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Reviews

June '24 Digital Week III

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
Firebrand 
(Roadside Attractions)
Katharine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives—and the only one to survive (he died a year before she)—is the focus of Karim Aïnouz’s intelligent but conventional biopic that dramatizes the fine line between staying in the king’s good graces and being accused of treason.
 
 
Despite richly impressive performances by Alicia Vikander (Katharine), Jude Law (Henry), Junia Rees (Princess Elizabeth, Henry’s young daughter, who becomes an immortal queen a decade later) and Erin Doherty (Anne Askew, a Protestant whose heresy lands too close to Katharine for comfort), Aïnouz’s film is based on a script, by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, that admirably centers on the women of Tudor England—but doesn’t give much insight to its endlessly fascinating subject.
 
 
 
Ride 
(Well Go USA)
As a father desperate to treat his young daughter’s rare form of cancer, C. Thomas Howell gives a formidable portrayal that’s the heart of writer-director-star Jake Allyn’s well-intentioned if cliched character study. Allyn himself plays Howell’s rootless son—his driving while drunk caused an accident that badly injured his sister, although her hospital stay led doctors to discover her cancer—who’s a rodeo vet hoping to earn enough while riding to pay for her treatment.
 
 
Annabeth Gish, on hand as Howell’s ex-wife, Allyn’s mom and the local sheriff investigating a theft and shooting that just might involve both of them. It’s all very soap-operaish, but the excellent acting and Allyn’s flavorful directing are major assists.
 
 
 
Thelma 
(Magnolia)
Kudos to director-writer Josh Margolin for casting irrepressible 93-year-old actress June Squibb as a grandma fooled by a phone scam that bilks her out of 10 grand, but that’s not the end of it; in fact, it’s just the beginning. This lighthearted little comic drama is too cutesy with several cringy moments, but Squibb, Richard Roundtree (whose last performance this is) as her partner in crime and Malcolm McDowell in a funny cameo as the target of Thelma’s ire make it worthwhile.
 
 
Too bad Parker Posey, Clark Gregg and Fred Hechinger, as Thelma’s daughter, son-in-law and grandson, have little to do except run around looking for her. Margolin ties it all together at the end with his dedication to the real Thelma, his grandmother, still going strong at 103.
 
 
 
Treasure 
(Film Nation/Bleecker Street)
Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham might seem an odd pairing to play a Polish father and his American journalist daughter traveling to Poland to revisit his childhood—and, on the basis of writer-director Julia von Heinz’ strangely inert character study, they are.
 
 
Both Fry (with a decent Polish accent as Edek) and Dunham (more interestingly vulnerable than she usually is as Ruth) are game, putting authenticity and amusement into their characters’ relationship, but von Heinz only occasionally makes this trip into a traumatic past urgent or illuminating. 
 
 
 
Streaming Release of the Week 
Love’s Whirlpool 
(Omnibus)
Daisuke Miura’s diffuse 2014 drama—based on his own play—follows an octet (four men, four women) who meet at a private Tokyo club for a night of casual, anonymous sex, where they end up discovering things about themselves as well as the others they just met and hooked up with.
 
 
While the men and women eventually pair off and go at it, Miura shoots the sex scenes as sniggeringly silly couplings, while his dialogue is mostly portentous and self-important. Despite this, there are fine performances, especially by Mugi Kadowaki as a meek college student with an insatiable sex drive and Muck Akazawa as a tough-talking sex-club regular, that help make this two-hour film less of a slog.
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Blind War 
(Well Go USA)
In this resolutely insane Chine martial arts drama, after SWAT team leader Dong Gu loses his sight in a botched courthouse mission, he returns from the force, then has to track down the bad guys who kidnaped his violin-playing daughter.
 
 
Director Suiqiang Huo leans into the absurdity of his premise, which makes it propulsively watchable; Andy On gives an impeccably physical performance as the ex-cop turned vigilante while Yang Zing expertly chews the scenery as the villain who might just help him out on his quest for revenge. The film looks very good on Blu; lone extra is an on-set featurette.
 
 
 
Immaculate 
(Neon)
Sydney Sweeney, fresh off her surprise hit rom-com Anyone But You, plays Sister Cecilia, a devout novice who, after arriving at a convent in Italy, finds herself miraculously pregnant—and soon discovers that there are devious goings-on intruding on the nuns’ bodily autonomy…and worse.
 
 
Michael Mohan directs without much imagination or wit, but he finds his métier in the gothic twists and turns—filled with a lot of bloody gore—of the finale, and Sweeney is always watchable, even in church-horror mode. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; lone extra is Mohan’s commentary.
 
 
 
DVD Release of the Week
Welcome Back, Kotter 
(Warner Bros)
The classic sitcom returns in this complete set comprising a dozen discs and all 95 episodes over four seasons (1975-79), detailing the escapades of the Sweathogs (played by John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillo) at Buchanan High School in Brooklyn; their teacher, Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan), has returned to his former school to try and teach these teens.
 
 
The series, both funny and sentimental, hinges on the sharp performances by Kaplan, Marcia Strassman (Kotter’s wife) and the boys, making it a worthwhile comic nostalgia trip.
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week 
Lukas Foss—Orchestral Works
(Naxos)
Berlin-born, U.S.-based Lukas Foss (1922-2009) was a mentor of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) music director JoAnn Falletta, who repays him in kind with this all-Foss disc that includes three wonderful works from early in his eclectic career (Ode, Three American Pieces and Symphony No. 1), and one later masterpiece (Renaissance Concerto).
 
 
I heard Falletta and the BPO perform this same program at Carnegie Hall in 2022, and these splendid readings match the intensity onstage that night. Special mention to the brilliant soloists: flutist Amy Porter in the evocative Renaissance Concerto and BPO concertmaster Nikki Chooi in the Coplandesque Three American Pieces. Of course, Falletta feels this music in her very bones, and the result is the best possible case for Foss as a major American composer.

Off-Broadway Play Review—Alexis Scheer’s “Breaking the Story” with Maggie Siff

Breaking the Story
Written by Alexis Scheer; directed by Jo Bonney
Performances through June 23, 2024
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
2st.com
 
Louis Ozawa and Maggie Siff in Breaking the Story (photo: Joan Marcus)
 
Alexis Scheer’s Breaking the Story opens with a literal bang, jolting not only the audience but also Marina, a seasoned foreign correspondent who’s been covering troubled regions for decades. Marina and Bear, her colleague, photographer and fiancé, are presumed dead after the explosion; when the dust settles, she and Bear are in a quiet place in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Marina grew up and where she has bought a large house with a lot of property. She muses aloud whether to retire after this weekend, when she’s getting a lifetime achievement award for her work.
 
Also present are Marina’s daughter Cruz, an aspiring singer thinking of forgoing college to Marina’s consternation (Cruz’s songs, cowritten by Scheer, punctuate the action); Gummy, Marina’s sardonic mother; Sonia, Cruz’s godmother; Fed, TV news anchor, Marina’s ex and Cruz’s dad; and Nikki, a young, ambitious war journalist who’s in town to give Marina her award. 
 
Marina and Bear plan to get married in these bucolic surroundings, but Marina’s PTSD intrudes, fragments of her war exploits haunting her—as she wonders whether she was a good enough mother to Cruz while dodging bullets in faraway lands. Marina’s also worried that a long-held secret might damage her reputation: She wasn’t fully truthful in her reporting at her first war-zone catastrophe years earlier. 
 
Although 80 minutes are not enough to create a properly complex portrait, Scheer and always resourceful director Jo Bonney intrepidly probe Marina’s scarred and battered psyche with a series of quick snapshots that alternate black humor with seriousness, even if the more surreal moments (like a funny but odd cake tasting sequence) are too fleeting to truly hit the mark. 
 
Still, it leads to a well-executed Twilight Zone-esque twist ending, as the final moments return to the very beginning. There are bits in the dialogue that hint at where Scheer is going with her story, and it effectively visualizes the gulf between Marina’s exciting foreign exploits and her relatively dull civilian existence.
 
Julie Halston is her usual boisterous self as Gummy, while Geneva Carr is an effulgent Sonia, Gabrielle Policano a winning Cruz, Tala Ashe a lively Nikki, Louis Ozawa an endearing Bear and Matthew Salvidar an efficient Fed. At the center stands Maggie Siff, whose Marina is marvelously shaded; as usual, Siff elevates Scheer’s writing with her compelling presence. Now that Billions is over, maybe we’ll get more of Siff onstage.

June '24 Digital Week II

In-Theater Release of the Week
Longing 
(Lionsgate/Grindstone)
Israeli writer-director Savi Gabizon remade his own touchingly offbeat 2017 feature, setting it in Canada and starring Richard Gere as a hotshot NYC executive who, after discovering he fathered a child with a long-ago ex two decades earlier, tries to make amends for being ignorant of his son’s existence.
 
 
Virtually nothing about this character study is plausible or rendered sympathetically—except for Gere, who gives a persuasively mournful performance under the circumstances—and several other good performers are wasted, particularly poor Diane Kruger, who has little to do as the teacher his son was infatuated with and who disappears midway through. The rest is taken up with narrative twists of tortured dramatic irony that fail miserably. 
 
 
 
 
 
4K/UHD Release of the Week
Godzilla + Kong—A New Empire 
(Warner Bros)
The latest chapter of this monsterverse mashup finds Kong finding more of his own species in the Hollow Earth as Godzilla irradiates himself to prepare for an upcoming battle royale—while Dr. Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) go on an expedition to Hollow Earth where they discover a tribe of Iwi (it was thought that Jia was the last member of the tribe).
 
 
Director Adam Wingard has the sense to let the creatures take over (much of the dialogue is embarrassingly self-conscious or unfunnily glib), and if that means CGI dominating the movie, so be it. Of course, Godzilla curling up and sleeping it off inside the Roman Colosseum is an admittedly memorable image. The film looks pristine if too antiseptic in UHD; extras include several making-of featurettes and Wingard’s commentary.
 
 
 
Streaming Release of the Week 
Pistol 
(Lionsgate)
This six-episode history of the punk band the Sex Pistols according to hyperactive director Danny Boy is an entertainingly relentless attack of loud, careening but at times very funny interactions on the level of Boyle’s earliest films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. 
 
 
Boyle’s over-the-top attack is appropriate to this material, unlike such abominations as Slumdog Millionaire and The Beach, and the acting follows suit: there are vivid portrayals by Toby Wallace as Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, who’s the focus of the story, and Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde, Jones’ sometime girlfriend who went to found the Pretenders.
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms 
(Well Go USA)
In Chinese director Wuershan’s alternately engrossing and hokey epic fantasy—the first part of a trilogy based on a 16th-century novel—the gods must intervene after an evil monarch connives with a demon to consolidate unlimited power. To try and save the world, the gods enlist a mere mortal to serve as their brave hero…but will he be up to the task?
 
 
The capable actors are secondary to the often enticing visuals, especially watching the massive armies that include horse-mounted soldiers in battle. There’s an impressive Blu-ray transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
 
 
 
Into the Blue 
(Capelight)
John Stockwell’s 2005 underwater adventure is as soggy as they come, with a script that does little more than get the supremely attractive cast—led by Paul Walker, Ashley Scott, Josh Brolin and Jessica Alba—into their swimsuits and under the sea for some frolicking.
 
 
Of course, villains on land and sharks in the water provide the melodrama, but it’s all inert, glistening bodies notwithstanding. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are Stockwell’s informative commentary, deleted scenes with more Stockwell commentary, a making-of featurette and screen tests.
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week
Debussy—Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien
(SWR)
French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was known for music of great elegance, even in such full-length works as his gorgeous (and only completed) opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, a gossamer work of infinite subtlety.
 
 
An anomaly in the composer’s career, Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien is Debussy’s incidental music for Italian author Gabriele D'Annunzio's five-act play, a large-scale score that features an orchestra, a chorus, a narrator, and vocal soloists. It’s loaded with sumptuous music, as this topnotch 2005 recording, led by conductor Sylvain Cambreling and featuring singers Heidi Grant Murphy, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Dagmar Peckova; narrator Dorte Lyssewski; the SWR Symphony Orchestra; and Collegie Vocale Gent chorus, demonstrates.

Broadway Review—Peter Morgan’s Putin Play, “Patriots”

Patriots
Written by Peter Morgan; directed by Rupert Goold
Performances through June 23, 2024
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY
patriotsbroadway.com
 
The cast of Patriots (photo: Matthew Murphy) 
 
Peter Morgan, who struck gold with The Crown on Netflix and The Audience on Broadway—the series  and the play about the 20th-century British monarchy, specifically Queen Elizabeth II—returns with Patriots, a vivid retelling of how the unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, outmaneuvered the rich oligarchs who thought him a mere puppet all the way to the highest reaches of the Kremlin.
 
Patriots homes in on one oligarch in particular: Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia’s richest and most powerful men, who took over the state television network during the country's post-Communist chaos. Berezovsky helps pull the strings to make sure that Boris Yeltsin is re-elected president, and—after Yeltsin resigns on New Year’s Day, 1999—with the other oligarchs decides they need a true nobody they can install as the country’s leader so they can remain behind-the-scenes puppet masters. How little they knew.
 
Morgan’s slickly entertaining cautionary tale begins in 1955, when Berezovsky’s mother is notified by the authorities that her nine-year-old son is a precocious math whiz; she takes him to a famous professor to tutor the boy, who goes on to make his mark in applied mathematics. But even though his goal is to win a Nobel prize, when Communism collapses, Berezovsky decides that he’d rather apply his genius to helping his country—which is where he knows the money is. He amasses great wealth and power, finding it contagious. It’s also dangerous—he nearly dies in an assassination attempt (the car bomb kills his driver), and he hires an officer from the police unit investigating the explosion to take over his security detail, which works out well. For a while, at least.
 
Of course, since the ultimate outcome is well-known for both Berezovsky and Putin (Putin fares much better), there’s little suspense. But Morgan’s shrewd writing and Rupert Goold’s spectacular staging keep it all percolating: like J.T. Rogers’ Corruption, Patriots illuminates the recent past through the lens of our complicated present. As Bartlett Sher did with Corruption, Goold merges the dazzling visual and aural trappings—Miriam Buether’s sets, Jack Knowles’ lighting, Buether and Deborah Andrews’ costumes, Ash J Woodward’s projections, Polly Bennett’s movement and Adam Cork’s sound design and music—to dynamically display the complexity and confusion of the oligarchs and their often wrongheaded decisions.
 
The large supporting cast is on-target playing an array of characters, while Will Keen’s Putin is simultaneously funny and horrifying even when approaching caricature. At the center of Patriots is Michael Stuhlbarg, who as Berezovsky gives an excitingly reckless performance that occasionally goes overboard; yet it’s in keeping with this outsized story that makes for a genuinely gripping cautionary tale. 

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