Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August '14 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week
Aerial America—Southeast Collection 
(Smithsonian Channel)
The latest release in this invaluable travel series comprises journeys through the states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi: a swath of the South that contains some of America's most photogenic landscapes and man-made structures. From Florida's orange groves and Alabama's cotton fields to the glittering cities of Charleston, Atlanta and Birmingham and historic Fort Sumter and St. Augustine, it's enthralling to witness so much of this land of ours, once again captured in stunning hi-definition. 

Bitten—Complete 1st Season 
(e one)
In a twist on the "sexy vampire" genre of so many recent movies and TV shows, this drama series has a werewolf protagonist: and not just any werewolf, but a sexy blonde werewolf. As played by bright, perky Laura Vandervoort as the conflicted creature, Elena is not interesting enough, with or without her "pack" of like beings, to summon up much erotic or dramatic tension, despite the actress's charms. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise Vanervoort's commentary, deleted scenes and behind the scenes featurette.

Fading Gigolo 
Writer-director-star John Turturro bungles his latest, unsure of his material: is it a farce about an elderly bookshop owner (Woody Allen) pimping his employee (Turturro) to the likes of Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara (who probably don’t need such a service); is it an unlikely romance between Turturro and a lovely Hassidic widow (Vanessa Paradis), or is it a revenge picture about a Hassidic cop (Live Schreiber) preserving the widow’s honor? The tone is inconsistent throughout; and, aside from Allen’s sterling comic presence, the acting is as variable as the ultimately forgettable film. On Blu-ray, it all pleasantly shimmers; extras are Turturro’s commentary and deleted scenes that include priceless Woody improvs.

Favorites of the Moon 
(Cohen Media)
Neither as biting as Luis Bunuel nor as whimsical as Jacques Tati, Georgian director Otar Iosseliani's 1984 absurdist parable is a slight if occasionally diverting shaggy-dog tale that takes pot shots at a bourgeois that treats art, commerce and romance without much conviction. There's nothing particularly wrong with Iosseliani's brand of absurdism, but it's not nearly as provocative or amusing as its director assumes. The Blu-ray transfer is adequate; lone extra is Philip Lopate's disjointed commentary.

(Cinema Guild)
This hypnotic film is less a straight documentary than a purely visual experience par excellence that simply records the reactions of various passengers on a cable car ride high above Nepal's mountains on their way to an ancient Hindu temple. That directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez never vary their visual attack might induce claustrophobia or boredom in some viewers, but their cinematic high-wire act is exhilarating to watch. The movie looks spectacular on Blu-ray; extras are directors' commentary and three additional cable car rides.

DVDs of the Week
Bicycling with Moliere 
Sometimes there's great pleasure to be had by simply watching performers practice their craft with elegance, as in this blissful comic drama about two actors rehearsing Moliere's The Misanthrope: Lambert Wilson and Fabrice Luchini (co-writer with director Philippe DeGuay) give a master acting class, both as the narcissistic performers they play and the characters in Moliere's classic verse comedy. Although the subplot about a divorcing Italian neighbor (an enchanting Maya Sansa) is not entirely necessary, the trio is so good together onscreen that it's fun to follow their melodramatic menage a trois through its predictable twists and turns.

Last Tango in Halifax—Complete Season 2 
For the second season of this drolly sentimental study of old lovers who find each other anew a half-century later, Alan and Celia (Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid) discover that, after getting married in secrecy, they must deal with many hurt feelings and others' problems—alongside their own, of course. Jacobi and Reid make a wonderfully beguiling couple, while a terrific supporting cast helps make this serious but still funny series a worthwhile diversion.

My Boy Jack 
This powerful true story about how Rudyard Kipling's teenage son's joining the British army during World War I affected the famous author, his American wife Caroline and loving daughter Elsie is brought to vivid life by director Brian Kirk and writer-actor David Haig in this 2007 television film. Amid the precise period details is a quartet of fine performances that make this feel-bad drama strongly hit home: Haig's Kipling, Kim Cattrall's Caroline, Carey Mulligan's Elsie and Daniel Radcliffe's Jack. Extras include Haig, Radcliffe and Cattrall interviews, deleted scenes and 50-minute program The Pity of War.

Only Lovers Left Alive 
Jim Jarmusch's foray into the vampire genre is undeniably stylish, with lush visuals underlining his story of a most romantic undead couple searching for a blood supply that's quickly drying up, putting their immortality in jeopardy; Jarmusch's film falls apart since the stylishness can't cover up the mediocrity of the script, the ludicrousness of the premise, or the mere posing of his actors. Tom Hiddleston and the ubiquitous (and obvious) Tilda Swinton just wander through the film, making it a nice-looking but deathly dull tour of vampirism, similar to a fashion magazine layout. Extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

Summer in February 
This real-life romantic tragedy encompasses a love triangle among painter Alfred "A.J." Munnings, his best friend Gibson Evans and the woman both loved, Florence Carter-Wood. While its trajectory toward the final, fatal event is telegraphed from the start, it has excellent portrayals by Dominic Cooper (A.J.), Dan Stevens (Gibson) and especially Emily Browning (Florence). Decently directed and written by Christopher Menaul, this weepy romance earns its tears mainly due to the fact that it's true. Lone extra is a Stevens interview.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

August '14 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week
The Bankers of God—The Calvi Affair 
The corrupt intertwining of organized crime, the Catholic Church and the Italian financial system are recreated in this 1992 film, directed with flair if little subtlety by Giuseppe Ferrara, which shows how bank president Roberto Calvi took the fall for a scandal that touched the far reaches of the powerful Vatican Bank and the government itself. Rutger Hauer, Giancarlo Giannini, Omero Antonutti and Pamela Villoresi head a top international cast in a tautly structured drama that, if it isn't exactly illuminating, is edge-of-the-seat exciting. The Blu-ray transfer looks decent; extras include Black Friers Connection featurette.

Breathe In 
(Cohen Media)
For their exploration of a near-taboo coupling—a married 40-ish father and a high school exchange student who attends senior classes with his daughter—director-cowriter Drake Doremus deserves credit for restraint; but since his 95-minute drama isn't interested in chronicling a strictly sexual relationship, some may find its gradual revealing of their intimate relationship slow and unrewarding. Still, despite the lack of sexual fireworks, this is an intriguing character study with a strong cast: Guy Pearce (dad), Felicity Jones (student), Mackenzie Davis (daughter) and especially Amy Ryan (mom) provide credible character arcs throughout. The hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras are a making-of and director interview.

In this seemingly endless 140-minute adaptation of yet another post-apocalyptic series of novels with a young heroine (following The Hunger Games and Twilight), Shailene Woodley proves herself an onscreen force to be reckoned with, nearly overcoming this shaky compendium of sci-fi cliches, warmed-over plotlines and non-existent characterizations to  create someone we care about having around. Fans of the books probably won't be as finicky, but for those who haven't read the novels (three more films are on the way: consider this a warning), having Woodley at its center is enough to keep one watching. The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; extras are commentaries, deleted scenes, music video and  featurettes.

The Railway Man 
(Anchor Bay/Weinstein Co)
In this crushing true story, the understatedly excellent Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, former British soldier and POW in a Japanese camp, who confronts his nemesis, Takashi Nagase, decades later to bring closure to his awful experience: or is it just long-awaited vengeance? Although director Jonathan Teplitzky plays it close to superficial by bouncing back and forth between the prisoner of war scenes and his life afterwards, he gets uniformly fine performances by Firth and Nicole Kidman as his wife, Jeremy Irvine as his younger self and Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada as Takashi Nagase then and now. The Blu-ray image is splendid; extras are director-writer commentary and a making-of featurette. 

12 O'Clock Boys 
Lofty Nathan's skillfully wrought documentary follows a group of marauding young men who prowl the streets of Baltimore on their dirt bikes, always eluding their police pursuers: their recklessness is seen as exhilarating if a bit disturbing. There are moments when the otherwise gritty film seems at times to be overly sentimentalized, especially when it concentrates on Pug, a teen who desperately wants to join the group's ranks. The Blu-ray transfer looks good; extras include Nathan's commentary, outtakes and music video. 

We Won't Grow Old Together 
(Kino Lorber)
Maurice Pialat's trenchant 1972 exploration of a difficult on-again, off-again affair between a married filmmaker and his younger mistress is impossible to ignore, even if it's slow-going and heavyhanded at times. Although it comes uncomfortably close to parody—and Pialat, unlike Albert Brooks in his even better Modern Romance, plays it straight—its lacerating truths, thanks to leads Jean Yanne and especially Marlene Jobert, make this a must-see, its dramatic bumpiness echoing Pialat's later, nakedly emotional A nos Amours, Under the Sun of Satan and his grievously underrated final film, Le Garcu. The grainy hi-def transfer makes this look like a home movie, to its credit; extras include a Jobert interview and a video appreciation.

DVDs of the Week
Beyond Westworld
Wizards and Warriors 
(Warner Archive)
These TV series—each lasting only one season—were either ahead of their time or hopelessly behind the times, starting with 1980's Beyond Westworld, a needless knockoff-cum-sequel to the entertaining sci-fi movies Westworld and Futureworld; that the show only lasted five episodes speaks volumes about its worth. 1983's Wizards and Warriors, a kind of Dungeons and Dragons fantasy spoof, mixes humor and adventure with occasional hits but more often misses, even if its winking slyness anticipates things like The Princess Bride. 

The Blacklist 
The Eagle 
(MHz International Mystery)
If it wasn't for James Spader's weird (but effective) overacting, The Blacklist wouldn't have been discussed more than any other new show on network television, since the characters and the mainly risible plots haven't exactly been memorable, let alone remotely plausible: the season's 22 episodes build up to a finale that is strangely uninvolving. The same goes for The Eagle, a sluggish Swedish crime drama, in which our detective hero and his partners follow up on many sordid crimes, and even if the plotting is somehwat less haphazard than in similar shows in the U.S., from what I've seen this is among the lesser of MHZ's international mysteries.

Rubenstein Remembered 
(Sony Classical)
Sylvie Guillem—On the Edge 
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Rubenstein Remembered, a 1987 documentary portrait of the great Polish pianist (who died in 1982 at age 95), is narrated by his son John, who gives this study the right amount of warmth; of course, Rubstenstein's own playing—notably the music of Chopin, his Polish master—is the main draw. On the Edge examines the artistry of the extraordinary French dancer Sylvie Guillem, always unafraid to tackle music and movement outside her comfort zone, as collaborations with Robert Lapage and Akram Khan show. Guillem is seen as dedicated, relentlessly driven but untortured; Edge extras comprise rehearsal and stage footage.

The Trip to Bountiful 
Cicely Tyson's towering Tony-winning portrayal of octogenarian Carrie Watts, who longs to return to her birthplace before she dies, is preserved in this evocative TV movie based on Horton Foote's gently-observed play. Tyson doesn't chew the scenery, instead gving a restrained star turn that touches and moves with its generosity and sincerity; she's given first-rate support by Blair Underwood, Keke Palmer and the always underrated Vanessa Williams. Michael Wilson's sympathetic direction is as unobtrusively spot-on as it was on Broadway.

Friday, August 8, 2014

NYC Theater Roundup—'King Lear' in Central Park, 'Sex with Strangers' off-Broadway

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through August 17, 2014
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, New York, NY

Sex with Strangers
Written by Laura Eason; directed by David Schwimmer
Performances through August 31, 2014
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Sanders, Bening and Lithgow in King Lear (photo: Joan Marcus)
It says something about the current state of our theater that the most emotionally draining of Shakespeare's great tragedies, King Lear, keeps appearing on our stages in lackluster productions, or even worse. Of the Lears I've seen since F. Murray Abraham's 1996 abomination at the Public Theater—Christopher Plummer, Kevin Kline, Derek Jacobi, Sam Waterston, Frank Langella—they have all come to various griefs, even if some of them did get aspects of the most difficult role in the Shakespearean canon right.

Now it's John Lithgow's turn: his Lear—the first one in Central Park since 1974, when James Earl Jones assayed the role—begins as a jolly, almost Falstaffian, king, and with Lithgow's imposing manner (he's 6'4") and big white beard, he comes across as Santa-like rather than kingly. Lithgow has impressive moments in the black-comic stretches on the heath when Lear—fast losing his grasp on a tenuous sanity after banishing beloved young daughter Cordelia and being summarily rejected by ungrateful older daughters Goneril and Regan, who now rule his kingdom—is reduced to a near-naked pauper, and he's with only his trusty Fool and two loyal subjects in disguise, Kent (also banished by Lear) and Edgar (whose bastard half-brother Edmund has convinced his gullible father, Gloucester, that Edgar is the bad guy).

But Lithgow is more problematic in the tragic scenes, since he tends to exaggerate his line readings (with the welcome exception of his restrained and touching response to Edgar asking to kiss his hand: "Let me wipe it first—it smells of mortality"). He oversells Lear's anger over being shunned by Goneril and Regan in turn, and in the final scene with Cordelia's corpse, his overdone bellowing makes it seem as if he wants to prove that he literally has the lungs to play the part. He also gives a weird emphasis to each of the five shattering, climactic "nevers."

Director Daniel Sullivan's stark, one-dimensional staging isn't helped by Susan Hilferty's bland costumes, John Lee Beatty's monochrome set and Dan Moises Schreier's annoyingly—and overused—banging percussion. Jeff Croiter's vivid lighting gives the show its few moments of excitement during the storm scene. The uneven supporting cast starts with Lear's daughters: Jessica Collins' headstrong Cordelia and Annette Bening's regal Goneril are balanced by Jessica Hecht's banal Regan, another of this actress's shrill, affected and incongruous performances.

Also unfelictious are Chukwudi Iwuji's cardboard Edgar, Eric Scheffer Stevens' garish Edmund and Glenn Fleshler's humdrum Cornwall. Pluses are Steven Boyer's tough-minded, smartly uncampy Fool and Jay O. Sanders' sensitive Kent (although I wish he didn't affect such a blatant low-class accent while in disguise); Christopher Innvar's Albany at least has noble bearing and Clarke Peters is a strong-voiced Gloucester. 

Now that John Lithgow has failed his ascent of the imposing mountain that is King Lear, who will be brave—or foolhardy—enough to attempt it next?

Gunn and Magnussen in Sex with Strangers (photo: Joan Marcus)
Sex with Strangers, Laura Eason's amusing two-hander about Olivia, a struggling novelist whose unexpected meeting with one of her biggest fans—Nathan, a sex blogger turned bestselling author—hits on interesting subjects: how the internet has changed the publishing world and how, in 2014, two people who are aged 30 and 40 might as well be 30 years apart. 

But despite being relevant, these subjects aren't really explored in any depth: Eason's facile writing masks this liability to a certain extent, while the spiffy staging by director David Schwimmer and the delicious performances by Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen as the protagonists make the play seem deeper and cleverer than it is. 

There are humorous asides about the twitter/blogosphere generation (Ethan's, of course)—which lacks any sense of propriety or privacy—and the pre-internet generation (Olivia's)—for whom the smell and feel of an actual book outweighs the economics of e-books and e-readers. But despite such flickers of insight, and the intriguing power plays between Olivia and Ethan, there's a sense that it's all a ruse, a put-on, something underscored by an open-ended denouement that's a cheap attempt to underline this black-and-white world with ambiguity. 

But Gunn and Magnussen's easy rapport, along with their efficient simulation of various sex acts (which raise questions of intimacy and hypocrisy also blithely unexplored), make Sex with Strangers a quite attractive diversion.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

August '14 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
Cuban Fury 
(e one)
Whenever Nick Frost's name is attached as writer and/or actor—Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Paul—it's always a one-joke movie that provides middling returns as it goes along, as witness this mild comedy with Frost as a former Cuban-dance loving teen who has just disowned it but now, seeing that his adorable boss does it, finds himself drawn back in to its (and her) spell. While Frost himself is on auto-pilot, Rashida Jones is as adorably sexy as advertised, and the hilarious Ian McShane needs far more screen time than he receives. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras are behind the scenes featurettes.

Los Angeles Kings—2014 Stanley Cup Champions 
Winning its second Stanley Cup in three years, the Los Angeles Kings might be on their way to becoming that rarest of sports birds: a dynasty. We shall see, but this season's championship  march—winning four straight against San Jose in the first round, fending off Anaheim and Chciago to survive the Western Conference, and bouncing the overmatched New York Rangers in a five-game final—was very impressive. This 2-1/2 hour film highlights all four playoff series, along with the regular season's best moments and interviews with players and coaches; if you're a Kings fan, this is obviously a no-brainer to pick up. The Blu-ray image is sharp; extras include championship parade, top 10 moments, behind the scenes, more celebration footage.
On My Way 
(Cohen Media)
Poor Catherine Deneuve: when she should be aging gracefully onscreen in movies worthy of her talent and legendary status, instead she gets stuck in movies like Emmanuelle Bercot's trite character study of a lonely grandmother whose unexpected road trip finds her meeting all manner of eccentric people, few of whom are made at all plausible. The only relationship that doesn't come off as shallow is the one with her young grandson, but not enough of it is shown to balance out the silliness of all the rest. The Blu-ray image is first-rate; extras include Deneuve interview and deleted scenes.

The Other Woman 
As she has shown before, Cameron Diaz can be a terrific comedienne when a decently funny script appears, but Bad Teacher this is not: instead, this foolish attempt at a revenge comedy about a wife and two mistresses who bring down a cheating hubby claims several casualties, starting with the viewer. Leslie Mann is as obnoxious and annoying as ever, while Kate Upton is perfect eye candy, but neither her curvacousness nor Diaz's comic smarts can save Nick Cassavettes'  deadly non-comedy  The movie looks good on Blu-ray; extras include a gag reel and deleted scenes.

Ping Pong Summer 
For the few people interested, writer-director Michael Tully's amusingly slight comic tale is an unerring recreation of 1985, with the bad pop songs in place along with the teased hair and awful fashion sense; or the rest, any movie hinging on a climactic ping pong match between teenage antagonists (virginal hero and "cool" enemy) is never too far from monumental irrelevence. Still, an appealing cast led by Marcello Conte (virgin) and Emmi Shockley (his—he hopes—girl) smooths over the craters present in the script. The hi-def transfer looks decent; extras include a commentary and a making-of.

(Deutsche Grammophon)
Three decades ago, tenor Luciano Pavarotti was not only the most popular opera singer in the world but also was at the very top of his game, his ringingly clear and powerful voice shooting through the emotional score of Verdi's tragic opera about a hunchbacked jester whose loving daughter falls in love with his employer, the Duke of Mantua (Pavarotti). This 1983 film, shot on actual Italian locations, also stars Ingvar Wixell as Rigoleto and Edita Gruberova as his daughter Gilda; they sound great but Pavarotti sounds otherworldly. Riccardo Chailly ably conducts the stupendous-sounding Vienna Philharmonic and Chorus; the film's image isn't the sharpest, but the DTS sound is crisp and clear.

DVDs of the Week
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Leonard Bernstein's operetta—based on Voltaire's classic story—contains some of his most beguiling music, especially the finale "Make Our Garden Grow," and this 1989 concert recording with Bernstein himself on the podium (performed less than a year before his death) shows how effervescent his music could be when not being weighed down by pretentiousness. The superior cast includes June Anderson's Conegunde, Jerry Hadley's Candide and Adolph Green's Pangloss, and Bernstein's orchestra performs wonderfully. There are no extras, unless you count Bernstein's little podium lecture before the show starts.

Finding Vivian Maier 
In this remarkable artistic—and humane—exhumation, co-director John Maloof recounts how he "discovered" Vivian Maier, a nanny who snapped pictures for decades and is now posthumously being given her due by photographic experts. Maloof and Charlie Siskel piece together Maier's life and art by going through her (literal) trash to tracking down and talking to people who knew her, employed her or were her charges (even Phil Donahoe, for whom she briefly worked in the early '70s). This compelling study shows that you can't judge a book by its cover, or a reclusive nanny merely by her photographs. Extras comprise Maier audio recordings and Super 8 film footage.

Dream Deceivers
Modern Life 
(First Run)
David Van Taylor's 1991 documentary Dream Deceivers incisively looks at the 1990 trial pitting heavy metal's Judas Priest against two families who blamed the band's songs for leading their sons to attempt suicide, one of whom succeeded; despite the sadness of seeing the survivor with his face half shot off (he died before the trial began), it's difficult to sympathize—after all, millions of people listen to Priest's music without putting guns to their heads. At least the judge got it right. Raymond Depardon's engrossing documentary Modern Life chronicles the lives of several families on rural French farms; the ravishing countryside and elegant Gabriel Faure soundtrack music are obvious visual and aural highlights, but Depardon's expressive portraits present these people in their own milieu, refreshingly with no condescension. Dream extras are director interviews.

Nicolas Le Floch 
(MHz International Mystery)
I was looking forward to this costumed mystery series, but despite its being set in 1761—during the reign of Louis XV—this flashy-looking detective drama is pretty much a dramatic dud. Police commissioner Le Floch himself (Jerome Robart) doesn't make much of an impression, and despite the attractive period trappings, the storylines themselves (ranging from disappearances to scandals to suspicious killings) remain disappointingly tame and, after awhile, even more disappointingly similar.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Original Cast Recordings: 'Beautiful,' 'Bullets Over Broadway,' 'If/Then,' 'Here Lies Love'

More of today’s musicals are going the jukebox route, using existing songs by one or more artists to build a show around. The results range widely, as several current cast recordings demonstrate: from Carole King’s catalog of ‘60s and ‘70s hits in Beautiful to the slew of mainly obscure songs from the ‘20s in Bullets Over Broadway. To be sure, there are still original scores done on and off Broadway, like the Idina Menzel vehicle If/Then and David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s dance-club show about Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love.

But if one is looking for originality in these stage musicals, look elsewhere than these four CDs: neither If/Then nor Here Lies Love has memorable songs to go with the semi-clever concept. And one’s tolerance for Beautiful is based on one’s love for Carole King’s songs, while Bullets Over Broadway’s pastiche of 90-plus year-old tunes works better onstage, where it's paired with Susan Stroman’s witty choreography.

Beautiful (Ghostlight Records) comes off schizophrenic onstage, unwilling to commit to dramatizing King’s own story: instead of concentrating on King’s solo career, which begins with 1970’s seminal Tapestry, the musical meanders through the ‘60s pop world, giving King and partner-husband Garry Goffin’s friendly rivals, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, inordinate stage time, including several of their own tunes. But Beautiful’s assembly-line parade of hits is certainly worthy, and on disc, its desperation to please its baby-boomer audience with recognizable hits rather than create a compelling story musical is less noticeable. 

And what hits there are: 7 Number Ones and 5 Top Tens that run the gamut from “The Locomotion” to “It’s Too Late,” with “You’ve Got a Friend” and “I Feel the Earth Move” thrown into the beguiling mix. The singers are reasonable facsimiles with personalities of their own, and Jessie Mueller’s Carole—too often on
the sideline while others hog the spotlight—has a lofty voice that keeps her front and center.

Bullets Over Broadway (Masterworks Broadway), based on Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 comedy film, is crammed with 1920s standards cleverly orchestrated by Greg Kelly, who’s also penned new lyrics that refer to the plot and characters. (The Broadway production is closing on August 24.) Missing Susan Stroman’s original choreography and direction, the score—from rousing curtain-raiser “Tiger Rag” to giddy closer “Yes, We Have No Bananas”—stumbles, and the talented onstage cast is rendered mostly inert when audio-only. 

Nick Cordero, who has comic menace as hitman-turned-playwright Cheech, has a tap-dance number, “T’aint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” that's a highlight live but not on disc, while old pros Karen Ziemba and Brooks Ashmanskas provide needed daffiness in “There’s a New Day Comin’” and “Let’s Misbehave.” Then there's Marin Mazzie, whose vocal elegance on “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle” quashes nagging memories of Dianne Wiest’s Oscar-winning turn as acting diva Helen Sinclair, while our amiably goofy hero, Zach Braff, battles his way through “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Listening to Bullets on CD is like closing your eyes while your favorite Woody movie is on. 

If/Then (Masterworks Broadway) has a heroine, Elizabeth—a thirty-something back in New York after her divorce—who (depending on the path she takes) is either Liz, glasses-wearing city planner who falls in love with Josh, a soldier just returned from Iraq; or Beth, unemployed activist sans glasses, who begins seeing old college boyfriend Lucas. The musical rotely toggling between Liz and Beth is dragged down by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s antiseptic—and interchangeable—tunes. 

Lackluster music and superficial exploration of Liz/Beth make If/Then completely forgettable, except for its leading lady, Idina Menzel, who deserves better original musicals than If/Then, or Rent, or even Wicked. Although saddled with strident, same-sounding songs, Menzel—pro that she is—takes off into the stratosphere with some of them, even turning a limp attempt at a showstopper, “Always Starting Over,” into something resembling an emotional climax. Even on CD, Menzel’s fierce artistry comes through, almost making If/Then sound like a real musical. 

Here Lies Love (Nonesuch), a colossally lightweight affair, relies too much on gimmickry for its metaphor of corrupting power finishing off the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Its paltry idea—that, since Imelda enjoyed clubbing as Philippine first lady, so the show inhabits a club atmosphere for its 90-minute length—is reflected in the music. 

David Byrne’s and Fatboy Slim’s singleminded songs are remarkably repetitive, with the partial exceptions of the soaring title song, whose chorus apes the “oh oh oh” bridge of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “The Fabulous One,” a spirited anthem for Marcos’ political opponent (and anti-Marcos martyr) Benigno Aquino, which has some of the spiky wit and rhythmic vigor of the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music peak. But the rest, smothered by Slim’s relentless beats, are shrill and paper-thin, however well sung by the energetic cast.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July '14 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week
Aerial America—Southwest Collection
(Smithsonian Channel)
In the latest release from the invaluable series exploring this great land of ours, unforgettable aerial footage of five states (Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) is the star of this four-hour travelogue. Among their eye-popping scenic vistas and natural wonders, stand-outs are Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Nevada’s Hoover Dam, New Mexico’s Santa Fe and Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Captured with pinpoint clarity by many hi-def cameras, these locations linger in the memory, thanks to the first-rate hi-def transfer.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn
The latest by Phil Alden Robinson (director of Field of Dreams and Sneakers) is a compact, intermittently satisfying black comedy about an angry man who, when told he has 90 minutes to live, runs all over Brooklyn hoping to make belated amends with his family. Robinson’s concise direction and pitch-perfect performances by Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Melissa Leo and Sutton Foster help disguise the fact that this is ultimately 84 shopworn minutes of material from Daniel Taplitz’s script. The Blu-ray looks good; extras are a making-of featurette and gag reel with not enough Williams craziness.

Ariadne auf Naxos
Don Carlo
(Sony Classical)
Although German tenor Jonas Kaufmann stars in both operas, he is less in his element in Strauss’s Ariadne than in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo, where he memorably plays the sympathetic nobleman in the Salzburg Festival’s 2013 staging, which matches the complexities in the libretto and masterly music. Ariadne is Salzburg’s 2012 staging of the unwieldy original, which Strauss wisely discarded before settling on the justly well-known version. Strauss’s women, as always, are front and center, and Emily Magee and Elena Mosuc come off best in a time-capsule work that has glorious music but bumpy dramaturgy. Hi-def visuals and audio of both operas are exemplary.

Love in the City
There was a plethora of omnibus films by notable European directors in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, and this engagingly lightweight 1953 ensemble feature was one of the first: despite comprising shorts by heavy-hitters near the beginning of their careers (Fellini, Antonioni) and other noteworthy filmmakers (Dino Risi, Alberto Lattuada), this is a scattershot film about romances and relationships. Still, anyone interested in these directors—particularly Antonioni and Fellini—will want to at least check out their favorites’ segments. On Blu-ray, the image looks OK if too digitized; extras include commentaries and interviews.

The Wind Will Carry Us
(Cohen Media)
Iranian Abbas Kiarostami’s dazzlingly formal 1999 study follows a group of engineers which arrives at a remote village to record the inhabitants’ mourning rituals preceding a 100-year-old woman’s death; when she doesn’t die, the men are forced to appreciate the slow pace of the people’s day-to-day existence. Before he turned into a pretentious purveyor of “reality or illusion” dramas—culminating in the colossally vacuous Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love—Kiarostami directed thought-provoking films with simple but stunning imagery, which come through unvarnished on Blu-ray. Lone extra is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s commentary.

DVDs of the Week
The French Minister
Bertrand Tavernier’s unabashed and witty satire of French—and, by extension, international—politics comes very close to becoming the distinguished and intelligent French director’s first foray into farce. But the over-the-top careenings of the characters and the absurd—but expressly realistic—scenarios remain plausible enough to make viewers uncomfortable while laughing out loud. This exhilarating highwire act comes perilously close to going over the edge into self-parody, but never does: pitch-perfect acting by Thierry Lhermitte, Raphael Personnaz, Anais Demoustier and Julie Gayet grounds their near-caricatures in Tavernier’s superbly rendered ultra-heightened reality. My lone quibble: why is this not on Blu-ray? Extras are brief featurettes.

Medical Center—Season 5
(Warner Archive)
For the popular hospital drama’s fifth season—which was televised in 1973-74—Chad Everett and James Daly’s doctors not only deal with their patients’ physical and mental issues, but also with thorny problems which were then plaguing and dividing the country, like homosexuality and the Vietnam War. Alongside the stars, some of the guests passing through the hospital’s doors on the six discs housing this season’s 24 episodes include Stefanie Powers, Stockard Channing, Jill Clayburgh, Julie Harris and even Celeste Holm.

Le Week-End
(Music Box)
Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan could scarcely be bettered as a middle-aged English couple trying to rekindle their long-dulled marriage by returning to Paris, scene of their long-ago honeymoon. But despite the deliciously believable relationship they create, director Roger Michel and writer Hanif Kureishi are unable to surround them with an arresting storyline or non-clich├ęd characters to interact with (typified by Jeff Goldblum’s vulgar caricature as an ugly American). Extras are director-producer commentary, featurettes and cast-crew interviews.

CD of the Week
John Mellencamp—Live at Town Hall, July 31, 2003
It was a long way from Johnny Cougar warbling “Hurts So Good” to a politically aware John Mellencamp performing the entirety of his then-current album, Trouble No More, a collection of blues and folk tunes that stingingly commented on the state of the nation when the Bush administration began its disastrous Iraq war in a 2003 concert that finally sees the light of day. Mellencamp’s maturity came in fits and starts in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but his scathing Trouble songs—played with controlled power by his terrific live band—are in another realm entirely, led by his re-writing of an old song, “To Washington,” mocking the sins of those in power. Renditions of his ‘80s hits “Small Town,” “Paper in Fire” and “Pink Houses”—in more folk-based arrangements—mark a straight line to the political charged tunes from Trouble No More.    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July '14 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week

Cesar Chavez 
Diego Luna’s unexceptional biopic about the singular labor leader who, against all odds, gained widespread support for his strike actions against all-powerful corporations would be less than memorable if not for the compelling performance of Michael Pena in the title role. Solid support from Rosario Dawson and America Ferrara lends authenticity to a decent if flattened-out Hollywood version of an inspiring true story. The Blu-ray image looks superb; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Endeavour—Season 2 

In the second season of this entertaining prequel to the popular British series Morse, set in Oxford in the fraught decade of the 1960s, the young detective investigates several cases with the no-nonsense Chief Inspector Thursday (played by the inimitable Roger Allam of The Thick of It). Shaun Evans himself provides the necessary pluck, humor and intelligence in the title role, and these four 90-minute mysteries unravel grippingly. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.

Michael Palin’s Brazil 

Wherein the former Monty Python member continues his successful second career as a world traveler to remote and remarkable destinations, this four-part series follows Palin to what’s been in the news recently as the controversial home of the recent World Cup. But as Palin discovers (and shows), it is so much more, with some of the most wide-ranging cultures on the entire planet, from difficult-to-reach rainforest regions to full-to-bursting population centers Rio and Brasilia, where millions live in cramped quarters. It’s a splendid but thoughtful journey, with spectacular vistas rendered beautifully on Blu-ray.

Open Grave 

Pits filled with dead bodies, survivors suffering from amnesia, a plague that has seemingly killed off much of the world’s population—yes, it’s another apocalyptic thriller, although this one is somewhat cleverer than other recent entries. Director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and writers Eddie and Chris Borey keep things moving by keeping shock effects to a minimum, and the result is a watchable entry in this burgeoning genre, especially for those who are fans. On Blu-ray, the movie looks excellent; lone extra: behind-the-scenes featurette.


One of Robert Bresson’s 1950s masterpieces—along with A Man Escaped and Diary of a Country Priest—this 1959 classic leads up to, in Bresson’s usual austere and elliptical style, a young man’s eventual (and surprising) state of grace while working as a low-class criminal. This is yet another of Bresson’s transcendent explorations of humanity, as usual achieved with an eloquent economy of means. The Criterion Collection’s new hi-def transfer is spellbinding, as the film’s B&W images popping off the screen; extras include a commentary, intro, Bresson interview, and 2003 documentary feature The Models of Pickpocket, which profiles Bresson’s actors. 


It would be nice to report that the latest sci-fi film about artificial intelligence is smart, stylish and superlative entertainment, but no: Transcendence is draggy, laughably inert and trite through and through. Although from Kate Mara I don’t expect much, talented performers like Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany are hopelessly lost, and even Rebecca Hall, an actress who never strikes a false note, can’t overcome screenwriter Jack Paglen’s flimsy characters and motivation. Cinematographer turned director Wally Pfister creates gorgeous imagery but can’t make the plot transform itself into coherence. The Blu-ray looks terrific; extras are short featurettes.

DVDs of the Week
The Face of Love 

In this intimately-scaled drama about a widow who falls for a man that’s a dead ringer for her long-deceased husband, Annette Bening’s forceful and subtle performance (one of her best) towers over director-cowriter Arie Posen and cowriter Matthew McDuffie’s Twilight Zone knock-off. The very real chemistry between Bening and an excellent Ed Harris (as husband and new guy) is undermined by desperate melodramatic strategems that lead the movie to a sentimental denouement after spinning its wheels for 90 minutes. Extras include deleted scenes and interviews.

How the West Was Won—Complete 2nd Season 

Although it shares its title with the Oscar-winning, 1962 western epic, this 1977-79 drama series is a pale imitation of its big-screen brethren’s visual grandeur, and a top small-screen cast led by James Arness, Eva Marie Saint, Bruce Boxleitner and Lloyd Bridges can’t compensate. Of the 14 season two episodes housed on six discs, three are 2-1/2 hours long, approaching the length of the original without the Cinerama process that made the movie a true “event.”

Unni Lindell—The Cato Isaksen Mysteries, Sets 1 & 2 
(MHZ International Mystery)

Based on novels by Norwegian author Unni Lindell, these three-DVD sets of feature-length mysteries centers on homicide detective Cato Isakson, whose professionalism and brilliance at solving tough murder cases runs directly counter to his screwed-up home life (he has three kids by two women, for starters). Acted with conviction by Reidar Sorenson (Cato) and a formidable supporting cast, these two-part films—each running about three hours—are first-rate…and binge-worthy (the ultimate compliment nowadays).

Vicious—Season One 

Pairing Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen as aging queens who live together as they endlessly bicker comes off as a retrograde and desperate attempt at a sitcom that, sadly, is only in its first season: meaning there will be more of this. The two legendary actors do what they can with dated (and stupid) material, and their leading lady—the irrepressibly brilliant Frances de la Tour—is even better. But no one can save this. Extras comprise cast and crew interviews.