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Blu-rays of the Week
Ready Player One
Ernest Cline’s novel about a near-future of virtual-reality domination—especially in the OASIS, which is primarily channeling 1980s pop culture—has been brought to the screen with glee by Steven Spielberg, who may be the only director able to visualize such a pop utopia gone wild, except that the movies he directed or produced during that era (ET, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies, Roger Rabbit) are so pervasive that not including any of them is a black mark on the film.
The main problem is that there’s a distance between the protagonists’ avatars and viewers; but this is still fun to watch, especially the bizarre but brilliant sequence featuring Kubrick’s The Shining. The film looks great on Blu; a thorough two-hour making-of documentary is the lone featurette.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
John Huston’s 1972 revisionist western stars Paul Newman as an outlaw who cleans up a small Texas town and becomes the law there for decades, making a comfortable home for himself even as Wild West violence and basic lawlessness continue.
As usual with Huston (who also has a cameo), this is a colorful and twisty tale, told with tongue firmly in cheek. Newman is fine as always, then-newcomer Victoria Principal is a real find, and the scenic locations look fantastic on Blu-ray.
Dwyane Johnson plays a primatologist whose beloved albino gorilla George—an ultra-intelligent creature who communicates by sign language—becomes rabid when he becomes infected by a pathogen that fell from a satellite lab orbiting the earth. Soon, George and his boss find themselves in a battle against a hugely mutated crocodile and wolf intent on laying waste to Chicago.
It’s moviemaking at its most mindless—even the mutated monsters are little fun—and it’s especially unfortunate that early, amusing scenes of bonding between The Rock and the ape are dropped so quickly for special effects nonsense. It all looks watchable enough on Blu-ray; extras include featurettes, deleted scenes and a gag reel.
Super Troopers 2
In this vapid (and belated) sequel to the already dopey comedy about a moronic Vermont police officers, they now have to deal with Canadians, which makes for even more ridiculously unfunny comedy. Several performers who should know better—including “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter and the great Irish actor Brian Cox, who at least seem to be having fun—return to ham it up mightily in the service of a lost comedic cause.
Emerging unscathed from this mess is Emmanuelle Chriqui as a charming Canadian cultural attaché. The Blu-ray looks good; extras include deleted scenes, interviews and on-set featurette.
DVDs of the Week
After an equestrian movie stuntman is left paralyzed in an on-set accident, his insurance company fights his claim, but the adjuster they assigned—despite being happily married with children—begins falling for him.
In director Denis Dercourt’s intimate character study, Cecile de France and Albert Dupontel make a believable pair of damaged individuals who find common cause in their unlikely relationship.
Five intersecting stories of Moroccans who cannot reconcile their liberal lifestyle with the country’s stifling conservatism are chronicled by writer-director Nabil Ayouch’s absorbing melodrama, a forceful if strident study of how freedoms is curtailed by repression.
An excellent cast—including Maryam Touzani as a free-spirited woman in an abusive relationship and Abdelilah Rachid as a young gay man whose idol is Freddie Mercury—brings to the forefront the individuals affected by such reactionary ugliness.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”
Director: Ol Parker
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Meryl Streep, Cher, Andy Garcia, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski
Opening 10 years to the week after the first film was released, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” — the “Mamma Mia!” sequel — provides perfectly mindless summer entertainment. The new ABBA song-infused musical -- the first film being based on the hit Broadway show -- opens with the daughter of the late free-spirited rock singer expatriate innkeeper Donna (Meryl Streep), anxiously planning the reopening of her mom’s hotel on a Greek island with a grand party.
Played again by Amanda Seyfried, Sophie has gone from sweet ingénue into a dynamic self-possessed woman in command. Again we hear her sing in a surprisingly self possessed performance. Quickly, the presence of her major domo Fernando (Andy Garcia) and boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper) are established — especially through a long distance duet signing “One of Us” in which she bemoans his absence as he contemplates about taking a hotel job in NYC.
But it really kicks off when, in flashing back to 1979, we see Donna at the end of her Oxford undergraduate days. As played by actress Lilly James, she’s not only is bright, beautifully blonde but also an exuberant and richly voiced belter as demonstrated in her energized performance of “When I Kissed the Teacher” with fellow Donna and the Dynamos members Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies). The dynamic staging — at her college graduation — illustrates that director Ol Parker provides a more lively setting for this collection of the Swedish group’s pop hits than the first “Mamma Mia!” movie. On stage, the jukebox musical’s plot was a contrivance to situate the songs; this sequel better integrates the songs into an actual plot.
The film alternates between daughter Sophie’s planning a troubled celebration (while also discovering she’s pregnant) with concerns as to whether her three fathers will make it to the reopening of Hotel Bella Donna and her mother’s genesis four decades ago. It reveals the sexy scenarios 40 years ago in which the three men who had wooed and slept with the young Donna leave all wondering who was the real father. In the original film, Donna explains a bit about the three men; here it’s fully illuminated through song and dance as to how they came into her life and left it.
The young Donna’s suitors are both sexy and self absorbed enough to appeal. First come Harry (Colin Firth’s character), played here by Hugh Skinner as a too polite punk, in a T-shirt and ridiculous leather jacket; together they perform an exuberant duet on “Waterloo.” Then she meets Bill (Stellan Skarsgård’s character), the hunky blond sailor played by Josh Dylan who ferries her to the island. Then Sam, the young Pierce Brosnan character (played by Jeremy Irvine), finally lands in her life with enough enthusiasm to show that he’s likely Donna’s true love.
“Here We Go Again” uses some songs that appeared in the first film such as the title number and a re-staging of “Dancing Queen,” with a chorus running through the woods ending up on that same beach, where they perform a huge group dance number. ABBA’s greatest hits were mined for the first film, so many of the songs here are less high-profile tunes, possessed of a more reflective, less bubbly quality.
As the movie cuts back and forth between the top-flight vocals of Sophie and James’ Donna, “Mamma Mia!” Here We Go Again” seems determined not to get too involved in any emotional concerns — will they have an audience to attend their party after a storm nearly wrecks it — while older and younger cast members try to keep up with each other. It’s good to see the older Dynamos, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, have several moments in the sun which celebrate a more mature perspective.
Various gems out of the band’s catalog are infused and that’s good thing for this otherwise flimsy storyline. Several of the numbers like “Andante, Andante” (a slow-love anthem) or “Angel Eyes” soar and one of ABBA’s finest songs, “The Name of the Game” — dropped from the first film — appears here.
But the charm of this film is how the old and the new integrate with scenes that include a decent performance from Streep and only a few moments of the crusty vocals from Brosnan (much criticized for his vocals in the first film). Let’s face it, with a Broadway show we count on incredible vocals and dancing — here’s it all about seeing the celebs and regular actors shake their booty. Especially on an ABBA classic like "SuperTrooper."
And then, of course, there’s the injection of pop royalty; when Cher steps in front of the camera as Ruby Sheridan, Sophie’s long absent grandmother (who hardly seems old enough to be Streep’s mom) the camp hosannas are heard on screen and in the audience. If any singing superstar suits the “Mamma Mia!” aesthetic, it’s Cher, whose performance of “Fernando” actually makes the passion between her and Garcia’s character seem like an ideal moment of pop kitsch.
There’s no illusion that this super fab affair is meant to be anything other than another chance use ABBA’s substantial catalog (there even a band member cameo here). And the closing scene which brings together all the cast old and new is just one huge celebratory Broadway-esque closer. The film hardly pretends that it exists for no other than to fulfill the demand for a sequel, but what a good one its and it’s pure fun. In end, even at its most kitschy, its also a paean to the bond between mothers and daughters and the power of women.
Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood
One of the Criterion Collection’s best recent boxed sets is this six-disc journey through the groundbreaking films made by director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, including such classics as Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express. Dietrich’s persona—aloof but endlessly fascinating—was cemented through these pictures, and von Sternberg provided the most elegant vehicles for her talent.
The new hi-def transfers of these 80-plus-year-old B&W films are nothing short of astonishing; many extras include new and archival featurettes and interviews.
Jonas Carpignano’s second feature, set amid Roma families in southern Italy, is an arresting, quasi-documentary look at a teenage boy whose close-knit family is shaken up when dad and older brother are taken in by the police. Our young protagonist discovers that being head of the household is not as easy as it looks.
With a non-professional cast (including several members of the same family), there’s a certain roughness in parts, but the authenticity of these people and their home are delicately wrought. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include a 50-minute making-of documentary; Cannes featurette; deleted scenes; and Carpignano’s original A Ciambra short.
This star-studded 2011 production of the Mozart classic—with Peter Mattei as the Don, Bryn Terfel as his servant Leporello, and veterans Barbara Frittoli and Anna Netrebko and young Anna Prohaska as the women in his life—is complemented by Daniel Barenboim conducting the La Scala orchestra for three hours of operatic bliss.
Director Robert Carsen smartly keeps his powerhouse cast front and center; first-rate hi-def video and audio completes the picture.
Endeavour—Complete 5th Season
Wherein recently promoted Endeavour Morse, his worldlier partner Thursday and new recruit Fancy solve more crimes, including murder in a movie house and the theft of a valuable Fabergé egg.
The six self-contained episodes make up several hours of sheer entertainment, made most palatable by the performances of Shaun Evans, Roger Allam and newcomer Lewis Peek, all of whom enjoying good chemistry. The British countryside looks great on Blu.
Rosario Dawson is a knockout as the title character, a male fantasy of a damaged single mom: a former stripper, hooker and addict who turns grown men into putty and a young man, barely older than her son, into a reasonable facsimile of an adult.
William Macy directs Will Aldis’s threadbare script with over-insistent whimsy, which turns rom-com material into leaden melodrama; the rest of the cast—Nick Robinson, Felicity Huffman, Macy himself, Kathy Bates, and William Fichtner—has its moments but too much of Krystal is cringeworthy as it attempts being sentimental and offbeat simultaneously, like Macy’s Showtime series Shameless.
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 5th Season
This latest release collects all 24 episodes from the penultimate 1971-72 season of the comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, the perfect ringmasters for a loony stew of goofy jokes and skits, with musical interludes and political satire making appearances as well.
The first episode features the only time then “world’s biggest sex symbol” Raquel Welch came on the show; there’s also the usual motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Richard Dawson, Gary Owens, Lily Tomlin) and other guest stars like Hugh Hefner, Gene Hackman, Carroll O’Connor and Rita Hayworth that help celebrate a milestone like the series’ 100th episode.
Mary Page Marlowe
Written by Tracy Letts; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through August 12, 2018
Tatiana Maslany (right) in Mary Page Marlowe (photo: Joan Marcus)
Tracy Letts, one of most consistent playwrights, has tripped up with his latest, Mary Page Marlowe. One woman’s life in 11 scenes dramatized in non-chronological order, the play seems a riposte against his own epic study of dysfunction, August: Osage County, which for three hours brilliantly wallowed in the worst family members do to one another. Linking Osage and Mary Page is the central character’s predilection for alcohol, a cause of Mary Page’s difficulties in a life lived in the margins.
In these desultory scenes, her mismatched parents (cheating father, drinking mother) squabble, she confides in college friends that she refuses her beau’s marriage proposal, she gets married, has two kids and affairs, gets a divorce, gets remarried twice, gets jail time for a DUI, etc.
Letts’ decision to present rearranged scenes from a life feels uncomfortably contrived as a way to give significance to something that is anything but. Unsurprisingly, each scene is intelligently written, concise and pointed; the telling opening—when 40-year-old Mary Page (an impressively harried Susan Pourfar) tells her children, 15-year-old Wendy and 12-year-old Louis, why she and their father are divorcing—is a lovely look at ordinary people that has humor, pathos and insight. Other scenes might be questionably included—do we need to see her adulterous dad and put-upon mom argue while their 10-month-old cries in the next room?—but they are sharply observed, showing Letts’ ability to empathize and show life’s essential absurdity without any condescension.
Along with the excellent Pourfar, five other actresses play Mary Page. Standing out are Kellie Overbey, putting an empathetic point on the 50-year-old’s discussing her impending prison term with her second husband, and Blair Brown, sublimely portraying an older, maybe wiser heroine. Best of all is Tatiana Maslany, whose Mary Page at ages 27 and 36 provides moments of remarkable acuity and beautiful subtlety: her amusing back and forth with a shrink about her adultery is followed by a hotel tryst with her boss that for once allows her to be a formidable woman and a sexual being; these scenes hint at the tougher, more incisive play that might have been.
Despite Letts’ bravura writing of individual moments, it finally adds up to little as we are no further along to understanding or sympathizing with this woman at the end as we were 90 minutes earler: a few more scenes would fill out missing links in her relationships and sense of self-worth. Director Lila Neugebauer’s sensitive staging helps, to a point: the final coup of all Mary Pages on the upper level of Laura Jellinek’s cleverly two-tiered set watching the final scene underlines what’s missing: a life lived to its fullest, which these snapshots do not add up to.
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
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