Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Deep Purple with Orchestra—Live in Verona 
(Eagle Rock)
For the British hard rockers' 2011 outdoor concert at a gorgeous ancient Roman amphitheater in Verona, Italy, the group—comprising original members Ian Paice (drums), Ian Gillan (vocals) and Roger Glover (bass), with guitarist Steve Morse and keyboardist Don Airey—is abetted by the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt orchestra, led by conductor Stephen Bentley-Klein, which brings a welcome and heavy richness to such Purple tunes as the opening "Highway Star" and "Woman from Tokyo." But the undoubted audience favorites are all-time classics "Perfect Strangers," "Hush" and, of course, "Smoke on the Water." The band is in fine form, and even if Gillan can't hit all the notes, there's still a strength to his singing. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great. Bonuses are encore tracks (why not just have the full concert uninterrupted?).

The Following—Complete 2nd Season 
A year after closing the gruesome case of serial killer Joe Carroll, ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy finds himself once again ensnared in a bizarre and murderous cult of Carroll followers—and could the serial killer himself still be alive? Throughout its 15 high-wire-drama episodes, this dramatic series ratches up the psychological tension, although the implausibilities in plot and characterizations keep this from being better; the cast, by an appropriately stern-faced Kevin Bacon as Hardy, does the best it can. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras comprise deleted scenes, featurettes and an alternate ending to the season finale.

(Anchor Bay)
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's first English language film is a stylishly empty post-apocalyptic dystopia about a future Ice Age where a speeding train holds humanity's survivors, and where a class war is brewing between the haves and have-nots on board. There's not much tautness or excitement in this two-hour adventure, and the direction often allows the pace to slacken, which doesn't help. Also unhelpful are performances that are either wooden (Chris Evans' hero) or hopelessly overwrought (Ed Harris, John Hurt, Alison Pill, a mercilessly mugging Tilda Swinton). On Blu-ray, the movie looks appropriately icy; extras comprise a critics' roundtable commentary, with a second disc of featurettes and interviews.

(Anchor Bay)
Shep Gordon, the title mensch, took Alice Cooper's career into the stratosphere in the early '70s, then went on to manage stars as diverse as Teddy Pendergrass, Ann Murray and Emeril Lagasse. For director (and good friend) Mike Myers, Shep is one of the friendliest, most honorable people in the world, as multi-millionaires go: his admittedly varied and interesting life encompasses the pop music scene of the '70s and '80s, and tidbits like how he got a wheelchair-bound Pendergrass to perform at Live Aid are the juiciest kind of morsels. The hi-def image looks good; no extras.

Tasting Menu 
This lightweight but amiable lark spends 85 minutes in a Catalan restaurant on the night it's shuttering its doors, and the special diners comprise VIPs and ordinary people who get entangled—in an out-of-left-field twist—in an attempt to rescue survivors of a sunken boat that containing the restaurant's musicians and dessert! Director/co-writer Roger Gual and writer Javier Calvo cleverly intertwine the various characters, and the actors from Stephen Rea and Fonanula Flannagan to Claudia Bassols and Marta Torne give it all, making this delicious if ultimately not very filling. The Blu-ray image looks superb; no extras.

DVDs of the Week
Corpus Christi 
(Breaking Glass)
Terrance McNally's play Corpus Christi—about a gay Jesus and apostles—premiered in New York in 1998 with metal detectors and a police presence, so to say it's controversial is an understatement. Nick Arnzen and James Brandon's effective documentary shows how a recent production of the play affects its cast, director, creator and protesters (who of course haven't seen it), giving it life beyond the stage. The play itself is honest and heartfelt, as are the people who discuss its importance in their lives. Extras comprise scenes from the play, deleted scenes and additional interviews.

For a Woman 
(Film Movement)
Diane Kurys—who hasn't been represented stateside since 1999's Children of the Century—wrote and directed this engrossing story of two sisters who find, after their mother's death, what she, their father and his brother did as Russian Jews in Paris during the volatile post-WWII era. Kurys finds a fresh way to tell a familiar story, and her actors, led by Benoit Magimel, Micholas Duvauchelle and Melaine Thierry as a dangerous love triangle, give trenchant performances. A bit of soap opera prevents it being truly first-rate, but it's heartening to see that Kurys still makes interesting and mature films after nearly 40 years. Lone extra is a short French film.

The Last Sentence
(Music Box)
Swedish director Jan Troell—whose most recent masterpiece was Everlasting Moments—usually makes films about real people with a love and understanding of the complications in even the most ordinary of lives. His protagonist in his new film is Torgny Segerstedt, a Swedish journalist who was unafraid to mock Hitler and the Nazis, which placed his reputation and his country's neutrality in jeopardy. Troell films it with his customary intelligence and probing camera (shot in evocative B&W); too bad his cast (which features well-known actors like Pernilla August) isn't quite up to the task. Still, it's a serious, sober film whose message resonantes across the decades. The lone extra is an extraordinary making-of documentary, the 44-minute A Close Scrutiny, by Troell's daughter, actress Yohanna Troell.

Nuclear Nation 
Uranium Drive-In 
Wagner's Jews 
(First Run)
Atsushi Funahashi's Nuclear Nation devastatingly recounts the aftermath of the tsunami which crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, and how it not only displaced an entire town—Futaba, where the plant is located—but destroyed the psyche of its people. Suzan Beraza's Uranium Drive-In unblinkingly looks at how the promise of a new mining plant in a depressed part of Colorado is a boon for some desperate people and a bane for others. Finally, Hilan Warshaw's Wagner's Jews delves into the anti-Semitic ravings of the great German composer, who literally used many Jewish artists to keep his music front and center even as he belittled their race. Most thought-provoking are the comments by several scholars who discuss whether Wagner should be performed in Israel. Extras include interviews and deleted scenes.

Martin Provost, who made a compelling biopic about French painter Seraphine Louis a few years ago, returns with another provocative, encompassing biography: this time of French writer Violette Le Duc, an unsung member of the mid-20th century literary set that included Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet. Le Duc's violent life and art are brought to vivid life by Provost and his superb actresses: Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kilberlein as Simone give the kind of effortless but intensely focused portrayals that uncover psychological truths about both of these fascinating women. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Broadway Review—Donald Margulies' "The Country House"

The Country House
Written by Donald Margulies; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through November 23, 2014
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Kate Jennings Grant, Daniel Sunjata, Blythe Danner in The Country House (photo: Joan Marcus)
At his best, playwright Donald Margulies has a rare gift for creating characters whose very down-to-earth realism makes them iconic, as in Dinner with Friends and Sight Unseen. At his less than best—as in his latest play, The Country House—Margulies still penetratingly analyzes his characters, although there is something lacking in the plotting, exposition and his usual insightfulness.

The Country House sounds as generic as its title: this is a play about actors who converge on the Berkshires each summer to perform at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The central character, matriarch Anna Patterson, is the grand dame of Williamstown, and holds forth in the house, which she and her late husband have owned for decades, for the first time since the death of her beloved daughter Kathy. (The play is dedicated to actress Dana Reeve, who died in 2006 of lung cancer.)

Staying with Anna are her granddaughter, level-headed college student Susie; her son, perennially auditioning actor and budding playwright Eliot; Susie's father (and Kathy's widower), famous movie director Walter Keegan, who arrives with his new (much younger) girlfriend Nell; and superstar hunk (and beloved TV doctor) Michael Astor, in town to return to his stage roots for the summer, and invited by Anna—who met him at the local supermarket—to crash at their house while his own sublet is being fumigated.

So Margulies sets up a tragicomic Chekhovian journey, with readily identifiable characters sketched in short of outright caricature. That Anna is played by the luminous Blythe Danner—herself a big Williamstown presence for many years—is one of the play's many in-jokes. But Margulies also piles up contrivances more than is warranted for a playwright of his stature, even if it must be admitted that the gimmicky situations and relationships are so well written from scene to scene that they never fatally compromise the play, only make it teeter on a weakened foundation.

It's no surprise that we discover that Nell had a short fling with Eliot years before, and that he still pines for her; or that Eliot has written a nakedly autobiographical play that the households reads through; or that Anna all but ignored her son Eliot while putting her darling daughter Kathy on a pedestal; or that Susie's had a crush on family friend Michael since she was a toddler; or that Nell and Michael are intensely attracted to each other. That last leads to the play's biggest contrivance, which makes for a pre-intermission surprise: but it's so well prepared for by Margulies' crafty writing, the cast's excellent acting and Daniel Sullivan's artful direction that it works, at least at that very moment. Just don't think about it too much.

The Country House works like a perfectly oiled machine, which is the problem. As resourceful a writer as Margulies is; as forceful and funny as his jabs at theater, movies and TV are; as dexterously knitted together as is the superb cast of six—with special mention to David Rasche for his blustery but droll Walter, a once-hailed director reduced to making movies for 15 year old boys; as well-paced as Daniel Sullivan's direction is on John Lee Beatty's meticulously detailed set, The Country House is ultimately less than the sum of its many proficient parts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October '14 Digital Week II

Boxed Set of the Week
The Wonder Years 
This massive set is the Holy Grail for Wonder Years fans: every episode of the beloved half-hour show, on ABC from 1988 to 1994—that's 115 episodes in all—are housed on  26 discs, so the entire dramatic and comedic arc of this wise and wonderful character study of young baby boomer kids growing up and going to school in the volatile Vietnam era can be enjoyed and savored. There's superlative acting by Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Olivia d'Abo, Alley Miles and Dan Lauria, while narrator Daniel Stern provides the precise tone of wistful looking back. 

Inside a metal locker, the discs fit into two school binders, and there are also booklets and photographs; voluminous extras include commentaries, interviews and featurettes. (One complaint: the discs slide into the binders' pages very tightly, so be careful when pulling them out—several of mine were scratched.) Finally, the reason this set took so long to arrive on DVD—getting clearances for 285 popular songs from the era—is one of its most salient features: there are classics by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and even Joe Cocker, whose brilliant cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends" is the series' perfect title theme.  

Blu-rays of the Week
Chinese Puzzle 
(Cohen Media)
The third film in a trilogy about handsome writer Xavier and his relationships with women—after L'Auberge espagnole and Russian Dolls—is the kind of movie that director Cedric Klapisch could make in his sleep: that's not necessarily a criticism, since no one makes such slick, charming but ultimately paper-thin comedies of manners as Klapisch. His cast is uniformly strong—with Romain Duras, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly and Cecile de France are at their charismatic best—and there are amusing explorations of New York City through the eyes of Frenchman Xavier, but at two hours, Klpaisch ends up repeating himself. The hi-def image looks first rate; a nice complement of extras comprises 35 minutes of interviews and a 50-minute making-of.

Million Dollar Arm 
In this entertaining sports picture based on a true story, Jon Hamm plays a sports agent at the end of his professional rope who decides to go to India and find a new pitcher that could crash the majors—and, of course, he does! (Not one, but two, actually: both pitchers are in the Pittsburgh Pirates organziation now.) This agreeable movie could lose 10-15 minutes with no loss of effectiveness, but Hamm is charming, Lake Bell wonderfully eccentric as his love interest, and the Indian cricket backdrop is nicely rendered. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras include an alternate ending, deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes.

One of the weirdest entries in the bizarro world of conservative filmmaking is this straw-man entry about a world in which religious liberty gives way to a new law forcing all religions to give others equal time, and a famous preacher finds himself facing a trumped-up murder charge when he doesn't go along with a powerful senator who sponsored the legislation. This screed isn't even inept enough to be mocked mercilessly; rather, it's just humorless, strident and boring. Any movie in which Fox News' bubbleheaded bleach blonde Gretchen Carlson gives the most persuasive performance is seriously lacking in every way. The movie does looks good on Blu; extras (only on the DVD version, for some reason) are a commentary, featurette and interviews.

Sharknado 2—The Second One 
Of course, the sequel to a cheesy movie about a hurricane-like storm that rains down killer sharks on an unsuspecting populace would have to be even cheesier and more addle-brained than the original: that said, there's some ludicrously guilty fun to be had, especially the cheerfully idiotic scenes of the Statue of Liberty's severed head rolling down a Manhattan street or sharks chewing up subway riders after a Mets game. It's nice to see that Viveca Fox and especially Kari Wuhrer still look smashing, but garbage is garbage, even if it doesn't pretend to be anything else. The Blu-ray looks great; a plethora of extras comprises featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and commentaries.

DVDs of the Week
The Honorable Woman 
In this timely, sadly relevant eight-part mini-series, Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastically understated as an Anglo-Israeli entrepreneur trying to secure Middle East peace who finds herself caught in a controlling system (led by American and English spy services) that would prefer to keep the warring factions in place. Creator-director Hugo Blick's scripting sometimes lacks nuance, but a top supporting cast led by Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan provides the shades of grey necessary to keep this fast-moving thriller going. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.

To Be Takei 
(Anchor Bay)
Star Trek's Sulu, George Takei, turned himself into a remarkably durable celebrity in the 40-plus years since the beloved sci-fi series ended by becoming one of the most inspiring and witty voices for gay rights: hell, even Howard Stern is on his side. Jennifer M. Kroot's concise documentary follows Takei from his childhood in a WWII Japanese-American internment camp with his family to his early acting days to his breaking down barriers for both Asian and gay actors, all with his trademark grin and extremely likeable personality kept front and center. Lone extras are deleted scenes.

Two and a Half Men—Complete 11th Season
2 Broke Girls—Complete 3rd Season 
The appearance of Amber Tamblyn as the Jon Cryer character's niece isn't enough to brighten Two and a Half Men's 11th season; on the contrary, the whole charade smacks of desperation on the part of a sitcom that's been running on fumes since Charlie Sheen left—that this new season is to be its last is certainly no surprise. On the other hand, the third season of 2 Broke Girls continues a smutty but funny winning streak thanks to the comic chemistry of its stars, Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings, the latter of whom has a way with snarky remarks that are second to none. The lone Men extra is a gag reel; Girls has a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Venus in Fur 
David Ives’ witty play is turned by Roman Polanski into an exhilarating romp in many ways superior to what was onstage in New York in 2011. Set in an empty theater, this two-hander features Mathieu Amalric as a playwright-director who auditions Emmanuelle Seigner (real-life Mrs. Polanski) for the sizzling lead role in his new play. Though too old, Seigner gleefully throws herself into it with abandon as her husband lustfully photographs her from all angles; Amalric holds his own by keeping out of Seigner’s way. Unlike Carnage, his stillborn God of Carnage adaptation, Polanski never allows staginess and talkiness to bog down Venus. Extras are interviews with Polanski, Seigner and Amalric; but why, in 2014, is a film by one of our major directors not on Blu-ray?

Witching and Bitching 
(IFC Midnight)
The latest effort by off-kilter Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia is an unsavory brew that mixes a bungled heist, one of the robber's young son who's an accomplice, the boy's understandably upset mother, and a trio of witches—grandmother, mother, daughter—whose house the crooks stumble upon. For nearly two hours, we are subjected to de la Iglesia's usual stew of cheap jokes, cartoonish gore and ridiculous campiness (a deformed female monster appears); how the director got one of Spanish cinema's grand dames, Carmen Maura, to be in this farrago is anyone's guess. Extras are three short featurettes.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink"

Indian Ink
Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Carey Perloff
Performances through November 30, 2014
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Bjandi and Garai in Indian Ink (photo: Joan Marcus)
Tom Stoppard's 1995 drama Indian Ink, which runs along parallel story paths like his 1993 masterpiece Arcadia and his 1997 play about poet A.E. Housman, The Invention of Love, toggles between Flora Crewe, a British poetess visiting India in the 1930s, and Eleanor, Flora's now-elderly younger sister, trying to fend off an American scholar from piecing together, 50 years later, the poetess's mysterious and short life.

Flora, one of Stoppard's most elegant creations, is an attractive, vivacious, free-spirited young woman who arrives in India to find a more agreeable climate to ward off her tuberculosis (which ends up killing her): her natural curiosity and bewitching personality make her irresistible to the men whom she meets, like Indian painter Nirad Das (for whom she poses nude) and British envoy David Durnance (with whom she flirts good-naturedly). 

Flora narrates her own Indian adventures through the letters she sends home to Eleanor, whom we see half a century later giving some of them to Eldon Pike, an odious American academic writing a book about Flora who is searching for her correspondence. The letters are written in a way that allows someone like Eldon to misinterpret the events and relationships they cover: Eleanor doesn't bother correcting his misapprehensions, which parallel how the British acted while colonizing India for centuries.

Although at times it feels as if Stoppard is deliberately withholding pertinent information—unlike so many of his other plays, which practically show off their erudition, crammed to the gills as they are with cultural bric-a-brac—Indian Ink is, for the most part, a stimulating journey into Western and Eastern art and history. 

Director Carey Perloff, who knows the play intimately (she helmed its 1999 U.S. premiere in San Francisco), provides shimmering stage imagery as both stories play out near-simultaneously on a mostly empty set that's little more than a blue background. But Neil Patel's set becomes less impoverished when complemented by Robert Weirzel's expressive lighting and Candice Donnelly's snazzy period costumes.

As Eleanor, the legendary Rosemary Harris has a formidable presence, while the men in the sisters' lives—Nirad, David, Eldon and Nirad's son Anish, who talks with Eleanor about his father's relationship with her sister—are sketched decently by Firmas Bjandi, Lee Aaron Rosen, Neal Huff and Bhavesh Patel. 

Then there's Romola Garai, who gives a wonderfully realized performance that vividly embodies the manifold aspects of Flora—her intense intellect, psychological makeup, curiosity and sexuality—painting a three-dimensional portrait far richer than the pictures of her Eldon fruitlessly searches for. 

Indian Ink
Laura pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Broadway Review—"You Can't Take It With You"

You Can't Take It With You
Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; directed by Scott Ellis
Performances through January 4, 2015
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Nielsen, Byrne and Jones in You Can't Take It With You (photo: Joan Marcus)
You Can't Take It With You, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's most enduring play, is an hilarious forerunner of the lovably eccentric family TV sitcoms and movies that followed in its wake: debuting on Broadway in 1936, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the next year and was 1938's Oscar-winning Best Picture, directed by Frank Capra (who also won an Oscar).

For its latest stage incarnation, savvy director Scott Ellis has assembled a juggernaut cast as the Vanderhof family: James Earl Jones as lovable grampa Martin, Kristine Nielsen and Mark Linn-Baker as his daffy daughter Penelope and her equally daft husband Paul, Annaleigh Ashford and Will Brill as their ballet-dancing daughter Essie and her xylophone-playing husband Ed, and Rose Byrne (in a delectable Broadway debut) and Fran Krantz as their semi-normal daughter Alice and Alice's rich boss's son Tony, whom she is dating.

These people deliciously interact with one another and others who find themselves in the family's crammed Manhattan house; thanks to Martin's refusal to pay his income tax and Ed's hobby of printing Communist slogans and passing them around the city, the authorities arrive unannounced for a bust that nets everyone, even Tony and his straitlaced parents, who happen to be visiting one day earlier than Alice had planned. 

This material, which precariously teeters between endearing daftness and sentimental cuteness (the latter of which Capra's film unsurprisingly milked to the hilt), needs to be handled precisely to work perfectly, and Ellis corrals his talented cast members to mesh as a cohesive ensemble at the same time they play close to the edge of caricature. This has the effect of having it both ways, as the goofy behavior never threatens and the family's closeness is never in doubt: there's poignancy in the way the Vanderhofs stick up for one another, however silly it all becomes by play's end. 

David Rockwell's colossal set of the interior of the Vanderhof house—which even moves so we can see the lovingly rendered exterior before each act as well as for the briefest of scenes when Alice and Tony return home from a date—scatters around the richly appointed living room so much interesting bric-a-brac in every nook and cranny that one could study it for all 2-1/2 hours of the performance without catching everything. It physicalizes the family's cluttered but coherent existence: everything (and everyone) is in its rightful place.

In an accomplished cast, standouts are the lovely Byrne, who makes Alice irresistible instead of a dullard and Ashford, whose dynamic klutziness and dazzling virtuosity on pointe—she's either spinning or just about to, a whirling dervish or cartoonish Tasmanian Devil—underline her delightful Essie. There's also wonderful work from performers who play Russians that transform the plot even more outlandishly: Reg Rogers as an hilariously unprofessional dance teacher Boris, and none other than Elizabeth Ashley, who swoops in at the end as former Grand Duchess Olga to, of all things, make blintzes. Yes, blintzes.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Concert/CD Review: Robert Plant

Robert Plant (photo: York Tillyer)
No one can ever accuse Robert Plant of resting on his laurels.

The former Led Zeppelin singer has steadfastedly ignored calls to re-reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones after their successful 2007 London reunion show, preferring to concentrate on his own musical endeavors, which stretch from his first solo efforts, the superlative Pictures at Eleven (1982) and even better The Principle of Moments (1983)—still his most memorable post-Zep albums—to his new release, Lullaby...and the Ceaseless Roar, which has gotten some of the strongest notices of his career.

While I don't share the general enthusiasm for the new album—it's yet another Plant exercise in restless musical experimentation, but its ceaseless drone isn't a patch on his best  Zep and solo work—I have no complaints about how the new songs sounded when Plant brought his terrific band, the Sensational Space Shifters, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House recently for two shows that ended a month-long tribute to Nonesuch Records, home of musical innovators from John Adams and the Kronos Quartet to Natalie Merchant and now Plant himself.

The Lullaby songs generated a cumulative power lacking in the studio versions, from the evening's second song "Poor Howard" to the lone encore, "Little Maggie." Especially effective were a raving "Turn It Up," which sounds like a poor cousin to Zeppelin bombast on record but flared to blistering life onstage, along with "A Stolen Kiss," whose quiet strength came across far more persuasively live. Plant's voice, long ago losing its wail and roar that was as much a Zeppelin trademark as Page's guitar or John Bonham's drumming, found a comfortable middle register that snugly fits the new songs.

That said, it's too bad Plant didn't play more solo material: I would have loved to hear him and his band on classics like "Sixes and Sevens," "Big Log" or "Pledge Pin," for starters. Instead, aside from scintillating blues covers "Fixin' to Die" and "No Place to Go," the rest of the 95-minute show comprised songs from Plant's old band. 

Surprising to this long-time Plant observer—I've seen him in concert seven times since his first solo tour in 1983—was that his versions of Zep songs were unusually faithful to the originals, from the brooding opener, "No Quarter," and the folksy "Going to California" (about which he quipped after singing it, "pretty profound stuff, huh?") to the psychedelia of "What Is and What Should Never Be" (after which he jokingly railed, "that song's not about fuckin' hobbits!") and the primal blast of "Whole Lotta Love," the main set's closer.

My initial post-show thought: so why doesn't he play these legendary songs with the guys with which he wrote and recorded them, since he's obviously proud of how they still stand up decades later? The answer: playing the 2500-seat BAM Opera House is one thing, but touring with a reformed Led Zeppelin would force him to sing in big hockey arenas or massive football stadiums. Which is about as far from where Robert Plant is in his element these days. 

Robert Plant's U.S. tour ends October 9 in Brooklyn, NY.
New album Lullaby..and the Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch Records) is out now.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Are You Here 
Populating his film with the irritating but oh so clever denziens of most of today's movies, writer-director Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) has made an occasionally well-observed comic portrait of American self-absorption. Though the tone is consistently inconsistent, Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler and Zack Galifianakis are each less annoying than usual, while Laura Ramsey steals the film with sexy and funny performance. The Blu-ray image looks first-rate; lone extra is director's commentary.

Cold in July 
What begins as a typical crime drama—after innocent homeowner Richard shoots an intruder, his family is terrorized by the dead man's raging dad Ben—morphs into an engrossing thriller as Richard and Ben team with renegade cop Jim Bob and get involved in the mother of all criminal messes. Director-writer Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici's complex study of twisted relationships among men with little in common has its share of clunky moments, but strong acting by Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson and Vinessa Shaw more than compensates. The movie looks fine on Blu-ray; extras comprise commentaries, previsualization tests, deleted scenes and previsualization tests with optional commentaries.

From Dusk Til Dawn—Season One 
(e one/El Rey)
Based on the mindless but fun 1996 vampire movie by director Robert Rodriguez and writer-star Quentin Tarantino, the TV series stretches out the movie plot through 10 one-hour episodes, which unfortunately stretches the drama and amusement much too thin. Still, there's much to enjoy, especially when a true find like Eiza Gonzalez, who plays Santanico Pandemonium, the stripper/vampire whom Salma Hayek played originally, is onscreen. The hi-def image looks perfect; extras include commentaries, featurettes and premiere Q&A.

(Cohen Media)
Claude Chabrol's delicious 2000 thriller sets up its convoluted but logical storyline—involving possible swapped babies at birth and a quietly fanatical stepmother with a penchant for poison—slowly, as in his masterly 1996 La Ceremonie, building inexorably to a final spasm of violence: offscreen this time but equally potent. Superbly enacted by Isabelle Huppert, Anna Mouglalis, Jacques Dutronc and Rodolphe Pauly and directed by an effortless master, Nightcap (whose original title, Merci pour le chocolate, is far better) is dryly diverting entertainment. The movie has an excellent hi-def transfer; the lone extra is a commentary.

Roger & Me 
Michael Moore's first documentary, made in 1989, introduced a unique cinematic voice who became (and still stands as) a populist call for fairness, especially in one of the first films to so memorably capture the "have vs. have-not" divide that has only worsened in the quarter-century since its release. The Blu-ray image is decent, but this isn't a visual film by any means; the lone extra is Moore's occasionally insightful commentary. But where is Moore's terrific follow-up short, 1992's Pets or Meat, which succinctly revisits the original's themes? 

Songs from Tsongas—Yes 35th Anniversary 
(Eagle Rock)
This 2004 concert showcases the legendary progressive rockers' most famous lineup (Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White and Rick Wakeman), comprising 2-1/2 hours of splendid music-making, including multi-part classics "South Side of the Sky," "I've Seen All Good People," "Yours Is No Disgrace" and "Starship Trooper," deep tracks "Wondrous Stories" and "Going for the One" and acoustic versions of smashes "Long Distance Runaround" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart." The hi-def image looks good and the music sounds superb in surround sound; extras comprise nine songs from another 2004 concert, including full-band versions of Tsongas acoustic numbers; a bonus track, the 25-minute epic "Ritual"; and an interview with album-cover artist and stage set designer Roger Dean.

DVDs of the Week
Father Brown—Complete 1st Season 
Based on short stories by G.K. Chesterton, this entertaining drama series follows the genial but whipsmart priest who immerses himself in local crime scenes from which he extracts guilty parties, thanks to abilities which even veteran detectives are lacking. As Father Brown, Mark Williams (best known for the Harry Potter movies) is amusingly real, while the natural beauties of the locations (it was shot in the Cotswolds area of England) give an enticing physical dimension to each of the 10 episodes. Extras include behind the scenes footage and cast and crew interviews.

The FBI—Complete 9th Season 
(Warner Archive)
The Mentalist—Complete 6th Season 
The classic crime-fight drama The FBI ended its nine-year run in the 1973-4 season, and the 23 episodes in this set explore the relationships among the agents, especially between new kid on the block Chris Daniels (played by ex-NFL star Shelly Novack) and veteran Inspector Eskerine (Efrem Zimbalist Jt.); the usual array of guest stars includes Dabney Coleman, Jackie Cooper, Joan Van Ark, Ann Francis and Leslie Nielsen. In the sixth season of the hit procedural The Mentalist, the team of agents finally closes the "Red John" serial killer case, before jumping ahead two years and going to investigate more killings; 22 episodes are included on five discs. Mentalist extras comprise a featurette and deleted scenes.

The Prosecution of an American President 
(First Run)
Prosecutorial legend Vincent Bugliosi, who convicted Charles Manson, wrote a book calling for the prosecution of George W. Bush: not for mere war crimes, but for the murder of thousands of Iraqi citizens and American soldiers; directors David A. Burke and Dave Hagen persuasively visualize his well thought-out brief. This is not an anti-Bush screed but a warning to any president who willfully enters into a war of convenience with lies and distortions, like the well- known ones shown. Most devastating, though, are the testimonies of families torn apart by loved ones dying unnecessarily in our endless War on Terror. Extras are deleted scenes.

To Be and To Have 
As anyone familiar with French director Nicholas Philibert’s non-fiction work can attest, he is an unassuming master at recording quotidian lives with care and precision—as he does in this sublime 2002 documentary about young schoolchildren and their caring teacher in the Auvergne region of central France. In his inimitable fly-on-the-wall way, Philibert shows the give and take between the selfless teacher George Lopez with the utterly natural youngsters in his classroom. Extras include a Philibert interview and a "children reciting poetry" featurette.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Broadway Review—A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters"

Love Letters
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Gregory Mosher
Performances through February 15, 2015
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Farrow and Dennehy in Love Letters (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Our most astute chronicler of the upper-crust, A.R. Gurney provides another one-percent primer with Love Letters, returning to Broadway for the first time since 1989 (it premiered the year before in New Haven). Comprising letters written by Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner over the course of their lives together and—mostly—apart, the play's epistolary structure makes it easy to perform (it's easily Gurney's most popular play): the performers sit at adjoining desks and read directly from their scripts.

The device is so ingeniously simple it's surprising it isn't been done more often. Andrew and Melissa discuss what's happening in their increasingly distant lives, while admitting to (or, occasionally, hiding) their feelings for each other as their decades apart pass by. Andrew is a WASP through and through who is a U.S. Senator by play's end—and, maybe one day, president—who writes letters that are mostly formal and even bland, while Melissa, far more emotionally volatile, wears her heart on her sleeve in each letter (about which she complains regularly, much preferring the telephone), signaling her intensely creative personality.

There are flaws, starting with that missing telephone: even with all their letter-writing, are we to believe these people never once pick up a phone to talk about important, or even everyday, matters? (We are also obviously in the pre-cell phone, pre-social media era.) Another problem is pitting highstrung Melissa against even-keel Andrew. She barrels through relationships, breakups, drinking bouts, stints in rehab, etc., while Andrew is the lone person to whom she writes about such momentous events. Even when they finally have their long-overdue affair—he's a Senator with a wife and children, she a divorced mother and frustrated artist—it seems that it's only so she can fly off the handle when he ends it because he's worried about his political career.

Gurney's acute ear for dialogue allows his actors to perform sundry miracles, particularly Mia Farrow, who looks two decades younger than her real age (69) as she makes manifest Melissa's broad emotions without wallowing in caricature. She even begins with a young girl's voice for the early letters, gradually—and imperceptibly—turning into a woman's.

Brian Dennehy has a forceful stage presence, so sitting and reading isn't his strong suit. But he's a hard-working, intelligent actor who nails Andrew's hesitant attitude. Understatedly directed by Gregory Mosher, Love Letters is an acting exercise in the best sense. (Dennehy and Farrow are in the play until Oct. 10, followed by Dennehy and Carol Burnett Oct. 11-Nov. 8 and Alan Alda and Candice Bergen Nov. 9-Dec. 5.)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Off-Broadway Review—"Scenes from a Marriage"

Scenes from a Marriage
Written by Ingmar Bergman; English version by Emily Mann; directed by Ivo van Hove
Performances through October 26, 2014
New York Theatre Workshop, New York, NY
Scenes from a Marriage (photo: Jan Versweyveld)
Scenes from a Marriage, one of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman's greatest films, has received a tantalizing stripping-down on its way to the stage. That was in Munich back in 1981, when Bergman himself directed his own adaptation of his masterly cinematic exploration of the 20-year relationship of Johan and Marianne, in and out of their marriage. The German-language production was, by all accounts, a rousing success, and if one can track down a copy of the book Ingmar Bergman: A Project for the Theatre, one can read Bergman's own play, which distills the laser-like focus of the six-part, five-hour television mini-series (edited to 169 minutes by Bergman himself for theatrical release) into an even narrower, pointed psychological anlaysis.

Instead of Bergman's own stage version in New York, however, we are getting Scenes from a Marriage as concocted by Ivo van Hove, the Flemish director famous (or infamous) for his deconstructions of classic texts: here, his treatment is a superficially clever travesty of a masterpiece.

Emily Mann gets credit for the English version, but it's van Hove who stamps this staging with his own brand of willfully perverse tampering. For the first act, which comprises the first three scenes we see of Johan and Marianne's marriage, the audience is split into three groups to successively watch the scenes, all performed simultaneously in three different spaces by three different couples. (The audience groups move to new sets of seats to watch each scene.) As each couple enacts its scene, the small space allows the (often yelling) voices from the other two scenes to bleed through, while strategically placed windows at the back of each stage allow audience members to catch what's going on in the other two spaces. 

That it doesn't add up too much illumination is beside the point, which apparently is that van Hove is attempting to make this couple's story more universal by casting Johan and Marianne in triplicate, despite the fact that none of his cast looks similar or is even age-appropriate. And van Hove's cast isn't a patch on Bergman's magisterial performers, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who created exacting, individualized characters who were also Everyman and Everywoman through sheer force of their volcanic talent and, of course, their writer-director's genius.

After a 30-minute intermission in which the crew dismantles the smaller stages to leave one large, mostly empty performing space, Act II comprises the final three scenes of Bergman's magnum opus. To one-up both Bergman and his own tripling conceit, van Hove has all the Johans and Mariannes act out scenes four and five simultaneously, their words often echoing what what one or another has just said, the dialogue overlapping to the point that one cannot hear clearly what is being said. (There's also a cheap-laugh moment when all three couples, after each retreating to the corners of the space behind the audience, make love and seemingly climax together.)

The effect is one of sheer irrationality; and later, during the big fight between the divorcing partners, three sets of couples roll around on the floor in marital and martial war, the whole thing becomes an acting class in which an unimaginative teacher asks students to perform a laboriously physical exercise in front of the others. 

What Bergman accomplished with incomparable acting and Sven Nykvist's impeccable cinematography (alternating between unrelenting closeups and exquisitely framed two-shots) cannot be replicated or even approximated, however many actors and actresses are onstage. Van Hove's so-called innovations seem to flame out after the fight, because he stages the last scene with only Johan and Marianne #3 (played by Arliss Howard and Tina Benko, the production's most accomplished perfomers, although Carmen Zilles is appealingly tart as Katarina, the spiteful wife of their friend Peter). 

Even here van Hove can't help himself: when Marianne falls asleep, Johan puts on a record and proceeds to do an interpretive dance to Michel Legrand's syrupy "Windmills of Your Mind," another example of this "innovative" director using pop songs for unsubtle ironic commentary, including Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

Since the dialogue comes directly from Bergman's own script (with added instances of unneeded foul language), moments of humanity and psychological complexity do bleed through. But van Hove's often arbitrary experimentation smothers the rest.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September '14 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Come Morning 
When a grandfather takes his grandson hunting in the nearby woods, the 10-year-old accidentally shoots a neighbor who's part of a clan with whom this family has feuded, setting in motion an unlikely but inevitable chain of tragic events. Although it has a shopworn plot with predictable twists, this low-budget thriller by writer-director Derrick Sims (who also edited and photographed) is a potent piece of tense realism, with authentic performances by Michael Ray Davis as the old man and Thor Wahlestedt as the young boy. The movie's graininess looks fine on Blu-ray; extras include a commentary, featurette and deleted scenes.

Doctor Who—Deep Breath 
In his first go-round as the venerable Doctor Who, the great British actor Peter Capaldi materializes, along with his faithful assistant (the very fetching Jenna Coleman), in Victorian London, as a rampaging dinosaur terrorizes the city. Although Capaldi seems a bit out of his element in this debut episode, his character's behavior is explained away cleverly, and future episodes do find him gaining his footing: and here's hoping that he will also gain the mass audience he finally deserves. The Blu-ray looks superb; extras include featurettes and a prequel scene only shown in theaters.

Ghost in the Shell—25th Anniversary 
(Anchor Bay)
Anime master Mamoru Oshii made this arresting sci-fi study that brilliantly blends traditional and computerized animation techniques in 1995: so why is this being called the 25th anniversary edition? (Actually, the original manga, or comic book, was published in 1989.) Quibbling aside, this is a remarkable film, both visually and thematically, that's remindful of Blade Runner and Fantastic Planet, but without aping either of those films' equally unique stylishness. The hi-def transfer is first-rate, but there are, strangely, no extras.

Rose Byrne, the talented and delightful Australian actress has had the misfortune to star in two of my recent comic betes noire: the execrable Bridesmaids and this laughless look at a young couple whose homey suburban existence is uprooted when an entire frat house moves in next door. This is a horribly misguided comedy from the get-to, especially when the game Byrne must interact with the awfully one-note Seth Rogen, whose movie stardom simply escapes me. Director Nicholas Stoller and writers Brendan O'Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen throw anything into the mix, and the result is sophomoric and infantile. The Blu-ray image looks good; extras include an alternate opening, deleted scenes, gag reel and featurettes.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—40th Anniversary 
(Dark Sky)
Tobe Hooper's 1974 low-budget shocker—made when the world was to going to hell in a handbasket (Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, for starters)—is anything but artful, but it has much less gore than you thought it had, and its tidy 83 minutes strip away anything extraneous, which keeps the shocks coming right until the end. The 40th anniversary edition includes an excellent new film transfer (which has audio and video glitches that novices won't notice but real fans will) and four commentaries, along with an extra disc containing full-length documentaries about the film, deleted scenes and casting calls.

We Are the Best! 
This gently satiric portrait of pre-teen girls in early '80s Stockholm rebelling against parents, teachers and fellow students by putting together an awful punk band mines familiar territory for Swedish director Lukas Moodysson: the troubles of the family unit, best shown in his earlier, and superior, Together and Show Me Love. His gimmick of the girls playing the absolutely worst songs ever makes this perversely charming and heartfelt, and he gets wonderfully natural portrayals from the three girls. Maybe Moodysson will take the laurels he's received for this minor but charming film and probe more deeply in his next film. The hi-def transfer looks great.

DVDs of the Week
(Virgil Films)
A Rochester family is marked by malaise after an unexplained tragedy that happened just before the current wintry year of 2002, epitomized by the matriarch keeping herself busy watching VHS tapes of her absent daughter, in this earnest but plodding drama, directed with little distinction by Pieter Gaspersz from a soggy script by Sabrina Gennarino (who plays another daughter). Despite a strong performance by the always welcome Kathleen Quinlan as the mother, the movie allows its "secret" to loom so large that the when it's finally revealed, it's a dramatic and psychological letdown.

Bill Morrison—Collected Works 1996 to 2013 
This four-DVD, one-Blu-ray set brings together 16 features and shorts by a singular filmmaker who cannily marries found and archival film footage with contemporary musical scores to create dream-like, often surreal cinematic experiences: these include his provocative 2011 masterpiece about coal mining, The Miners’ Hymns; and last year's The Great Flood, which blends vintage film jazz guitarist Bill Frisell's music to provide stark beauty amid the 1927 floods inundating the Mississippi delta. Also included are Morrison's formally rigorous 2002 feature Decasia (the only one appearing on a Blu-ray disc), 2010's Spark of Being, a demented updating of Frankenstein, and short films like The Film of Her, with music by Polish modernist Henryk Gorecki. 

The Lusty Men 
(Warner Archive)
In Nicholas Ray's offbeat 1952 western, a former rodeo rider (Robert Mitchum) befriends a desperate husband (Arthur Kennedy) and convinces him to start bucking broncos; meanwhile, the man's wife (a sultry Susan Hayward) finds herself both disgusted by and secretly attracted to the broken-down rodeo man. Amidst the exciting archival rodeo footage is a smartly observed character study, with Ray's incisive direction and top-notch portrayals by all three stars giving this a gravitas it probably doesn't deserve. Although restored and looking better than it ever has, this definitely should have been released on Blu-ray.

Motown 25—Yesterday Today Forever 
This 1983 TV special became legendary the moment Michael Jackson, during "Billie Jean," moonwalked for the first time, sending the music world into a frenzy; but, as this set shows, there were also memorable performances like Marvin Gaye's impassioned "What's Going On," Stevie Wonder's exuberant medley of hits from "Signed Sealed Delivered" to "Sir Duke" and Diana Ross and the Supremes' grand finale, which begins with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." The two-hour show (hosted by a mostly subdued Richard Pryor) is housed on the first disc with a behind-the-scenes featurette; disc two hosts rehearsal footage of Gaye, who's also remembered by music-biz people; and disc three comprises additional interviews and featurettes.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

September '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Arrow—Complete 2nd Season 
Little House on the Prairie—Complete 3rd Season 
The lively second season of Arrow, about a bow-and-arrow wielding superhero pointedly not called "Green Arrow," shows Oliver Queen and his costumed alter ego vowing to fight crime without killing anyone—a rule made to be broken, of course. In the third season of the beloved Little House (1976-77), the Ingalls family (parents Michael Landon and Karen Grassle, daughters Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson) continue to present moral guidance to viewers without cloying sentimentality. The Blu-ray images look stunning on Arrow and lovely on Little House; Arrow extras comprise commentaries, deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes, while the lone Little House extra is a featurette with new interviews.

Burt's Buzz 
In this engaging profile of Burt Shavitz, face and founder of the Burt's Bees franchise, Jody Shapiro introduces us to a man who's always wanted to do things his way: preferably alone. But he allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by a woman who marketed his products and became a multi-millionaire from them. Any lingering bitterness from that experience clouds but doesn't overwhelm Shapiro's breeze character study: and when the ornery but likeable Burt travels to Taiwan, he's treated as a rock star. The movie looks terrific in hi-def; extras are superfluous shorts by Isabella Rossellini.

The Great Race 
(Warner Archives)
Blake Edwards' fractured 1965 mess fits in perfectly (or imperfectly) with the gargantuan canvas that infected comedies of its era like The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World: the serviceable plot about an international car race from New York to Paris (don't ask) is DOA. Even with a cast comprising Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn, Edwards hits all the wrong comic notes; all that's left are stunning locations, wonderfully rendered on Blu-ray. Lone extra is a vintage-of featurette.

Hangmen Also Die 
(Cohen Media)
Fritz Lang's fact-based drama about the inevitable reprisals after the assassination of Nazi "hangman" Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia is too long at 135 minutes and has an awkward script by Bertolt Brecht that lurches from scene to scene. Still, this 1943 English-language production—which tantalizingly has German language interludes with no subtitles—tackles seriously and with minimal Hollywood melodramatics the complex political realities of its time. The B&W film looks stunningly good on Blu-ray; extras comprise Richard Pena's commentary and featurette on the film's history and legacy.

The Last of the Unjust 
(Cohen Media)
Claude Lanzmann, who made the seminal Holocaust documentary Shoah, again illuminates man’s ultimate humanity to man in this nearly four-hour, penetrating examination of the Czech concentration camp at Terezin, a Nazi “show camp” for the Red Cross's benefit. Structured around Lanzmann's 1975 Rome interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, last of the camp’s Jewish Elders, the film is colored by shades of grey in what many simply see as “good vs. evil.” Murmelstein, engaging and thoughtful, even demolishes Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” description of Adolph Eichmann, with whom he interacted. New footage of Lanzmann reciting from Murmelstein’s valuable book on Terezin is awkwardly inserted, but never detracts from his film’s cumulative power. The Blu-ray image is good enough; lone extra is a brief Lanzmann interview.

Queen Live at the Rainbow '74 
(Eagle Rock)
This concert from 1974's Sheer Heart Attack tour at the legendary London venue shows a band that's already disciplined, cocksure and incredibly entertaining, and for old-time Queen fans, the song list could scarcely be bettered: alongside classics like "Now I'm Here" and "Keep Yourself Alive" are album tracks largely ignored in later set lists, like "Liar," "Son and Daughter" and the brilliantly crazed, heavy-hitting tunes from the grievously underrated Queen II—"Ogre Battle," "Father to Son" and "White Queen." Freddie Mercury already shows why he's a peerless onstage frontman, while Brian May's scintillating guitar, Roger Taylor's pummeling drums and high harmonies and John Deacon's sturdy bass lines coalesce to form a truly classic quartet. The 80-minute show (which needs to be longer) has acceptable video quality and fantastic sound; five bonus tracks from an earlier Rainbow concert are included.

DVDs of the Week
Age of Uprising 
Jackpot (Music Box)
Anchored by the impressively craggy Mads Mikkelsen as a 16th century horse trader seeking vengeance when he loses his family and livelihood, Arnaud des Pallières' Age of Uprising is an entertaining adventure based loosely on a novella by the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist. Although based on a story by Jo Nesbo (whose work was also the basis for the trippy thriller Headhunters), Jackpot never gains any momentum with its silly plot about a group of annoying low-lives fighting over lottery winnings. Age extras are Mikkelsen and des Pallières interviews and deleted scenes; Jackpot extra is a making-of.

Casting By
(First Run)
Casting By, which introduces the unsung casting directors who filled movies like Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and The Graduate with stars like Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, is crammed with film clips and many interviews of casting pioneers Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stallmaster and admirers like Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese. Evergreen, a fascinating behind the scenes look at Washington state's race to legalize marijuana, evenhandedly examines the passionate warring factions debating the bill's fairness, including advocates like travel writer Rick Steves. Evergreen extras include the short film The Future of Legalization and additional interviews.

(Music Box)
(Virgil Films)
In Pawel Pawlikowski's evocative B&W chamber drama Ida, a novice nun accompanies her worldly but troubled aunt to discover the truth about her dead parents; beautifully shot, the film's vivid characterizations are complemented by unerring authenticity of time and place (it's set in 1960s Communist Poland). Korengal, Sebastian Junger and late photographer Tim Hetherington (who was killed in Libya) return to the U.S. soldiers they profiled in Restrepo for another sad, scary and haunting view of the effects of Afghan combat. Ida extras include on-set footage, director's Q&A and interview; Korengal extras comprise Junger's commentary and discussion.

Reign—Complete 1st Season
The first season of this diverting costume drama about a teenage Mary Stuart, the future Queen of Scots, is set in the year 1557, as Mary is sent to France to prepare her for the British throne. Although the show tries to imitate dramas like The Tudors or The Borgias, and their blend of political and sexual chicanery. The resulting mish-mash gains the most from a solid cast led by young Aussie actress Adelaide Kane as Mary, along with the voluptuous costumes and location scenery; extras include making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.