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April '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Color of Pomegranates 


Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 masterpiece—a riotous blend of color, music, sound, poetry and religious imagery—is an impressionistic biography of the 18th century Armenian troubadour Sayat-Nova; but even if the mainly abstract tableaux make his film difficult to “get,” the director’s stunning visual and aural artistry is always in evidence.




Criterion’s restored hi-def transfer has given this hard-to-see classic its best “look” on video, while several extras give context to Parajanov’s singular cinema: critic Tony Rayns’ commentary; video essay on the film's symbols and references; scholar James Steffen interview; Sergei Parajanov: The Rebel, a 2003 documentary; The Life of Sayat-Nova, a 1977 documentary; and a 1969 documentary, The Color of Armenian Land.


The Royal Funeral of Louis XIV/Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV 

(Harmonia Mundi)

This dazzling recreation of the musical pageant that followed the 1715 death of the French monarch is set in the gorgeous chapel at the palace of Versailles, where the Sun King lived and reigned, and features a procession of funereal music by many French court composers.




The setting is truly spectacular, the music is equally magnificent, and the performances by the ensemble Pygmalion, choir and soloists are also first-rate; the only quibble is that, at 100 minutes, it all starts to overstay its musical welcome.








Seijun Suzuki—The Early Years, Vol. 2 


The renowned Japanese cult director made a voluminous number of films in his lengthy career, so it’s problematic to place him in any kind of box other than this second boxed set of five of his earliest efforts. Although all over the stylistic and narrative map, they’re linked as studies of low-lifes and other shady characters, all shot in an exuberant manner.




Of the five, the most interesting are The Sleeping Beast Within and Smashing the O-Line (both 1960), each featuring actor Hiroyuki Nagato in vastly different roles: but all are definitely worth a look. Hi-def transfers are first-rate; extras comprise an O-Line commentary by critic Jasper Sharp and critic Tony Rayns interview.


Shakespeare Wallah 

(Cohen Film Collection)

One of the earliest Merchant-Ivory productions, this 1965 comic drama follows a British classical theater troupe on tour through India and the romantic and other entanglements that ensue throughout. The movie suffers from obvious writing (by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), stilted directing (by James Ivory) and wooden acting in several key roles: its saving grace is its depiction of mutual condescension between colonizer and colonized.




On Blu-ray, the restored B&W film looks superb; extras include interviews with Ivory, Merchant, and actors Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal.








Sleeping Dogs 


Roger Donaldson’s 1977 drama helped put the New Zealand film industry on the map, and its resonant depiction of a democratic nation overtaken by martial law feels all too relevant. A then-unknown Sam Neill is fierce and vivid as an everyman caught up in an anarchic political climate, and Warren Oates provides down-and-dirty support as an American army man trying to restore order.




The hi-def transfer is good and grainy; extras a commentary by Donaldson, Neill and actor-writer Ian Mune; The Making of Sleeping Dogs (2004), a 65-minute retrospective documentary on the film's production; and The Making of Sleeping Dogs (1977), an archival on-set featurette.


DVD of the Week

Killing for Love 

(Sundance Selects)

The sensational murder trial of young American woman Elizabeth and German boyfriend Jens—both given life sentences for killing her parents—is recounted in Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger’s engrossing and unsettling documentary.




Centered around an interview with Jens, currently in prison and recanting his confession, the film is a disturbing dive into the intricacies and unfairness of our justice system. Imogen Poots and Daniel Bruhl provide the voiceovers for both protagonists. 


Broadway Musical Review—Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls”

Mean Girls

Book by Tina Fey; music by Jeff Richmond; lyrics by Nell Benjamin

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

Opened April 8, 2018

Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell in Mean Girls (photo: Joan Marcus)

The enduring popularity of 2004’s Mean Girls—screenwriter Tina Fey’s dead-on satire about high school cliques, with a perfect cast led by Fey, Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams—has inevitably led to a Broadway version. But is updating the story for our social-media age and shoehorning in songs enough to give Mean Girls a new life onstage?


The answer is a qualified yes. Although Jeff Richmond’s songs and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics are the usual pedestrian combo that infects current musicals, Fey has smartly turned her original script into a book that may be even funnier and more pointed than the movie. And Casey Nicholaw has choreographed and directed with smashing effectiveness, his endlessly clever dance sequences (including great tap dancing and use of school cafeteria trays) and inventive movement throughout propels the show forward. 


Nicholaw’s ace design team—Scott Pask (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lighting), Brian Ronan (sound), and Finn  Ross and Adam Young (video projections)—creates a high school world with an impressive visual sheen that underscores, not undercuts, Fey’s slyly conceived paean to female self-empowerment (song titles include “A Cautionary Tale,” “It Roars,” “Fearless” and the big finale, “I See Stars”).


But making Mean Girls unmissable is its exuberant cast. Erika Henningsen is a charmingly ordinary Cady (the Lohan part), while Grey Henson and Barrett Wilbert Weed make Cady’s uncool friends Damian and Janis amusingly sarcastic guides to the proceedings. The Plastics—McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert in the movie—are enacted by Ashley Park, whose Gretchen literally bleeds funny neediness; Taylor Louderman, who embodies the towering blonde goddess Regina spectacularly and star-makingly; and Kate Rockwell, who as Karen does an incredibly difficult balancing act: playing an incredibly stupid character with so many smarts that she’s sidesplittingly hilarious as she steals scenes left and right.


Too bad that Kerry Butler, a wonderful comedienne and golden-voiced singer, has little to do in her three roles (teacher Ms. Norbury, Cady and Regina’s moms): but her natural charisma considerably brightens her infrequent onstage moments anyway. Broadway’s Mean Girls should please both die-hard fans and those looking for a rollicking good time.

Mean Girls

August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Musical Review—“Miss You Like Hell”

Miss You Like Hell

Book & lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes; music & lyrics by Erin McKeown

Directed by Lear deBessonet

Performances through May 13, 2018

Gizel Jimenez and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Miss You Like Hell (photo: Joan Marcus)

Miss You Like Hell is easy to root for, dramatizing as it does one illegal immigrant’s experience in today’s America. But this musical about the cross-country road trip undertaken by a teenage girl and her estranged mother never hits the emotional highs it aims for by taking too many detours, both figurative and literal.


Beatriz shows up one day where daughter Olivia lives in Philadelphia with her dad to take her on a trip back to California, where (Beatriz eventually admits) she wants Olivia to speak on her behalf at her upcoming hearing to see if she will get her green card and stay in the United States legally. 


But their journey is immediately fraught with roadblocks both benevolent and malevolent, from Olivia’s blog follower who’s a Yellowstone park ranger and a traveling middle-aged gay couple in the midst of getting married in all 50 states to a traffic cop and, finally and most menacingly, an ICE agent.


Although set in 2014, Miss You Like Hell is haunted by Trump’s immigrant intolerance, which casts an inevitable pall over a show that is, at its heart, a darkly humorous relationship drama about a mother desperate to reconnect and a daughter initially wanting (like most teens) to remain at arm’s length. 


Quiara Alegria Hudes, who reworked her play 26 Miles for this show’s book, finds amusement and bemusement in Beatriz and Olivia’s attempts to find common ground beyond their shared blood, but by dropping several other characters in their way—only Manuel, who sells them tamales in Wyoming and who joins them on their trip, has any substantiveness—Hudes reduces their story to a frustratingly episodic character study.


Hudes isn’t helped by Erin McKeown’s songs: the lyrics are rather literal-minded, and McKeown’s tunes are for the most part unilluminating and suffer from a musical sameness. Early on, “Sundays” has a Sondheim vibe that bodes well, but by the time we get to the reprise of “Yellowstone,” a repetitive song that didn’t deserve its first airing, it’s clear that McKeown is running on fumes. 


Sure enough, the show sputters to a stop despite a powerful final image courtesy of scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau and director Lear deBessonet, who otherwise is unable to effectively navigate this extremely bumpy ride.


Daphne Rubin-Vega is an unsurprisingly fiery Beatriz, astonishing newcomer Gizel Jimenez makes a formidably spunky Olivia, and the supporting players fill out their cardboard roles proficiently. But Miss You Like Hell, for all its timely relevance, feels like a soap-opera period place despite the talent involved.


Miss You Like Hell

The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY


Philadelphia Orchestra Delights at Carnegie Hall

Philadelphia Orchestra photo by Jennifer Taylor

A wonderful season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall continued thrillingly with the appearance—on the evening of Tuesday, April 10th—of the extraordinary Philadelphia Orchestra under the brilliant direction of the exuberant Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (These artists gave a superb performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s outstanding Symphony No. 2 here last month.)
The program opened magnificently with a stunning realization of the gorgeous Chichester Psalms, from 1965, of Leonard Bernstein, in celebration of the centennial of the birth of that remarkable composer, conductor, pianist and educator. (His “Age of Anxiety” Symphony was presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the same auditorium on the following night.) This, I think, is probably the loveliest of his “serious” works, by which designation I mean to exclude his fabulous scores for Fancy Free, Candide and West Side Story. The piece is a setting of the original Hebrew texts of several psalms—including the beloved twenty-third, which is the basis for the most beautiful section of this too rarely heard composition, here sung in heavenly fashion by the terrific boy soprano, Dante Michael DiMaio. (Bernstein has also set a Hebrew text in his esteemed “Kaddish” Symphony written in the same decade.) The excellent Westminster Symphonic Choir directed by Joe Miller provided exquisite assistance.
The conductor then introduced the second work of the concert, the New York premiere of a new “City Symphony”—the seventh in a series—the enjoyable Philadelphia Voices commissioned by this ensemble, and written by the contemporary Tod Machover, who was present for the performance. It is an eclectic piece that received its world premiere in Philadelphia last week and features, among other unusual elements, a few minutes in the rock music idiom, recorded spoken words, and a chorus—here again the Symphonic Choir, which sang some inspired passages, especially in the exalting finale.
The evening reached its apotheosis, however, in the second half of the evening, which was devoted to magisterial rendition of the astonishing Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, heard here in the supreme orchestration—one of the finest in the classical literature—of Maurice Ravel, after Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s revision of the original piano score. It was perfectly apposite that the audience delivered an ardent ovation. What more need be said? The return to New York of these marvelous musicians is eagerly awaited.

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