Wednesday, October 17, 2018

October '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Ant-Man and the Wasp 
In this protracted, fitfully entertaining sequel to Ant-Man, the interplay among Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer makes it work, despite several good actors like Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena and Anthony Mackie having scandalously little to do. The effects are decent and Hannah Jones-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne and Walton Goggins are an intriguing trio of villains, but another installment is promised—oh boy. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes. 

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot 
Joaquin Phoenix’s intense but sympathetic performance as John Callahan, a caustic cartoonist who was a paraplegic and worked from a wheelchair until his death in 2010, is the main draw of Gus Van Sant’s interesting but workmanlike biopic. There’s little to distinguish this than something like The Sessions, with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, and the typically blah appearances by Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara in supporting roles don’t help; luckily, Phoenix’s committed portrayal smooths over most of the rough spots. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are two brief featurettes.

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day 
Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s gargantuan 1973 made-for-West-German-television series takes its working-class family seriously, but a few hours’ worth of material is stretched to eight, making the perceptiveness of the early scenes give way to self-parody and melodrama by the time it limps to its conclusion. Excepting the 15 1/2-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz—which, to be sure, gave the director ready-made source material in the form of the original classic novel—Fassbinder usually did better with less; the extended format gives free rein to his damaging self-indulgences. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras include a retrospective featurette comprising new interviews with actors Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Wolfgang Schenck and Hans Hirschmüller.

Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series 
(Film Movement)
Joseph W. Sarno was a straightforward purveyor of soft-core flicks in the ‘60s and ‘70s before moving into hardcore features, and this set collects three of the most typical examples of his sexploitation flicks, whose titles cheekily promise more than they deliver. Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974), Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and Warm Nights Hot Pleasures (1964) are basically teases that pretend to explore sexuality more deeply than they do; they’re interesting historical curios, at least. The films have decent hi-def transfers; extras are commentaries and deleted scenes.

The Official Story 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Luis Puenzo’s powerful 1985 drama, set in the ‘70s during Argentina’s military dictatorship, focuses on an affluent couple with a young daughter whom they illegally adopted—the mother slowly realizes the girl may be the child of one of the regime’s victims who disappeared and was presumably murdered. Puenzo’s film—which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar—retains its potency thanks to a searingly real performance by Norma Aleandro as the mother who wants to protect her daughter but realizes the moral (and mortal) implications. The new hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a four-part Puenzo interview.

CD of the Week
Weinberg—Symphony No. 13 and Serenade
I feel like a broken record extolling the virtues of Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who years after his death in 1996 suddenly had his music getting played and recorded. The always enterprising Naxos label has released several discs pairing one of his symphonies with another orchestral work, and this disc continues that tradition. The two works, both world premiere recordings, are Serenade (1952), relaxed, yearning and with little of Weinberg’s usual musical agitation; and the weighty, somber Symphony No. 13 (1976), a one-movement, 35-minute work dedicated to the composer’s mother. Vladimir Lande ably conducts the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—A.R. Gurney’s “Final Follies”

Final Follies
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by David Saint
Performances through October 21, 2018
Primary Stages, Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York, NY

Colin Hanlon and Rachel Nicks in A.R. Gurney's Final Follies (photo: James Leynse)
When A.R. Gurney died last year at age 86, we lost our most elegant playwright, a witty and urbane chronicler of the upper crust who, in the last 15 years—spurred on by outrage at the excesses of the Bush administration after September 11—became an unapologetically polemical artist, writing angry plays of the dystopia our country was rapidly becoming. (He never got to take on Trump, but it’s just as well: nothing he could have written would have out-parodied actual reality.)

Before his death, Gurney wrote a one-acter, Final Follies, which Primary Stages has coupled with two of earlier works—The Rape of Bunny Stuntz and The Love Course—for an omnibus evening titled Final Follies, a heartfelt goodbye from one of the theaters that produced his works the most.

First up, Final Follies introduces Nelson, a WASP who needs money because he thinks he’s to be cut from his grandfather’s will. He responds to a newspaper ad for work in adult films—or, as the firm’s representative Tanisha calls them, “educational films”—and becomes a big star. Nelson’s jealous brother discovers his secret and shows an offending film to their grandfather and is shocked to discover that, contrary to disowning Nelson, he admires his grandson’s artistry and daring.

Final Follies takes obvious shots—some funny, some not—at his favorite Upper East Side targets. But despite being written in 2017, there’s an old-fashioned air to the whole thing, as if the internet and social media had never been created, making it seem as if the play exists in an alternate present. It’s brightened considerably by the presence of Rachel Nicks (Tanisha) and Colin Hanlon (Nelson).

The following playlet, The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, brings its eponymous heroine (a tour de force performance by Deborah Rush) to her figurative knees as the self-confident woman slowly admits that she’s not the faithful, dutiful wife and mother she’s supposed to be. Gurney wrote the play in 1965, its absurdism indebted to Edward Albee (who produced its first New York performance at the Cherry Lane); in this age of Me Too, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

The finale, The Love Course, is a free-wheeling satire of academia as two professors conduct what for all intents and purposes is a love affair in plain sight of their students while teaching a course on the Literature of Love. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s artful and witty short stories and impressively enacted by Piter Marek and Betsy Aidem as the battling profs, it’s an amusingly goofy close to a bumpy trio of one-acts that, while minor Gurney works, are reminders of what he could achieve at his best.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

October '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
John & Yoko: Imagine/Gimme Some Truth 
(Eagle Vision)
Accompanying the massive new boxed set celebrating John Lennon’s seminal Imagine album (1971), this release contains John and Yoko’s film Imagine, which intersperses performances like the classic white-piano version of the title song with footage of the couple in New York and London, joining protests and frolicking on the beach. It’s a mixture of self-parody and self-indulgence that’s at times dated but still provides a valuable insight into Lennon as an artist, along with his famous friends like Jack Palance, Dick Cavett and Fred Astaire. Also included is Gimme Some Truth, an insightful hour-long documentary of the making of the Imagine album, with glimpses of producer Phil Spector and former Beatle George Harrison in the studio with John. Both films have been painstakingly restored in hi-def, and look (ad sound) as good as possible; extras are studio outtakes of the songs “Imagine,” “How?” and “Gimme Some Truth,” and a glimpse at a David Bailey photo shoot.

(Warner Archive)
In Michael Crichton’s 1981 futuristic thriller, early computer-generated effects play a big role in this convoluted story of a plastic surgeon looking into the murders of the beautiful models who were his patients: although Albert Finney, James Coburn, Susan Dey and Leigh Taylor-Young look embarrassed at times speaking the borderline risible dialogue, there’s a certain prescience in Crichton’s cautionary tale of malevolent technology. The film has an adequate hi-def transfer; extras are writer-director Crichton’s intro and commentary and an eight-minute sequence added to the network television version.

Queen of Outer Space 
(Warner Archive)
This 1958 campfest, shot on the sets of other sci-fi movies of its era like Forbidden Planet and World Without End, follows its male astronauts to Venus, which is exclusively populated by females, but since this is a 1958 campfest not much happens except for some wink wink nudge nudging and innocent embraces and kisses. Among the women are Zsa Zsa Gabor and Laurie Mitchell, who plays the masked queen of Venus hiding her deformed face; the men are much less interesting. There’s a solid hi-def transfer and a commentary featuring Mitchell.

(Cohen Media)
Vincent Lindon has made his name playing ordinary people living quotidian lives, but he gets his teeth into the larger-than-life figure of French sculptor Auguste Rodin in Jacques Doillon’s warts-and-all biopic that concentrates on his volatile relationship with fellow sculptor (and protégé) Camille Claudel—played with equal intensity by French pop singer Izïa Higelin. Doillon, like fellow Frenchman Maurice Pialat in Van Gogh, strips the master’s life story to its essentials, mostly eschewing music and melodrama to create this engrossing portrait of the artist. The hi-def transfer is exceptional; lone extra is a 30-minute making-of.

The Swarm 
(Warner Archive)
When disaster-movie maven Irwin Allen made this hokey thriller in 1978, killer bees were all the rage, so there was a scientific basis to the premise, but the script is chockful of holes, there are many howlers in the dialogue and the clichéd characters are lazily embodied by an all-star cast of Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Katharine Ross, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Richard Chamberlain and, in a bizarre scene, Slim Pickens. A few bee-killing scenes are effective, but at 2-1/2 hours—more than 30 minutes was added to the original theatrical release—The Swarm simply goes on and on and on. The hi-def transfer is excellent.

DVD of the Week
Mister Rogers—It’s You I Like 
This lovely valentine to Fred Rogers, whose decency and goodness shone on his beloved children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is an OK overview of his legacy and how much he affected people, families, children and adults. Host Michael Keaton guides us through interviews with celebrities and people associated with the show, and clips of Rogers on the show remind us how slyly subversive this conservative Republican was on our TV screens for decades. This PBS program can be seen as an adjunct to the feature documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which covers the same material. Extras are an additional 30 minutes of footage.

CD of the Week 
Gerald Finzi—Cello Concerto and Piano Works
British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) finished writing his dramatic and sweeping Cello Concerto about a year before his untimely death of Hodgkin’s at age 55—the concerto actually had its premiere the night before he died. The first movement’s storminess no doubt alludes to his disease, the quieter middle movement is a loving portrait of the composer’s wife and the upbeat finale makes for a most satisfying resolution. Cellist Paul Watkins plays the solo part with thrilling artistry, and Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provide notable accompaniment. This superb disc is rounded out by two attractive piano and orchestra works, Eclogue and Grand Fantasia and Toccata—with Louis Lortie impressively handling the solo parts—and the moody orchestral work, Nocturne (New Year Music).

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—“The True” with Edie Falco

The True
Written by Sharr White; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through October 28, 2018
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Michael McKean and Edie Falco in The True (photo: Monique Carboni)
The 1970s political battles in Albany, of all places, don’t sound like the most enticing subject matter for a play, but Sharr White—whose earlier The Other Place and The Snow Geese left me cold—has pulled it off with The True, an absorbing drama that smartly concentrates on the personalities behind the politics. 

The True centers around Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, the right-hand woman of Albany mayor Erastus Corning 2nd for decades. (She was also Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother; kudos to White for not shoehorning that irrelevant information into his play.) Erastus was the poster boy for the city’s Democratic party machine, reigning as mayor from the 1930s until his death in 1983. His stranglehold was such that only a grassroots candidacy in 1973 came close to toppling him. White sets his play in 1977, the year of the lone primary fight Erastus ever had, and shows Polly—who began as Erastus’s secretary and soon became his closest confidante (although their relationship was, by all accounts, strictly professional)—working her behind-the-scenes magic to help Erastus win that battle and, eventually, the election.

Although it doesn’t sound like the stuff of urgent stage drama, The True keeps its singular focus on people rather than political machinations and in-fighting (interesting as they are). Polly, a brash, foul-mouthed spitfire, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, while husband Peter is her opposite, his quiet, steady demeanor the yang to her yin.

The closest The True comes to soap opera is when Erastus decides to drop Polly (and by extension Peter, even though they’ve all been close friends for years) as his adviser because his wife doesn’t like that another woman takes up so much of his time as primary season approaches. The play’s middle section sags slightly as Erastus first resists Polly and Peter’s entreaties, deferring to his wife’s wishes, then decides he does need the Noonans—particularly Polly—bad optics be damned.

But The True still rings true, thanks to White’s incisive writing and Scott Elliott’s deft direction, culminating in a potent coup de theatre not in the script. The estimable cast features Peter Scolari, whose Peter is a gracious and understated support system to Polly, and Michael McKean, whose Erastus is a full-bodied, complex man caught between personal and professional loyalty.

Centering The True, however, is Edie Falco, who embodies Polly with her usual vivid zestiness and an effortless ability to make ordinary women anything but ordinary. Falco’s riveting performance even has a slight tragic air nicely balancing the ample humor she displays throughout.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

October '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Handel’s dazzling opera has meaty roles for a pair of sublime singing actresses, and Robert Carson’s otherwise goofy modern-dress production set in the board rooms, bedrooms and poolsides of political and financial players has two of the best. American soprano Danielle de Niese and British soprano Patricia Bardon sound exactly right and look fab in Gideon Davey’s costumes. It’s all a bit drawn out for my taste, but whenever De Niese and Bardon are holding forth, all is right with the baroque world. Hi-def audio and video are terrific. 

John Travolta’s one-dimensional John Gotti—much more Joe Pesci than real-life gangster—may be giggle-inducing, his shaky performance not a patch on the other good actors in the cast. But even they—Travolta’s own wife Kelly Preston and veteran Stacy Keach—are also lost in director Kevin Connolly’s messy, by-the-numbers biopic that isn’t awful so much as dull. There’s an ace hi-def transfer, but no extras.

(Greenwich Entertainment)
This breathtaking climbing documentary was shot by Australian director Jennifer Peedom and an intrepid crew all over the world, from Alaska and Australia to Norway and Tibet, following the brave, foolhardy men and women who’ve made climbing—and even parachuting among peaks —their passion. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, the film has stunning vistas complemented by an eclectic musical score from Vivaldi to Part that’s performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Needless to say, the sights look spectacular on Blu; extras include interviews and featurettes.

Malevolent aliens take over the earth but find the going tough against the citizens of a small Australian town who show their basic humanity by fighting back against seemingly insurmountable odds in director Luke Sparke’s routine sci-fi adventure. There’s not much to distinguish this scrappy entry from others of its type, and the battle sequences are even more risible than the talky ones, to the film’s eternal debit. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.

Scarlet Diva 
(Film Movement)
There’s no denying the daring and self-confidence in actress Asia Argento’s debut as a triple-threat director-writer-star, but her semi-autobiographical 2000 drama about a self-destructive young actress has been colored by recent revelations about her own #MeToo accusations and the suicide of her boyfriend Anthony Bourdain. The scene in which Argento escapes from a sleazy, disgusting Hollywood producer’s bedroom is obviously based on Harvey Weinstein, which makes it even more difficult to watch. The film was shot on digital, so the hi-def transfer is a little murky; extras include two Argento commentaries (2002 and 2018), Argento interview and making-of featurette.

The Toybox 
We’ve already had thrillers about inanimate objects unleashed against humans, from the rolling tires in Rubber to killer vehicles in Duel and Christine. So the choice of a murderous Winnebago in this demented little movie isn’t surprising. For 90 minutes, director Tom Nagel gleefully kills off an old man, young girl and more adults than one would think could fit in a trailer, and if the premise is ridiculous—it has to do with the inhabiting spirit of a serial killer—that doesn’t really concern him—or us. It’s not much of a comeback vehicle (pun intended) for Denise Richards or Mischa Barton, but they try their damnedest anyway. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras are a commentary and making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week 
Billions—Complete 3rd Season 
The stakes are high in these 10 episodes of Showtime’s high-finance drama, as former prosecutor Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and hedge-fund billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damien Lewis) decide to team up instead of staying at each other’s throats. Whatever its faults—and there are some, mainly in the too-clever writing—Billions has one of the best acting ensembles around, from Giamatti and Lewis as former adversaries turned compatriots, and others who are on the periphery but in important roles, like Malin Akerman, Asia Kate Dillon, Condola Rashad and Kelly AuCoin. But best of all is Maggie Siff, whose subtle, slow-burning portrayal of Wendy, Chuck’s wife and Axe’s closest confidant, is worth watching the entire series for. Extras are two featurettes. 

Scorpion—The Final Season 
In the fourth and final season of Scorpion, the group of brainiacs has its biggest, toughest and most dangerous assignment yet—but everyone is, with a few bumps here and there, is up to the task at hand. This silly but fun series has run its course, and now that one of the most charmingly natural actresses around, Katharine McPhee, is free again, maybe she can go back to doing more musicals on Broadway. Extras are featurettes, a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Broadway Play Review—“The Nap”

The Nap
Written by Richard Bean; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through November 11, 2018
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Ben Schnetzer and Heather Lind in The Nap (photo: Joan Marcus)
Richard Bean hit it big with One Man Two Guv’nors, but based on the hot mess that is his latest, The Nap, it’s clear his earlier play succeeded because 1) it was based on a classic Italian play by Carlo Goldoni and 2) it had a bravura turn by James Corden in the lead.

Bean has neither this time around; instead, there’s a gimmick: snooker, a British variation of pool, which not only drives the plot but is also the climax, as the World Snooker Championship final occurs onstage and the play’s ending depends on which character wins.

Bean’s title is a heavy-handed metaphor for his protagonist. Dylan Spokes, a fine snooker player from Sheffield competing in the championship in (you guessed it) Sheffield, tells attractive young cop Eleanor—who, with snooker organization rep Mohammed, explain to Dylan that they need his help against an organized crime ring betting on him to throw a frame of his next game—that shooting the ball with, rather than against, the felt-like material covering a snooker table allows the player to play straight, rather than crooked. 

Bean doesn’t trust his material, so he pads his play mercilessly. For example, Dylan’s father, Bobby, is a wastrel whose only narrative function is to babble on when nothing else is happening. Bobby wastes a good chunk of time trying to remember the title of the movie Moonstruck; not content with subjecting the audience to this unfunny diversion in the first act, in the second act Bean repeats it, as Bobby tries to remember the title to the movie The Grifters, a ham-fisted underlining of what The Nap is nominally about.

The Nap ends with a game of snooker played onstage, which makes for a diverting few minutes, partly thanks to dry audio commentary by BBC analyst voices. (A deadpan “vegetarian” is the play’s funniest line.) But too much of The Nap doesn’t parse, and its willfully benighted characters are far less interesting over the course of two-plus wearying hours than their author believes.

Puerile writing aside, director Daniel Sullivan puts in surprisingly undistinguished work; the cleverness of David Rockwell’s sets and Justin Townsend’s lighting doesn’t arrest how slowly the show crawls along. The cast is unable to transcend Bean’s caricatures, although Heather Lind’s charming Eleanor and Ben Schnetzer’s sympathetic Dylan come close. Unlike his protagonist, Bean plays against The Nap, causing errant shots throughout.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

September '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Andrei Rublev 
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 biographical epic about the medieval Russian icon painter is a mesmerizing classic crammed with sweeping visuals and intimate moments that paint an indelible picture of an artist and culture more than half a millennium old. In this typically thorough Criterion package, both Tarkovsky’s 183-minute preferred cut and original 205-minute version, titled The Passion According to Andrei, are included, the former looking particularly impressive in restored hi-def; voluminous extras include commentaries, featurettes and Tarkovsky’s student thesis film, 1961’s The Steamroller and the Violin.

Art of the Prank 
Joey Skaggs might be unknown to the general public, but he’s become infamous for his many media hoaxes over several decades, which are recounted with equal parts whimsy and seriousness in director Andrea Marini’s sympathetic portrait of a man who may well be the creator of “fake news.” The movie centers around his latest public prank, which is better discovered when you watch the film, to show that media manipulation might be the easiest thing in the world (as a certain White House occupant proves every day). There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are interviews and featurettes.

The Big Bang Theory—Complete 11th Season 
(Warner Bros)
For the big hit comedy series’ latest season, the plots and jokes may seem recycled, but the cast—Kalie Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, and Kunal Nayyar, for starters—is still hitting on all comic cylinders in these 24 episodes. On Blu-ray, the show looks good; among the extras, which include featurettes and a gag reel, there’s a touching remembrance of and memorial to Stephen Hawking, a fan of the show who appeared several times before his death earlier this year.

Big Wednesday 
(Warner Archive)
John Milius’ 1978 memoir was supposed to be a huge nostalgic blockbuster, a la American Graffiti: even Steven Spielberg, no less, thought that it was going to be a smash hit. Instead, it tanked, as critics and audiences considered it another mindless surfing flick. At two hours, it has a lot on its plate, but the acting by Jan Michael Vincent, Gary Busey and William Katt is painfully uneven, the script by Milius and Dennis Aaberg is scattershot, and Milius’ directing is so bludgeoning that the Big Moments all become little ones. The Blu-ray at least has an excellent hi-def transfer.

Exorcist II—The Heretic 
(Scream Factory)
Upon its release, John Boorman’s 1977 sequel to the biggest horror film of all time was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences; 41 years later, the movie hasn’t improved—Richard Burton overacts, Louise Fletcher and Linda Blair underact, and a horde of locusts outacts everyone—but what surrounds it is far more interesting, thanks to Scream Factory’s extras. There are glistening hi-def transfers of Boorman’s original, messy 117-minute cut and the even more incoherent 102-minute version; informative commentaries by Boorman and “Special Project Consultant” Scott Michael Bosco; and Linda Blair’s discussion of what went wrong in a short but in-depth interview.

Lucifer—Complete 3rd Season 
(Warner Archive)
In the latest season showing how the prince of darkness infiltrated 21st century American life, Lucifer continues his professional relationship with the LAPD, especially detective Chloe Decker, who helped rid the world of his dastardly Mom (who returns as murdered lawyer Charlotte Roberts). The 26 episodes are light-hearted and—unsurprisingly—silly, which is mitigated by the charm of leads Tom Ellis and Ellen German, and entertaining support from the likes of Lesley-Ann Brandt and D. B. Woodside. There’s a sharp hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, two featurettes and a gag reel.

Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Concert—Encore 
(Time Life)
This set collects the induction ceremonies from 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, which were highlighted by massive outpourings of emotional support from audiences and musicians for Genesis (2010) and especially Rush (2013), when uber-fans Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins not only inducted the band but played its prog-rock classic “Overture” from 2112. Best of the induction speeches are Elton John’s heartfelt one for Leon Russell (2011) and the late Chris Cornell’s for Heart (2013); Alice in Chains leader Jerry Cantrell even jammed on rousing versions of “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” with the Wilson sisters. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

Keanu Reeves seems content to make barely-released action films that let him travel to Europe and work with nubile young actresses; his latest in this vein casts him as an American diamond merchant in Russia—who speaks fluent Russian—who gets involved with organized crime and travels to Siberia after his partner disappears. As lukewarm thrillers go, it’s watchable, and Reeves has real chemistry with Romanian actress Ana Ularu, who plays the beautiful (and available) woman who (of course) falls for and helps him. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

DVDs of the Week 
Brothers David and Nathan Zellner’s western has a deliberately misleading title because nothing is as it seems in this evocative, occasionally grisly exploration of what it means to be a hero or villain in a dangerous world. Robert Pattison gives a strong performance as a man traversing rugged landscapes to, he thinks, rescue the love of his life (Mia Wasikowska) from her husband, which is only the beginning of a surprising journey helped by Adam Stone’s splendid photography and fine acting all around.

(First Run)
In this first-person documentary, Serena Dykman introduces her grandmother Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, a Polish Jew whose heartrending accounts of barely surviving the Nazis are shown through valuable clips of interviews and Q&As she gave throughout her post-war life in France. Dykman is a novice director, but emotions never overwhelm her: she worships her grandmother as an unsung heroine, but has still made a lucid, tender and fascinating tribute that fully encapsulates the phrase “never forget.”

CD of the Week 
Ralph Vaughan Williams—A Sea Symphony 
Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of our most colossally underrated composers, especially in regards to his symphonies, of which he completed nine between 1903 and 1958. The first, A Sea Symphony, is a massive structure, more than an hour long and, based as it is on Walt Whitman poems, filled with choral and solo singing throughout its four movements. This recording, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under conductor Martyn Brabbins, with soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, catches the work’s majestic sweep and irresistible forward motion. Also included is Darest thou now, o soul, a short Whitman setting the composer wrote in 1925, some 20 years after the symphony.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

September '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
Cold Water 
French director Olivier Assayas’s 1994 breakthrough was this cutting, insightful exploration of disaffected youth, circa 1972; part of a series of films about young people, Cold Water goes far beyond that, and not only is it Assayas’s triumph—his use of period songs far betters Scorcese’s—but also that of his leading lady, Virginie Ledoyen, who was a then 17-year-old stunner bringing the director’s vision to vivid life. The film looks sharp on Blu; extras are new interviews with Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir, and a vintage TV interview with Assayas, Ledoyen and actor Cyprien Fouquet.

The Looming Tower 
(Warner Bros)
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.
This riveting multi-part Hulu limited series, based on Lawrence Wright’s brilliant book, recounts the events, mishaps and unlucky breaks that allowed the Sept. 11th attacks to happen while the FBI and CIA spent too much time squabbling. Superbly directed, concisely written and filled with nuanced performances by Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlberg, Tahar Rahim and Bill Camp, this is essential viewing, even—or especially—if you know what inevitably happens. The hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras comprise several featurettes and audio commentaries.

The Miniaturist 
(PBS Masterpiece)
From a novel by Jessie Burton that a mash-up of The Girl with a Pearl Earring (17th century Holland setting) and The Draughtsman’s Contract (an artist unmasks a family’s dark, hidden secrets), this three-part mini-series is an intermittently absorbing 2-1/2 hour-long costume drama encompassing homosexuality, interracial relationships, malicious patriarchy and—finally if most implausibly—21st century feminism. It’s well-done and extremely well-acted by a cast led by Anya Taylor-Joy and Romola Garai, but the underwhelming plot makes it a chore to watch at times. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; lone extra is a 45-minute behind the scenes featurette.

The Naked and the Dead 
(Warner Archive)
Based on Norman Mailer’s first novel about soldiers battling the enemy and one another in World War II, this 1958 adaptation has solid directing by Raoul Walsh and a fine ensemble cast that includes Cliff Robertson, Joey Bishop, Aldo Ray, Raymond Massey and Richard Jaeckel. But since the script has little bite and the men are given typically melodramatic problems, this ends up as a good-looking but defanged war film. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray makes Joseph LaShelle’s color cinematography look sumptuous.

Ocean's 8 
(Warner Bros)
In this breezy gender-reversed Oceans 11, eight women plan a daring heist during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Fashion Gala, which allows for some tongue-in-cheek overlapping between the characters in the movie and the actresses who play them, notably fashion mavens like Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Rhianna. The movie itself is so wispy as to be forgotten right after watching it, but it’s still enjoyable despite the shortcomings. The film has a superior hi-def transfer; extras include 2 brief deleted scenes, interviews and featurettes.

Supergirl—Complete 3rd Season 
(Warner Bros)
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.
In the latest season of adventures for the 20-something cousin of Superman, Kara Zor-El has difficulty keeping her alter ego (Daily Planet reporter Kara Danvers) and real identity separated, as she also deals with losing Mon-El twice and the appearance of a new nemesis called Reign. The fetching performance of Melissa Benoist gives this juvenile series its main attraction, now that actress Laura Benanti—who had played Kara’s mom, Alura, with spirited urgency—is gone. Still, the season’s 23 episodes fly by, and the hi-def transfer is superb. Extras are four DC Comics crossover episodes, excerpts from DC TV’s Comic-Con Panels San Diego 2017, featurettes Inside the Crossover: Crisis on Earth-X and She Will Reign!, a gag reel and deleted scenes. 

CD of the Week 
Leonard Bernstein—Wonderful Town 
(LSO Live)
Celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sir Simon Rattle gives the Bernstein/Adolph Green/Betty Comden Broadway musical a whirl, providing effervescent orchestral accompaniment to some of Bernstein’s most playful melodies. The cast, especially Danielle de Niese and Alysha Umphress as the Ohio sisters trying to make it in the big city, has sass in spades; highlights include de Niese’s “A Little Bit in Love,” Umphress’s “Conga” and Nathan Gunn’s “A Quiet Girl.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

September '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
With Ed Helms in the lead, this mainly inane comedy about grown men acting like children (based on a true story) tries to equal the vapidity of Helms's biggest hit, The Hangover; indeed, there are several moments that reach that movie’s embarrassingly crude lows. But however often it scrapes the bottom of the comedic barrel, it has just enough energy from a game cast that throws itself into the lunacy with aplomb, especially Jeremy Renner’s proto-Bourne character; the exaggerated use of slo-mo gets the most laughs. The film looks pristine on Blu; extras comprise a featurette, deleted scenes and gag reel.

Found Footage 3D 
Do we need yet another found-footage horror flick? Well, maybe: this one is as unnecessarily crude, dully-acted and predictable as the others—with the added bonus of it being in gimmicky 3D, if anyone still wants to watch with those stupid glasses on—but at least it injects some self-referential humor into the proceedings. It doesn’t always work, but it remains halfway entertaining even while it clumsily falls apart, which is something, I guess. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include deleted scenes, etc.

One of the most imbecile horror movies I’ve ever seen, writer-director Ari Aster’s risible drama is as ridiculously silly as they come, with the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. Not only does he steal brazenly from The Shining’s visuals and music (the opening shot, among others, is a direct Kubrick rip-off, and the score by Colin Stetson is nothing but an empty lift from Penderecki and Ligeti), but he has none of Kubrick’s artistry or originality. Poor Toni Collette’s performance is pitched so high that she makes Nicholson’s Shining work look positively understated. And the bizarrely insane ending must be seen to be disbelieved, coming after two hours of complete nonsense. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are deleted scenes and a featurette.

The Last Hunt 
(Warner Archive)
Shot on the actual locations in South Dakota—scenic Custer State Park and foreboding Badlands National Monument (now National Park)—Richard Brooks’ familiar but efficient 1956 western follows hunters shooting down magnificent bison during the area’s annual bison cull (which is actually shown in the film). Stewart Granger is fine as the hunter whose last hunt this is, but the drama of the puny humans is secondary to the majesty of the locales and the animals themselves in living color. The hi-def transfer is transfixing.

Supernatural—Complete 13th Season 
(Warner Bros)
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.)
It’s rare that a non-Law and Order or Shonda Rhimes drama lasts on network television as long as this lighthearted fantasy that spells out its wide-ranging dimensions in its very title, but after 13 years—and with its 14th season upcoming this fall—Supernatural still churns out not very original but watchable tales of two brothers battling various antagonistic creatures. You would have thought that Sam and Dean had already gone up against every supernatural being around, but this latest season will set you straight. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes, commentaries, featurettes and a gag reel.

DVDs of the Week
The Escape 
Gemma Arterton gives a touching and subtle performance as a harried wife who decides to leave her husband and son behind and head to Paris, where she meets (natch) the ultimate alluring foreigner, allowing her to contemplate emotional and sexual freedom. Director-writer Dominic Savage telegraphs everything without arriving at any insight into his heroine’s behavior, except that she’s sick of it all. But Arterton provides the needed subtext through a simple brief look or the mere raising of an eyebrow whenever her director can’t do so.

Laugh-In—Complete Final Season 
The sixth and final season of one of the goofiest but politically astute variety shows to grace the small screen came in 1972-3 when Nixon’s White House fortunes were taking a turn for the worse, and this set captures all 24 episodes led by ringmasters Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. Among the guests for this last ride include Steve Allen, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell, Sammy Davis Jr., Angie Dickinson, Phyllis Diller, Jack Klugman, Rich Little, Don Rickles and Sally Struthers—but there’s no Tricky Dick saying “sock it to me,” and the regular cast itself received a makeover into obscurity: I’ll bet you don’t know who Patti Deutsch, Jud Strunk, Willie Tyler & Lester or Sarah Kennedy are.

That Summer 
(Sundance Selects)
Here’s a more celebrated found-footage movie than the 3D one above, put together by director Göran Hugo Olsson from film shot in 1972 at the Beale’s East Hampton compound by famed photographer Peter Beard and others (including one of the Maysles brothers, who returned to make Grey Gardens a few years later). Mother and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie Beale became celebrities despite—or perhaps because of—their living in a garbage- and cat-strewn home, and there’s a profound sense of sadness that underlies what we watch, especially since we know what happened to both women. Beard and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister and Big Edie’s niece) narrate.

CD of the Week 
Anne Akiko Meyers—Mirror in Mirror 
For her latest and arguably most personal album yet, violin virtuoso Anne Akiko Meyers plays music inspired or commissioned by her, including John Corigliano’s lovely Lullaby for Natalie (for the violinist’s first child) and two works by Jakob Ciupinski, which hauntingly combine electronic and acoustic instrumentation. (Elsewhere, Ciupinski’s electronics slightly detract from Meyers’ impassioned performance of Ravel’s Tzigane.) Front and center throughout is Meyers’ violin, capable of a seemingly unlimited palette of direct emotion and masterly technique that takes even the most minimalist of these pieces (like Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis II or Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Speigel, whose English translation gives the album its evocative title) into the musical stratosphere.