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Reviews

February '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Bells Are Ringing
Wait Until Dark
(Warner Archive)
Vincente Minnelli’s colorful 1960 musical Bells Are Ringing isn’t among his best confections, but there’s enough of Jules Styne’s lovely score and Judy Holliday’s charm to get by—along with a beguiling mix of old-fashioned romance and New York toughness.
Wait Under Dark, Terence Young’s 1967 hit Broadway thriller adaptation, gains traction from Audrey Hepburn’s sympathetic turn as the blind heroine, who outsmarts the bad guys led by a malevolent Alan Arkin in three roles. The movie often verges on self-parody, but Hepburn makes it work. Both films have superlative hi-def color transfers: Bells extras are additional musical numbers and a vintage making-of; lone Dark extra is a vintage making-of.
 
Come What May
(Cohen Media)
This arresting drama about a cross-section of Europeans dealing with the Nazi takeover of France in 1940 has been directed with skill and a fine sense of realism by Christian Carion, who based his story on his own parents’ travails during the war.
An excellent cast inhabits its roles with great authenticity, providing an emotional core to a war film imbued with light amidst the darkness: Ennio Morricone’s lush, old-fashioned score (with an assist from Schubert) and Pierre Cottereau’s pungent photography are standouts. The Blu-ray transfer is exceptional; extras include a Carion commentary and interview, on-set featurette and Morricone music featurette.
 
Def Leppard—and there will be a next time…Live from Detroit 
Mumford & Sons—Live from South Africa: Dust and Thunder
(Eagle Rock)
Def Leppard, circa 2016, is still an arena headliner, as its Live from Detroit concert release shows: with veteran guitarist Vivian Campbell supplementing the original members (including frontman Joe Elliott’s still soaring vocals), ‘80s hits like “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages,” “Hysteria” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” remain potent and some new tunes blend in well, but the best moment comes during an unexpected cover of David Essex’s “Rock On.”
Now one of the biggest live acts on the globe, Mumford & Sons hit South Africa for Dust and Thunder, a buoyant performance in front of thousands of sated fans, as they run through their folk-pop repertoire that includes many favorites and a few new songs, with the audience happily singing along throughout. Both discs have first-rate hi-def video and surround-sound audio.
 
Loving
(Universal)
The case of Loving v. Virginia—in which an interracial couple got legal married status in the racist state of Virginia by the Supreme Court in 1967—is humanized in Jeff Nichols’ beautifully understated drama, which omits melodramatics and sentimentality for a straightforwardly insightful look at an ordinary couple’s decision to love no matter the consequences.
In the title roles, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give master classes in underplaying, in restraint, subtlety and graceful humanity: although Negga got an Oscar nomination, it’s no surprise that the Academy in its usual benightedness saw fit to otherwise ignore Edgerton, Nichols, and one of the best films of 2016. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; extras are a Nichols commentary and short featurettes.
 
Vice Principals—Complete 1st Season 
(HBO)
Watching two vice-principals wage a campus battle royale when their boss decides to step down to care for his sick wife might seem the stuff of an unfunny Saturday Night Live skit, but it’s actually the premise of a mainly (and disastrously) laughless new series, in which co-creator Danny McBride and Walton Goggins try—and fail—to breathe comic life into a stillborn subject.
Even Bill Murray as the principal looks bored and bemused, while the nasty joking flies fast and furiously—but always desperately. The hi-def transfer looks good enough; extras comprise audio commentaries, deleted scenes and blooper reel.
 
Victoria—Complete 1st Season
(PBS Masterpiece)
Another British-made glimpse at its own royalty, dressed up in sumptuous costumes and unerringly recreated sets, this eight-episode mini-series chronicles Queen Victoria’s first years on the throne, which she ascended as a virginal 18-year-old.
Jenna Coleman’s magnificent performance combines royal shrewdness and youthful charm into a portrait of a queen as compelling as Helen Mirren’s vastly different Elizabeth. The impeccable supporting cast is led by Rufus Sewell as one of Victoria’s closest advisors; the series itself looks set for a long run. The fine hi-def transfer combines sharpness and clarity; extras include interviews and featurettes.
 
DVD of the Week 
Mountain
(First Run)

Zvia, a young Orthodox Jewish wife, discovers what’s beyond her own isolated married existence one night in a cemetery in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, where she witnesses a prostitute servicing a john; her curiosity leads her to make new—and quite unlikely—relationships.

Writer-director Yaelle Kayam’s impressive degree of insight and control ensure that her story never comes close to descending into exploitiveness: helping greatly is a strong, subtle performance by Israeli actress Shani Klein as Zvia. 

Off-Broadway Review—David Ives's “The Liar"

The Liar
Adapted by David Ives, based on Corneille’s Le Menteur
Directed by Michael Kahn
Performances through February 26, 2017
 
Ismenia Mendes and Amelia Pedlow in The Liar (photo: Richard Termine)
I cannot tell a lie: David Ives is the funniest playwright in America right now, as The Liar—his, as he calls it, “translaptation” of a 17th century comedy by Frenchman Pierre Corneille—demonstrates again and again for two madcap, and side-splitting, hours.
 
Ives tinkered with Corneille’s play about a man who cannot tell the truth, and the lies he spins become ever more elaborate until even he can’t tell what he has and hasn’t said. Eager knight Dorante (an amusing Christian Conn) appears in Paris one day and immediately hires Cliton (peerlessly funny Carson Elrod, a longtime Ives collaborator) as his servant—Cliton is the exact opposite of his new master in that he always tells the truth. 
 
 
 
Right after they agree to terms, two lovely ladies enter: both Clarice (adorable Ismenia Mendes) and Lucrece (headstrong Amelia Pedlow) turn Dorante’s head, even though he speaks only to Clarice, while Cliton talks with Lucrece’s flirty maid Isabelle…or is it her straight-laced twin sister—and Clarice’s maid—Sabine (both played with sass by Kelly Hutchinson)?
 
As usual with such silliness, Dorante’s lies pile up, Cliton’s truth-telling gets him slapped in the face (he mistakes Sabine for Isabelle on more than occasion), Dorante’s father Geronte (a doggedly goofy Adam Lefevre) plays matchmaker for his son and Lucrece, and Dorante’s swashbuckling friend Alcippe, betrothed to Clarice, challenges him to a duel. By the end of the play—no surprise—all is sorted out and three impending marriages are celebrated.
 
Ives’ always euphoric wordplay reaches even greater heights with its frothy rhymes and spirited iambic pentameter, all bouncing trippingly off the tongues of a smashing cast that’s been directed by Michael Kahn for maximum comic effect. It’s all frivolous, to be sure, but even in its innocuousness there’s more than a grain of truth to its implication that, for those in a position of power, lying is de rigeur. As Dorante himself admits to the audience:
 
Maybe Corneille will write me up a play.
Or maybe, with my gifts and disposition,
I’ll emigrate and be a politician.
But think, before you hit the subway booth,
How this was all a lie—and yet the truth.
Impossible? Don’t hurt your spinning head.
Just hie thee happily home and lie—in bed!
 
The Liar
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
classicstage.org

Philip Glass Tribute & African Legends at Carnegie Hall

Dennis Russell Davies, Philip Glass, and Angelique Kidjo

On the evening of Tuesday, January 31st, at Carnegie Hall, the superb musicians of the Bruckner Orchester Linz gave a wonderful concert of new works by Philip Glass in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Glass, who was in the audience, is one of the finest living composers and the ensemble was beautifully led by one of his greatest champions, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies.

The program opened with what seemed to be its strongest work, the New York premiere of the gorgeous Days and Nights in Rocinha, a hypnotic, Brazilian-inflected theme and variations written in homage to a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.

The enormously appealing African world music star, Angélique Kidjo, then took the stage to perform the New York premiere of the enjoyable Ifè: Three Yorùbá Songs which was written expressly for her. The poems which are the basis of the piece record legends of Ifè, which Kidjo described as "the place where the Yorùbá people think the world was created." Despite many signature elements of the composer, this work had an unusual, unexpected sound. Kidjo received an enthusiastically warm ovation. 

The concert concluded with the world premiere of the pleasurable Symphony No. 11, composed last year and featuring a distinctive emphasis on percussion in the final of the three movements. Glass, Davies and the musicians received passionate applause, with the composer modestly bowing onstage. The program was a fitting tribute to a national treasure.

January '17 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 
Ballers—Complete 2nd Season
(HBO)
This comedy series about a former NFL player turned financial manager hit its stride in its second season, helped not only by more plausible (and funny) storylines but also the strides Dwayne Johnson has made in his acting, especially his comic chops.
There are also plentiful inside jokes about the pro football world and the always hilarious presence of the amazing Rob Corddry as Johnson’s desperate-to-be-hip partner. The ten episodes look fine on Blu; extras are featurettes on each episode.
 
Black Girl
(Criterion)
Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène made his first feature in 1966, an immensely sympathetic portrait of a young Senegalese woman working for a heartless couple in France.
At a scant 59 minutes, Black Girl is a model of compression and illumination; Criterion’s gleaming hi-def transfer is complemented by several contextualizing extras, including a full-length 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema; Sembène’s 1963 debut short, Borom Sarret; scholar/actor interviews; a French TV segment about Sembène’s Cannes Festival win; and a deleted color sequence.
 
Black Society Trilogy 
(Arrow)
He made his international name with the chilling 1999 vision of horror called Audition, but prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (90-plus films—and counting, at age 56) made earlier works displaying his wide-ranging talent, as this set comprising three of those features—Shinjuku Triad Society(1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999)—demonstrates.
The films are creepy and absorbing, with Miike’s stylish visuals leading the way. Arrow’s hi-def transfers are impressive; extras include new interviews with Miike and actor Show Aikawa and audio commentaries on all three films.
 
The Lair of the White Worm
(Lionsgate)
In Ken Russell’s deliriously silly 1988 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel about an immortal priestess looking for a sacrifice for a snake god (!), Amanda Donahoe gives a giddily campy but erotic portrayal of a woman irresistible to everyone—to their ultimate (and usually fatal) detriment.
In her wake, solid actors like Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi end up as mere extras, while Russell’s visual bluster ends up looking diffuse, even if he rouses himself for a bravura—and willfully nonsensical—ending. The film has nicely filmic grain on Blu-ray; extras include a Russell commentary, his wife Lisi’s commentary, interviews with actress Sammi Davis and editor Peter Davies, and a featurette.
 
Parents 
(Lionsgate)
Is ten-year-old Michael really eating human remains which his mom and dad prepare for dinner, or is his hyperactive imagination simply in overdrive? This intriguing satirical concept became a heavy-handed 1989 black comedy by director Bob Balaban, who never balances the horror and humor.
The result is rather pointless and witless, which is too bad, for Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt (parents) and young Bryan Madorsky (Michael) are certainly game. The hi-def transfer is satisfying; extras include interviews with Hurt and cinematographer Robin Vidgeon, Balaban commentary and audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias.
 
Pinocchio
(Disney Signature Collection)
One of Disney’s most beloved animated features—and its second, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—is this 1940 adaptation of an Italian children’s book about a wooden puppet who comes to life, his master Geppetto and his “conscience” Jiminy Cricket: its appearance on Blu-ray (in a good, not spectacular, hi-def transfer) should be a cause for celebration by audiences of all ages.
The movie remains an all-time classic, and Disney has not only ported over extras from earlier DVD editions but has also included brand-new bonus material, including featurettes.
 
DVDs of the Week 
The Battle of Chosin
(PBS)
In what may be the most engrossing episode yet in the celebrated American Experience series, one of the earliest major battles of the often-forgotten Korean War is explored in often harrowing detail.
Newsreels and archival footage, along with interviews with some of the battle’s participants, provide a gripping take on a pivotal time in America’s post-WWII battle against Communist aggression.
 
Danny Says
(Magnolia)
One of the most original characters to emerge from the rock’n’roll scene, Danny Fields—journalist, publicist, record executive—is the focus of Brendan Toller’s funny and irreverent documentary, which explores Fields’s proximity to seminal events in rock history, from John Lennon’s incendiary “Jesus Christ” quote to the discovery of the Ramones.
Fields himself is an often hilarious, always politically incorrect interview subject—even if he outlandishly claims the Beatles weren’t any good—and the archival footage of the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and Patti Smith is priceless. Extras include a Fields post-screening Q&A, additional footage and Toller interview.
 
CD of the Week 
Renee Fleming—Distant Light
(Decca)

Still opera’s reigning soprano, Renee Fleming has always stretched her artistic and vocal wings through excursions into jazz, big-band, rock and pop, which she continues to do on this CD by combining a classic Samuel Barber work with music by contemporary Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and Icelandic diva Bjork.

The results are decidedly mixed: Fleming’s lustrous voice illuminates the gorgeous textures and yearning for the past of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and conductor Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra come to the forefront with the brittle sounds of Hillborg’s haunting The Strand Settings. However, neither Fleming’s impassioned vocals nor solid orchestral playing can rescue the three stillborn Bjork song arrangements.

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