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Film and the Arts

July '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Billy Budd 

(Warner Archive)

Peter Ustinov directed and stars as the honest Captain Vere in this straightforwardly dramatic 1962 adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novella set on a British warship circa 1797.





With strong work by Robert Ryan as the dastardly Claggart and (in his film debut) Terence Stamp as the naïve and idealistic Billy, Ustinov paints a pointed portrait of good (and innocence) vs. evil. On Blu-ray, the B&W Cinemascope photography looks splendid; the lone extra is an informative audio commentary by Stamp and director Steven Soderbergh.


Keeping Faith 

(RLJ Entertainment)

A wife and mother who is just returning to her law office following the birth of her third child, Faith Howells must now deal with the unspeakable: her beloved husband vanishes one day on his way to the office, forcing her to raise her kids alone, start searching for him and—most importantly—fend off the suspicions of locals.





This colorful Welsh-set series takes its sweet time to get going, but its slow-burn dramatics work in its favor, as does Eve Myles’ ingratiating performance as Faith. Extras comprise a 45-minute on-set featurette and character intros.







Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg 

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Richard Wagner’s colossal comedy runs 4-1/2 hours when staged (plus lengthy intermissions), but in the right hands it is an hilarious and heartwarming work that many consider the master’s greatest. Last summer at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth, Germany, Philippe Jordan conducted the orchestra and chorus in an illuminating reading of the marvelous score, and the veteran cast—Michael Volle, Johannes Martin Kranzle, Klaus Florian Vogt and Anne Schwanewilms—responds with a marvelous collective vocal performance.





Too bad that director Barrie Kosky’s gimmicky production lowers the bar quite a bit; but luckily, with such pros onstage and in the pit, the visuals are enervating without being destructive. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.


DVDs of the Week

The Great Game 

(Icarus Films)

Intrigue is the name of the game in Nicolas Pariser’s initially diverting but quickly wearying espionage drama, in which a formerly leftist writer is hired by a right-wing politician to help discredit the prime minister and a far-left faction—and, naturally, help elevate the conservative to head of state.





Despite a strong cast—Melvil Poupaud, Clemence Poesy, Sophie Cattani, and the great Andre Dussolier—Pariser never achieves the sophistication and elegance of the best French films that effortlessly mix the political and the personal.












Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s earnest drama is set in Los Angeles in 1992, before and during the riots that ensued when white cops were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King (which was captured on video).




Although Halle Berry, Daniel Craig and newcomers Lamar Johnson and Rachel Hilson give crackerjack portrayals of local residents caught up in a fatally out of control spiral, Ergüven—unlike her remarkable previous film, Mustang—never settles on a coherent way to dramatize these events, instead relying on hackneyed melodrama to show how violence destroys ordinary lives.


Love after Love 

(IFC Films)

Director and co-writer Russell Harbaugh’s pretentious and diffuse melodrama fails its potentially emotionally powerful material about a family that starts to disintegrate after the death of its strong-willed patriarch. His wife and two sons find themselves floundering amid their own difficulties sustaining relationships within and without the family itself, but Harbaugh is content to create a sub-Woody Allen drama vibe instead of making us invest our feelings in these people.




A game cast led by Andie McDowell and Chris O’Dowd is set adrift, and a final shot of cremation is enervating to the nth degree. Lone extra is a short, Rolling on the Floor Laughing.

CD of the Week 

MacMillan—String Quartets 


Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan’s three string quartets are spread out at approximate decade intervals: his first came at age 29 in 1988 (revised 1991), the second ten years later and the third nine years after that.





The two-movement first quartet, Visions of a November Spring, alternates between stillness and outright frenzy; the second, Why is this night different?—referring to the first night of Passover seder—moves between ecstasy and despair; and the accomplished third quartet proves the composer’s musical maturity, including his creative use of silence. The Royal String Quartet plays with immense passion, which is what such remarkably self-contained works demand.


Weekend in the Berkshires—The Clark, The Mount, Barrington Stage Company & Tanglewood

Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, Massachusetts


The Mount

Lenox, Massachusetts


The Royal Family of Broadway

The Cake

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts


On the Town

Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts


There’s no better summer jaunt than western Massachusetts’ bucolic Berkshires, especially since it’s just three or so hours from Manhattan. It’s easy to cram a lot into a whirlwind weekend: music at Tanglewood, new musical and play at the Barrington Stage Company, tour of novelist Edith Wharton’s century-old mansion, The Mount, and a visit to the world-renowned and—since our last visit—beautifully expanded Clark Art Institute.


Let’s start from the top…literally. Williamstown, only minutes from the Vermont border, is home to Williams College and boasts the Clark Art Institute, whose original white marble building houses one of the best small-museum collections in the country, including one of the largest number of Renoirs outside of France.


The Clark’s expansion four years ago brought about the modern and sleek Clark Center, which features lots of new exhibition space. Currently, through September are two French-related exhibits. The Art of Iron brings a few dozen pieces of exquisitely wrought ironworks from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen. Seeing them out of the context of the Musée’s gothic church housing the collection was initially jarring (we visited it in Rouen in 2009), but the works are so marvelously detailed that they keep their luster in their new digs.


Berthe Morisot's The Sisters at the Clark Art Institute

Even more impressive is Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, which not only brought out the usual suspects like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot (whose The Sisters is a stunning portrait), but also other European and American painters who worked with acute sensitivity on subject matter ranging from mothers and children to history and landscapes. 


If the Clark is a must-see Berkshires attraction, so is the grounds and house encompassing The Mount in Lenox, especially on a warm summer day when one can stroll the lovely manicured gardens as well as tour the mansion which Wharton and her husband called home for the first decade of the 1900s. (That their marriage ended badly and Edith lived most of the rest of her life in Paris doesn’t take away from the place’s genuine serenity.) 


Edith Wharton's The Mount (photo: Kevin Filipski)

During a Sunday-only Backstairs Tour, visitors experience the house as it was while the Whartons lived there: interpreters portray people in their employ like the cook, butler and Edith’s own governess and lifelong confidant, who each provide enlightening accounts of what it was like to work for the Mount’s most famous residents.


Pittsfield—about halfway between Lenox and Williamstown—is home to the Barrington Stage Company. While there, we caught two shows at the company’s two stages: the new musical The Royal Family of Broadway by veteran composer William Finn, and a topical new play by This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter, The Cake.


The cast of Barrington Stage Company's The Royal Family of Broadway (photo: Daniel Rader)

An overly frenetic attempt at an old-fashioned entertainment, The Royal Family of Broadway (based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 play The Royal Family) is certainly entertaining, even if its “fun” quotient peters out before its two-hour running time ends. Finn’s songs are tuneful if spotty, John Rando’s direction and Joshua Bergasse’s choreography consist of as much onstage busyness onstage as simultaneously possible, and the cast—led by Harriet Harris’s hilarious theatrical matriarch, Laura Michelle Kelly’s lovely-voiced daughter and the indefatigable Will Swenson’s scene-stealing Barrymore-esque son—gives the show enough fuel to soldier on while spending its time down in the dumps of easy jokes and cackling pastiche.


Debra Jo Rapp (left) in Barrington Stage Company's The Cake (photo: Carolyn Brown)

The Cake is set in North Carolina, where an ultra-religious baker who’s a whiz at cakes wrestles with the dilemma of baking the wedding cake for her late best friend’s beloved daughter, who is marrying a black, liberal, foul-mouthed atheist woman from Brooklyn. Brunstetter’s play is as blunt as it sounds, with an occasional nugget of insight to go along with funny lines and a final cop-out. Serious and deep it’s not, but The Cake—helped by an hilarious lead performance by Debra Jo Rupp—may make a dent with audiences that something more reasoned and subtle would not. 


Barrington Stage Company’s summer season includes an August run of West Side Story, de rigeur for the Leonard Bernstein Centennial year. Tanglewood—that glorious Lenox outdoor venue—is also hosting its own series of Bernstein-related events; after all, he taught and performed there for half a century. The culminating event, an August 25 gala concert featuring singers Susan Graham, Audra MacDonald, Isabel Leonard and Nadine Sierra in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, will be broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances December 28.)


The sailors of Tanglewood's On the Town (photo: Hilary Scott)

We caught a wonderful concert version of Bernstein’s first stage work, the still-delightful 1944 musical On the Town, crammed with hummable tunes, amusing if sometimes dated dialogue and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Kathleen Marshall’s zesty direction and choreography did wonders on the Shed’s smallish stage space, Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops swung deliciously in Bernstein’s classic songs, and the cast was unbeatable. The three sailors (Brandon Victor Dixon, Christian Dante White and Andy Karl) were a delight; Andrea Martin was funny as soon as she stepped onstage; Georgina Pazcoguin, a remarkably agile dancer and performer, was a highlight of the last Broadway production; Marc Kudisch perfectly juggled even the most cringeworthy bits; and Laura Osnes never sounded lovelier as Claire, especially in her signature duet, “Carried Away,” with the equally charming Karl.


It was a very special night of singing, dancing and Bernstein in the Berkshires.

July '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Ready Player One 

(Warner Bros)

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 

(Warner Archive)

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.











(Warner Bros)

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 

In Harmony


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. 



(First Run)

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.


ABBA’s Music Makes “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” A Worthy Visit To A Greek Island



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.

mammaPlayed 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.

37314947 10155487596457665 1733164375046356992 nAs 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.

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