co-worker who helps guide him through his post-breakup malaise. Director Zackary Adler does little new with his material, but there are scattered laughs throughout mercifully brief running time. Extras include featurettes and music video.

One More Time 
(Anchor Bay)
Yes, Amber Heard can act—and not just in her Instagram photos: she demonstrates real chops in this low-key, semi-satisfying broken family comic drama about an aspiring singer who visits her famous crooner father’s Montauk house to mend fences with him and others in her screwed-up family. Christopher Walken as dad and Heard make a formidable team, whether singing or sparring, and a fine supporting cast (Ann Magnuson, Kelli Garner, Oliver Platt, even Hamish Linklater) keeps Robert Edwards’ film from dragging its feet. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

2016 Tribeca Film Festival Roundup

15th Tribeca Film Festival
New York, NY
April 13-24, 2016

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival again adroitly mixed new features and shorts with fistfuls of documentaries, for which the festival is becoming increasingly known. There was also a new wrinkle: TV programs, like the new multi-part documentary epic about O.J. Simpson, O.J.: Made in America, received showings on Tribeca’s big screens.

Elvis & Nixon
Of the features, Elvis & Nixon—the festival’s opening night film—was an amusingly cockeyed imagining of the fabled meeting between Elvis Presley and President Nixon in the Oval Office, with Presley railing against hippies and drugs and Nixon, while doing the same, tossing some barely concealed acid at the King himself. Kevin Spacey’s winning Nixon impersonation is equaled by Michael Shannon’s Elvis, which shrewdly isn’t just another Elvis impression, but a full-bodied (and funnier) characterization. Liza Johnson’s directing keeps this one-joke movie from ever spinning off the tracks.

In The Meddler, Susan Sarandon plays the most annoying mother ever, always bothering her daughter even while they live on opposite sides of the country: that understanding and love eventually win out is a distinct given, but that doesn’t make Lorene Scafaria’s comedy any less authentic, especially with necessary emotional grounding given by Sarandon—despite a wavering Brooklyn accent—and the delightful Rose Byrne as her daughter.

French director Christian Vincent started auspiciously with 1990’s La Discrete, then floundered for awhile; his latest, Courted—whose English title cleverly puns on the near-romance between a conservative judge and a beguiling juror with whom he has a history—is as enjoyably fluffy as his last, Haute Cuisine, especially for pairing the incomparable Fabrice Luchini with one of Denmark’s most accomplished leading ladies, Sidse Babett Knudsen.

This year’s documentaries ran the gamut from the arms trade to sex offenders to the ballet world to a last conversation with one New York’s great directors. By Sidney Lumet is essentially one long discussion with Lumet that director Nancy Biurski conducted before his 2011 death, concerning his early days in television to his film work that included a string of ‘70s and ‘80s films that took the pulse of his city (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City) and even the nation (Network, Running on Empty). Throughout, Lumet is smart, funny, personable and compulsively listenable, while Biurski shows copious clips from his most—and least—celebrated films.

In Betting on Zero, director Ted Braun documents more shady dealings on Wall Street: the case of Herbalife, a company accused of being a pyramid scheme with its investors being taken for a ride. The movie cleverly begins one way than takes an unexpected turn, asking the question: is the company a fraud or not? Even more heinous is what’s shown in Johan Grimonprez’s absorbing Shadow World, a grim look at how the global arms trade has overtaken both governments and the private sector when it comes to our current state of perpetual war.

The unbalanced American justice system is targeted in two films, clear-eyed and restrained in their venom. The Return is director Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s study of the effects of California’s three strikes law, which threw many (mainly black men) in jail for decades for as little as a bag of weed because it was their third arrest. The law, which has since been overturned, has affected families and individuals profoundly, as the directors humanely show. In Untouchable, the emotions embroiling incredibly stringent sex-offender laws passed in states like Florida are brought to the fore, as director David Feige tactfully explores all sides of an issue that is far more complex than it might appear at first glance: for example, some experts think these laws are doing far less good than they should be.

Benjamin Millepied, in some circles best known for being Natalie Portman’s husband, is an accomplished choreographer whose tumultuous first year as director of the Paris Opera Ballet is shown in Thierry Demaiziere and Alban Teurial’s fly-on-the-wall Reset. And John Greenhaigh’s riveting Team Foxcatcher—which covers similar ground as Bennett Miller’s 2014 Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher—allows many of the those directly involved to talk, including slain wrestler David Schultz’s widow, children and brother, which brings immediacy to the sordidly awful saga of crazed John E. DuPont’s point-blank murder of Schultz (DuPont died in prison in 2010).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Theater Reviews—“American Psycho,” “The Judas Kiss,” “A Doll’s House/The Father”

American Psycho
Music/lyrics by Duncan Sheik; book by Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa; directed by Rupert Goold
Performances through June 5, 2016
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY

The Judas Kiss
Written by David Hare; directed by Neil Armfield
Performances through June 12, 2016
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, New York, NY

A Doll’s House
Written by Henrik Ibsen; adapted by Thornton Wilder
The Father
Written by August Strindberg; adapted by David Greig
Both directed by Arin Arbus; performances through June 12, 2016
Theater for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY

Benjamin Walker, Jennifer Damiano and Alice Ripley in American Psycho (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
It’s not surprising that American Psycho is closing prematurely: although it will probably live on as a cult show like Sideshow or Taboo, it’s simply too weird for Broadway, and the youngish audience I saw it with—although they loved it—confirms that fact: multi-million dollar musicals can’t survive without some of the regular local or tourist crowds.

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ slick 1991 novel, a catalog of lovingly detailed killings by would-be Wall Street master of the universe Patrick Bateman, the musical doesn’t have much at its disposal except for dated references to its era (the late ‘80s) in the dialogue, visuals and music. Duncan Sheik’s score is an almost endless parade of forgettable songs, interchangeable with the mindless dance tunes its pretty people groove and sniff coke to in Manhattan’s trendy clubs.

And when Sheik lowers the volume, his lyrics—straining to be witty but only managing intermittent cleverness—unfortunately come to the fore. Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn and her vapid pals sing about how much they enjoy their superficial lives in “You Are What You Wear,” a tepidly mocking tune that actually opens with the lines, “I want blackened charred mahi mahi/it works so well with Isaac Mizrahi.”

At least the ‘80s songs that are shoehorned in—“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Hip to Be Square,”  “In the Air Tonight”—are given interestingly skewed new arrangements and come off the better for it: when a prostitute intones “I can feel it coming in the air tonight” while getting into a cab with Bateman cab for a fateful ride to his well-appointed uptown apartment, the undercurrent of menace hits harder than anything else in the show.
Lack of Tony Award consideration also doomed American Psycho, but its best features—scenic and lighting design—were justly recognized. Es Devlin’s inspired soulless set of antiseptic offices and apartments features various screens and scrims on which Finn Ross’s projections place us squarely in the materialistic hellhole of Manhattan during the Reagan years; ominous consolidation is provided by Justin Townsend’s inventively stylized lighting. Katrina Lindsay’s spot-on costumes and Lynne Page’s robotic choreography also fit the show’s creepy vibe, of which a little goes a long way.

Benjamin Walker, a sensationally charismatic Bateman, has the acting chops, powerful singing voice and impeccable pecs to make us believe he could charm his way to murderous infamy. But the talented supporting cast is ill-used, especially the spectacular Alice Ripley, who has so little to do as Patrick’s mother that she’s given other minor roles, where she has even less to do.

Jennifer Damiano, a natural stage charmer, though sweetly naive as Patrick’s love-struck secretary Jean, seems to be in a different show from everyone else. Helene Yorke—who looks fabulous in her designer bathing suit and other outfits—is fun as Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn, but she could have done so much more with better material, the ultimate failure of a lively but innocuous show.

Charlie Rowe, Cal MacAninch and Rupert Everett in The Judas Kiss (photo: Richard Termine)
When it first came to Broadway in 1998, David Hare’s play about the prelude to and aftermath of Oscar Wilde’s trials, The Judas Kiss, was marred by miscasting in the lead roles. Now, nearly two decades later in a new staging at BAM, the play has at least gained an effective Wilde.

Hare takes the measure of Wilde at his lowest, right before he is to be arrested and put on trial in London for what was then called “gross indecency”—a nervous and still puritan nation looked askance at this foreign (Irish) man of letters and impossibly witty bon vivant, which made him an irresistible target for legal action against his profligate immorality.

The first act takes place in the hotel room in which Wilde and his current lover, young Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie, are ensconced, along with Wilde’s former lover Robbie, who still takes care of Wilde’s personal affairs. The second act, a few years later, is set in Naples, where Wilde and Bosie are staying after Wilde’s two-year prison stint.

In the first act, Wilde’s witticisms and epigrams pour out of him in a desperate attempt to ward off the arrest he knows is coming. The second act finds a near-prone Wilde slumped in his chair at center stage, still tossing off stinging one-liners but obviously tired of the whole charade with Bosie, who screws other men and goes out on the town without Wilde, but keeps saying he’s been hurt the most by the scandal because he is, after all, a Lord.

While Hare has great admiration for Wilde as an artist and even greater sympathy for him as a human being, he never overcomes his own play’s creaky bipartite structure. Director Neil Armfield’s otherwise sensitive staging follows suit, further undercutting the characters by using the entire depth of the BAM Harvey stage, robbing us of any intimacy for long stretches.

Charlie Rowe’s Bosie certainly looks the part, but the actor’s one-note performance never makes his six-year-long relationship with Wilde remotely believable. Cal MacAninch’s eminently humane Robbie somewhat compensates, while Rupert Everett’s Wilde is far more persuasively epicurean than the miscast Liam Neeson in the original Broadway staging. Along with real gravitas, Everett brings a wink and a nod to the role which, even when Hare’s dramaturgy turns wobbly, allows Wilde to retain his dignity even amid the ongoing indignities.

Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson in The Father (photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Pairing Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with August Strindberg’s The Father is an inspired choice by director Arin Arbus, whose uncluttered stagings find common ground in these plays about wives suddenly deciding to re-examine their relationships with their husbands, so much so that they clear away the baggage that’s accumulated over more than a century.

Maggie Lacey’s charming but resourceful Nora centers A Doll’s House (in Thornton Wilder’s slightly musty adaptation), with John Douglas Thompson’s Torvald providing initially stolid then overwrought support. But Thompson takes the spotlight in The Father (in David Greig’s modern, and occasionally vulgar, adaptation) as the Captain, a lifelong military man and amateur scientist whose wife of 20 years, Laura, retaliates when he announces that their beloved teenaged daughter is going away to school; Thompson’s bravura performance makes the Captain simultaneously loathsome and sympathetic, while Lacey’s Laura, a most agile if desperate manipulator, gives as good as she gets.

Actual physical violence doesn’t quite rear its head in A Doll’s House, but bursts through the dam in The Father when the Captain is straitjacketed for a mental breakdown. Strindberg hated Ibsen’s play and The Father was written as a partial rebuttal—although it also owes Ibsen’s classic an enormous debt, as shown through Riccardo Hernandez’s realistic sets, Susan Hilferty’s period costumes and Marcus Doshi’s subtle lighting effects. But it’s Arbus’s artistry that makes the greatest contribution to how vividly realized both plays are.