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Written by Samuel D. Hunter; directed by Davis McCallum
Performances through January 19, 2020
Edmund Donovan (front) and Haley Sakamoto in Greater Clements (photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Comprising mostly desultory moments that too often flirt with soap opera, Samuel D. Hunter’s Greater Clements doesn’t quite succeed as a real American tragedy, but it’s a serious play about a relevant subject: the end of the American Dream.
The setting is Clements, a small Idaho town that’s seen better days: the once-thriving mine has closed and even tours of it have dwindled to nothing. Proprietor of the local museum, Maggie—whose father died in a mine accident years ago and whose husband left her for another man—survives meagerly thanks to the occasional tourist visit, but most of her time is spent dealing with her grown son, Joe, a disturbed young man whose violent past haunts the community.
Reentering Maggie’s life is Billy, a high school boyfriend dying of cancer who wants to rekindle their relationship. Billy brings along his granddaughter, Kel, whose quick bonding with Joe leads to a scare when Kel goes missing. The play’s convoluted melodrama is climaxed by a fatal shooting, a scene in which poor Maggie is tortured psychologically—and needlessly, even masochistically—by the playwright. (He even introduces a new character, which drags the length play out even more.)
Hunter does write sympathetically about these characters’ current situation, with Joe, in his quotidian way, explaining cogently what’s happened to places around the country like Clements: “I mean, it’s gotten smaller, it’s—. But I mean, being a town—it still means something.” But, as his cavalier treatment of his heroine in the play’s final enervating sequence shows, Hunter is not above manipulation. Maggie’s relationship with Billy is touching, but let’s face it: Hunter needs Billy and Kel in town to pave the way for the play’s climactic death.
David McCallum’s staging (on Dane Laffrey’s agile sets, with an assist from Yi Zhao’s expressive lighting) is impeccable, and the fine supporting cast is led by Ken Narasaki as Billy and Haley Sakamoto as Kel. But, most memorably, Maggie and Joe are illuminated by the affecting performances of Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan, which hauntingly cut to the heart of the mother and son’s complicated relationship.
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
Lorene Scafaria’s gritty drama about some financially shaky strippers who get together for even better scores—fleecing wealthy men while plying them with drink—might overstay its welcome, but it’s entertaining as long as one doesn’t think too long about their questionable ruse (that may be what Scafaria was aiming for, but it’s not that obvious).
Alongside an excellent Constance Wu is a sensational star turn by Jennifer Lopez (in her best performance since Selena and Out of Sight 20 years ago) and fine support from Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B, Lizzo and Mercedes Ruehl. The Blu-ray image looks excellent; lone extra is Scafaria’s commentary.
The Cotton Club Encore
Francis Coppola’s roaring ’20s in Harlem epic remains a messy melodrama—even in this longer director’s cut—but seeing it 35 years later with the benefit of hindsight brings new appreciation for what does work: the dancing, singing and delightful performances of Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Geoffrey Hines and Lonette McKee, along with Richard Sylbert’s production design, Milena Canonero’s costumes and Stephen Goldblatt’s photography, all dazzling.
The film looks spectacular in hi-def; extras are a new Coppola intro and 20-minute Q&A from this version’s New York Film Festival screening.
Kurt Weill—Street Scene
Kurt Weill’s glorious Broadway musical-cum-opera, set in a Manhattan tenement, premiered in 1946 with songs (with lyrics by poet Langston Hughes) and drama (based on Elmer Rice’s play) as relevant now as they were nearly 75 years ago.
John Fulljames’ splendid 2018 production at Madrid’s Teatro Real has a terrific singing cast led by Patricia Racette, Paulo Szot, Mary Bevan and Joel Prieto. Weill’s biting tunes sound pretty formidable as performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real de Madrid, and conducted by Tim Murray. Both hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
This earnestly amateurish Christian movie follows a basketball coach turned cross-country coach using unconventional means to train an asthmatic teenager from the wrong side of the tracks (in her first scene she steals headphones—then takes off like a shot to show her running bona fides).
This is the kind of movie that hits a fake climax every 20 minutes or so, and the acting—led by clumsy director Mark Kendrick, who woodenly plays the coach—is as risible as the script. The title should have been Overlong. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras are a commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes and featurettes.
This 1985 Stephen King adaptation—from his novella Cycle of the Werewolf—is cheesy and corny (especially when it comes to the laughably bear-like werewolf, courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi) but director Daniel Battias smartly tells the story through the eyes of a young brother and sister, which saves it.
It’s a bumpy ride with some bad acting and subpar effects (the best moment has a pastor dreaming of parishioners transforming into werewolves during mass), but Corey Haim and Megan Follows are appealing youngsters and Gary Busey is amusingly off-kilter as their uncle. The hi-def transfer looks fine; extras include an Attias commentary, isolated score selections and audio interview with composer Jay Chattaway, and new video interviews.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece (it’s far better than The Queen of Spades) has emotive music and graceful melodies galore and features juicy parts for star tenor and soprano as Onegin and Tatiana, Pushkin’s ultimate tragic lovers.
They’re played by the sublime Mariusz Kwiecien and Tatiana Monogarova in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s enjoyable 2008 Bolshoi production, which includes superb work by the Bolshoi orchestra under conductor Alexander Vedernikov. The hi-def video and audio look and sound quite impressive.
Tchaikovsky—The Nutcracker and Mouse King
The Nutcracker is the world’s most beloved holiday ballet, but this 2018 Ballett Zürich production by director/choreographer Christian Spuck tweaks it by returning to the original source, E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, to fill out the plot and characters in a less sugary manner.
These changes shouldn’t disturb any but the most perturbed purists, for the tuneful score remains, and the ballet is as enchanting as ever, led by Michelle Willems’ wonderful performance as a most beguiling Marie (i.e., Clara). There’s a first-class hi-def transfer.
CD of the Week
Rued Langgaard—Complete String Quartets
Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) is barely known in this country aside from his opera Antichrist, but this 3-CD set comprising his complete string quartets, composed over a 36-year span, should help alleviate that situation.
Langgaard’s six numbered quartets as well as several other works (variations, an unnumbered early quartet, etc.) display a versatile instrumental facility and a range of moods from extreme serenity to slashing rage. Performing these fine works impeccably is the Nightingale String Quartet.
It Chapter Two
Although as overlong as the first film and bloated with relentless and often redundant flashbacks, Andy Muschietti’s follow-up is more engaging, mainly because the lead actors, from Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader to Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Martell and Finn Wolfhard as their younger selves, dramatize Stephen King’s juvenile material with no-nonsense professionalism.
There’s still the ridiculous, inane finale as the clown Pennywise morphs into other murderous creatures, but that’s to be expected from the rarely subtle King. The hi-def transfer is impressive; extras include a two-part making-of doc, featurettes and Muschietti’s commentary.
An Elephant Sitting Still
The story behind Chinese director Hu Bo’s first (and only) feature is as saddening as his nearly four-hour, slow-burning drama about several downcast and defeated characters in modern-day China.
After finishing the film, Hu Bo committed suicide at age 29, leaving behind the question of what-could-have-been for a talented filmmaker but also a sense that perhaps this magnum opus summed up his outlook on life and death and nothing else would have the same impact. Either way, this monumental film is flawed and repetitive but consistently fascinating. A magnificent hi-def transfer elevates the lacerating closeups even higher. Lone extra is his short, Man in the Well.
Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic
(Film Movement Classics)
In the two films making up Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic—The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb—the exoticism of the Far East is colorfully if somewhat ploddingly brought to life by the legendary German director. Tiger is almost infuriatingly slow-paced, but the better-paced Tomb more organically delves into a culture unknown to many westerners.
A sparkling restoration gives the colors saturating depth on Blu-ray; extras are two commentaries, The Indian Epic documentary, and a video essay on star Debra Paget.
Donna Tartt’s bloated and enervating novel somehow won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, likely because its plot intersected the worlds of art and terrorism to nod toward being highbrow, even though Tartt’s is a distinctly middlebrow sensibility. Still, I held out hope for John Crowley’s film version since he showed such sensitivity and tact with 2015’s Brooklyn.
But this messy adaptation is a Cliffs Notes’ selection of highlights, nicely shot and acted (especially by Oakes Fegley as the younger self of hero Theodore, whose mother died in a Met Museum blast and who stole a small painting by a Dutch Master in the confusion) but narratively diffuse and often too literal-minded. The film looks superb in hi-def; extras are deleted scenes with Crowley’s intros and two featurettes.
Joan the Maid
(Cohen Film Collection)
I’ve never been a Jacques Rivette fan, except for the two films he made in the early ‘90s: 1991’s magnificently intimate, four-hour artist exploration, La belle noiseuse, and this even longer two-part study of Joan of Arc, released in 1994.
Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, in one of her greatest performances as the 14-year-old Joan (the actress was 26 while shooting), Rivette’s consistently engrossing historical drama clocks in at 5-1/2 hours, yet there’s not a dull or inopportune moment. The film’s restored hi-def transfer is richly detailed; too bad there are no contextualizing extras.
Michael Anderson’s 1965 World War II drama gives a mainly fictional spin to the Allied operation where spies infiltrated a German factory involved in making the V1 and V2 rockets that were heavily damaging London and might do so to New York if the war continues.
Still, despite melodramatic touches (like Sophia Loren’s grieving but acquiescent widow of a man whom one of the spies is imitating), the film is entertaining and even at times exciting, and it authentically allows the actors to speak English, German or Dutch. It’s rare to hear so many bilingual name actors (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Anthony Quayle, Sophia Loren, Jeremy Kemp), providing welcome verisimilitude, which helps to smooth over the occasional silly moments. The film looks great in hi-def; lone extra is a vintage making-of.
Ready or Not
After a young woman marries her sweetheart at his family’s estate, they tell her she must partake in a “game” of hide and seek with her armed in-laws as a rite of passage that soon turns malevolent and murderous.
Samara Weaving makes for a most appealing heroine, but even she cannot save this benighted and obnoxious attempt at mixing humor and horror. There’s a very good hi-def transfer; extras include a making-of featurette, gag reel and a directors’ and star’s commentary.
DVD of the Week
Raise Hell—The Life and Times of Molly Ivins
Molly Ivins—the finest progressive journalist/political analyst of the late 20th century—is sorely missed in this era of corruption and gaslighting by the tRump administration that made the George W. Bush years look tame in comparison.
Director Janice Engel’s loving documentary portrait presents Ivins’ life, career and unique perspective (including her spicy sense of Texas humor) in its proper context, showing how progressivism has been in an uphill climb against entrenched corporate and conservative concerns in politics and media. Some of Ivins’ most stinging bits are included, along with heartfelt reminiscences by colleagues and figures who were the butt of her barbs. Extras are additional Ivins clips.
Idina Menzel—Christmas: A Season of Love
Idina Menzel—known by the public as the “Let It Go” singer from Frozen the movie and by those in the know as one of Broadway’s best singing actresses—returns with her second holiday album, matching her vibrant soprano with familiar yuletide tunes, from boppy openers “Sleigh Ride” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” to classic hymns “Oh Holy Night” and “Auld Lang Syne.”
She also brings friends on board for fun duets on lesser-known ditties, including Billy Porter (“I Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), Josh Gad (“We Wish You the Merriest”) and Ariana Grande (“A Hand for Mrs. Claus”). Other favorites are her take on the Peanuts standard “Christmas Time Is Here” and a song that name checks are young son, “Walker’s 3rd Hanukkah.”
The Bad and the Beautiful
Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 Hollywood drama might not have the incisiveness of All About Eve or the darkness of Sunset Boulevard, but its story of a ruthless producer and those he uses along the way—including an actress, writer and director, all of whose tales we see—is an unalloyed delight, a sheerly entertaining glimpse of the movie business.
Kirk Douglas (producer), Lana Turner (actress), Dick Powell (writer) and Barry Sullivan (director) give the best performances of their careers, Charles Schnee’s script is witty and razor-sharp, and Minnelli’s direction is perfectly realized. Robert Surtees’ B&W photography looks especially sumptuous in hi-def; extras comprise the documentary Lana Turner: A Daughter’s Memoir and several score session cues.
The Battle of Leningrad
The exhausting 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad from 1941-43 is dramatized in this heroic but superficial war film that displays the horrors the Soviets went through but also their indomitable spirit while fighting a superior foe.
Although writer-director Aleksey Kozlov’s impressive physical production highlights the tension onboard a defenseless barge and its overflow crowd fending off German bombers, this otherwise standard-issue war drama gets most of its resonance by remembering those who died for their country. The movie looks spectacular on Blu.
Henry-Alex Rubin’s earnest if familiar melodrama about a police officer who’s also a Marine reservist who helps get his half-brother out of prison when he’s unfairly convicted wears its heart on its sleeve but can’t compensate for the script’s myriad clichés.
Mainly unfamiliar actors (excepting the always winning Leighton Meester) are unable to overcome the soggy writing and directing. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes, featurettes and Rubin’s commentary.
Giuseppe Verdi’s classic opera about a famed courtesan is a dazzling showcase for a soprano, and Albanian singer Ermonela Jaho thrillingly goes for broke in her emotive characterization, so much so that she actually looks consumptively shrinking at the end of Richard Eyre’s handsome Royal Opera House (London) production.
As her lover and his father, respectively, Charles Castronovo and legendary Placido Domingo acquit themselves well. It’s adeptly conducted by Antonello Manacorda, leading the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
Wagner—Tristan und Isolde
Richard Wagner’s epic tragic romance has some of the most moving music ever written for the operatic stage—along with two of opera’s most punishing vocal parts. In Pierre Audi’s 2016 Rome staging, tenor Andreas Schager does wonders with minimal strain as Tristan, while soprano Rachel Nicholls does Herculean work as Isolde, especially in the draining, climactic Liebestod.
Conductor Daniele Gatti and the Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma give an impassioned reading of Wagner’s massive score. Video and audio look and sound sublime in hi-def.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil
Radioactive airborne matter has seemingly wiped out the earth’s population: except for a miner who was conveniently underground, played by Harry Belafonte. He goes to Manhattan to begin anew...but soon two others appear, and this thrown-together trio must deal with the end of civilization—and the possible beginning of another.
Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer’s complex performances give director-writer Ranald MacDougall’s shallow “apocalypse drama” more gravitas than it deserves, but there are truly eye-opening views of a deserted New York City, including eerie shots of empty vehicles piled up on the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel. Harold J. Marzorati’s B&W cinematography looks especially impressive on Blu.
DVDs of the Week
The Ground Beneath My Feet
Valerie Pachner’s persuasive portrayal of an employee of a powerful consulting firm whose personal and professional lives are put to the test when her mentally unbalanced sister’s condition worsens at the same time her work at the firm is given unfair scrutiny is the heart of Marie Kreutzer’s insightful character study.
Pachner dominates the screen in a physically and psychologically transfixing performance, whether she’s on a bracing run or dealing with discrimination from coworkers or the guilt she feels over her sister.
The Miracle of the Little Prince
Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable The Little Prince has survived since its 1943 publication (preceding the author’s death in World War II) as a work that children and adults of all ages love, but director Marjoleine Boonstra explores another aspect of its endurance in this forthright documentary.
The novella has been translated into hundreds of languages, including some on the brink of extinction, and Boonstra visits those who have translated the book into Tamazight (Morocco), Nahautl (El Salvador), Sami (Scandinavia), and Tibetan to record how it has allowed those languages to survive. If only the film wasn’t so long—it’s only 89 minutes, but reading excerpts and showing picture-postcard shots of the various landscapes do nothing but stretch the running time.
CDs of the Week
Neave Trio—Her Voice
Ethyl Smyth—Mass in D Minor
In the 19th century, composers Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn were more famous for being attached to a more famous husband and brother, respectively. These two discs highlight a quartet of accomplished 19th and 20th century composers who happen to be women. Her Voice is the latest from the excellent Neave Trio, which eloquently performs spirited trios by three original voices: France’s Louise Farrenc (her 1843 trio), American Amy Beach (her 1938 trio) and Brit Rebecca Clarke (her 1921 trio).
The other disc brings together two works by British composer Ethel Smyth: the overture to her forceful 1904 opera The Wreckers and her Mass, a painstakingly realized work from 1891 (revised in 1925). Sakari Oramo skillfully conducts the BBC Symphony and Chorus and four fine soloists in her Mass.
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