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Written by Bernard Shaw; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through June 10, 2018
Condola Rashad and Daniel Sunjata in Saint Joan (photo: Joan Marcus)
Joan of Arc has attracted artists for centuries, and Bernard Shaw was no exception. His 1923 classic Saint Joan dramatizes how the 15th century French teenager managed to convince military and royal leaders to give her an army against the English, which she did spectacularly and successfully until she was finally captured, tried and burned at the stake.
But in his play, Shaw decided to forego—except for the long, engrossing trial scene in which competing dogmas and ideologies are put to the test—showing the obvious “big” scenes: we never see Joan in battle, we never see her capture or her execution. As always, Shaw’s interest was in the psychology, politics and morality; with Saint Joan, he had a huge canvas on which to work out such themes, even finding room for a playful epilogue that might seem to belong to a more irreverent treatment.
What a director must do is keep Saint Joan fluid without degenerating into static scenes of exposition and dialogue. Daniel Sullivan partially solves that with some judicious if not entirely necessary cutting: Shaw’s words are so poetic and pregnant with meaning that even too many of them aren’t problematic. Sullivan’s sober atmosphere also helps his mainly absorbing production from tripping itself up.
Scott Pask’s uncluttered set is dominated by what appear to be organ pipes hanging from the ceiling, which also allow Shaw’s words to remain center stage. And the males surrounding Joan—the French and British military and religious leaders and the Dauphin, the French regent who later became King Charles VII—are enacted by several serious stage actors like Jack Davenport, Patrick Page, John Glover, Walter Bobbie and Daniel Sunjata, all of whom provide a perfect balance of gravity leavened with humor.
Only Adam Chanler-Berat falls prey to overacting, making the Dauphin more boyish and immature than Shaw calls for—inexperienced and foolish is one thing, but foppish and campy is quite another. Condola Rashad’s Joan is well-spoken and girlish—sometimes too much so, as when she looks out into the audience with wide eyes to show off her youthfulness—but rarely compellingly tragic: as technically accomplished as she is, Rashad only finds Joan’s soul in her fleeting final moments begging for mercy from her prosecutors.
Saint Joan—which has been accurately described as “a tragedy without villains”—is one of Shaw’s most complex works, and Rashad and Sullivan provide an intermittently challenging interpretation.
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
This clumsily executed 1957 musical comprising Cole Porter’s beguiling tunes recounts the friction among the partners in a famous cabaret act, with Gene Kelly doing his usual razzle-dazzle alongside his main ladies Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, who all are worthy of the praise Porter showers on them.
Too bad George Cukor’s curiously flatfooted direction keeps this from taking off like the best movie musicals of its era do. The colorful widescreen compositions look excitingly alive in hi-def; extras are an archival featurette hosted by Elg and a vintage cartoon.
In Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s volatile Beirut-set feature, hurled insults between a local and a Palestinian laborer spiral into a national case that is judged in the media and the courtroom. Doueiri’s taut story raises the stakes between the two men at first, but then becomes more strident and contrived, so much so that its power is diminished.
Still, Doueiri’s formidably authentic actors lend the film the gravitas it needs. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is an informative 33-minute interview in which Doueiri discusses (in English) his film’s genesis.
Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame In Concert
This invaluable two-disc set for music fans collects the most recent quartet of Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies: 2014, 2016 and 2017 in Brooklyn and 2015 in Cleveland.
Not surprisingly, the highlights are many: 2014 features the remaining members of Nirvana with singers Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Lorde; 2015 brings a Ringo and Paul reunion for Starr’s belated solo induction; 2016 finally admits both Deep Purple and Cheap Trick; and 2017 does the same with both ELO and Yes (with Geddy Lee playing bass in place of the late, great Chris Squire). Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, an elite troop of U.S. Special Forces goes to Afghanistan to kick-start the War on Terror by (at first begrudgingly and later more willingly) teaming with the North Alliance to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda.
This straightforward and effective dramatization of the group’s heroics has been directed by the workmanlike Nicolai Fuglsig, and the heroes are enacted with true grit by Liam Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Pena, among others. The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; extras comprise two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
Ilan Ziv’s exhaustive six-part feature documents the history of capitalism, from Adam Smith’s incisive and misinterpreted insights (like his legendary phrase, “invisible hand”) to the 2008 global collapse, which—according to many renowned economists—wasn’t supposed to happen.
Through interviews with sundry experts and witty sequences explaining integral concepts, Ziv has made a thorough, impactful look at what, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst of all possible economic systems—except for all others.
A Violent Life
The Mediterranean island of Corsica (Napoleon’s birthplace) isn’t usually in movies, especially as shown in Thierry de Peretti’s gritty drama, whose protagonist returns from Paris to the raw, violent isle he grew up on after his best friend (and fellow gang member) is murdered.
Through clever flashbacks, de Peretti trenchantly explores the underbelly of a modern society whose everyday life is gripped by crime and a regional fractionalism so severe that it’s led to a separatist movement against the arrogant French state.
Writer-director Scott Cooper always wanted to make a western, and this intermittently powerful drama—which displays a knack for the wide spaces and unexpected violence that the Indian territories comprised—is a thoughtful study of the men and women caught up in the casual brutality that was their daily existence circa 1892.
It’s a little long, and some scenes fall flat, but this is assured work from Cooper, with sturdy performances by Christian Bale, Rosemund Pike and Wes Studi among a large and varied cast. And the final shots are haunting. The film looks spectacular on Blu; lone extra is a 60-minute making-of documentary.
Bill Nye—Science Guy
This engaging documentary portrait of the world’s most popular scientist since Carl Sagan (his mentor) shows Nye in his natural habitat: not the lab, but in front of crowds and cameras spreading the gospel of scientific inquiry and learning to millions of all ages.
It’s quite touching seeing those interested in science or in scientific careers after watching his TV show, and Nye himself is quite pleasant, but there are also his missteps, like when he debated a prominent creationist and the ensuing publicity gave millions in donations to a creationist museum, the very antithesis of Nye’s own advocacy. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include several deleted scenes.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space
The textbook definition of a guilty pleasure is this grade-Z horror comedy from 1988 about the title characters terrorizing a bunch of horribly awful actors and actresses; the Chiodo brothers can focus the camera in the right direction, at least, and their sense of humor is intact if infantile.
As always with cult items, your mileage may vary. The film looks presentable on Blu-ray; many extras include an archival Chiodo brothers’ commentary, making-of documentary, interviews with filmmakers and stars, and several of the Chiodos’ earlier films.
Director Paul King’s slight comic adventure has its share of charming moments, and a cast of top-flight British performers (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Hugh Grant, Peter Capaldi and Brendan Gleeson) ensures it stays in its lane, but the story—a term in jail for our favorite (and innocent) anthropomorphic bear—threatens to completely scuttle the film.
Still, Paddington 2 remains disarming throughout, which is the most you can expect from a sequel. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras include featurettes and a music video.
A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo
This pair of Spaghetti westerns, from 1965 and 1966, respectively, are both directed by Duccio Tessari, who follows a clean-cut gunslinging hero as he takes his revenge—yes, there’s enough vengeance to go around for two films—on bunches of faceless, thieving and murdering Mexicans.
It’s often borderline risible, but fans of the western genre will find something to enjoy here. Both films have fine hi-def transfers; extras comprise commentaries for both films, interviews and featurettes.
Unforgotten—Complete 1st Season
This latest in PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series is an absorbing procedural about a pair of detectives working a re-opened case when the remains of a body appear decades after the victim disappeared.
Narrowing the suspects to a manageable few who have motive if not opportunity, the detectives methodically find their way to the truth. Forceful acting by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as the partners is reinforced by a superb supporting cast led by veteran Tom Courtenay as one of those under suspicion. The six episodes look terrific on Blu.
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the DVD I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)
DVD of the Week
Claws—Complete 1st Season
This tongue-in-cheek series about manicurists in Manatee County, Florida who want to start their own upscale salon, by hook or by crook—mostly the latter—is as subtle as its title, with streams of easy jokes, broad stereotypes and even broader acting.
But there’s something appealingly off-kilter that prevents it from ever getting too precious, even if ten one-hour episodes—and with more seasons to come—are too much of a not-so-great thing.
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