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March '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Demon Seed
The Valley of Gwangi
(Warner Archive)

In Donald Cammell’s tepid sci-fi shocker about a murderous and sexually assaultive computer, 1977’s Demon Seed, Julie Christie totally outclasses her material as the wife of a computer scientist who finds herself at the mercy of their home computer—which wants a baby with her.
Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects are the attraction of 1969’s Valley of Gwangi, an often risible fantasy that combines Westerns and dinosaurs: a Jurassic Wild West, if you will. A wooden cast is outclassed by Harryhausen’s miniature creatures, especially a dazzling (and destructive) allosaurus. Both films have decent hi-def transfers; Gwangi extras include vintage featurettes.
Collateral Beauty
(Warner Bros)
Will Smith’s least memorable movies are always far too heavy on the sanctimony: like the execrable Seven Pounds, his new movie piles it on until there’s nothing left for the viewer except to laugh at the ridiculous self-importance. Also, an incredible supporting cast is pretty much wasted: there’s Ed Norton, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris and Michael Pena, if you please.
That there are several nicely-photographed New York locations is about the most one can say in favor of this overwrought, treacly drama. The Blu-ray image is sharp; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Finian’s Rainbow
(Warner Archive) 
Burton Lane’s tunefully whimsical 1947 musical was belatedly turned into a movie in 1968 by an up-and-coming director named Francis Ford Coppola, who only rarely balances whimsy with realism, and the result is a fitfully entertaining pastiche that could have been so much more.
Fred Astaire is too old for Finian, while Petula Clark is enchanting as his daughter Sharon; the musical numbers are serviceably done, and Philip H. Lathrop’s color photography is, if not inspired, more than competent. On Blu-ray, the film’s colors are eye-poppingly gorgeous; extras are Coppola’s commentary/intro and a vintage “world premiere” featurette.
(Opus Arte)
American composer Lowell Liebermann’s full-length ballet based on Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel is a dramatic delight, with atmospheric music that heightens the intensity of the whole monstrous saga. The dancing—notably by Steven McRae’s creature—is pretty spectacular and exquisitely shows off Liam Scarlett’s inventive choreography.
The entire performance is a happy case of something that seemed iffy but ended up top-notch. Hi-def image and sound are excellent; extras include several backstage featurettes.
A Kind of Murder
Though based on a Patricia Highsmith mystery novel, this drama about a husband hoping to rid himself of a neurotic wife is mostly bland and uninteresting, despite its accurate mise-en-scene and accomplished performances by Patrick Wilson (husband), Jessica Biel (wife), Haley Bennett (other woman) and Eddie Marsan (killer).
Despite the relatively short running time, this 96-minute would-be thriller moves like molasses. The Blu-ray looks good; extras comprise three featurettes.
Live by Night
(Warner Bros)
Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, Ben Affleck’s latest triple-threat offering—which is set during the Roaring ‘20s and Prohibition—follows a Boston gangster who sets up in Tampa to become a rum-runner.
It’s exceedingly well-made, with local color galore and flavorful characterizations courtesy of hams like Brendan Gleeson and Sienna Miller, but meandering plot lines—it should be much leaner than a drawn-out 128 minutes—and overdone violence (including the worst gun accuracy imaginable) contribute to its status as good, not great. The hi-def transfer is high quality; extras are featurettes, an Affleck commentary, and deleted scenes with Affleck commentary.
Won Ton Ton—The Dog That Saved Hollywood
In 1962, director Jules Dassin made Phaedra for his muse Melina Mercouri, whose typically intense performance makes this shaky update interesting; she’s hamstrung, though, by Anthony Perkins’s inert portrayal of the stepson she’s (gasp) fallen for. 
Won Ton Ton, a wan 1976 silent-film spoof by director Michael Winner, has intermittent laughs among unfunny pratfalls and dozens of desultory cameos (Henny Youngman, Cyd Charisse, Billy Barty, George Jessel and the Ritz Brothers, for starters), but also has the always enchantingly funny Madeline Kahn, who even steals scenes from the titular canine!
(Warner Archive)
Blake Edwards made this jet-black 1981 satire of the movie business after his successful Pink Panther films and 10 with Bo Derek, so it’s not surprising it contains the same highs and lows: extremely funny moments coupled with limp slapstick and general crudeness.
Although the movie is most notable for showing star (and Edwards’ wife) Julie Andrews’ breasts, it’s at its best whenever the triumphant comic turns by veterans Robert Preston, William Holden, Richard Mulligan and Robert Webber are front and center. The Blu-ray looks solid but unspectacular.
Wagner—Das Liebesverbot 
Schoenberg—Gurre-Lieder (Opus Arte)

Richard Wagner’s early opera Das Liebesverbot—an adaptation of Measure for Measure—is nothing like his later canonical works, but it’s entertaining and holds the stage, even in last year’s messy Madrid staging by director Kasper Holten.

Best known as a 12-tone composer, Arnold Schoenberg wrote the lushly romantic Gurre-Lieder for large orchestra, soloists and chorus: but this cantata should not be turned into an opera (of sorts) with its love triangle “plot” enacted onstage, however cleverly director Pierre Audi did it in Amsterdam. On both discs, hi-def video and audio look and sound great. The lone Gurre-Lieder extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Piotr Anderszewski Plays Greats of Mozart & Chopin at Carnegie Hall

Piotr Anderszewski

On Friday, February 17th at a packed house at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium, the extraordinary piano virtuoso, Piotr Anderszewski, gave what will surely prove to be one of the strongest recitals of the current concert season. The composers on the program—all titans—were amongst those whose work he is most closely associated, but a wonderful feature of the evening was the relative unfamiliarity of the repertory.

Anderszewski opened with an exquisite account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's sublime Opus 11: the lovely Fantasia in C Minor, K. 457, followed with barely a pause by the remarkable Sonata in C Minor, K. 457, with the playing of both works characterized by an unusual delicacy. 

The pianist, who is half-Polish, has had a special relationship with the music of his country and has been a great promoter of the works of Karol Szymanowski—several of whose works he presented at Carnegie Hall in a memorable series of concerts a few years ago—as well as the most celebrated of Polish composers, Frédéric Chopin, here represented by the introspective Polonaise-fantaisiein A-flat Major, Op. 61, sensitively rendered by Anderszewski.

The second half of the program opened with more Chopin, the beautiful Three Mazurkas, Op. 59, performed with characteristic aplomb. Chopin proved to be the fulcrum of the recital in more ways than one as his works were bookended by those of his two favorite composers, i.e., Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, whose glorious English Suite No. 6 in D Minor, brilliantly executed by the pianist, was to end the evening. Enthusiastic applause, however, elicited an outstanding encore, the three exquisite Bagatelles of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 126, providing a perfect finish for a phenomenal program.

Movie review—Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After the Storm”

After the Storm
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Hirokazu Kore-eda's After the Storm
Although he’s made memorable dramas about family bonds, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda comes a cropper with his latest, After the Storm.
Ryota, a once-famous writer, now works as a private detective in a small agency. But whatever he earns he usually loses gambling, which makes it difficult to keep up his child support payments to ex-wife Kyoko for their son Shingo. Ryota is also bemused that his mother Yoshiko is moving on after his father’s death—including learning about music (currently Beethoven’s quartets) from a neighbor—and his sister Chinatsu is spending more time at their mother’s house, apparently—he believes—sponging off her.
One evening, Ryota brings Shingo and Kyoko to his mother’s house just as a storm is brewing—they end up stranded there overnight, and it’s while there Ryota (after Kyoko tells him they have no future together and that he’s a failed father) hopes to finally earn his son’s affection.
As always, Kore-eda has enormous sympathy for every character onscreen, even if he sometimes tends to rub Ryota’s nose in his continued inability to shape up and become responsible. But Hiroshi Abe’s sensitive portrayal beautifully balances Ryota’s irresponsibility with his half-hearted attempts to mend fences, which lets us root for him even as he keeps screwing up. But Kore-eda’s steady hand and insight into tempestuous family relationships were shown to far greater emotional impact in Still Walking and Like Father Like Son.
There are wonderful moments scattered throughout, especially in the final rainstorm scenes: when Ryota takes Shingo (an adorably unself-conscious Taiyo Yoshizawa) across the street to sit in the old playground where he went with his own dad as a kid, there’s a lovely, unforced, casual quality to it. But although After the Storm reaffirms Kore-eda as one of our pre-eminent chroniclers of real life, it’s the least resonant of his films I’ve seen.
After the Storm
Opened March 17, 2017 in New York and Los Angeles

Broadway Review—Arthur Miller’s “The Price”

Arthur Miller’s The Price
Written by Arthur Miller; directed by Terry Kinney
Opened March 16, 2017
Danny DeVito, Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shaloub in Arthur Miller's The Price (photo: Joan Marcus)
Arthur Miller chronicled psychologically messy families, as the estranged brothers locking horns in The Price characteristically demonstrate. It’s surprising that The Price has been relegated to the bottom drawer of Miller’s plays, as warhorses like The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and Death of a Salesman are trotted out regularly; its quartet of juicy roles and dramatically enclosed space keep up the intensity level for over two hours, however contrived the basic situation.
The Frantz brothers are Victor, a 28-year New York City beat cop who hasn’t yet decided to retire, to the consternation of his bemused but loving wife Esther; and Walter, a successful surgeon who hasn’t had contact with his younger brother in 16 years, since their father died. Now that the enormous amount of bric-a-brac in the family home is about to be sold off prior to the building’s demolition, the brothers reunite for an uneasy tête-à-tête—attended to by 89-year-old Gregory Solomon, an antiques appraiser who becomes a sardonic commentator on the action—in which they painfully bat around what happened years ago that led to their estrangement and dealing with memories of their parents, particularly their father. Secrets are shared, and revelations are made.
Miller could write dramatically conventional but gripping confrontations in his sleep, and there are moments in The Price when it seems he did—notably Esther’s predictable shifts of allegiance between her wearying husband and his accomplished but slippery brother—but the back-and-forth between the brothers is heated and soul-baring throughout, as in this exchange about the price Victor paid while caring for their dad in his old age:
VICTOR: It’s all pointless! The whole thing doesn’t matter to me!
WALTER: He exploited you! Doesn’t that matter to you?
VICTOR: Let’s get one thing straight, Walter—I am nobody’s victim.
WALTER: But that’s exactly what I’ve tried to tell you—I’m not trying to condescend.
VICTOR: Of course you are. Would you be saying any of this if I’d made a pile of money somewhere?  I’m sorry, Walter, I can’t take that—I made no choice; the icebox was empty and the man was sitting there with his mouth open. I didn’t start this, Walter, and the whole thing doesn’t interest me, but when you talk about making choices, and I should have gone on with science, I have to say something—just because you want things a certain way doesn’t make them that way.
WALTER: All right then. How do you see it?
Of course, it helps to have actors able to tear into these meaty parts, and Terry Kinney—who directs with unobtrusive sympathy on Derek McLane’s spacious set cluttered with furniture and items doubling as symbols, like the centerstage harp and a fencing foil—has them in spades. Danny DeVito is a riotous Greek chorus as the aptly-named Solomon, and Jessica Hecht—usually an excessively mannered actress—keeps her affected line readings to a minimum, even if Esther’s New Yawk accent is straight out of Edith Bunker.
Mark Ruffalo and Tony Shaloub present a dizzying contrast in techniques. Ruffalo’s world-weary, run-down Victor finds its finest expression in the actor’s shambling stage presence, while the swaggering Shaloub—dapper in his impeccably tailored suit—flaunts Walter’s wealth and prestige even as the ghosts of the Frantz family’s past rise up to put the brothers’ own memories into question. Their head-butting never becomes fatiguing, which makes The Price—despite its flaws—heartening and, ultimately, poignant.
Arthur Miller’s The Price
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

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