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Reviews

May '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Get Out

(Universal)
After nearly $200 million and near-universal critical praise, Jordan Peele’s writing-directing debut can’t hope to live up to such excessive audience and reviewer hype, and it doesn’t—it’s an effective little horror comedy that tries far too hard to hit both its jokey and scary beats, all at the service of a heavy-handed metaphor for current race relations. Such a combo is a tall order for any filmmaker, and Peele, for all his talent, tips his hand far too early and ends up grasping for bizarre and unique moments and settles for well-worn horror-movie tropes, from skittering, atonal music a la The Shining to “normal” suburban dwellers a la The Stepford Wives. The film has a crisp, vibrant look on Blu-ray; extras include Peele’s commentary, Q&A with Peele and cast, making-of featurette, and deleted scenes and alternate ending with Peele commentary.
 
The Climber
Cops vs. Thugs
Wolf Guy
(Arrow)
Say this for Arrow Video: they keep seeking out and finding obscure and, in many cases, forgotten genre films, usually crime dramas or thrillers from Europe or the East. Sometimes, they hit a bulls-eye; others are a near-miss; and still others are whiffed on completely. These new releases—all made, coincidentally, in 1975—are a mix of near- and total miss. The Climber is a no-nonsense piece of Italian gangster cinema with hyped-up action but little resonance, Cops vs. Thugs is a superficially stylish yakuza picture from Japan, and Wolf Guy is a brutal but bloodless Japanese actioner. All three films have excellent hi-def transfers, as always with Arrow; extras include interviews with directors, stars and producers, and video essays.
 
Dheepan 

(Criterion)

French director Jacques Audiard makes audacious films that skirt the line between gritty reality and over-the-top melodrama, like his best-known features A Prophet and Rust and Bone; his latest follows a family fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka that finds the Parisian projects they’ve moved into resembles their homeland in more ways than one. Audiard’s sympathetic eye and ear are coupled with authentic unprofessional actors who are often mesmerizing, but Dheepan is too on the nose in its depiction of wartime struggles breaking out in a new, supposedly more civilized, home. The Criterion Blu-ray has a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras include a commentary by Audiard and cowriter Noe Debre, deleted scenes with their commentary, new Audiard interview and interview with lead actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan.
 
The Jacques Rivette Collection
(Arrow Academy)
I’ve never been simpatico with the jerky rhythms and crudely improvisatory feel of Jacques Rivette’s films (even if his stature has grown over the years), and this collection of three of his features—1976’s Duelle, 1976’s Noirot and 1978’s Merry-Go-Round—does nothing to upwardly reappraise him: if anything, these scattershot, diffuse, often dreary and seemingly endless pictures drop him down a few more pegs. Aside from La Belle Noiseuse and the two-part Joan of Arc—which, to be sure, were brightened considerably by the presence of magnificent performers like Emmanuelle Beart, Michel Piccoli and Sandine Bonnaire—I’ve found little of substance or interest in nearly every other Rivette film. At least there’s Arrow’s now-expected outstanding presentation— gorgeously-designed boxed set with splendid new hi-def transfers, informative bound book, new interviews with Duelle actresses Hermine Karagheuz and Bulle Ogier, appreciation by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and 50-minute archival Rivette interview.
 
XX 

(Magnet)

Omnibus films are almost always hit-or-miss, and this four-parter of creepy tales by a quartet of female directors (a notable feat in itself) is no exception. Best are Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box, an intense bit of family fright, and Roxanne Benjamin’s straight-out horrific Don’t Fall. Annie Clarke’s debut The Birthday Party and Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son have great payoffs following middling set-ups. Overall an enjoyably unsettling set (connected by Sofia Carrillo’s stop-motion animation), and there’s one great performance: Natalie Brown as the mom in The Box. The hi-def transfer is superior; extras are director interviews and on-set featurettes.
 
DVD of the Week
Birth of a Movement
(PBS)
The outright racism of D.W. Griffin’s 1915 film classic The Birth of a Nation stung right from the start, as this insightful PBS documentary makes clear, along with the still difficult balancing act for many scholars of defending Griffith’s numerous cinematic innovations while dealing with his explicitly anti-black, pro-KKK stance. Talking heads like Spike Lee, Henry Louis Gates and Reginald Hudlin discuss the film’s impact on them both personally and professionally, and many clips from the film itself demonstrate both Griffith’s genius and bigotry.
 

Theater Review—Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” with Dianne Wiest

Happy Days
Written by Samuel Beckett; directed by James Bundy
Performances through May 28, 2017
 
Dianne Wiest in Samuel Beckett's Happy  Days (photo: Gerry Goodstein)
It’s her voice that does it. Despite the deep, throaty intonations of her signature line, “Don’t speak!”, hilariously repeated throughout Woody Allen’s 1994 classic Bullets Over Broadway, Dianne Wiest is known for her fragile, even squeaky voice that flutters and fibrillates. But as Winnie—the defiantly unflappable heroine of Samuel Beckett’s shattering comedy about mortality, Happy Days—Wiest gathers reservoirs of strength almost entirely through that unique instrument: that’s because Winnie, initially buried up to her waist in a mound of sand, finds herself trapped up to her neck at the end.
 
With easy mastery, Wiest displays Winnie’s unbridled brightness throughout her two-hour near-monologue—occasionally interrupted by appearances by Winnie’s husband Willie—punctuating her dialogue with the hopeful exclamation “happy days.” Wiest’s Winnie is sympathetic without being pathetic, and optimistic without being naïve, her precise and subtle gestures punctuating the hilarious (and often devastating) prattle that Beckett wrote to demonstrate her last, desperate attempt to stave off inevitable extinction.
 
James Bundy perceptively directs on Izmir Ickbal’s impressive set of an arid landscape, adhering closer to Beckett’s stringent stage directions than did Deborah Warner’s 2008 staging at BAM with Fiona Shaw. Jarlath Conroy’s amusing Willie complements Wiest, who finds the poignancy and sadness in Winnie’s final song, leaving a collective lump in the throat of the entire audience.
 
Happy Days
Theatre for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
tfana.org

Windmills & Wonder at the Metropolitan Opera

Gillian Murphy in Don Quixote. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

The new season of the estimable American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center opened splendidly on the evening of Monday, May 15th, with a delightful performance of the popular and winning Marius Petipa & Alexander Gorsky. Don Quixote, set to a charming score by Ludwig Minkus, and seen here in the serviceable staging by Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones. In addition to the classic (and classical) story-ballets that comprise the backbone of the company's glittering repertory, the new season promises several novel and less conventional gems including the New York premiere of Whipped Cream by Alexei Ratmansky—the most dazzling of contemporary choreographers—a setting of an underappreciated Richard Strauss score from the 1920s, along with a revival of the his fabulous, recent The Golden Cockerel, and a celebration of works with music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In recent years, the most memorable pairing in Don Quixote has been Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, but one of the strongest Ballet Theater principals, Gillian Murphy, proved to be an incandescent, if worldlier, Kitri. Her partner, Cody Stearns, has seemed more and more effective in the past few seasons, and was here seen at his near best as Basilio.

In the secondary cast, Craig Salstein, so hilarious as one of the wicked stepsisters in the glorious Frederick Ashton Cinderella, was an equally deft comedian as Gamache. The radiant Hee Seo astonished as Mercedes (and as the Queen of the Dryads) and was beautifully complemented by her partner, the commanding James Whiteside as Espada. Also superb were Devon Teuscher and Cassandra Trenary as the Flower Girls and Luciana Stone and Gabe Stone Shayer as the Gypsy Couple. The luminous Sarah Lane was an exquisite Amour while the terrific corps de ballet was consistently wonderful.

May '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Accidental Tourist

(Warner Archive)
One of Anne Tyler’s most satisfying novels—about an emotionally distant travel writer reeling from his young son’s death and grieving wife’s leaving him who finds redemption and love—became director Lawrence Kasdan’s best film in 1988. This melancholy romantic comedy with few false Hollywood moments is also a showcase for extraordinary performances by William Hurt (husband), Kathleen Turner (wife) and especially Oscar-winning Geena Davis as the new woman. The movie’s subdued colors look impressive on Blu; extras are Kasdan’s intro, deleted scenes, vintage making-of featurette and Davis’s commentary.
 
Africa’s Great Civilizations
(PBS)
For his latest entertaining history lesson, Henry Louis Gates travels to the great continent to explore nearly a quarter of a millennium’s worth of civilizations that thrived, traded and battled with and often defeated their adversaries from Europe and Asia. Throughout these six hour-long episodes, Gates speaks engagingly with experts who provide edifying discussion and also goes to the actual locations—from Zimbabwe and Ethiopia to Zanzibar and Timbuktu—which look ravishing in their uniqueness and importance on Blu-ray.
 
Good Morning 

(Criterion)

A humanist filmmaker blessed with uncommon grace and rigor in equal measure, Yasujiro Ozu was the rare artist who could elevate the quotidian into the sublime, as in this gentle but hilarious 1959 comedy about two young boys who refuse to speak until their parents get them a television set. Ozu’s films contain enough wit and insight, laughter and tears to be worth any discerning viewer’s time; that Criterion has included Ozu’s amusing silent comedy,1932’s I Was Born, But… (Good Morning’s forerunner), with Donald Sosin’s 2008 musical score, is a delightful bonus. There’s a first-rate new hi-def transfer; other extras are a fragment of Ozu’s 1929 silent A Straightforward Boy, interview with David Bordwell and video essay by David Cairns.
 
The Loved One
(Warner Archive)
Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s sly novel might have been racy and daring in 1965, but half a century has dulled its edge and muted its satiric depiction of Southern California as a land of shallow slickness compared to the more cultured Old World. The movie is best seen as a time capsule that features cameos by stars of the day from Jonathan Winters and John Gielgud to Liberace and Milton Berle. Haskell Wexler’s exquisite B&W widescreen compositions look even more luminous in hi-def; the only extra is a featurette.
 
Seven Days in May 

(Warner Archive)

In John Frankenheimer’s tense 1964 Cold War thriller about a U.S. president whose disarmament overtures towards Russia triggers an attempted military coup by a cabal of right-wing generals, an array of stars makes this a deliciously paranoid drama in the manner of Frankenheimer’s own The Manchurian Candidate. Frederic March (president), Burt Lancaster (bad guy), Kirk Douglas (good guy), and Ava Gardner (love interest) are all in top form; the hi-def transfer brings the striking B&W visuals to the fore, and there’s a Frankenheimer commentary.
 
DVDs of the Week
Between Us
(IFC)
Writer-director Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s dreary and pretentious drama of a longtime, just-married couple whose wedding-day argument turns into a chance for both to cheat comes to life only when that amazing and underrated actress Olivia Thirlby gets a chance to shine. Too bad Thirlby is stuck in the contradictory part of an intelligent, confident woman who ends up screwing a performance artist she just met to get a measure of revenge against her husband, who ends up not what she does. The banal ending—which fails to be happy and deep simultaneously—perfectly summarizes the director’s pretentiousness, at the expense of his actors.
 
The Great War 

(PBS)

PBS’s excellent American Experience series tackles the complexities of the First World War in a three-part, six-hour documentary which illustrates how it was the first modern war, one which brought America global prestige and power but also increasing political difficulties back home. The must-see program brings together precisely chosen newsreel footage, images, speeches, songs, etc. (along with Oliver Platt’s narration) to give a robust flavor of an era of true devastation and destruction—and a slight hopefulness that there would be no Second World War in the future.

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