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November '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Meg 

(Warner Bros)

The ludicrousness of this gargantuan shark movie—it’s Jaws on steroids—is beside the point when all anybody wants is to see, in CGI, how the ocean behemoth makes mincemeat of lots of awful—and some not so awful—characters.




This is the kind of movie that wears its influences not on its sleeve but right in front of the camera, so director Jon Turteltaub must have shrugged and said the hell with it: The Meg goes full speed ahead into campy monster movie craziness. It’s definitely not good, but it’s entertaining in its own ridiculous way. There’s a sterling hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes and interviews.


American Dresser 


Tom Berenger is persuasively wounded as a widowed (and alcoholic) Vietnam vet who goes cross-country on his bike with a compatriot (Keith David) to find himself after his beloved wife (Gina Gershon) dies of cancer in this one-note character study written and directed by Carmine Cangialosi, who plays a handsome ladies’ magnet who joins the pair.




Although Berenger and David have terrific camaraderie, their director is content to wallow in clichés and superficial characters—Gershon, Penelope Ann Miller, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Damiano and Elle McLemore have literally nothing to do—which knocks this otherwise watchable buddy movie down a notch. Extras are featurettes.







(Mondo Macabro)

Supposedly based on a true story, this grimly sick little movie, directed by Marijan Vayda, follows a loner bullied at work and mocked by seemingly everyone who discovers he has a taste for the blood of dead females. Soon he is digging up cadavers in their coffins and going about his yucky business.




Obviously, you have to be a fan of a certain kind of demented films to enjoy chose, but those viewers know who they are. It all looks good and grainy in hi-def; extras are interviews with the assistant director and actress Birgit Zamulo.


Gaughin—Voyage to Tahiti

(Cohen Media)

Vincent Cassell throws himself into the role of painter Paul Gaughin, who infamously left France for the South Pacific in 1891 in order to start his art—and—life anew, in Edouard Deluc’s well-made but by-the-numbers biopic.




Shot luminously by Pierre Cottereau, the film gets the physical details of the artist’s new home right, but despite Cassell’s intensity, we never really get inside Gaughin’s head: there’s never a moment where Deluc illuminates his protagonist in a profound way. The film sparkles in hi-def; extras comprise on-set featurettes.






Midaq Alley 

(Film Movement Classics)

Director Jorge Fons made this 1995 adaptation of a novel by Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, relocating it to Mexico City: its interest today is primarily Salma Hayek appearing in one of her earliest roles, because, even at 145 minutes, this multi-character drama is too melodramatic and sentimental.




The stories are presented straightforwardly, even cursorily, as if just watching several people intersecting through and divided by class and wealth is interest-holding enough. It’s not: Hayek is fine and the rest of the cast is equally good, but the total is much less than the sum of its parts. The hi-def transfer looks good; lone extra is a behind-the-scene featurette.


DVD of the Week

The Children Act 


Ian McEwen’s novel about a British judge whose intense focus on cases involving children has pretty much destroyed her own marriage has become a talky, plodding drama by director Richard Eyre, whose streamlined adaptation—the script is by McEwen—strips away much of the book’s nuance.




Although this might straitjacket a lesser actor, Emma Thompson is able to make the judge sympathetic, even admirable, despite her own ethical and moral lapses.

Wings & Windmills with the Hungarian National Ballet

The first-rate Hungarian National Ballet had its proper U.S. debut on the evenings of Wednesday, November 7th, Friday, the 9th, and the afternoon of Sunday, the 11th with dazzling productions of, respectively,Swan Lake and Don Quixote,and the elegant presentation of three works by the Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen, under the title LOL.
Swan Lake,the beloved masterpiece created by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov—and here reimagined by Rudi van Dantzig—with a glorious score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was brilliantly conducted by Balázs Kocsár, with beautiful sets and costumes designed by Toer van Schayk. Tatiana Melnik was a fabulous Odette (and Odile) expertly partnered by Gergely Leblanc as Prince Siegfried—he was memorable in the Pas de trois from Le Corsaireat the gala performancea few days previously. Mikalai Radziush was an effective Rothbart and Dmitry Diachkov a fine Alexander. Also extraordinary were Ellina Pokhodnykh and Diana Kosyreva in the Pas de trois and Kristina Starostina, Nadezhda Sorokina, Yuka Asai, Olga Chernakova, and Lili Felméry amongst the swans. The corps de ballet was superb. The artists received an exceedingly enthusiastic ovation. One hopes that this thrilling production will return and receive wider exposure.
Fluffier but immensely enjoyable, the current production of Don Quixote is a restaging by Michael Messerer based on the classic Marius Petipa original revised by Alexander Gorsky, with additions by Kasyan Goleizovsky. The tuneful score is by the underrated Ludwig Minkus, which, if not of the order of any of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, nonetheless consistently charms. The appealing sets were designed by István Róbzsa and the wonderful costumes are by Nóra Rományi. The cast was even more remarkable than in Swan Lake,led again spectacularly by the astonishing ballerina Melnik as Kitri, comparing not unfavorably with Natalia Osipova’s celebrated performance in the same role. Her partner, Igor Tsvirko was magnificent as Basil. Mesmerizing too were Iurii Kekalo as Espada, Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova as Mercedes, Karina Sarkissova as the street dancer, and Lili Felméry and Rita Hangya as Kitri’s girlfriends. Entertaining in character parts were Attila Szakács in the title role, Maksym Kovtun as Sancho Panza, Alekszandr Komarov as Gamache, and Gábor Szigeti as Lorenzo. The corps de ballet was again superlative. The audience was enormously appreciative.
The first part of LOL was Trois Gnossiennes, set to the gorgeous, eponymous piano pieces by Erik Satie. It had been danced by a different couple at the gala performance the previous week but it was gratifying to have a chance to see Melnik again in this iteration, here ably partnered Igor Tsvirko. Judging from this program, van Manen seems to have minimalist leanings with some affinities with the corpus of George Balanchine. Regrettably, the remaining two works were presented with pre-recorded scores, beginning with the engaging 5 Tangos, set to music by Astor Piazzolla and starring Minjung Kim and Gergő Armín Balázsi. The afternoon concluded with the intermittently more avant-garde but also enjoyable Black Cake, with music by Jules Massenet, Pietro Mascagni, Igor Stravinsky, Leoš Janáček, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and with attractive costumes by Keso Dekker.
I greatly hope that this exceptional company will return to the New York stages before long.

2018 DOC NYC Festival Roundup

DOC NYC Festival

IFC Center/SVA Theater/Cinepolis Cinema, New York, NY

November 8-15, 2018

Now in its ninth year, the documentary festival DOC NYC—which this year comprises 135 features, among many other screenings and events—opened with John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm and closes with the world premiere of Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, about two of the seminal NYC newspaper columnists. 


The Ghost of Peter Sellers

I caught a dozen films that range from contemporary politics to artist profiles, including The Ghost of Peter Sellers, director Peter Medak’s account of the ill-fated movie he made with the great comic actor in 1973—after Medak was flying high with The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg—a pirate adventure called Ghost in the Noonday Sun, in which everything that could go wrong did. The biggest problem was the mercurial Sellers himself, who had never enjoyed the best on-set reputation, and Medak digs through memories as he reminisces with others around back then to assuage his own feelings that, decades later, he still feels responsible for this disaster. It’s a weirdly funny and fascinating on-set journey.


In The Artist and the Pervert, Beatrice Behn and Ren̩é Gebhardt chronicle the fascinating love (and kinky sex) story of an eye-opening couple: Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas—whose parents were Nazi sympathizers—and African-American performance artist Mollena Williams. The film’s title raises a pertinent question: which is which? 


The Greenaway Alphabet

The Greenaway Alphabet, a personal look at British filmmaker Peter Greenaway by his artistic and life partner Saskia Boddeke, could also have been called The Artist and the Pervert, as anyone who’s seen Greenaway’s visually and thematically complex films can attest. But Boddeke and their teenage daughter Pip actually bring some humanity to Greenaway, especially when he and his daughter discuss autism when they go through the A’s.


Today’s right-wing extremists—and those gung-ho in their youth but who left the movement, for various reasons—are the subjects of Exit, an engrossing study by director (and former hate-group member) Karen Winther.


Under the Wire

The dangerous conditions under which war correspondents toil are explored in Chris Martin’s shattering Under the Wire, a tribute to and eulogy for (among others) U.S. journalist Marie Colvin, who died covering the civil war in Syria. 


Katrine Philp’s False Confessions eye-openingly shows how many people are trying to remedy an intolerable situation: notably defense attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, who goes to Amherst, an affluent Buffalo suburb, to look into the case of Renay Lynch, behind bars for more than 20 years for a 1995 murder she did not commit. Under the microscope are coercive police interrogations, which Philp and Fisher-Byrialsen shine a necessary light on.


Maxine Trump (no relation, I hope!) describes her life without children in To Kid or Not to Kid, an evenhanded documentary about how women—whether by choice or by chance—deal with their childless lives and the shaming that still takes place, whether by well-meaning family members and strangers or anonymous people on social media. 


Patrimonio, set in Baja, Mexico—near vacation paradise Los Cabos—is a David vs. Goliath story of village fishermen going against a rich developer that wants to take over their local lands and waters, shown by directors Sarah Teale and Lisa F. Jackson as a possibly optimistic result. 


Decade of Fire

Vivian Vazquez and Gretchen Hildebran’s emotional Decade of Fire looks past the conventional thinking about the “Bronx is burning” 1970s and uncovers that not only were its inhabitants—primarily blacks and Latinos—painted with a broadly racist brush, but they were also the catalysts for the completely trashed area’s later revitalization. 


Another monstrous corporation is given the once-over in Inside Lehman Brothers, Jennifer Deschamps’ feature that trods familiar ground—did the bigwigs from the big banks get away with high crimes after the 2008 financial meltdown?—but remains an enraging cautionary tale. 


Our own inadequate medical system is given a merciless treatment in The Providers, Anna Moot-Levin and Laura Green’s clear-eyed but encouraging look at a collapsed community in New Mexico cared for by a few health-care providers who help a financially vulnerable population deal with the widespread opioid crisis. 


New Homeland

Finally, another world premiere, Barbara Kopple’s New Homeland, is also extremely relevant to our tRumped-up world, sympathetically following Middle Eastern families given refugee status that are welcomed to Canada by their local sponsors. The difficulties of one of the teenage boys to assimilate into his new society is heartrending, but there are also feel-good successes that make any viewer hopeful about our shared future.

DOC NYC Festival

November 8-15, 2018

Christiani Pitts: She’s Not in "King Kong" Just to Do a Blood-Curdling Scream


The 20-foot, 2,000 pound silverback King Kong is no match for Christiani Pitts, the beautiful young actress making a big leap to stardom playing the coveted female lead, Ann Darrow, in the Broadway megamusical King Kong.  Of her first leading role, she says, “It’s been an incredible journey after having been in only one Broadway show. I’m so excited, I can cry, In fact, I’ve pretty much cried every day.”

Pitts states she’s “unbelievably fortunate and blessed. It’s one of the most incredible gifts from God I’ve received. I’m overwhelmed with how happy and grateful I am. It’s the only way I can describe it!”

CPittsGlamourPitts was a virtual force of nature after she worked her way up in her first Broadway show from ensemble to co-star as Jane, the gal from the other side of the Italian-dominated neighborhood along Belmont Avenue in A Bronx Tale, the musical adaptation by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater of Chazz Palminteri’s solo play and film. Now, she’s standing tall in the coveted role of Ann Darrow, the role made famous onscreen by the never-forgotten Fay Wray in a huge cast of 35 actors and puppeteers.

Along her magical journey to the Broadway Theatre, “something I couldn’t even imagine a mere few months ago, there’ve been rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. I’ve never worked harder or learned more.” One fun sequence in the musical is when Christiani/Ann is ask to do the type of blood-curdling scream made famous and infamous by Wray in the 1933 film. It’s take a while.

Christiani, in her late-20s, has been garnering standing ovations not only for her performance and stunning vocals but also seemingly incredible powers. In a salute to the #MeToo movement, the gigantic, fierce beast [you don’t have to be in the theatre to hear the bombastic roar that literally shakes the walls!] is no match for this female who, in one of the show’s iconic moments, calms Kong into a peaceful sleep with a lilting lullaby.

She’s on the Broadway Theatre’s stage so much, she never makes it to her dressing room until intermission; and in Act Two, it’s non-stop. Still, Christiani describes what she’s doing as fun, especially working around the large ensemble of puppeteers. “They have a skill set unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They have to be hyper-focused for safety reasons, but they make it all look so easy.”

“When we first saw Christiani,” says lead co-producer Carmen Pavlovic, “she blew us away. She embodies everything we aspired to in creating a female protagonist who is relevant in 2018. She is an Ann Darrow for our time – plucky, courageous and the master of her own destiny.”

CCPittsEWMorrisdhristiani’s opening number in King Kong is the rousing “Queen of New York,” and it appears she may be on her way to becoming just that.

The role of Ann Darrow has been much expanded to showcase Christiani’s strengths. For instance, when the shifty film producer Carl Denham, played with great gusto by Eric William Morris (Coram Boy, Mamma Mia!), who trying to tame the untamable in a film with a Skid Row budget and then decides to introduce him to Broadway, Christiani/Ann stomps on his megalomaniacal ego to do battle royal. She attempts to stop him from the destructive path he’s on. She’s not there just to do a blood-curdling scream.

“The role requires me to be all the things I’ve been working for since I was a child,” says Christiani.“ The singing, acting, and athleticism is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s a role I’ve been preparing for since grammar school. Broadway’s is every actor’s dream, and, oh my, I’ve been twice-blessed. It’s really insane. I’m still pinching myself to make sure it’s real.”

King Kong, the musical, is adapted by Jack Thorne, the Olivier- and Tony-winning playwright behind Harry Potter and the Curse Child. Music is by Grammy-winner Marius de Vries (music director, upcoming Moulin Rouge, La La Land) and Australia’s Eddie Perfect (the soon-to-be stage adaptation of Beetlejuice). Directing is Brit Drew McOnie (West End’s Strictly Ballroom and an Olivier-winner for In the Heights), who’s also responsible for the show’s quite unusual and dizzying choreography that appears to be heavily-influenced by Martha Graham and the most famous choreographer of cheerleader squads. David Caddick (The Phantom of the Opera) is music director.


“King Kong is an epic story, but also a really intimate one, about the limits of ambition and the cages we're put in,” states Thorne. “Thankfully, in Christiani and Eric we've two remarkable talents who lead our incredible and multi-talented company.”

CPittsQueenNYMurphyUSE THISThe mammoth animatronic Kong, designed by Sonny Tildlers, with movement-directed by Gavin Robins, is created by Melbourne, Australia by Global Technology (How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular). Kong is controlled by 16 microprocessors. He has over 45 driven axis of movement. Fibreglass gives body shape. Inflatable air bags are patterned into his chest. The arms and legs are built on high pressure inflatable tubes. The 90’ x 27’ LED screen, Broadway’s biggest, takes audiences on a realistic journey to  New York of the 1930’s and on rolling seas to mysterious, uncharted, and aptly-named Skull Island.

There are some very strong, memorable moments in King Kong, as when the skyscraper ape decides to check out unsuspecting folks in the front rows. “No one’s expecting that,” laughs Christiani. “They quickly get so caught up in the show that they think he’s real.”

CCPittsKKongWidehristiani is beginning to feel that way, too. “I thought the more time I spent with Kong, the less realistic he’d be, but it’s just the opposite. I see little nuances on his face that weren’t there before. Then, then there’s the way he moves and the way he communicates with me. Kong feels like a living, breathing creature. It’s quite entrancing. Kong is always portrayed as a menace, but he’s not a villain.”  

She’s thought of that moment in the classic film when Ann Darrow is lifeless in Kong’s hand, “but it’s different for me. I get to be next to Kong.  I feel small, but I feel like an equal. It’s incredibly empowering! Nothing about him is not alive. He’s fully alive and makes me want to be a better and stronger actress because I have to be aware of what’s happening and be so present. It’s a beautiful challenge.”   

She’s the daughter of author and TV journalist and anchor Byron Pitts (ABC’s Nightline). Her mother is an Georgia-based event planner. “With three older sisters, two older step-brothers, and a younger brother, we were like the Brady Bunch.” For a while, she and an older sister had a singing group. “She lost the passion for it, but it only grew in me. By the time I decided I was going into theater, the family wasn’t exactly shocked. It was like, ‘Finally!’”

She began singing at age eight in her church choir in Georgia and continued to sing when the family relocated to New Jersey. By age 11, she was making recordings and appearing in plays. Right out of high school, she was cast in a production of Tim Rice and Elton John’s  Aida; then, in her sophomore year of college, she was cast in the musical as Aida’s servant Nehebka. She also began writing screenplays, which had to take a backseat when she began going the audition route in New York, and when cast in A Bronx Tale. “I love the creative process of writing and it’s something I’ll pursue when things aren’t so hectic.”


In 2014, in her junior year of college, Christiani says, “I had my first really awesome theater experience performing in Rent.” She lost a longtime friend and the Jonathan Larson musical “helped me heal. It was a turning point for me. Theater was my church, my therapy. Now, I’m not putting on shows in our living room. I’m on Broadway, singing and acting and getting paid to do it. Life is wonderful, isn’t it!”

King Kong production photographs by Matthew Murphy and Joan Marcus

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