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Blu-rays of the Week
Death Laid an Egg
Giulio Questi’s wacky 1968 giallo is a product of its time: nodding toward Godard’s masterpiece Weekend (released in ‘67), Questi’s potent critique of a dehumanized industrial society is masked by a tricked-out tale of murder around a poultry plant owned by a philandering husband and his wife.
In the leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant (husband), Gina Lollobrigida (wife) and Ewa Aulin (mistress) make a stunning trio; there are moments of visual overkill, but it’s stylish and enjoyably loony. There’s a quite impressive hi-def transfer.
Heat and Dust
(Cohen Film Collection)
This 1983 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel tracks parallel East-West culture clashes, as an Englishwoman, Anne, travels to India to discover the fate of her great aunt Olivia, who in the 1920s had an affair with a local ruler (Hindi film star Shashi Kapoor, who died last week). Although labored in its shuttling back and forth, there are compensations, notably Julie Christie as Anne and Greta Scacchi as Olivia, both splendid performances of intelligence and—especially Scacchi—sensuality.
The hi-def transfer is excellent; there’s also a commentary and a second disc of bonus features: new interviews with Scacchi, Ivory, Jhabvala, composer Richard Robbins, actor Nickolas Grace and producer Israel Merchant; new Q&A with actor Madhur Jaffrey; and Merchant-Ivory’s hour-long 1975 film Autobiography of a Princess.
Pelléas et Mélisande
Claude Debussy’s tragic romance is one of opera’s towering masterpieces, its three hours alternately bracing and disturbing. This 2016 Malmo (Sweden) production is nicely staged by director Benjamin Lazar, with Debussy’s magnificent score being beautifully handled by conductor Maxime Pascal and the Malmo Opera Orchestra.
But the glory is in the main performers: Marc Mauillon’s vivid Pelléas and—best of all—Jenny Daviet’s languid, meltingly lovely-voiced Mélisande. The hi-def video and audio are topnotch.
The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical opera is rarely seen on European or American stages, so who better than St. Petersburg’s own Mariinsky Opera to present such a boldly imaginative production?
As always, Valery Gergiev persuasively leads his orchestra in music that they all feel in their bones, the usual array of Russian singers belts out convincingly, and the sets and costumes are bright and dazzling. The only caveat is that, since this is on film instead of hi-def video, the visuals don’t pop as they should.
DVDs of the Week
Karl Marx City
Petra Epperlein (with co-director Michael Tucker) returned to the former East Germany to discover the truth behind her father’s 1999 suicide by hanging: was he—as he was accused of being—a spy for the Stasi, the formidable East German security force that terrified thousands of ordinary citizens on a daily basis during the Cold War?
Epperlein has no illusions about what she finds, which she shares with her devastated mother and twin brothers, while the rest of this agonizing documentary comprises illuminating interviews with various archivists, former Stasi members and regular people that shed a necessary light on how dictatorships can thrive.
Maurizio Cattelan—Be Right Back
Maurizio Cattelan is an art world prankster without the social or political cachet of Banksy, but since he’s courted cognoscenti for decades he’s become one of the most reliable names in the business, and Maura Axelrod’s diverting documentary portrait shows him off as a sort-of raconteur par excellence.
Whether he’s a real artist is another matter: despite the experts, that he gets a Guggenheim retrospective that garners critical raves and lines around the block says more about the state of our current culture than about his clever but minor works.
Downtown Race Riot
Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through December 23, 2017
Chloe Sevigny and David Levi in Downtown Race Riot (photo: Monique Carboni)
In Downtown Race Riot, Seth Zvi Rosenfeld turns cartoons into real characters: with a huge assist from a talented cast and director, of course. But to what end? Nearly two hours of watching a drug-addled mom, her equally damaged children and her son’s friends and acquaintances meander through their mundane existence—culminating with a violent brawl—bring the audience no insight or point.
Mary, a 39-year-old single mom, lives in a West Village railroad apartment with two children by different men: 21-year-old Joyce and 18-year-old Jimmy, known as PNut. Mary has trouble keeping clean, collects disability checks and has a lawyer on the way to discuss suing the city for giving PNut asthma by his eating paint chips when he was younger (which he never did). PNut and his best friend, a Haitian black named Marcel, aka Massive, plan to go to Washington Square Park for an upcoming fight between neighborhood toughs and minority interlopers from other parts of the city. Joyce, though nominally a lesbian, seduces Massive when she comes home, in part to get back at her brother and especially her mom, who she feels cares more for PNut than Joyce.
Rosenfeld draws sympathetic but realistic portraits of his play’s inhabitants, even the “tough” Jay 114 and Jimmy-Sick, or Mary’s coke-snorting lawyer Bob, all of whom initially seem like refugees from Mean Streets or The Sopranos, but are humanized by the writing and acting. Still, the play and these people don’t go anywhere unsurprising: they are fated to remain behind, thanks to class or race, which isn’t an earth-shattering revelation.
Derek McLane’s tremendous set of Mary’s shabby apartment is arrestingly lit by Yael Lubetzky. Scott Elliott’s fluid direction allows the supremely confident performers to play off one another convincingly, whether Cristian Demeo and Daniel Sovich’s amusing would-be wise guys, Moise Morancy’s charming Massive, Josh Pais’s overanxious Bob, Sadie Scott’s tantalizingly ambivalent Joyce, or David Levi’s flailing PNut.
Chloe Sevigny’s Mary is scarily authentic, whether in her pathetic attempts to hide her drug habit—even when she slinks off to her bed, where she holds forth to PNut, Joyce and Massive—or while slinking around in shorts and a halter top (perfectly ugly ‘70s costuming by Clint Ramos) to entice Bob. It’s a marvelously physical performance that makes her character and the play she’s in seem substantial.
The New Group @ Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
1995’s Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King’s novel and starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mother and daughter with disturbingly dark skeletons, was directed by Taylor Hackford with stylish ostentation, which fits the strangely compelling material.
1991’s Doc Hollywood, an amiable fish-out-of-water comedy, has a prime starring role for Michael J. Fox as a fresh-faced doctor who finds himself stuck in a small southern town, and who meets a charming young woman (Julie Warner, a delightful actress who unfortunately didn’t do much else in her career). Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; Dolores includes a Hackford commentary.
As if the title wasn’t enough of a clue, this supposedly infamous but mainly forgotten attempt at a porn flick from the classic early ‘70s era riffs on one of our favorite superheroes, but its ineptitude is about all it has going for it.
It’s as if Ed Wood tried to make an X-rated film: that no one knows who made it and who’s in it adds a miniscule modicum of mystery that surrounds this curio. Extras are a commentary and bonus movie, 1971’s Robot Love Slaves.
With a title like that, you’d expect a chintzy B movie, and although that’s basically what it is, director Bob Clark provides unsettling creepiness to this queasy tale of a soldier apparently killed in Vietnam who returns home and slowly becomes a zombie.
Of course, it’s a metaphor for how soldiers were treated both in country and at home; what’s surprising is how effectively it works, even with committed but spotty acting. There’s an acceptable hi-def transfer; extras include commentaries, interviews and featurette.
1976’s torpid horror flick Ruby came out the same year as Carrie; that both star Piper Laurie as the loony mother of a disturbed teenage girl is their main similarity. Unlike Carrie’s slick schlockiness, Curtis Harrington’s film is hackneyed, haphazard, and B-movie all the way.
Satan’s Cheerleaders, Greydon Clark’s 1977 tease flick, also has little to recommend it, even for viewers on the lookout for T&A amid its typical scares. Amateurish performances, even from sleepwalking Yvonne DeCarlo and John Carradine, don’t help. Both films have decent hi-def transfers; Ruby extras include commentaries and interviews, and Cheerleaders extras comprise commentaries.
I’d never seen anything by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, so to come cold to his five-hour, seventeen-minute opus about a quartet of 30ish women friends dealing with their quotidian lives is at first off-putting, then—very slowly—entrancing.
Hamaguchi allows his film, and its characters, to breathe, and if there are certain static longueurs—one sequence at an author’s reading could be excised—there’s also an appreciation and understanding of life in all its ordinariness: and extraordinariness. The superlative acting matches the creator’s humanism.
Exhibition On Screen: Michelangelo Love and Death
In presenting the several decade-long career of one of the Renaissance’s—and history’s—greatest masters, this 90-minute documentary overview hits all the expected beats (sculpture, architecture, poetry, Sistine Chapel ceiling) as it combines expert discussion with close-up views of the works that give occasional insight into his method and madness.
As always with Exhibition On Screen, there’s a caveat: releasing this only on DVD, not Blu-ray, is a mistake, since these precious artistic treasures should be seen solely in hi-def.
CD of the Week
Blackmore’s Night—Winter Carols
Guitarist extraordinaire Ritchie Blackmore teams with his wife, singer/recorder player Candice Night, for an enjoyable journey through music of the holiday season. Don’t expect Rainbow Does Christmas, however: in these folky-cum-Renaissance Faire arrangements, Blackmore’s tasty acoustic playing beautifully complements Night’s lovely vocals on evergreen titles such as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships” and “We Three Kings.”
First released in 2006, this re-release include three songs not included on the original; a second disc (from a 2013 re-issue) has several tunes recorded live, along with various versions—including one in German—of Night singing a Yuletide original, “Christmas Eve.”
The Parisian Woman
Written by Beau Willimon; directed by Pam Mackinnon
Performances through March 11, 2018
Uma Thurman and Marton Csokas in The Parisian Woman (photo: Matthew Murphy)
The Trump era will undoubtedly beget other plays about what his election wrought, but Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, an updated rewriting of Henry Becque’s 1885 French comedy La Parisienne, and concerning the high-society wife of a well-connected Washington lawyer who wants a hoped-for judgeship from the new president, gets a head start.
There are disparaging references to Trump’s predilection for Twitter and his listening to the last person he saw in this tidy but static one-act drama that’s a slight disappointment from a writer whose political bona fides were brought to bear with the play Farragut North (which became the George Clooney film The Ides of March) and the Netflix series House of Cards. Willimon writes literate dialogue with acid dripping from it, but his cardboard characters’ machinations do little more than provide for the audience’s amusement and also, finally, bemusement.
It’s obviously how Washington operates—we witness the nastiness behind the scenes—but The Parisian Woman doesn’t so much illuminate as show it, so we see the results without much insight. Chloe, liberal wife of conservative tax lawyer Tom, is first seen with middle-aged banker Peter, with whom she’s having an affair (the spouses apparently have a no-talk policy about extracurricular activities). Peter’s undying love gives her the upper hand when she needs a favor: for Peter to whisper in the president’s ear about her husband’s availability for the court vacancy.
Also used by Chloe is Jeanette, Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Reserve (and seemingly modeled after Janet Yellen, the current Fed chairman), a D.C. veteran who becomes a close confidant of Chloe’s, at least until she realizes that her own daughter Rebecca—a recent Harvard law grad with a bright political future ahead of her—has become a willing pawn in Chloe’s game.
Much of the play consists of conversations in three locations—Chloe and Tom’s living room; the balcony of Jeanette’s home; and a ritzy restaurant (the stylish sets are by Derek McLane)—and director Pam Mackinnon has trouble sustaining the forward motion of a play that sits around for much of its length. That it’s only 90 minutes helps, and the final scene climaxes with another Trump allusion that’s a well-timed punch line.
Josh Lucas (Tom), Marton Csokas (Peter), Philippa Soo (Rebecca) and Blair Brown (Jeanette) give persuasive support, although Brown often barks too much like a bitchy Elaine Stritch. Making a smashing Broadway debut is Uma Thurman, whose Chloe is self-confident, shrewd, smart-looking and impossibly elegant (Jane Greenwood did the dead-on costumes): even how she lounges while sipping Sancerre is charming. Thurman makes The Parisian Woman look better than it really is.
Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY
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