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Broadway Musical Review—Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole in “War Paint”

War Paint
Book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Greif
Opened April 6, 2017
 
Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole (center) in War Paint (photo: Joan Marcus)

Like Feud, FX Network’s series about the legendary antagonism between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the new musical War Paint dramatizes the battle royale between the most powerful women in the beauty industry: Helene Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Unlike Feud—whose eight one-hour episodes methodically delved into the decades-long fighting between Davis and Crawford—War Paint has to confine its fascinating story to 2-1/2 hours, which often impedes the show’s dramatic momentum, despite the star-wattage of leading actresses Patti Lupone (Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (Arden).
 
That’s not to say War Paint fails—its flaws are not fatal—but the difficulty is that, in real life, Rubinstein and Arden (probably) never met. So director Michael Greif and his collaborators Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) have to cover that up by cleverly shuttling back and forth between the two women in their respective lives and careers, with their main men doing double duty: Rubinstein’s right-hand man Harry Fleming and Arden’s husband Tommy Lewis, each of whom left his boss and went to work for her direct competitor.
 
And War Paint works—up to a point. Catherine Zuber’s glamorous costumes, David Korins’ sleek sets and Kenneth Posner’s marvelous lighting provide needed visual luster whenever the drama or the music hits not infrequent lulls. Greif’s staging and Frankel/Korie’s songs place our protagonists center stage, rubbing shoulders even when on separate narrative tracks. Luckily, their stories are arresting enough to sustain interest even when, especially in Act II, everything starts to become repetitious or, conversely, is given short shrift.
 
For example, in the early 1940s, when both women’s companies ingeniously join the war effort to keep selling their beauty products even during severe rationing, a witty song, “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention,” covers it: then we suddenly fast-forward to the post-war 1950s, which introduces new business hurdles like appealing to teenage girls instead of their mothers. Cramming several decades’ worth of Rubinstein and Arden’s professional and personal intrigues reduces the show to a “greatest hits” package of highlights.
 
For War Paint to work well, it needs a top-notch cast, which it happily has. Heading an excellent supporting cast are sidekicks Douglas Sills (Fleming) and John Dossett (Lewis), who make the most of their time onstage dealing with shifting personal and professional allegiances or running into each other and commiserating despite their differences. Their droll duet, “Dinosaurs,” is an amused and bemused number about the twilight of their careers.
 
But Lupone and Ebersole are the main reasons to see War Paint,their electric performances as the tough-as-nails Polish immigrant and the Canadian farmer’s daughter complementing each other perfectly. Lupone’s thick Eastern European accent is initially impenetrable, especially while singing, but the ear adjusts and her complex portrayal rings through loud and clear by the time of her climactic song, “Forever Beautiful.” Likewise, Ebersole’s inimitably plucky portrait culminates in her big showstopper, “Pink.” Both of these 11 o’clock numbers give our legendary ladies what they deserve: a chance to bring the house down. And they don’t disappoint—even if War Paint sometimes does.
 
War Paint
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street

warpaintbroadway.com

Film reviews—Lina Wertmuller Documentary “Behind the White Glasses”; Quad Cinema Retro “Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble”

Behind the White Glasses
Directed by Valerio Ruiz
Opens April 21, 2017
Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble
Series runs through May 1, 2017
 
Director Lina Wertmuller in Behind the White Glasses
 
The first and last images of Behind the White Glasses are of now 88-year-old director Lina Wertmuller typing furiously on her keyboard, epitomizing her five-decades long career of frantic and garish but intelligent and humane movies, with many unfilmed scripts cluttering up shelves in her office.
 
Documentary director Valerio Ruiz has made an admiring portrait of an artist whose often impressive work is an outgrowth of her gregarious personality, something which has shown itself throughout her 30-odd films, stuffed to the gills with so much vitality, aliveness and richly rendered real life that some label them too cartoonish or gaudy. Admittedly, that’s been both her great strength and weakness. At her peak (especially in her mid-‘70s classics The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, Swept Away…, and culminating masterpiece Seven Beauties), Wertmuller was in firm control of whatever she put onscreen, much like her idol (and former employer) Federico Fellini, another Italian director whose effortless mastery of form provoked detractors to complain about his indifference to content, however unfair that criticism was.
 
Ruiz’s documentary spends much of its time discussing those four essential Wertmuller films, along with some of the others, misfires like A Night Full of Rain or Blood Feud. (It’s worth noting that Wertmuller’s Italian titles are almost impossibly wordy—another sign of her attempts to stuff as much as possible into every aspect of her films, even their titles.) And many talking heads enthusiastically and emphatically talk about Wertmuller, from her greatest collaborator, actor Giancarlo Giannini; her nephew, actor Massimo Wertmuller; and even a still-glamorous Sophia Loren, to her biggest American fans: director Martin Scorsese, actor Harvey Keitel (who made a film with her in Sicily) and critic John Simon, who famously raved about Seven Beauties, one of the rare movies to live up to his exacting standards.
 
But mainly Ruiz smartly concentrates on Lina herself, who engagingly reminisces about a career that began as Fellini’s assistant on 8-1/2, her brief adventures in America after becoming famous and how her life was shattered by the death of her beloved husband (and set designer for her films) Enrico Job, by all accounts a perfectly lovely man and extraordinary artist. When Wertmuller wordlessly walks through rooms in their vacation house filled with mementos of Job’s brilliant career, it’s an overwhelmingly emotional scene worthy of one of her films.
 
Behind the White Glasses is showing at the newly renovated and recently re-opened Quad Cinema in Manhattan as part of the opening retrospective Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble. Although far from complete—it’s too bad that films needing reappraisal like Saturday, Sunday and Monday (especially its three-hour TV version) and others rarely if ever seen in New York, like her last feature, 2004’s Too Much Romance...It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers, starring Sophia Loren and F. Murray Abraham, are missing from the schedule—the series serves as a fine big screen overview of an important if erratic artist.
 
Giancarlo Giannini in Seven Beauties
 
If you see only one Wertmuller film, make it the sardonic, vulgar, hilarious and ultimately shattering Seven Beauties, containing Giannini’s stupendous and unforgettable performance. But there are hidden gems like Sotto Sotto, a tough but tender 1984 comedy about a wife who, after falling for another woman, must deal with her husband’s uncontrollable anger after discovering it’s not another man. Also included are her first two features, the clunky but interesting The Lizards (1963) and Let’s Talk About Men (1964).
 
If in recent years she has been relegated to an answer in an Oscar quiz (she was the first female nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties), Behind the White Glasses and Female Trouble give Wertmuller her due as an inventive, passionate and endlessly entertaining filmmaker.
 
Behind the White Glasses
Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble
Quad Cinema, 34 W 13th Street, New York, NY
quadcinema.com

April '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

L’Assassino

(Arrow Academy)
Elio Petri’s 1960 debut has its muddy moments, but its cracklingly alive story of a businessman who may have killed his rich mistress deliciously anticipates the director’s own later masterpiece, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. A perfect vehicle for the ever-suave Marcello Mastroianni, this finely-wrought exploration of an era of cultural decay and political sleaze came out the same year as the more famous La Dolce Vita, but notably holds its own on a smaller canvas. Carlo di Palm’s richly-hued B&W photography looks beautiful in hi-def; extras are a 50-minute portrait of cowriter Tonino Guerra and an introduction to Petri.
 
After Porn Ends 2
(Gravitas Ventures)
This second go-round of “where are they now—the adult-film version” is a sympathetic glimpse at X-rated stars after leaving the business, like legends Lisa Ann (has a fantasy-sports show on satellite radio) and Ginger Lynn (sells her paintings online), along with others whose lives vary from fulfilling to difficult. The final chapter about Janine Lindemulder is heartbreaking: she lost custody of her child to ex Jesse James (with then-wife Sandra Bullock—and we know how that turned out, partly because of her profession). There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Buena Vista Social Club 

(Criterion)

Wim Wenders’ joyful 1999 documentary about a group of Cuban musicians performing together at Carnegie Hall remains, nearly two decades after it was made, one of the most beloved music documentaries ever, taking on new resonance in today’s era of U.S.-Cuba relations. The film often looks less than ideal on Blu-ray, but the extras—new Wenders interview, Wenders commentary, musician interviews and additional scenes—more than compensate for fluctuating picture quality.
 
Donnie Darko
(Arrow Academy)
Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult film is an interesting misfire, a combination of fantasy, science-fiction, teen rom-com and anything else Kelly stuffs into it, particularly in the alternately fascinating and boring director’s cut; still, there’s some heady stuff to chew on, even if most of it makes no discernible (or even non-discernible) sense. Arrow Academy has resurrected Donnie with sterling hi-def transfers of both the 113-minute theatrical cut and the 133-minute director’s cut and many extras including Kelly’s commentary, vintage featurettes, interviews and a music video; a hardcover book inside a slipcase tops off an elegant package.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Home Fires—Complete 2nd Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

As the Second World War surges on and the Battle of Britain becomes ever more terrifyingly close, the women of the small English town of Great Paxford continue their contributions to the war effort. Despite some contrived writing, the very accomplished acting by a stellar cast (comprising the likes of Francesca Annis, Samantha Bond, Ruth Gemmell and Frances Grey, for starters) makes this six-part mini-series engrossing throughout. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
 
Ride the High Country
36 Hours
(Warner Archive)
An early Sam Peckinpah effort, 1962’s High Country is a solid if unspectacular Western whose energy makes up for a certain lack of narrative finesse: fine acting by Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and a young Marietta Hartley as the damsel in distress also helps.
 
 
 
 
The 1965 war drama 36 Hours has a great story—Nazis try to obtain needed D-Day intel from an amnesiac American—but it would have been more trenchant shorter: nearly two hours of James Garner as the Yank and Rod Taylor and Eva Marie Saint as Germans pretending to be American is about 20 minutes too much. Both films have stunning hi-def transfers; Country has a commentary and Peckinpah featurette.
 
To Walk Invisible—The Brontë Sisters
(PBS Masterpiece)
In 1979, French director Andre Techine’s biopic about the literary Brontë sisters starred the unbeatable trio of Marie-France Pisier and the two Isabelles: Huppert and Adjani. Similarly, the new British Brontë biopic has a strong cast—alongside Finn Atkins, Charlie Murphy and Chloe Pirrie as the sisters there’s no less than the brilliant Jonathan Pryce as their father. But despite distinguished acting and lovely location photography, the film remains curiously uninvolving, its final images—showing the Brontë home today, a museum overrun with tourists—outright desperate. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras comprise two short featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVD of the Week 

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer

(Icarus)

This auspicious feature debut by director Pierfrancesco Diliberto (known as Pif, a popular TV satirist) is a blackly comic Sicilian sort-of romance, as our narrator explains how and why he fell for his pretty schoolmate while Mafioso killings punctuated their daily lives. Pif makes a dopily endearing protagonist, Cristiana Capotondi epitomizes the irresistible girl next door, and the film itself cannily balances the simultaneous humor and horror of finding young love while bodies are dropping all around.

Broadway Review—Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter”

Present Laughter
Written by Noel Coward; directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel
Opened April 5, 2017
 
Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline in Present Laughter (photo: Joan Marcus)
 
Kevin Kline in a Noel Coward play is a no-brainer. One of the few American actors who’s a dashing leading man, perfect light comedian and supple physical performer, even at age 69—older by nearly 30 years than the egocentric matinee idol of Coward’s Present Laughter, Garry Essendine—Kline runs rings around performers far younger than he. And so he is the main reason to see this latest revival of one of Coward’s sturdiest comedies.
 
The charismatic Kline is charming throughout, easily handling Coward’s witty epigraphs and retorts, as a famous theater actor dealing with sundry problems on and offstage, including the many people in his successful orbit: his loyal but harried secretary Monica; his level-headed but harried ex-wife Liz; his trusty but harried valet Fred; his harried Norwegian maid Miss Erikson; his harried closest friends, producer Henry and director Morris; Henry’s young wife Joanna; loony young would-be playwright, Roland; and Daphne, a young starlet who adores him.  
 
Coward records the comings and goings of these people in Garry’s apartment with simultaneous amusement and bemusement, and if the seams in his elegant drawing-room comedy are starting to show, there’s more than enough good will and funny lines to provide 2-1/2 hours of civilized entertainment. Too bad that Moritz Von Stuelpnagel directs with an unsteady hand, sometimes comically on-point and other times adding needless physical comedy like Roland’s increasingly unfunny handshakes, bringing the play uncomfortably close to door-slamming French farce, which is not what Coward’s comedy is all about.
 
Still, on David Zinn’s perfectly cluttered set, the cast is generally on-target. Despite mealy-mouthed Reg Rogers (Morris) and crass Bhavesh Patel (Roland), there are accomplished comic turns by wonderful newcomer Tedra Millan (Daphne), remindful of a young Marisa Tomei, and TV’s Cobie Smulders, whose smoldering Joanna looks smashing in Susan Hilferty’s slinky gowns, all while giving as good as she gets.
 
I’m less enamored with Kate Burton’s Liz, who’s not as sympathetic as she should be, and Kristine Nielsen’s Monica, whose genuinely hilarious moments are undercut by her usual mannerisms. But Kline is so smooth, suave, effortlessly funny and urbane as Garry that he makes this Present Laughter live up to its title. Here’s hoping Kline continues to tackle more of Coward’s canon on Broadway.
 
Present Laughter
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street
laughteronbroadway.com

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