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Kevin's Digital Week 19: Carey, Abbott and Costello

Blu-Ray of the Week
An Education
An Education
Lone Scherfig’s
bittersweetly comic drama about a high-school girl’s difficult coming-of-age in pre-Beatles London, 1963, is a brilliant showcase for the scene-stealing lead performance of Carey Mulligan, who should have won Best Actress over Sandra Bullock. Mulligan creates a rare intelligent, headstrong teenage character, painfully exposing her vulnerabilities and fears, hopes and dreams, and joys and harsh realities; it‘s one of the great screen performances of recent years.  An Education also gains immeasurably from Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of the girl’s slick but callow suitor, and flawless support by Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Cara Seymour, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. Nick Hornby’s literate script comes from Lynn Barber‘s memoir.

Sony has given An Education a stellar Blu-ray transfer and an assortment of good but unexceptional special features. The commentary by director Scherfig and leads Mulligan and Sarsgaard is worth listening to, and the handful of deleted scenes is a nice bonus, even if it’s easy to see why they were cut.

A short on-set featurette and brief interviews on the red carpet at the film’s premiere round out the extras.

Abbott & Costello
DVD of the Week

The Abbott and Costello Show—The Complete Series
For many, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello need no introduction. Their classic comedy routines and television and movie appearances are legendary. And now, with the release of The Abbott and Costello Show—The Complete Series, new fans can enter the fold. With 52 episodes from the show’s two seasons (1952-3), restored and remastered on nine discs, this set is a must-have for fans of Bud and Lou and classic TV comedy like The Honeymooners or Lucy.

All their best routines are here, from “Who’s on First” and Niagara Falls to Mustard and the Lemon Bit. In addition, there are three hours’ worth of special features, including the Hey Abbott! 1978 TV retrospective hosted by Milton Berle and featuring Steve Allen, Joe Besser and Phil Silvers; a Season One classic routines reel; rare home movies from the Costello family archive; the restored 1948 short film 10,000 Kids and a Cop (documenting the Lou Costello, Jr. Youth Foundation‘s philanthropic work); and interviews with sons Chris and Paddy Costello.

A 44-page commemorative book gives some invaluable series history, and four collectible postcards are included. At a bargain-basement price, this set is a keeper.

Valerie Harper Is a Brilliant Tallulah in "Looped"

Written by Matthew Lombardo
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Starring Valerie Harper, Brian Hutchison, Michael Mulheren

Valerie Harper channels Tallulah Bankhead. Her acting is so on the mark, so mesmerizing, that you would swear that the '30s stage and screen actress had come back to life. Her wit biting and risqué; her intelligence sharp; her vulgarity in your face, her talent opulent make you wish you had lived in her time.

The device of Matthew Lombardo's play is that she's been called to an audio studio to record a bit of film dialogue that got mangled in the screen cut. That's called doing a loop. But Talllulah seems a bit looped herself as she gives editor Danny (Brian Hutchison) a frustrating bout of dealing with the grande dame. Director Rob Ruggiero deserves praise for turning a long moment into a fascinating two hours.

She is better at one-liners than recording the one line. Everything in New York is numbered, she declares. "You get lost in New York, you don't deserve to be found." And, "I introduced a friend of mine as Martini; her name was Olive." She acknowledges that she is bisexual: "Buy me something, I'll be sexual."

In her gaunt face and clingy silk dress, and a trademark wide lip-sticked mouth that seems to be in a permanent grimace, Harper is brilliant as a bit-over-the-hill aging Southern woman who drinks too much and sleeps around too much for that era.

When set designer Adrian W. Jones' recording studio suddenly morphs to reveal the wrought iron balconies and shutters of New Orleans, she is Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Ah, yes! And she played her.

I would have cut out the forced surprise secret past confessional by Danny, which is jarring and unnecessary and seems like a political statement by the playwright rather than part of the Bankhead story.

Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street

New York, NYC
Opened March 14, 2010.

For more by Lucy Komisar:


"The Scottsboro Boys" Is a Chilling Musical

Book by David Thompson; lyrics by Fred Ebb; music by John Kander
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
Starring John Cullum, Colman Domingo, Brandon Victor Dixon, Julius Thomas III

The Scottsboro Boys is a stunning, chilling and superbly performed play about racism in the 1930s. Who better to craft a political musical than John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the 1993 classic Kiss of the Spiderwoman, about the movie fantasies of a prisoner tortured by the Argentine dictatorship that brutalized the country nearly half a century ago. And director-choreographer Susan Stroman stages this in a cutting, jazzy minstrel style that takes irony to new levels.

To be able to make such important stories accessible to mainstream theater audiences takes great talent, and Kander and Ebb (who died in 2004) are masters at it. In the context it is odd to want to describe this play as "vibrant" and its numbers as "smashing." This is an important production — though it seems strange to say in the circumstances — a very entertaining one.

It is a fictional play based on real events, the program says. So I thought it important to check out the story against the facts.  Here's what I found.

There's no dispute that a fight started between young black and white men who had jumped a freight train headed for Huntsville, Ala., in 1931. The blacks threw the white youths off the train — or maybe they jumped. The whites contacted authorities about an assault, telling them that two white women remained on board.

At the next stop, the police arrested nine blacks, 12 to 19 years old, for assault and attempted murder for throwing the whites off a moving train. The white women, Ruby Bates, 17, and Victoria Price, in her early early to mid-20s, unemployed millworkers from Huntsville, tried to run away, but were stopped by the stationmaster who asked if they'd been "bothered." Bates said they'd been raped — each by six blacks. Doctors examined them two hours after the alleged attacks and found semen but no signs of violence.

An examining doctor told the judge in private they hadn't been raped, but said he was just out of medical school and couldn't testify for the defense or he would never practice. The judge did not inform the defense. Later, a blacks' lawyer argued that a medical examination of Price showed no living sperm, which would have argued against recent intercourse. A doctor testified to minor scratches and bruises.

Price had been jailed for violating the law on Prohibition and for adultery. During the first trial, the two women — witnesses for the prosecution — were kept in jail, facing possible vagrancy or prostitution charges. Two of the blacks testified that they had seen rapes. Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will, says the rapes were neither proven nor disproved.

The left made a cause célèbre of the case. Ruby Blake recanted, and the Communist Party brought her north. She testified that there hadn't been a rape, that Victoria had told her they might stay in jail if they didn't say so. Blake wrote a note to her boyfriend that the blacks hadn't "jazzed" her, the white boys had.

The black men would endure years of trial, convictions thrown out by higher courts, then more jail, a suicide, and years in prison.

In the Kander and Ebb show, given an astonishing and dazzling staging by Stroman, the story of what happens to the nine black is compressed and artistically portrayed. The jail cell is a collection of piled up metal chairs. The mood is a jazzy operetta. The dramatic vignettes of the story are interspersed with numbers of a minstrel show, which allows you to catch your breath between horrific events and adds the element of satire.

Reversing the blackface on white faces of minstrels, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) are black men who play evil white men. Bones is the attorney general. Tambo is a drunk defense lawyer. John Cullen in a white suit is the white interlocutor. The three are memorable in their roles.

Stroman's musical numbers are eloquent. They include a macabre dance around an electric chair. And a revival song sung when the Supreme Court demands a new trial. Price (Christian Dante White) and Bates (Sean Bradford) do a bit called "Alabama Ladies." In "Never Too Late," Ruby Bates (Bradford) tells the truth.

A New Yorker who replaces a local (unqualified) attorney, turns out to be famed defense lawyer Samuel Liebowitz (McClendon again), who had won 77 acquittals and one hung jury in 78 murder trials. Importantly, in this case, he would raise for the first time the exclusion of blacks from juries, which would get a landmark Supreme Court decision. (White men, and no women, as Brownmiller points out, were allowed on juries.)

McClendon as Liebowitz is very Jewish in a New York accent and black-and-white checked suit — a caricature that the Nazis could have drawn. The satire is sometimes unsettling. Indeed, the Communists had been accused of manipulating the case for propaganda, but Liebowitz was a registered Democrat who would go on to be a judge. Presenting himself and his political commitment, he does an "Al Jolson" on his knees. The prosecutor's ripping song about "Jew money" gives you the shakes.

The most astonishing — and historically accurate — part of the play is that one of the jailed men, Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon), stands up to the accusers and refuses to cop a plea.

Dixon is compelling and moving in the role. In fact Patterson, the smartest and most defiant of the group, escaped from prison to Detroit in 1947. He wrote a book, The Scottsboro Boy. The FBI arrested him, but Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams refused extradition to Alabama. He was rearrested in 1950 after a barroom brawl that led to a death, convicted of manslaughter and died of cancer in prison less than two years later. The play's notion that he died in an Alabama prison is wrong.

Why make a point about that? Because the case is too important and too historical to get it wrong, even in a musical.

In February, The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center opened in Scottsboro, Ala., documenting the trial and its aftermath.

The Scottsboro Boy
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street

Opened  March 10, 2010, closes April 18, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Color photos credit: Carol Rosegg

Kevin's Digital Week 18: Sophie and Swordplay

Blu-Rays of the WeekYojimbo

The 100th anniversary of Akira Kurosawa’s birth was March 23rd, and there’s no better way to celebrate one of the greatest of all film directors than with this dual release of two of his greatest samurai adventures. What’s best about seeing Yojimbo and its lighter-hearted companion piece Sanjuro on Blu-ray is that they hold up beautifully. In a role he was born to play, Toshiro Mifune brings a gruffness and deadpan humor to Sanjuro, swordsman for hire, whether pitting rival factions against each other in Yojimbo or helping a group of fledgling samurai against stronger adversaries in Sanjuro. Kurosawa's extraordinary black and white widescreen compositions, whether detailing characters' movements before, during or after fighting or artfully placing Mifune’s lonerSanjuro against imposing landscapes (which is how both films end), have never looked more spectacular than on Criterion‘s flawless new high-def transfers. 

Yojimbo and Sanjuro are unusual in that you needn’t see the original to enjoy the sequel. Both classics have darkly comic visions that the sequel carries further, up to the startling bloodletting in its coda. In the prime of a brilliant career, Kurosawa was unafraid to give characters for whom he felt affection a necessary kick in the behind; that complexity contributes as much to these films’ ongoing durability as their memorable battle sequences. Each Blu-ray includes an insightful commentary by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince and an informative episode about Kurosawa making each film from the series It Is Wonderful to Create.

DVD of the WeSophie's Choiceek

Sophie’s Choice
(Opus Arte)
Before he died last May at age 73, British composer Nicholas Maw was best-known for his four-act opera based on William Styron‘s novel Sophie‘s Choice, which premiered in 2002 and had its only American performances in Washington, DC in 2006. To date there has been no CD recording of Maw’s magnum opus, so this belated DVD release of the London premiere is welcome indeed. It’s another chance to see and hear the excellent mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager in her element, acting and singing the hell out of the demanding title role: imagine Meryl Streep with a real singing voice (not what you heard in Mamma Mia).

Although the Holocaust scenes contain astringent music, much of Maw’s opera is lyrical and romantic, with a tinge of the melancholy and tragedy always lying underneath. His opera comes much closer to catching the troubled spirit of the novel than the mediocre film version did back in 1982, despite Streep’s bravura acting. Along with Kirchschlager’s  lovely presence, Gordon Geitz (Stingo), Rodney Gilfry (Nathan) and Dale Duesing (Narrator) all register strongly. Trevor Nunn’s shrewd staging loses effectiveness on TV; happily, the surround sound audio gives clarity and lucidness to conductor Simon Rattle and the Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus’ reading of this estimable modern opera. The lone extra is a short Rattle interview; too bad we couldn’t hear from Kirchschlager or Maw himself (there’s a printed composer interview in the booklet).


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