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Reviews

April '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

L’Assassino

(Arrow Academy)
Elio Petri’s 1960 debut has its muddy moments, but its cracklingly alive story of a businessman who may have killed his rich mistress deliciously anticipates the director’s own later masterpiece, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. A perfect vehicle for the ever-suave Marcello Mastroianni, this finely-wrought exploration of an era of cultural decay and political sleaze came out the same year as the more famous La Dolce Vita, but notably holds its own on a smaller canvas. Carlo di Palm’s richly-hued B&W photography looks beautiful in hi-def; extras are a 50-minute portrait of cowriter Tonino Guerra and an introduction to Petri.
 
After Porn Ends 2
(Gravitas Ventures)
This second go-round of “where are they now—the adult-film version” is a sympathetic glimpse at X-rated stars after leaving the business, like legends Lisa Ann (has a fantasy-sports show on satellite radio) and Ginger Lynn (sells her paintings online), along with others whose lives vary from fulfilling to difficult. The final chapter about Janine Lindemulder is heartbreaking: she lost custody of her child to ex Jesse James (with then-wife Sandra Bullock—and we know how that turned out, partly because of her profession). There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Buena Vista Social Club 

(Criterion)

Wim Wenders’ joyful 1999 documentary about a group of Cuban musicians performing together at Carnegie Hall remains, nearly two decades after it was made, one of the most beloved music documentaries ever, taking on new resonance in today’s era of U.S.-Cuba relations. The film often looks less than ideal on Blu-ray, but the extras—new Wenders interview, Wenders commentary, musician interviews and additional scenes—more than compensate for fluctuating picture quality.
 
Donnie Darko
(Arrow Academy)
Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult film is an interesting misfire, a combination of fantasy, science-fiction, teen rom-com and anything else Kelly stuffs into it, particularly in the alternately fascinating and boring director’s cut; still, there’s some heady stuff to chew on, even if most of it makes no discernible (or even non-discernible) sense. Arrow Academy has resurrected Donnie with sterling hi-def transfers of both the 113-minute theatrical cut and the 133-minute director’s cut and many extras including Kelly’s commentary, vintage featurettes, interviews and a music video; a hardcover book inside a slipcase tops off an elegant package.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Home Fires—Complete 2nd Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

As the Second World War surges on and the Battle of Britain becomes ever more terrifyingly close, the women of the small English town of Great Paxford continue their contributions to the war effort. Despite some contrived writing, the very accomplished acting by a stellar cast (comprising the likes of Francesca Annis, Samantha Bond, Ruth Gemmell and Frances Grey, for starters) makes this six-part mini-series engrossing throughout. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
 
Ride the High Country
36 Hours
(Warner Archive)
An early Sam Peckinpah effort, 1962’s High Country is a solid if unspectacular Western whose energy makes up for a certain lack of narrative finesse: fine acting by Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and a young Marietta Hartley as the damsel in distress also helps.
 
 
 
 
The 1965 war drama 36 Hours has a great story—Nazis try to obtain needed D-Day intel from an amnesiac American—but it would have been more trenchant shorter: nearly two hours of James Garner as the Yank and Rod Taylor and Eva Marie Saint as Germans pretending to be American is about 20 minutes too much. Both films have stunning hi-def transfers; Country has a commentary and Peckinpah featurette.
 
To Walk Invisible—The Brontë Sisters
(PBS Masterpiece)
In 1979, French director Andre Techine’s biopic about the literary Brontë sisters starred the unbeatable trio of Marie-France Pisier and the two Isabelles: Huppert and Adjani. Similarly, the new British Brontë biopic has a strong cast—alongside Finn Atkins, Charlie Murphy and Chloe Pirrie as the sisters there’s no less than the brilliant Jonathan Pryce as their father. But despite distinguished acting and lovely location photography, the film remains curiously uninvolving, its final images—showing the Brontë home today, a museum overrun with tourists—outright desperate. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras comprise two short featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVD of the Week 

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer

(Icarus)

This auspicious feature debut by director Pierfrancesco Diliberto (known as Pif, a popular TV satirist) is a blackly comic Sicilian sort-of romance, as our narrator explains how and why he fell for his pretty schoolmate while Mafioso killings punctuated their daily lives. Pif makes a dopily endearing protagonist, Cristiana Capotondi epitomizes the irresistible girl next door, and the film itself cannily balances the simultaneous humor and horror of finding young love while bodies are dropping all around.

Broadway Review—Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter”

Present Laughter
Written by Noel Coward; directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel
Opened April 5, 2017
 
Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline in Present Laughter (photo: Joan Marcus)
 
Kevin Kline in a Noel Coward play is a no-brainer. One of the few American actors who’s a dashing leading man, perfect light comedian and supple physical performer, even at age 69—older by nearly 30 years than the egocentric matinee idol of Coward’s Present Laughter, Garry Essendine—Kline runs rings around performers far younger than he. And so he is the main reason to see this latest revival of one of Coward’s sturdiest comedies.
 
The charismatic Kline is charming throughout, easily handling Coward’s witty epigraphs and retorts, as a famous theater actor dealing with sundry problems on and offstage, including the many people in his successful orbit: his loyal but harried secretary Monica; his level-headed but harried ex-wife Liz; his trusty but harried valet Fred; his harried Norwegian maid Miss Erikson; his harried closest friends, producer Henry and director Morris; Henry’s young wife Joanna; loony young would-be playwright, Roland; and Daphne, a young starlet who adores him.  
 
Coward records the comings and goings of these people in Garry’s apartment with simultaneous amusement and bemusement, and if the seams in his elegant drawing-room comedy are starting to show, there’s more than enough good will and funny lines to provide 2-1/2 hours of civilized entertainment. Too bad that Moritz Von Stuelpnagel directs with an unsteady hand, sometimes comically on-point and other times adding needless physical comedy like Roland’s increasingly unfunny handshakes, bringing the play uncomfortably close to door-slamming French farce, which is not what Coward’s comedy is all about.
 
Still, on David Zinn’s perfectly cluttered set, the cast is generally on-target. Despite mealy-mouthed Reg Rogers (Morris) and crass Bhavesh Patel (Roland), there are accomplished comic turns by wonderful newcomer Tedra Millan (Daphne), remindful of a young Marisa Tomei, and TV’s Cobie Smulders, whose smoldering Joanna looks smashing in Susan Hilferty’s slinky gowns, all while giving as good as she gets.
 
I’m less enamored with Kate Burton’s Liz, who’s not as sympathetic as she should be, and Kristine Nielsen’s Monica, whose genuinely hilarious moments are undercut by her usual mannerisms. But Kline is so smooth, suave, effortlessly funny and urbane as Garry that he makes this Present Laughter live up to its title. Here’s hoping Kline continues to tackle more of Coward’s canon on Broadway.
 
Present Laughter
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street
laughteronbroadway.com

April '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Property Is No Longer a Theft

(Arrow Academy) 
Committed left-wing Italian director Elio Petri made provocative, disturbing and enlightening political dramas in the 1970s before his untimely death from cancer at age 53 in 1982. His 1973 film is an unsubtle but irresistible riposte against capitalist society, as a lowly bank clerk insinuates himself into the personal life of a greedy local butcher, even stealing his mistress. Petri’s assured direction keeps the over-ripe performances of Flavio Bucci (clerk), Ugo Tognazzi (butcher) and Daria Nicolodi (mistress) from spinning out of control. Arrow’s terrific new set comprises a first-rate hi-def transfer and new interviews with Bucci, producer Claudio Mancini and make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci, all of whom discuss working with the great, underrated director.
 
The Bye Bye Man
(Universal) 
This hopelessly confused attempt at a psychological haunted-house flick has flat acting—including stalwarts Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Anne Moss—a hollow script and contempt for an audience that expects honest scares, not lamely risible “shocks.” Director Stacy Title once made an interesting little black comedy, The Last Supper, two decades ago, but her latest doesn’t approach that. The hi-def transfer is good; the unrated version is three minutes longer than the theatrical version.
 
Daughters of the Dust
(Cohen Film Collection) 
Julie Dash’s enveloping 1991 historical drama highlights an obscure chapter in American history: the Gullah community, comprising former slaves and their descendants, who are living on the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast at the turn of the 20thcentury, decide whether to migrate to the mainland. Dash’s ability to vividly personalize history is on display throughout her memorable memory film; the enticing hi-def transfer and many extras—Dash’s commentary and interview, Q&A with Dash and actress Cheryl Bruce, and interview with Dash’s superb cinematographer Arthur Jafa—make this an essential package.
 
House—Two Stories 
Dead or Alive
(Arrow) 
The tongue-in-cheek horror movie House became a cult item in 1986, and was followed a year later by the far worse House II; the original at least had William Katt, John Wendt and a sorely underused Kay Lenz, while the latter was stuck with John Ratzenberger. Japanese cult director Takashi Miike made his ultra-violent Dead or Alive trilogy between 1999 and 2002; wildly ambitious and wildly uneven, these Yakuza movies are the ultimate triumphs of style over substance. Both sets show off Arrow’s excellent hi-def transfers, vintage and current interviews and making-ofs, commentaries, and hour-long appraisals of both House films.
 
Story of Sin

(Arrow Academy) 

Polish director Walerian Borowczyk—who died in 2006—has seen his cult reputation grow ever larger, thanks to the availability of even his most obscure films on DVD and now Blu-ray, like the only film he made in his home country, 1974’s Story of Sin. This less-graphic-than-usual, consistently intriguing adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s novel concerns a young religious woman soiled by her loss of innocence (a whale of a lead performance by actress Grazyna Dlugolecka). As usual with Arrow Academy, great care has gone into the presentation of an obscure feature by a barely-remembered Polish director: stunning transfer, audio commentary, new and vintage interviews and appraisals, and several Borowczyk shorts.
 
World Without End
(Warner Archive) 
You’d think a forgotten 1956 sci-fi B movie wouldn’t be high on the list of hi-def re-issues by Warner Archive, but then again, this is a forgotten sci-fi B movie, the kind of thing that appeals to movie buffs who buy Blu-rays. A quartet of astronauts crash-lands on a distant planet, only to find they’ve returned to a post-nuclear Earth nearly 600 years in the future. Weak acting, cheesy script, cheap sets and effects and muddled philosophy are the draws here; the spectacular hi-def transfer will look terrific on movie buffs’ large TV screens.
 
DVDs of the Week 

A Girl in Every Port

(Warner Archive) 
Made after the Marx Brothers’ creative peak, this 1952 comedy wastes Groucho’s final leading role as a sailor (!) who—with his sidekick William Bendix—gets caught up in a convoluted mess involving twin horses and a blonde femme fatale (the juiceless Marie Wilson). Groucho gets to fire off several one-liners but few of them hit in this scattershot (to be kind) comedy. Watch Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera or even Horse Feathers instead.
 
Toni Erdmann
(Sony Pictures Classics) 
I may be the lone dissenter when it comes to Maden Ade’s overlong and slender portrait of a practical-jokester father who surprises his successful daughter in Bucharest—only to bug her mercilessly. The problem is that dad is a mere plot device instead of a believable character; indeed, once he shows up, Ade seems to be trolling her own movie. Despite impressive acting by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, this ends up as irritating as Ade’s previous Everything Else. That Sony is releasing this on DVD and BD-R is a sign Criterion will put out a packed Blu-ray edition soon. Extras are an Ade commentary and AFI Fest Q&A.
 
CD of the Week 
Beethoven—Complete String Quartets
(Decca) 
The best recent boxed set of Beethoven’s complete string quartets is by the Takacs Quartet, which digs into these 16 masterly musical statements (17, if one counts the inscrutable Grosse Fuge) and makes them its own, especially its scintillating readings of the six late quartets, those incredible, forward-thinking works from 1825 and 1826, which reached their apogee with the quicksilver Op. 135. This attractively-designed set includes seven CDs of the quartet’s illuminating performances, a DVD of them playing Beethoven (Op. 59, No. 1), Schubert (“Death and the Maiden”) and Haydn (“The Bird”), and a Blu-ray Audio disc of what’s on the CDs in high fidelity pure audio.

Broadway Review: New Musical “Amélie”

Amélie
Music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Nathan Tysen & Daniel Messé; book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Pam Mackinnon; music staging & choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Opened April 3, 2017
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street
ameliebroadway.com
 
Savvy Crawford and Phillipa Soo in Amélie (photo: Joan Marcus)
Despite its renown, I’ve never much cared for the forced whimsy of the 2001 French movie Amélie, which is enervating and tiring in equal measure; only the luminescent Audrey Tautou as the eponymous heroine saves it from its own cloyingness. Likewise, in the labored musical version of Amélie, Phillipa Soo is sweetly unassuming, with an affecting, natural (and unforced) singing voice, but the adaptation even one-ups the original at being annoyingly eccentric.
 
After her beloved Princess Diana is killed in a car crash in the heart of Paris, Amélie—a shy young woman with a messy upbringing (her mom was killed when a suicidal jumper fell on top of her and her doctor dad misdiagnosed her with a bad heart)—resolves to be a do-gooder, making things right for acquaintances and strangers who need her special dispensations.
 
When she sees Nino, a strange young man, she stalks him in her inimitable way, and he eventually succumbs to her offbeat charms. The movie, directed with grotesque visual flourishes by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, resorted to close-ups of Tautou’s winsome face whenever it got too eye-rollingly self-absorbed. The musical approximates the movie’s oddball style through David Zinn’s clever sets and Amanda Villalobos’ cartoonish puppets, alongside stridently overwrought acting by the supporting cast, many doubling as Amélie’s friends, co-workers and Parisian neighbors.
 
Director Pam Mackinnon seems at a loss as to how to navigate such tricky thickets of pseudo-surrealism, and Daniel Messé’s score—with mediocre lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen—doesn’t overcome Craig Lucas’s patchy book. Messé’s songs are typical of today’s Broadway, poppy and treacly by turns, with not a single memorable (or hummable) tune in sight.
 
Moments in Amélie are uncomfortable reminders of other recent musicals, as if there’s a Broadway blueprint that needs to be followed to the letter: when Amélie’s female café coworkers break into sassy song, it’s like we’ve suddenly dropped in on Waitress. And when “Sir Elton John” materializes to sing a duet with Amélie—the tenuous connection is that the real Elton sang “Candle in the Wind” at Di’s funeral—the show stops dead and never really recovers.
 
As the young Amélie, the aptly-named Savvy Crawford has a scarily impressive stage presence, which somewhat compensates for Adam Chanler-Berat’s dud of a Nino. Again, Phillipa Soo sings beautifully and appears appropriately gamine while effortlessly negotiating the Montmartre set’s stairs. But Amélie the musical is ultimately as shallow as its cinematic forebear.
 
Amélie
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street
ameliebroadway.com

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