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Blu-Ray of the Week:The General (Kino)One of Buster Keaton’s greatest comedies — and one of the very best silent films ever made — is a hilarious Civil War-era farce about a Confederate Army reject who becomes a hero after the Union Army hijacks his beloved locomotive. This is a movie that you can’t look away from, or even blink while watching, because there is so much going on in every shot that you don’t want to miss anything. The stunts are astounding, even by Keaton’s daring and exacting standards, and the Blu-ray version gives an added clarity and much detail that wasn’t noticed on VHS tapes or beat-up 16mm prints.
If you didn’t think that an 80-year-old film could look spectacular in high-definition, then The General is here to prove you wrong. Extras are plentiful, starting with three separate soundtracks — Carl Davis’ orchestral score performed by the Thames Silents Orchestra, Emmy nominee Robert Israel’s score and an organ score by Lee Erwin recorded at Carnegie Hall — and continuing with introductions by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson, on-the-set footage and a montage of train sequences in Keaton’s films.DVD of the Week:Food Beware (First Run) Jean-Paul Jaud’s enlightening documentary about the perils of non-organic food is set mainly in a small French village, where the school menus, comprising locally-grown produce and meats, are completely organic. Jaud then widens his net by speaking with an array of people about growing, harvesting and eating organic food, from farmers and politicians to everyday folk, like the parents of children who have gotten ill due to pesticides.
Jaud can’t help but step up onto his soapbox at times, as when he hears from a mother whose daughter was stricken, and never presents any incontrovertible evidence that environmental factors were definitely to blame for her illness: they surely are the cause, but a little more fact-checking would have helped seal the case. Food Beware (the French title is more euphonic: Nos enfants nous accuseront, or Our Children Will Accuse Us) is primarily an emotional call to arms that’s also a thought-provoking treatise on what the 21st century might be like.
So Help Me God!Written by Maurine Dallas WatkinsDirected by Jonathan BankStarring Kristen Johnston, Ned Noyes, Anna Chlumsky, Kevin O’Donnell, Matthew WatersonWhen theater actress Lily Darnley (Johnston) kisses her image in the mirror, it might be taken as an exaggeration. It's not. It’s the quintessential moment in this droll backstage comedy about self-absorbed celebrity divas who, alas, were just as much among us in the 1920s as today.Watkins' 80-year-old play, directed with satirical smarts and verve by Bank, was written with the eye of a journalist who was noted for her sardonic humor. Watkins had covered crime for the Chicago Tribune; she would go on to write film scripts in the '30s and '40s for directors such as John Ford.We don't know much about her today, except for her 1927 play Chicago, the basis for the musical. So Help Me God! would have premiered in 1929, but then the stock market crashed. The Mint Theatre Company, which Bank heads, is noted for salvaging such gems of the past.The scene of Me God! is the rehearsal for a play called Empty Hands which has been penned by a stiff college professor (Noyes). Darnley – so self-absorbed that even in the acting world she is a caricature — is less taken with her role than with the clothes she may wear and the supporting actors she might seduce. (Her lipstick gets increasingly smudged as the play goes on.) In fact, she insists on changing the script to allow her to improve the stage wardrobe: She will be a lady of the manor, of nobility, instead of a professor's wife.And she acts that way, pushing the cast out into the rain so she can speak on the phone in privacy. She is manipulative, arrogant, cut-throat and outraged if anyone else gets noticed. She’s also a bit of a lush. One wonders how she has succeeded on stage. But Johnston succeeds very well on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theater as she/Darley systematically destroys the interior play and, to the extent she can, the actors who threaten her.The challenge is taken up by Karren-Keppuch Lane (Chlumsky), the neophyte ingénue from Cincinnati, who slips in through the stage door and manages to become Darnly’s understudy. She is in Darnley’s shadow, but it won’t be for long. She transforms herself from a sweet young innocent to a driven wannabe star, which she will achieve by any means necessary.Watkins also makes it clear that the other actors will suck up and to do anything to keep their parts, including betraying whoever they’ve said to love. Jules Meredith (O’Donnell) who Karren falls for, is ready in a moment to be a lap dog for Darnly, who had just fired him, then changed her mind. The Brit Desmond Armstrong (Waterson) is equally adept at sleeping with the star and getting his name in the promotional billing. Her writer, producer, and directors fall into place.The cast, who Darnly tells her press agent should be identified just as "supporting" actors, delivers very well on that account. Catherine Curtin is a hoot as the in-your-face wise-cracking Brooklyn-accented company member, Belle, who reminds one of the ladies of Chicago. Kraig Swartz does a memorable campy Glenn, her second director.The play may be old but it's up to the minute on the story.
For tiimes and ticket details go to:
So Help Me God!Mint Theater CompanyLucille Lortel Theater121 Christopher StreetNew York City212-279-4200.Opened December 7, 2009; Closes December 20, 2009
For more by Lucy Komisar: TheKomisarScoop.com
The Blu-Ray release includes 13 audio commentaries by cats and crew, which give an overview of the epic scale of the production, as do several featurettes. An interactive feature that resembles VH1’s pop-up videos shows pertinent historical information onscreen while you watch the episodes. Historical inaccuracies aside, Rome—like Showtime’s The Tudors—is a costume epic worth immersing oneself in. recreates the great Roman Empire in so lavish a fashion that it seems to have been made specifically for the Blu-Ray format.
DVD of the Week:Paul McCartney: Good Evening New York City (Hear Music)Paul McCartney’s concerts at Citi Field in New York City in July were the unquestioned musical highlights of the summer, and this release presents the concert in full: over 2-1/2 hours’ worth of some of the greatest tunes ever written, with a heavy emphasis on the Beatles (21 songs) over his solo work (14 songs), and a guest superstar, Billy Joel, who’s younger than Paul but looks several years older. A youthful 67 years old, the legendary McCartney still has a stage presence lacking in rockers and other pop idols less than half his age, whether he’s playing bass, guitar, mandolin, ukulele or piano. And his willingness to play his underrated and high-quality newer stuff—including two songs from last year’s Electric Arguments album by The Fireman and a pair from 2007’s Memory Almost Full—is a good sign, even though the second half of the concert is a torrid run-through some of the high points of his Fab Four catalog. And who else would be so brazen as to juxtapose the ultimate ballad, “Yesterday,” with the ultimate screaming rocker, “Helter Skelter”?
The DVD concert film includes a DTS 5.1 surround sound mix, which makes you feel like you’re back at CitiField the night of the show. (The two CDs also included also have the entire 35-song set, and if you buy a limited edition package, an extra DVD features a backstage documentary.) My lone quibble with all McCartney concert DVDs is their insistence on showing fans singing along, fooling around for the cameras, and other such nonsense. We get it, Paul: you were a Beatle and everyone loves you. But I’d rather see the musicians onstage all the time, and keep the cutesy visual gimmicks to a minimum.
Monsters Inc.directed by Pete DocterUp directed by Pete Docter(Disney)I must admit that I’m not a big fan of the Pixar movies: dazzling computerized animation, coupled with talking creatures, doesn’t thrill me much. (I do enjoy The Simpsons and South Park, neither known for expertly-drawn visuals or anthropomorphic non-humans.) But after watching Up, the latest Pixar blockbuster, I could pinpoint why this story of an old man who literally flies away with his house to a world of adventure after his beloved wife dies left me cold. Up begins with a sweetly touching, wordless sequence detailing the couple’s long relationship, then almost immediately degenerates into predictable and obnoxious foolishness when chattering, unfunny animals and stock villains take over. Oh well. Happily, Monsters Inc. is much more entertaining: it’s a hilarious, sentimental and unpretentious comedy. Visually, of course, these two Blu-ray releases are peerless, with an almost crystalline 3-D quality to the animation, and aurally they are up to Disney’s usual high standard as well. Both Up and Monsters Inc. are available in four-disc versions, with separate discs of the Blu-Ray, the standard DVD, a digital copy and an extras disc, which include directors’ commentaries, pre-production and production featurettes, new Pixar shorts, games, etc.
DVD of the Week:
Death in the Gardendirected by Luis Buñuel(Microcinema)One of Luis Buñuel’s least-known efforts from his many years spent making films in Mexico doesn’t have the pedigree of classics Los Olvidados, Nazarin or The Exterminating Angel, but for those interested in Buñuel’s career arc, enough of his sardonic personality peeks through to help this 1956 melodrama overcome a lackluster script. In an unnamed South American country, a group of people flees a budding revolution into the jungle, only to fall prey to the inevitable (and fatal) back-stabbing and in-fighting. Shot in beautiful Technicolor—which, in this newly restored release, looks absolutely pristine—Death in the Garden is Buñuel-lite, with little of the subversiveness marking his best films from L’Age d’Or to Simon of the Desert.
The presence of terrific French actors like Michel Piccoli (who would go on to star in several more Buñuel films) and Simone Signoret is another plus. Extras-wise, there’s a nice assortment: new interviews with Piccoli and with Buñuel scholar Victor Fuentes and an audio commentary by another Buñuel expert, Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz, give necessary context for a forgotten work by an audacious filmmaking master.
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