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June '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Marseille Trilogy

Marcel Pagnol, one of the greatest writers in early French cinema—along with his work for the stage and on the page—created a classic cinematic trilogy in the 1930s: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936), the first directed by Alexander Korda, the second by Marc Allegret and the last by Pagnol himself, whose humanity, and love for both life and ordinary people is shot through all three films, which feature wonderfully vivid acting by Pierre Fresnay (Marius), Orane Demazis (Fanny) and Raimu (Cesar).
Criterion’s magnificent new transfers show off the pristine B&W compositions by three different cinematographers; extras include an ingratiating intro by Bertrand Tavernier; interview with grandson Nicolas Pagnol; segments of a 1973 documentary series Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux choisisMarseille, a 1935 documentary short produced by Pagnol; and archival interviews with Fresnay, Demazis and Robert Vattier.
American Epic
Digging deep into our country’s musical past, this three-hour documentary narrated by Robert Redford recounts how ordinary people with extraordinary talent had their music recorded and preserved for the first time. All three episodes are crammed with great songs and rarely-seen (and rarely-heard) archival footage.
The second disc, The American Epic Sessions, comprises 90 minutes of joyous musicmaking as contemporary artists record new tunes using the only surviving piece of working recording equipment from the 1920s; among them are Elton John, Los Lobos, Nas, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, and Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage 

(Arrow Academy)

Italian giallo master Dario Argento made his debut in 1970 with this tense murder mystery about an American writer in Rome who, after witnessing an attempted murder, is swept up by a serial killer on the loose. Tony Musante (from TV’s Toma) is perfectly cast as the American out of his element, and Argento suggests without being explicit, which he later frequently abandoned. Bonuses are gritty cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and a modernist score by Ennio Morricone.
Arrow’s hi-def transfer is sensationally good and grainy; extras include an audio commentary, new interviews with Argento and actor Gildo di Marco, archival interview with actress Eva Renzi and video essay on Argento’s films.
King Lear
(Opus Arte)
This 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s most shattering tragedy stars an overripe Antony Sher as the monarch who gives away his kingdom only to fall prey to insanity and mortality. Director Gregory Doran does nothing egregiously wrong, but never allows the Bard’s taut drama to cohere.
There are scattered gems among the cast, notably Antony Byrne’s Kent and Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar; Natalie Simpson is a pleasing Cordelia, but sisters Regan and Goneril are embodied without much distinction by Kelly Williams and Nia Gwynne. The staging is shown in sharp hi-def; extras are Doran’s commentary, Sher interview and costume featurette.
Moses und Aron 

New York City Ballet in Paris

(Bel Air Classiques)
Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal opera Moses und Aron is pretty static dramatically, which is why Romeo Castellucci’s 2015 Paris Opera staging spends much of its time concentrating on offbeat, even bizarre visuals, including the sight of an actual ox standing onstage for several minutes (without being sacrificed). Philippe Jordan conducts orchestra and chorus to a perfect 12-tone maelstrom; the leads are enacted vividly by Thomas Johannes-Mayer and John Graham-Hall.
A record of the company’s 2016 tour to the City of Lights, New York City Ballet in Paris dazzlingly shows off several classic Balanchine dances set to music by French masters Gounod, Ravel and Bizet, played boisterously by the Orchestre Promethee led by Daniel Capps. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.

"Brits Off Broadway" Theater Review—“Invincible” by Torben Betts

Written by Torben Betts; directed by Stephen Darcy
Performances through July 2, 2017
The cast of Invincible (photo: Manuel Harlan)
Torben Betts has been called the new Alan Ayckbourn. Too bad, then, that Betts’s play Invincible is messy, heavy-handed and pandering, turning everything that Ayckbourn does so effortlessly in his class-conscious plays into fodder for cheap, easy laughs.
In a northern England neighborhood, Emily and Oliver—a newly downsized couple from London—preps for a visit from Alan and Dawn, the husband and wife next door. Although Betts gives his foursome separate identities, he never allows these men and women to become both comprehensible and humane. And right from the beginning, Betts stacks the dramatic and comedic deck.
Emily and Oliver open the play discussing Oliver’s dying mum, an apparently horrible (and politically conservative) woman who so offends the socialist sensibilities of her daughter-in-law that she refuses to even consider marrying Oliver to appease his mother before she dies. Emily immediately becomes one of the most unlikable stage characters I’ve yet encountered, and Betts doesn’t stop there. 
After Dawn and Alan—both working-class caricatures—arrive, Emily mocks Alan’s lack of talent when he shows his paintings of his beloved cat Vince (named after the ship HMS Invincible, and giving the play its title), then gives a shallow defense of socialism and critique of capitalism so that even the most liberal audience member will find her irritating.
Emily’s tone-deafness is one of a series that Betts takes to extremes. Emily and Oliver discuss 16th century British composers Byrd and Tallis with authority and have an oversized, coffee-table volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Alan is so dense that he sees that book and thinks the writer was one of the Marx Brothers, leading to a painfully unfunny interlude where he impersonates his favorite comedy team, Laurel and Hardy. 
Alan is also a huge fan of football while Dawn and Oliver commiserate over how much they hate it. (Cricket was Oliver’s college sport.) The two women even look blatantly opposite: bespectacled Emily has her hair in a bun and wears no makeup; Dawn improbably wears a tiny dress to show off her bosom and legs, then becomes embarrassed when she’s being leered at.
What in Ayckbourn are endearing eccentrics are in Betts’s hands easily manipulated chess pieces: this is most evident in act two, when both couples deal with tragedies involving their sons, an adulterous interlude rears its head and Alan’s beloved cat disappears.
Director Stephen Darcy makes it all go by in a whirlwind, and his expert cast—Elizabeth Boag (Dawn), Emily Bowker (Emily), Graeme Brookes (Alan) and Alastair Whatley (Oliver)—both gets laughs and finds the poignance missing from Betts’s script. 
Boag, a veteran of previous Ayckbourn plays at Brits Off Broadway, does so much with a mere raised eyebrow or a simple shrug that she makes Dawn sympathetic rather than silly, nearly making Invincible a must-see despite the writing’s deficiencies.
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

June '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Ballad of Cable Hogue
(Warner Archive)
Sam Peckinpah’s 1970 follow-up to his violent masterpiece The Wild Bunch was this often comedic character study of the fiercely independent Cable Hogue’s Old West travails, including a pair of outlaws who are his arch enemies and a “ladiest damn’d lady” he falls for. The material is weak, and Peckinpah dawdles too often throughout an already overlong two-hour running time, but Jason Robards is always worth watching, and the top-notch supporting cast includes Strother Martin, Slim Pickens, David Warner and Stella Stevens. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are a commentary and a vintage Stevens featurette.
The Blood of Fu Manchu/The Castle of Fu Manchu
(Blue Underground)
By the time of these fairly bland horror hybrids (1968-9), Christopher Lee was already an established name in schlocky B-movies, and he does provide both of these diffuse melodramatic thrillers with their liveliest moments. Director Jess Franco would also find better mixes of blood, thrills and scantily-clad women in his later movies, but he at least enlivens Castle with his unhinged appearance in front of the camera. Both films have solid if uneven hi-def transfers; extras are archival interviews with Franco, Lee and others.
The Lego Batman Movie 

(Warner Bros)

If mindless animated movies are your thing, then this sequel to the surprising smash Lego Movie might just be the ticket. True, there are scattered amusing visual jokes amidst the mainly groaning puns and punch lines and in-jokes, but did it really take five writers to cobble this together? The ace voice work of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis and Rosario Dawson provides most of the fun throughout The Blu-ray looks quite good; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and new animated shorts.
This unsettling horror yarn about a young woman being tortured by her own insane twin sister, who is preparing a feast for our unsuspecting heroine. There’s a certain cleverness to director Ovidio Assonitis’s cinematic madness, and shooting in Savannah, Georgia makes it less remote and more plausible, despite its many deficiencies. Kudos to Trish Everly, who gives an effectively understated performance in the lead role. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include new interviews, an audio commentary and alternate opening titles.


Near the end of his long career, Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi made this elegant-looking 1953 ghost story that’s considered one of his best films, its relative brevity (97 minutes) synthesizing his art down to its very essence. The usual gliding camerawork and sumptuous visual design are brought to the forefront by Criterion’s magnificent hi-def transfer. Extras comprise an appreciation by director Masahiro Shinoda; interviews with the film’s assistant director and cinematographer; commentary by Japanese film expert Tony Rayns; and Kaneto Shindo’s 1975 documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director.
A United Kingdom
In this sturdily earnest biopic, Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo give genuinely lived-in portrayals of a white English woman and king of the African nation of Botswana who fall in love during the racist era of the 1940s. Director Amma Asante keeps things straightforward, but this story remains at a certain remove, and it’s not until the real people are shown at the end that we are truly moved, despite Pike and Oyelowo’s fine work. The film does look splendid on Blu; extras are several featurettes.
Vision Quest 

The Gumball Rally

(Warner Archive)
In 1985’s Vision Quest, the gifted Matthew Modine evokes real sympathy as a high school wrestler who falls for his father’s boarder (Linda Fiorentino) in an intermittently entertaining would-be romance with a decent mid-‘80s soundtrack (Sammy Hagar, Don Henley, Dio) that hits its nadir when Madonna (as a bar singer) warbles her hit “Crazy for You.” Both films have fine hi-def transfers. Made in 1976 during the mid-‘70s/early ‘80s car-race mini-genre (including Death Race 2000 and Cannonball Run), Gumball is distinguished mainly for its lack of star wattage—only Michael Sarrazin and Gary Busey are noticeable to most viewers—and for its gritty camerawork in the deserted streets of Manhattan at the beginning of its cross-country race.
DVDs of the Week
Alone in Berlin
Despite Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as grieving German parents whose ambivalence toward the Nazis is destroyed after their beloved son is killed on Hitler’s front lines, director Vincent Perez’s handsomely-mounted film moves along predictably as the wife and husband make necessary but ultimately futile gestures of protest against totalitarianism. Luckily, the drama is further authenticated by the presence of Daniel Bruhl, an actor who is always persuasive, here as the main investigator into the couple’s covert activities. Extras comprise interviews.

(Warner Archive)
In 1984, Goldie Hawn went to the hallowed corridors of power among Congressmen and other politicians in her inimitable way, disrupting the political system after taking a bullet to her butt when interrupting an assassination attempt on a foreign dignitary. Despite veteran Herbert Ross behind the camera and the always funny Hawn in front of it, a forced sense of humor reigns: occasionally something works, but not enough to justify 95 minutes of increasing desperation.

Theater Review—“Julius Caesar” in Central Park

Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Oskar Eustis
Performances through June 18, 2017
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere and Elizabeth Marvel in Julius Caesar (photo: Joan Marcus)
Subtlety is the last thing anyone expects at Shakespeare in Central Park, but Oskar Eustis’s staging of Julius Caesar carries lack of nuance to new heights. This disjointed update of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the intersection of honor, corruption and patriotism envisions Caesar as Donald Trump, a buffoon who has gained the reins of power (no Russian interference here) and who gets his comeuppance at the hands of nationalist conspirators led by his close friend Brutus.
Whether he deserves to die is something Shakespeare famously juggles; after all, this is a play with no discernible villains. Brutus’s reasons for stabbing Caesar are compellingly explicated, then immediately afterward Marc Antony tells the assembled mourners that he’s “come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”—and proceeds to do the opposite. For his part, Eustis adds three words to “if Caesar had stabbed their mothers…on Fifth Avenue,” which gets a cheap laugh, and has Caesar’s wife Calpurnia speak with a thick Slavic accent (even if blonde Tina Benko looks more like Ivanka than Melania). Such additions may be superficially amusing, but give little illumination.
Gregg Henry does quite well as Caesar despite being straitjacketed by a laundry list of Trump mannerisms: leering, stalking, gesticulating, bellowing and giving those infamous rough handshakes. Henry is even able to keep his dignity during a gratuitous nude scene. Elizabeth Marvel’s bizarre Marc Antony—the Orange Julius’s associate in a track suit who is referred to throughout as “she” or “her”—has an inexplicable (and wavering) hayseed accent that undercuts the rousing “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech.
As Brutus, Corey Stoll seems like he’s sleepwalking through the early scenes. That reticence is thrown into high relief when Brutus literally finds his voice after grabbing a microphone for his “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” speech, where he barks out his lines at the assembled throng. But there’s only a distant sense of a man fatally caught between personal friendship and patriotic duty.
John Douglas Thompson’s Cassius, although too excitable—even if this is partly explained by playing opposite Stoll—speaks with his usual fluency and impeccable diction. Impressive in a small part is Nikki M. James, whose powerful Portia provides all of the necessary emotional weight to her husband Brutus’s moral dilemma in a couple of fleet scenes. James deserves bigger roles in Central Park, like Cleopatra, whom she played wonderfully several seasons back in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at Stratford opposite Christopher Plummer.
Eustis stages some marvelously fluid crowd scenes, especially the lengthy dramatics surrounding Brutus and Antony’s post-assassination speeches. Eustis sprinkles members of the ensemble throughout the Delacorte Theater audience to bark out the masses’ impassioned responses, first pro-Brutus, then pro-Caesar and Antony, forcing us to intimately experience how fast such glistening oratory can so swiftly change minds. That’s what comes through most forcefully and clearly in an otherwise off-balance production.
Julius Caesar
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

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