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Blu-rays of the Week
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
While the City Sleeps
This pair of films noir by German director Fritz Lang dates from 1956; these were the last pictures that the creator of classics M and Metropolis would make in Hollywood.
Reasonable Doubt uses capital punishment for a twisty melodrama starring Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine, while City Sleeps (also with Andrews, alongside George Sanders and Vincent Price) darkly explores the case of the “lipstick killer,” who murders young women. Both films are watchable if unexciting; the appropriately moody widescreen B&W compositions are enhanced by flawless hi-def transfers.
Copland Conducts Copland
This 1976 L.A. concert teams 75-year-old composer Aaron Copland conducting his own works, played with verve by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: it’s a greatest hits collection of sorts, starting with Fanfare for the Common Man and including El Salon Mexico, The Tender Land suite and an excerpt from his ballet Rodeo.
But the highlight is a swinging version of Copland’s charming Clarinet Concerto, played by none other than 67-year-old Benny Goodman, who commissioned the work from Copland in 1947. Video and audio are adequate if unexceptional; no extras, although Copland briefly describes each piece before it’s played.
In the grand tradition of social activists like Cesar Chavez—whom she married—is Dolores Huerta, who remains mostly unknown despite her vast importance in the historic farm workers’ union movement she and Chavez led.
Peter Bratt’s expansive documentary portrait, built around an interview with the now 87-year-old—and still vigorous—Huerta, intimately explores her long career championing workers’ and women’s rights, with personal encomiums by Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and many others. The film looks excellent in hi-def.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
One of the towering silent-era masterpieces, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 drama recreates the trial and death of Joan of Arc with an intimacy and intensity that’s nothing short of riveting. Add to that Renee Falconetti’s miraculous performance as Joan; her mesmerizing face, held in relentless close-ups by Dreyer, show both the agony and the ecstasy of Joan’s martyrdom, culminating in her burning at the stake.
The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; Criterion’s extras include an alternate version of the film, three separate musical scores, audio commentary, interviews, and a video essay.
Sacha Guitry—Four Films 1936-1938
A true bon vivant, French triple-threat Sacha Guitry made witty, talky films with his inimitably—and at times annoyingly—gregarious personality at their center, and this boxed set collects four features he churned out in a space of two years: The New Testament, My Father Was Right, Let’s Make a Dream and Let’s Go Up the Champs Elysses.
Bright and clever, these films go down easily, despite staginess and the occasional overbearing sequence. All four films look lovely in hi-def; extras include scholar Ginette Vincendeau’s intros and commentaries; video essays; sound tests; and a 60-page book.
Activist Sadhvi Siddhali Shree urgently tackles the sadly relevant topic of sex trafficking in her trenchant documentary, which travels the world for its eye-opening glimpse, landing not only in places we aren’t surprised by (i.e., Mexico, Iraq, the Philippines) but also various U.S. locations.
It’s unapologetically blunt in its depiction of sex trafficking’s horrors, and is tough to watch at times: but a necessary polemic. The film looks fine on Blu-ray.
DVD of the Week
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 3rd Season
This latest Laugh-In release brings together episodes from the 1969-70 season of the classic comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, perfect ringmasters for a crazed stew of corny jokes, goofy skits, musical interludes and political satire, starring a motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Lily Tomlin, Jo Ann Worley) and guest stars (Johnny Carson, Ringo Starr, The Monkees, Diana Ross, Zsa Zsa Gabor).
Along with the 26 full episodes, bonus features comprise a Lily Tomlin interview and a tribute to the series’ creator George Shlatter.
Good for Otto
Written by David Rabe; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through April 15, 2018
Ed Harris and Rileigh McDonald in Good for Otto (photo: Monique Carboni)
Now 78, playwright David Rabe can’t be accused of coasting on his considerable laurels: his plays Sticks and Bones and Streamers are seared into theatergoers’ consciousness as some of the most invigorating and thoughtful excursions into the damaged American psyche thanks to Vietnam. His latest, Good for Otto, is among his most ambitious. Nearly three hours long, it explores the troubled psyches of people at the Northwood Mental Health Center in the Berkshires: two psychologists and their patients, all weighed down by the horrors of ordinary life.
The therapists, Dr. Robert Michaels (played by Ed Harris with his customary combination of intensity and folksiness) and Evangeline (another intelligent Amy Madigan portrayal), are as flawed as their charges, especially Robert, a veteran doctor haunted by the specter of his dead mother, who committed suicide when Robert was nine. Evangeline’s own difficulties are brought up late in the play, when she appears at Robert’s doorstep drunk and ready to confess her shortcomings.
The troubled individuals these two deal with include Jane, whose grown son Jimmy inexplicably blew his brains out with a shotgun, the cause of her frequent headaches; Barnard, a retiree who can’t see the point in getting out of bed; Jerome, a hoarder unable to move out of his mother’s basement; Alex, who’s slowly taking the painful steps of coming out of the closet; Timothy, who can’t handle others in social situations; and Frannie, a teenager whose life is such a shambles that she’s cutting herself while being raised by Nora, a well-meaning but ineffectual foster mom.
Rabe generously gives these people ample chance to tell their stories—he even allows Jimmy to explain why he killed himself in a painful monologue—but this very generosity is also his long and unwieldy play’s undoing. Very simply, some people deserve to be heard, while others make less compelling cases for themselves. Rabe realizes that Jerome isn’t very interesting, so he’s quickly shunted aside to the piano. (Occasional song interludes by the cast—mainly accompanied by actor Kenny Mellman, who plays Jerome—punctuate these confessionals in a strained attempt to break up the repetitiveness.) Likewise, much stage time is given over to Barnard’s constant harping about how Evangeline is increasingly annoying him by ending their sessions with a curt “to be continued.” However charmingly F. Murray Abraham plays him, Barnard gets whiny quickly.
Frannie, on the other hand, deserves her considerable time onstage, thanks to how incisively and emotionally complex young Rileigh McDonald plays her, aided by Rhea Perlman’s sympathetically bemused Nora. And there’s intriguing drama whenever Robert’s ghostly mother appears, not least because of the ingratiating Charlotte Hope. But chunks of Good for Otto are deadly: Exhibit A is Timothy (a finely flustered Mark Linn-Baker), proud owner of a hamster named Otto, who needs a delicate operation. This meandering subplot seems to exist only to give the play its offbeat title.
Scott Elliott’s typically shrewd directing isn’t able to overcome how episodic Rabe has made Otto, diluting its dramatic impact. Although it focuses on the messiness of its characters’ lives (and includes unsubtle shots at our convoluted and weak health care system), Otto might be the tidiest play Rabe has yet written, and consequently one of his weakest.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
The Handmaid’s Tale—Complete 1st Season
The Drowning Pool
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