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Blu-rays of the Week
This big-budget Russian armageddon flick by Fyodor Bondarchuk—son of renowned director Sergei Bondarchuk (who made the classic 7-hour War and Peace in 1966—is a supremely silly adventure, but it has a pretty good subject (are the arriving aliens malevolent or benevolent?) and a terrific young actress, Irina Starshenbaum, as a credible everywoman who falls in love with one of them.
Lots of CGI effects battle for supremacy with less interesting sequences involving blocs of survivors and their competing allegiances, but Bondarchuk keeps things moving briskly for 135 minutes. The hi-def image is spectacular; extras are several featurettes.
Boston Red Sox—2018 World Series Collector’s Edition
After the Boston Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, then ran like a buzz saw through the Yankees and Astros—the latter looking to repeat as champs—in the AL playoffs, lots of skeptics thought they’d be beaten by the Dodgers in the World Series. But aside from that instant-classic 18-inning game which the Dodgers pulled out, the Sox had no problem winning it all for the fourth time since 2004.
This comprehensive eight-disc set contains all five WS games, the Division Series-winning game vs. New York and the ALCS-winning game against Houston. Hi-def video looks superb, and audio includes options for TV announcers, home and away radio and Spanish-language. The one-disc Blu-ray includes the official 2018 World Series film, and extras comprising regular and post-season highlights and footage from the Boston victory parade.
Nelly Arcan was an elegant Quebec escort who wrote four revealing books, including one published after she committed suicide in 2009.
In Anne Émond’s film that dramatizes with some grittiness and eroticism Nelly’s perpetually high-flying life in and out of many beds, Mylene MacKay gives a phenomenally authentic and ultimately touching performance of a self-destructive woman whose demise is unsurprising but harrowing nonetheless. The film has a top-notch hi-def transfer.
In this latest addition to The Conjuring franchise, an evil spirit scares the bejesus out of a novitiate and a priest who are investigating the surprising suicide of another young nun in a rural church in Romania. The laziness involved—standard-issue bumps in the night and feeble, well-worn scare tactics—is too bad considering there’s a decent cast (Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga) and a wonderfully photogenic setting for the conceit to work.
But director Corin Hardy just shrugs and does the minimum amount possible. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.
Westworld—Complete 2nd Season
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)
Skillfully directed and acted, what Westworld lacks is a reason for going on and on as long as it does. What began as a diverting 1973 sci-fi flick (and an equally entertaining 1976 sequel) has been transmogrified into a convoluted and ultimately confused attempt at Significance.
While it’s always great seeing the likes of Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood in the prime of their careers—with a bonus nod to Sela Ward, who steals episode 9—the combination of self-satisfied writing, a portentous and overdone musical score and the feeling that the creators don’t really know where they’re heading combine for a self-defeating, enervating experience. The series looks tremendous in hi-def; extras are featurettes and interviews.
CDs of the Week
Leonard Bernstein—Fancy Free, Anniversaries for Orchestra; CBS Music, A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet
These two new discs were released on the tail end of the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, as the musical polymath has been feted around the world. Both CDs are conducted by Marin Alsop, a protégée of the conductor-composer-teacher-writer-raconteur, and feature world premiere recordings of some of his more obscure works. The first disc, along with the frothy overtures to Candide and Wonderful Town, includes the brilliant ballet Fancy Free and the first recording of the orchestrated versions of his pungent piano pieces, Anniversaries.
The second disc, alongside bits from West Side Story and On the Town, features a suite from his failed Broadway musical about the presidency, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the rarely-heard CBS Music and the delightful Bernstein Birthday Bouquet, where eight composers wrote tongue-in-cheek tributes for Lenny’s 70th birthday in 1988.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Written by Bertolt Brecht; translated by George Tabori; directed by John Doyle
Performances through December 22, 2018
Raul Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (photo: Joan Marcus)
Bertolt Brecht wrote his mordant anti-Nazi satire, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in 1941 while living in Finland, waiting for his visa so he could enter the United States. Perhaps looking forward to leaving, Brecht set his play in Chicago, and its lead gangster (who’s from New York) takes over the lucrative “cauliflower trust” and rises to the top of the windy city’s underworld.
For his own tRump-era take, director John Doyle uses George Tabori’s serviceable translation and adds unnecessary parallels to both Hitler and tRump: a spoken timeline of what was happening in Germany on the road to dictatorship has been inserted, and we periodically hear “Sieg heils” intoned, just in case the dimmest member of the audience doesn’t get the connection. Doyle’s most effective touch is turning those creepy shouts into a final, tRumpian “lock her up.”
Doyle also doesn’t have his Arturo Ui—played by the vibrant and charismatic Raúl Esparza—look like tRump in any way, except for a nice bit during Ui’s climactic rise-to-ultimate-power speech when he wears a red tie. The dazzling Esparza turns on the charm and the exaggerated Brooklyn accent as he badgers, cajoles and convinces his followers and enemies how much his “protection” will improve their lives.
Doyle has staged Ui as an ensemble piece, letting all cast members share in narrating the Hitler timeline, although his double- and triple-casting a few of the roles might confuse those in the audience unfamiliar with Brecht’s play. But Esparza guides us thrillingly through a blackly funny tale made all the darker by, in Brecht’s final warning, the fact that it could be happening again. And no amount of gallows humor will save us.
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon
Written by Scott Aiello; directed by Claire Karpen
Performances through December 2, 2018
Scott Aiello’s well-intentioned but mawkish Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is set in the 1990s, something only gleaned from incidentals like someone wearing a Guns’n’Roses T-shirt. With his dialogue—aside from many F-words—setting and characters harking back to ‘50s sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymooners, Aiello strings ginned-up crises together, with very little of it explored in any depth.
The working-class Vincolo family lives in a suburban Chicago neighborhood. Mike Sr. is a bar owner, wife Gladys a stay-at-home mom, and Mikey the mid-20ish son working in the local fast-food dive while pining for his lovely co-worker Laura, whose boyfriend inconveniently also works there. Then there’s Bernie, Mikey’s early-20ish sister whose near-fatal case of encephalitis as a toddler left her with brain damage, and the fallout is something everyone must deal with.
Aiello shows a close family chained to the beloved but difficult Bertie, making their lives progressively more challenging. But he never does much with that interesting dilemma aside from desperate attempts at comedy—Dad’s partner at the bar, Ski, is leaden comic relief, as is the running gag of phone calls from Jeff Goldblum (that’s really the name Aiello chose), an autistic young man who has a crush on Bernie—and near-tragedy, when Bernie disappears from K-Mart.
It’s all too neatly, and melodramatically, resolved at the end, and while the old-fashioned writing might steer clear of true bathos, it prevents the play from digging too deeply into these lives.
Like the script, Claire Karpen’s straightforward staging relies too heavily on Elvis songs—Bernie loves the singer—which also hampers Forrest Malloy’s otherwise likeable Mikey, who has to do a bad Elvis impression that’s reprised in an overlong diversion when he “speaks” to Bernie through his rolls of stomach flab. Malloy does have a nice rapport with both Ismenia Mendes—who does far more with the underwritten Laura than anyone would have thought possible—and Stephanie Gould (who herself has cerebral palsy), whose Bernie plausibly alternates between stubbornness and docility.
Too bad Margo Singaliese (Mom), Jordan Lage (Dad) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Ski) are hampered by the caricatures they’re playing. At least Aiello’s heart is in the right place.
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
Director: Sean Anders
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Tig Notaro, Octavia Spencer
Okay, so it’s heart-warming and brings us to tears. And yes, director Sean Anders’ “Instant Family” has three insufferably cute kids, a fluffy dog and enough irate friends and neighbors to make this the right seasonal comedy. As it turns out, it should be. Mark Wahlberg’s latest star vehicle is much more than a dopey gross-out comedy or balls-out action thriller (with guns blazing and big biceps bulging…) and thank goodness for it.
This isn’t a simple, joyful holiday laugh fest or celebration — it grapples with a deadly serious, life-challenging issue — kids in foster care, those orphaned children who are treated like real Garbage Pail Kids. Sadly, many more children are being orphaned globally through war, family disruption and environmental catastrophes. Although the United States has a fairly robust system for coping with these lost children, it’s far from perfect and is riddled with flaws state by state. “Instant Family” addresses this without being preachy or somber but through humor, an honesty, and candor, it truly can raise society’s awareness of this matter.
Based in part on Anders' own experiences adopting three children with wife Brenda, this movie marks his third collaboration with Wahlberg, following “Daddy's Home” and its 2017 sequel. It’s also the second film the actor made with Isabela Moner after “Transformers: The Last Knight.”
In this tale, a drug-addicted mother (currently in jail having set their home on fire because she left out a lit crack pipe) lurks in the background. Meanwhile her 15-year-old daughter Lizzy (Moner) and two younger siblings — Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz) — struggle to cope in foster care.
Enter Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner who decide to fill the void in their lives by having children. For unclear reasons, they turn to adoption (rather than natural birth) and visit a foster care center where two social workers, Karen and Sharon (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer) guide the prospective parents into becoming adoptive ones. Of course, the couple falls for the younger kids but realizes they should take the less desirable teen into their home as well.
From there, the laughs and tears ensue, as this incredibly naive couple cope with a very difficult process made even more complicated by tripling the situation. Every possible trauma comes to the fore from eating issues to a pervy adult preying on their new teen daughter. These challenges include sessions with other adoptive parents, school acclimation, grandparent rivalries and everything else one can imagine that conventional parents deal with — all compressed into a six-month trial period before qualifying to be adoptive parents.
“Instant Family” is comedy first and issue-driven drama second, but it effectively strikes such a balance that it rises to significance of the issues it addresses. It creates a significant awareness of such concerns as PTSD, feelings of abandonment and identity challenges.
Though the movie ends up being a feel-good experience, we should all feel bad that the problem of parentless children persists and that some of us prefer to remain unaware of it. As the film expands its circulation, hopefully its audiences will confront the issues it raises -- reaching out to support such organizations as Hopeland (http://ourhopeland.org) and Adoption-Share (http://adoption-share.com) for more information.
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