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Blu-rays of the Week
Ant-Man and the Wasp
In this protracted, fitfully entertaining sequel to Ant-Man, the interplay among Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer makes it work, despite several good actors like Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena and Anthony Mackie having scandalously little to do.
The effects are decent and Hannah Jones-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne and Walton Goggins are an intriguing trio of villains, but another installment is promised—oh boy. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include deleted scenes, a gag reel and featurettes.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
Joaquin Phoenix’s intense but sympathetic performance as John Callahan, a caustic cartoonist who was a paraplegic and worked from a wheelchair until his death in 2010, is the main draw of Gus Van Sant’s interesting but workmanlike biopic.
There’s little to distinguish this than something like The Sessions, with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, and the typically blah appearances by Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara in supporting roles don’t help; luckily, Phoenix’s committed portrayal smooths over most of the rough spots. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are two brief featurettes.
Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day
Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s gargantuan 1973 made-for-West-German-television series takes its working-class family seriously, but a few hours’ worth of material is stretched to eight, making the perceptiveness of the early scenes give way to self-parody and melodrama by the time it limps to its conclusion.
Excepting the 15 1/2-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz—which, to be sure, gave the director ready-made source material in the form of the original classic novel—Fassbinder usually did better with less; the extended format gives free rein to his damaging self-indulgences. The hi-def transfer is solid; extras include a retrospective featurette comprising new interviews with actors Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Wolfgang Schenck and Hans Hirschmüller.
Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series
Joseph W. Sarno was a straightforward purveyor of soft-core flicks in the ‘60s and ‘70s before moving into hardcore features, and this set collects three of the most typical examples of his sexploitation flicks, whose titles cheekily promise more than they deliver.
Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974), Sin in the Suburbs (1964) and Warm Nights Hot Pleasures (1964) are basically teases that pretend to explore sexuality more deeply than they do; they’re interesting historical curios, at least. The films have decent hi-def transfers; extras are commentaries and deleted scenes.
The Official Story
(Cohen Film Collection)
Luis Puenzo’s powerful 1985 drama, set in the ‘70s during Argentina’s military dictatorship, focuses on an affluent couple with a young daughter whom they illegally adopted—the mother slowly realizes the girl may be the child of one of the regime’s victims who disappeared and was presumably murdered.
Puenzo’s film—which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar—retains its potency thanks to a searingly real performance by Norma Aleandro as the mother who wants to protect her daughter but realizes the moral (and mortal) implications. The new hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a four-part Puenzo interview.
CD of the Week
Weinberg—Symphony No. 13 and Serenade
I feel like a broken record extolling the virtues of Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who years after his death in 1996 suddenly had his music getting played and recorded. The always enterprising Naxos label has released several discs pairing one of his symphonies with another orchestral work, and this disc continues that tradition.
The two works, both world premiere recordings, are Serenade (1952), relaxed, yearning and with little of Weinberg’s usual musical agitation; and the weighty, somber Symphony No. 13 (1976), a one-movement, 35-minute work dedicated to the composer’s mother. Vladimir Lande ably conducts the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra.
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by David Saint
Performances through October 21, 2018
Colin Hanlon and Rachel Nicks in A.R. Gurney's Final Follies (photo: James Leynse)
When A.R. Gurney died last year at age 86, we lost our most elegant playwright, a witty and urbane chronicler of the upper crust who, in the last 15 years—spurred on by outrage at the excesses of the Bush administration after September 11—became an unapologetically polemical artist, writing angry plays of the dystopia our country was rapidly becoming. (He never got to take on Trump, but it’s just as well: nothing he could have written would have out-parodied actual reality.)
Before his death, Gurney wrote a one-acter, Final Follies, which Primary Stages has coupled with two of earlier works—The Rape of Bunny Stuntz and The Love Course—for an omnibus evening titled Final Follies, a heartfelt goodbye from one of the theaters that produced his works the most.
First up, Final Follies introduces Nelson, a WASP who needs money because he thinks he’s to be cut from his grandfather’s will. He responds to a newspaper ad for work in adult films—or, as the firm’s representative Tanisha calls them, “educational films”—and becomes a big star. Nelson’s jealous brother discovers his secret and shows an offending film to their grandfather and is shocked to discover that, contrary to disowning Nelson, he admires his grandson’s artistry and daring.
Final Follies takes obvious shots—some funny, some not—at his favorite Upper East Side targets. But despite being written in 2017, there’s an old-fashioned air to the whole thing, as if the internet and social media had never been created, making it seem as if the play exists in an alternate present. It’s brightened considerably by the presence of Rachel Nicks (Tanisha) and Colin Hanlon (Nelson).
The following playlet, The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, brings its eponymous heroine (a tour de force performance by Deborah Rush) to her figurative knees as the self-confident woman slowly admits that she’s not the faithful, dutiful wife and mother she’s supposed to be. Gurney wrote the play in 1965, its absurdism indebted to Edward Albee (who produced its first New York performance at the Cherry Lane); in this age of Me Too, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
The finale, The Love Course, is a free-wheeling satire of academia as two professors conduct what for all intents and purposes is a love affair in plain sight of their students while teaching a course on the Literature of Love. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s artful and witty short stories and impressively enacted by Piter Marek and Betsy Aidem as the battling profs, it’s an amusingly goofy close to a bumpy trio of one-acts that, while minor Gurney works, are reminders of what he could achieve at his best.
Primary Stages, Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York, NY
John & Yoko: Imagine/Gimme Some Truth
Accompanying the massive new boxed set celebrating John Lennon’s seminal Imagine album (1971), this release contains John and Yoko’s film Imagine, which intersperses performances like the classic white-piano version of the title song with footage of the couple in New York and London, joining protests and frolicking on the beach. It’s a mixture of self-parody and self-indulgence that’s at times dated but still provides a valuable insight into Lennon as an artist, along with his famous friends like Jack Palance, Dick Cavett and Fred Astaire.
Also included is Gimme Some Truth, an insightful hour-long documentary of the making of the Imagine album, with glimpses of producer Phil Spector and former Beatle George Harrison in the studio with John. Both films have been painstakingly restored in hi-def, and look (ad sound) as good as possible; extras are studio outtakes of the songs “Imagine,” “How?” and “Gimme Some Truth,” and a glimpse at a David Bailey photo shoot.
In Michael Crichton’s 1981 futuristic thriller, early computer-generated effects play a big role in this convoluted story of a plastic surgeon looking into the murders of the beautiful models who were his patients: although Albert Finney, James Coburn, Susan Dey and Leigh Taylor-Young look embarrassed at times speaking the borderline risible dialogue, there’s a certain prescience in Crichton’s cautionary tale of malevolent technology.
The film has an adequate hi-def transfer; extras are writer-director Crichton’s intro and commentary and an eight-minute sequence added to the network television version.
Queen of Outer Space
This 1958 campfest, shot on the sets of other sci-fi movies of its era like Forbidden Planet and World Without End, follows its male astronauts to Venus, which is exclusively populated by females, but since this is a 1958 campfest not much happens except for some wink wink nudge nudging and innocent embraces and kisses.
Among the women are Zsa Zsa Gabor and Laurie Mitchell, who plays the masked queen of Venus hiding her deformed face; the men are much less interesting. There’s a solid hi-def transfer and a commentary featuring Mitchell.
Vincent Lindon has made his name playing ordinary people living quotidian lives, but he gets his teeth into the larger-than-life figure of French sculptor Auguste Rodin in Jacques Doillon’s warts-and-all biopic that concentrates on his volatile relationship with fellow sculptor (and protégé) Camille Claudel—played with equal intensity by French pop singer Izïa Higelin.
Doillon, like fellow Frenchman Maurice Pialat in Van Gogh, strips the master’s life story to its essentials, mostly eschewing music and melodrama to create this engrossing portrait of the artist. The hi-def transfer is exceptional; lone extra is a 30-minute making-of.
When disaster-movie maven Irwin Allen made this hokey thriller in 1978, killer bees were all the rage, so there was a scientific basis to the premise, but the script is chockful of holes, there are many howlers in the dialogue and the clichéd characters are lazily embodied by an all-star cast of Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Katharine Ross, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Richard Chamberlain and, in a bizarre scene, Slim Pickens.
A few bee-killing scenes are effective, but at 2-1/2 hours—more than 30 minutes was added to the original theatrical release—The Swarm simply goes on and on and on. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
DVD of the Week
Mister Rogers—It’s You I Like
This lovely valentine to Fred Rogers, whose decency and goodness shone on his beloved children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is an OK overview of his legacy and how much he affected people, families, children and adults.
Host Michael Keaton guides us through interviews with celebrities and people associated with the show, and clips of Rogers on the show remind us how slyly subversive this conservative Republican was on our TV screens for decades. This PBS program can be seen as an adjunct to the feature documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which covers the same material. Extras are an additional 30 minutes of footage.
CD of the Week
Gerald Finzi—Cello Concerto and Piano Works
British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) finished writing his dramatic and sweeping Cello Concerto about a year before his untimely death of Hodgkin’s at age 55—the concerto actually had its premiere the night before he died. The first movement’s storminess no doubt alludes to his disease, the quieter middle movement is a loving portrait of the composer’s wife and the upbeat finale makes for a most satisfying resolution. Cellist Paul Watkins plays the solo part with thrilling artistry, and Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provide notable accompaniment.
This superb disc is rounded out by two attractive piano and orchestra works, Eclogue and Grand Fantasia and Toccata—with Louis Lortie impressively handling the solo parts—and the moody orchestral work, Nocturne (New Year Music).
Written by Sharr White; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through October 28, 2018
Michael McKean and Edie Falco in The True (photo: Monique Carboni)
The 1970s political battles in Albany, of all places, don’t sound like the most enticing subject matter for a play, but Sharr White—whose earlier The Other Place and The Snow Geese left me cold—has pulled it off with The True, an absorbing drama that smartly concentrates on the personalities behind the politics.
The True centers around Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, the right-hand woman of Albany mayor Erastus Corning 2nd for decades. (She was also Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s grandmother; kudos to White for not shoehorning that irrelevant information into his play.) Erastus was the poster boy for the city’s Democratic party machine, reigning as mayor from the 1930s until his death in 1983. His stranglehold was such that only a grassroots candidacy in 1973 came close to toppling him. White sets his play in 1977, the year of the lone primary fight Erastus ever had, and shows Polly—who began as Erastus’s secretary and soon became his closest confidante (although their relationship was, by all accounts, strictly professional)—working her behind-the-scenes magic to help Erastus win that battle and, eventually, the election.
Although it doesn’t sound like the stuff of urgent stage drama, The True keeps its singular focus on people rather than political machinations and in-fighting (interesting as they are). Polly, a brash, foul-mouthed spitfire, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, while husband Peter is her opposite, his quiet, steady demeanor the yang to her yin.
The closest The True comes to soap opera is when Erastus decides to drop Polly (and by extension Peter, even though they’ve all been close friends for years) as his adviser because his wife doesn’t like that another woman takes up so much of his time as primary season approaches. The play’s middle section sags slightly as Erastus first resists Polly and Peter’s entreaties, deferring to his wife’s wishes, then decides he does need the Noonans—particularly Polly—bad optics be damned.
But The True still rings true, thanks to White’s incisive writing and Scott Elliott’s deft direction, culminating in a potent coup de theatre not in the script. The estimable cast features Peter Scolari, whose Peter is a gracious and understated support system to Polly, and Michael McKean, whose Erastus is a full-bodied, complex man caught between personal and professional loyalty.
Centering The True, however, is Edie Falco, who embodies Polly with her usual vivid zestiness and an effortless ability to make ordinary women anything but ordinary. Falco’s riveting performance even has a slight tragic air nicely balancing the ample humor she displays throughout.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
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