Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Alive Inside 
(City Drive)
How music burrows through the frayed brain cells of those suffering from Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases is brought to exhilarating life in Michael Rossato-Bennett's documentary, which shows several people who miraculously escape from their moribund existence when they hear music that's familiar from their past. There are scenes here, in which a light is turned on and a patient's face glows with life, that are among the most inspirational onscreen moments ever. The Blu-ray looks good; extras include added scenes and interviews.

What starts as a lackluster knockoff of Blade Runner soon turns into an original (but equally lackluster) tale of a future world in which robots—surprise!—turn out less benevolent than humans planned them to be. Although Antonio Banderas doesn't play a robot, he acts just like one, while his offscreen ex-wife Melanie Griffith gives an embarrassingly earnest performance; at least Danish actress Birgitte Hjort Sorensen is sexy and fiery as Banderas' onscreen (and pregnant) wife. The impressive effects are the best thing about the film, which looks excellent on  Blu-ray; extras include a behind the scenes featurette.

Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 masterpiece of ennui and alienation remains a marvelous example of the great Italian filmmaker's singular vision, as his characters start to recede further  from each other and landscapes and architecture become symbolically oppressive. The brilliant B&W photography and elliptical editing were in many ways unsurpassed by the director, even though his next two films, La Notte and L'Eclisse, came close. Criterion's hi-def transfer looks wondrous; extras include a commentary, Jack Nicholson reading, director Olivier Assayas' analysis and an hour-long documentary, Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials.

The Damned 
(IFC Midnight)
Unlike many show-offy thrillers that tell their outlandish tales of possessed people, The Damned distinguishes itself by not being very distinguished: we've been down this road before, and director Victor Garcia and writer Richard D'Ovidio do little to alleviate the non-tension and feeling of deja vu that permeates the entire enterprise. The best one can say is that The Damned has the courage of its convictions, ending on a darker note than most such movies do. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are cast and crew commentaries and a making-of featurette.

The Last Play at Shea 
Billy Joel's final concerts at Shea Stadium, before the New York Mets' ballpark made way for CitiField, are memorialized in this fleet 90-minute movie that's part concert film, part documentary. Joel's career and the Mets' history are shown alongside footage of Joel's live performances with special guests like Garth Brooks, Tony Bennett (who sang "New York State of Mind") and Paul McCartney who was accompanied by Billy and his band on Beatles' classics "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Let It Be." Too bad neither concert is documented in its entirety. The hi-def transfer looks sharp and the music sounds great; extras include a Joel interview, two additional songs and time-lapse of Shea giving way to CitiField.

The November Man 
In this hackneyed but exciting espionage thriller, Pierce Brosnan returns to his 007 days as a former CIA agent who battles a protege tasked with eliminating him amid the picturesque locations of Belgrade and surrounding Serbian environs. Director Roger Donaldson things taut despite implausible twists and turns, but Brosnan, the impossibly gorgeous Olga Kurylenko as the woman he's protecting and the film's breathless pace makes it work. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras are Donaldson and Brosnan's commentary and three making-of featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
Beyond the Edge 
(Sundance Selects)
I have never been a fan of reenactments in documentaries, for too often, they are uninteresting dramatizations that turn the films they are part of into fictional accounts of real events; that is the lone flaw in Leanne Pooley's otherwise estimable film about the amazing Mount Everest ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Such a riveting real-life adventure remains gripping even with unnecessary reconstructions, and there's enough genuine archival footage and the words of the men themselves to give a sense of the scale of Hillary's achievement. 

Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection—Volumes 1 & 2 
(Warner Archive)
These enjoyable boxed sets return us to a time when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were two of the biggest entertainers in Hollywood, and the films they made together showcased not only their comedic talents, both also their singing and even dancing. Although the films vary wildly in quality—the Frank Tashlin-directed films, 1956's Hollywood or Bust and 1955's Artists and Models, are by far the most memorable of the 13 features spread out over 7 discs—but they all contain hints of the delicious chemistry the duo had.

Lines of Wellington 
(Film Movement)
Valeria Sarmiento's star-studded war epic, set during the Napoleonic Wars, features the Emperor himself (Mathieu Amalric) and his British archenemy, General Wellington (John Malkovich), while other famous faces flit by, from Michel Piccoli to Catherine Deneuve. But the bulk of its 2-1/2 hour running time is on war's effects on ordinary civilians and soldiers; this is humane work from director Sarmiento, who took over when her partner, Raul Ruiz, died in pre-production. Extras are a 30-minute making-of featurette and unrelated Australian short, Two Laps.

When Comedy Went to School 
(First Run)
The Borscht Belt, which introduced new generations of comedians—mostly, but not exclusively, Jewish—receives an entertaining gloss by directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, who explore the beginnings of Catskills comedy resorts with lots of vintage footage and interviews with veterans like Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl,  Jackie Mason, Milton Berle and Jerry Stiller. Narrated by a wry Robert Klein, this documentary is both humorous and informative about an aspect of show biz history too often relegated to cliches and stereotypes.  Extras are several additional scenes.

Monday, November 24, 2014

New York Theater—Revivals of "Sticks and Bones," "Major Barbara" & "Side Show"

Sticks and Bones
Written by David Rabe; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through December 14, 2014
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Major Barbara
Written by Bernard Shaw; directed by David Staller
Performances through December 14, 2014
Pearl Theatre Company, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Side Show
Book & lyrics by Bill Russell; music by Henry Krieger; directed by Bill Condon
Opened November 17, 2014
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Schentzer, Hunter, Pullman and Ullmann in Sticks and Bones (photo: Monique Carboni)
The Vietnam War's legacy lives on four decades after its ignominious end, and our current "endless war" footing in the Middle East ensures that comparisons to that earlier unwinnable conflict will continue for the foreseeable future. So a revival of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones—one of the first plays to deal honestly with how returning soldiers from Vietnam were treated—seems especially timely, and it's to the credit of Scott Elliott, director of The New Group's strong production, that no unnecessary parallels are made between that war and today. None is needed, in any case: the play, clunky as it sometimes is, speaks for itself.

We are in the Middle America home of dad Ozzie, mom Harriet and teenage son Rick, all blissfully and ignorantly going about their everyday lives, when eldest son David (the author's obvious stand-in) returns home from Southeast Asia, not in a body bag, but something worse: as a blind and bitter shell of himself. Haunted by the ghost of the young Asian woman he fell in love with, David in his alternating fury and futility forces his narrow-minded family members to deal with their own prejudices and misconceptions.

Rabe's rage is palpable in this 1972 drama, which alternates between satirical family scenes and darker explorations of David's psyche. Rabe pushes the sitcom parodies and psychology both too far and not far enough, creating an uneasy blend of innocence and panic: the dialogue, cutting in its ordinariness but failing when trying to be lofty and poetic, catches the era's confusion, especially in scenes involving Father Donald, a priest whose self-serving attacks on David  come perilously close to caricature. 

But Rabe's aim is mostly true, and even if some things simply don't work—Zung's ghost is an underused apparition until the final scene, which combines horrific explicitness with clumsy symbolism—Sticks and Bones sears the memory. Elliott's explosive staging features several fearless actors: Raviv Ullmann as Rick, Ben Schentzer as David, Richard Chamberlain as Father Donald, and Holly Hunter as Harriet. But, as Ozzie, Bill Pullman goes above and beyond the call of duty, giving emotional resonance to a father whose blinded son's return forces him to take stock of his life and the choices he's made, which culminates in a pool of David's own blood.

Cabell (center left) and Daily (center right) in Major Barbara (photo: Richard Termine)
Major Barbara, one of Bernard Shaw's classic comedies, hits on lofty subjects like rich vs. poor, war vs. peace, and materialism vs. spirituality dazzlingly but, as usual with Shaw, effortlessly. The title character, Barbara Undershaft, a headstrong young woman who's an officer in the Salvation Army, is shattered when she discovers that the organization has accepted "blood money" in the form of a donation from her estranged father Andrew, a millionaire industrialist who has made his fortune from manufacturing weapons of war. 

Shaw explores the dynamics of a family in which matters of money matter as much, if not more so, than matters of the heart and soul. David Staller's mostly straightforward staging allows Shaw's words to speak loudly and clearly, especially in the capable hands of Dan Daily, a stalwart Andrew, and Hannah Cabell, an intelligently-spoken Barbara. But Staller has commissioned a wrongheaded unit set by James Noone—comprising two gold-edged staircase on either side of the stage—which forces the cast to run up and down said stairs for no reason. And beginning both acts with the supporting cast entering in street clothes, mumbling lines as they put on their costumes, creates an unnecessary distancing effect that obscures the play's genius.

Padgett and Davie in Side Show (photo: Joan Marcus)
Turning one of the saddest stories ever into a musical, Side Show is a biopic of Violet and Daisy Wilton, Siamese twins who were in a freak show before going to Hollywood for an appearance in Tod Browning's 1932 classic movie shocker Freaks, about the extent of their celebrity aside from the usual gawking. Despite leaving behind the exploitative conditions of the freak show, they were exploited by everyone else, ending up destitute and alone together, forever conjoined.

It's prime material for dramatic treatment, though it's problematic as a musical: a straight play (to say nothing of a book or movie) would theoretically dig deeper into the intricacies of their plight. As it is, Side Show the musical glides along with show biz surfaces at its core: we learn precious little about the sisters in Bill Russell's book (with additions by director Bill Condon) aside from them as briefly famous celebrities, always freaks in the eyes of others. 

Russell's serviceable lyrics rarely illuminate the sisters' relationships with each other, their side show boss, Sir, or the men who put them in show biz, Terry Connor and Buddy Foster. Henry Krieger's mediocre songs are either meandering ballads or soaring belters, the latter of which is the show's high point, the sisters' paean to each other, "I Will Never Leave You." Bill Condon's staging cleverly evokes the movies and has a cinematic feel, notably in the opening freak show menagerie and the closing Freaks set. Condon is aided immensely by spectacular work by set designer David Rockwell, makeup and mask creators David and Lou Elsey, costumer Paul Tazewell and lighting wizards Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

In a large and talented cast, David St. Louis scores as Jake, the sideshow's "cannibal king" who becomes Violet and Daisy's trusted bodyguard; Robert Joy makes an appropriately creepy Sir; and Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik's bland handsomeness and top vocal chops serve them well as Terry and Buddy, who are the sisters' romantic and business partners.

Erin Davie's Violet and Emily Padgett's Daisy carry the weight of the show on their shoulders, giving their all vocally and histrionically; they manage to look and sound alike as the twins attempt to navigate their way through one bad roll of the dice after another. They make the most out of the climactic duet "I Will Never Leave You," but also manage to make touching many minor, individual moments. If the show leaves them, finally, only compelling enough to gawk at, that's show biz—and Side Show—for you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
The Doors—Feast of Friends 
(Eagle Rock)
At the peak of their few years of fame, The Doors filmed themselves while on tour in the summer of 1968, and the resulting document, never completed at the time, has been restored and is finally being given a belated release. Mostly a time-capsule curio in the crowded market of rock group documentaries, the finished product might be manna for Doors fans but less so for the rest of us. The hi-def image looks decent; extras include Feast of Friends: Encore, comprising left-over footage; The Doors Are Open, a British TV documentary; a live performance of "The End" with interviews.

Into the Storm 
Climate change exacts its just desserts, but unlike Sharknado 1 & 2's tongue-in-cheek campiness (not that I'm defending those ridiculous movies!), this is purely serious and stern-faced melodrama, and the stick figures populating a town inundated with non-stop tornadoes and superstorms are such a dim bunch that it's easy to root for Mother Nature against most of them. The special effects are quite impressive—like the death of one unfortunate cameraman in a fiery funnel cloud—and it's all wrapped up in a quick 85 minutes, which helps, at least partly. On Blu-ray, the movie's disastrous events play out quite thrillingly; extras are three featurettes.

Pete Kelly's Blues 
(Warner Archive)
A monotonous Jack Webb directs and stars as jazz cornetist and band leader Pete Kelly in this alternately tough-as-nails and sentimentalized look at the musician's life on and off stage, dramatizing his battles against a crime boss and his relationships with women, played with vitality by Janet Leigh, Jayne Mansfield and (most impressively) Peggy Lee. Director Webb smartly peppers his uneven drama with wonderful musical performances, including two Ella Fitzgerald showstoppers, while the movie's color Cinemascope photography comes across richly on Blu-ray. Extras are two period shorts.

Prince Igor 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Alexander Borodin's intermittently gripping Igor receives a bizarre, messy 2014 Metropolitan Opera revival by director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who ruins the opera's best moments—the famous "Polovtsian Dances"—with an unimaginative poppy field in which the dancers scamper about: Borodin's unexciting music is presented well by conductor Giandrea Noseda, and the title role is given over to the towering Russian bass Ildar Abdrazikov. Antonin Dvorak's masterly romantic fantasy Rusalka (based on the fairy tale Undine) sounds beautiful thanks to Myrto Papatanasiu's magnetic performance in the title role, but its visual tackiness stems from director Stefan Herheim's wrongheaded concept: Rusalka the mermaid is a hooker in a red light district. Puh-lease. On Blu-ray, video and audio are splendidly realized; extras are interviews.

Worricker—Turks & Caicos  
Worricker—Salting the Battlefield 
In his trilogy about a British agent battling new-fangled globally destructive forces, writer-director David Hare has an ace in the hole: actor Bill Nighy, whose casual, snarky coolness goes a long way toward validating these films (and the original, 2012's Page Eight) as searing indictments of our post-Sept. 11, post-meltdown world gone amok. Turks follows Nighy's Johnny Worricker on an island paradise, confronting ultra-rich bad guys; Salting finds him on the run before a climactic showdown with his nemesis, the British prime minister. Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Walken and Winona Ryder provide solid support, Hare's dialogue is often snappy and witty, but Nighy himself is the main attraction. The hi-def transfers are superior; extras are making-of featurettes and interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Guns of Darkness
Twilight of Honor 
(Warner Archive)
In 1962's Guns of Darkness, neither David Niven nor Leslie Caron—as a couple in a war-torn republic—can do much in a flimsy tale about a coup that turns their brave act of mercy for an ousted leader into treason; that director Anthony Asquith has little affinity for such starkly melodramatic material goes without saying. 1963's Twilight of Honor has a formidable cast that makes its routine courtroom dramatics watchable, despite director Boris Sagal's leaden pacing: there's Richard Chamberlain as an idealistic defense attorney, Claude Rains as his mentor, Joan Blackman as Rains' available daughter, Joey Heatherton as the accused's wife and James Gregory as a pompous district attorney.

K2—Siren of the Himalayas 
(First Run)
An illuminating look at the 2009 expedition to scale the world's most dangerous mountain, Dave Ohlson has made a tense, exciting document of a story that's both tragic and triumphant: some climbers failed to ascend K2, but at least they weren't killed—which as many of a quarter are. The film's heroine, Germany's Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, became the first to scale all mountains 8000 meters or higher; interviews with her and other members of the climb make personal their group's bravery, teamwork and death-defying difficulties. Ohlson also recaps a 1909 Italian expedition, complete with narration, stills and newsreel footage, which provide an enriching historical perspective. Extras include a deleted scene, updates and more interviews.

Master of the Universe
Slow Food Story 
The enterprising label Kimstim's latest intriguing documentaries that otherwise might have escaped notice start with German director Marc Bauders' Masters of the Universe, about the culpability and duplicity of those running (and ruining) the financial system during the 2008 economic collapse; Bauder introduces Rainer Voss, a chatty trader who candidly discusses what happened, why and by (and for) whom. Stefano Sardo's Slow Food Story is a lively account of how Italian foodie Carlo Petrini became a heavy-hitter in the anti-fast food movement, which emphasizes local, healthy alternatives to the corporate behemoths that control most of the world's (bad) food production.

Next Year Jerusalem 
(First Run)
When a group of residents at an old-age home in Columbus, Ohio finally took a long-gestating and unlikely "field trip" to Israel, director David Gaynes was on hand to record a unique, historic and breathtakingly emotional journey that was much more than obviously metaphorical traveling through time and memory. Among the many people—from the "tourists" and those who came with and filmed them to those whom they met when they arrived in the Holy Land—affected by events presented in this stirring documentary are its viewers. Extras are seven deleted scenes.

Tosca's Kiss 
Daniel Schmid—the unconventional Swiss director who died in 2006—made this memorably  offbeat 1984 documentary about the first nursing home for retired opera singers, located in Milan, Italy: the film follows the home's residents, who sang arias by the world's great composers, including the man who founded it, Giuseppe Verdi, Italy's (and one of the world's) best opera composers. The basis for Dustin Hoffman's likable directorial debut, 2012's Quartet, this funny and moving film deserves to be more than just the prelude to a famous actor's first foray behind the camera; happily, now that Hoffman "presents" its restoration and DVD release, it will get more widespread recognition.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

November '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
A Recital with Renee Fleming 
(Arthaus Musik)
One of Richard Strauss's most magically melodic operas, the romantic Arabella is the perfect showcase for the still-ravishing soprano Renee Fleming, whose artistry is complemented by director Florentine Klepper's sumptuous 2014 Salzburg production. A Recital with Renee Fleming, shot in 2012 in Vienna, presents the singer performing lushly romantic lieder by Germanic composers Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold and, yes, Richard Strauss; pianist Maciej Pulski lends artful support. The Blu-ray image and sound are first-rate.

This didactic illegal immigration melodrama—about a wrongful murder rap pinned on a good, no-nonsense border crosser—has authentic location atmosphere courtesy director-co-writer Michael Berry, and a plethora of good performances by Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Michael Pena (as the accused killer) and Eva Longoria (deglamorized—but still impossibly luminous—as his cruelly abused wife). But too bad it's all at the service of a heavy-handed, Crash-like examination of a complicated issue, which militates against its getting through to those whom it aims to convert or reinforce those already on its side. The hi-def transfer is spot-on.

Genesis—Three Sides Live 
(Eagle Rock)
On Genesis' 1981 Abacab tour, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks (augmented by concert-only members Chester Thompson and Daryl Stuermer) played hits like "Misunderstanding" and "Turn It on Again" alongside album cuts like "In the Cage," "Afterglow," the current album's epic title track and "Dodo/Lurker." The 83-minute concert film has a chunk of the show's running time missing: too bad it's never been found, since, with all of the backstage and interview footage included, the actual music is probably a little more than an hour. What we do get, though, is a band at the top of its game. The image is variable, the sound good, extras are audio-only versions of seven songs, including the rarely-performed "Fountain of Salmacis."

Michael Nyman—Make It Louder, Please! 
(Arthaus Musik)
British minimalist composer Michael Nyman's career is examined through a concert and documentary, Composer in Progress, in which Nyman and his band members discuss his unique music and how difficult it is to perform; surprisingly, although his music is best known from Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion movies, neither is interviewed by director Silvia Beck. 2009's Michael Nyman in Concert, from Halle, Germany, features Nyman's best known compositions, including several from Greenaway's films The Draughtsman's Contract, A Zed and Two Noughts and Prospero's Books, played with precision and enthusiasm by Nyman at the piano and his band. Hi-def transfers are adequate; the sound is solidly presented.

Monty Python Live—One Down, Five to Go 
(Eagle Rock)
The British comedy troupe's 2013 reunion at London's O2 Arena was greeted with hosannas from longtime fans, and if the performance itself is more nostalgia than cutting-edge comedy—replays of old skits on a video screen alternate with onstage reenactments of beloved skits like "Dead Parrot" and "Nudge Nudge"—the impression is that of a money grab, however skillful and, yes, funny. The title, of course, refers to the absence of Graham Chapman, so far the lone Python member to die: the others will, no doubt, eventually follow. The hi-def image is excellent; extras include interviews, featurettes and backstage footage.

The One I Love 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
Early in this confused sci-fi drama about a shaky married couple whose attempts to repair their relationship is complicated by the appearance of their doppelgangers, the husband tells his wife that it's like The Twilight Zone. Not quite: Rod Serling would have wrapped this up in 30 minutes, not 90, and far more satisfactorily. Director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader seem pleased with their not that original concept, in the process forgetting to make it dramatically involving; Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass's blank caricatures do little to differentiate among the couples. The Blu-ray image is superlative; extras are McDowell and Duplass's commentary and visual effects reel.

Melissa McCarthy again plays an obnoxious, crude but oh so lovable slob in a comic misfire that's a major miscalculation by star-cowriter McCarthy and cowriter-costar-director husband Ben Falcone: they desperately try to tug at the heartstrings but never let go of the stereotypes they traffic in from the start. Along with McCarthy, Susan Sarandon (McCarthy's improbable grandmother) and Allison Janney (McCarthy's improbable mother) do little with such flimsy material. The extended version provides a few extra minutes of would-be laughs and sentiment; the Blu-ray image looks fine, and extras comprise featurettes, gag reel and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
A Five Star Life 
(Music Box)
This lighthearted romantic comedy is a terrific showcase for Margherita Buy, one of Italy's most elegant actresses, who beautifully plays Irene, a 40ish woman who visits luxury hotels as a critic, but whose personal life (at least compared with her former fiancee and happily married sister) is a mess. Director Maria Sole Tognazzi tells her story in a fleet 82 minutes, enough to let us get to know Irene, mainly through Buy's effortless charm; costar Stefano Accorsi's provides strong and humorous support as her ex.

JFK—The Private President 
(First Run)
In this 52-minute German documentary from 2013, the enduring legend of Camelot is revived with heretofore unseen home-video footage, returning us to the glamorous (but too brief) era of JFK and Jackie in the international spotlight. Interviews with brother RFK's sons and insiders like advisor Ted Sorensen provide further access, and those who want still more of anything of even tangential  to the inexhaustible fount that is the Kennedys will find it.

The Mystery of Happiness 
What starts as an aimless bromance between middle-aged men sharing ownership of a company shifts gears when one of them disappears and his seemingly clueless wife steps in and makes the remaining one's life a living hell....until they come to discover more about each other and themselves (of course). Director Daniel Burman doesn't always adroitly handle the film's shifting tones, but the superb lead performances by Ines Estevez and Guillermo Francella provide ample compensation, as does a nicely understated ending.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

November '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
America—Imagine the World Without Her 
Conservative icon Dinesh D'Souza has made another rambling and incoherent pseudo-documentary that shows how "scary" and "unAmerican" Barack Obama is, tying him to radical leftists presented as if they are mainstream. With no arguments made on their own merit, D'Souza uses straw men and false equivalencies to hammer home his belief that, contrary to those who insist on "shaming" our country, it is absolved of any sins, for the simple reason that everybody else also did it (slavery, genocide, etc.). D'Souza even brings up his own indictment for breaking campaign finance law, basically admitting, "Yes, I'm guilty, but so are others. So that means Obama is after me!" Fox News viewers will find everything they believe dutifully confirmed; the rest of us will shake our heads and realize that fact-based reality will remain out of their reach. The hi-def image looks good; extras include extended interviews and scenes.

Good People 
This gritty little thriller about a dull-witted American couple in London who decide to spend dirty money they find and fall prey to a mobster whose drug cash it is, is mercifully short (90 minutes) and features the always reliable Tom Wilkinson as a relentless detective and Sam Spruell as a casually brutal gangster. Unfortunately for director Henrik Ruben Genz, he's saddled with James Franco and Kate Hudson, who don't make a credible couple; the movie also wastes the delightful Anna Friel in a nothing role. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; lone extra is a brief making-of. 

Planes—Fire and Rescue 
Although Disney's animated spin-offs are usually routine money grabs, that's not entirely the case with Planes—Fire and Rescue, an amusing adventure that's dedicated to our brave firefighters. Set in Piston Park National Park, the movie follows a group of aircraft which protects the valuable public land from wildfires: nothing earth-shattering, it's diverting enough, at least for younger kids. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras are featurettes, deleted scenes, music video and new animated short film.

Yankee Doodle Dandy 
(Warner Archive)
The tightly-wound 1947 thriller Possessed—a story of murder and insanity about an unhinged woman convinced that her current husband's dead wife is haunting her, as is an old flame who's marrying her young stepdaughter—is distinguished by Joan Crawford in eye-popping crazed mode. As George M. Cohan in the exhilarating 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney sings, dances and acts up a storm as the versatile entertainer who, against all odds, became a beloved American icon. Cagney's joyous Oscar-winning turn and Cohan's terrific tunes are the main reasons to watch. Both films look magnificent in their hi-def restorations; extras include commentaries and featurettes.

Santa Sangre 
Maverick director Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1989 hallucinatory drama is, like all of his films (which include the even more lunatic El Topo and The Holy Mountain), a love-it-or-hate-it experience: I hated it, even while conceding the visual imaginativeness at work. But there's no doubt that other viewers' mileage may certainly vary, especially if one has a stronger stomach for Jodorowsky's brand of all-purpose surrealism. The film looks solid on Blu-ray; extras include Jodorowsky commentary, deleted scenes with commentary, Jodorowsky interviews and short films, featurettes and full-length documentary Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen: The World of Santa Sangre.

DVDs of the Week
Borgen—Complete Series 
This gripping Danish mini-series—which skillfully straddles the line separating politics from personal lives—is finally available in a boxed set of its three seasons, comprising 30 compelling one-hour episodes that follow Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female prime minister, from obscurity to simultaneous fame and infamy. The backstabbing and deal making (and deal breaking) of contemporary politics is shown in all its dramatic fascination, and with a peerless cast led by Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as go-getting journalist Katrine Fonsmark, Borgen is an exceptional drama about the machinations of politics and media that deserves the much-abused label "binge-worthy." 

A Coffee in Berlin 
(Music Box)
This ramshackle comic drama follows a 20-something slacker (the appealing Tom Schilling) who, after getting tossed from his girlfriend's apartment, spends a fateful day wandering around the German capital running into various people (including a female former classmate who still holds a grudge for him labeling her "Roly Poly Julia" back in the day), until a brush with mortality gives him a new outlook on life. Director Jan Ole Gerster's low-key, improvisatory style partially compensates for the fact that the movie is, finally, too slight, even with a relatively brief 85-minute running time. Extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes.

Dormant Beauty 
(Kino Lorber)
Italian master Marco Bellocchio's latest provocation, made in 2012, was barely released here, but his thought-provoking exploration of Italy’s own right to life debate (Terri Schiavo was the U.S. equivalent during the infamous Bush years), as usual with Bellocchio, provides no easy answers. It intelligently informs the personal, professional and religious lives of several characters, played splendidly by Isabelle Huppert, Toni Servillo, Maya Sansa, Alba Rohrwacher and the director’s son Pier Giorgio. But Kino again drops the ball by not releasing a Blu-ray of a major film by a major director, along with no extras; get the hi-def Italian release!

Hugh Hefner 
Director Tony Palmer, who made his name with an assortment of enlightening biographies of composers from Henry Purcell to Igor Stravinsky, hits a brick wall with his 1973 glimpse at Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. For a vapid hour, Hef and assorted bimbos extol the virtues of the Playboy lifestyle, sounding vacuous and self-absorbed throughout. Adding to the absurdity is Palmer's desperate use of music from Wagner's Ring to underscore shots of Hef's private jet and mansion; any similarity to King Ludwig's pomposity is strictly coincidental.

One Day Pina Asked... 
I'm no fan of Belgian director Chantal Akerman, whose films are minimalist in all the wrong ways: conception, execution and artistry. But her hour-long 1983 documentary about the wunderkind German modern-dance choreographer Pina Bausch is a watchably straightforward overview of a vital visual artist's work. Of course, I prefer Wim Wenders' Pina, which was a much more affecting chronicle of Bausch's patented dances, but Akerman's film is nothing to sneeze at either.

Monday, November 3, 2014

New York Theater Reviews—"On the Town," "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," "The Belle of Amherst"

On the Town
Music by Leonard Bernstein; book & lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green; directed by John Rando
Opened October 16, 2014
Lyric Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Lips Together, Teeth Apart
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Peter Dubois
Performances through November 23, 2014
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

The Belle of Amherst
Written by William Luce; directed by Steve Cosson
Performances through January 25, 2015
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Johnson, Yazbeck and Alves in On the Town (photo: Joan Marcus)
The fizzily entertaining On the Town earns the sobriquet "old-fashioned musical," thanks to Leonard Bernstein's gloriously hummable songs (like the immortal "New York, New York" and "Lonely Town"), book writers Comden & Green's witty lyrics, and the perfect (if overfamiliar) plot for a feel-good musical: three sailors on leave have 24 hours in the big city to frolic with their newly acquired gals.

Director John Rando, a master of comic pacing, pushes this revival to the giddiest of heights. The ace orchestra, led by James Moore, plays Bernstein's timeless songs with a plushness that's welcome on Broadway. Beowulf Boritt's tongue-in-cheek set design and projections make for an appropriately cartoonish Manhattan. Jess Goldstein's zesty costumes, Jason Lyons' luminous lighting and Joshau Bergasse's colorful choreography (with a nod to Jerome Robbins' original ballet) round out the savory physical trappings.

The cast is mostly top-notch, led by three sailors—Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson and especially Tony Yazbeck—who act, sing and dance up a storm as they prowl the city looking for companionship. As their women, Alysha Umphress and Elizabeth Stanley are riotous without excess campiness, and New York City Ballet's Megan Fairchild makes Miss Turnstiles the pure idealization of innocent girlishness, with her chirpy voice and impossibly slender frame twirling, spinning and pirouetting her way into her man's (and the audience's) heart.

If only Rando didn't let Jackie Hoffman mug mercilessly (and, for the most part, unfunnily) in four parts, the undeserving beneficiary of coarse book updates by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins, which unsurprisingly—but sadly—get the biggest audience reactions. So this On the Town is only four-fifths of a classic musical, as if the city itself had one of its boroughs cut off.

Lysy, Chernus, Chimo and Ferrera in Lips Together, Teeth Apart 
(photo: Joan Marcus)
When Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart premiered in 1991, the AIDS epidemic was in full rage, and the playwright's anger over the unfathomable loss of so many was palpable. However, the play now comes off as an historical artifact, at least in Peter Dubois' misguidedly staged and cast production that's disjointed and off-kilter throughout; whether it's the direction or writing is difficult to say: likely an unfelicitous combination of both.

Two straight couples—Sally and Sam Truman, and Sam's sister Chloe and John Haddock—spend July 4th weekend at Sally's brother's beach house on Fire Island (the gorgeously appointed set is by Alexander Dodge), which he left to her after dying of AIDS. Their cozy bonhomie is only a facade, since Sally and John (the latter of whom, it is also revealed, has cancer) are having an affair, while Chloe's relentless chirpiness starts to grate on everyone, even Sam. Their conversations, and especially the awkwardly inserted soliloquies, expose their homophobia, sexism and racism in all their incoherence; but neither playwright nor director provides a realistic grounding for the characters' seemingly arbitrary contradictions.

Similarly, many details ring false, like Chloe peppering her conversation with elementary French or her improbably deep knowledge of Broadway musicals, except when she thinks the famous Gypsy overture is actually from Annie. And that none of these people will jump into the beach house's beautiful in-ground pool because there's a worry that the water might be tainted with HIV doesn't work on any level: this heavily metaphoric bit of homophobic behavior comes at a time when people were far less frightened by the hysterical pronouncements about how one could catch the deadly disease. 

America Ferrera's Sally is pleasantly bland, Michael Chernus' Sam and Austin Lysy's John are even larger blanks, while Tracee Chimo—fresh off her overpraised romp in Bad Jews—goes so far over the top as Chloe that she seems to be in a door-slamming farce that McNally did not write. Maybe she can join the cast of McNally's farce It's Only a Play when this closes.

Joely Richardson in The Belle of Amherst (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Even for those of us who never saw it originally, The Belle of Amherst—William Luce's one-woman play about poet Emily Dickinson—is associated with actress Julie Harris, who turned it into a cottage industry and walked off with the Best Actress Tony in 1976. In Steve Cosson's lucid new staging, Dickinson becomes more coyly coquettish, even mischievous, in the capable hands of Joely Richardson.

If the real Dickinson was somewhere in between the two interpretations, this is, after all, a fictionalization of her life, and she may have been as charming as Richardson's shrewd performance shows her as. There's never an anachronistic sense of making her a proto-feminist, and Richardson—who also recites several of Dickinson's poems in an graceful but conversational manner—is nothing less than commanding throughout her piquant two-hour monologue.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Broadway Review—Sting's Musical "The Last Ship"

The Last Ship
Music & lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan & Brian Yorkey
Directed by Joe Mantello
Performances began September 29, 2014
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

The Last Ship (photo: Joan Marcus)
Sting's best solo album, 1991's The Soul Cages, was crammed with his most personal songs, referencing his life growing up in England's shipbuilding region and taking the measure of his grief and anger over his father's death. The opener, "Island of Souls," a lyrically elegant dirge, distills— in a mere six-plus minutes—the plot of Sting's new Broadway musical The Last Ship, about a young man who returns to his small seaside hometown after years on the ocean.

The concise, powerful imagery of "Island of Souls" echoes throughout the 2-1/2 hour The Last Ship which, though superbly staged and acted—the show might even provoke a tear or two from its audience's eyes—has little sense of real drama, let alone tragedy, while the title ship is built; instead it hits on every imaginable dramatic cliche.

Unsurprisingly, the haunting "Island of Souls" opens the show, its lyrics changed, as it introduces Gideon Fletcher—not Billy as in the original song—as the hero. Sting's own hometown Wallsend is the setting for the tired plot that's been concocted by book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Gideon (the sympathetic Michael Esper) comes back home from his 15 years at sea and expects both his father Joe (a ship riveter who disowned Gideon when he left) and his first love Meg (the lively, lissome Rachel Tucker) to remain where he left them so long ago. But he's too late: Dad recently died and Meg has a teenage son Tom (the scrappy Collin Kelly-Sordelet) and a lover, Arthur (the strong-voiced Aaron Lazar), the only smart local working to salvage scrap from the town's beloved—but shuttered—shipyard. 

The rest of the men, now unemployed, spend their time drinking in the pub where Meg works and bemoaning their fate: cheaper labor in Asia has made them expendable. Leave it to jolly old Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate, having great fun with the cliched drunken Irish priest character) to have an idea—and the capital—for the men to take over the yard to build one last ship, which will be launched....but to where? This naggingly important question is never answered, making The Last Ship more heavily symbolic than it need be and keeping it from reaching its tragic-dramatic potential.

David Zinn's set, comprising the shipyard's dingy steel girders and catwalks, bleeds authenticity, but since other shows have used these visuals it seems instantly passe, however harrowingly lit by the talented Christopher Akerlind. Joe Mantello's direction provides as much variety as one can squeeze out of a show set in a shipyard and a pub, while Stephen Hoggett's repetitive choreography, consisting of his increasingly familiar odd gestures and foot-stomping, is indistinguishable from his work on the musical Once.

Sting's new songs, dragged down by a certain sameness on his own recording last year, are enthusiastically fleshed out onstage by the rock-steady cast and Rob Mathes' striking arrangements; still, the four older Sting tunes ("Island of Souls," "All This Time," "When We Dance" and "Ghost Story") are far superior to the batch composed for the show. 

The Last Ship is a worthy, serious musical—no Disneyfied Synchronicity The Jukebox Musical for Sting—but it's also been torpedoed by its book of banalities.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Begin Again 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
In John Carney's belated follow-up to his overrated romance Once, Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley totally outclass their material as a washed-up music exec and jilted young singer who hit it off professionally during a song-filled Manhattan summer. The indefatigable Ruffalo and ultra-charming Knightley (and tremendously affecting Hailee Steinfeld as Ruffalo's teenage daughter) partly compensate for a cutesy premise, Carney's cheesy melodramatics and lifeless Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine as a pop star who dumps Knightley. The authentic New York location shooting—the movie's most salient feature—looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras are a making-of featurette and music videos.

Death Comes to Pemberley 
Miss Marple—Volume One 
The three-hour mini-series Death Comes to Pemberley is a slow-moving adaptation of P.D. James's clever mystery novel based on the characters in Pride and Prejudice; despite ravishing costumes and locations and a fine cast led by Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth, Death unfortunately founders. The first Blu-ray release of Miss Marple, an adaptation of Agatha Christie's sleuth, features four one-hour episodes that showcase Joan Hickson's low-key but witty performance as the no-nonsense detective. Both shows look OK on hi-def; Marple extras are a featurette and A Very British Murder, Part 1, the beginning of a three-part series about British interest in murder mysteries.

South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk's grandiosely yucky horror movie follows a family dragged into depravity and possible insanity after the actions of a philandering father and vengeful mother. In a movie with no dialogue, it becomes absurd after awhile that absolutely no one would be talking about what is going on, especially as it escalates further into outright lunacy. Under the creepy circumstances, actress Lee Eun-Woo—who plays the grandmother, the mother and the father's and teenage son's lover—deserves some kind of medal for bravery. The Blu-ray transfer is top-notch; extras comprise interviews and a post-premiere Q&A.

The Vanishing 
George Sluizer's unnerving 1988 chiller is one of the scariest movies ever made, and that it's done with such an economy of means—nary a drop of blood is spilled, and the horrifying ending leaves one shaken for awhile afterward—is a testament to the director's artistry. (That his own misguided 1993 American remake had an absurdly happy ending tacked on, proves that.) On Criterion's Blu-ray release, the film looks better than ever; extras comprise interviews with Sluizer (who recently died) and actress Johanna ter Steege, whose memorable—if necessarily brief—debut this was.

Whitey—United States of America vs. James J. Bulger 
In his latest revealing documentary, director Joe Berlinger recounts how the FBI made Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger into an informant, in the process allowing him to kill or have killed whomever he wanted without any blowback: he always had cover thanks to his relationships with certain agents. For decades, Bulger terrorized Boston neighborhoods, offing dozens of mostly innocent people, and Berlinger makes a compelling (and scary) case that the government is as guilty of his crimes as he is. The Blu-ray image looks fine; extras include deleted scenes and Sundance Film Festival interviews.

DVDs of the Week
Behaving Badly 
In director Tim Garrick's raunchy misadaptation of Ric Browde's book While I'm Dead...Feed the Dog (written by Garrick and Scott Russell), teenager Rick Stevens must juggle dealing with an alcoholic mother, his best friend's horny mom, the hot classmate he wants to date and her angry ex-boyfriend, among others. Although it's hit or miss all the way, parts of it are very funny, and there are finely tuned comic performances by Natt Wolff as Rick, Mary Louise Parker as his mom, a still gorgeous Elisabeth Shue as his friend's sexy mom and Selena Gomez as the girl of his dreams.  

(Film Movement)
Do we really need a movie about a respected tailor named Carlos who kills unsuspecting women and eats them, only to find himself falling for Nina, sister of a woman whom he killed and ate earlier? The answer is not really, even if actors Antonio de la Torre (Carlos) and Olimpia Melinte (Nina) make their bizarre characters semi-believable. The problem is that despite director Manuel Martin Cuenca keeping actual gore to a minimum, his premise itself is so grisly that no matter how well done—or, more likely, despite that—Cannibal can't shake a nagging feeling of an unholy alliance between elegant filmmaking and ugly plotting. Lone extra is Ogre, a French short.

Level Five
On Strike! 
Avant-garde French director Chris Marker (who died in 2012 at age 91) made Level Five in 1996, a typically playful but dense sci-fi film that both predates and anticipates the digital and virtual culture we've since become accustomed to. Far more interesting, however, is On Strike!, a compilation of  two documentaries, 1968's Be Seeing You, chronicling a French strike and factory takeover, and 1969's Class of Struggle, a portrait of a young woman at a watch factory and her own radicalization. The lone extra, La Charniere, is a 13-minute audio recording of a post-screening debate among the workers shown in Be Seeing You. 

Mona Lisa Is Missing 
(Midair Rose)
When Vincenzo Peruggia stole the "Mona Lisa" from the Louvre in 1911, he kept it hidden in plain sight for over two years before it was finally seized when he attempted to sell it to Italian authorities hoping to return it to what he thought was its homeland, as director Joe Medeiros shows in his highly entertaining, often lighthearted look at the theft and its aftermath. A surprising amount of extras include 12 featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, an alternate ending and a director's commentary that's as fun as the movie itself.

The Wild Geese 
This uneven 1978 action flick stars Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore and Hardy Kruger as semi-retired mercenaries who get back together to train a band of commandos to go into an unnamed African country to spring a corrupt leader from jail. Director Andrew V. McLaglen does the bare minimum, falling back on lazy scriptwriting (by Reginald Rose) and acting that could charitably be called competent. There's occasional bloody fun (in both senses), but two-plus hours is far too long for such meager dramatics. Extras include audio commentary with Moore, McLaglen interview and featurettes.