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August '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Remaking a forgettable 1987 Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell vehicle in 2018 might seem a non-starter, but someone thought pairing Mom’s Anna Faris and Mexican star Eugenio Derbez as, respectively, the working-class stiff and ultra-rich douche who fall in love after the latter gets amnesia and the former pretends she’s his wife would be comedic gold. It isn’t.
Faris is always amusing and Derbez is game, but the one-note premise is stretched out even beyond the original’s slender means, and various subplots only extend the running time, further watering down the comedy. The film looks fine on Blu; extras include a commentary and three featurettes.
Le comte ory 
(BelAir Classiques)
Rossini’s last comic opera, Le comte ory (1824), has been given a boisterous 2015 production in Malmo, Sweden, with a top-notch cast, orchestra and chorus providing much enjoyment despite Linda Mallik’s over-the-top staging.
In Verdi’s 1841 grand opera Nabucco, the chorus is the star, and in this 2017 Verona, Italy production, the Arena di Verona chorus lives up to that billing. Arnaud Bernard’s directing and costumes and Alessandro Camera’s sets are also impressive. Both discs have excellent hi-def video and audio.
Dark Crimes 
Jim Carrey sleepwalks through another serious role in this sordid and relentlessly derivative detective drama set in Eastern Europe about a gruesome killing that may be related to a writer’s latest novel, which describes a similar crime.
With a bearded, sullen look, Carrey tries but remains impassively dour, and he’s outclassed at every turn by Marton Csokas as the writer and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the writer’s former lover. Director Alexandros Avranas makes everything twisted and ugly, which gets old really fast. The greyness is impeccably rendered in hi-def; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Lou Andreas-Salomé—The Audacity to Be Free 
(Cinema Libre)
This engrossing biopic about one of the most formidable female intellectuals of late 19th century Europe—who counted among her admirers Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke—is propelled by a full-bodied performance by Katharina Lorenz as Andreas-Salomé in her prime (three other fine actresses play her at other times in her life).
Director Cordula Kablitz-Post might lean too much on the great men surrounding her protagonist but still keeps the heroine front and center throughout this fascinating true story. There’s a quite good hi-def transfer; extras comprise a director commentary and interview.
After their beloved mother dies, four siblings must fend for themselves in the family home which seems to be haunted by a ghost in the attic—whose malevolence leads to a would-be heart-pounding finale.
Sergio G. Sanchez has written and directed a haunted-house movie with a few suspenseful jolts, but it all leads up to a protracted “surprise” that even diehard genre fans won’t buy. At least it looks pristine on Blu-ray; extras are extended/deleted scenes and two featurettes.
CD of the Week
Khachaturian—Piano Concertos 
Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is best known for his engaging ballet scores Spartacus and Gayane (the latter featured in Kubrick’s 2001), so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that this disc of his D-flat major Piano Concerto and Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra is filled with exquisite melodies spun out one after the other.
The attractive playing is by the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie, led by conductor Daniel Raiskin; piano soloist Stepan Simonian performs with extreme delicacy but can also bring the bombast when he needs to. 

Off-Broadway Review—“The Originalist” at 59E59 Theaters

The Originalist

Written by John Strand; directed by Molly Smith

Performances through August 19, 2018


Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in The Originalist (photo: Joan Marcus)

I never thought I’d be pining for the halcyon days of kinder, gentler Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But John Strand’s The Originalist—a creaky, at times compelling two-hander about the fiercely conservative Scalia and a fiercely liberal law clerk he hires to spar with—does just that, showing us that the United States, though deeply divided for decades, at one time had civility, honor and respect even among those who vehemently disagreed.


Strand’s Scalia is a brilliant legal mind with a sarcastic, superior—even haughty—attitude, and who enjoys, as he sees it, putting liberals in their rightful place with his analysis of how the Constitution’s framers saw the law. Scalia decides to hire Kerry (called Cat) as his law clerk for the 2012-13 term—she’s his opposite in every way: liberal, lesbian and black. 


Their literal sparring matches—at times, Scalia mentions boxing—form the core of the play, which moves along quickly if familiarly as opposites attract with a grudging respect despite their political divide. When Scalia has a chance to kill gay marriage, Cat even helps prepare his dissent, along with another clerk, the conservative, straight—and very white—Brad.


Strand writes clever dialogue that allows his antagonists to go at it like bitchy Edward Albee characters. Of course this leaves little room for nuance in the writing, and Tracy Ifeachor’s Cat suffers for it. She’s shrill and unlikable, the fault more of the author than the actress. 


But that liability lets Edward Gero’s gregarious Scalia soar. It’s easy to see why ultra-liberal Ruth Ginsberg was his best friend even beyond their affinity for opera. (Director Molly Smith’s slick production includes excerpts from operas by Verdi, Strauss and Mozart, along with other classical works that show off Scalia’s erudite side.) Gero sidesteps caricature even while enacting a larger-than-life figure that owes far more to Scalia the myth rather than the reality. 


But even Gero can’t fix the play’s ignominious end, when—after their professional relationship ends—the former adversaries meet again at the gun range where Scalia took Cat against her will. But now the formerly embarrassingly bad shooter has become a decent markswoman, and Scalia is pleased. Such leaden dramatic irony makes for a tidy wrap-up, but also shows that The Originalist is as flawed as its lead character’s infamous jurisprudence.


The Originalist

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

July '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Billy Budd 

(Warner Archive)

Peter Ustinov directed and stars as the honest Captain Vere in this straightforwardly dramatic 1962 adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novella set on a British warship circa 1797.





With strong work by Robert Ryan as the dastardly Claggart and (in his film debut) Terence Stamp as the naïve and idealistic Billy, Ustinov paints a pointed portrait of good (and innocence) vs. evil. On Blu-ray, the B&W Cinemascope photography looks splendid; the lone extra is an informative audio commentary by Stamp and director Steven Soderbergh.


Keeping Faith 

(RLJ Entertainment)

A wife and mother who is just returning to her law office following the birth of her third child, Faith Howells must now deal with the unspeakable: her beloved husband vanishes one day on his way to the office, forcing her to raise her kids alone, start searching for him and—most importantly—fend off the suspicions of locals.





This colorful Welsh-set series takes its sweet time to get going, but its slow-burn dramatics work in its favor, as does Eve Myles’ ingratiating performance as Faith. Extras comprise a 45-minute on-set featurette and character intros.







Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg 

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Richard Wagner’s colossal comedy runs 4-1/2 hours when staged (plus lengthy intermissions), but in the right hands it is an hilarious and heartwarming work that many consider the master’s greatest. Last summer at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth, Germany, Philippe Jordan conducted the orchestra and chorus in an illuminating reading of the marvelous score, and the veteran cast—Michael Volle, Johannes Martin Kranzle, Klaus Florian Vogt and Anne Schwanewilms—responds with a marvelous collective vocal performance.





Too bad that director Barrie Kosky’s gimmicky production lowers the bar quite a bit; but luckily, with such pros onstage and in the pit, the visuals are enervating without being destructive. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.


DVDs of the Week

The Great Game 

(Icarus Films)

Intrigue is the name of the game in Nicolas Pariser’s initially diverting but quickly wearying espionage drama, in which a formerly leftist writer is hired by a right-wing politician to help discredit the prime minister and a far-left faction—and, naturally, help elevate the conservative to head of state.





Despite a strong cast—Melvil Poupaud, Clemence Poesy, Sophie Cattani, and the great Andre Dussolier—Pariser never achieves the sophistication and elegance of the best French films that effortlessly mix the political and the personal.












Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s earnest drama is set in Los Angeles in 1992, before and during the riots that ensued when white cops were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King (which was captured on video).




Although Halle Berry, Daniel Craig and newcomers Lamar Johnson and Rachel Hilson give crackerjack portrayals of local residents caught up in a fatally out of control spiral, Ergüven—unlike her remarkable previous film, Mustang—never settles on a coherent way to dramatize these events, instead relying on hackneyed melodrama to show how violence destroys ordinary lives.


Love after Love 

(IFC Films)

Director and co-writer Russell Harbaugh’s pretentious and diffuse melodrama fails its potentially emotionally powerful material about a family that starts to disintegrate after the death of its strong-willed patriarch. His wife and two sons find themselves floundering amid their own difficulties sustaining relationships within and without the family itself, but Harbaugh is content to create a sub-Woody Allen drama vibe instead of making us invest our feelings in these people.




A game cast led by Andie McDowell and Chris O’Dowd is set adrift, and a final shot of cremation is enervating to the nth degree. Lone extra is a short, Rolling on the Floor Laughing.

CD of the Week 

MacMillan—String Quartets 


Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan’s three string quartets are spread out at approximate decade intervals: his first came at age 29 in 1988 (revised 1991), the second ten years later and the third nine years after that.





The two-movement first quartet, Visions of a November Spring, alternates between stillness and outright frenzy; the second, Why is this night different?—referring to the first night of Passover seder—moves between ecstasy and despair; and the accomplished third quartet proves the composer’s musical maturity, including his creative use of silence. The Royal String Quartet plays with immense passion, which is what such remarkably self-contained works demand.


Weekend in the Berkshires—The Clark, The Mount, Barrington Stage Company & Tanglewood

Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, Massachusetts


The Mount

Lenox, Massachusetts


The Royal Family of Broadway

The Cake

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts


On the Town

Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts


There’s no better summer jaunt than western Massachusetts’ bucolic Berkshires, especially since it’s just three or so hours from Manhattan. It’s easy to cram a lot into a whirlwind weekend: music at Tanglewood, new musical and play at the Barrington Stage Company, tour of novelist Edith Wharton’s century-old mansion, The Mount, and a visit to the world-renowned and—since our last visit—beautifully expanded Clark Art Institute.


Let’s start from the top…literally. Williamstown, only minutes from the Vermont border, is home to Williams College and boasts the Clark Art Institute, whose original white marble building houses one of the best small-museum collections in the country, including one of the largest number of Renoirs outside of France.


The Clark’s expansion four years ago brought about the modern and sleek Clark Center, which features lots of new exhibition space. Currently, through September are two French-related exhibits. The Art of Iron brings a few dozen pieces of exquisitely wrought ironworks from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen. Seeing them out of the context of the Musée’s gothic church housing the collection was initially jarring (we visited it in Rouen in 2009), but the works are so marvelously detailed that they keep their luster in their new digs.


Berthe Morisot's The Sisters at the Clark Art Institute

Even more impressive is Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, which not only brought out the usual suspects like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot (whose The Sisters is a stunning portrait), but also other European and American painters who worked with acute sensitivity on subject matter ranging from mothers and children to history and landscapes. 


If the Clark is a must-see Berkshires attraction, so is the grounds and house encompassing The Mount in Lenox, especially on a warm summer day when one can stroll the lovely manicured gardens as well as tour the mansion which Wharton and her husband called home for the first decade of the 1900s. (That their marriage ended badly and Edith lived most of the rest of her life in Paris doesn’t take away from the place’s genuine serenity.) 


Edith Wharton's The Mount (photo: Kevin Filipski)

During a Sunday-only Backstairs Tour, visitors experience the house as it was while the Whartons lived there: interpreters portray people in their employ like the cook, butler and Edith’s own governess and lifelong confidant, who each provide enlightening accounts of what it was like to work for the Mount’s most famous residents.


Pittsfield—about halfway between Lenox and Williamstown—is home to the Barrington Stage Company. While there, we caught two shows at the company’s two stages: the new musical The Royal Family of Broadway by veteran composer William Finn, and a topical new play by This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter, The Cake.


The cast of Barrington Stage Company's The Royal Family of Broadway (photo: Daniel Rader)

An overly frenetic attempt at an old-fashioned entertainment, The Royal Family of Broadway (based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 play The Royal Family) is certainly entertaining, even if its “fun” quotient peters out before its two-hour running time ends. Finn’s songs are tuneful if spotty, John Rando’s direction and Joshua Bergasse’s choreography consist of as much onstage busyness onstage as simultaneously possible, and the cast—led by Harriet Harris’s hilarious theatrical matriarch, Laura Michelle Kelly’s lovely-voiced daughter and the indefatigable Will Swenson’s scene-stealing Barrymore-esque son—gives the show enough fuel to soldier on while spending its time down in the dumps of easy jokes and cackling pastiche.


Debra Jo Rapp (left) in Barrington Stage Company's The Cake (photo: Carolyn Brown)

The Cake is set in North Carolina, where an ultra-religious baker who’s a whiz at cakes wrestles with the dilemma of baking the wedding cake for her late best friend’s beloved daughter, who is marrying a black, liberal, foul-mouthed atheist woman from Brooklyn. Brunstetter’s play is as blunt as it sounds, with an occasional nugget of insight to go along with funny lines and a final cop-out. Serious and deep it’s not, but The Cake—helped by an hilarious lead performance by Debra Jo Rupp—may make a dent with audiences that something more reasoned and subtle would not. 


Barrington Stage Company’s summer season includes an August run of West Side Story, de rigeur for the Leonard Bernstein Centennial year. Tanglewood—that glorious Lenox outdoor venue—is also hosting its own series of Bernstein-related events; after all, he taught and performed there for half a century. The culminating event, an August 25 gala concert featuring singers Susan Graham, Audra MacDonald, Isabel Leonard and Nadine Sierra in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, will be broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances December 28.)


The sailors of Tanglewood's On the Town (photo: Hilary Scott)

We caught a wonderful concert version of Bernstein’s first stage work, the still-delightful 1944 musical On the Town, crammed with hummable tunes, amusing if sometimes dated dialogue and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Kathleen Marshall’s zesty direction and choreography did wonders on the Shed’s smallish stage space, Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops swung deliciously in Bernstein’s classic songs, and the cast was unbeatable. The three sailors (Brandon Victor Dixon, Christian Dante White and Andy Karl) were a delight; Andrea Martin was funny as soon as she stepped onstage; Georgina Pazcoguin, a remarkably agile dancer and performer, was a highlight of the last Broadway production; Marc Kudisch perfectly juggled even the most cringeworthy bits; and Laura Osnes never sounded lovelier as Claire, especially in her signature duet, “Carried Away,” with the equally charming Karl.


It was a very special night of singing, dancing and Bernstein in the Berkshires.

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