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March '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Boyfriend

(Warner Archive)
One of Ken Russell’s most atypical films, his 1971 version of Sandy Wilson’s old-fashioned musical still contains the director’s often uncontrolled frenzy in abundance, even if—in this case—it’s at the service of a frivolous but fun story starring the enchanting Twiggy, of all people, who shows herself a more than competent actress, dancer and singer.
It’s nice to finally get this from Warner Archive in a superior hi-def edition, with a vintage on-set featurette as the lone extra; maybe someday we’ll finally get The Devils on Blu-ray?

Disney’s latest animated extravaganza follows its eponymous heroine as she leaves her Polynesian home with shape-shifting ex-demigod Maui in tow to help save her people by bringing a relic back to an island goddess.
Mixed in with interchangeable songs co-written byHamilton auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda are lustrous aquatic visuals that often overwhelm the feel-good feminist tale being told. On Blu-ray, the computer-generated visuals look terrifically; extras include featurettes, deleted scenes, deleted song, and bonus Easter eggs.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth 

(Warner Archive)

If you’re going to make a silly, incoherent movie anachronistically showing cavemen and women living alongside dinosaurs, then the stop-motion effects better be up to snuff: for that reason alone, this 1969 adventure makes the grade, with surprisingly effective sequences of predators vs. their human targets.
Otherwise, the amateurish acting, disposable directing and non-existent script make their marks throughout the sluggish 100-minute running time. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
DVDs of the Week
City in the Sky
This three-part documentary mini-series presents the inner workings of the airline industry by showing behind-the-scenes glimpses at ultra-busy airports like Atlanta’s or a fascinating look at the actual assembly of an Airbus A380, with its thousands of interlocking parts.
By naming the segments “Departure,” “Airborne” and “Arrival,” the series cleverly develops a narrative of sorts, based on the fact that, at any moment, around a million people are airborne at the same time around the world: hence the program’s title.
Oklahoma City 


Timothy McVeigh’s homegrown terrorist attack, which shocked the country in 1995, is recounted in this thorough and unmissable exploration of what triggered McVeigh, how authorities dealt with it—including pretty quickly apprehending him after the first impulse was to blame Middle Eastern terrorists—and the reactions of those who had to trudge through the rubble, including first responders and parents who lost—or thought they lost—their children.
One of the PBS series American Experience’s best episodes, director Barak Goodman’s impeccably researched and painstakingly put together study scarily demonstrates how McVeigh’s moment of madness had its origins in the white supremacist movement.
A Place to Call Home—Complete 4thSeason
(Acorn Media)
In the most recent season of this superior Australian soap opera, the year 1954 embodies two opposing political stances, conservative fearmongering and liberal hopefulness, which color the actions of all of the characters.
Jealousy, homosexuality, murder-suicide….the melodrama continues throughout these dozen episodes, aided by top-notch performances and a real sense of time and place. Fans will be pleased to know that a fifth season is currently in production.
CD of the Week 
The Film Music of William Alwyn, Volume 4

One of the most accomplished if underrated British composers of the last century, William Alwyn wrote music in many genres—symphonies, chamber music, concertos, operas, solo piano and vocal works—but his music remains, except for a slew of welcome releases on Chandos in the ‘80s and ‘90s, relatively unknown. That even extends to the often imaginative and dramatic scores he wrote for more than 70 films throughout his career—he died in 1985 at age 79—and Chandos has already released fine recordings of several of his best scores.

This fourth volume, which includes his atmospheric suites (ably reconstructed and arranged by Philip Lane) for such ordinary British titles as On Approval and A City Speaks,continues the label’s winning streak of making this composer’s music available once again. Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC Philharmonic in exciting performances of works from ten different films.

Off-Broadway Review—Janie Dee Returns in “Linda”

Written by Penelope Skinner; directed by Lynne Meadow
Performances through April 2, 2017
Janie Dee (right) in Linda (photo: Joan Marcus)
It begins promisingly with its heroine giving an impressive, impassioned presentation to kick off a new line of anti-aging products for women over 50 for her company, Swan Beauty. In these opening moments, actress Janie Dee—conspicuously absent from the New York stage since her incandescent portrayal of a robot in Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential in 2000—expresses herself with witty, intelligent and appealing charm. Too bad Penelope Skinner’s Linda, despite its leading lady’s lively presence, never again approaches its opening high.
Skinner’s eponymous heroine has overcome sundry obstacles: at age 55—the new 35—she has a great job, a great husband and two great daughters. But the play artlessly takes Linda on a predictable ride once it’s obvious that nothing is as it seems: Neil, her husband, is cheating; Alice, her grown daughter (with another man), is a mess mentally; and teenager Bridget annoyingly talks about which male role she wants to recite in her acting class.
And the office has gotten tougher: Linda’s longtime boss Dave has hired a hot—in both senses—25-year-old spitfire, Amy, who’s already angling for Linda’s job. Throw in Stevie, the nubile young singer fronting the band Neil’s moonlighting in (and fooling around with) and Luke, a fresh (in both senses) “spiritual” temp with eyes for Linda, and you’ll know exactlyLinda is going long before it gets there.
It all plays out as routinely as you’d expect. Linda discovers that Neil is cheating when she comes home early one day from her poisonous office situation and finds Stevie in the kitchen wearing his shirt. Soon, Alice—also temping at her mother’s office—discovers that Amy is an old classmate who had a hand in posting some sexual photos of Alice on the internet a few years back.  And when Luke seduces Linda in a weak office moment, Amy (who else?) gets hold of his selfie memento of the occasion and sends it off to Dave (who else?).
Skinner relies too heavily on contrivance and sheer irrationality to get from point A to point B. Would Linda really go to the storage room with Luke for a quickie and let him take a postflagrante selfie that the whole world might see? Would Luke let Amy take his and, discover said selfie so she can disseminate it around the office? The characters in Linda end up acting like those in any run-of-the-mill sitcom, the main difference being that, by clocking in at over two hours, Linda and its denizens wear out their welcome.
Lynne Meadow’s handsomely mounted production comprises Walt Spangler’s ingenious rotating set, Jason Lyons’ sagacious lighting and Fitz Patton’s smart sound design. But, if the talented supporting cast is defeated by the shaky material, there’s Janie Dee giving her all: such astonishing vitality makes one wish that Linda was the equal of its Linda.
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Review—Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget”

If I Forget
Written by Steven Levenson; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through April 30, 2017
Jeremy Shamos, Kate Walsh and Maria Dizzia in If I Forget (photo: Joan Marcus)

Although he trods familiar ground, Steven Levenson imbues his compassionate Jewish identity play 
If I Forget with fresh insights as the bickering Fischer clan hashes out its personal problems in the family home in Tenleytown, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood.
Lou, the 75-year-old patriarch who’s still reeling from his beloved wife’s recent agonizing death from cancer, and his three children are all under one roof. Eldest Holly, who lives nearby, has her second husband Howard and 16-year-old son Joey in tow; middle child, only son and mother’s favorite Michael is visiting from New York with his wife Ellen, while their 19-year-old daughter Abby is visiting Israel at a particularly fraught time (it’s July 2000, and the latest peace process has just broken down, which makes Michael antsy about her safety); and youngest Sharon, who mostly took care of their dying mother, has grown close to a Guatemalan family renting out—at far below market rates, says money-conscious Holly—the old family store in another part of town.
Remarkably for a young playwright (he’s best known for the book of the current hit musical Dear Evan Hansen), Levenson has created three-dimensional, palpably alive characters exhaustively prepped for battles both personal and political, like the one Michael has brought with him. An atheist Jewish Studies professor up for tenure, he has written a controversial book, Forgetting the Holocaust, which threatens to irrevocably damage already tenuous Fischer family, especially since Lou was in the army and helped liberate Dachau, and Sharon makes no bones about finding the book demeaning to the six million who perished.
What helps make If I Forget such a vibrant and incisive examination of the horrors the Fischers must face is a spiky sense of humor, notably when—since the play is set in July 2000 and February 2001—there is talk of Bush v. Gore, Ralph Nader and hanging chads. Before the election, Michael equated Bush and Gore, but he later owns up to his mistake. In July he says, “there’s no difference between four years of Bush and four years of Gore,” then in February admits, when Sharon berates him for not voting for Gore, “Well, I didn’t think he was going to lose.” Such lively and intelligent exchanges among the siblings are often funny but without losing the underlying seriousness. 
This is where the estimable contributions of Daniel Sullivan, one of our premier theater directors for decades, come in: he effortlessly combines a light touch with poignant drama. In Sullivan’s sensitive staging, even the plot’s most melodramatic aspects—an unexpected pregnancy, internet credit card fraud and Michael’s inability to realize his book is incendiary—are delicately rendered. And the story’s unseen characters—troubled young Abby and the Jimenez family, with whom Sharon is far too close for comfort—come through vividly.
But what makes If I Forget unforgettable is the extraordinary cast Sullivan assembled to do these people justice. Seth Steinberg’s Joey, Tasha Lawrence’s Ellen and Gary Wilmes’s Howard are sheer perfection, while Larry Bryggman brings his usual laconic intensity to Lou, whose high point—a late-night memory when he describes what he and other shocked soldiers confronted at Dachau—is among the most breathlessly wrenching few minutes I’ve spent in a theater.
Then there’s the flawless trio portraying the flawed siblings. As Sharon, Maria Dizzia—a chameleonic actress whose lack of any affectation makes her seem like someone who’s just walked in off the street, not a performer inhabiting a character—is gloriously understated, even in her many well-timed jabs at Michael’s perceived self-hate. Kate Walsh tamps down her usual glamour to make Holly a brash and sharp foil for her brother and sister, particularly in the pivotal scenes when they discuss how to take care of their suddenly sickly father.
And Jeremy Shamos, one of our finest stage actors, adds another indelible creation to his resume with his performance as the complex and prickly Michael, an intellectual trying not to be snobbish in front of his family, and a man whose entire being consists of a struggle between his Jewish heritage and lack of faith. Michael also gets some great speeches, like his impassioned harangue about how the Holocaust’s lessons: “We learned all the wrong lessons from the Holocaust. We learned that the world hates Jews, that the world will always hate Jews, instead of what we should have actually learned—that nationalism is a sickness and it is lethal.”
Such pointed encapsulations of his own beliefs are so brilliantly articulated by actor, playwright and director as to make If I Forget not only a compelling drama but absolutely indispensable theater.
If I Forget
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

February '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Brahms—German Requiem
(Clasart Classic)
Perhaps the most emotionally charged of the famous Requiems (Mozart, Verdi, Faure, Britten), Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem is often trotted out for an anniversary or other large-scale memorial.
But this 2016 performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under conductor Franz Welser-Most, the Vienna Singverein chorus and soloists Hanna-Elisabeth Muller and Simon Keenlyside in Austria’s gilded baroque Saint Florian Basilica doesn’t need any extra-musical reason to hold its audience in thrall. The hi-def video and audio are excellent.
Deep Water
The Level
(Acorn Media)
Led by a bold, confident Yael Stone (best known from Orange Is the New Black), Deep Water is an absorbing police procedural about a series of murders that may be related to several unsolved gay-related killings that occurred in the same area decades earlier.
And, propelled by a gritty performance by Karla Crome, The Level is an arresting crime drama about a young detective whose ties to a sordid underworld figure may hinder her investigation—especially if her colleagues discover the connection. Both sets’ extras include on-set featurettes.
Doctor Strange 


One of the most watchable of recent superhero movies is this fairly streamlined—under two hours—if crazily plotted odyssey of an arrogant neurosurgeon who gains an awesome array of mystical powers after he’s almost killed in a car crash that destroys the use of his hands.
Benedict Cumberbatch nicely balances the haughtiness and self-parody of our title hero while Rachel McAdams invests the underwritten female sidekick role with far more sympathy and humor than is warranted. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are director commentary, deleted scenes, gag reel and several featurettes.
We Are the Flesh
Emiliano Rocha Minter’s demented post-apocalyptic drama is twisted right from the start: a trollish loner is joined by a desperate brother and sister, and to allow them to stay with him, he makes them have sex as he watches.
Aside from the camp factor—there’s actual sex filmed among actors Noe Hernandez, Maria Evoli and Diego Gamaliel—it’s also been done with a certain amount of artful flair, but with this ultimate “dividing audiences” type of film, viewers’ mileage will vary. It looks fine on Blu; extras include director and cast interviews, Minter short films and video essay.
DVDs of the Week 
Casablancas—The Man Who Loved Women
(First Run)
This engaging portrait of John Casablancas—who rose from obscurity to found the Elite model agency in 1972—is centered around a revealing interview he did two years before his untimely death in 2013.
Director Hubert Woroniecki’s documentary returns to the days of celebrities hobnobbing at Studio 54 and supermodels from Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell to Stephanie Seymour and Christie Brinkley becoming global superstars. And there was Casablancas, helped make it happen.

As usual with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s movies, more is most definitely less: the first hour or so of this ominous mystery follows a crime investigator who, while looking into an unsolved series of serial killings, discovers that the actual culprit might be his and his unsuspecting wife’s neighbor.

It’s too bad that the final hour becomes increasingly more hysterical and shrill as the murderer is triggered to continue with his lethal behavior, logic be damned. The first half is suggestive, and all the more effective for it, while the second half is unnecessarily oppressive, and all the poorer for it, unfortunately.

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