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June '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Au hasard Balthazar


Among French director Robert Bresson’s most singular films, this 1966 allegory of faith and sacrifice follows a donkey through owners benevolent and malevolent, alongside a young woman’s journey through difficult relationships not unlike the innocent animal’s.





Shot in immaculate black and white by brilliant cameraman Ghislain Cloquet—whose photography looks stunning in Criterion’s new hi-def transfer—Balthazar ends with one of the quietest, most moving moments in the history of cinema. Extras are Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, a 1966 French television program about the film, and a 2004 interview with Bresson expert Donald Richie.


Frank and Eva: Living Apart Together 

(Cult Epics)

Director Pim de la Parra’s 1973 drama, a messy, occasionally interesting look at a couple on the rocks—he’s sleeping with everyone while she wants to settle down—has a few fleeting moments of blood and eroticism, sometimes entwined with each other. But there’s the rest of the film—mainly indifferently acted and scripted—that drops it into the mediocre category.





Although Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle is prominent on the cover, she barely registers in a marginal role (and feature debut). There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras are director’s commentary and featurette.










Gun Crazy 

(Warner Archive) 

A forerunner of Bonnie and Clyde, this 1950 shoot-‘em-up is as blunt and crude as they come, but director Joseph H. Lewis gets some mileage out of its ludicrously straightforward “they both love guns, fall in love and go on a crime spree” plot line.

In the leads, John Ball is fine as Bart, but Peggy Cummins—who didn’t have much of a career—is a knockout in every way as Laurie, the proto-Bonnie. The B&W film looks good on Blu; extras are an audio commentary and the informative 2006 feature-length documentary Film-Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light.


Little Women 

(PBS Masterpiece)

In this elegant-looking, engagingly performed adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic, several veteran performers—Emily Watson as the girls’ mother Marmee, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March and Michael Gambon as neighbor Mr. Lawrence—acquit themselves admirably.





But besting them all is Maya Hawke as a wonderfully level-headed Jo, a role so over-familiar that it’s difficult to make something new out of it (although Sutton Foster was a delightful Jo in the 2005 Broadway musical). The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise three on-set featurettes. 










Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 

(Warner Archive) 

Stanley Donen’s 1954’s CinemaScope spectacular, an original musical based on a book by Stephen Vincent Benét, is splendid old-fashioned entertainment, with inventive choreography by Michael Kidd and memorable songs by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul. It’s an enjoyable lark, spun together beautifully by Donen.

The colors on the Blu-ray are eye-popping but there’s some softness in the image; extras are Donen’s commentary, cast and crew documentary, vintage featurettes and, on a second disc, the film presented in a different widescreen ratio.

"La Bayadère" Stuns With Superb Cast

Photo by Gene Schiavone

A strong season at American Ballet Theater continued magnificently on the evening of Tuesday, May 30th, the delightful first of a week’s performances of the still underrated La Bayadère, with choreography by the renowned Natalia Makarova (after that of the great Marius Petipa) in a production conceived and directed by her, with a tuneful, Romantic score by the unsung Ludwig Minkus, who along with Cesare Pugni and Riccardo Drigo was one of the remarkable resident composers of the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg. The memorable scenery was designed by Pierluigi Samaritani with attractive costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge and effective lighting by Toshiro Ogawa.
Once again, the event’s splendor was equally attributable to the extraordinary cast on display, headed brilliantly by the lovely Hee Seo in the title role of the beautiful temple dancer, Nikiya—she shone too in the previous weeks as the lead in Giselle as well as in a smaller part in Wayne McGregor’s arresting new ballet, AFTERITE. Her partner, as the warrior Solor, was the astonishing (and handsome) Kimin Kim, a principal dancer with the glorious Mariinsky Ballet who is appearing here as a guest artist—he stole the show with his two thrilling solos in the first and second acts and given the enthusiasm he aroused in the audience, he seems likely to quickly become one of the most celebrated dancers of the current moment. Also outstanding was another of the finest ballerinas in the company, the exquisite Gillian Murphy, as Gamzatti, the Radjah’s daughter.
The secondary cast was also wonderful, featuring: the engaging Arron Scott as Magdaveya, the head fakir; Stephanie Williams and Courtney Shealy, both terrific as the D’Jampe Dancers; the fabulous Skylar Brandt, April Giangeruso and Katherine Williams, the leads in the unforgettable Dance of the Shades in the second act; and the dynamic Joseph Gorak, sensational as the Bronze Idol in the final act. Alexandre Hammoudi as the Radjah Dugumanta and Roman Zhurbin as the High Brahmin appeared in less dancerly roles. I only wish I could name all the exhilarating dancers in thecorps de ballet who in no small measure were indispensable contributors to the evening’s success. I eagerly look forward to the coming weeks.

Off-Broadway Review—Lily Thorne's “Peace for Mary Frances”

Peace for Mary Frances

Written by Lily Thorne; directed by Lila Neugebauer

Performances through June 17, 2018

Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron in Peace for Mary Frances (photo: Monique Carboni)

Lily Thorne’s Peace for Mary Frances is obviously a labor of love. Unfortunately, it’s also a labored play that attempts to do too much with too many characters, ending up far less than the sum of its parts.


As 90-year-old matriarch Mary Frances continues physically deteriorating, her daughters Fanny and Alice, son Eddie and granddaughters (Alice’s daughters) Helen and Rosie must come to terms with her mortality while dealing with seemingly everyone’s still-festering animosity. Add to this a loaded family history: Mary Frances’s grandmother was able to get out of Turkey (while pregnant with Mary Frances’s father) while the Armenian genocide was happening a century ago. That’s a lot of baggage for one script. 


Although Thorne is sympathetic to her characters, she writes too many melodramatic, even sitcomish confrontations for them: notably, the endlessly bickering Fanny and Alice often nearly coming to blows over the vastly different paths their lives have taken, which their mother’s dying has only exacerbated. 


Then there’s their lazy brother Eddie, who comes off as an afterthought compared to his sisters, popping in and out at random, which seems more an authorial intrusion than a believable character arc; indeed, when Eddie happens to be the only one in the house with Mary Frances at play’s end, there’s something artificial about it. That neither Fanny nor Alice is present might be a realistically anticlimactic real-life event, but it still feels like a dramatic cop-out.


The family’s conflicts are contrived and often risible. Helen and Rosie’s appearances don’t add anything, and making Helen an actress in a successful TV show who’d recognized by a hospice employee is good for a stray laugh but not much else. Also, their constant traveling between Manhattan and Mary Frances’s suburban Connecticut home with Rosie’s infant always in tow (no babysitter or significant other available?) smacks of arbitrariness. 


Amid such messiness, director Lila Neugebauer has difficulty getting the play to cohere dramatically, comically and emotionally: even Dane Laffrey’s two-tier set, with the living room and kitchen to the left and Mary Frances’s bedroom to the right, is an awkward fit on the cramped stage, which further drains the scenes of their immediacy and intimacy.


Paul Lazar can’t get a handle on the sketchily drawn Eddie; likewise Natalie Gold, who goes through the motions as Rosie. The always winning Heather Burns has heartfelt moments as Helen, Johanna Day fiercely channels Fanny’s simmering anger at herself and others, and the gifted J. Smith Cameron unsurprisingly makes Alice the emotional heart of the play. 


As Mary Frances, Lois Smith is by turns cantankerous, irascible and amusing: but, as with Thorne’s play, she’s never as devastating as she should be. Sadly, the final moments of Peace for Mary Frances—which should be quite shattering—pass by with barely a whimper.

Peace for Mary Frances

The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

May '18 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 

Beyond the Hills 

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s long but absorbing chronicle of the divergent paths of two female friends—one refusing to leave the convent and the other taking desperate action to change her mind—is as uncompromising as the director’s other films, as the slow-moving and seemingly repetitive sequences pay off by the end in an accumulation of narrative and psychological detail.
Criterion’s hi-def transfer is splendid; extras include a Mungiu interview, making-of featurette, deleted scenes and the 2012 Cannes Film festival press conference with Mungiu and his convincing lead actresses Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan.
The 15:17 to Paris 
(Warner Bros)
In Clint Eastwood’s turgid re-telling of a real-life event, three American servicemen disarm a terrorist on a train, avoiding a horrific loss of life—but only after they take a trip to Europe, where they take selfies, flirt with young women and drink heavily. The actual train sequence is tautly shot, but before that we are subjected to 70 minutes of borderline ineptitude to fill the running time, from the heroes’ troubles in grade school and their joining the service to their aborted vacation.
And having the three men play themselves—along with a fourth who was shot and badly wounded, unsurprisingly unsettling to watch as he recreates his own near-death experience—is a failed gimmick since no one has any dramatic weight onscreen. This is a strangely remote movie on a highly charged subject. It looks fine on Blu; extras are brief, uninformative featurettes.
Game Night  

(Warner Bros)

The question must be asked again: why isn’t Rachel McAdams the biggest female star in the world? She should be as huge as Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock were in their heyday, but she has never gotten her due, despite an Oscar nomination for Spotlight. Her effortless charm is the main draw of this silly but often funny flick about a couple whose regular game nights are upped several notches by the hubby’s shady brother.
Jason Bateman does fine as the husband, but despite his and McAdams’ easy rapport, it all runs out of steam and gets quite ridiculous by the end. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras include a making-of featurette and a gag reel.
Red Sparrow 
Francis Lawrence’s at times plodding but still intense espionage thriller covers too many locales, characters and story threads which threaten to derail the main plot line, and with it Jennifer Lawrence’s commanding performance as a Russian ballerina turned deadly spy.
But despite its overlength and unnecessarily extreme violence, the movie works, mainly because Lawrence (no relation to her director) is so indelible an onscreen presence; she helps paper over a lot of flaws, including her lack of chemistry with Joel Edgerton. The film looks terrific on Blu; extras include several featurettes and deleted scenes.
 The Two of Us  

(Cohen Film Collection)

French director Claude Berri’s feature debut with this sentimental but affecting tragicomedy about an eight-year-old Jewish boy sent to live with an elderly Catholic couple during the height of the Nazi occupation.
Despite occasional mawkishness, the bond between the boy and the crusty, anti-Semitic old man—enacted with honesty and humor by young Alain Cohen and the great Michel Simon—takes hold of and envelops the viewer until the emotionally charged finale. The restored B&W film is a knockout on Blu; extras include an audio commentary and brief archival interviews with Simon. 
DVDs of the Week
ACORN and the Firestorm 
(First Run)
Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s cogent documentary recounts a shameful episode in recent political history—the demonizing and ultimate demise of the liberal grassroots organization by the typically disingenuous and misleading campaign headed by the benighted likes of Breitbart and Fox News.
Through interviews with ACORN staff and the young woman who pretended to be a prostitute in a video dishonestly edited that helped sink the organization, this film presents a thoughtful and forceful cautionary tale for our fractured, volatile times.


This amusing if slight comedy gets much of its energy from the legendary Isabelle Huppert, slumming but still irresistible as a middle-aged former contestant on the televised Eurovision song contest who meets a young boxer at the factory where she works who coaxes her back in front of a microphone. Director Bavo Defurne smartly keeps Huppert front and center, whether throwing herself into a relationship with the boxer (a deadpan Kévin Azaïs) or singing for the first time in decades. It’s minor stuff made diverting enough for 90 minutes by Huppert’s presence.

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